Vignettes in the Heart: A Dialogue with Sarah Lubala
Sarah Lubala is a Congolese-born, South Africa-based writer. Her family fled the Democratic Republic of Congo two decades ago amidst political unrest. They relocated first to South Africa, then to Côte d’Ivoire, before returning to South Africa and settling in Johannesburg.
Her work has been published in the Mail & Guardian, The Daily Vox, Brittle Paper, Apogee Journal and Agbowó. She has been shortlisted twice for the Gerald Kraak Award, and once for The Brittle Paper Poetry Award, as well as longlisted for the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award. She is also the winner of the Castello Di Duino XIV Prize.
Her debut collection, A History of Disappearance, was published in 2022 by Botsotso Publishing.
BY ELIJAH BWOJJI
This conversation took place between South Africa and Uganda via Twitter Spaces and was transcribed and edited for length and clarity.
Bwojji: I find that writers extract emotions from songs. While reading your collection, I wondered if you have any songs that you listen to frequently as you referenced Congolese gospel in some of your poems. Do you have any favourite songs that you listen to a lot?
Sarah: Definitely, you are right in saying creatives pull emotions from songs. I have quite a few. The reference to Congolese gospel has very much to do with my mom, it’s what was always played in the house while growing up, especially on Sundays when she was trying to wake us up for church in her slightly passive-aggressive way (laughs) but it is very much rooted in my memories of childhood I still find myself listening to them now, especially when I miss her. I also listen to a lot of indie soul and indie funk. I love listening to Negro spirituals. I have a love for Keaton Henson, whose is quite the melancholic singer, but he sings and writes so poetically He has a particular song called 10am Gare du Nord, which is about someone who has experienced a lot of heartbreak and says they can’t possibly stand one more heartbreak, but also knows that the experience is where the music comes from.
Bwojji: Awesome. Who is Sarah and what has her journey been like?
Sarah: It’s the simplest answer to say that Sarah is a writer, and it is also a true answer. Sarah is Congolese-born and South African, while also not being those things, in the complicated way that immigrants identify. I have been writing poems for as long as I can remember. I often found that the language of prose, while beautiful, could not really get to the core of an experience or emotion in the same way that poetry can. This has to do with the nature of the thing, the ability to wield imagery in the most visceral ways, I also think that poetry is a more honest language to express what is unspeakable.
I am a writer, and when I am not writing which is almost never, my day job is at a fact-checking organisation called Africa Check. I am a lover of tea over coffee, which sometimes gets me into trouble. I love French patois, I love listening to Haitian French music and reading poetry. I am constantly wrestling tenderness and softness out of everything I can.
Bwojji: On the tea and coffee conversation, I am a tea drinker but I love the smell of coffee. It has a wonderful aroma.
Sarah: That makes sense.
Bwojji: What was the inspiration behind the title of A History of Disappearance? How has the publishing journey of the book been?
Sarah: The title is from a poem in the collection itself. In some ways all the poems are about the different kinds of disappearances; the disappearance of history, both personal and national when one immigrates, but also of loved ones, and the disappearance of self. The title touches on the experience of memory itself; writing the book and drawing from those past experiences feels like a thing that is there and not, simultaneously. When I started to think about the collection of poems and what the central theme was, it did feel like disappearance was it. There is also discovery, but disappearance made sense for what I was trying to explain and convey.
In terms of the publishing process, it’s very strange. It happened almost accidentally. I submitted my first poems for publication in my mid-twenties, and I had no expectations that they would be well-received or go on to do much. Very soon after, an editor at a local publishing house here in South Africa contacted me and said ‘we love these three poems, could you send us forty more’, to which I cackled into the atmosphere because I am not a prolific writer, I had about ten poems in total. Thus began the five-year process of writing this book. Fortunately, my publisher was very patient and understanding. If one reads the book, it is clear that the content needed to take the time that it took. After five years and ample patience, we published it this year in February, and since then the experience has been really wonderful and surprising in a lot of ways. The response has been so positive, which has been phenomenal and humbling.
Bwojji: Truthfully, the simplicity of the poetry and the way in which you tackle its topics shows that a lot of time was put into crafting this book. As readers, we do not see the journey that goes into making the writing process seem seamless, but when you talk about it taking five years, I can see it.
