One Year of ‘Elephant’: Triumphs, milestones, and remembrance – A personal essay by Siana

Siana holding Elephant

 

Wow.

‘Wow’ feels like it should be the first word of this reflection because since the day I released ‘Elephant’ into the world, I have uttered the word ‘wow’ countless times. The feeling of awe, surprise, and a certain amount of disbelief has not quite left me yet and maybe it never will – a cacophony of emotions over the fact that I somehow pulled this off. I shared my work with the world and became an author.

A year is simultaneously a long time and… not very long at all. Time always feels like it’s running, and you’re forever chasing it, knowing that the chase itself is futile. I still remember it like it was yesterday – the late nights, the writing, the drafting and re-drafting, the planning, the emails and meetings, the despair, the joy, the stomach crunching fear, the doubt, the excitement, and the jubilation – all necessary parts of the process of creating and sharing my debut collection of poetry last year. I still remember clear as day the painful encounter that compelled me to write The Stranger, which then opened a Pandora’s box of emotions and writing that I had bottled up for many years to the point of explosion. It was that brutal encounter with ‘The Stranger’ in my poem that taught me that I must use my voice. I still remember my first performance and the way the women in the front row cried because my stranger was their stranger. My demons were their demons. My story, was theirs. I also remember how the reception of that audience – an audience that included so many of my friends at the time – encouraged me to keep writing and writing until I had hundreds of poems to choose from when I decided to put together ‘Elephant’. I still remember that goodbye in Hoxton and the balloons and the kites. I still remember the love and the grief. I still remember feeling like I would die from the heartbreak, yet still not knowing how to share the burden. I still remember my darkness and loneliness in Peckham as well as my joy and triumphs there too. I remember the despair over things not being as I thought they would be. I still remember the slow burning anger that raged on for over a year – an anger that hasn’t been extinguished, but at least has transformed into something productive. I still remember being told I was ‘too young’ to publish my work by some. I also remember the championing of my work, my voice, and my truth by others. I remember the grieving and picking my pen up to medicate myself.

Grief is an important motif in ‘Elephant’. In University I finally say goodbye to my friend, Ayobola Owatemi, someone I don’t get to talk about anymore. In Aunty I say goodbye to my aunt. I was just getting to know her and re-connect months before she passed. As well as grief, acceptance is something I was able to come to terms with through the writing process. In He Is Painfully Pragmatic I accept that some people show their love differently, and in Grandma I accept that my own grandmother is complicated, and that womanhood is as messy, ugly, and cruel as it is stunning, wondrous and beautiful. Womanhood is of course central to ‘Elephant’, as is the role, strength and resilience of mothers, my own mother especially. Where women have brought me joy, or at the very least comfort, ‘Elephant’ archives the grief and pain that men have caused me also, from fathers to lovers to strangers on trains. But in that darkness there is also light in the form of the two men I dedicate the love note Best Men to and the love in the form of my muse in Painfully Pragmatic. Just as I journeyed throughout the two years it took to write ‘Elephant’, I’m still journeying, allowing myself to feel my nomadic blood pumping through my veins. I’m still learning too.

The process of writing and publishing my book taught me patience. I’ll be the first to admit that patience is one virtue I don’t have in abundance. I have a tendency to put unnecessary pressure on myself at the best of times. However, patience was key to seeing the process through from beginning to end, as was collaboration. Of course, publishing a book is a collaborative process, especially if you’re an independent writer. It was my mentor, Daniella Blechner, who first told me ‘yes, you can do this’, when I brought the idea of publishing a book to her. She herself had self-published her work and was starting up a business to help other women do the same. She and her team championed me and held my hand every step of the way – making sure I met my deadlines, guiding me through the process, and teaching me all that she had learnt. The marvellous thing about my journey in a year is bearing witness to the journeys of my friends, acquaintances and fellow artists and creators as well. Just as I learnt from my mentor, she too learnt invaluable things from the experience of our collaboration, which she masterfully implemented, developing her own successful and thriving publishing and coaching business.

I’ve also had the honour of watching the likes of Ayelle, Nia Ekanem, and Janel Antoneshia – friends and artists who shared the stage with me a year ago at Hackney Attic at my launch – develop their remarkable artistry and all take their music to the next stage. I’ve watched Mostly Lit, Melanin Millennials, The Poetry and Positive Vibes Show, Black Ballad, Consented UK and Black Blossoms – platforms and publications who were all integral to the success of ‘Elephant’ because of their support and encouragement – grow in their own right, win awards, shake the established status quo, empower others, and become forces to reckon with. I have watched my contemporaries such as DYLEMA, Theresa Lola, Caleb Femi, Jolade, Dean Atta, Travis Alabanza, JJ Bola, and Shareefa Energy to name just a few writers and poets whose work I have long admired, take their work to wider audiences, push the boundaries of their artistry, and see the fruits of their labour come to harvest – and what an honour it has been to bear witness.

