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.

See Ber Anena’s responses below. Also, read her “Three Poems”. 

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

Ber Anena: Thank you! It’s a big honor! 

“How to Love a Broken Man” was born out of a broken relationship. Initially, I meant to capture what I was feeling—the heartache, the regret of time lost, the blame, etc. But as I revised the poem, I began asking why the relationship lasted long despite the evident signs of its dysfunction. And in the poem, you see threads about absence and silence muddled with moments of seeming affection as well as futile attempts to salvage it.

Similar sentiments informed “Lessons on My Mother’s Face,” but in this poem, I also wanted to articulate the generational or cyclic nature of emotional abuse and dysfunction in relationships—intimate or otherwise. 

The third poem, “Hail the Feet that Kick in Walls” is a tribute to women who participate in different life-changing events, including revolutionaries, but remain unnamed and unrecognized in historical accounts. I wrote the poem for a class assignment after reading Women of the Midan: The Untold Stories of Egypt’s Revolutionaries by Sherine Hafez.  

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

BA: I never know with 100% certainty. But my writing usually follows the same process: I write, step away from it for days, weeks, or months depending on how much revision the piece requires. Once I return to it, I’ll rewrite and edit until I’m tired of it—at which point, the different parts of the work will probably be connecting in a way that’s satisfactory to me. If it’s not, I shelve or bin it. 

UE: What does writing mean to you? 

BA: It’s about voice and connection. When I wrote my first poem as a child growing up during a civil war, writing meant catharsis. If you ask me this question five years from now, I may have a different response, and that’s why I love to write—to experience, share and receive its ever-changing pleasures.  

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

BA: Well, I hope it never gets to that. Life has too many branches—the beautiful, the ugly, the unknown, the perplexing—and more than one of them will at some point tug at a writer’s pen. I have written a lot about women, the war in northern Uganda, politics and power, the concept of home, memory, etc. What I write is usually informed by place—physical and mental—and how deeply the subject appeals to and connects with me. 

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

BA: I read a lot of work by writers from Africa, women writers, and any writer whose work is driven by beautiful, gripping language. As a student of life and an aspiring academic, I also read plenty of work that would typically not fall within my (subjective) scope of preference. As you can see, I’m trying to avoid mentioning names (we writers are a delicate lot), but if it helps, I’m presently re-reading Smoking the Bible by Chris Abani.

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).

Ber Anena is a Ugandan writer, editor and performer. Her poetry and prose have been published in The Atlantic, adda, The Caine Prize anthology, Brittle Paper, Isele, The Plentitudes, New Daughters of Africa anthology, The Kalahari Review, among others. She’s a Ph.D. student in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Anena attended the MFA Writing program at Columbia University in New York, and holds degrees in journalism and human rights from Makerere University in Uganda. She’s the author of the award-winning poetry collection, A Nation in Labour.