Yagazie Emezi: A proud Aba girl

By Edem Torkornoo

First published in Ayiba Magazine (December 2013)

Yagazie Emezi is a popular blogger, artist, and all around creative with a passion for African preservation. This self-proclaimed bush girl is known for her opinionated, and sometimes controversial, YouTube videos, her hilarious personal cartoons, and her well-curated tumblr. The Hungry Aba Gal is an inspiration to the many who follow her online, be it for her gorgeous natural hair, quirky style, or unwavering sense of self. Edem Torkornoo of Ayiba spoke with Yagazie about her life, heritage and passions. 

Yagazie, an Igbo name meaning “May all be well with you” or “It is well.”

 You have mixed heritage. Your dad is Nigerian and your mum is Malaysian. Where did your parents meet?

My father is a gynecologist and my mum is a nurse and they were both working in London at the time. They ran into each other, started dating, and got married. It’s really not that grand of a story.

Where did you live growing up and where have you lived?

I was born and raised in Abia State in Nigeria. In Aba to be exact. I lived there till I moved to New Mexico in 2005 and I’ve been here since then. I lived in New York for about eight months this year. New York life really hit me so I moved back to New Mexico.

How was it watching your mum assimilate into the Nigerian culture whilst growing up?

It was something that was very normal to me because my father was an expatriate living in the UK for a while. A lot of the older generation of doctors and lawyers studied overseas. So even though it was Aba, we had a lot of Nigerian men married to foreign women and that was mainly the group we interacted with. I don’t think I actually hung out with friends that had only Nigerians as parents. I just thought it was normal and I didn’t see it as out of the ordinary.

Maybe when we went out, you would hear people say “white woman” and I would know that the way she was being treated was because she was not Nigerian. But I did the same thing because I was a bush girl [Laughs]. So in our school, we will have an Indian student and I will be that bush girl trying to make friends with her because she is a foreigner.  I can’t even be mad at other Nigerians when I do the same thing.

Where would you describe as home now?

Nigeria is home. The sad realism is that I’ve been away from home for so long. I went home for the first time in seven years last year. Nigeria is always going to be home, but America is home as well.

What is your fondest memory from growing up?

[Laughs] There are too many. A lot of my memories range from small things such as break time at school and hanging out with my friends to weird memories which I know I didn’t enjoy at the time such as doing homework with a candle after school and having the wax stain my work. Many of my fond memories tie in with childhood and being young and innocent and having no responsibilities and all of that is just attached to Nigeria.

How would you say that the time spent in Aba shaped your personality?

It definitely made me a very harsh person [Laughs] as far as my personality stands. Believe it or not, I am a quiet person but I’m loud when I talk so I sound like I’m arguing with someone. I’ll be shouting at someone in a normal conversation. Aba is no man’s land, it’s a really rough place and everyone is rough there. I’m working on it now but I know it made me a bit insensitive and you know people here are sensitive.

It definitely shaped me in terms of making me a strong individual and that’s what I feel like is the downside of America. I find it too easy here and I feel like my strength is ebbing away. I’m just becoming a softer person but maybe that is part of adulthood but I don’t know [Chuckles]. I’m happy about the things I’ve been exposed to as far as not being so insensitive or just ignorant about other people’s feelings or situations.

How was the transition from Aba to New Mexico?

It was hard. I was just an Aba girl. I was so ready! I wasn’t nervous on the first day of school, I came in with a straight face. I had a hard time making friends. At that time, I honestly didn’t care because all of it [America] was so new so I was just taking in everything. I even ate lunch by myself but I never ate in the cafeteria. That was the sad thing because that was one thing I was nervous about. I ate by myself in the art room. It was only in college that I properly started to assimilate with the culture of New Mexico.

What aspects of Igbo culture are you most proud about?

Our weddings. That’s one thing I think about and I can’t wait for my traditional wedding. It’s just so beautiful. Even as the wedding attire changes, there are things that are still customary. Like, handing palm wine to your husband, the dances that take place, the lessons that take place. It’s one of the things I witnessed growing up and I thought was so cultural.