The profundity of this milestone hit me like a lorry on Thursday night at Housmans Bookstore – where I am now Poet-in-Residence –  as we celebrated the first anniversary of ‘Elephant’. As I sat there and listened to Ayelle, who was with me on stage a year ago, and Shareefa, an artist I have long admired and respected – read out their favourite poems from ‘Elephant’ before their sets, I felt humbled. As surreal as it was to hear others read my words out loud and find their own meanings and poignancy in the text, it cemented what I have always known: that no matter how deeply personal the stories are, the lessons are often universal. This universality of my craft has allowed me to work with fantastic women creators such as Ayelle, Shareefa Energy, Janelle Antoneshia, Aliyah Hasinah, Asabi Hawah, Gabrielle Smith, Susuana Amoah, Bee Tajudeen, and Adama Jalloh – to name just a few. Doing so has always been central to my craft. Building with women, especially Black women and women of colour is important to me. And of course, the support of men who understood the importance and urgency of showing up and supporting in the ways they knew how must be noted: men like Anthony Olanipekun, Alex Holmes, Troy Aidoo, Sam Senessie, and Tawanda Mhindurwa. The multi-disciplinary nature of ‘Project Elephant’ also allowed for collaboration with spaces such as Buster Mantis in Deptford for the ‘I, The Angry Black Woman’ & Other Stories Exhibition, inspired by my poem, ‘I, The Angry Black Woman’; Hackney Attic for the launch of ‘Elephant’ and subsequent events that followed; DIY Space for London, Common House, Peckham Studios, Housmans Bookstore, The Feminist Library; and institutions such as Jacobs University in Bremen, St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, Leeds, Warwick, Cambridge, Oxford, and many, many others. ‘Project Elephant’ became more than just a book, which was always my intention. I wanted to illustrate the endless possibilities of poetry for social commentary, rebellion, community building, personal salvation, and challenging the status quo on every front.

In the last year I have also learnt the value of regularly checking in with yourself to make sure you still know why you do what you do. Starting and pushing conversation has always been my central aim with the hope that those conversations would lead to action. That aim is still at the heart of my work, however I’m also sure now that being part of the process of documenting and archiving our lived histories for our future selves and of course the generations to follow is equally as important. I want them to know that we were here, we looked and felt like they do, and we tried our very best to play our part. The world is tough, our societies are increasingly more hostile and my generation is, rightfully so, frustrated, angry, and tired. This means the work we do is now harder – whether it be as artists, activists, writers or a mixture of all these things and more. We face more resistance, more people who want us to be silent, but there are also growing numbers of people growing ever more conscious and awake and ready to act. So long as that always remains the case, there will always be some hope.

I recently had the honour of delivering a Ted Talk at St. Andrews University and the focus of my talk was what we can learn from the Elephant kingdom and its trajectory and decline thanks to the ongoing abuse and violence dished out by humans. I emphasised the notion of remembrance:

Remembering what happened to you

Remembering how it made you feel

Remembering how you grieved

Remembering how you rejoiced

Remembering how you survived

And remembering how you forge a new future, a new beginning, not defined by the things that hurt you, but informed by the lessons you’ve learnt from those experiences.

Writing ‘Elephant’ help me to do just that.

A year or two ago I was a sad, disillusioned, lost human searching for something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. A year or two later I know that something was peace. I can tell you in no uncertain terms that offloading on to the page relieved me of huge burdens I wasn’t even aware I was carrying. And for that, I am grateful. I’m also extremely grateful for all the support this collection has received from all the people who have bought it, read it, and shared it. I am so happy the words have resonated far and wide. I am proud that a little self-published collection could do so well despite the fact that the publishing world is still overwhelmingly pale, stale and male. And there are always gatekeepers around waiting to keep doors shut to those of us who are not traditionally published or considered ‘traditional writers’, whatever that means. But for every one of those, there are many more DIY pioneers blooming, waiting to assist your voice to take up the space it deserves to.

A year on, I’d like to think that ‘Elephant’ is still magnifying the flame that lives in all of us; the one that – as in the words of Alex Holmes – ‘should not be merely existing but burning brightly’. And as I turn my thoughts to my next projects, adventures, and creations, I also take with me all the lessons I’ve learnt in the past two years about writing, performing, the human condition, survival, thriving, and of course growth.

And as I wrap up these thoughts I’ll leave you with what I said in a recent interview with South African creative platform, Creative Nestlings, about what creativity means to me and what it allows me to do… who it allows me to be:

“Creativity is the freedom to express myself without constraint, unfiltered, without boxes and limitations. Creativity is the refusal to conform to the status quo. It often means following the path unseen, the path less travelled. It means uncertainty but that uncertainty often means anything is possible. There’s something extremely liberating about that. I have the power to take what’s in my head and bring it into the world through this process of creation and imagination. In a world full of endless burdens and frustrations the ability to dream and look to the future is what my creativity gives me.

“My own creativity and that of others. Escapism, liberation, problem solving, seeing the bigger picture.

I think to be creative you have to be brave.”

Check out ‘Denim’, a short film by Siana Bangura exploring gentrification in South East London:

‘Denim’ is written, performed and produced by Siana Bangura and is based on the poem, ‘Denim’, featured in ‘Elephant’. Buy the collection on Amazon by CLICKING HERE

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Siana Bangura

I'm Siana. And the world is my oyster.