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E mmanuel Jal likes to relax after a hard day’s work by watching some TV. He may be 29 years old, but he is a big fan of Tom and Jerry cartoons, animated films like Ice Age and Madagascar, or some all-out action, along the lines of Troy. ‘I loved that film,’ he tells me. ‘The story and the romance, and all real entertainment.’ So far, so normal, until you realise that Jal’s own experience of violence is far from normal. Born in Sudan, around 29 years ago – he doesn’t know exactly – Jal was one of 10,000 child soldiers sent to fight with the rebel army during Sudan’s civil war.
Jal was about eight when he was taken from his family, under the pretense that he would be attending school in Ethiopia. Instead, he was beaten, starved and tortured, and trained in combat. Although the AK47 he carried was taller than him, he was taught how to fire it, and how to use a machete. For almost five years, he fought for the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and witnessed unspeakable atrocities on the battlefields and refugee camps of his homeland and Ethiopia. After a failed escape landed him in a desert prison, he was rescued, aged 13, by a British aid worker who smuggled him into Kenya. ‘When you’re from a war-torn country, you miss that violence,’ Jal explains, in his very calm, slow way. ‘You have seen so much suffering, and then you find yourself in a peaceful place; part of you almost misses it. Violence is addictive, and it is fun too. Otherwise how can you explain why boxing and wrestling are so popular? Or rugby or American football? Men dominating other men for entertainment is nothing new.’
When Jal was seven, he saw Arab men beating his mother and uncle, and soon after, he witnessed his auntie being raped by a Muslim soldier. ‘Even the gentlest of animals can become violent if you attack its family,’ he says. Although Jal is a peaceful, softly spoken, Bible-reading Christian now, dedicated to raising awareness of the effects of war and poverty on Sudan, he admits that he spent part of his childhood as a hate-filled boy. He trained himself to ignore the sadness he felt when he learned his mother, Angelina, had died, hiding his tears from SPLA soldiers who would have beaten him for showing such weakness. ‘I wanted to kill as many Arabs and Muslims as I could,’ he says, quietly but bluntly. Growing up in a war-ravaged country, where cannibalism, starvation and mob violence were all part of everyday life, Jal couldn’t help but be influenced by such brutality. ‘When a child’s mind is developing, it’s influenced by everything it sees and hears. Now I know the truth, that the war was nothing to do with religion, just oil, and people in power wanting
to manipulate the poor.’
Although Jal confesses that, ‘the past is not gone’ he would never resort to violence now. ‘I have laid down guns and machetes forever. Music and lyrics are my weapons now.’ He has channelled his feelings into rap music, and released three albums to date. His transition from boy soldier to hip hop artist was the subject of a feature-length documentary, War Child, which won last year’s Tribeca Film Festival Audience Choice award. He also performed at the Live 8 concert in 2005, and at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations in Hyde Park last year, which he describes as ‘the happiest moment of my career’.
Although hip hop music wasn’t something Jal was exposed to when growing up, he does see similarities between the bling-flashing bravado of modern rappers and African village life. ‘Children used to get together and have these dissing competitions in front of a crowd,’ he remembers. The contest was won by whoever got the biggest laugh as they slagged off the other person’s mother or sister. ‘They’d say things like, “Your sister’s breasts are so large, when she’s milking the cows, she has to tie them round her neck.” Or, “Your mother is so ugly, she would make a lion faint.” Men would brag about how many cows they owned, the number of wives they had, or the men they had killed in battle. ‘People would sing about things like that, which isn’t really so different from a hip hop artist boasting about owning cars or jewellery or shooting people.’ Although Jal says he finds rappers like 50 Cent ‘entertaining’, he worries about the influence that violent lyrics and video games have on young children. ‘Kids don’t get it that you only die once, and you don’t get back up like in a video game.’ Jal’s own lyrics are a mix of English, Arabic, Swahili and Nuer, the Sudanese tribal language that he spoke growing up. In his songs, which have been praised by artists including Peter Gabriel and Damon Albarn, Jal calls for peace in Sudan, and tells the story of his harrowing childhood. ‘Music is a painkiller for me. If I spend more than a week without music, I can feel myself getting irritable quickly, and maybe my language will start to change. I use the mic to let my frustration out when I perform.’ As he tours the UK, giving talks in schools and book festivals about his experiences, he says he is used to the same questions popping up. ‘Kids always ask me if I saw dead people, or what it feels like to kill a man. I am used to that, but what really makes me angry is if someone tries to counsel me or give me therapy. I want to shout at them: “What do you know?” Music is my therapy. That and the cartoons.’
Emmanuel Jal, 15 Aug, 8.30pm, £9 (£7).
From fish factory worker to TS Eliot Prize- winning poet, Jen Hadfield talks to Kirstin Innes about Shetland, language and rockpools
It’s been a strange old year for poetry. Although the highs of Carol Ann Duffy’s appointment as the first female Poet Laureate and the unpleasantness of Ruth Padel and Derek Walcott’s fight for the Oxford Professor of Poetry position have almost overshadowed it, Jen Hadfield, a 30-year-old shop assistant from Shetland, became the youngest ever winner of the TS Eliot Prize, an annual award that usually does the rounds between usual suspects like Seamus Heaney and Ciaran Carson. ‘I’m having a lovely time at the moment,’ she says, on the phone from Shetland, her voice a strange soft mix of accents that betray her Scottish/English/Canadian heritage. ‘I’m getting to call myself a writer, which is not something I’ve really felt willing to do for a while. Other people have called me a writer while I’ve been working as a shop assistant. I’m completely at home with myself, as a writer, for the first time in ages, which is quite a treat.’
The idea of being at home with oneself is an
important one for Hadfield. Although she’s usually described as a ‘nature poet’, her Eliot award-winning collection Nigh-No-Place seems much more concerned with the idea of place and home, in nature and in language. Although she started it in Canada, where her mother lives, the prevalent spirit is Shetland, where she settled three years ago. ‘The thing about Shetland is being able to step out of my front door and walk, not drive, straight to a clifftop. I quite often write while I’m walking, build up a walking rhythm. So it’s a feeling of total immersion, and the potential for it to be uninterrupted: I get a mighty kick out of rockpools. I went out in my back garden two days ago and there was a shower of tiny silver fish on my back lawn, which was hilarious and strange.’ Hadfield is aware that, as a non-native speaker,
there are political problems inherent in her adopting the language, but the transfiguration she uses is saturated with her immediate environment. ‘When I first moved to Shetland I worked in a fish factory, and the folk I worked with mostly spoke Walso, a very particular Shetland dialect. I was working on Nigh-No- Place quite intently then, and that language couldn’t help but come to the fore. Poetry has always been a way of me looking at the world and trying to make a temporary home in words. I think that’s a poet’s job, to be true to speech.’ ■ Jen Hadfield & Emily Ballou, 17 Aug, 4.30pm, £6 (£4); Jen Hadfield, Liz Lochhead & Aonghas MacNeacail, 21 Aug, 3.30pm, £9 (£7).
13–20 Aug 2009 THE LIST FESTIVAL MAGAZINE 15