Sibongile Fisher is a poet, writer and drama facilitator from Johannesburg, South Africa. She holds a BCom degree in Marketing Management and a higher certificate in the Performing Arts and wishes to pursue an MA in Creative Writing. She is the co-founder of The Raising Zion Foundation, an arts organisation that focuses on promoting literature, poetry and the performing arts in high schools. She is also the winner of the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Prize for her short story “A Door Ajar”. “A Door Ajar” was also shortlisted for the Brittle Paper Literary Awards. Her short story “A sea of secrets” written for young adults was published by Fundza under their mentorship program and it appears in their “it takes two!” volume 2 anthology.
This dialogue happened between a green bedroom in cloudy Gaborone, Botswana and bachelor’s dream office in Johannesburg, South Africa via Email.
Gaamangwe: First, I really have to commend you for your brilliant, creative nonfiction work, The Miseducation of Gratitude. It is truly something out of this world. I have never read something like it, never have been that shifted, catapulted into all sorts of emotions, left breathless over and over again. I am still inside your story, weeks later. You are incredibly talented!
You start The Miseducation of Gratitude with a thought-provoking intro: “I WAS NOT thought of yet. A wound in my mother had not formed yet. A wound in her mother had not been born yet. We were both not here, my mother and I, where we are now on both edges of love and contempt” and you end the intro with, “I had not known of it yet; I was covered in dust and eating up the streets for lunch when Lauryn Hill released her album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I was sixteen and the album was eight when we met.
I fell in love for the first time. And my tongue softened.”
It got me thinking about the tapestry of our lives, of how the origin of today can be found in a memory of years ago. Of how we are always beginning and ending in all moments. But it also got me wanting to start this dialogue on wounds and love. How and why it is important for you to reflect on wounds? On falling in love, on being at the edges of love? And how you navigate these stations that often co-exists in your life?
Sibongile: Often, we only realise how much we love someone once they have hurt us. It is as though love is a wound and only when it is licked for the first time that we realise it exists. I am forever travelling between the two stations you speak of and find that it is because of this constant back-and-forth that I always reflect on the universal nature of these themes. The only thing I do deliberately in my writing is to push the reader to feel something; now, whether or not I succeed in doing this is something else, but I believe that we are either in love or hurt, or both but we are never without either. And I don’t just refer to the romantic nature of love but love in all its various manifestations. I don’t know if it is important for me to reflect on wounds and love, but I do know that I do it organically and it is the one thing I think I have in common with the rest of humanity. The ability to love and the ability to feel pain.
Gaamangwe: I connect with that. After-all, life itself manifests in a similar fashion. We seem to always be moving through and between the waves of love and pain. Yet, there is also that little truth that we never ever truly get used to it. Or at the very least accept that this seems to be the rules of human living. We resist and resist, and there lies another thing that amplifies both love and pain. It’s a tricky business this being human thing.
I think you do succeed at making us, your readers, feel something. It’s in the way you truly know how to articulate being human. How you make us travel through your memories, in a similar fashion we might travel through our memories. Paying attention to this and that, leaving this and that, but capturing the deeper and core essence of what hurts and burns and moves the most. How do you actually deliberately choose what you pay attention to when you write?
Sibongile: I agree with you. The resistance is what ails us but it is necessary for our progression. Think of it as pruning. I don’t have a say in the initial shape of a story. It comes to me and I write it as it is, or I stumble upon it and let it shape itself. It is during the editorial process that I begin to impose myself on the story. I cut, add, remove, rewrite until I have a body of work that I desire. It’s the hardest part because sometimes what I want to pay attention to and grow is not necessarily good for the story, so I have to cut it loose.
Gaamangwe: That’s interesting. I have never written creative nonfiction before, but I imagine that writing it might be harder than any other form of writing. I imagine that there will be that resistance we spoke of, a natural instinct to stay away from triggering one’s traumas. Was this your experience? What were you most afraid of exploring? And which parts were difficult to write?
