Q: Can you share with us your experience as a student in the Soviet Union?
Russians love books and they adore literary people. The people read voraciously. They believe that money should not be a barrier between man and enlightenment, and that the development of the individual is the development of the nation. They see education as good investment. There were writers’ cottages all over the country. There were great publishing houses that churned out books in voluminous quantities. Vast resources were put at the disposal of the artists and the writers so that they could concentrate on their literary creations. The facilities, owned by the Soviet Writer’s Union, were paid for by a percentage deducted from every literary material sold in the country. As a student with published works (from which percentages had been deducted) I was entitled to free tickets for flights to and from the writers’ cottages. I took full advantage.
While studying there, we were also introduced to the works of great writers like Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol and Mayakovsky. I got to meet giants such as Konstantin Simonov, Mikhail Sholokhov, Pavel Antakolsky, Evgeniy Dolmatosky and Olga Berlgolts. I also met in 1964 the legendary African artist from Ethiopia, Afewerk Tekle, as well as the Mozambican poet, Marcelino Dos Santos, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Okot p’Bitek, all major African writers and poets.
Q: You must have many memorable moments in your illustrious career. Could you pick one?
In 1967 the Gorky Literary Institute was honoured with a visit from Stanley Kunitz, the US Poet Laureate and the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He came into our class and I had the privilege of reciting one of my poems for him. We became friends. Besides giving a reading of, and a seminar on, my poetry at his Literature Graduate Class at Columbia University, New York, I had the honour of recording two hours of my poetry for the US Library of Congress.
Q: You were in the Soviet Union when Ghana’s first coup happened, that overthrew the government of Kwame Nkrumah. You were a beneficiary of a scholarship from that regime. Did the coup directly impact you?
Personally for me, it created uncertainty about my future. I was a beneficiary of a scholarship and had gone to acquire the knowledge I thought would enable me to also contribute my quota to nation-building. I had finished my studies and was preparing to go back home in 1967. Then the coup happened in 1966. My classmates from the Soviet Union were already given their employment letters, and some advised that I seek employment in the Soviet Union, which I could have done. They were very anxious about my going back to a country that had just experienced a military coup.
But I allayed their fears by saying that I was just a student, with no political tags whatsoever, and that the worst they could do to me was make me starve. So I returned to Ghana.