# Please introduce yourself and your book(s)!
I am Utanu Maa, author of the poetry book “Rise and Fall of My Beloved”, also known as Utanu Adele Mafandala, my birth name. I published my debut book of poetry last year using a pen name, Utanu Maa, just to keep it short on the book. I live in Toronto, Ontario and worked as a public servant within the Ontario Court of Justice. I had previously lived many years in Montreal where I migrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1991. I was born and raised in DRC where I studied French Literature and Civil Law, and pursued an education in Paralegal studies and Fashion Management after moving to Canada. I am a proud mother of a young man who is building his career as a Fine Art artist after graduating from the Memorial University of Newfoundland Fine Art/Visual and Technology last year. I speak both French and English, and Swahili, Lingala, Kikongo, languages spoken in DRC.
See more on my website at https://utanumaa.com/
# What is/are the real-life story(ies) behind your book(s)?
The book is a biographical poetry about my brother’s death to HIV/AIDS. It is a testimony, an inspiration, aspiration, and invitation to resilience, unconditional love, forgiveness, gratitude; a journey into grieving and healing; an awareness for access to early diagnosis and treatment, and a call to express compassion and dignity towards people living or dying of HIV/AIDS rather than shame, discrimination and rejection from our society. An IndieReader’s review says well what the book is about for a reader:
“Utanu Maa’s RISE AND FALL OF MY BELOVED is a heart-breaking collection of poems that teaches the reader important lessons in resilience and trauma-recovery in the language of simplicity and love.
Utanu Maa’s RISE AND FALL OF MY BELOVED is a book of poems that tell the story of Zola, a malnourished orphan who overcame great odds and personal disabilities, to have a successful career and marriage, before tragedy overtook him.
Utanu Maa’s RISE AND FALL OF MY BELOVED is a short biographical poetry collection, focused heavily on the themes of grief, mourning, recovery and resilience. It details the heartbreaking and harrowing story of the author’s brother Zola, who was orphaned at birth, and despite great struggles, succeeded academically, secured a stable job and enjoyed a fulfilling marriage, before finally succumbing to AIDS.
This is a work that was clearly born out of grief and a need to memorialize a loved one- which makes it even more human to read and empathize with it. The writing is exceedingly lucid, free-flowing and conversational, dealing with complex and relevant issues of childhood abuse, trauma, sexism, polygamy, colonialism and so on. Although some of the poems have some sense of internal rhythm, they are shorn of metaphors and other ornamentation- speaking directly, unabashedly and openly to the reader’s emotions. Thus although the story is deeply personal, it speaks for countless individuals who are voiceless and marginalized.
Divided into three parts, “Childhood”, “Rise” and “Fall”, the book traces the different stages in Zola’s life, focusing on his strengths, flaws and hardships, with remarkable empathy and without any judgment, which is particularly striking. This is most prominent in poems like “Sorry”, where the author simultaneously addresses both Zola and the reader, apologizing as well as enjoining others to read his tale. Another poem, “Fond Memories” is full of tenderness, expressing gratitude for the small moments of togetherness and redefining love: “Love, here in his country, is powerful in acts, not in words. Because it may seem fake if only vocalized without action…”
# What inspires/inspired your creativity?
I needed to heal from the profound grief and loss I carried after the death of my only brother and sibling from my mother. I lost my brother to HIV/AIDS. He suffered a lot, and it was painful to him, as well as to me as a sister to powerlessly witness my beloved brother going through a myriad of pains and health complications until he died. I cared for him for the last three months of his life. I was deeply saddened and devastated. It was my first experience of caring for a dying person and witnessing HIV/AIDS decimating a human body.
I grieved, felt weary and burdened, and desperately needed to talk to someone to share and ease my pain. But Covid-19 had forced the entirety of humanity into confinement. My anxiety, along with everyone else’s, increased and I felt so lonely inside and out.
My son was away for studies at the Memorial University of Newfoundland. In solitude, the only voice you can hear is yours inside of you or your own murmur, and the only person you talk to is your own double. So, my only rescue was to write and pour all my grief onto a paper to start a journey to resilience, gratitude, and healing, and bring awareness on the importance of early diagnosis and easy access to treatment, and the right to dignity of the people living with or dying of HIV/AID.
# How do you deal with creative block?
I listen to classical music, lying down on my bed, emptying my mind and relaxing. I also walk a lot in nature, it feels so good to be outdoors, revives my mind, mood, and inspires me. Sometimes, I read a few chapters of a book that I have read before and loved in order to reignite my creativity. The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho is my favorite.
# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
A spelling mistake in the book can cost you not only the appreciation of the readers but also money if the writer is a self-publishing author. Post-editing of a book can be costly. So, another person or my editor is necessary to proofread the manuscript with fresh eyes and skills.