I also love our New Yam Festival, which is another memory that sticks with me. If you think about it, you’ve read about the New Yam Festival where everyone is eating fried yam, boiled yam, and roasted yam in Things Fall Apart. It’s such a good experience because you get to witness people who are not close, even if they are not family, come together to celebrate because it’s a cultural, traditional festival.

Before we started our interview you mentioned wanting to start an online magazine. Can you talk more about that?

I’m planning on starting an online magazine that gives unknown African photographers a platform to showcase their work.

Why photography? Why an online photography magazine?

I have a BA in cultural anthropology and Africana Studies and I’ve always been into other African cultures and learning about them. Even though I grew up in Nigeria, in my school at least we didn’t learn about other African cultures. We learned about countries but not their cultures. With anthropology, I really started looking into that and with me being an Internet addict, a lot of what I saw in relation to other cultures were images.

My blog right now is just about putting up these images that you usually don’t see. There are so many blogs like that now but I started mine in 2010. I put up a lot of images of tribal Africa because I believe in cultural preservation and also believe that they are dying out. I also believe in the power of visual art to teach you something about a culture. People are more likely to read a short paragraph that is attached to a picture than read twenty pages with no pictures at all.

Ok, we’re going to change topics. Will you consider yourself a feminist?

Honestly no.  I have been called that but I wouldn’t consider myself as one. And I know so many Nigerians have scattered me on the Internet saying that “this nonsense girl, she’s a feminist, she doesn’t want children, and she doesn’t want to cook for a man, blah, blah, blah.” It’s just that I am opinionated and I’m not going to be insulted by being called a feminist but I’m not going to claim it because I’m still old school in some ways.

I wouldn’t mind sitting at home whilst my husband brings back the money. I wouldn’t mind. I’m very much my own individual but that does not instantly make me a feminist. God forbid that women have their own opinions; we’re now all feminists.

So what will you define a feminist as?

A woman for equality. It’s been a while since I’ve actually thought about the definition of feminist but when I think about it I think about equality between men and women, especially within social structures both men and women are qualified to do anything and everything. I believe that, but then there are little things like the fact that I believe that a man should open my car door for me or pay for dinner. I will still march in a feminist protest but don’t ask me to give a speech because the women will really get upset with me.

Now let’s talk about your hair. How do you feel about people recognizing you as a natural hair icon when you don’t consider yourself as one?

I hate it so much. To me people say “you have your afro in all your pictures.” And I think, what am I supposed to have? That’s my hair. People are like “Oh my God, that’s so cute,” and I’m like “no, it’s me just take it and move on.” Just because I have 200 pictures of an Afro does not mean I’m a naturalista because if my hairstyle was a weave, I will have 200 pictures of a weave.

Honestly, I absolutely hate this whole natural hair thing because its not just hair but at the same time I want it to be just hair. Black women are perceived in certain ways based on their hair so I can’t just say, “oh it’s just hair” but at the same time among black women, I feel like it should be just hair.

How long have you been drawing the cartoons you share via your Instagram?

I actually started doing them in February or March this year. Normally I enjoy doing portraits and more formal drawings and I got really lazy so I decided to try doing a cartoon. I did it, put it on Instagram, and it got a good response. It was a way for me to cheer myself up. I usually have a dialogue that expresses the way I think. I call them “Yaga life facts” because they share facts about my life or a thought process or something that happened in my life. I’m working on a book right now so hopefully it will grow from one thing to another. I don’t think about what I could do with it. I just let the flow happen.

You often talk about wanting to go on adventures on your blog. If you could go on an adventure right now, where will you go and what will you be doing?

You’re going to hate me for this but my idea of an adventure right now is to pack everything and move to Nigeria. No job, no credentials, nothing. Just move to Lagos and see what the hell happens. Maybe meet the right people and get into the entertainment industry. If I was to go to any other part of the world right now, I’m going to be putting out my desire to go back to Nigeria. It’s going to be like that New York story where people move to New York, work as a waiter or something and wait to see what happens.

