Monday, January 22, 2007

In Conversation with Benjamin Zephaniah

Ahmede: Your full name is Benjamin Obadiah Iqbal Zephaniah. Can you please explain the presence of Obadiah Iqbal in your name for our readers?

Benjamin Zephaniah: Although I was born in England my family tradition on the Jamaican/African side was one that would give a baby a temporary name until the young girl or boy began to show some individual character traits. Once aspects of the young persons character was apparent a name would be given to suit the child. It was said of me that I was very curious and interested in religion, not so much in being religious but more interested in how the religions came about. So it was agreed that the name that would suit me was one that was Muslim, Christian and Jewish. There could have been many more added but the people around me were most familiar with the Abrahamic tradition, still I always say I have the Dreadlock (or Jata) of Lord Shiva and I love the study of Theology. I now believe in God without religion, I think that religion has given god a bad name and that the whole idea of god as a "man" in the "sky", watching how we eat and wash etc is one that man had constructed himself. God is greater than that.

Ahmede: Were you shocked when you were offered Officer of the Order of the British Empire (which you so famously rejected)? One of your poems (which I really liked) "Bought and Sold" even criticises contemporaries who compromise their work by accepting honours?

Benjamin Zephaniah: The poem of mine called "Brought and Sold" makes it absolutely clear that I am critical of anyone (especially creative people and intellectuals) who accept such honors, and therefore it should be obvious to anyone that I would never accept one. The article I wrote (in the Guardian) about my rejection states clearly my reasons, so I normally decline from talking about this episode in interviews because I think it detracts from all the other work that I am doing. For me it was a major inconvenience. I had to postpone the publication of a book and the release of a music CD because I didn't want to be seen as capitalising on the publicity the rejection caused. The fact that Tony Blair had offered me an OBE tells us that he doesn't really read my books. I met him once and he told me that he has some of my books, well if he does I don't believe that he reads them, and if he reads them he must read them very superficially. No this whole thing was about the New labour project trying to be cool, it is them trying to show that they don't hate Muslims and blacks because they give (some) Muslims and black OBEs. Have no doubt about it, if I had an OBE in my hand now and Tony Blair was in front of me, I would feed it down his mouth, and as he swallowed I would say, that's for Iraq.
Ahmede: Will you please share your reading of South Asian writers with us?

Benjamin Zephaniah: I'm not sure what you mean by this question, if your question is about which south Asian writers do I like then I have to be honest and say I don\rquote t know that many. The ones I know tend to be the ones with higher profiles who have been translated into English. I love Kamala Das, her conversion surprised me, and I have never met her, but I did have a phone conversation with her once when I was in Kerala, and I have to say she even spoke poetry. I think Shashi Tharoor's "The Great Indian Novel" is a classic, and I think Vikram Seth keeps writing classics. I know she's a novelist but I love Arundhati Roy as an intellectual, as an activist and political thinker I think that she is one of the greatest minds of our times alongside Sivanandan and Noam Chomsky. Ok, I know he's not Asian. There is a hospital in West London that has named a ward after me, the ward next to the Benjamin Zephaniah Ward is the Tagore Ward, which I think is fitting because I always loved his poetry and one of my reasons for really wanted to visit Bangladesh was to be amongst his people. Another poet I respect from Bangladesh is Bimal Guha, his poetry is so conversational, and he is also very passionate about the poetry of Bangladesh.

Ahmede: Has the world really changed after the attack on 9/11 and London bombing?
Benjamin Zephaniah: The world changes everyday, it's just that different changes mean different things to different people. 9/11 was a day that made (some) people in the USA see the world differently, but the day Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon was bombed changed the lives of many Lebanese and Palestinains, the invasion a Grenada by the USA will never be forgotten by some, nor will the dropping of Atomic bombs in Japan, or the poisoning of thousands of people in Bhopal. We all have our equivalents to 9/11, but we don\rquote t all have a superpower to go seek "revenge", or broadcast to the world that you are either with us or against us.

Ahmede: Rejecting the "honours" again; while rejecting the OBE, you said to the Queen that this reminded you of "thousands of years of brutality - it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised". But you still write in English, the language of the oppressors and the colonisers (at least the rules of syntax of your language is English

Benjamin Zephaniah: I don't see what the rejection of an honor from the queen and Tony Blair has to do with the rejection of the OBE. I was born in England, the only language that I know is English, which is actually a mixture of other languages. If I were born in Jamaica my first language would still be English because they beat all traces of our Africaness out of us. But English does not just belong to the English, it borrows from the tongues of many people and so there is nothing wrong with many people speaking it. It is a highly flexible language, which is why some of the best usage of English is now being done by Asian and African people. We use English in our own rhythms. If I were born into a tribe in Africa that had its own language it would be natural for me to use the language of that tribe to express myself, if I wanted to criticise the elders of that tribe I wouldn't have to learn another language, in fact knowing the language of my oppressor would give me an advantage.