Interview: Victoria Adukwei Bulley Creates A New Space For African Poetry With “Mother Tongues”

Filmmaking is one the most efficient story-telling tools, offering a visual representation to a narrative, and it is no coincidence that British Ghanaian poet, Victoria Adukwei Bulley chose it for her poetry project, Mother Tongues. The film project is an intergenerational translation series that takes the works of african poets from English into Ga, Yoruba, Igbo and Shona and with their mothers, capturing the process on film.

The beauty of such a project goes beyond the splendidly knitted lines of poetry or the syrupy cadence of the languages captured on film, to how it creates a community. Initially beginning with three other female British African poets, Theresa Lola, Tania Nwachukwu, Belinda Zhawi, Mother Tongues is an ongoing series creating space of african poetry to exist in african languages on film . In the trailer you notice the intimacy that exists between mother and daughter and how literature become a tool through which they could open up and discuss other cultural relevant topics.

To unravel the full scope of this inspiring project, DANDANO got in touch with Victoria. In the interview below, we go from finding funding to african literature and translation, uncovering what it takes for a young black female creative to produce such a project.



DANDANO: How would you describe yourself and the work that you do?

Victoria Adukwei Bulley: I describe myself as a poet, writer and artist. Poetry and writing have been a central part of my life for a while now, privately at first, with poetry now being the most outwardly focused upon. I am deliberate about the word artist because it covers everything that I dream of, do already, or intend to do in the future.

DANDANO: Can you briefly explain what Mother Tongues is?

Victoria Adukwei Bulley: MOTHER TONGUES is an intergenerational poetry, film and translation project that sees celebrated poets collaborating with their mothers or elders to translate their work into that elder’s first or native language. A poet asks her mother to write a translation of a poem, the mother agrees and does so. Then, the two are filmed at a studio in intimate conversation, followed by the mother reciting the translation, with the original poem recited by the daughter.

DANDANO: Where did the idea to document the works of these poets of colour, especially as “the women who know them best” interact with the work come from?

Victoria Adukwei Bulley: The project was borne out of a need to connect with the language that I’ve heard around me since birth, yet cannot understand. In my case, that language is Ga, spoken by the people most historically based around Accra, in Ghana. I have a deep love for indigenous cultures, and languages are the entry point into these. I also have a feeling of disconnection and limitedness, knowing that I can only really speak English. The fact that lesser-spoken languages are rapidly declining in usage is one that makes me intensely sad. MOTHER TONGUES, for me, is one small and meaningful attempt to restore and reconnect what is at risk of being lost or neglected.

DANDANO: I’m interested in knowing what you learned as you passed the ideas in your poem through Ga and English? Did the semantics of these languages allow you to be completely expressive as you desire?

Victoria Adukwei Bulley: The most interesting thing was how easy it was for my mother to do the translation. And how much she became invested in it. I warned the other poets (Theresa Lola, Belinda Zhawi, and Tania Nwachukwu) that they should each give their mothers as much time as possible for the task because translation can be complicated. I anticipated a struggle of sorts. We either underestimated our mothers or their languages, or both, because there really was no struggle at all. Where we had poems it seems we now have songs.

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DANDANO: What is your relationship with Ghana like?

Victoria Adukwei Bulley: I think it’s a beautiful relationship. I’ve visited four times, the last time being in 2010. But I’m returning next month for Homowo and Chale Wote, and I have this deep feeling that I’m going home. The thing is, if you grow up so detached from the place you know you originate from, you have a profound (and often subconscious) feeling of being cast adrift. That constant, lurking diasporic angst. This is something I’m quite aware of now, in my twenties, and in a way I’m just excited to stand on the land that I know I come from. I hope I feel something I’ve never felt before.

DANDANO: Mother Tongues has received quite generous support from Autograph ABP. As a young creative, what was the process of securing funding for this important project like?

Victoria Adukwei Bulley: It was daunting. And if not for wanting so badly to make the idea happen, I might not have done it. The idea behind MOTHER TONGUES is so clean and simple to me that I would have struggled to forgive myself if I didn’t manifest it. Luckily, however, I received a lot of encouragement. Jacob Sam-La Rose, a prolific poet and mentor, took a group of us poets to the Arts Council England office in London, where we met some of the team and were urged by them to submit our applications. With all of this to stand on, I didn’t have any excuse not to apply. You can’t take the arts for granted, even here in the UK. Funding sources like Arts Council England are a privilege, unfortunately, and do not exist everywhere. I’m very conscious of that, and took that as another reason not to be apathetic, self-conscious, and talk myself out of applying.

DANDANO: In African literature, there are very famous debates on the role translation can play in storytelling with many famous writer like Chinua Achebe and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o present very interesting points on how african writers should relate to the english language. Where do you stand on this?

Victoria Adukwei Bulley: I respect and honour both schools of thought. Nonetheless, I find myself sitting most passionately in the Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o camp. Culture is encased in language. You lose so much when you privilege another language, and to do so with a backdrop of colonialism seems too painful to me. In the West, it’s often argued that using one language uniformly makes it possible for people to coexist and cooperate. This, to me, seems wasteful. Humans are capable of more, and we’ve been coexisting and speaking multiple languages for most of our time on Earth. To favour the opposite is a very recent and devastating phenomena. So yes, I stand with wa Thiong’o. I’ve been told that he is aware of the project and loves the idea. This is the most wonderful thing for me; it is inspired by him in many ways.

DANDANO: Coming from a poetry background to directing your debut film project, what were some of the challenges you faced in realising the idea that you had?

Victoria Adukwei Bulley: One thing I’ve realised is that my poetry is, itself, very visual. I’m a visual person. I have a vivid imagination and I daydream easily. I love film and cinematography. As a result of this, my vision and aesthetic was clear. The films look exactly how I wanted them to, because I could see them before they were made. Perhaps the biggest challenge was in articulating this – there is a technical vocabulary that I’m still learning, which I had to learn as I went along. Fortunately, my brother Elliot Bulley is a talented sound artist who is also very talented with film production, which meant that I had a lot of help. I’m very grateful for that.

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DANDANO: How do you intend to grow Mother Tongues? Do you plan on producing more films in a series, outside the first four film you are premiering?

Victoria Adukwei Bulley: I already want to travel, so it only follows that I want to continue making these films with other brilliant poets and their elders’ indigenous languages on an international scale. If I can secure the funding to do this, I can’t see myself stopping until I’m utterly tired and no longer in love with it. A journalist friend who is currently in Guyana heard about MOTHER TONGUES and asked if I might consider taking it there, given the melting pot that the country is. I told her that this was already the dream. My intention is to set up the best foundation for this by holding a few screenings, gathering awareness, and setting up a powerful case for funding that will allow me to take this as far as possible, with as many people as possible, while maintaining the integrity of the core values that I set out with.


The project is supported by Autograph ABP And Arts Council England will opening later this month in London. Find details about screenings here.

Conducted by Hakeem Adam

Image credit: Victoria Adukwei Bulley


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