Sibongile: This was my first time. Before The Miseducation of Gratitude I had never written creative nonfiction. I think my poetry background is what aided me in this genre. I knew what to stay away from to respect the privacy of those involved. A story that affected me but was not my story to tell, I didn’t tell. I was asked by the curator to be as raw as I could and although this was my intention, I also wanted to fuse the rawness with some softness. I wanted to use the imagery of a wound; how open, soft and vulnerable a wound is. How open, soft and vulnerable we can be. I have a lot of repressed memories. My brain also works in a strange way. I hardly ever remember the details of a particular event as closely as I will remember how it made me feel. I had to mine my childhood and recover some of these lost memories and repressed traumas. Some were a definite “no-go” zone and others I needed to relive to finally heal from them. I am not well-versed when it comes to creative non-fiction, so I had to use my “writing cushions” to create a story I was comfortable to tell. Afraid? I think I was more reluctant to exploring certain experiences rather than being afraid. I knew that I would be exposed and I was not sure if I was comfortable with the idea.
Which parts were difficult to write? The whole album(piece) was difficult for me to compose, but the two parts that stand out are my pregnancy up until giving birth in a public hospital and my parents’ separation and later divorce. These two points in my life were growth spurts. The events that changed who I am and deeply affected my worldview. I am who I am today, I think how I think and I do what I do partly because of how these two experiences have affected me.
Gaamangwe: I can’t believe this is your first time writing a creative non-fiction! That’s amazing. I am inspired. I have been dancing around the idea of exploring the genre, but I am not sure if I am brave enough to excavate my traumas, especially to myself. There is that too, right? In the writing, you re-acquaint yourself with the hurtful and triggering memories that you didn’t know hold so much power over you. But, I imagine, there is some healing or something. What has been your experience, how did writing your memories shift you?
And yes, those two parts were also memorable for me. The charge within them was raw and urgent but tender. I wonder, how did they actually impact or shift or morph your worldview?
Sibongile: You are braver than you think. Give yourself the chance to be. I would love to read what you have written.
I think it was Eckhart Tolle who first introduced the concept of a “pain-body”, which he describes as a body of old negative emotions that aren’t dealt with and we carry them around in our energy field. This really intrigued me. The idea of carrying around an accumulation of old negative emotions at a subconscious level and having those emotions or that “pain-body” inform the decisions we make in the present or in relation to our future selves. What I am trying to say is that it is a beautiful thing what we humans do: We use memory to mould ourselves into beings. Without memory, we have no form. This close knitted relationship between memory and identity is what shapes the world around us.
Writing essays and creative nonfiction is a difficult but necessary craft. After observing the past week, I realized how it is also a way of archiving our existence. It is like alchemy. In a way, we find magic in the mundane.
You mention the difficulty to re-acquaint ourselves with the traumas and hurtful experiences that have a hold on us. I think it depends on what you are writing about and the form or structure you want your piece to take. My relationship with my “pain-body” has become very productive and it’s all thanks to the art of writing. I have become a tourist to my past and as I go through it, I understand better the events that took place, the reasons why they took place and how I can use them to mould myself into a better version of who I am becoming.
Gaamangwe: You know just now I wrote in my journal that I will be writing more in the coming months. I was reading an old journal I wrote eleven years ago and I was shocked to discover I imagined myself as a writer even then. I am now going back in time, trying to figure out when the first incision of the wound regarding my writing happened. I know that my writer’s block and impostor syndrome is a psychic wound. Someone or something scared me into believing I can’t write prose or nonfiction. But now, I do feel determined to, like you, become a tourist of my fears, and ultimately heal them.
I also love Eckhart Tolle’s concept of the “pain-body”. It made sense to me when I encountered it too. The year I read the book I went to my home village and I saw that in full play in my grandmother’s house. Everyone went back to their psychic position in the house. The complainer started complaining, the crier started crying, the bully started bullying and the healer started healing. Everyone went back to their conditioned but instinctive reactions after their collective trauma. It was a strange thing because I wanted to shout “you don’t need to keep doing that! the trauma is not here anymore”. But of course the trauma was there, each individual carried it with them in however way they could. It was manifesting over and over again because the trauma was not addressed and so its psychic energy held everyone captive. And then of course, there is how we the grand-children started to inherit that collective pain-body. And then the other collective pain-bodies that go beyond the house. The collective pain-body of being females, of being from the Kalanga tribe, of being Batswana, of being Africans and of being human. They are multitudes of traumas we carry with ourselves at all points. The invitation for all of us is to heal, one trauma at a time.
