Our assistant editor, Uchenna Emelife, posed five questions to all the authors shortlisted for the 2023 edition of the Isele Prizes. The questions stretch from their writing processes, to the themes they are most drawn to, their inspirations, and more.

Read Ashia Ajani’s “Two Poems”.

Uchenna Emelife: Could you talk about the shortlisted poems, your writing process, and what informed the poems? 

Ashia Ajani: For the first poem, I was reflecting about the relationship between sadness and hibernation and how we as humans aren’t often allowed to dive deep into either. For the second poem, I love the way moss and lichen grow on trees and how this relationship is called “commensalism” (occasionally it’s a form of symbiosis), where one species benefits (the moss) and the other species just kind of exists in the relationship without burden or benefit—then I remembered how my grandmother would braid my hair and weave in extensions which allowed my own hair to grow and be protected. 

UE: How do you tell a work is ready to meet the world? 

AJ: When I get excited about it! When I want to talk about it constantly, when I feel less protective of it and more celebratory of its existence. 

UE: What does writing mean to you? 

AJ: Creativity is the source of all life—breathing and writing go hand in hand for me. I believe we as humans were put on this earth to create and celebrate each other. 

UE: If you could only write about one thing, what would you write and why? 

AJ: Bugs! Or cool plants! Or how bugs like to hang out on cool plants. 

UE: Whose works speak to you? Why? And how do they do that?

AJ: Zora Neale Hurston, June Jordan, Sonia Sancez, Yusef Komunyakaa, Wanda Coleman—writers who use poetry to document vignettes of Black life in relation to environment and geography. I am often reminded of the Toni Morrison quote, “all water has perfect memory”, but also I’m a fan of Natalie Diaz, Daniel B. Summerhill, Jake Skeets, D’mani Thomas, Irene Vazquez, Aurielle Marie, Ariana Benson, Danez Smith, Edythe Rodriguez—the list goes on and on! 

About the Authors:

Uchenna Emelife: Uchenna Emelife is a literary curator, an arts administrator, a bookseller, and a human rights advocate. He is the co-founder and creative director of Book O’clock — a literary platform in Sokoto that hosts a literary blog, book clubs, and a bookstore. In 2021, he co-curated the first Book and Arts Festival in Sokoto and was nominated as Mediapreneur of the Year in the Founder of the Year Awards. Uchenna Emelife is as well an advocate for Child Rights, Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights, and anti-Sexual and Gender-based Violence. As a fellow of the African Youth Adolescent Network (AfriYAN), he has been contracted for various virtual campaigns to support the cause by Education as a Vaccine and United Nations Population Fund (UNPA).

Ashia Ajani is a sunshower, a glass bead, a carnivorous plant, an overripe nectarine. Ajani is a multi-genre environmental storyteller & educator hailing from Denver, CO, Queen City of the Plains and the unceded territory of the Cheyenne, Ute, and Arapahoe peoples. Ajani is a lecturer in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley and a climate resilient schools educator and researcher with Mycelium Youth Network. Their debut poetry collection, Heirloom, is forthcoming April 2023 with Write Bloody Publishing. A Black future is happening, always.