I was in Lagos for the first time last year. I’m not a city girl so it was just a completely different lifestyle for me. I was living with one of my sister’s friends and she’s really well off and has her own driver. This was big for me because I take public transportation in Aba so to have my own driver and be going to all these fancy hotels and functions was nice. I mean, who doesn’t want the glitz and glam?

While I was there people recognized me for my blog and because I’m mixed, there’s this stupid, ignorant thing where people think that I live this well-off lifestyle. They don’t realize how bush I am. People get thrown off by my bushness. I like that. I feel like that can be used to my advantage in Lagos. People will look at me and expect something that they are familiar with but the second I open my mouth they will be surprised.

What are your future goals and aspirations?

In a perfect world, I will be running a successful online magazine that showcases African photographers. I also want to be able to carry physical exhibitions of their work in different cities and expand my YouTube channel to the point where I have enough of a following to take to Nigeria.

In Nigeria, I want a women’s talk show that discusses issues that we as African women, especially in Nigeria, don’t openly talk about. Things like sex, sex-education, and body image disorders. I want it to be a companion show where women talk about issues. That’s why I want to go back to Nigeria because I cannot talk about issues Nigerian women face when there’s no connection with women living in Nigeria. I can’t speak for them. I want to be able to definitely speak for my age demographic and also have candid conversations like I do on my YouTube channel. One minute I’m joking and talking about how I don’t want to cook for someone and the next minute I’m talking about eating disorders. I definitely want a show that challenges set standards that have been placed on Nigerian women by the male society.

I want to be able to show the diversity that we have. For example not all of us want to have children. Some of us are weird and it’s not because we’re overseas. It’s because we have interesting characters. It’s not because of a foreign influence. It’s just our individual nature.

Pushing past passion: Sharms hair & Makeup

By Edem Torkornoo

First published in Ayiba Magazine (December 2013)

Sharmaine Oddoye is the Founder of Sharms Hair & Makeup, a makeup and beauty start-up that provides women with practical and useful beautify tips for everyday use. What started out as the blog Things I Love – Hair, Nails & Makeup by Sharms has now evolved into the brand Sharms Hair & Makeup. Sharmaine graduated from Franklin and Marshall College in 2012 where she majored in business with a concentration in marketing. She moved to Ghana after graduation and now works as the social media manager for Multichoice-DSTV. She runs her beauty business on the weekends. Edem Torkornoo of Ayiba spoke with her about her interest in the beauty industry.

What piqued your interest in the beauty industry?

I can’t pinpoint the exact time I got interested in makeup. As a little girl, I used to go through my mother’s stuff and make up my face. But in the summer of my sophomore year, I wasn’t going to go home to Ghana until almost at the end of the break. I had nothing to do and I watched a lot of YouTube videos and thought people’s makeup videos were fun. So I started a blog. I hadn’t even started doing videos then. I just put up posts with pictures and looks I liked.

Were people receptive to your posts and looks?

Yes, they were. In fact much more than I thought. And at that time nobody in Ghana had really started doing any of those things so it was like, wow, this is interesting.

Who were your first readers?

In the beginning, it was friends and then it became known and I started a Facebook page and then it became friends of friends. And now there are complete strangers that I don’t even know.

When did you realize that your work had become really big?

When I started making clip-in extensions for sale, people I didn’t know started ordering them. People who wanted me to do their makeup also approached me. That’s when I realized that this thing had really picked up. This was a year and a bit after I had started.

Do you do the clip-in yourself or do you get someone to make them?

I make them myself. I have people who help me at home. I saw hair clips-in a beauty store and decided to make one for myself. My cousin had also bought clip-ins at that time and so we looked at how it was done and decided that we could also make them ourselves. I didn’t mean to start selling it but people kept noticing it and thinking that it was a weave and so I thought that this would be a quick hairstyle change for women. That’s when I started to do it for sale. The main idea is to make it affordable for people like me who don’t like spending a lot of money on things. I didn’t want it to be so expensive that people will have to think twice before they buy it.

(They start at 40 Ghana Cedis which is about $20 and the most expensive is 80 Ghana Cedis.)

How long does it take to make one?

About thirty minutes.

Do you remember the first person you made-up?

