Critique as an Ingredient for Growth: A Dialogue with Tamanda Kanjaye
Tamanda Kanjaye is a writer and poet with a scattering of published pieces. She studied journalism at the University of Malawi—The Polytechnic. Her work has been published in the anthology Water Birds On The Lake Shore, the poetry collection The Elements: A Collection of Poetry and Prose on Earth, Air, Water and Fire, and literary journal Kalahari Review. Her story “For Someone I Used to Know” and her poem “Paint Scars” came third runner up in the inaugural Penavenue Malawi competition and Makewana Writing 2019 Writing Competition respectively. She has also been shortlisted in a few competitions. She sporadically posts micropoetry on her Instagram page.
BY JALIYA THE BIRD
This conversation took place between a bustling place in Luanda and a lavender and white bedroom in Lilongwe filled with crumpled papers of story ideas and a thousand pens of which some have long run dry, via WhatsApp.
Jaliya: Hi Tamanda, thank you very much for accepting my invitation. I am delighted to share this space with you. In your bio for the Kalahari Review, you mentioned being interested in the concepts of death, human misery, broken souls, self-destruction and the idea of possible salvation and redemption. I would love to hear more about this, what compels you about these concepts?
Tamanda: I believe life has made me a very sad and cynical person. People always tell me to look for a bright side but I feel like I do quite the opposite. Dark, sad and painful stories make the best ones if you ask me. They expose the raw goriness of humanity. Regardless though, there’s still some light patches in all the dark and I guess a romantic part of me does love the idea of a good redemption story.
Jaliya: “Life has made me a very sad and cynical person”, I know something about that! For a very long time I saw my bad experiences as baggage until I found myself being able to connect with people in a particular way and saw the proverbial wisdom in pain and scars, and I began to interpret my “baggage” as “weight”, the weight of who I am. There’s nothing pretty about experiencing things that grind us or break our spirit, but it is beautiful to provide comfort for people in a way that surpasses empathy through our experiential knowledge. We are also able to keep ourselves going based on our track record of survival, and this is a fabulous redemption story.
You speak of the raw goriness of humanity, and I want to know two things: how do you tackle ugly truths? In his interview with Edith, Ayotunde Olumilua says, “one of the advantages of fiction is that one can mask one’s own experiences or controversial opinions with characters”. Do you find yourself speaking through characters when you want to express something dark or shameful or do you come, write as yourself?
And secondly, all of this requires a lot of transparency and honesty, please talk to me about your relationship with vulnerability and truth-telling.
Tamanda: I think I use my characters to express my experiences and then experiment with the different reactions and situations that could come from them. And sometimes I try to think of scenarios I have never experienced and how I would react to them. I use my characters to explore the multitudes and dynamics of life and emotions. I definitely use characters and words to say things I wouldn’t have said outside the story, writing. Sometimes I say them first on paper then in real life.
I swing like a pendulum between oversharing and shutting down like a clam. I try my best to be as honest as possible when asked things. But I’m also aware of how I lie by omission a thousand times and how I let certain things live and die only inside me.
Jaliya: I love this bit about saying things on paper first and then in real life. What are some of the things writing has brought out in you? What have you learned about yourself through writing?
Tamanda: I think writing made me realise that I was a very angry person on the inside. Angry, slightly troubled and definitely sad. But at the same time, while showing me these aspects of myself that I didn’t know, it also offered an escape and some release. Exposed my trauma and gave me therapy if I want to be all weepy about it.
Jaliya: I’m thankful for how writing can be conversations we have with ourselves. I hope that writing compels you to dialogue with yourself in a way that’s valuable even when it reveals anger and sadness. Speaking of conversations and therapy, you wrote God, Grief and Me, a poetic dialogue by (and you scratched it out, replacing it “with”) Tamanda Kanjaye. What’s your viewpoint on this distinction and why was it necessary to bring this outlook to this particular work?
“I absolutely love critique: good, bad or ugly. The idea is to learn from it. I feel I need to hear all sorts of critique for my work because it helps me grow as an artist.”
Tamanda: This work in particular is very personal. A little exposition: I grew up Catholic. I am Catholic. Though more agnostic than anything. And that’s to say I do believe in the Christian God. I just don’t agree with His word most times. Sometimes I’m also open to finding out about other gods and sometimes I just feel it’s the universe.
In this piece in particular “God” refers to the design, things outside our control that happen around us. Anyway, I wrote this piece on the way to a funeral. I had lost someone dear to me and I couldn’t bring myself to cry. I felt numbed out and all I could think about was “why God, why? How much more from me can you take? Have you not taken it all?” I already knew I wasn’t going to cry that day. My relationship with grief is a tricky one. I don’t feel it then and there, most times I try not to.