You spoke about the title tackling disappearances on a personal level, as well as on a national level in the context of refugees. I have been thinking about how there is a history of disappearance, but also a disappearance of history. We live on this great continent of Africa, where most of us cannot trace our family history back to 150 years ago, so we are struggling to understand our identities while our languages are also disappearing slowly. There is a poem in your book that speaks about the language from which some words have disappeared and are being replaced by French words, which I found very interesting because in my language, there are words that have disappeared and have been replaced by English words. This disappearance of history means that we can no longer define things in our own languages; we have to define them in English, which means that our culture is shifting. Each year, we find ourselves defining things differently according to what the West is saying and not based on how we are living. The title of your book is therefore epic on so many levels.
In the last two lines of the poem ‘6 Errant Thoughts on Being a Refuge’,you write,
is a narrow bed
Every time I travel away from home, after a few days, I start thinking about my bed and how it captures the essence of home for me as a place of rest, a place to process my thoughts in peace. What inspired this poem?
Sarah: It was the first poem I wrote that made me think I could possibly use the title ‘poet’ to describe myself. It was inspired by the things I had been grappling with at that time. I wrote this when I was 22 years old, if I am not mistaken. I was thinking a lot about what it means to be a refugee and what happens to your idea and understanding of home when it is complicated, when the concept of it can become a site of trauma. When you are an immigrant, particularly if you are a forced one, you have to reimagine what home is, and it can at times feel like you have no control to define it beyond the place where you sleep. When you are a refugee, that is quite literally the line: the bed, the mat, the thing you are given to sleep on. The word ‘home’ in that poem appears in inverted commas because it highlights ways in which that term is always shifting and that it’s complicated. As you mentioned, home should be a place of rest but it also can be the opposite, so what does it look like to carve out the place of rest amidst all the change that is happening, both internally and externally? When I was writing the poem, the points appeared as vignettes in the heart, windows into past experiences. I would get the image in my mind, write it down and that would be point one, and I would move on that way. I feel as if the poem encapsulates so much of what I was trying to understand about myself, about migration, about home, and also deals with the complication of what it means to leave one home and go to another.
“I wanted to write about something that I had found, which was love and what it can do to your belief in yourself, your view of yourself. I very much feel that we believe each other into being and this was kind of a reflection on what it means to be in love.“
Bwojji: In the second stanza of the poem, you wrote,
grief travelled with me
across the Ubangi River
There is a book that I read, titled Grief is the Thing with Feathers, and it is about how grief follows us. The Ubangi River is large, and if one thinks about water as something that we use to clean ourselves, I would imagine the crossing of the river being a cleansing of the past before going to a new place. In your poem, grief travels with you. How have you dealt with the grief of losing home, loved ones and a sense of identity as you describe in the book?
Sarah: By writing this book, certainly. Poetry has been the place where I go to pray, to figure out how to move through the world and how I fit into it, or to explore the ways in which I do not fit in and what that means. It has always been my church; not just the writing of it but the holding of my saints, the poets that I love and admire are a solace to me.
Bwojji: Biblical imagery is spread across the book, in a unique and refreshing way. In the third stanza, you wrote,
for a God you can sink
your teeth into
In the Bible, Jesus rebukes the devil by saying that man should not live by bread alone but also by the word of God. My understanding of that scripture has always been that the word of God is something you eat, something that you sink your teeth into in order to satisfy a hunger that you are looking to overcome. In that way, God becomes food. .
I really enjoyed this poem. Are Biblical metaphors central to the way you view life or is it because you were raised in a Christian home that this imagery permeated your thoughts and the way you view life?
Sarah: Both, I think. I was raised in a very Catholic home, so in some ways these images and lines are the first stories I was ever introduced to. They have a very formative place in my mind. I am not Catholic anymore, but I do think that the Bible is one of the most poetic pieces of writing, and I don’t mean that from the perspective of a Christian idea about transformation or what it can do in that sense. I mean that it is literally a literary text, which means you can approach it and the meaning changes each time. It’s a good lesson in how to use imagery and metaphor, and those are the first metaphors I connected to. For me, writing poetry is a spiritual practice both because it is the thing I do and go to in order to heal—it is the medicine I take—but also because it is the way I pray. I pray to a God, of my understanding, who is complicated and doesn’t show up in the way we always think; this isn’t the vending machine God as presented by some ideas of Christianity where you just ask something and it’s given to you. As a refugee, as an immigrant, as a black woman living in South Africa and in the world, I had to grapple with a God who included those things and those experiences. Now, for me, God is less a white man with a beard and much more a place or a position in the world. Poetry requires a great deal of paying attention, which is for me one of the most spiritual practices. In doing so, I see God. In the collection I have a poem, ‘The Litany of Mary’, that says:
Give me the words that are God
when I cannot see God
That’s what poetry and literature have done for me, it’s been the God that I can literally sink my teeth into.