They were a bunch of girls going to the Tema International School prom. I made them up and put pictures on Facebook and those were well received. Now, I have packages for different looks and occasions. I even have a bridal package that comes with a consultation and testing of the makeup to know what works. I also do the makeup for photo shoots.

What are two lessons you have learned from doing this?

One thing I have learned is that not everybody is going to like what you will do or be satisfied with it. I have had an experience where someone bought clip-ins for someone else and started complaining before giving it to the person. Just keep pushing with what you’re doing and something good will come out of it.

What do you read/ watch for inspiration and growth lessons?

Oh dear. I watch a lot of YouTube videos. I won’t lie and say I read books like “How to evolve from a tree and blossom.” I watch YouTube videos of makeup artistes who started like me and have now moved on up. I guess that inspires me to do better and push harder.

Who’s your inspiration/make up (s)hero? 

My biggest makeup inspiration is Leina (yes another YouTuber, I’m obsessed); she’s in California I believe. In Ghana I like Renee Q’s work & Sacha Okoh as well.

What’s the biggest makeup mistake that a lot of women make and don’t realize they are making?

Oops! The biggest is not blending foundation in properly or using a lighter foundation. This is a mistake I’ve made on myself as well as on a client. I had to wash everything off and then start again. I usually take photos after I do makeup to see how it looks with the flash and it was so horrible! I couldn’t let her walk out the door like that. I guess a lot of people do not take photos after their makeup is done, or when they go out to buy their makeup the lighting in the store is different so they can’t really pick out the right shade.

Do you have future plans to produce your own beauty/ makeup products?

I have a million and one plans. I want a makeup line, more clip-in extensions, wigs, weaves, eventually a beauty parlour – hair, nails, makeup, and then a beauty school!

Why did you decide to go back home right away? Why didn’t you work in the US?

I actually did an internship for about six months, but my heart wasn’t in it. I knew there were more opportunities waiting for me in Ghana, especially since I had been testing the waters since my sophomore year. I still haven’t gone into my hair and makeup full time, but I will very soon.

Where can people easily find you to buy or book a make-up session?

WhatsApp – 0268934066. Usually I can’t take calls because I’m at work but WhatsApp is a great way to get me. I can send pictures to people and then direct them to where they can buy the hair – my mum’s office in Osu.

Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to get into the business? 

You need to have a lot of patience. You need to not be in for the money because you need to build a portfolio before you can start asking for payment. Who will hire you if you don’t have a portfolio to show them? And you have to be willing to step out of your comfort zone.

Follow Things I Love – Hair, Nails and Makeup by Sharms on Facebook and check out the website here for different beauty and makeup tips!

When a book feels too familiar: A review of Chimamanda Adichie’s ‘Americanah’

By Edem Torkornoo

First Published in Ayiba Magazine (August 2013)

It’s 9 p.m. on a chilly fall evening. You are knackered from your four-hour shift at the library circulation desk and all you want to do is watch an episode of “How I Met Your Mother.” But your linear algebra problem set is calling. Sigh. You run your hand through your now loose and dandruffed braids, looking around your dorm room. Your huge national flag stares at you. You remember that you may have to find another on-campus job because working four hours a week isn’t enough to pay your phone bill and buy textbooks. “Is this really the American college experience?” Welcome to the life of many international students. It may not be everyone’s story but it’s a well-known one. It’s also reminiscent of Ifemelu, the protagonist of Chimamanda Adichie’s latest novel Americanah’s first experiences in America.

Americanah tells the story of a witty young Nigerian woman, Ifemelu who decides to return to Lagos after living in the United States for thirteen years. Ifemelu goes to the US in pursuit of an undergraduate degree, which she receives after some life-altering experiences. By the time she leaves for Nigeria, Ifemelu has finished a fellowship at Princeton University and become a famous blogger on race.

At the core of Ifemelu’s life experiences is her relationship with the love of her life, Obinze. Theirs is a classic tale of boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl become inseparable from then on. She nicknames him “Ceiling” because “[her] eyes were open but [she] did not see the ceiling” the first time they make love. However, they become estranged for a brief period when Ifemelu leaves for America. During that phase, Americanah takes Obinze to London where he gets his fair share of the immigrant experience. He scrapes to get along by taking up menial jobs. He even tries to marry an Englishwoman, a plan that backfires and costs him an arm and a leg in the process. In the end, Obinze must return to Nigeria and reinvent his image.

