I only used to indulge in art as a punter. Being a writer is a hero’s journey, a great endeavour without guarantee of reward. I am often asked, “why did you become a writer?” It would be easier to tell you when I chose the journey.
My tipping point occurred when I was working as a cashier at a bank in Victoria. I’d been reading Deepak Chopra on my lunch breaks; my girlfriend had bought me a copy of his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. She must have seen something in my eyes. I’d become Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, a man trying to find his way out of a mistake. That was until I got to the chapter about the Seventh Law. Deepak starts the chapter with a quote from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet:
“When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music … And what is it to work with love … It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth”
He goes on to describe how success in life is the continued expansion of happiness and the progressive realisation of worthy goals. And that the ultimate way to achieve success in all its forms (be it wealth, spiritual, emotional and health) is to do what you love. Because when you do what you love, even during monotony or hardship, you will wake up each day with the burning desire to make a difference.
Suffice to say that was the last day working at the bank. In fact I remember marking the occasion by burning my bank uniform to cinders. So I was a writer, now what? I had the passion, I had the purpose, but what I lacked was the process, as my early work will pay testament to. I considered myself a poet. As the saying goes, you are what you do.
But let’s now talk about the elephant in the room. If you give someone a scalpel, it doesn’t make them a surgeon. But there I was with pen in hand calling myself a poet. I had some flourish, an ability to mould interesting images that I cloaked in unnecessary rhyme. But as the poet Kwame Dawes would say, that was my “trick”. Even though it had helped me create a name for myself, it was at the expense of my creativity. I began to question if I had made the right decision.
Just when I was about to chuck it in, three things happened – not simultaneously, but within enough distance of each other to have a gravitational pull. The first was the birth of my daughter. Her introduction into my life opened up love in a way I had not fully experienced as a child. My partner and daughter bound me as part of a unit. The second thing was being accepted onto The Complete Works, a national development programme for advanced Black and Asian poets. And finally, I was invited to be a member of SpokeLab by Dawn Reid, deputy artistic director at Stratford Royal Theatre East. She welcomed me and four other poets to a creative experiment to see how you could fuse theatre and poetry together. We met once every two weeks for a year, until I was eventually offered some money to develop a Scratch. The Complete Works was a two year course. And being a dad? Well, you never stop being a dad.
I was in a workshop led by Staci Makishi when I came up with my show’s title: My Father & Other Superheroes. We had been working on various improvement exercises when she said, “now write what your life will be about for the next few years”. I turned to the back of my Muji notebook and dreamt a Superman ‘S’ and the title. Up until that point my notebooks were a sketchy affair. Many of them were hardly used. Partly out of fear. The same fear that comes across you when you hold your new-born child in your arms for the first time. I realised I had become averse to risk, in my life and in my work. When editor Dr Nathalie Teitler read a pamphlet I had written, she pointed out, word for word, how I write like a man in exile.
Up until that point I had not given myself permission to be Ugandan, to be a dad or to be a writer. Strange as it sounds I felt like an interloper in my own life. But if I wanted to move forward in all these endeavours, I would have to lay down my tricks and face my taboos and tyrannies. I had to come to terms with the loneliness that comes from being far from my country and having a father who was absent. Absence does not discriminate by race, age, social standing or geography. As my own child was born, I realised I had to deal with the anger and disappointment that sat inside me.
I struggled with writing every day, so I had to find new ways of generating ideas. It soon became apparent to me that my mind thinks in poetical forms that are vivid in imagery, so I needed to find the right medium to hold the poetics. Sometimes it could be a film, or a song. For this show, it would be the comics and TV icons of my childhood, which as an only child I indulged in a lot. Revisiting them as a man was insightful. Take Superman for example. As a child, he was just a cool strong man with a cape and an S-curl hairstyle. But looking back I realised he represented a lot more. Both Kal-el and I did not know our real fathers and lived in a world that was not our own.
I would record to-camera interviews of myself speaking about my childhood. It would leave my director in stitches when she played it back. Turning my experiences into art helped me to normalise them. That, along with writing poems about Uganda, really gave me a sense of clarity in what I was doing. Being a father, an alumnus of the Complete Works and a member of SpokeLab gave me a structure and lens to deal with these very personal themes that were emerging in my work. I complemented this with a rich fuel of poetry workshops and reading. It helped me build a routine of writing, reading and note-taking. At points it felt like I was back in boarding school. I joined my friend Charlie Dark’s Run Dem Crew, a collective of people with a passion for running and exchanging ideas. I took some personal development classes. As my friend Roger Robinson says, “Get your head right, get your work right”. There are many others I could thank for keeping the flame of the artist in me alive; Benji Reid, Lemn Sissay, Amanda Roberts, Jude Kelly, George Szirtes, and the list goes on.
Dawn Reid said: “Remember why you are doing this? All of it, not just the theatre. You are pressing against the norm”. Many of us experience the absence of a father even when they are present. Other types of absence include death, separation and work commitments to name the most obvious.
Which brings me to the Father Factor. It’s taking way longer than I would have liked to get this show to a presentable shape. In that time I have had my second child, my first poetry collection The Second Republic has gone to press and I have set up Re:Play, a programme for BAME writers to develop their own one person-show. The spring leg of the tour is in full swing. Whenever I return home from a tour date and put the key in the door I know there are three people waiting for me on the other side. Only one of them should be awake, the other two are giggling behind a bedroom door waiting for me to tuck them in.
My Father & Other Superheroes is currently touring.