The Art of Unlearning: A Dialogue With Koleka Putuma

Koleka Putuma is an award winning Theatre Director, Writer, and Performance Poet based in Cape Town, South Africa.

Her plays include UHM (2014), Mbuzeni (2015), and Woza Sarafina (2016), her  plays for young audiences include Ekhaya for 2-7 year olds and SCOOP, the first South African play for 2 weeks-12month old babies. She was nominated for the Rosalie van der Gucht Prize for Best New Directors at the annual Fleur Du Cap Theatre Awards (2015), named one of the young pioneers who took South Africa by storm in 2015 by The Sunday Times, and awarded the Pen SA Student Writing Prize for her poem: Water.

She is scheduled to release her debut collection of poems Collective Amnesia in April 2017.

This conversation happened between the sweetspot, sunny city of Gaborone, Botswana and the breathtaking, cosmopolitan city of Cape Town, South Africa by Call.

Gaamangwe: Koleka, in your poem “Teachings”, you wrote;


A weapon I use to unlearn a lineage of silence.


A medicine I use to heal years of being silent.


A doctrine I use to deliver my sanity from the ills of silencing.


A tool I use to dismantle a learnt behavior of suffering in silence.

 Let’s start here, because there are a lot of things to unlearn but unlearning silence is by far the most powerful thing we can ever do, especially as black women. What are the things that you are absolutely refusing to be silent about?

Koleka: When I was writing this, I was thinking about the things we learn from our mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Growing up, they teach us how to be dutiful, good and respectable, and often there is a lot of silencing of the matriarchs in our families, and I know that in some families matriarchs are not silenced/ruled by patriarchy, but for those of us who grew up in religious households, the narrative is submission. The narrative is that there is a head of the house, and there is a lot of silencing that comes with that.

I think that being a writer/poet the work requires of you to defy and unlearn the thing that has taught you silence and the unspoken contract that the neighbors and extended family cannot know and get involved with traumas that are happening in your house and in your life, and that you are supposed to deal with it quietly and soldier on because you are a “strong black woman.”

I think I am refusing to be quiet about that, and the pain that other people inflict on me, and trying to protect the person who is doing harm to me. I think that is something I am refusing to be quiet about my stories that involve other people but are ultimately my stories.

Gaamangwe: That is powerful because our society doesn’t encourage spaces where we open up and talk about our traumas, especially in the home, where it’s inflicted by a loved one. There is also courage and vulnerability that is required when owning one’s trauma, because there is the need to look at the self as the subject in the trauma.  How do you navigate this requirement, where you have to be vulnerable and own how you appear in your trauma story?

Koleka: The thing that comes up for me here is Anne Lamott‘s quote; “You own everything that happened to you, if people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Two, I find the idea of walking around and interacting with people without a mask quite liberating. I find living in a world where we don’t show our true selves, and where we don’t ever say we are hurting, quite suffocating. What is freeing for me is to be able to say that, that experience or person over there hurt me, particularly as a black person. I think that the hardest thing for black people to say is, “Dad or mum or auntie or uncle or somebody, you hurt me or you broke my heart”, especially when you are younger than the person, and for that person in turn to say “I am sorry”. That is the rarest intergenerational interaction you will find between black people.

So I feel like my writing is for that interaction to exist, where I can honestly and unapologetically write/talk about an experience that happened and I don’t have to sugar coat or sanitize it. I can write about it as raw as it is and whether the other person acknowledges it or not, that is one part of the interaction done. In my work I create a space, where as a black woman, I can name my traumas/hurts, and name the people who have inflicted those traumas in an unapologetic way. I can have it be what it is, and whoever sees the story, can have the choice to perceive it however they want. I need to exist in the world as someone who is allowed to be open and vulnerable.

