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Thursday, December 03, 2009

optimism and resilience

One of the poems I turned to, again and again, during Kenya's post-election violence, was Jane Hirshfield's Optimism. It kept me persistent, determined.

As my friends began to receive death threats, and it seemed we were heading towards civil war, I forwarded "Optimism" to many of them.

One evening in Nairobi, July 2008, as I prepared to wrap up work for the day, this email dropped into my inbox from my friend Petina Gappah:

I need a huge favour, I am desperately trying to find a title to fit my short story collection, which my agent is sending out today. I have combed trhough poems, and the Bible, and still cannot find anything catchy. The stories are all about Zimbabweans, and something dies in each one, but there is also a lot of hope and triumph. Do you have a phrase, a line, anything I could use to bind all these stories in one phrase, that does not talk about death or anything gloomy, as my agent says?

In the ten minutes before I had to be out the door, I dashed off the following suggestions to her:

(1) The Art of Resilience

by Jane Hirshfield

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs--all this resinous, unretractable earth.

e.e. cummings

for whatever we lose (like a you or a me) / it's always ourselves we find in the sea

the work of wings
was always freedom
fastening one heart
to every falling thing

Li-Young Lee, One Heart

5) Trusting the Radiance They Bring to My Breath (from one of my poems)

6) As If They Saw A Mountain / As If They Knew Of A River (phrases that came to me in Harare, to describe the way people dressed in white and walked into dried up fields to pray)

7) Blessing Is A First Name (Blessing, Wonderful, Innocent, Precious, etc. are common first names in Zimbabwe)

I got an excited phonecall from Petina in Geneva that night to thank me. She thought The Tenacity of Trees, from the Hirshfield poem, would be the perfect title, and the poem itself was the perfect epigraph for the book.

Eventually, though, her publishers, Faber and Faber, decided against The Tenacity of Trees as a title. They chose instead Elegy for Easterly, title of one of the stories in the collection. But the poem remained the epigraph, and it delighted me that I had linked two of my favourite writers, who might never otherwise have heard of each other.

A couple of months ago, Jane Hirshfield wrote a piece in the Washington Post on Optimism, and her surprise that it reached a "young Zimbabwean writer."

Last night, Petina won the Guardian First Book Award.

This morning, I can't stop grinning :-)


Blogger deamer said...

Great story, thanks for sharing - it is so fun to share optimism that I can't understand the destruction of hope.

12/04/2009 7:41 AM  

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