Busamoya Phodiso Modirwa is a Motswana writer and poet with works published or forthcoming in Selves: An Afro Anthology of Creative Nonfiction, Agbowó’s Memory, Jalada Africa: Bodies, Praxis Magazine Online, Ake Review, Kalahari Review, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of the Botswana President’s Award – Contemporary Poetry 2016 and her short story, “The Healing Balm”, was shortlisted for the Botswana Tourism Fiction Award 2019.
BY GERRY SIKAZWE
This interview took place in an office seven storeys above the ground of Lusaka and in another office punctuated by a cactus and a money plant in Gaborone city.
Gerry: Welcome to this conversation, Phodiso! How are you and how is Gaborone this afternoon?
Phodiso: Hello Gerry. I’m doing great and Gaborone is cold, as should be expected in June. Perhaps a little more cold this week than usual because of the extremely cold front sweeping over the Southern part of the country, but otherwise, I’m all good.
Gerry: Your performance of poetry tends to exude this “homeliness” feeling. It draws your audiences in closer to your words, somewhat as if to make them belong with you, to identify with your words. Why is the subject of belonging a common theme in your works?
Phodiso: Oh, thank you so much. It is heartwarming to receive that as an observation you made of my work.
Belonging is a common theme in my work, perhaps because I am one who is constantly in pursuit of home (aren’t we all?). Having lost my Sengwaketse accent from my mother’s side (because I have been in Gaborone for most of my life) and not knowing Ikalanga, which is my father’s language, has meant that I often feel like I don’t quite belong— neither with my mother’s side of the family nor with my father’s. This was my first loss of home and I have been in search of it since. Somehow that crept into my writing and the search became a metaphor for so many other things.
I have always made it my aim to write first for myself and that has helped direct my work (light) inward, so I’m always refreshed by the interpretation of my writing or performance by my audience. That the work looks inward does not mean all the poems I write are from my personal experiences but I feel blessed to have been given this art as a gift; these searching eyes, and hands ready to palm their way around experiences and words to bring the pictures of that to life.
Knowing that no one is waiting for me to write a great poem or produce my best work is one of the things I hold dear from Adrian Slatcher who puts it rather bluntly, “No one is waiting for your masterpiece.” That has helped me to stay true to my pen’s heart, to take time in translating the world around me into a language I understand and can create in.
My poems are my way of interrogating my “home” as I pass through it. And for me, home is anywhere I feel safe enough to close my eyes and dream, where I feel free to name my traumas and victories without the expectation of pity or applause. It is my way of holding any idea of home against the light to see if what I thought was the end of a room is really the end and not a door opening to the other side. Sometimes I write a poem and it becomes both an exit (out of what I thought I understood) and an entry into a new process of defining, therefore finding, home.
Gerry: True, poems tend to be exits and entrances, and sometimes the in-between. In one of your interviews with Kaleleatmakerere, you gave a scope of your writing as being about and around women, the navigation of womanhood, and their struggles and triumphs. Why are you drawn to women and what do you hope to change with your casting light on women?
Phodiso: I am a woman. This is the version of a body pouch I was given and it exists as the only lens I have full access to. So I am drawn to how this body exists, how it would love to be seen and what has been/ continues to be done to it. I came into this world and joined a bigger existence of women before me whose being here has meant being whittled to smaller, lesser and quiet versions of themselves. I cannot help speaking about the inequalities women face because I am living in this world. I write about women which means I also write about their mental health because how can it not be affected? Living in a world where every day you hear of a femicide somewhere in your backyard, or your child being raped, where you have to constantly look over your shoulder when taking a walk or taking your child to school or driving alone at night because you have not been afforded the luxury of relaxation anywhere—not in your body as a woman— certainly not in the world you live in.
In the same breath, I write about women’s triumphs, because isn’t that a delicious sight? To be able to witness joy in a body that has been relegated to unfortunate circumstances. Seeing that defiance of women rising to positions of power politically, academically, economically (even in their individual private lives), seeing them come back into themselves and choose to live their best lives the best way they know how, (consistently choosing themselves), that deserves to be celebrated and retold over and over again so I write about that.