Adichie deftly interweaves their love story with an exploration of race, immigration, repatriation, and identity. Other issues that are discussed include depression – a topic that is rarely talked about in African communities – and, to a certain extent, divorce. From Ifemelu’s difficulty in finding a job as an international student to Obinze’s adventures as an immigrant who has overstayed his welcome in the UK to her aunt Uju’s struggle with going to medical school in the US, Adichie captures the immigrant experience. Ultimately, Americanah chronicles the experience of people who have spent years abroad, often for educational purposes, and their journeys with repatriation.

Here are three aspects of the book that really resonated with me:

Black studies 101: Are you an African in America or an African-American?

In Americanah, Adichie raises an issue that many Africans in America, like myself, begin to think about only after we step on these shores – being black. Prior to coming to the US, Ifemelu does not pay attention to her race. It is only after starting college that she begins to consciously realize that she is black. She becomes obsessed with racism and starts to blog about it. During a dinner party the day after Barack Obama becomes the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, a balding white man says “Obama will end racism in this country.” Ifemelu retorts, “It is a lie / that’s a lie / I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America.” Ouch! Ifemelu’s statement echoed my exact sentiments on race and how America tends to heighten one’s ‘race-radar.’

In college Ifemelu realizes that there is a nuanced difference between Africans who are “fresh off the boat,” aka Africans in America, and African-Americans. Wambui, Ifemelu’s new Kenyan friend, advises her to make friends with “African-American brothers and sisters in a spirit of true pan-Africanism.” She also advises, “but make sure you remain friends with fellow Africans, as they help you keep your perspective. Always attend African Students Association meetings, but if you must, you can also try the Black Student Union. Please note that in general, African Americans go to Black Student Union and Africans go to the African Students Association. Sometimes it overlaps, but not a lot.” I kept nodding at Wambui’s statement because it reflected my college experience and that of my friends as well.

Hair chronicles

Hair is its own character, as it is another channel through which Adichie analyzes both identity and the immigrant experience. When we first meet Ifemelu, she is on her way to Trenton, a not-so-fancy neighbourhood in New Jersey, because Princeton does not have a braiding salon. The fact that she has to leave her neighbourhood to get her hair done is reflective of the hassle that young African students go through when we emigrate for school.

It’s what forces young students to suddenly become hairdressers, be it through learning how to braid or relax their own hair like my friends and I did. Other times the hassle forces you to get the big chop (B.C.) and go natural because of the unwillingness to pay exorbitant sums to get your hair done. The B.C. also happens as a statement for embracing one’s natural hair in all its nappiness. Wearing your hair natural has become somewhat of a movement – some even call it a revolution!

I just got back!

While Americanah chronicles the immigrant’s account, it also critiques the returnee story. Like many young students who come to pursue an education in the US, Ifemelu finally comes to a point where she’s consumed by homesickness and decides to make the move to go back home: “Nigeria became where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil.”

Finally being in Lagos brings with it a new and increasingly common returnee narrative. Now Ifemelu needs to learn how to transition into a home that is different from what she left thirteen years ago. One that feels both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. A Lagos filled with “Been-To’s” who hold “Nigerpolitan Club” meetings to share their experiences on living in England and the US, as well as to network. She learns that Lagos won’t stop or change to accommodate her “Americanah” ways and learns to adjust her new habits.

In as much as Americanah is thoroughly enjoyable, its ending comes off as abrupt and may leave the reader dissatisfied. One would think that Adichie was forced to finish and so decided to string a few sentences together to end the story. But that is something that can be overlooked for the unpeeling of important societal layers that Adichie does with her book.

Americanah may be about a Nigerian character but it ends up echoing the story of the afropolitan. It’s the story of the immigrant who wants to go home and feels trapped in the rat race that is the American way of life. It’s the story of the girl or boy who came to get a degree, finds a successful job and is wondering if it’s time to go back home. It’s the story that leaves you comforted and conflicted at the same time. It gets you thinking about where you want to establish your roots as a young person who leaves home too early. It’s the story that feels all too familiar.