My relationship with God is strained.
Half the time I don’t dwell on either. But I’m learning that sometimes you have to accept things as they are. Let God be God and allow yourself to cry.
Jaliya: It’s good to explore religious beliefs, test what we believe in. I’m sorry for your loss, I hope you are recovering from it. Thank you for this.
I also enjoyed your other collection of poems, Papier Mâché. How did it come about?
Tamanda: The funny thing about Papier Mâché is that it’s years in the making. I wrote “Paper Hearts” when I was like 16, about five years ago. And “Paper Castles” when I was 18. When I wrote “Paper Castles”, I thought I’d write a compilation called Paper Castles. And I knew I wanted “Paper Hearts” to be part of it. I knew that each poem in the compilation would be ‘paper something’ but didn’t know exactly what. I always wanted to write a poem called “Paper Tigers” (and I knew it would tackle abuse, given the meaning of a paper tiger) but I didn’t write it just then. So, for three years I thought about what I could put in the collection, what I wanted it to be. And kept shelving it ever so often.
Fast-forward three years later, I was fresh out of college, under lockdown and had gone almost two years without writing anything worthwhile, and I decided I wanted to write Paper Castles. But the title didn’t fit. I thought maybe Paper Worlds but it didn’t portray the versatility of what I wanted to write. I wanted to write a collection without a theme or subject but which came together well. Something malleable but pretty… Like all the things people make from papier mâché (still one of my best titles). That’s how the title came, really. Not grand, just from intense thinking. The poems came one by one, as they always do. A lot were scraped off (one was called “Paper Gods”, but it didn’t come together as I had hoped). I also wanted to originally write a longer collection but how many times can one use paper in a title, really? Each has their own little meaning.
Jaliya: Congratulations on your very fitting title Papier Mâché.
I like what you did with “Paper Tigers”, it reminds me of another poem of yours which also stayed with me, “Paint Scars”. I think you’re skilful in being concise and profound, simple yet meaningful. You describe yourself as a writer of micro poetry, what draws you towards this style of writing? Am I correct in the analysis I have made (i.e. you know how to say a lot with few words)? And does this choice have something to do with what you mentioned earlier about “swinging like a pendulum between oversharing and shutting down like a clam”? Is it something you started doing because you wanted to bare yourself and simultaneously be private, encrypted? How did this style come about for you? Furthermore, why have you continued to write like this? I have read collections from 2017, 2019, and 2020 and I see micro poetry as your signature, something you’ve been doing for quite a while.
Tamanda: Well, I try to say a lot in a few words as well. I try my best not to meander, especially since my poetry is for reading. I need to be able to captivate my audience and keep them there until the end. I think some of these things, especially the things I talk about, can be easily said in as few lines as possible for best delivery.
I think short and concise also says a lot about me. I’m straight to the point. I don’t give out more information than necessary and I don’t usually wind. But I do overshare.
Jaliya: What do you consider oversharing and how do you happen to overshare when you are quite straightforward and deliberate with what you’re saying? Do you perhaps get attached too quickly and that then builds the rapport that allows you to share much too soon?
Tamanda: I don’t think it’s about building rapport. I think it’s more about offering exposition, context and authenticity. People relate to a good story and I’m a storyteller. I think it’s more for exposition and understanding, providing them with something to relate to. Most of the things I stand for, that I write, I can personally relate to and have experienced in one way or another. I think it gives meaning. And then I get intense and realise “oh maybe that was too much”.
Sharing is hard because it requires you to allow yourself to be vulnerable. It’s basically giving someone ammunition to hurt you if they wanted. Humans aren’t always as gentle and kind as you wish.
Jaliya: Agreed, I also find myself stepping outside of my comfort zone in order to tell a story effectively. When the story demands a bit of exposure and context, I’m the type to open my heart to set the scene. Like you said, sharing requires vulnerability and it is hurtful when people use what we have shared against us, or when they respond in a way that makes us wish we hadn’t said anything.
Speaking of responses, you have taken part in various competitions. In 2017, you were a finalist for the inaugural Pen Avenue Malawi short story competition. In 2019, you were 3rd runner-up for the Makewana Poetry Competition. Your writing has also been featured in a couple of places like Robin Barratt’s ninth collection of poetry and prose: The Elements: A Collection of Poetry and Prose on Earth, Air, Water and Fire and The Afro Young Adult Anthology, Water Birds on the Lakeshore which took you to a week-long workshop in Rwanda in 2019. In this universe of competitions, features, publications and workshops, I believe your work often receives critique. How do you deal with critique? How has it shaped your craft? How do you deal with negative feedback? And how do you deal with no feedback? We’ve all been there, you make a submission and don’t hear anything from the publication or look at your audience and see blank expressions.