Bwojji: That is what poetry does for me too. I have always believed that poets are prophets. If you sit down with a poem and analyse it, you will find that it does not just speak of the present but the past and future as well.
Your poem, ‘On the Xenophobic Attacks in Johannesburg’ is a very short poem, and yet it’s so packed.
They say God’s promises
Who prayed for rope
This poem has made me think about rope and fire, which I believe represent imprisonment and death. If God’s promises are yes and Amen, when other people pray to God for me to be removed from the position I am in, are His promises still yes and Amen? Equally, when I am praying to God, what am I praying for regarding my neighbour? Are God’s promises yes and Amen for all of us? Some of your titles seem to have no relation with their corresponding poems at first glance, but upon closer inspection they are the doorways to the poems. What came first, the titles or the poems?
Sarah: What you said about what we are praying for regarding our neighbours is absolutely true. In writing this poem, I remember that I sat with the experience of xenophobia in the country; it is a strange thing to live in a country experiencing xenophobia and not be at the epicentre of it. I was living in Johannesburg, where it was happening, but I am privileged in some senses because I am middle-class, which means that I was not always in imminent danger although my family often was, as they lived in those places. I remember trying to write an essay about it and suddenly those were the lines; that was it, there was nothing else I needed to add.
That’s how a lot of the titles come to me. Sometimes they come as a line in my mind, and there is an inner knowing that it is the title. Sometimes it is inspired by another remarkable poem I have read or a poet who I have connected to. If you are a lover of poetry, you know the feeling when a line just kills you and enters your blood. I was inspired by different poets who have done that to me. The poem ‘Boy with the Flying Cheekbones’ is an homage to a Canadian-Caribbean poet named NourbeSe Philip, who writes a lot about immigration as well. Her first collection was called ‘ Girl with the Flying Cheekbones’.
Sometimes the titles feel like they perfectly encapsulate the experience I am trying to… I don’t want to say ‘describe’, because that is the point of poetry, though the poem is not just about describing the experience but can be the actual experience itself. Sometimes I wanted the titles to be inscrutable because they were very personal to me and I wanted readers to find their own meaning in them, to connect to the words in a way that makes sense for them. The title of the poems, ‘The Women,’ is one that a number of people who have read the book have told me—especially growing up in South Africa as a woman—just made sense to them on a deeper level. Sometimes the titles find me, sometimes I find them and sometimes it’s almost like a journal entry that is just for me and no one else. If the reader gets it, that’s fine. If they don’t, that’s also okay.
Bwojji: The poem ‘A List of Things I Don’t Tell My Mother’ is written as a list of things you would rather hide from your mother. I have a feeling that it is also a letter that was written to your mother. What is happening in each part of the list?
Sarah: When I wrote this poem, as I do with all of my writing I sat down and asked myself what is the thing that I am most afraid to say, and that is how this poem came to be. I started listing them, the things I was too afraid for my mother to know. My mother in this sense also represents the things that are difficult to communicate:,1) a family that was raised Christian and Catholic and 2) first-generation immigrants, because second-generation immigrants often has this difficult task of holding together the culture they come from and the one they enter, which is impossible to do., So, I started to just write the story that was sitting on my throat.
This poem is very much about growing up in an abusive house and witnessing things. When I wrote it, I was writing about a real experience which happens often in trauma survivors —especially when that trauma is around abuse—which is that touch becomes something that is not always tender, that it can be something that is threatening and causes incredible damage. For a time I genuinely was afraid and I hated to be touched. Some of the items on the list have to do with memories that I am too afraid to remember and some of those memories involve my mother. A lot of this book is about what is unsaid or what cannot be said. This particular poem and memory and experience has been one of those unspeakable things. Thank God for poetry, which is a place where unspeakable things can be spoken.
Bwojji: Indeed, thank God for poetry. The last stanza of this poem reads, h) i think now i am a woman because i am terrified of my own body. what it makes men do.
