Ask the Author: Jonathan May

Read Jonathan May’s poem “On Our Rwandan Refugees: A Memory” in our July issue for some free shivers.

1. How many were there? 

We knew just a few refugees, but mostly as they made their way further south to the coast. We didn’t know many who stayed.

2. It’s a straight shot south from Rwanda to Zimbabwe, a long way to walk. Can you describe where this poem came from?

This poem came out of finally being able to look directly at my childhood in Zimbabwe and see the beautiful, the horrific. I had written about growing up there a lot, and this poem was a culmination of sorts, a beginning/ending for the refugees and a beginning/ending for me. But we have to give up some of our favorite subjects, sometimes, in order to move forward.

3. What is one need that we simply cannot address here?

I’ll take a moment to grandstand on the need to send books to Africa. Companies like Better World Books have programs to send books to Africa.

4. This poem reads almost like advice offered to an outsider. How did you settle on the tone for this piece?

A lot of people in the West tend to still have very weird perceptions about life in Africa. Zimbabwe, in particular, was entering a period of enormous economic and social depression right as we were forced to leave by the government. So life over there was actually kind of weird. Life was, early on, incredibly tenuous. All to say, this poem conveys what I hope is still a very realistic, albeit brief, moment: people appearing from the sunset, having walked many, many kilometers from the crowded bus, their wounds and accents telling the whole story.

5. What happens after he comes into focus? Until when?

We break bread or share sadza, everyone eating out of the same dish. Some would talk, some would not talk. Over there, the distinction between the two isn’t so important. Listening was important, and being receptive to that listening.

6. How is it different watching a man disappear into the sunset?

You’re watching a Western at that point.