MHC alum working to change digital image of Africa

By Edem Torkornoo

First published in  the Mount Holyoke News (March 2013)

You can take the woman out of Mount Holyoke, but you can’t take the Mount Holyoke out of a woman. Jepchumba (Elizabeth Cheluget ’07) has certainly lived out these words since she left Mount Holyoke almost six years ago.

“I think they actually put something in the M & C’s milk that says to go where no one has gone before and do what no one has done,” she said during a Skype interview in November last year.

While conducting research for her graduate school thesis on postcolonial African animation in 2008, Jepchumba came across various articles that claimed African digital media didn’t exist, except for Egyptian digital animation from the 1900s. In order to prove these claims false, she began cataloguing any African  digital media she came across and African Digital Art (ADA) was born.  ADA is an online, collective, creative space were digital artists can showcase their work and connect with other artists.

The Kenyan-born alumna attributes her ability to merge her two interests, art and digital media, to her major in Critical Social Thought and her minor in Film Studies.  According to the artist, the academic discipline helped her connect opposing ideas to find out how they worked for her. “I can code and be super nerdy and at the same time I can be super artsy and super ‘bussinessy,’” she says.

Digital art is a term used to describe a range of artistic work that uses digital technology as part of the creative process and presentation. It spans across art forms such as photography, film, interactive installations and more.

Jepchumba didn’t set out to be a digital artist. She came to Mount Holyoke intending to major in politics or economics and become a lawyer.  However, after a summer internship at a law firm, she realized that law was not for her.  She also came to accept that she didn’t enjoy writing papers for her classes; rather, she found herself making self designed video projects in place of papers.

After graduating from Mount Holyoke and completing a few short-term jobs with advertising companies, Jepchumba decided to go to graduate school to study digital media.  She received a Masters in Digital Media from the London Metropolitan University in 2009 and moved to South Africa in 2010 to create a home base for her newly established company, ADA.  She works with partners Barbara Muriungi and Mark Kaigwa who help manage the organization and ten contributors who work as part of the team.

Jepchumba attributes the success of ADA to a supportive online African tech community. She believes that she was able to connect with people easily on Twitter and in the blogosphere.

“What I say is, it [ADA] was before Aston Kutcher and Oprah discovered Twitter. It was very easy to connect with people so that really helped me to keep going with ADA,” she says.

She was able to use Twitter to feature her various digital projects.  Now, ADA is one of the leading platform for creators on the African continent.  In spite of her visible connection with people online, Jepchumba assumed that she was talking to herself on Twitter because she wasn’t physically seeing her followers. Thus, when she visited her home country after graduate school in 2010, she decided to hold an ADA meet-up with the assumption that only 20 people would show up.  The event ended up attracting 300 people who were obsessed with ADA and the online African digital community.  For Jepchumba, this event was the indicator that she had done the right thing by pursuing her interests.

ADA has helped not only to change the perception and portrayal of Africa on the internet but also to show how technology has influenced Africans creatively in terms of innovation and expressing themselves.

“Africa is one of those places where people just go ahead and speak for from the outside. You know, Justin Timberlake can just say ‘Africans need malaria drugs’ and everyone is like okay, I guess,” Jepchumba says. “Now with the world in a digital age, people can tweet at anyone who makes generalized comments and correct them.”

“I think one of our greatest impacts has been changing the image of what Africa is and also what the African aesthetic is as well.”

In addition to creating an online community of African digital art, ADA is going to start a recruitment service where they will put creative professionals in touch with artistic opportunities.  They are also working at influencing the professional arena for artists, by teaching them how to create their own contract, understand copyright issues, improve administrative processes and protect ideas.  In short, ADA wants to create an industry and economy for the African digital community.

Perugia Press in Northampton celebrates 16th anniversary with newly published book, reading

By Edem Torkornoo

First published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette (November 2012)

Susan Kan has a motto: Identify a problem. Fix it.