Gaamangwe: There is a concept of psychic climate from Dreams, Evolution and Value Fulfillment by Jane Roberts.  It basically says that our experiences, especially our traumas exists as part of the elements that make the climate of our psyche. As people in a home, we exists in a collective psychic climate, where all the unresolved and un-addressed traumas hover around us, throughout our lifetimes, as impending storms, which eventually as we know either morphs into something destructive or it just explodes in ways that is difficult to repair.

As African families, our cultures don’t encourage addressing and apologizing for the hurt we inflict on each other, especially between parents and their children. We have to unlearn this.

Koleka: Yes, I agree. I used to think that one of the easiest things black people get caught up in is talking about our traumas and pain. You go to a tavern or a shebeen or a place where black people gather to have a good time and you’ll hear folks talking about injustices or the days of apartheid or struggles or whatever. And I always wondered why it is not easy for us to talk about joy, and the things that make us happy, things that bring us pleasure, and I am starting to see that both are equally hard to talk about. It’s also complex to talk about trauma, because it’s easy in certain spaces and not so much in other spaces. One of the hardest spaces to talk about trauma is with the people who have inflicted pain on us, and yes more often than not that space is with family.

And the other thing that I am trying to learn, which is right up there with unlearning, is that;  it’s okay to be happy, it’s okay to have joy, its okay to write about joy and to talk about joy, and that joy is a birthright even with all the crap around us.

When violence is inflicted on a black body, the world doesn’t flinch because it has been so normalized. I want to document the moments when I experience immense joy and pleasure so I can normalize those in my own life. I am learning that those moments are just as important and valid.  I am learning, that it is okay to have a crush on someone for six months, its okay to desire someone, its okay to flirt, it’s okay to want sex, and all these things we are not allowed to indulge in for too long.

Gaamangwe: I totally agree with that, because we rarely ever see pure and raw intimacy between two black people who love each other, in most of our narratives. We should unlearn focusing on the narratives that only highlight that which is heavy and dark in our experiences, because there are other parts that are light, beautiful and lovely, and that should also get as much witness as the other part.

Koleka: You know, there are people who are making work that highlights that lightness and joy and beautiful intimate moments of being black and loving, of being black and happy, and I want more of that. I am in a space that’s looking for more of that and searching for work that celebrates black joy, black intimacy, black friendship, black sisterhood in the way that is not something that is commercialized.

Gaamangwe: Yes, because I think that also we need to understand that the narratives that we pump into the collective psyche of our community or group, really defines how we perceive ourselves. Is it possible to find good love, great love as a black person? To be happy and healthy and successful? What is the narrative around me, on what is possible for me, for us as a group?

If we ponder on the notion of legacy, of what we inherited from our forefathers, what happened to them and the narrative they held about themselves and their experiences, and on what they thought was possible for them, and we take it a step further and think about the legacy we will leave behind, on what we think is our birthright, and the experiences we think we deserve to have, then we have got much to think about, because then unlearning is not just for us, it’s for the future generation.

Koleka: Yes. But also when we talk about unlearning you have to take into account the kind of systematic violence that black people have endured, and the space a lot of people find themselves in is one where they cannot really afford the luxury of this space; to kind of sit and go, what is it that I have to unlearn? Because there are others priorities that are more pressing, and it seems that that the thing about unlearning is that you have to be present for it.

We can’t assume that everyone has the time to consciously ‘unlearn’ or can afford to give up whatever is toxic for them. And also there are different ways of unlearning, you and I are talking about it in a very particular way, but no doubt our grandmothers and aunts also had/have their own way of unlearning, of mobilizing each other, or getting each other out of toxic or unhealthy situations. The conversation of unlearning has different avenues.

As youth it’s not easy to initiate our way of unlearning with the older generation, but it is important as people, that we have this as a legacy that we leave behind, something to pass down to our children; if something is hurtful, if something is unhealthy, if its eating away at your joy, its making it difficult for you to be your best self, unlearn it. That is the dopest legacy ever. Dear Children, here is a legacy—unlearning.