What is it I hope to achieve? To beat the drum of our existence, let its highs and lows reverberate in a rhythm that says, ‘we may be exceptional at whatever we do or not, we may be disadvantaged in this world or not but hey, we’re here, alive and beating our own path and all so well.’ Side note: My mother left her abusive partner of eleven years two decades ago. That abuse continues to affect my family to this day. When I write about my mother’s leaving, I am writing about my whole family’s survival, I’m watching her pack her bags and spit on fear’s face. I’m watching her hold her two daughters and start a life long journey the success of which means daily disrupting death’s mission over her (our) life. In doing this I am forever resounding the words of Lucille Clifton, “Come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed.”
“…home is anywhere I feel safe enough to close my eyes and dream, where I feel free to name my traumas and victories without the expectation of pity or applause. It is my way of holding any idea of home against the light to see if what I thought was the end of a room is really the end and not a door opening to the other side. Sometimes I write a poem and it becomes both an exit (out of what I thought I understood) and an entry into a new process of defining, therefore finding, home.”
Gerry: I find that you normally use, and I hope I am right here, the metaphor of weakness or vulnerability to communicate different messages in your poetry as evident in “Surviving Suicide”, featured in Writers Space Africa, and “Exorcist” in Jalada Africa: Bodies Issue. Is the weakness and vulnerability from lack of belonging, failure to keep love or to be loved back (rightly), the sufferings from depression, and child sexual abuse a metaphor, or you are just telling it as it is?
Phodiso: I use weakness/vulnerability a lot, because haven’t we all been there? Haven’t we all come face-to-face with an ending that did not happen but felt so much like it? I access that part with my art sometimes because it’s all the same for me, feeling helpless is feeling helpless, whether in the face of a chronic disease, an intruder or a system that has been orchestrated to keep you doubtful of your power. I wrote “Surviving Suicide” about two years back on a doubtful December that felt like an end. I looked back at the months past and realized how on every one of those I fought to keep afloat mentally but was met with disappointment at every turn. I did not attempt suicide but for a long time I saw no point in being here. When I started feeling better, it was still a battle, being OK felt unfamiliar, felt like surviving suicide and still having a long way to go.
Gerry: What stands out in “Surviving Suicide” is the hope you laced around it. Moving forward, “Exorcist” adds to the conversation of sexual abuse, which is so familiar but is often concealed. What conversations should be had and actions effected towards unnormalizing acts of rape and defilement in society by it’s powerful, the likes of pastors, prophets, school teachers, senior officials, and often, truer than fiction, parents, and generally people? How differently must such conversations and actions be from here on out in comparison to those of the previous generation, if any?
Phodiso: What conversations should be had? I think the conversation around rape has been had and should be kept on, but we should also see much change by way of actions. Sexual assault does not happen to some people by some other people; it happens to us, to our closest ones by our closest people. So if we’re going to see change we have to dismantle the culture of protecting culprits because they are our friends or lovers or even parents. I should be able to tell my brother openly that he is wrong for catcalling women and feeling that he has a right to their bodies just because they are dressed in a way HE deems revealing; I should be able to report abuse even if it is done by my sister. In a way we have to be each other’s keepers.
There has been talk of pastors from long back molesting kids in the name of “fixing” them in cases of homosexuality. There have been cases of rape happening in the church and I think I am not the only one who has been disappointed by the “touch not my anointed” responses that my fellow believers often gave. I am of the belief that offense is offense, and even if it is a pastor or someone in higher authority who is the culprit, that person must be taken to task. If our schools and churches—places that are supposed to be safe for children (or anyone really)— turn out to be places of abuse, then by all means the structures that hold such institutions together must be dismantled. Let’s rather do the work of rebuilding from the rubble instead of polishing our mosaic windows and pretending everything is OK while people’s lives are destroyed.
