Rediet Worku (A21) Paints Self-Portrait Through Poetry

November 5, 2018 | By Kimberly Uslin

Rediet Worku
Rediet Worku (A21) is the author of the poetry collection A Series of Bad Self-Portraits.

If she’s being perfectly honest, Rediet Worku (A21) wasn’t necessarily interested in being a successful poet.

“I didn’t sign up for it,” she says. “It’s very overwhelming.”

For Worku, 20, poetry was simply a passion. She’d started writing at age 13, though she proclaims her work at the time “horrible.”

“Everything rhymed, and I wrote about love that I never knew,” she recalls, laughing.

At 17, she began to take poetry more seriously. She found and fell in love with the work of William Blake, Sylvia Plath, and contemporary poet Clementine von Radics. The more she read, the more she wrote, posting her work to a blog over the course of a few years and generating nearly 200 poems.

“I never meant to write a book,” she says. “But I got an email from a publishing company and they said ‘Hey, we’re interested in publishing your work. Can you put everything together and send it to us?’ So I sent them a manuscript and after they signed me on, it took about a year or two to pick everything, take out the poems that didn’t fit into the theme, and write some new ones.”

The result was Worku’s debut poetry collection, A Series of Bad Self-Portraits, published by Libros Agency in her native Kenya.

Worku describes her writing as “honest and very vulnerable,” as well as occasionally paradoxical. She gravitates toward subjects of substance: mental illness and being a woman, particularly in Kenyan and Ethiopian culture.

“Growing up, anxiety was a big issue for me, and it’s not something that’s understood back home,” she says. “So understanding that what I was feeling was actually an illness and not just normal was a big step for me. And regarding being a woman in an African country, we’re taught from a very young age that our job is to get married and have children and that we should be grateful that we have an education.”

The work was controversial; while Worku has received “a lot of positive feedback,” there were also those that would write to her and call her poetry a “disgrace.” While she has learned to take both the positive and negative with a grain of salt, some comments still catch her off guard.

“I received a message from a woman last week [who] said that after reading my book, she was able to leave her abusive relationship,” she says.

Much of her publicity comes from GoodReads and social media, though she says she “also did quite a lot of video and TV interviews back home.” Though the exact number of copies A Series of Bad Self-Portraits has sold hasn’t been officially tallied, Worku is a leader in Kenya’s e-book sales and has been recognized by the Kenya Publishers Association.

“They said that this accomplishment is not solely for me or my publishing company,” she says, “but it marks that we as an African literary community are moving in the right direction. If I’m to be featured in the Journal of the African Literature Association, then I’d be the youngest woman to have been put on there.”

Why the subjunctive? She hasn’t decided if she wants to be. Her poetry, she says, is personal—so personal that she tried to hide her book from her parents for as long as she possibly could.

“I’ve talked about things that are not ‘acceptable,’” she says. “So it’s just absurd to have people weigh in on my poems, because they’re mine. They’re like my children.”

Since beginning the Program, Worku says her poetry has evolved, and she’s now working on a hybrid fiction/nonfiction book she says is “very new and very hard to describe.”

“I wrote about eight new poems for the book last year, and I think we all noticed how different my voice was and how much I had matured in such a short amount of time,” she says.

Among the most influential Program authors for her were Lucretius and Homer, but Worku says she has drawn much inspiration from female authors not included in the St. John’s curriculum. She is currently forming a Great Books by Women study group, featuring everyone from “Enheduana to Charlotte Gilman” and representing female writers from five continents.

“I fully understand that as Johnnies, we’re more concerned with the questions that the text spring up rather than the person who wrote it, but I feel like the questions that we’re brought to ask are heavily influenced by the authors’ experiences in life, and that varies deeply according to race or sex or other like matters,” she says. “And so I think it’s something that we should explore. I know that four years is not enough time to read all the Great Books, but I think in our extra time this is something that we should do.”

“Two of my favorite writers are Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath,” she adds. “And I think the thing I like about them is they’re so unapologetically feminine, and that’s just so incredible to witness in the time they wrote. It’s because of writers like that that women are able to write the material that they’re writing right now.”

And overwhelmed as she may be by her own success, Worku wants to be part of that movement.

“I haven’t decided on the exact thing I want to do,” she says, “but I want to be a writer.”