# Do you have tips on choosing titles and covers?
My book cover depicts a rainbow in a blue sky on a yellow sunny day to reflect the theme of resilience, forgiveness, gratitude despite the struggle and grief. A rainbow appears after a rain or tornado. The amazing exuberance of color symbolizes the beauty of life despite the tornado, which translates into resilience and love. The yellow is a sign of hope and gratitude for blessings and healing despite grieving, and the blue sky inspires peace, forgiveness. I think a book cover must reflect the story or message in the book. My book is about resilience, love, forgiveness, love, gratitude, grief and healing.
# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
I like them because they help me to better myself. I take them in a very constructive way to improve my writing. A month after publishing my book, I learned from a reader’s review about a mistake on the date on page X of my book; a mistake that myself, friends who read it first and my very competent editor missed. So, I had to pull the book off the shelves and do a post edit then put it back to the listing channels.
So far, I have positive feedback and have recently participated in the Westlane Cares AIDS Walk fundraising for the Stephen Foundation, organized by teachers and students at Westlane Secondary School in Niagara Falls, Canada. “Westlane Cares AIDS Walk committee welcomed poet Utanu Maa virtually to discuss her book “Rise and Fall of my Beloved”:
# How has your creation process improved over time?
I read books or news of general interest by other writers and take note of what inspired me. When the voice inside me speaks to me when I am meditating about the subject, I take notes and use them after for my writing. I always have a road map or plan to follow and fill it as I go in my writing. Sticky notes help to move things around if the plan changes.
# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?
The best thing was to finally have my book published and share my story with readers. The bad thing was not having a platform or any social media before publishing my book to have followers and have my name known. I had to learn quickly how to use it effectively to build a community of followers, know how to speak to them, and introduce my book to the world through posts. The most surprising thing was how fast I have learned to stay active on social media and love it now contrary to my rejection of it before.
# Do you tend towards personal satisfaction or aim to serve your readers? Do you balance the two and how?
I write about the story that I want to share with my readers. The message in this book consists of sharing an experience of resilience, forgiveness, love, gratitude and healing, and bringing an awareness about HIV/AIDS from a personal true experience but I know that it may not resonate with all readers. They might not like it and they are free to do so.
# What role do emotions play in creativity?
In my book, I expose not only the pain and suffering caused by the HIV virus but also the shame, stigmas, discrimination, rejection, and isolation that our society inflicts on people living with HIV. So, I write about a virus that is still active, still very infectious, and deadly to bring awareness for protection, inspiration for resilience in hard times, aspiration for a healthy and compassionate society, a testimony and reflection about the voiceless and vulnerable people in our society.
Each poem of my book depicts a true story and personal experiences. I am the witness of the events happening throughout the journey that my readers embark on in my book. I wrote about what happened to my brother, from his childhood as a vulnerable orphan infant, marginalized but resilient to survive and grow, to his rise as an accomplished and successful engineer, and to his fall and death as an HIV/AIDS patient.
My writing is also a journey into learning to express gratitude despite challenges because life is a blessing. Our life is filled with many blessings, big or small, but we tend to forget to count them when facing hardship, struggles. One morning as I was weeping, thinking of my brother’s struggles in childhood as a vulnerable and neglected six months old orphan infant when my mother died, recalling the bullies he endured because he did not speak earlier like other kids and was labeled mentally retarded and incapable of succeeding at school, and counting the pain, sufferings, shame and rejection he faced and how he beat all odds and became an accomplished Master in Structure and Building Engineer, a still small voice stormed me inside and spoke to me in this way: “count instead the blessings of his life and heal from that because death is not a punishment”.
From that moment, I see my brother’s death as the beginning of another life in everlasting peace. Griefs taught me to count my blessings and express gratitude, and with gratitude, I found the resilience to overcome and heal. These are the two main lessons in my book: resilience and gratitude to overcome grief and heal.
# Do you have any creativity tricks?
I read over and over books by another writer that I like a lot, and which resonate with me. I like to empty my mind by listening to classical music or walking in nature to prepare my mental state and allow the inspiration to flow in. I must feel deeply inside of me what I am writing about. I like to write in my bed on my laptop directly so that I can change my manuscript anyhow without killing the trees.
# What are your plans for future books?
I am currently working on my next books. I am simultaneously writing another poetry book and a short stories collection. The short stories will focus on telling the true cases of instances where HIV/AIDS becomes a criminal offence. Many people do not know that an HIV-positive person, who is already marginalized, discriminated, rejected and shamed, isolated and battling to survive, can be charged with a serious criminal offense that can go from aggravated assault to murder in Canada, USA and most Western Countries. So, my next book will educate on the circumstances of these offenses. Working inside a criminal court has given me many opportunities to witness many case proceedings in this regard. This book will be published by the end of this year 2021.
In the near future, I would like to have my poetry as an audio book. As a Francophone first, I would be working myself on rewriting my book in French in 2022 if God still blesses me with life.
# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself
I am afraid of worms and always have a hard time walking outside after rain when worms come out. I am also afraid of snakes, dead or even on tv programs. I do not watch documentaries about nature that show snakes. I can’t go to bed before searching my house entirely and under my bed. I love avocado and must have one every morning on a toast for breakfast – I eat a whole avocado almost every day.