Nica Cornell is a South African writer. Her work has been published online in The Good Cemetery Guide, The Good Men Project, The Frantz Fanon Blog, Mobius: Journal of Social Change, the Kalahari Review and in the first volume of 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry. She has published in hardcopy in The Times; Aerial 2012; Africa, the UK and Ireland: Writing Politics and Knowledge Production; Botsotso 18; South African Foreign Policy Review Volume III; Writing Grandmothers: Africa Vs Latin America and Nationalism: (Mis)Understanding Donald Trump’s Capitalism, Racism, Global Politics, International Trade and Media Wars Africa vs North America Volume 2. She currently lives in London with her husband and her contemptuous cat.
BY UGOCHUKWU DAMIAN OKPARA
This dialogue happened between an arid NYSC Orientation Camp, in Delta State and a London winter warmed by Christmas lights via email.
Ugochukwu: Hi, Nica. Thank you for making time to have this dialogue with me. Earlier this year, I read 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, and your poem, Thirteenth, spoke to me on a personal level. Each time I read it, I get back from the pain living in the poem only to realize I haven’t experienced such, and yet the ache in the chest is still there. What is your writing process, especially when you are unearthing and exposing a difficult subject matter?
Nica: Hi, Ugochukwu. Thank you for speaking with me. It’s an honour to be a part of such an important project. I am moved to hear Thirteenth echoed in your chest. My process is instinctive. Poems tend to brew in me, with phrases and moments swirling in my head, until they are ready and then suddenly in a quiet moment they stream out. The editing happens internally, often over months. I don’t make a lot of changes once they are on the page—one of my best friends, Sarah Lubala, is an extraordinary poet and she almost always acts as first reader. I’ve been thinking about Thirteenth since you got in touch, and I remember exactly where I was when I wrote it, in 2013. It streamed out then, but it used memories and images that had been percolating for 13 years. When it comes to purging painful topics, by the time they finally come out in a poem, I almost have little choice in the matter. My poetry acts as a quiet voice that keeps nudging fragments closer to the surface of my skin—and once the poem is in my fingers to be written, it’s simply necessary. It has to be written.
Ugochukwu: It is captivating to know how your poems are properly nurtured before birth. For me, it’s a continuous process, and I never get to the point where I feel I have done enough to birth a poem. I learnt from watching Nothing But The Truth, your contribution to Stuart Lewis’ Born Frees assignment, that your parents were anti-apartheid activists, and I see activism reflected in your work. In Fanon’s Failure of Failure you talked about Fanon’s equation of being black to failure and how it led him to humanize himself and to struggle for a world where his humanity is not questioned. I also took note of how your poems stand as a voice advocating women’s rights. How has your early introduction to human rights activism continued to influence your current work?
Nica: It is difficult for me to answer that question—my politics and my writing are such embedded features of my life and self that disentangling them is almost impossible. The way I was raised fundamentally shaped my principles, which in turn have shaped my life—and so I have poems such as “A Political Country” about how unthinkable it was to be told not to “talk politics” while in the churning heart of a student movement. Yet, the honest answer is that I wrote that poem after a year of dealing with the toll of that experience on my mental health, during which I was hospitalised. Writing it is my way of acknowledging that moment’s truth, and putting it down.
My poetry is the one place I only feel responsible to myself. I’m telling the truth about how I feel and experience the world. When that resonates with another human being, it is such a gift. But when it comes to my poetry, specifically, that isn’t why I write it. I write it to heal.