This is what I am drawn to exploring in my work as both writer, curator and teacher. What about you? What do you find yourself compelled to write about? Today, in the past and in the future? Also, how does the better version of who you might become look like?
Sibongile: Is it not always a shock that we have always known who we want to become as we grow into our older selves? I mean there is the “you” you want to be that you keep a secret and a “you” you think you should be. We always forget until we are older and then it comes as a surprise.
This past week has been the worst. My eyes were peeled open to how complex this “pain-body” is. Our outward identity is constantly shifting parallel to the decisions we make. We have this trauma wired in our DNA. We are black first before anything. We are the lesser “beings” below the dogs and the rhinos. Then we are women. We are the lesser deserving. Then we are black women. The lesser beings who are also the lesser deserving. All of these things that we are constantly navigating around, fighting against and trying to survive. These false identities. We know we are not these things. Our collective “pain-body” is obese. It is always a label imposed on us. An oppressive perception. A wound the world has carved into our backs, hips, thighs, lips, hair and complexion. I am glad you are embarking on the journey to write again. There is healing there. Always.
We are raised the way our parents were raised and our parents were raised the way their parents were raised. We inherit these wounds. We carry them in our hearts. We are burdened by the pain in our respective communities. We are a forest of stories waiting for their turn to morph into books ready for the libraries we are becoming. That’s how I see myself. I am currently a forest of beautiful and dying trees, and I am cutting down the dying trees and giving them new life in the form of books. At the heart of this forest that I am, I am building a library. And for every dying tree, I am filling the library with books. What I mean is that I am archiving my existence and the experiences of my people.
When it comes to my writing I always think of Toni Morrison’s quote: “If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, you must be the one to write it.”
This is how I overcome my impostor syndrome and my anxiety. This is also why I write. I write for me, for people who look like me and for people who are holding up the same collective traumas as me. And it is not really a conscious decision. It is just a thing that is happening and I am allowing and encouraging it.
Gaamangwe: I resonate deeply with that vibration energy of archiving your existence and the experience of our people. It seems to be a yearning for the majority of us, especially the humans whose lives have been undocumented, have been attempted to be minimized and erased. We are creating works that are saying but we are here and we have always been here. In the grand scheme of things, maybe two hundred years from now, no one will remember who we are but the truth is the system, the collective consciousness is ever changed by each consciousness that passes through it. And so this is why I know I must write. I must continue with the archiving because this is how we create the new wave of the collective consciousness. May our grand, grand, grand children never ever be haunted by the traumas that haunt us.
Today the daily “pain-body” of being black women is overwhelmingly heavy, hanging by the thread, urgently insisting to be free. Every corner we travel to says we do not belong to life, that we must not seek space to merely exists, that what we get is enough. This is the deepest cut. To turn everywhere and be told your life is less significant than everyone else. The most heartbreaking part of reading The Miseducation of Gratitude was recognizing my experience as a black woman in your experience. Was seeing my mother in your mother. It was seeing all of my women friends and relative in every pain you have experienced. It is the disregard that pains me. The inability for the world to think and feel for what it might feel like to navigate so many multidimensional oppressive realities on a daily basis.
What pains you the most? What oppressive realities did you travel and survive today?
Sibongile: Nothing ails me more than the constant invalidation of my reality running parallel with the constant commercialization of my greatness.
This patriarchy that stole our traditions and continues to cripple our men. The fatigue. I go to bed tired. I wake up tired. As a black woman, I am faced with the challenge to constantly prove myself to the world. As a black woman from the township, I have to constantly prove that I am intelligent, that I work hard and that I want more out of life. It is tiring to always have to show the world who you are while trying to find who you are. You are always defying stereotypes while trying to mould yourself outside of a reactional identity. We have the inherent need to shout “I am not this! I am not that!” while also trying to find the strength to say “So what, if I am?”
I mean let me take the last part of your question literally.
I had to drop off my sick child at creche and face bullying on the road just to walk into an office full of white men who deliberately ignore my existence, invalidate the value I contribute to the company, sit through a job I am particularly not fond of…then later on my way home, I will pray for my safety. I will curl on my bed and weep for another day spent at the office. That is literally in my small space. On the greater scheme of things, I have to survive the internet and the world.
