Wasafiri Wonders: Rachel Bolle-Debessay
By Wasafiri Editor on March 13, 2023 in Interviews, Wasafiri Wonders
Ever wondered what your favourite writer’s first drafts look like? Or which book they love that nobody’s heard of? Wasafiri Wonders is a series that asks these questions for you. For this instalment, we spoke to the winner of the 2022 Wasafiri Essay Prize, Rachel Bolle-Debessay, on her favourite recent releases, writing habits, and upcoming work.
The 2023 Wasafiri Essay Prize is open to early career researchers, including PhD students, from around the world. Submit unpublished works by 31 May 2023, 5pm BST.
Describe your first drafts in one sentence.
Rough like a gemstone that hasn’t been polished yet … with the feeling that something nice will come out of it.
Tell us about your writing rituals.
I tend to delay the moment I start writing by doing unnecessary things such as replying to emails, cleaning my desk and/or my room, doing laundry, going for a short walk. It helps me to be centred in myself and find a quiet place around me and within me. It can take me a while to find that state but when I feel that I am ready, I can focus for long hours.
What themes do you gravitate towards and why?
I continue to gravitate towards Édouard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation — how to create meaningful ways of being with others, how do we negotiate the expression of the individual-self while remaining highly attentive of multi-layered positionalities shaped by forms of discrimination and exclusion, what are the different mechanisms of cultural recycling emerging from trans/national/post/colonial movements … These themes strongly echo my personal history.
Tell us about your newest work.
I am currently working on a collaborative cultural project that proposes alternative readings — in the form of recorded audio-guide — of art objects in museums as well as a reflection of spaces within these museums. These readings, recorded mainly from refugees and migrants’ voices (the voice also seems to be a recurrent theme) are testimonies of the diversity in our every life. Over the last two years, I have tried to propose projects with an inclusive perspective that have a modest contribution to the development of alternative ways of relating to the world in economic, sociological, cultural, and aesthetic terms.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
If you feel anxious, then you need to start writing.
What is a classic you recently read for the first time?
Nemesis by Philip Roth, if considered a classic. It’s for my high school students’ exam.
What is a book or pamphlet you love that no one else has heard of?
This year, I am part of scientific committee for children’s and young adult literature. We are selecting books where the theme of diversity is presented in a meaningful way. I wasn’t familiar with this genre of literature; I am discovering a lot of fantastic books. One of my ‘coup de coeur’ is Clap When You Land from Elizabeth Acevedo.
What is your favourite book or pamphlet published in the past year and why?
Atlas in Motion, a presentation of Mathieu Pernot’s work, co-produced with migrants. The book is a montage of photographs, maps, videos, and manuscripts that gives us different perspectives on the multifaceted history of migration. I am impressed by this narration beyond words. It invites the reader to use multiple senses, which I believe is very important in reading and studying literature.
If your newest work were a music album, what would it be and how would it sound?
Harlem-Kingston Express, by Monty Alexander. Swing, blues, calypso, reggae… everything is in there! The album sounds very familiar with a lot of samples and yet it takes us into new directions.
Which books or authors are relevant reads in our political climate — or one you’d recommend to current world leaders?
It is a difficult question. Maybe Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha. It opens our imagination.
Rachel Bolle-Debessay is a musician, school teacher, and intercultural mediator working with migrants and refugees. In 2020, she received a PhD from King’s University, London. Using a research-creation approach, her current work focuses on artistic socially engaged practice. In the echo of her PhD dissertation, her work continues to analyse how the global context of transnational and diasporic circulations gets reworked at ground level through processes of local recycling.
Rachel Bolle-Debessay’s winning essay, ‘Dub Poetry and Theatre in Conversation: The Development of a Performance-Driven Aesthetic’ is published in Wasafiri 113. You can read it online, or by purchasing a print copy.
Enter the 2023 Wasafiri Essay Prize here.