“My poetry is the one place I only feel responsible to myself. I’m telling the truth about how I feel and experience the world. When that resonates with another human being, it is such a gift.“
Ugochukwu: Your reply guides me back to Pamilerin Jacob’s essay, “Why I Write”, published in Sprinng Literary Movement. He says “In writing, I find the relieving of pangs. No matter the depth of the wound, there is always a word for it. Every day, something has tried to kill me & every day, I run into language for solace. I pick a poem and wear like a cardigan. I dive into a pool of sounds, to cure my heartache. It is in all these that one realizes that survival is merely the beginning of remedies. The one who drills deeper into the realm of words will find arsenal for purpose. Say, I write to diagnose, and to cure.” I agree to the school of thought that poetry is therapeutic. I once wrote a poem after an effeminate friend almost got lynched because of the sexuality stereotype attached to effeminate men. Afterward, we would laugh over the scene. But one thing struck me months after when I read the poem in a poetry evening—the wound became visible. I kept thinking that the violence could have happened to me, to anyone else, perhaps, what if he didn’t find a way out? What if he didn’t gamble on his possessions for his life?
Aristotle described therapeutic poetry in his work Poetics as Catharsis. He claims that by means of pity and fear, emotional cleansing is achieved which purifies and purges these emotions. I’m thinking, do we ever purge these emotions completely? Are there moments when visiting your poems act as a hand peeling a scar?
Nica: That sounds deeply traumatic—for your friend, and for you. In my experience, and it sounds like in your experience at the poetry evening, if we understand trauma as something to be fully “purged,” we will constantly disappoint ourselves. This is a language I have spent a lot of time with, as someone who has been so ill. Even the word “cure” carries a kind of totality in it that I think is false. I agree more with Jacob when he says that, “In writing, I find the relieving of pangs. No matter the depth of the wound, there is always a word for it.” Finding the words for pain, as poets, doesn’t make it as though that pain has never been—It doesn’t mean that it doesn’t continue to have its echoes and effects. I think you expressed it wholly when you said, “The wound became visible.” In my view, it would be startling if you could visit such a terrible memory and feel nothing. The quote this brought to mind is from the fictional Outlander by Diana Gabaldon—the Scottish hero tells his daughter: “Ye’re not going to forget it…Don’t pick at it, and it’ll mend clean. Scars are nothing te trouble ye.” Mend is the right word for it—it evokes sewing for me, treating, healing; as opposed to the almost violent concepts of “purging.”
There are certainly moments when visiting a poem is a kind of picking at a scar, as you say. But there are also moments such as this one, when publishing Thirteenth six years after writing it allows me to pass a quiet hand over an old scar, and keep breathing.
Ugochukwu: “In my experience…if we understand trauma as something to be fully ‘purged,’ we will constantly disappoint ourselves.” I love this. To me, it is to acknowledge that we are constantly vulnerable to unearthing these wounds. This acknowledgement serves to either make us immune to pain or to neutralize the trauma—like you say, pass a quiet hand over an old scar, and keep breathing. Also, in Nothing But The Truth, your contribution to Stuart Lewis’ Born Frees assignment, where you interrogated the label ‘born free,’ you say: “as a label, born free is only useful, if it sets up, something for us to chase.” Is this to say that freedom is a continuous struggle? And do you think writing is a form of freedom?
Nica: Growing up with such a strong sense of national identity and history, I have spent a lot of time with the concept of freedom. What I have learned is that I do not think it is only a continuous struggle. There are victories. I think it is important to acknowledge that, because if we do not, we erase the sacrifice and strength that brought us those victories. My relationship with my first long-term partner would have been illegal had I been born in apartheid South Africa. I think we can only comprehend a concept as vast and nebulous as freedom when we think about how it relates to us in the everyday. That is only one tiny way in which the possibilities of my life are unthinkably different to my mom’s when she was my age—because of the struggle of millions of people around the world. Their achievements should be seen. Simultaneously, the need for further struggle is self-evident—in South Africa and around the world.
I don’t know if I have conceptualized writing as a form of freedom before. It is such a hefty concept that I think for a long time I felt I didn’t have a right to it. So, I wouldn’t have applied it to what I do. I do think we have to be careful not to stretch words beyond meaning. But, yes, I think writing can be a form of freedom. At least, it is for me. Especially over the past year when my illness has been physically debilitating such that very basic tasks have been a challenge, writing has been liberating.