Tamanda: Water Birds on the Lakeshore is as it was marketed (laughs) the first anthology of African young adult fiction by African writers in recent history. It has 17 uniquely told stories that deal with a myriad of issues from family, to war, to loss, to sexuality. My story, “A change in sleeping arrangements”, is featured in there. At first it was purely a hard copy, but now it’s available on Okadabooks and Amazon.
I absolutely love critique: good, bad or ugly. The idea is to learn from it. I feel I need to hear all sorts of critique for my work because it helps me grow as an artist.
One thing I’ve learnt from the years is that if you allow yourself to be critiqued, the more you learn which ones to listen to. In that sense, what I mean is that sometimes someone will tell you that you need to change something about your work and sometimes you stop and think oh okay, “this is correct”. And sometimes they say something and you say “no, that’s not what I’m trying to do.”
When I was in Rwanda, the workshop was there to critique our work. I got peer reviews on how my work was lacking. And don’t get me wrong, it hurts to be told your work is lacking but those are the things you need to hear more than “your work is good”. Anyway, the facilitator, who was literally the main editor of the book told me to edit a crucial plot point and I was able to defend my work and say, very politely that I didn’t agree with her because that wasn’t the essence of the story. I literally thought my story wouldn’t be selected for the anthology after that. But after a bit of time I got the invite and the news that I had made it through the final cut.
When it comes to negative feedback, I won’t lie and say I always deal with it as a pro. Sometimes someone will tell me it’s bad and I’ll go whine and cry like a child. But I believe the negative feedback has been more constructive than positive feedback because, 1) it helped me develop thick skin, and taught me to be a better writer by 2) teaching me which ideas to incorporate. I think most writers when told that their work isn’t ideal rush too quickly to defend it. The best thing is to ask in what ways it isn’t. And that’s when you get comments like “it’s too passive”, “the main character is unrealistic” blah blah. It’s also important to note that some people won’t give such detailed feedback and it’s up to me to find out how to fix things. In the words of some guy I cannot remember “Art is never complete, just abandoned.” My work can always be better. Even if it wins the Nobel Prize in Literature. Maybe one day. (Laughs).
I think it’s always crucial that as an artist I critique myself as well. Continuously. And then also learn when I am done, accept that “although it can be better, this is the best I can do” and move on.
But above all 3) critique lets me know my work more. I’ve learnt to fine tune which feedback actually applies to my work and which doesn’t. Some people think they know what you’re trying to communicate better than you. And if I hadn’t learned what exactly is it that I was trying to say with each piece, I would have found myself falling under the trap of listening to every single critique and morphing my work into something I didn’t intend for it to be.
No feedback to me is the worst. If I could, I’d pester everyone to get back to me on what they think of my work. I am always left wondering…”Did they read/pay attention to it?”, “was it so bad that they are left speechless?”, “was it so spectacular that I’ve stunned them into silence?” I can never know. What I do know is that there will be other audiences and publications that will give me feedback. The key is to learn to move and not always dwell, otherwise I’d forever be stuck in one place. I definitely do not wish to be a stagnant writer.
Jaliya: I love this response. Thank you so much for these words. I love the part about genuinely pausing and thinking about the ways in which our work is lacking, it´s something I embrace wholeheartedly but I’m also a firm believer in analysing what feedback applies to me as you’ve rightfully noted. This takes me back to a story I wrote when I was about fifteen, and a friend of mine advised me to change a word I used to describe a particular character. He said it invited the reader to disrespect the character. I replaced the word and it just didn’t sit well with me. Two days later, for about 45 minutes, I explained why I needed to use the word I had originally chosen. This was because I understood what you have said here, that we should ensure that we tell the story we wanted to tell.
Thank you for telling your stories and in a way and style that is true to your intent.
Still on critique, what are your comments on being the one providing critique and feedback? What has your experience been like?
Tamanda: This has made me have a lot of enemies in my field. A lot of people say art is subjective and whatever and as long as someone is doing it, it’s all that matters. And as much as I wholeheartedly agree that nobody can stop the masses from liking what art they like; it is still possible to judge what is good writing and what is not. I have read tons of Wattpad clichés that I thoroughly enjoyed more than I should. But I was also very aware that it was bad writing. Because the reader in me and the writer in me are different. That being said, a lot of people have come to me seeking advice. Most times I ask whether they write as a hobby or as a career, because then I know what I am dealing with.