Here in Botswana, we know of cases of defilement that have not been followed legally under the guise that such would be handled within the family to keep the family’s dignity intact, which in actual fact is to protect the rapist (at the expense of the victim). Keeping cases of abuse within the family is hardly ever in the interest of the child/ victim. That is one of the things that need to be spoken up against. And by all means, the justice system needs to stop failing victims. It takes so much to speak out about one’s plight. It shouldn’t take everything else for the justice system’s ear to stop, listen and do what it is put in place to do—to protect its people.
Gerry: You often interrogate the uneasiness that comes with living. The challenges that make life and the world less homely. Where do you think society, the home, and friendship lost it in responding effectively to depression and its effects? And in your context as a poet, one who is loud about depression, have you noticed enough messaging by contemporary African poetry in addressing and reducing the stigma attached to depression in African settings?
Phodiso: I don’t know if I can say we have lost it. I think we all speak out differently, and depending on the graveness of what we have been through, the effort it takes to ask for help for each one of us will be different. I just think we all need to do the extra work of listening in close to possible pleas for help. Also to never think anyone is just seeking attention when they say they’re depressed or just not OK. How we have responded in the past to our loved one’s cries informs our future so it is better to start seeing each other now, to start listening and reaching out to help now. It is easy to dismiss someone talking about their depression today and be in the same plight tomorrow, there is a saying in Setswana, “O se tshege yo o weleng mareledi a sale pele”, which is to say that you never know what might happen to you in the future so make not light of someone’s struggles today.
I think contemporary poets write a lot about mental health. A lot of the poets I follow like Ijeoma Umebinyuo, Koleka Putuma, Warsan Shire, Nome Patrick Emeka and a whole lot others do give mental health a seat in their art, of course we cannot say the work of reducing the stigma attached to depression is done but I’d say yes, a lot of poets are writing on it. And it is really helping to keep the conversation on mental health going. We know that oftentimes in Africa when you speak of depression you can be seen as too Eurocentric, as if health could be a thing of a particular part of the world only. It is all a part of an existing miseducation that will eventually be undone with time, as long as we keep writing, speaking out and supporting those who need help.
I recently came across part of Koleka Putuma’s thread on Twitter which I read as a poem, “When someone celebrated says I can’t breathe with all this cement on my chest, do not say, at least there will be a pavement when it dries.” It speaks a lot to our tendency to respond to a writer’s mental challenges as just material to write about. Sometimes writers want to take time away from writing, want to cry out their pain, take it to therapy, and ask it to cooperate without being made to feel like it is a price they have to pay for being poets / writers. This is to say that yes, depression does come for the gifted too, the celebrated too and when it does, they do not have to be invalidated because they are seen as doing good. I believe in so doing— allowing everyone to feel validated in their struggles— we disempower the stigmatization that exists around depression in Africa.
Gerry: I can’t help but be stunned by the calibre of the contemporary poets you have just cited. Speaking of calibre and brilliance, does your living between ‘Marobela and Kanye’ as depicted in your poem “Gaborone Has No Daughters Of Her Own” make it any easy for you to navigate in the locales of ‘page poetry and stage poetry’? To the extent of receiving a Presidential Poetry Award, and even more illustrious, to performing at the Inauguration Ceremony of a President. By the way, how was the experience of performing at the inauguration of President Mokgweetsi E K Masisi?
Phodiso: It’s a familiar place hey, the in-between of it all. I started first writing before I even thought performing could be a conduit for my stories; then when I discovered the stage I shied away from my own work and would perform poems by other poets. I remember the first competition I ever joined, I performed Janette…ikz’s “I Will Wait For You” at the University Of Botswana’s LLC competitions. I got a first runner up position and have never looked back since. Of course now I perform originals mostly.
For a while though, I abandoned writing poems that asked to stay on the page. I dreaded the editing process, so when a poem was done and did not already jump off the page, I left it alone for good. I’m still learning to give writing the effort it deserves, which takes a lot of time for me, but doesn’t all good art take time?