Gaamangwe: Your reflection reminds me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Someone who is concerned with their basic needs, of getting food and shelter and surviving the day, or week or month, does not have the luxury to do an intentional, unlearning process that we are idealizing right now, because that’s the space they cannot afford to be in right now.

But also what if what I call a limitation is someone’s process of unlearning? Because the process or art of unlearning, like many things, is fluid. We have to appreciate that every one of us has their own path and way of doing things, of unlearning things.

Koleka: Yes, in as much as I would love to, and I love to challenge people, particularly my family, and when I say family, I mean my parents, but I am also mindful of the thing that enables people to survive. And more often than not and that thing for black people its religion; it’s God, Jesus and crucifixion. That’s what keeps them going from day to day; the promise of eternal life on the other side of their death. This world is hard and so I am always wary of this; if this is what enables someone to carry on, who am I to criticize that?

But at the same time it’s important to challenge them (my parents) on their beliefs. I want folks to flourish and live their best life with Christianity, but at the same time I am not okay with how religion has screwed over black people.

Gaamangwe:  Let us not romanticize religion or any other system that can uplift and also limits us. This actually reminds me of what you said in 21 love poems, number 21;

I don’t find it tragedy romantic at all.

I don’t think playing dead is empowering

or good for my ego (even).

I love you

But I’d rather be alive.

What was the inspiration with this one?

Koleka: It was inspired by Adrienne Rich’s 21 love poem. I wrote 21 love poems about 21 love experiences that I had. It has now been retitled to 21 ways of leaving, because I realized it’s a poem about leaving something that is not good for you, 21 ways of re-learning love. It’s about romanticizing tragedy, particularly as artist—we fetishize tragedy, we fetishize being in dark spaces—and the whole poem is like I get it, I get how tragedy can be useful, how it can nuance our work as artists and that it is something that we can draw from but for me, I also value my wellbeing—much more than I value being in a space where I am dying internally all the time. It’s saying,  I really love this person, or I really loved this person but the relationship was toxic, and whatever it was that we were pursuing was toxic and it was unhealthy, and I value me being in a good space much more than whatever was going there. And that is just me generally, I value being in a healthy space, I value being well, and I really value joy, and it wasn’t always like that. It’s a new thing for me. And I see now how joy and peace are weapons, particularly in a society that dispossesses black bodies, and a world where black people can only be these tragic stories or are only tragedies. Seeking and choosing joy and peace every day, and normalizing that is important for me.

Gaamangwe: I resonate with that—my new thing has been to ferociously guard my space. I am guarding my practice of finding and being joy, and being the most of myself, and its liberating. In the beginning of course I was and still am quite self-conscious because this is new territory because you know, we are not taught to put ourselves first. It is often looked at as if you are being selfish, it’s not, this is what I am unlearning.  

Koleka: And also know that the two can co-exist. That you can be in public and you can cry and be vulnerable and talk about your traumas. And the next day you can walk down the street, and be at peace and be happy. The two can co-exist in one body. That you are not just one thing, you can be both. And that you can go for weeks and weeks being depressed and broke, and not opening your doors or your curtains, and the next couple of months you are the happiest you have ever been, and that it’s okay, both are fine, both have their time and space in your life.

Gaamangwe: That’s empowering. I think of a day as a lifetime that we are given, and we can live this lifetime however way we want. If today we are tragic, then that’s fine and beautiful. There are different types of revolutions, and being tragic is one of them. If not, we have tomorrow to start again.

 In this spirit of talking about empowering and revolutionary things, we definitely have to speak about your poem, “Water”, which is an absolutely mesmerizing and deeply shifting work of art. What was the space that you were in and what were you exploring here?

Koleka: One, I am allowing this poem to take up the space that it needs to take up in my life now. Because for a long time I was kind of resisting that, but now I am just like Water is Water, and Water will be what it needs to be in my life for a long time and that is okay, that’s also a gift.

