As International Women’s Day celebrations continue, the Organization of Women Writers of Africa Inc (OWWA) seeks to bring Black women writers to Ghana. Yari Yari Ntoaso: Continuing the Dialogue is the theme of OWWA’s conference scheduled to be held in Accra on May 16-19. The word yari, from the Kuranko language of Sierra Leone means future while ntoaso from the Akan language of Ghana translates as understanding and agreement. According to Conference Director, Brooklyn College Assistant Professor and poet, Rosamond King, “this Yari Yari will extend the dialogue of the first two Yari Yaris, which put hundreds of women writers and scholars in discussion with thousands of people”.
As stated on their website, OWWA is a nonprofit literary organization concerned with the development and advancement of literature of women writers from Africa and its Diaspora. It is associated with the United Nations Department of Public Information In 1991, the legendary activist-poet Jayne Cortez together with Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo founded OWWA. The Founding Board members of the organization are: J.e Franklin, Cheryll Y. Greene, Rashidah Ismaili, Renee Larrier and Louise Meriwether.
Since their inception, OWWA’s emphasis has been on creating opportunities for exploration and exchange. They promulgated the conversation, over fifteen years ago with “Yari Yari: Black Women Writers and the Future” in 1997 and “Yari Yari Pamberi: Black Women Writers dissecting Globalization” in 2004. These conferences were held in the U.S. at NYU co-sponsored in part by the Institute of African-American Affairs. Yari Yari events have all been documented and are available for viewing in their archives at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.
Previous attendees often describe Yari Yari as empowering and welcoming. Cornell University Professor Carole Boyce Davies (Trinidad/U.S) who participated in both states, “Yari Yari provides affirmative space always for black women writers worldwide to show again that we speak, think, write, theorize, imagine, create. From the start this has always been a space for creative encounters with writers from all corners of the Black World.” Susquehanna University Assistant Professor Angelique V Nixon (Bahamas/US) recalls her first symposium, “I went to the Yari Yari conference in New York in 2004 – and it was a life changing experience. It was incredibly affirming and supportive to my writing/poet self in ways that I had never experienced before. And I am forever blessed and grateful for that beautiful experience. This is why I’m so honored to be included as an invited writer this year!”
The dialogue slated to continue in Accra this spring will congregate an international group of writers of multiple genres (ranging from children’s literature, fiction to playwright), scholars, organizers, publishers and visual artists from the African diaspora to share their various work. Contributors are bloggers, editors, filmmakers, journalists, novelists, poets, performers and academics in the humanities, self-proclaimed feminists and womanists alike from Africa, the Caribbean, North America and the U.K. including but not limited to: Ama Aita Aidoo (Ghana); Yolanda Arroyo-Pizzaro (Puerto Rico); Sokhna Benga (Senegal); Tara Betts (U.S.); Gabrielle Civil (Haiti/U.S.); Angela Davis (US); Alison Duke (Canada); Philo Ikonya (Kenya); Kadija George Sessay (U.K./Sierra Leone); Jason King (U.S.); Kinna Likimani (Ghana); Natalia Molebatsi (South Africa); Virginia Phiri (Zimbabwe); Tess Onwueme (Nigeria); Sapphire (U.S.); Veronique Tadjo (Cote d’Ivoire/South Africa) among others. For a draft of the program and list of participants, see here.
The conference, as always, is a free event that will be open to the public. It will consist of plenaries, panels, performances, a film and video series as well as receptions and exhibitions. As with the previous gatherings, OWWA organizers hope those who can attend will make their way to Ghana to partake in what will surely be an invigorating and fruitful global conversation. First time invitee, Haiti’s Evelyne Trouillot crystalizes the spirit of the encounter:
To travel to Africa for a Haitian, can be a very emotional journey. It can stir a genuine desire to remember a reality one could not possibly have known, a willingness to connect with a dramatic past. For me, as a Haitian woman writer, I feel that this trip to the Yari Yari conference in Ghana is an opportunity to go beyond the beautifully sentimental journey, to discard the fabrications learned in misguided history books, and to shatter the silencing that has for so long hindered our reflection. Meeting and sharing with other women writers and artists from Africa or from African descent provides an opportunity to derive more sense from our past and find novel ways to look at ourselves and create new ties that rise above the ordinary paths.
As plans are underway, OWWA still needs funding to defray the travel costs of invited independent writers without institutional affiliations especially in Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. Many of us who will attend (I am one of them) are able to do so because we have support. We are doing what we can for those with less means to also be present because as Nixon says, we are “thrilled to be invited writers – and truly blessed to have funding from my university. But there are some writers who do not.”
To bring greater awareness of Yari Yari and help fundraising efforts, Zoramagonline kicked off a digital salon series featuring interviews with invitees. Their debut with poet Camille Dungy (U.S.) invokes the phenomenal bell hooks’ Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, “No black woman writer in this culture can write ‘too much'”.Indeed, in order to write, one must first know one has a voice. Cortez who passed away on December 28, 2012 continues to inspire, instructing us to find your own voice and use it. Yari Yari Ntoaso will be held in her honor. Davies believes that honoring Cortez’s vision will resonate now and well into the future.
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Gina Athena Ulysse is Associate Professor of Anthropology, African- American Studies and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. Born in Haiti, she has lived in the United States for the last thirty years. A poet/performance/multimedia artist, as well as anthropologist, she earned her Ph.D. at the University of Michigan in 1999. She is the author of Downtown Ladies: Informal Commercial Importers, A Haitian Anthropologist and Self-Making in Jamaica (Chicago 2008). Follow Gina on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ginaathena.