Panya Banjoko Interview

3 January 09 words: Seth Dye
“When you take a tough audience, and you draw them in and then you hold their heart in your hand, that is the best feeling.”

“When you take an audience, especially a tough audience, and you draw them in, and keep drawing them in, until you have them, and then you hold their heart in your hand – then, that is the best feeling.” 

Panya Banjoko is talking about poetry performance, her passion and joy still audible despite the calm voice and relaxed manner. For here is a woman of contrasts, one as delighted by the work ethic of Ghanaian teenagers as the sofa-bound comforts of TV’s Sex & the City. And, as we discovered, she’s been hiding an amazing literary secret…

The award-winning poet Panya Banjoko was just 15 years of age when she made two life-changing discoveries. A crisis of identity is common in teenagers, but the latter half of the 1970s presented a particularly rootless environment for a British-born girl, applying make-up to the black skin of her Jamaican heritage.

However, in Rastafarianism, Banjoko found the route to her persona. The impact was dramatic, and the process needed expressing – and poetry provided the ‘therapeutic’ outlet for a young mind in turmoil.

Writing and Rastafarianism; the two pillars for building Panya Banjoko’s legacy were in place. But not everyone shared the vision, and the legacy-building would get off to a painful start. Banjoko’s father, unimpressed with the Rastafarian turn, set an ultimatum: the dreadlocks must go, or she’d have to. If he was calling her bluff, he made a serious error of judgement, for his daughter reluctantly packed her bags.

A rebel can be beaten, but, in hindsight, it’s easy to see that 16-year-old Banjoko had the bottle to make some big choices. But as the old saying has it, what goes around comes around. So sure enough, when the headstrong daughter became the devoted mother, the second of Banjoko’s three daughters turned her back on Rastafarianism. The arguments had not gone far before the bitter-sweet irony was charged: ‘You’re being just like granddad’.

For now, two of Banjoko’s four children remain within the Rastafarian fold. But the writing pen has proved a more enduring generational baton, and all the children follow in mother’s literary footsteps in one way or another.

These four, however, barely constitute a quorum of the writers inspired and encouraged by the forty-something (‘you’re not going to ask how old I am, are you?!’) poet and workshop coordinator.

Banjoko’s art has carried her far afield. When she talks about conducting creative writing sessions in Ghana, she does so with understandable pride. And the pupils on the Gold Coast clearly left a genuine impression on their tutor. There are no clichés about ‘natural African expression’ from Banjoko; instead she pays tribute to a focus she has yet to find in British classrooms. The writer who continues to annoy her partner by scribbling away until five in the morning has solid admiration for the will to learn which she witnessed in those Ghanaian teenagers.

When the subject moves from past achievements to plans for the future, change is in the air. It is hard to imagine that the poet, children’s author, radio presenter, foundation manager and museum curator has ever stood still for more than five minutes; now, for the first time, her drive threatens to take her away from her city of birth on a permanent basis.

Swapping Nottingham for Northampton, the next challenge is to document the British sound system movement. What sounds like a fun and care-free project is met with a typically sensitive political awareness. ‘Everything I do really is about saying “let’s have multiple voices, let’s have equality, let’s have fairness.” Whether that’s the poetry, whether that’s working as a curator, whether that’s working with schools as a storyteller, it’s about saying diversity should be on the agenda.’

But doesn’t adopting such a socially responsible attitude at times feel like a burden? (Banjoko is already having to deal with a community fearing rumours of the imminent loss of its favourite champion). ‘I can’t stop until the world is a better place, and that’s it.’

Not many can espouse such idealism without sounding, at best, naïve - but when you’ve been walking the walk for decades, you can be allowed the talk.

Indeed, talking to Banjoko can at times be a humbling experience, so it comes as a relief when the pen-wielding activist confesses to being a big fan of James Blunt. And then, the revelations come thick and fast; Desperate Housewives and Sex & the City are both unexpected favourites, but when she talks about Loose Women with warm affection it’s hard to believe these are not deliberate shock tactics.

‘You’re entitled to a little bit of light relief,’ she says. And the suspicion that Banjoko enjoys dumbfounding other people’s expectations is confirmed when she reveals the other project she has recently begun working on. Yes, the politically-charged Rastafarian is writing a chick-lit novel. Without revealing the plot, she says with complete seriousness that the idea is to write a bestseller. But just when you begin to think that perhaps she’s going soft with the years, her relentless rebelliousness puts in an appearance … ‘People like me aren’t supposed to write romance novels. And I’m saying “well actually we can. We can write anything, because it’s about being a writer.” So there still is a political statement’. Selling out never sounded so brave.

More than two centuries ago, in 1773, Phyllis Wheatley, an African-American woman (and slave since the age of seven), had her first book published – a collection entitled Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Her story is a remarkable one, and it is plausible to see Panya Banjoko’s life as an unwritten epilogue for her idol.

Asked to reflect on her own life so far the petite poet pauses for thought, before deciding with obvious pleasure: ‘I look back and I smile about the legacy I’ve left behind.’ And the future? ‘Sometimes it feels like there’s a glass ceiling on how far we can go. My aim is to shatter through that ceiling.’

She means it when she says her best poem is still in her, and, with the strength and energy she still possesses, it’s clear the glass is under threat.

Panya Banjoko on Kemet FM

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