Wesley [PhD] is Associate Professor of English at the Pennsylvania State University and a Liberian writer with four books of poetry under her belt. Jabbeh Wesley’s fifth book “In Monrovia, the River Visits the Sea,” is now in print. It is a children’s book recently published by One Moore Book Publishers, Jan. 2013.
1. How well received have your poetry books been?
It depends on who you are talking about. Outside Liberia, my books have been very well received, particularly, in the US and outside, in countries where the books are available. I have been so well received; I have had a constant flow of invitations to read at colleges and universities. When you speak of Liberia, I’d say, the books are not available in Liberia anywhere, and those, the government that is supposed to show interest in Liberian literature and make the books required in schools, has been completely silent. In Liberia, wherever I have read my poetry, it was well received. I have read on radio and at various venues, and you can see how much the Liberian people crave literature that speaks to their culture, to their values and to their sense of history.
2. What is the current state of Liberian literature?
Liberians are writing every day. Younger Liberians are experimenting with writing and self publishing. But Liberian literature is not where it needs to be. No matter how much we write, if our literature is not the foundation of literature taught in Liberian schools and institutions, we are going nowhere. Liberians may be writing, and some of us have made Liberia known by our writings abroad, but if Liberia as a country does not make Literature an important part of its education of its citizens, Liberian literature will be alien to its own people. Unfortunately, it takes vision, which I have yet to see.
3. Your first book Before the Palm Could Bloom, presents an opportunity for your readers to catch a “glimpse of life before and during the war as well as the distraught aftermath of the war,” those quotes are yours…
Well, I don’t know if those are my words or the words of the publisher. I think this comes from the publisher’s blurb of the book. Usually, for a book such as the books I write, I do not say anything on the back of the books because it is the reviewers of the book who must speak to the book’s validity.
4 The Liberian Studies journal calls your work “distinctive, lyrical gift of the highest order” and that your work is “emotional…direct and accessible.” Those are huge compliments.
Those comments were made by Dr. Robert H. Brown in his review of the book, and knowing him, I think he knows what he was saying. He is a Liberian writer and a veteran professor of African Lit. and Liberian lit. Are these compliments too huge for the book?
Listener editor: No they are not huge, I am acknowledging the compliments.
5. What messages are being told in your work?
You tell me. I leave that with the reader and you, the editor, to tell me the messages. I guess the question or some of the questions need to be rephrased.
6. What must be done to lift Liberian literature?
“Lift” is a political jargon, if you ask me, around Liberia. Nothing needs to be lifted. Those who need to push Liberian literature must give it a chance to have our voices heard, that artists are given their rightful places in society. A country is not just about politics, money and trying to acquire wealth; it is also about a holistic society, where, all of the parts are brought together to build up a group. All this “lifting Liberia” has not really been true.
7. You live with your family in the Philadelphia area… [An opportunity to talk about your family]
Hope you keep this. You make me laugh. Whenever you tell Liberians that you live in Pennsylvania, they conclude that you live in Philadelphia. We do not live in Philadelphia. We live in West Central PA or Central PA, about five hours drive from Philadelphia. I hate big cities or city life, so I live in a small town called Duncansville, near Altoona or State College, where I teach at Penn State’s Altoona campus. My family? Well, my children are either grown up or are partially at home. Our eldest daughter, Besie-Nyesuah, is on her own; our second, a son, Mlen-Too II, our third, a son, Gee, and our youngest, a daughter, Ade-Juah, are no longer children. The youngest is a 19 year old, a freshman at Penn State’s University Park campus. Son Gee, out of college is working to prepare for grad school, Mlen-Too II, out of college, is the one I’m spending time with now in Liberia. He moved here two years ago to work as a Computer Programmer and software developer. All the grown ones are on their own except Gee, who is almost gone. My husband, Mlen-Too Wesley, of 32 years, is a professor also and a Christian minister.
8. Who are your influences? What future do you see for Liberian poetry?
So many. Mostly, my father, Moses Chee Jabbeh and the Grebo tradition, where I learned the importance of the African oral tradition, the Grebo dirges and tales, the cultural nuances, the rich heritage of the African oral tradition. Then came the African literary giants like J.P. Clark Bekederemo of Nigeria, Wole Soyinka, the Ugandan Poet, the late Okot p’Bitek, author of Song of Lawino, one of my favorite long poems. I also adore J. P. Clark Bekederemo’s saga, a folklore epic, Ozidi, which has for decades, always intrigued me, and taught me the importance of the African oral tradition. When you read “Ozidi,” you almost hear a Grebo saga, particularly, the dirge, sung by the widow of the great warrior king when she discovers her husband has been killed by his own clansmen. Chinua Achebe’s powerful use of oral tradition is to always be celebrated. His novel, Things Fall Apart is always a classic due to his brilliance in his treatment of character, tradition, and the history of Africa. He has influenced me greatly. In Liberia, I have been influenced by Bai T. Moore’s thirst for tradition, his pioneering of Liberian literature in my day and by other Liberian writers. I have also been influenced by American/British writers, many of whom I could not name here. But early on, I adored e.e. comings, D. H. Lawrence’s prose and poetry about the first World War and the dying of the British Empire, W.H. Auden’s war poems, and many others. Today’s influences include many of my fellow writers in contemporary times. I always adore the American writer, Marie Howe’s use of couplets in her What the Living Do, a book that helped changed my style of writing since my first book. I love James Wright, William Carlos Williams, and many more. One of my most recent influences was my first book publisher and poet, the late Herbert Scott, founder of New Issues Press. He was literally a literary father to me. May his good soul rest in peace.
