Pina Piccolo: Would you, please, trace for our readers the evolution of your ‘ecological’ poetry over the years, from the early collections in which ecological concerns were incorporated in collections focusing on problems of decolonization, democracy, and maladministration in Africa to the more recent ones that tend to place the ecological/climate crises at the center?
Nsah Mala: Certainly, ecological concerns in my poetry are evolving. Each of the four poetry collections in English and one in French which I have published so far has some poems dealing with environmental, ecological and climate change issues. At the same time, all these collections deal with many other issues. But due to the growing urgency of the double ecological and climatic crisis, I am now writing more and more poems in this direction, with the view to publishing a collection exclusively devoted to ecological matters, both collected or revised and new poems, any moment from now. So, what began like a partial concern in previous collections is now becoming a central and exclusive concern in this planned collection. And perhaps more. Who knows?
The Congo Basin forest in Cameroon
P.P. How have shifts in your own understanding of the relationship between human beings and nature/environment been reflected on the very structure and flavor of the poems you produce? I am thinking, for example, of the marked difference between a more declaratory/prescriptive spirit behind a poem like “I Am an Aquatic Emissary” and a more probing effort involved in a poem like “Stone Language or What Stones Call It.”
Nsah Mala: I get your point. Nevertheless, I believe that a combination of both declaratory/prescriptive and more penetrative/probing poems on ecological concerns are desirable. That said, I am not only a poet, an eco-poet for that matter, but also an ecocritical scholar. And the more I engage with issues such as biodiversity loss, ecological breakdown, climate change, (green) capitalism, extractivism, etc. through my research – that is, through theoretical texts and other writer’s literary works –, the more my perspective changes and deepens. Increasingly, I take on the approach of not only declaring that these crises are here. I equally dig deep into their root causes which for the largest part consist of globalizing hyper-capitalism and the devastating consequences of European Enlightenment which brought about the wrongful belief that humans were separate from nature and above it. That is why a poem like “Stone Language or What Stones Call It” is an attempt to give voice to stones, to reclaim their agency and that of nature in general, and to make it clear that nature includes us Homo sapiens and that its existence and intrinsic value go beyond our tendency to name, commodify, and exploit it for capitalist gains, not for our basic living.
Nsah Mala in front of the Congo River.
P.P I am interested in the fact that you almost always identify the place where the poem was written, it could be Perpignan, on the border between France and Spain, it could be Aarhus in Denmark where you are currently a researcher, Agder in Norway, Bayreuth in Germany, Mbankolo or Bastos in Cameroon. How does the place you are in affect the writing?
Nsah Mala: Place markers in my poems play multiple roles. For instance, they serve as record-keepers of my movements and writing trajectories. Most importantly, sometimes, and quite often, these places inspire the poems in question, thus serving as some kind of spatial muses. While the place of writing might not affect my writing style in a given poem, it often influences its meaning through overall inspiration, visual and spatial imagery and connotations.
P.P. What role does memory play in your poetry as reflective of your own attitude and actions in relation to nature/environment? I am thinking of poems like the ones centering on beekeeping.
Nsah Mala: Memory, both individual and collective, plays a very crucial role in my eco-poetry. It enables me to reflect on my and our connections and multiple entanglements to nature. That is to say, memory helps me to retrace, evaluate and expose the complexity of my attitudes and actions as well as those of my Mbesa people vis-à-vis different aspects of nature. When you look at the poems on beekeeping and bee-playing, you will see my childhood and how we grew up knowing that we were part and parcel of nature in my rural Mbesa kingdom in Anglophone Cameroon.
The Nkok-Ibalavin hill in Mbesa.
P.P. How does your poetry express the tension between concerns about development, consumerism and extractivism on the one hand and poverty and the desire for commodities among people who don’t have them? How about the blackmail of the association of jobs and employment necessarily with development and modernization?
Nsah Mala: My poetry approaches this tension from the perspective that there are numerous alternatives to neoliberal hyper-capitalism which only creates deep inequalities in the name of development measured through the misleading and infinite Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in a world of finite resources. While mass consumerism and endless extractivism are offshoots of hyper-capitalism and individualism, development should no longer be measured (only) in terms of GDP which I consider as Gross Destructive Progress (leading to few billionaires and billions of poor people) but in terms of general wellbeing, happiness, sharing, equitable redistribution of wealth, and communal concern. Alternatives such as the Gross Happiness Index are helpful and desirable while the myth of development as exaggerated industrialization should be discouraged. I am not sure we can do without jobs and employment, but it is possible not to reduce life to infinite statistics and charts which do not consider human fulfillment and happiness. A focus on improving life quality, providing access to education, healthcare, clean energy and food, mainly run by democratic, transparent and accountable governments and local businesses, especially social enterprises, instead of unaccountable multinationals can still provide decent jobs and employment without destroying nature. We must either find this balance or crash the earth with us.
P.P. Are there specific trends emerging in Africa in writing concerned with the climate, environmental and ecological crisis? I am specifically thinking of the deep contributions that were made early on by Ken Saro-Wiwa. Are there examples of contemporary writers connecting with social movements that are endeavoring to bring about a green transition?
Nsah Mala: Of course. Apart from Ken Saro-Wiwa and Wangari Maathai, there are many other environmental writers in many African countries who continue to engage with the complexities of ecological issues such as oil extraction, deforestation, nature conservation, species extinction, green imperialism, the myth of an African Eden, climate change and so on. Some of these writers even preceded Ken Saro-Wiwa. In a non-exhaustive manner, I can recommend Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were (2021), Helon Habila’s Oil on Water (2010), Bessora’s Petroleum (2004), In Koli Jean Bofane’s Congo Inc. Bismarck’s Testament (2014), Niyi Osundare’s eco-poetry, Zakes Mda’s fiction, Ekpe Inyang’s eco-poetry and plays, Nol Alembong’s eco-poetry, among many others. For instance, Cameroonian-American novelist Imbolo Mbue’s 2021 novel engages with a community fighting against an American oil company which is destroying their land and livelihoods. However, it seems to me that nearly all of these writers are not directly linked to socio-environmental movements in the same way that Saro-Wiwa and Maathai were.
P.P. You are an intellectual, writer, poet, children’s author moving between continents and literary genres with a very ample vision and scope. I am thinking of your poem “Gross Destructive Progress (GDP).” How do you think writers can work together to bring these concerns to the forefront in the literary arena, as is happening already among the younger generations who are seeking and experimenting with collective, international movements that are not so prone to compromise with the capitalist system and the governments?
Nsah Mala: As I have argued in one of the articles which constitutes my ongoing doctoral dissertation, some African environmental writers from the Congo Basin like Ekpe Inyang and Henri Djombo somewhat partly prophesied the current global youth climate movement. However, apart from professional associations such as the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) in the United States with its global affiliates and the European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture and Environment (EASLCE) which bring together both ecocritical scholars and writers, I think environmental writers, or least some, could consider coming together within similar associations or movements. In this way, they could connect their literary activism with real-world activism in order to challenge neoliberal hyper-capitalism which is irreparably destroying the earth. At the same time, nevertheless, I am aware that some writers prefer to limit their environmental activism to their texts. That notwithstanding, eco-literature should move from being largely an academic object of research to a subject of debate in the mainstream media. It should be read and commented everywhere, as much of it has the potential trigger or amplify real-world activism, influence behaviors (e.g. consumption patterns), and imagine more livable and alternative futures which do not destroy the earth for personal gain. Some writers even march with the youth during Fridays4Future and/or Extinction Rebellion marches. And I think more of such collaborations are to be expected.