Gaamangwe: The way that we survive everyday is really, really tiring. But this is what gets me through the days, we are rising. We are undoing the bondage that has been forced on us. We are taking space and we are insisting and insisting that we belong here, we belong to the fullness of life too. We are doing this here, now right? In the internet, in our writings and now in our homes. I see myself being able to tell the people who hurt me that they hurt me. I see myself no longer shying away from telling my father that this here is harmful. Asking my mother, why must we always shrink ourselves? I feel like we are definitely opening and cracking the wall wide open. And so hopefully, we cut half of our pain, our children inherit much less than what we did.
I am sorry that that is your space today. I can’t imagine what that’s like to navigate your own self and then navigate and build a world for another. On meeting your child, you wrote:
Your mouth kisses my breast and you suck on it like you have always been waiting to, waiting too.
I meet you. You are the one born soft.
Such a beautiful way to describe your child. How has this experience expanded your own sense of womanhood? And worldview? What spaces did you have to learn to occupy?
Sibongile: I mean becoming a mother introduced me to my mother for the first time. I saw her as a woman and not as my mother. I understood the duality of her identity. I had never held a baby that young before. He was less than an hour old. Less than half an hour old. It is the most honest experience of my life. We are born soft. All of us. We are then hardened by the world around us. We are formless, with no identity no memory until that moment we suckle for the first time.
I had to learn the language of sacrifice. It is not an easy one. It breaks your jaws and keeps your mouth dry. I hate and love it all the same. Motherhood is not some whimsical fantasy world where the sun shines untested. It is hard. It is foul. It is like taking a beating and healing at the same time. It is every choice you make, there is an “other” who will be affected by that choice. I didn’t have an easy pregnancy or an easy labour. God bless my partner, I really owe surviving that experience to him. That is the other thing. The importance of the presence of men during that period.
This experience continues to open me up to how textured womanhood is. It is not one single thing that can be packaged and sold back to us. I am also occupying the spaces that refuse for mothers to be human. The romantic ideology that mothers are gods is flawed or rather it’s not that mothers aren’t gods but that our definition of “God” is what is flawed. “God” is more human than we think.
Gaamangwe: I love this line: “God” is more human than we think.
Isn’t it strange that they teach us, in Christianity, that man was made in God’s image, yet there are some parts of ourselves that are deemed not Godly? I have since, a long time now, arrived to the conclusion that there is no right and wrong. That life is about twos. Man and Woman. Dark and Light. Black and White. And each one is so vital and necessary and perfect. These polarities exists for the other and all of this is a reflection of the Source, that energy that is the origin of all this.
I find that the invitation is for us to create new meanings because almost everything right now is outdated and over-used by the patriarchal system. And yes, patriarchy has crippled our natural and instinctive ways of raising children. Our ancestors knew the importance of raising children as a community. Because as you said, motherhood is a really stretching experience. And having that support system, especially an engaged partner is so vital. Generally, men need to be emotionally engaged with their child and partner’s well-being from conception until forever.
How else do you insist on being human? And what dreams do you have for yourself as a woman and an incredible writer?
Sibongile: The Yin and Yang. I wrote in a poem “the primal existence of evil is to do good” and what I meant by this was that when we observe the things that have hurt us the most we also see that they are the things that have shaped us into the best versions of ourselves. I agree with you fully, this duality we speak of is complimentary. It is all a part of the Whole.
I think the universality of our need to connect is what makes us human. I seek to connect, with you, with readers, with fellow writers, with my community, with other black women, with black men. I seek to feel the God particle in all that is around me. And this is what I want for my writing. I want readers to connect with my stories, with my characters, with my choice of words, with the form, with the structure. I don’t seek to nourish the intellect as much as I seek to replenish the spirit. I would like for my writing to make readers feel the way a good song makes us feel. That hair-raising experience that reminds us we are not from this world.
As a woman, I mean firstly, I want to be considered a writer, not a female writer. I wish for my work to one day transcend my race and my geography. I wish to produce great literature and not “great African Literature by a female writer.” I also dream of a world where Feminism is a norm. And it starts with us raising our sons to be feminists. I honestly dream of the simple things. Materialistic comfort and an equal playing ground for POC all over the world.
Gaamangwe: My God, this is beautiful. I wish you all of this and more. I absolutely loved engaging with you in this dialogue, Sibongile. It was refreshing and the perfect thing to remind me why I do this. Thank you. Thank you.
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.