Lydia Kasese is a Tanzanian writer, poet and media specialist among other things. Her first collection of poetry Paper Dolls was published in 2016 by the African Poetry Book Fund in their chapbook collection. Her poem Things That Were Lost In Our Vaginas was shortlisted by the BNPA poetry prize in 2014 and her short story Inside Outside was long listed by Writivism in the same year. In 2017, her short story My Mother’s Project appeared in the Caine Prize’s Anthology The Goddess of Mtwara. She is the Co-Director of Paza Sauti Youth Festival based in Dar es salaam, Tanzania.
This conversation took place between a green bedroom in rainy Gaborone, Botswana, and a hot and humid Dar es salaam via Skype.
INTERVIEW BY GAAMANGWE JOY MOGAMI
Gaamangwe: Lydia, in The Journey of Bodies you wrote:
When the men of this city tell you that you are too pretty to smoke, that your lips are too vaginal pink to turn black from smoking, remind them that their mothers spent years attempting to love black into their children’s spines.
I find that this powerful line has a lot of the elements you tend to gravitate towards in your writing: smoking, vaginas and mothers. Let’s start with unpacking why you are fascinated by these themes?
Lydia: Well, let me start with smoking. At this point, I am a chain smoker, and I have an interesting time with this because Tanzania is a conservative country. So, being a Black woman in this space, I find that a lot of people always have an opinion about my smoking habits. Every other person seems to have something to say about it. With regards to mothers, I haven’t always had an easy relationship with my mother. And as for vaginas, those are amazing. I have a vagina, and I love vaginas. It’s that simple.
Gaamangwe: I love that. So, in college, I did something called a process model which is essentially a psychoanalysis of the self. Why we are the people that we are. So, for my process model, I interviewed my mother, and I discovered a possible source of my unhealthy relationship with food. When I am emotionally stressed or bored, I eat. I found out that when I was six months old, my mother would leave me with a young nanny who happened to have a kombi driver boyfriend. As soon as my mother left, he would come pick her and six month old me, and we would spend the whole day riding with passengers. Every time I cried, she would place the milk bottle in my mouth to quieten me. And that’s possibly my inciting incident to my emotional attachment to food. So, if I feel any discomfort or stress, food helps to calm me down. I now think about our addictions in that manner. But of course, there is usually more to this than just that. But I like deliberating on possible inciting and emotional incidents that starts and sustains addictions. What do you think is the possible inciting incident of your smoking addiction?
Lydia: While growing up, we traveled a lot. We spent a decent amount of time in airports, and by then the smoking and non-smoking sections were not too far apart. There was always this combined smell of coffee and cigarettes, and I came to love it. Now that I look back on it, those scents carry a lot of nostalgia for me. When I grew up and realized that I could actually smoke if I wanted to, I started doing it. It has not necessarily ever been about personal issues. I have been going to therapy more frequently this year, and one of the things that we have been doing is to try to uncover some parts of my life that are blank. There are some parts of my childhood that I don’t really remember, and some parts of my teenage years that I don’t remember as well. The parts of my childhood that I remember end at the age of five. So, I associate the smell of coffee and cigarettes with a time from my childhood I can remember, happier times. Now, it’s more out of habit than addiction. I don’t think I am an addict (but I think all people say that right?). It has become somewhat of a ritual that I use to mark the passing of time during the day For example, I know that when I wake up in the morning as soon as I get to work at 6 a.m., I have my first smoke of the day. That’s me going okay, we are ready to start with life and focus on things. Then at 8 a.m. or 9 a.m., I get another cigarette, another at lunchtime at 3 p.m., and before I leave work. If I miss one of these times I tend to feel like something is wrong.
Gaamangwe: That’s interesting. Do the narratives from people about your smoking bother you?
Lydia: I think the one thing that continuously bothers me is that people feel it’s their right to come and police me. Whatever thoughts you have of me in your head I don’t mind that because it’s your opinion really and I cannot control that. However, the moment you decide to step out of your head and decide to voice your opinions my way, then we are most likely bound to have a problem.
