Conversation with Kuukua Dzigbordi Yomekpe - a Culinary Artist
Kuukua Yomekpe is a young Ghanaian woman whose writings have been published in different anthologies. Kuukua's multi-ethnic background and her multiple degrees - Art, Theology and currently working on her MFA - have influenced her in her writings. However, she also believes in the informal form of education as much as she does in the formal ones. Kuukua draws a lot from her personal life and has found a point of convergence between her love for writing and that for cooking as she considers herself to be a 'culinary artist'. According to her she writes to give people who are 'different' a chance to hear a different voice, believing that by speaking for others, others might speak for her.
Below is an interview ImageNations conducted with this literary talent.
Tells us something about yourself, Kuukua?
Well for starters, I was born and raised in Accra, Ghana at Aunty Hannah’s home in Chorkor. I am the oldest child on my mother’s side, and the fourth on my father’s. Altogether, I have six siblings. As my name suggests I am Fante on my maternal grandmother’s side, I am also Ga on my maternal grandfather’s side, and finally, I am, as far as I know, fully Ewe on my father’s side. I attended Christ the King International School from kindergarten to JSS3. I moved to the US after completing Holy Child Secondary School, affectionately known as HolyCo, in 1995. I choreograph African and Liturgical dance forms. I can throw down reasonably in the kitchen; I love cooking and throwing parties for my friends. And it goes without saying that I love to write. I write to live. I have been privileged to have been published a few times in the last two years. I hope to own a retreat or respite center one day where I can write, cook, and dance, and teach other women to do the same as a form of therapy and self-care.
In your biography you said your ‘formal’ higher education started in Columbus, Ohio. What do you mean by ‘formal’ and what have been your places of informal education?
What I mean by formal education is this: The Western form of education that is accepted almost everywhere and often preferred above all other forms—the standardized testing, the grading and GPA systems, the uniforms and tuition. When I speak of informal education, I am referring to the knowledge that the ancestors and elders have passed down through the ages; that which can never be learned in any classroom setting. I am speaking about learning Fante and Ga from the women who washed my clothes and baked our bread, or learning to cook a mean nkatie wonu from Aunty Mercy who probably didn’t complete high school. These women did not use measuring cups or notebooks, nor give grades or award degrees. I consider myself very lucky to have been educated by these women, who often go unrecognized. I truly believe that my education is not complete without such places of informal education.
Coming from a culturally different background where sexual relations are expected to be between two individuals of the opposite sex, how did issues of bisexuals influence your writings?
Now, this is a bit tough. As you can imagine, and as you rightly assume, issues of gender and sexuality are rarely discussed in constructive ways in the society in which I was raised. Engaging in these conversations has not been easy, but I have finally come to terms with it, and am writing about it. For a long time, I could not reconcile these conversations given my cultural background and my devout Catholic upbringing. As I do with all challenges, I set out to first explore it. The confusion was apparent, but it took engaging with those we called “other” and inching close to various mixed communities to begin realizing that no matter what anyone else thought of you, you were the only one charged with living your particular life. Once I began putting real faces to these “fags,” “dykes,” and “homosexuals,” I could not deny their dignity. The person the creator was calling me to be could not deny the dignity of others. People have opinions, always have, always will. There are several strains of arguments and often I engage, but essentially, I use my writing to honor the difference in all of God’s creation. To deny anyone’s dignity means to allow others to deny mine. The saying by Martin Niemöller comes to mind whenever I encounter discussions of dignity:
They came first for the Communists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.
I write to give people who are “different” a chance to hear a different voice in the wilderness, if I may use that phrase. I speak up so someone might speak up for me. It’s not an easy task, but ultimately, I am the one who has to live with myself and answer to the creator in the end.
Your writings suggest that you write on issues concerning women. Again there is this deep contribution of your personal life in your work. To what extent has the concept of feminism defined your writings and how much of your work is influenced by your life?
All of my work is influenced by life. I couldn’t write much if I didn’t have my life experiences. Equally, I couldn’t write much if issues of women were not addressed in my work. Through my many years of “formal” education, I have become acquainted with the ideals of feminism and womanism, as well as several other concepts of believing in the empowerment of women. What I take from everything I’ve learned over the last 15 years is that women matter, and truly imbibing the ideals of feminism means that I do everything in my power to show this, and make it happen whenever possible. My contribution is through my writing and drawing attention to this idea that women should not have second class citizenship in any society. My favorite button quote, “feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings” drives most of my work and encourages me to build up strong female characters.