Ugochukwu: Yes! It is important to acknowledge victories in a movement even when the goal of such movement isn’t achieved. It fosters hope and perseverance to both the present and future activists. I see it as a ripple effect. Last year in Nigeria, one of Africa’s leading smartphones had sponsored a bill board instigating hate against the LGBTQ+ community. It caused a call out on Twitter that eventually led to the bill board being pulled down. The anti-gay law in Nigeria hasn’t been repelled yet but this, is a win, shows that Nigeria is growing tolerant of it…there are other victories too and not erasing them shapes the future. What are your thoughts on movement championed through social media?
Nica: Exactly. I think that also shows that there is consumer power—as you say, the law has yet to change but there are other imperatives that can initiate positive change, even one small important step at a time. I think social media can be an extremely productive platform for movements. In a bizarre way, government’s resorting to internet shutdowns during elections is confirmation of the utility of social media for mobilization. Simultaneously, there are two serious caveats I try to keep in mind. One is that it is a platform. For example, while running social media for a local charity shop, I ran a successful publicity campaign to celebrate our local area. Our following doubled but what made our campaign a success, in my view, is that increased awareness and engagement translated into increased funds raised for Save The Children; and increased community engagement generally. It’s important not to mistake likes & follows for change in itself. Secondly, I just think it’s important to keep in mind that things have changed so quickly in the realm of technology and communication; we don’t know yet what a lot of the implications of it are. Not only in big grand ways like surveillance states and electoral interference…but also in social and cultural ways. For me, I definitely feel like my poetry happens at a slower pace than the massive overstimulation of a Twitter feed!
Ugochukwu: One of the things that stand out for me in your poetry is the way you tend to keep the emotions alive and bleeding in few lines, most times without getting us prepared—for instance, in Thirteenth, you just threw us into this deep sea of melancholy. Also, in your poem “Thirst”, published in Botsotso, you had let us take a few steps and boom! We’re in that pool of emotions…in the last stanza, you write, “you are small, untidy, tough / a boer / you belong to broken lands like this one.” Is taking us unawares your signature in poetry? Should we have that engraved in our minds as a trigger warning?
Nica: It is intriguing hearing how you experience my poems. What you’ve picked up on reminds me of what Nkateko Masinga said about Thirteenth in her conversation with Cheswayo Mphanza about the first volume of 20.35 Africa Anthology – “I felt as if this poem should have come with a trigger warning. Except that trauma is our default setting here…the truth itself is triggering.” I think she’s correct in that—It isn’t a conscious poetic device. I’m simply telling the truth about how I experience the world, and myself.
Ugochukwu: Great. Nica, this conversation has been insightful, and to wrap it up, what are you currently working on? What are some of the poems by African poets that fascinate you most?
Nica: I’m currently working on a manuscript for my first anthology, A Sky is Falling. I have thought about your question for a while, because to fascinate is so particular—and personal. I think my first exposure to poetry was through music, in which my home life was embedded as a child. So, the poems that bring me back again and again are lyrics to songs I first learned to mouth automatically then slowly grew to understand as I got older, and then did academic research on while at university, and now return to again as a South African living overseas for the first time. Donker Donker Land by Johannes Kerkorrel en die Gereformeerde Blues Band immediately comes to mind; Why Can’t We Love One Another and Warsong by James Phillips are two others. I think what continues to call me to them is the poetic articulation of what it is to love your country so deeply, even as it wounds you and itself.
Ugochukwu Damian Okpara, Nigerian-born poet, is an unapologetic flower boy. He began writing poetry in 2017 and his major themes explore depression, gender, and sexuality. He was one of the 21 mentees in the second cohort of the SLM Mentorship Programme and the 1st Runner Up in the Nigerian Students Poetry Prize 2019. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in African writer, Kreative Diadem, NSPP 2019 Anthology, Straight Forward Poetry and elsewhere.