Two, I was in space where they were a lot of conversations that were happening with friends, family, colleagues, about the idea or concept of water for black people. For those couple of months, the topic of water just kept coming up, I would be in a taxi with a friend and we would talk about water, I would be at a conference or at a festival and the topic of slavery and water would come up, I would  be having dinner with someone and water would come up.

To be honest with you, that poem was written in tiny little bits, and I would write a sentence and put that away and the next month I would write something and put it away. I was in a space where I was having a lot of conversation about black people in relation to water, so it made its way into my psyche, and so eventually I kind of pieced the thing together, and that eventually made up the poem which is now known as Water.

Gaamangwe:  There is a beauty in that, because it was this big, overwhelming and powerful thing that came to you in snippets, but ended up as this brilliant poem.

Koleka: It came in bits definitely and it’s a poem that was written over a few months but the day I sat down to finish it, I finished it in that day. In between writing Water I was reading, and re-reading some stuff and kind of having friends go like “oh have you read this philosopher’s theory about water?” and “have you seen this documentary?” I just kind of took a fascination with water, and people were pointing me in the direction of material that had to do with water and black people. I wish I could say that Water is the type of poem that I just woke up in the morning and wrote it in like an hour.

Gaamangwe: Sometimes the things that are powerful take a long time to be purged out.  Also there is something about incubation; taking months or years ruminating on a subject or story, going to the depth of things and later releasing it when it’s ready and fully explored. I find that beautiful.

So, you are writing your first collection of poetry, Collective Amnesia. How is this experience, and what should we expect?

Koleka: I am so nervous, particularly about the thing that we have been talking about for the past hour. Every day I am re-learning that I am unlearning silence. I am learning to own my stories, to tell them truthfully, in the way that I see them.  I am also learning a new courage. I thought that I was a fearless and courageous somebody but the more I write, the more I realize that courage is something that you have to choose, it’s not a given. You have to choose it every day and I had to choose it for this book.

And as I am working towards its release, I am kind of giving myself permission and going like; yes I want to put that out to the world, yes I want to talk about that, yes that particular situation does not have the power that I thought it had over my life, and yes I got the right to talk about this.

I don’t know what people can expect from it, but I know that it’s transparent and talks about a lot of the things that we want to forget collectively; be it in our families or as a country. More than that I think I am trying to unlearn my own silence and amnesia with this book.

Gaamangwe: I think it’s only normal, but at the same time I think the discomfort and nervousness is exactly what the work needs, because if you channel everything from that space you will create powerful stuff. I think that we resonate with people who are raw and transparent because we rarely are and writers like you help us connect to the part of our stories that we need to heal and unlearn. So basically you are doing great and I cannot wait to read it.

Koleka: I think it’s in our nature to be naked as people. To be open. There is a lot that happens between the time when we are born, when we are our most honest and vulnerable, to the time when we are grown up and we have collected all these inhibitions and locks and doors. But I think it’s in our nature as people to be honest and naked but it’s all the other stuff that happens in between that teaches us otherwise.

Gaamangwe: Yes, we have to unlearn some stuff so that we can go back to the origin, to who we really are. Koleka, this was powerful, thank you.

Photo credit: Elelwani Netshifhire. 

Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.

6 thoughts on “The Art of Unlearning: A Dialogue With Koleka Putuma

  • January 18, 2017 at 12:53 am

    So “Water” took months to write? Yep. You can feel the work when you hear it recited. Great interview Gaamangwe.

  • February 3, 2017 at 12:26 pm

    I stumbled upon your conversation. I love it. Beautyfull, and truthfully told. Congratulations.

  • February 28, 2019 at 2:27 pm

    I have always found Koleka works outstanding, there is this acompanying honesty and sheer openness that come it her poetry. And that is a gift that is not easy to harness, truth as experience and telling it without remorse. Good interview, great conversation.

    • February 28, 2019 at 2:29 pm

      I have always found Koleka’s work outstanding, there is this acompanying honesty and sheer openness that comes with her poetry. And that is a gift that is not easy to harness, truth as experience and telling it without remorse. Good interview, great conversation.


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