What do you intend to achieve with your writings?
I intend to reach people with my message about diversity and dignity for all of creation, and add my voice to a universal message of acceptance. I intend to help people make connections in their lives and generate solidarity with those they may think of as “other.” I intend for people to see themselves in a broader global society beyond their various ethnic groups. Mostly, I intend to be another example of a survivor by sharing my own stories with the global society. Surviving life is important and sharing stories of survival helps keep universal hope alive. It’s the “If she did it, I can” story. Meri Nana-Ama Danquah’s book, Willow Weep for Me was that book for me.
You have degrees in Arts and Theology, and intend to add MFA to it. What is this fascination about degrees? What’s with the degree in Theology?
Fascination with degrees…yeah it truly has come to that. The funny thing is the degrees are not even up in frames on my wall, so sometimes I conveniently forget that I have them. Well, until the loan payments go through. Anyway, I believe I was first attracted to higher ed and the academic milieu during my undergraduate work. I enjoyed academia, and wanted to remain there forever. I thought in order to do this I had to continue taking classes. I wanted to write but I didn’t feel Creative Writing was a practical enough degree to satisfy my immigrant family who wanted me to “make something of myself!” So I tried the route of English thinking I could teach, but now I know that classroom teaching is a calling given to some people. I was not one of those people. Working in Student Affairs was a novel idea that I stumbled upon after my first Masters. While doing so, I realized that I wanted the added component of pastoral counseling hence my trek back into the student seat to get that degree in Theology. Even though I can not be ordained as a woman in the Catholic Church, I still feel called to pastoring students in college. The MFA degree came more as a kick in the pants if you will. An awakening of sorts. I still wanted to write after all these years, and all these degrees. I realized that I had been avoiding my writing for years so I began to focus on it. I decided it might be best to do it in a cohort model so I would have specific accountability to other writers. I am only through my first semester and I’m not sure yet what I think.
And what exactly are you heading towards?
My ultimate goal is a women’s resource and respite center where women can come to rest and use writing and other forms of expressive arts therapeutically to process trauma and pain. As I have honed in more on my goal, I have realized that I don’t need a degree for this, however, knowing the world we live in, and knowing that as a Black woman I have certain odds against me, I figured the extra credentials might aid in achieving my final goal. Of course we also know that most artists all have “day” jobs. I was trying to figure out what mine would be. How would I support my dream goal?
What do you think we can do as Ghanaians to improve our literary scene?
When I was in Ghana this past August, I got plugged into the literary scene through yourself, Nana Nyarko, Teddy, and Mamle, and I was pleasantly surprised. All I knew of were the Busias and Aidoos, and Armahs, but the Writers Project of Ghana broadened my perspective and changed my view of who made up the term “Ghanaian Writers.” We are REAL, we just need to make our presence known. If there is one thing I’ve learned being abroad it’s this: No one will hand you something if you don’t ask for it, step up to it, or go after it. The Citi FM program is a great resource and I think we ought to keep going with it and searching for other avenues to share our talents. I look forward to future collaborations.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently working on a couple big projects. One is a Culinary Memoir, which is untitled, but which combines the stories of my family and our interaction with food. It is only fitting, since I call myself a “culinary artist,” to be able to celebrate the roots of this audacious title. I am also working on a collection of personal essays about the African immigrant experience in America. Three of these are published in the African Women Writing Resistance anthology that recently came out. I will be presenting on these pieces at the African Literature Association conference in April. I might also be collaborating with Ruby Goka, the Burt Award winner who read with me on WPG’s on Citi Fm program the first weekend in August when I was in Ghana. I have had a Young Adult fiction piece that’s been collecting dust since 1999 and my recent conversations with Ruby have inspired me to move ahead in a slightly different direction. An idea for an anthology of African immigrant children is currently bubbling on the back burner. Of course, slightly charring on the other back burner is my blog which began with all the enthusiasm of a child in a candy store, and is currently challenging every disciplined bone in me. I will get to it, today…oh no! tomorrow perhaps… You know what I mean?
Your final words?
Thank you for the opportunity to make my words heard. I believe that as writers we need to support each other, create a virtual colony of sorts. If we don’t do it, no one will. Most often than not, things are just not handed to folks, we have to go for what we want and we have to support and celebrate each other.