That is what Kan did a few years ago after she noticed that too-few talented female poets were getting their work published, due in large part, she says, to the publishing world’s patriarchal system.

Looking for an avenue through which to change that equation, she decided to become a poetry publisher herself, creating Perugia Press, a nonprofit concern that publishes a single work each year by a female poet who is selected by a panel of judges. Her goal: to tip the scales back into balance.

“Why do you think women are only making 70 cents on every dollar that men make? Sexism,” she said.

Perugia Press will celebrate its 16th anniversary with a reading and reception Friday at the A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton.

Kan, 50, who lives in Northampton, says she’s long had a love affair with words.

After working in a bookstore and at a women’s center, she received a master’s degree in creative writing from the Warren Wilson College Program for Writers near Asheville, N.C.

When she published her first poetry collection, Gail Thomas’ “Finding the Bear,” in 1997, she says, she wasn’t thinking about starting a press. She just wanted to make a poetry book that she thought people would enjoy.

“I love poetry, I love to read it. One of the unique things about me as a poetry publisher is that I don’t write it, I just like to read it,” Kan said. “I’m trying to advocate for more readers of poetry because it seems like people think they shouldn’t read it unless they also write it and that’s a misconception.”

According to Kan, Perugia Press has created a system of excellence by choosing to publish just one collection of poetry a year. In this way, she says, she will achieve her goal of garnering more readers for the genre.

“One of the biggest compliments that I can get about the sensibility of the press is when people come to a reading and they say, ‘I didn’t think that I liked poetry, but I like this,’” she said.

Annual prize

After publishing a fifth book, “Seamless,” by Linda Tomol Pennisi, in 2002, the press established an annual prize: The Perugia Press Prize, a national manuscripts contest for women at the beginning of their publishing careers. Contestants are women who have never produced a book or have published just one book prior to participating in the contest. The prize includes $1,000 and publication by Perugia Press. That first year, the press received 482 submissions, Kan says, and continues to receive about the same number each year. This year’s winner is “The Wishing Tomb” by Amanda Auchter, who teaches at Lone Star College in Houston, Texas.

This is Auchter’s second book and the 17th published by Perugia Press.

“The Wishing Tomb” is a love letter to New Orleans, a quintessential city of jazz, yellow fever, hurricanes and Creole cuisine,” according to Kan. “The poems show how we are connected to our homes, how history can escape us, and how even in our tragedies, we are made whole again by rebuilding and moving forward,” she said.

In her poem “The City That Care Forgot,” Auchter writes: “What brings you back is the sugared air / that seeps its way through / the streets. / The scrolled iron balconies, / banana-leaved courtyards, gas lamps draped / with bright plastic bead.”

Righting wrongs

One of the problems inherent in a system that largely ignores the work of female poets, Kan says, is that because women are underrepresented, their work is not getting reviewed and, therefore, not being chosen for the poetry world’s important “best of” awards. Perugia Press is changing that equation she says.

Indeed, three consecutive Perugia Press books have won post-publication national contests, including Jennifer Sweeney’s “How to Live on Bread and Music,” which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets; Nancy K. Pearson’s “Two Minutes of Light” won the L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award; “Kettle Bottom,” by Dianne Gilliam, which has sold more than 10,000 copies, won national prizes and is used in college classes all around the country, including at Smith College in 2005.

“For a press that publishes just one book a year, to have so many of our books win different prizes is definitely a high ratio,” Kan said.

Kan says there are hundreds of contests like the Perugia Press Prize run by small poetry presses. What makes Perugia stand out, she says “is the fact that we publish just first and second books by women and also that we do one book a year.” “I love the process of turning this pile of pages of poems into a book.”

Auchter will read from her new book at a reception Friday at 7:30 p.m. at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton. She will be joined by Florence resident Maya Janson, who will read from her debut collection, “Murmur & Crush.” Janson is a community health nurse and a lecturer in poetry at Smith College in Northampton. Special guest Eleanor Wilner is also on the program. Wilner, a Perugia Press board member, has published seven books of poems. She is the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Juniper Prize, three Pushcart prizes and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. For information about the press,visitwww.perugiapress.com.