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Broken up into a series of lessons, Before the Butterfly Wakes (with cover art by Ike Slimster) chronicles Kemjika’s own personal journey, while offering insight into embracing growth and the celebration of the self. Essays and prose are illustrated with collages by Tamiko Hobbs that weave between texts.
Whitewall spoke with the author about her own evolution of empowerment, and why she wanted to spread that love to others.
WHITEWALL: What was the starting point for this book of poems?
NGOZI KEMJIKA: I started writing this book because I had reached a point in my life where I was mentally tired of allowing my past hurts and traumas define me. During a personally challenging period of my life, I realised that I still carried the weight of some of the things I’d experienced, particularly from my childhood.
My experiences growing up included racism, bullying, self-harm, an eating disorder and depression. These experiences had impacted me deeply and because of this I did not truly love myself at all. I viewed myself in a very negative light and I did not think I was worthy. This thinking affected my career, my relationships, and of course my self-esteem because I was living my life through the lens of my past. I knew that if I didn’t deal with these issues that they would continue to negatively impact me and stop me from living the life I was created to live.
I’ve always had a love for words. My mother was a librarian for almost twenty years. So, when I was a child, I was always reading books or writing one. It’s no surprise that as I began this journey of self-discovery that I decided to share this through my words.
I wanted to use what I’d learnt on my personal journey of healing, and self-love to empower and encourage others on their journey too. This was how Before the Butterfly Wakes was formed.
WW: What do you hope this book will inspire in its readers?
NK: I hope that Before the Butterfly Wakes will encourage people to journey towards their best lives and keep on becoming the best versions of themselves. I believe that we all have a divine purpose for being here, at this time, on this day. Life is full of ups and downs that can throw us of course but these things don’t come to destroy us, instead they have the potential to build us up and to fortify our character. Even if this is difficult to see at the time.
Life is beautiful. It can also be challenging. So I wanted to encourage people that it’s only when we go through challenges that we learn what we are made of, and the power that lives inside of us. That this is what makes us so very special. I want my words to serve as a reminder of that.
WW: Who are some of the poets and writers you look up to?
NK: Chinua Achebe is one of my all-time favourite writers. We are from the same ethnic group in Nigeria (Igbo), so I can definitely relate to his works. He was one of the most important African writers the world has ever seen.
Maya Angelou is one of my top poets of all time. She was ferociously herself, her words like music, and her life experiences an inspiration, in particular for black women.
Some of my favorite modern day poets include Nayyirah Waheed and Cleo Wade. Nayyirah because she has the ability to say so much without saying so much at all, and Cleo because she’s taken modern day poetry to a whole new level. I respect her for that. She’s authentic, carved out her own lane, and after meeting her recently she’s just as lovely and as genuine as her words are.
WW: What lesson did you learn yourself, putting this book together?
NK: I learnt that there is strength in vulnerability. Sharing parts of my own life wasn’t easy but my growth is not just about me. Growth is a lifelong process, but what we learn during that process is to be given back to others. We all have the ability to do that with whatever gifts we’ve been blessed with. Words just happen to be the gift I have and choose to use.
WW: What’s next for you?
NK: I have a few exciting things that I’m working on, stemming from my book, including different events and speaking engagements, and hosting a self-love showcase in New York this summer. It will feature other poets, performers and musicians who are also self-love advocates. I plan on restarting my podcast channel REWIRED this year too.
I’m ready and excited for whatever great things the world has in store for me. As long as I know my worth, and keep working towards bettering myself and serving others, anything else is just a sweet bonus!