Sojourner Ahebee Talks Poetry & the Search For Home
Sojourner Ahebee is one of five high school students recently recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama as a National Student Poet!
We spoke with Sojourner about how leaving her home at a young age has inspired her search for identity and her poetic voice!
Sojourner Ahebee left her home country, Cote d'Ivoire, when she was just 7 years old.
"I had to start dealing with issues of home and identity at an age when most children don't start to process these themes in relation to themselves," Sojourner said. "My poetry sprung out of a direct reaction to leaving what I had called home for all of my early childhood."
Sojourner said that she became obsessed with remembering all of the details of her home country, and wrote poems that described the rooms in the former home, and people and memories she had left behind but didn't want to ever forget.
"As I became older, I became more conscious of my writerly endeavors of remembering home, and as a result, my poems took on more narrative forms," Sojourner said. "Essentially, I had more emotional and physical control over the themes I was attempting to write about."
When she came to the U.S. at the age of seven, she also learned that there were many stereotypes associated with the continent of Africa.
"Many of my schoolmates bombarded me with questions like 'did you wear shoes in 'Africa'?' or 'did you live in huts?'" Sojourner explained. "I was confused not only because people kept referring to Africa as if it were a country, but I didn't understand, in my young optimism, why people had such low views of the continent and my country as a whole."
To counter this, Sojourner began writing poetry to break these stereotypes and shed light on the the diversity and range of Africa as a continent.
"Because my mother is a poet, I grew up with the written word all around me," Sojourner said. "I remember most of my bed time stories were not stories at all, but poems and nursery rhymes."
This allowed Sojourner to fall in love with poetry books from a very early age.
"From then on the forces of rhythm and cadence could not let me go," she said. "As I grew older, my mother encouraged my writing."
Sojourner's mother encouraged her to submit her writing to magazines and literary journals.
"A lot of my confidence as a writer can be traced back to my mother, who never stopped pushing me to discover new poetic ground," she said. "Also, much of my mother's poetry is quite political, so I think that her poetic subject matters have also shaped how I see and empathize with the world."
When it comes to actually get the poetry down on paper, Sojourner said that her writing process is never quite the same from one poem to the next. However, she said that she usually begins with an image or an overheard line.
"I take these things and think about how they apply to me and the world at large," Sojourner said. "I usually don't start with a very specific subject matter because I want to avoid sounding like I have a lot of agenda."
Sojourner said that an agenda can be the downfall of some poetry.
"Too much agenda in poems can often make the poetic voice sound preachy," she said. "I'm a poet. I don't want to preach. I want to observe."
Sojourner has continued to write poetry because it allows her to explore her own emotions and the greater truth of the subject matter.
"Poetry is an important medium for creative expression because ultimately through the act of writing, I am going to be discovering truth," Sojourner explained
She quoted one of her favorite South African writers, Nadine Gordimer, who said, "Truth isn't always beauty, but the hunger for it is".
"Poetry allows me to question my reality, and even if reality isn't beautiful, there is a beauty in the discovery itself," she said.
Sojourner is also an avid student of the French language. Her home country of Cote d'Ivoire is a French-speaking country. She grew up speaking the language with her father, as well as her friends and family.
After the start of the civil war and the passing of her father, however, Sojourner and her mother and brother moved to Philadelphia. Sojourner's mother, who was originally from the U.S. and spoke only English, was unable to continue speaking French to Sojourner.
"As a result I lost the language," Sojourner said. "The French language is one of my biggest interests. Not only do I study it in school, but last summer I went to Paris, France for month to study the language."
Where there, she also studied Architecture and Expatriot history.
"Because French is my father's language, I feel a great responsibility to relearn the language," she said.
Sojourner has used poetry not only as a means to create, but as a means to overcome the sometimes difficult circumstances of her life.
"Because poetry is a therapeutic endeavor in itself, I find it quite easy to utilize this medium for self-discovery and self-healing," she said.
She said that writing about a negative experience you had or witnessed can heal those wounds.
"The simple act of processing memory on the blank page is me overcoming obstacles," she said. "Through poetry, I'm claiming an experience and reflecting on why this happening is important to me."
Her poems deal with some of the biggest trials of her life.
"Because I left my home at a very early age, and have yet to return, much of my poetry is inspired by my search for home and my search for a sense of personal and cultural identity," she said. "Also, because my father passed away prior to me coming to the United States, much of my fiction is concerned with relations with fathers and the lack of relationships with fathers."
Currently, Sojourner is particularly interested in "sound" poems and hybrid forms of poetry. She is also working on a collection of poems dealing with the Roma population here in the U.S.
"This group of people have been displaced from their original home for about 1500 years, and their history in the US is an especially interesting one," Sojouner said.
She first learned about the Roma people during her trip to Paris, when she observed the hostility that Parisians expressed toward the Roma community.
"Because my poems deal with topics of home and displacement, the Roma narrative especially sparked my interest and now I can't stop writing about them!" she said.
Sojourner also revealed that she is a big fan of letter writing.
"I think that there is nothing so personal as receiving a handwritten letter in the mail," she said.
She was recently appointed as one of five National Student Poets.
"Being appointed National Student Poet was truly an amazing and surreal experience!" she said.
The journey began when Sojourner traveled to Washington D.C. to meet the other four National Student Poets. The group spent the weekend going to events at the National Book Festival, attending poetry workshops about public presentations, and eating great food.
The group was also received at the White House by Michelle Obama!
"By the end of the weekend we became inseparable," Sojourner said. "It was simply powerful to be surrounded by other young people that were equally as interested and engaged with the written word as I was."
She added that being a National Student Poet has allowed her to become connected with an even larger community of young artists and writers.
"Because I will be representing the Midwest region of the United States, I'm so excited to discover all the narratives and the nuances of this region!" she said. "I am truly humbled to be given the opportunity to facilitate all these dialogues via poetry! I can't wait to see what the year brings me!"
Asked if she had anything to add, Sojourner gave thanks to many people that helped her get to where she is today.
"For starters, I want to thank my mother, Octavia McBride Ahebee, for nurturing my craft at an early age, and for giving me both the confidence and drive to to keep writing. I also want to thank my Creative Writing teachers at Interlochen Arts Academy, specifically AnneMarie Oomen, Mika Perrine, and Christopher Dombrowski, for giving me both the gift of technique and sheer love that has contributed to my body of work.
"Lastly, I want to give a huge shout out to the National Student Poets Program's partners: The President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, The Institute of Museum and Library Services, and The Bernstein Family Foundation Without these wonderful organizations the program would simply not be possible."
She also wanted to encourage budding poets and artists to express their creativity no matter what obstacles they face.
"Most importantly, I want to say thank you to all the young people out here in this world that are generating art, despite all the impediments that get placed in your way!" she said. "Your voice is important and you need to be heard. Keep being awesome and keep making art!"
Also stay tuned for interviews with National Student Poets Michaela Coplen and Aline Dolinh!
Are you a poet? Share some of your writing with us at Sweety High!