The Monthly interviews poet and writer Daniela Elza – Part 1 – An eclectic childhood.

You have quite an eclectic background. Could you describe your childhood?

I was born in Bulgaria, and around the age of 6 or 7, my family moved to Nigeria. My parents were horticulturalists, overseeing fruit orchards and vegetable farms in the dry north east corner of Nigeria, working toward land improvement and against desert encroachment. The project was so successful that we stayed in Nigeria for 10 years.

Eventually, my education was becoming messed up because the Bulgarian government would not recognise my school achievements in Nigeria. I had to sit for the exams in Bulgaria which were  equivalent to the engineering degree I was pursuing, then return to Nigeria to study.  Eventually that became too disruptive, so we moved back to Bulgaria. There I did my first Master’s degree in English Philology (Literature and Linguistics).

Nigerian Orchard

Just to go back to your early childhood, how did you deal with communication and learning a new language?

When I went to my first class in Maiduguri, I didn’t speak a word of English. I copied everything down, painstakingly, from the blackboard. Luckily, my first class was a drawing class. I drew Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in my book and for the rest of the day my classmates would ask me to draw in their books. That really made me feel welcome.

How long did it take to integrate with the other children?

After a few days I was running around barefoot, eating the food that the Nigerian children ate, despite my parents warning me about making sure food was packaged or canned. So, relatively quickly. I played games with the other children. I remember well a trust game where you would fall back and you had to trust a half circle of other children to catch you. Then they launch you up and into a leap forward.

What about writing and poetry?

I have always written poetry even when I didn’t know that what I was doing was writing poetry. My sister and I wrote little poems either for my parents or for each other. I have always been attracted to writing and poetry. My Dad had a little white book in which he would write pithy quotes he liked. That intrigued me;  so many big ideas in such a small space. I think sometimes that is what I think poetry is, big ideas expressed skilfully and succinctly.

As I grew up and I went through my three academic degrees, poetry was there, but was kept out of my academic work. Around age 39, I reached a crisis moment when I was exhausted keeping my academic work apart from my poetic work. So I let it in. Poetry had to be part of everything I was doing.

Were you supported at home or in school regarding your poetry?

I felt very supported in my academic work, but not where poetry was concerned. My parents taught me poetry, they would recite poetry, even poetry in other languages, but for them that was not the area they wanted me to work in. They thought there was no money in it. Sadly, they are right. So I was never really encouraged.

Through the years, I would send them stacks of poems.  When I asked them what they thought, there was silence on the other end of the phone. Their response usually was: “when are you going to finish your doctorate and when are you going to get a real job”. Recently my mother reminded me that she had kept one of my poems I wrote them for an anniversary. That was a lovely moment between us.

What about at school?

You need to remember that I was between languages and between countries. There were things that would happen here and there which would inspire me to keep going with writing poems.

For instance, the time when I sought the advice of one of my professors who taught me Renaissance Literature, and was himself a poet. He looked at my poems and told me what I did well in my English poems. He asked if I wrote in Bulgarian. I told him I had two poems, which I shared with him. The next time we met he said: “Keep writing in English.”

I find now when I am teaching, I spend a lot of time letting the students know what it is that they are doing well. It is how we build the confidence to push through to the next steps of craft and growth.

You can find out more about Daniela Elza’s work at the following links 

Part two of this interview is here

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