Gaamangwe: The way society feels entitled to policing women’s bodies is so bothersome. This is why the current narratives going on about womanhood are so important. Womanhood is also a theme that’s prevalent in your writings.
Lydia: To be honest with you, it’s not a conscious decision. A lot of it is based on my own experiences. My writing has always been for myself, and more of making sense of the things happening in me and towards me. So, it’s not me thinking yes I need to write about women’s bodies. I don’t think I understand womanhood yet. I am still finding my way around what it means to be a woman or behave like a woman. If you meet me, you will realise I am not entirely conventionally woman-like. I don’t fit well into boxes. I think there are different versions of womanhood, there is the version our mothers teach us, then there is the version the world attempts to teach you, and if you are lucky, there is a version of womanhood that you may choose for yourself. To be honest, I am not sure what version of woman I am, I don’t think I even consciously think of myself as a woman; half the time, I only think of myself as a woman because my community reminds me, but inside my head, I don’t think I have a particular gender I exist in.
Gaamangwe: Do you know the version of the woman you could possibly want to be?
Lydia: As opposed to answering about the woman I want to be, allow me to just talk about the version of me I want to be—I think my ideal version of existence revolves around not being policed about my body, my actions, my decisions. In the perfect world, I am free from societal and financial expectations. I am free from all the things that might try to limit and hold me back, whether it’s bad friendships, being tied down to a job I don’t like or the need for money or material things. I am currently attempting minimalism. I am going through this process of learning humility and how to be humble. By this I mean, letting go of my ego, letting go of control, trusting more in the universe, among other things.
Gaamangwe: I resonate with that especially letting go and trusting the universe. Now shifting again, tell me about your poem, “Things that were lost in our vaginas”?
Lydia: Three years ago, I found my little cousin opening and looking into her private parts on the reflection of the mirror in my room and it horrified me. That did not feel normal. I was sexually abused when I was a child, right around her age, so when I saw her doing that my heart literally dropped to my feet and shattered. I never did have a conversation with her about it. I was too scared. It triggered and paralyzed me. Because I couldn’t find the words to vocalize it to anyone else, I wrote about it.
Gaamangwe: That’s devastating. I imagine how you must also be triggered especially in the last couple of weeks with #metoo on social media.
Lydia: Yes, it’s been tough. I have experienced sexual violation twice, at two different stages of my life, first as a child, the second as a teenager; so, I have these two traumas that I carry with me. I fully committed myself to therapy this year, which has been helpful, but more often than not there are a lot of triggering situations that happen around me that I cannot avoid. On some days it’s hard to be inside my head, but I’m learning each and every day how to survive and stay alive.
Gaamangwe: How is that process of surviving and staying alive like?
Lydia: It’s mostly my mind. It has protected me for the longest time. There are parts of my life that I don’t remember, and all those parts are around the time when those two things happened to me. My memory around that time is either distorted or just not there at all. It’s like after that moment my brain just shut down for days or weeks or months. I don’t remember what happened in that time frame. I mostly deal with the after effects of it. My therapist would call it post-traumatic stress disorder. For example, I don’t like people touching me. I don’t like being in public places or people getting close to me. Even in car rides, if I have to sit in between strangers I get triggered. I had a hysterical breakdown at a dentist’s a couple of months ago when he was trying to get my teeth fixed, my mind knew I was safe and fine, but my body got triggered and it shut down, went into panic mode. Luckily, the dentist was nice about it, he stopped and told me to let him know when I was ready, and when we continued, he spoke to me throughout the procedure and made sure to let me know every tool that he was inserting into my mouth and what it’s purpose was. That helped me to calm down and trust him.
I have come to realize that my body and mind are two different beings. I am learning to respect my body and the trauma it went through. The body doesn’t forget the things that have happened to it. It’s like when you touch a hot plate, you will always be wary about touching it again because the body remembers the pain. It’s something similar, so I listen to my body and pay attention to its feelings. There are some days when my body doesn’t feel fine, it just feels heavy, and it doesn’t want to do the things that it should be doing. I allow that, which has made me softer and kinder to myself. I am re-learning myself and giving my body the chance to heal from the trauma that it has experienced. Does that make sense?
