"Poetry and Magic Everywhere": A Profile of Yalie Kamara

Written by Sierra Maniates, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate School

A headshot of Kamara in a yellow shirt

 “The boring poet only reads poetry,” Yalie Kamara told me as we chatted. “There is poetry and magic everywhere and all of my different experiences have taught me to understand how abundant wonder is.” Far from the stereotypical Dickenson-esque poet, locked in room alone with their words, Kamara’s creative and critical voice is inherently trans-disciplinary, and as such is anchored fully in the messy, interconnected, and undeniably human world. Kamara always has her hands in numerous projects, but all of them inform each other, and are part of her deep-rooted commitment to connecting individuals and communities through interdisciplinary art and critical consciousness raising.  

Multi-modal Dissertation Work

Kamara is a PhD candidate in creative writing. Her dissertation is composed of a creative piece, a critical piece, and ethnographic work, all of which circle topics of identity, diaspora, and migration. Her creative piece is a full-length poetry collection called Besaydoo, which explores first generation American, female, and black identities; assimilation and resistance; diaspora; and “the joys and dangers” of identity in different global contexts. The collection plays with language—intermixing Sierra Leonean Creole (Krio), French, and English, and poetic form, in order to bring to life the emotions and experiences intertwined in these themes. Though Kamara is still in the process of finishing the manuscript, it has already garnered significant attention, placing as a finalist in National Poetry Series last year and being recognized as a semi-finalist for this year’s Cave Canem Poetry Prize.  The critical component of Kamara's dissertation explores “many of her inspirations for writing” including the work of female poets whose subject matter, use of poetic form, and experiences and exploration of identity have influenced Kamara’s own work.  

 “Among those are [Suheir Hammad, Ishle Yi Park, Claudia Rankine, Solmaz Sharif, and Warsan Shire] who are thinking about the ways that emotions are exemplified though form, who think about what it means to share a full range of vulnerabilities and emotions as a writer, and who have the courage to have discontent with society. […] They’ve shown disappointment with society in these different ways that sometimes can be hard for marginalized people to feel comfortable sharing.” 

The Power of Cultural Narrative

Kamara’s critical work informs her creative work and vice versa, and both are informed by, and have informed her life experience. For instance, Kamara shared how two West African writers whose works she informed her personal relationship to family and representation.   

“My family is from Sierra Leone, West Africa and a some of my family members were exiled as a result of the Sierra Leonean civil war,” Kamara explained. “[Patricia Jabbeh Wesley’s When the Wanderers Come Home] looks at exile in the context of the Liberian civil war, and her book taught me a lot about how to think about my family’s experience, and ways of asking questions in order to learn about my family’s journey.” Kamara was also moved by the work of British-Sierra Leonean activist and poet Kadija Sesay. “She was the first writer I ever saw with an almost identical cultural narrative to my own. And so that was very special to see myself on the page and know that there are these writers who exist in the world.”

Kamara and three other women wearing the pink, patterned "kasablot" dress

Kamara (second from left) wearing the kasablot, a Sierra Leonean Creole dress that is a subject of her dissertation work.

Kamara’s work aims to give that experience to others by centering often unrepresented voices and stories. Her critical piece, creative piece, and her own cultural identity helped informed a third, ethnographic component to her dissertation work. In this piece, she “engages with the kabaslot, a clothing style with distinct stitch and pattern work worn exclusively by Sierra Leonean Creole women and still remains a largely understudied aspect of the culture.”  

In order to study the kabaslot, she has been interviewing Sierra Leonean Creole women about their notions and experiences with it—but inevitably those interviews are about more than clothing.  

“When you start to talk about the dress, it’s always a conduit to something else. I’m a daughter of the diaspora, so it’s been helpful for me to uncover […] these fascinating stories of migration, womanhood, strength and tenderness as they are exemplified through the dress.” This project has been an exploration into, and an example of, how to recover and preserve culture and how to “privilege voices that often go unheard” so that others can see themselves reflected in history. Kamara’s initial investigation, “Dressing as Diaspora and North American Perspectives on the Kabaslot,” was presented at the 2019 biannual Afroeuropeans Network Conference in Lisbon, Portugal.

Connecting Beyond Campus

Book cover for "What you need to know about me: Young writers on their experiences of immigration".

Embedded in Kamara’s academic work is her commitment serving real people and communities, who do not live in neatly segmented academic departments. And in fact, this drive to service extends far beyond her academic work. Kamara is involved in numerous community-based projects that use poetry and art to help young people find voice and audience. She is the executive of the forthcoming anthology What You Need to Know About Me: An Anthology of Youth Writings on Immigration (The Hawkins Project, 2021), and has done extensive work with Word Play, a Northside-based literary arts non-profit for youth. These are only a few of the numerous projects that support the artistic development of young people she has been involved with. To her, this work is about much more than teaching kids to write—it’s a radical process that leads to empowerment and connection.  

“When you are able to express yourself then it is probable that you have the ability to advocate for yourself, or advocate on behalf of other people,” Kamara said on her work with community literary arts. “And […] when you see someone sharing their truth, it can inspire you to do the same.” 

Kamara speaking in front of a group of young people

Kamara speaking at the International Congress of Youth Voices in San Francisco. Kamara is involved in a number of projects that empower young people through writing.

Advice for the Graduate Community

Kamara’s array of work has been supported by fellowships and scholarships, including two recently awarded dissertation fellowships: a 2021-2022 Charles Phelps Taft Dissertation Fellowship and a P.E.O. Scholar Award. Kamara was further designated a named scholar—an honor accorded to 14 North American female doctoral candidates. She received the P.E.O. Sesquicentennial Alice Bird Babb Named Scholar, a scholarship that was created in honor of P.E.O's first president. 

Kamara recognizes the impact funding has had on her ability to do the work she cares so much about, and encourages other graduate students to seek out any funding opportunities they can to help support their passions. She advises any graduate students seeking funding opportunities to start researching a minimum of one year out, to seek mentorship, to surround themselves with people who believe in them, challenge them, and champion their work.

“You have to dream big. Don’t be the one who says ‘no’ to you,” Kamara said. “There are moments where it can feel nerve wracking, but do it scared.” 

More broadly, Kamara urges all graduate students to engage in the process that has kept her so focused on her passions: finding and building meaning her work.  

“It’s been important to be doing work that has import beyond myself, beyond my academic and professional growth, work that impacts others positively. ‘How does your work serve more than just you?’ This is something I’m thinking about constantly.”  

Kamara says that when we consider this, we start thinking about how we can create and share space that represents and reveres diversity of thought and experience. This, not only leads to work that is of critical import, it leads to work that is welcoming, instead of isolation-inducing. And that to her, is the whole goal:  

“Art can be as much of a solo endeavor as it can be a collective process. You can create art alone or you can create art together, but the point of it all is that it leaves you feeling as if you are walking this world not alone.”