A Nation In Labour, Harriet Anena’s debut poetry collection, was published last year (in 2015). So, it’s not too late to revisit its pain-laden pages and try to determine the value of the work to the poet herself, to the literary world, and to the country Uganda.
The collection oscillates between “We” and “I” though the later is also a carriage of millions of fragments; it’s a self-appointed voice of the people, exemplar of socio-political writing. The “We” voice, from cover to cover, seems tellingly interested in what’s happening on the inside; the most private feelings. It swirls with a more notable knowledge of the people as a collective struggling with a number of longings. It’s also in this voice that the pains of giving birth to a fresh country, to a mindset, or to a peace of mind are most felt. Maybe the poet has discovered that it’s through acknowledging our pasts that we can effectively bring to life a whole new being.
To her, the present is only important if it allows itself to ruminate on the past; to accept that it’s a product of decisions it did not make. “We search mass graves/in our hearts/for skeletons of laughter/that lie/cold and broken./”
Mass graves? Does this mean we are all dead? Is the act of giving birth supposed to a form of cleansing? Are we mourning those who died in war? But then, which war exactly? This collection is haunted by blood, by gunpowder, by miles ran escaping belonging, by an aftermath. We are hauled back into moments of panic and helplessness. The monstrosities of the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) rebels that shattered Northern Uganda for over two decades are as contemporary as the voice that tells them. For those who were not direct victims, it’s not a mere call for sympathy but a bath in the insurmountable. One can only wonder what poems like Silent Ears, Forgiveness, Unafraid, and I Envy The Dead mean to survivors of such unending agony. But not all poems she wrote on war make one cry.
In We Arise, for example, you’d think the “nation” has already undergone labour. In the first line “We came. / We went. / We have come again. /,” the survivors are mostly speaking on behalf of their dead loved ones. They refuse to be forever lost in the ashes of burnt huts or to be in quietude after the hideous loss of their lips. Maybe the “going and returning” has invigorated them.
In the last stanza, “Today we rise up again / Today we rise and stand tall,” “Today” is synonymous with routine. The rising should be an adopted way of our lives.
However, the book also has poems which move with an eroticized playfulness.
In Cat Love, Say It, and Breathless Mount, it’s hard to tell whether the poet has succumbed to being the body and is now enjoying the love-making, or she’s stealthily planning to avenge the objectification. And then, on another side are poems like Hemline Cop, Kiwani, Disobedient, On this Black Dress, and I Won’t readers can relate completely different experiences with.
If they dare evoke feelings of a past war, then that war is/was with the self.
A Nation In Labour is a book on bereavement. Not entirely the loss of one’s loved one, but the daily pangs of grief associated with knowing that such loss did not leave the living the same.
It is about looking at one’s scars and having the guts to say I Envy the Dead.
It’s about a state of immobility; getting Stuck in a history of bones and wails.
But its failures are in not being able to predict the outcome of this labour. Or, satisfactorily hinting at it.
If this act of giving birth is purgative, then what next? Does the nation become unlearn its old evils? Does the nation eventually forgive itself? And these questions also concern the poet as an individual. And when they do, they look into the future: Will the poet’s mind recover from these horrors?