Gaamangwe: Yes, especially the part about the body and mind. It reminds me of a conversation I had with Mahtem Shiferraw. We talked about bodies as poetry. We marveled at the at the body and how much it sustains us. The body carries a lot of our sorrows and traumas, and how that often manifests as ailments and diseases. But also the body has healing and regenerative powers. It is all so powerful.
Lydia: That is true. That’s why I am teaching myself to be kinder to my body and myself. Before, I used to force my body to do things, I never properly understood it, but those feelings were genuine and real to my body. Now, I am learning to be gentle with it and to allow it to feel things. If at some point I don’t feel comfortable, I speak up; whereas before, I will keep quiet and just tell myself to calm down. Now, if my body doesn’t want to do something or be a part of something because it feels uncomfortable, I won’t force it.
Gaamangwe: That’s my stream of doing things too. Healing is a moment to moment process. We just need to be kinder to ourselves during that process.
Lydia: Exactly. The moment you are kinder to yourself, everything becomes easy. It changes how you view the world. The moment you are kind to yourself, you are automatically kind to other people. There is no way that you could be gentle to yourself and treat another being terribly.
Gaamangwe: I agree. If we do more of that, we will have a kinder world. We will get there, or at-least hopefully the next generation will. On the theme of the next generation, let’s talk about your new initiative Paza Sauti Poetry Festival.
Lydia: Yes, the festival is called Paza Sauti which is a Swahili word that directly translates to raise your voice. The aim of this is to create a space for young people to come, write and express themselves through creative writing and poetry. When Loyce, a slam-poet based in Houston and the founder and co-director of the programme, came to me earlier this year and said we should do this, I thought yeah sure why not? We grew up together in Tanzania and both our parents left to other countries. One of the things that was common between us was that we were interested in reading and writing from an early age. But we didn’t have mentors that we could look up to. So, we decided to create a space where young people in Tanzania can come in contact with African writers and write in any language they are comfortable with. Someone was asking the other day how come we don’t have Tanzanian poets, but they are there, we have a lot of them, Nyerere himself was a poet. But if you are only looking for Tanzanian poets that write in English then of course you will think that Tanzanian poets don’t exist. But they do.
Gaamangwe: That is powerful because yes its very rare for young creatives to find mentors they can look up to and receive guidance from in the creative arts.
Lydia: Yes, one of the other things we’ve been doing is go around school, and in the last couple of months, we’ve worked with 400 kids and it’s been amazing. The reception has been great even from the teachers. They want us to go back and do programs with the kids once a week. So, that’s something we look forward to doing. Loyce is a product of slam poetry while I’ve always been a product of written poetry. So, one of the things we want to do is give these kids access to international platforms. We plan on sending the kids to Brave New Voices, we are looking to get our works out there. We are also looking to do cultural exchanges with East African countries. So, the funding call that we did wasn’t just for the festival. The funding goes to ensuring that we can continue having these programs within the schools and also be able to pay the poets to teach in schools.
Gaamangwe: That’s great. I know that the festival happened last weekend, how did it go?
Lydia: The kids were amazing and ready to take up all the knowledge we were throwing at them. Our workshops ranged from performance poetry, how to write openly and honestly as well as places/platforms they can send their works to/apply for grants.
We also had a poetry showcase at the end of the day, this was definitely unplanned, but the students were so proud of the work they had created and wanted to share it with us. We are definitely looking forward to doing this again in the coming year.
Gaamangwe: That’s wonderful. I wish you guys all the best.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and interviewer from Gaborone, Botswana. Her poetry has been published in Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, African Writer, Kalahari Review, Poetry Potion and Expound Magazine. Her interviews have been published in The Review Review, Praxis Magazine Mosaic Magazine, Alephi Magazine and Peolwane. Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is the Founder and Managing Editor of Africa in Dialogue.