I try not to be brutal, but I do try to be honest. I don’t just award people just because they merely participate in the craft. Writing is hard. It takes learning. Like any skill, it takes honing as well. I’ve said it before, people can always get better at writing. At any time, if they are willing to look past pride and defenses and just listen to critique. Most people like to call me out when I critique work of literary merit such as Chimamanda or Rupi Kaur or Upile Chisala or Roxanne Gay or Octavia Butler. But I think it suffices to say, everyone’s taste level is usually higher than their own skill. Do these women write a hundred times better than me? Absolutely. Does it mean I can’t critique them? I’d like to think I can.
It’s about learning and relearning. People take writing for granted. They say it’s a talent, which to an extent it is. But writing can be taught. Writing is my talent but it’s not my talent alone that got me this far. I had to learn. And if someone is willing to learn, I’m willing to help as best as I can.
Jaliya: So well put…
I saw your name in the credits of a Mott MacDonald video about soil erosion and the need to take the necessary measures to prevent agricultural failure in Malawi. Miss Camera Assistant Tamanda Kanjaye, are you telling me to expect a movie from you in due time? Through what other mediums do you explore your creativity? What are you interested in exploring? I would love to experience your mind outside of the written word.
Tamanda: Amazing you’d ask. I sometimes sketch. I wish I knew how to do the graphic designer things and illustrate my own books. I also wish I drew more sometimes. I used to want to get into film and short movies at a certain point, but more motion graphics (animation stuff). I have so many ideas on how to conceptualise my poetry through animated films.
Jaliya: This is wonderful! I did pick this up from your Instagram page and your poetry collections, some poems were laid out in interesting ways, you don’t just communicate in written form or verbally but you also speak visually (P.S What you did with Sketch Media Malawi is fire, pun intended), and this is something I enjoy about you, I love how creative you are. What’s keeping you from exploring design and graphics and all the other cool things you want to do with your poetry and stories?
Tamanda: To be honest the task seems daunting. Learning a new skill from scratch is hard. My friends tell me the basics but most of them are too busy to teach me. I’m tired and lazy to put in as much desired effort as I’d like.
Jaliya: Fair enough. However, I do hope you still explore these things and use the mediums you want to even if you won’t be the one executing the tasks yourself, partner with people in the field and make it happen!
Tamanda: I hope to one day do it, honest to God.
Jaliya: Splendid. As we wrap up now, I would love to know what you have been up to these days. Are you working on anything you would like to share?
Tamanda: Yes, actually. I’ve been writing slower than I thought I’d go, but at least I am doing it.
I am working on a short story collection called The Glass Box which will feature 10-12 short, simple stories about girls, their families, their friends and their lovers.
The other is a collection of poetry called Candlelight. This is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever written actually. It’s a collection about abuse, divided into three parts: Nightfall—which talks about abuse as it is, Open wounds—which talks about the trauma from experiencing it, Candlelight—which talks about how people heal in their own little ways. It’s called Candlelight because most people expect there to be sunrise after nightfall. And as much as we all strive for that, abuse changes us. And healing is hard and sometimes the best anyone can do is light a candle to take them through the night.
Jaliya: Oh, this sounds like a treat. Thank you for endeavouring to tell these stories.
And thank you so much for availing yourself to have this conversation with me, it was such a wonderful time. I wish you luck with your upcoming projects. I also wish you growth and the courage to keep finding out what you have inside you. “I definitely do not wish to be a stagnant writer”, from your lips to the universe, let it be.
Tamanda: It was nice talking to you on this as well. Now that the serious bit is done. I’d like to get to know you too, since you know all my guts.
Jaliya: Absolutely, let’s go for virtual coffee. Look at Africa in Dialogue genuinely connecting writers!
This dialogue was edited by Kylie Kiunguyu.
Jaliya The Bird is a writer, poet, performer from Angola. Her work explores Womanhood, Blackness, Africanness within the concept of [Inter]Sessions: UnSpoken Words. [Inter]Sessions is provoking, celebrating, releasing emotion and thought through storytelling, writing, poetry, and performance art. The artist is passionate about freedom and authenticity, living life from the core of who we are as we respond to the causes that move us. Her award-winning spoken word film Idle Worship produced by Ariel Casimiro via Usovoli Cinema has screened at various poetry festivals. You can read her work here www.jaliyathebird.com