Performing at the inauguration of the president His Excellency Mokgweetsi E K Masisi was truly an honor. It was a point at which I felt everything that I have been doing to perfect my craft coming together to give me a pat on the pack, to say, “Someone is watching and you’re doing well.”
I remember when the call came for me to come be on camp in preparation, I did not know it meant I’d be performing live with a team of amazing dancers that was already selected. I still don’t know what I thought I’d be doing. And then came the process of writing and rehearsals, having to tear down three or four poems before I came to one that made sense, that part was a bit frustrating, the back and forth between sitting down to create and trying to merge that with the already existing piece of traditional dance, then waiting to hear if the poem was accepted, then going back to writing again. It was challenging for me, but in the end it all worked out well. I’ll say this though; like many people, I had serious imposter syndrome. For months on end, I did not revisit the performance, I was afraid I’d find fault with how I delivered, or that I’d feel someone else could have done a better job—which is something that happens a lot with intimidating stages for me. Hard to believe, I only sat down to go through the whole event just last month, six months later. That’s when I said, “Damn! I did a great job”, together with the team I was privileged to work with, we did well. I was performing with an amazing traditional poet here, Kopanang Tito, as part of an ensemble choreographed by the talented Tasman Pule and his partner.
Gerry: That is the beauty of art, regardless of type, art finds a way of seaming itself with another in creating a magnificent beauty! I am tempted to resolve that the presidential inauguration stage is not the only big stage you have conquered. In your pursuit of finding a home in a not so homely place, you have found belonging on the stage, performing recently in Zambia at the Sotambe Arts Festival and at Maun Arts Festival in your home country, Botswana. What other festivals has your poetry found home in, and is there a book coming our way from you?
Phodiso: I’d say yes, stage performance is one of the homes I have found in my pursuit of belonging. It was my first outlet after writing that made me feel heard, seen and honestly happy. I learnt early on to create honestly and to own my poems so when I am on stage, it is easier for me to wear my craft and honor it. Sometime in 2016, I met with Tjawangwa Dema (who went on to win the 2018 Sillerman First Book Prize For African Poets for her book, The Careless Seamstress, who advised me to read other poets works and submit my poems to reputable magazines for publication. That was the beginning of a humbling process of waiting for responses from editors, being rejected a whole lot of the time and learning to perfect my craft. I am still on that path, and thankfully some of my poems have found home in beautiful spaces online and in print magazines like Ake Review, Kalahari Review and the likes. So I guess when I am not carrying my poems with me to stages, they go on ahead of me to faraway countries that I hope to perform in, in the future. I have performed here in Gaborone at the annual Gaborone International Music and Culture Festival since 2017 and am a part of Jam n Soul which is a monthly poetry and music show that happens every last Thursday of the month. Speaking of Sotambe Film And Documentary Festival, it was such a joy meeting you there. I had hopes to make it again this year but with this pandemic and travel restrictions, I doubt that will happen.
As for a book coming your way from me, well, even I don’t know hey, but I am writing. I can tell you that much (laughs).
Gerry: It was great indeed to interact with a host of different voices that we are neighbours to. On that note, thank you so much, Phodiso, for your time in helping us find homes in our bodies, in page and stage poetry but most importantly, letting us know it will take all of us speaking and acting as one to make this a better place we can all belong to and identify as home.
Phodiso: Thank you for reaching out to me, Gerry. It was a pleasure being in conversation with you.
Gerry Sikazwe is a Zambian poet, literary blogger, and a creative writing coach. He is the author of Words That Matter (Mwanaka Publishers, 2018), a poetry collection.
His works have been featured in print magazines, newspapers, anthologies and online literary sites including Kalahari Review, Nthanda Review, AfricanWriter.com, Dissident Voice, In Between Hangovers, Spillwords.com, Sprinkle Storiez, AfroCabin, Pierian Journal, Tipton Poetry Journal (33), Mamba (7), Best of Africa, Best New African Poets 2018 Anthology, Times of Zambia (Sunday Edition 2017), Zambia Daily Mail (Friday Edition 2019), and many more. He writes and reads poetry from Lusaka.