On 19 January 2021 ALA alumna Kaffa Sakho ’13 released her new poetry book titled Etcetera – A Conversation about Love, to much adoration. Within its first few weeks of release, the book took the top spot on Amazon at number 1 in the New Release in African Poetry category and retained the position for several weeks. It also landed in Amazon’s Top 25 bestsellers of poetry books worldwide.
The youngest of five siblings, Kaffa was born and raised in Dakar, Senegal where she attended primary and secondary school before joining ALA in 2013. Describing herself as growing up “a very shy girl”, Kaffa got involved in activities in the creative arts and sports to overcome her shyness. It was through performing in literature-based theatre that her love for language, literature, and poetry was nurtured. While still in secondary school, the acceptance of schoolmate Fatoumata Fall ’08 as part of ALA ‘s inaugural class inspired Kaffa to join the academy.
We (virtually) sat down with Kaffa to speak to her about her journey from joining ALA to becoming a bestselling author.
What was your experience during your time as a student at ALA?
When I came to ALA, I spoke very little English. My Writing & Rhetoric class, which was a challenge for me at first, was instrumental in teaching me the language as we broke down and discussed literature in English. It ended up becoming my favourite course during my time at ALA. In fact, more than the language aspect, that specific class taught me writing techniques that I still use, even in my poetry, today.
Where did your journey take you following graduation?
After ALA I joined UC Berkeley as a Mastercard Foundation Scholar and obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Applied Mathematics. I’ve always had an immense fondness for mathematics since childhood. I believe it offers a vast range of opportunities academically and professionally.
During one of the engineering conferences held on campus, I met a recruiter from Goldman Sachs and joined the company as a Risk Management intern and later a Risk Analyst, upon graduating from Berkeley.
Where did your love for poetry begin?
I started writing fictional stories when I was 11 years old and enjoyed it immensely. My secondary school teacher presented poetry so beautifully to me that it captured me and inspired me to follow the passion. Poetry is freedom for me. I know it is sometimes characterized as a complicated art form with many rules. Of course, I respect grammatical rules, but I enjoy the freedom of playing with words and imagery. I prioritize honesty in my work, so I do not bind myself to a specific form in my poetry.
Let’s talk about Etcetera. What is the book about?
It is a collection of 55 poems about things that we as people do not tend to talk about when it comes to love often as a result of fear or pride. The word “etcetera” is a common word across different languages and is used to indicate words the speaker prefers not to say at that time.
I have a strong belief that the things that go unsaid are often as important as the words that we do use, especially in love. I think having the courage to have those uncomfortable conversations could go a long way in nurturing love amongst each other as people. I hope this book will help the reader be able to navigate difficult conversations easier.
African poetry is often characterized by themes such as poverty, colonialism, struggle, morality, and indeed love. Why do you think the topic of love in poetry remains relevant and popular today?
I believe that our common purpose as people is to love and purpose transcends generations. I believe all struggles are struggles of love. I don’t want to ignore the complexities of ‘struggle’ but at the core of it, it comes down to a struggle to love. For me, for example, colonialism then and racism today shows the struggle of one group of people finding it difficult to love people who are different from them. So whether the book is read by a future political leader, an athlete, or the head of an activist group I aimed for the poems to be a source of empowerment for us all to do better.
What inspires your work?
Everyday experiences. In fact, in the book there is a specific poem actually inspired by an observation I made during one of our snack times at ALA. It is called Snack Time in Johannesburg.
Are there any particular challenges that you feel young Africans face in publicising their work. How can they overcome them, as you have?
Accessibility and distribution of literature on the continent is a challenge. Although the topics covered in Etcetera are universal, they are written from the perspective of a young African woman and appeal to an African audience. However, the book is currently only available online which means it is not reaching as many people as I would like. Such challenges propel African authors to develop and use different distribution channels.
I would advise writers to use platforms like social media that allow you to share content and build an audience. I recently started sharing my work via Instagram and have found it to be a simple and easy way to connect to an audience. That is one way for someone to start.
What do you believe the power of poetry is?
For the writer it is freedom. You can express yourself about absolutely anything including thought-provoking topics that may otherwise be considered irrelevant. That is liberating for a writer. To have your words spark conversations in society. For the reader, poetry that resonates with their personal experience is comforting and unifying. Universal struggles such as unemployment or even heartbreak when shared, in this case between the writer and reader, creates a connection amongst us as people. I believe that is really the power of poetry.
What is next for Kaffa Sakho?
I want to keep learning and will be furthering my studies in finance. For Etcetera, I look forward to seeing the book on shelves and reaching more people. Personally, I want to keep writing. I enjoyed the process of Etcetera and I do not want to stop!
To purchase Etcetera – A Conversation about Love, click here