There is a future for Liberian poetry, but unfortunately, much of the future is split between the Diaspora and the homeland. And the homeland is ignoring what is being done, so that in the future, Liberians abroad may be the true Liberian writers. If a nation ignores its own, then they will be welcome abroad. And that is the bleak side of Liberian literature.
9. Students graduating from high schools in Liberia today can hardly read and write, what is your assessment of the overall education system in the country, post war Liberia.
I don’t know if I am qualified to give an assessment. I can only say that those I have met, who tell me they’re attending the university, do not impress me. I believe that the university is striving to do better in these last two years, and will improve, but the challenge is great. Liberia is a post war country, therefore, it may take longer for us to see improvement and it will take a whole lot of government initiatives for that to happen.
10. What’s your assessment of the Sirleaf presidency?
I am not in the position to give an unbiased assessment at this time. Remember, I do not live in Liberia permanently. I see lots of construction and lots of improvements, but there needs to be a lot more done with the medical, educational, and security systems. The police needs to enforce traffic laws, keep unlicensed plates off the roads, control the movement of traffic and curtail armed robbery. There is a lot being done, but the challenges need to be met. The country has been out of water and electricity too long, if you ask me, so this needs to be a priority as well. Too many people have too much power to take from the poor. It needs to stop. She is doing well, but in order for her to be a great President, those around her must support her by being honest and free from greed. Liberia has not had the worst presidents; Liberia has had bad people close to our presidents. If you ask me, I like Ellen very much and I wish she will not allow those who are bent on their own greed to overtake her administration. I pray for her all the time.
11. Other than writing poetry, teaching and family, what do you do to occupy your time?
I am a very very, busy human being, and each day, I wake up and say that I cannot help myself. I am also now currently working on a very huge memoir project. Fortunately, I have not been in the classroom since May 2012 due to a generous year off from Penn State to work on the memoir. But regularly, I would teach three classes (not very large ones, thanks to God), do some scholarship of publishing my writings, conferences and setting up panels, advising students, mentoring students alongside other university services. I travel a lot to read my poetry. I have been fortunate that Americans love me and have loved my poetry, so I am busy reading across the country, and sometimes, internationally. My family life is slowed down due to my children’s age, so I can travel more. I cook. I am a great cook and I delight in making huge meals for my family. My children tell me that I have cooking addiction. A good day for me is when all of these things, writing, and teaching, affecting people’s lives, family, travel and scholarship come together. I often will be asked to do introductions and blurbs. to books, etc., and sometimes, as tasking as that is, I meet my deadlines. I hate deadlines, so forgive me for the delay in getting back to you.
Thank you for your time Dr. Wesley.
Dr. Wesley’s brief bio : Dr. Patricia Jabbeh Wesley is a Liberian civil war survival who immigrated to the United States in 1991 during the Liberian civil war. She is the author of four books of poetry: Where the Road Turns (Autumn House Press, 2010), The River is Rising (Autumn House Press, 2007), Becoming Ebony, (SIU Press, 2003) and Before the Palm Could Bloom: Poems of Africa (New Issues Press, 1998). Her second book, Becoming Ebony is a 2002 Crab Orchard Award Winner. Recently, Patricia’s poem, “One Day,” was selected by US Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser to be featured permanently in American Life in Poetry and on the Poetry Foundation website. Her awards include the Barack Obama Presidential Award 2011 from the Blair County NAACP for her poetry, the Liberian Award 2010, a World Bank Fellowship, the Irving S. Gilmore Emerging Artist Grant and Individual Artist Grants from the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo among others. She is a regularly featured poet/poet in residence at dozens of universities and poetry festivals in the US, in South America and Africa. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals in the US, Africa, South America and in Europe. She’s been a featured poet on NPR and Public TV in Pennsylvania, Minnesota and Michigan. She has also been interviewed by many radio producers, including the BBC Radio (UK), Jamaican Radio, Liberian radio stations, among others. As a Women’s Rights Activist, Patricia has testified as an expert witness for Advocates for Human Rights and the Liberia Truth & Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Hearings on the Liberian civil war in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is an Associate Professor of English and teaches Creative Writing, English and African Literature at Penn State Altoona. E-Mail: email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org