Last month, a group of my friends and I were writing and we chose to theme the month ‘Family’. We were asking ourselves what family means, and most of us wrote that we love our families, but cannot go to them as our true selves. There is always a mask you put on, there are things that you never share with your family. We present ourselves in a way that will make our parents comfortable, so I wonder what will happen to the next generation when we become parents.
What have we done to ensure that the next generation will have permission to say all the uncomfortable things that we cannot say, without the fear of being disowned?
Women are never comfortable in their bodies because they are constantly afraid of what men will do to them. It is terrifying for me because I always wonder that if I were to wear a woman’s shoes, would I be able to manage life?
Men are terrified of the dark. When you find a fellow man in the dark, your first assumption is that they are going to mug you and kill you, but during the day our armour is that we can see the threat and know how to escape it. Women are not safe during the day, because their bodies can be seen.
How do we raise our sons differently, so that our daughters do not have to hide and be terrified of their own bodies?
Sarah: It starts with this, reading that line and grappling with it and trying to understand what it might be like to be afraid of your own body. I specifically wrote ‘what it makes men do’ because the culture—rape culture, sexual assault culture—is very much about what women need to do to keep themselves safe, which logically makes no sense but it is always your responsibility because your very being is the thing that is going to bring danger. The reality is that I live in South Africa and we have one of the highest rape rates in the world, not to mention the kind of femicide that happens here. I just read this morning that the bodies of eight women were found in downtown Johannesburg, and I think that’s an enormous number of people, human beings, being described as bodies that were found in the streets. In some ways, I was desensitized to it and expected it because that is what it means to grow up and live in this country. There is no space where terror doesn’t go because it lives in you. In some ways that is the goal of this kind of culture; it is to make you feel unsafe in yourself, to make you feel that the threat is always imminent, and statistically speaking, it is. It is terrifying, it can be very terrifying being a woman. I don’t know if men are having that conversation about the real kind of trauma, and the way in which that trauma is made to live inside us; that it goes with you even where you are theoretically safe. You are constantly making calculations. Men may be afraid of being out in the dark or of being robbed, but being robbed is not the worst thing that can happen to a woman. That is certainly what we are told, how it is framed, that being assaulted is the worst thing., It doesn’t only happen to women, but it happens mostly to women. What does that mean, and where does that trauma go? Where does one then try to find some inner sense of stability, of safety, which is a basic human right, when it has been taken from you? I was recently reading a list created by the South African Police Service (SAPS) with things that women can do to lower the risk of being assaulted, one of them being that women should wear their ugliest shirts to bed. The existence of this list is appalling and almost comical. The fact that even in your bed, even in your sleep you are not safe, your body is never safe, and that’s what that line is. My hope is that men can engage with that in a real way, and connect with that terror. I think they need to understand the terror because it goes beyond fear; it is terror, it is a kind of domestic terrorism that is happening. Until men have a conversation among themselves and leave us out of it, I don’t know how far we will go.
Bwojji: The last stanza of this poem takes me back to the title of the book. Women are robbed of their bodies, of their innocence and peace, and there is resultant disappearance in how you see your body. The actions of men who are supposed to be your comrades or colleagues rob you of seeing them as that, as they have become something else.
Your poem ‘Dispatch from Ward C’ addresses mental health. The poem has an intimacy to it, with its moving scenes pulling you in and forcing you to acknowledge the issue at hand. What led you to write this poem?
Sarah: This poem was written in a psychiatric facility and we were allotted an hour of free time every day. Apart from that we had to go to therapy and all sorts of other group exercises. I tried to do the thing that has always healed me, which is to write about the experience, and also I think it’s really important to be an African woman writing about mental health. A lot of us were sold the idea by our families that depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses are not real, that one needs to just turn to God. The irony of turning to Christianity, which is a colonial import, is endlessly interesting. I wanted to put this poem in the book because it forms part of what I call the larger part of the decolonial project, which is that we as Black people, as Africans, don’t talk about the trauma of colonialism as a thing that is passed on. We talk about the need for reparations in the form of material resources, and that is absolutely true and needed, but there is also the toll it has taken on our mental health. The science of it is that it is passed on in the genes. The wonderful thing about that is that although there is intergenerational trauma, there is also intergenerational healing.This healing can’t really happen until we have these conversations; we have to make spaces for people to have the conversations that aren’t often welcomed or given space to. We need to start thinking about mental health and wellness as a human right and one that black people deserve.
Bwojji: Recently, a Ugandan newspaper called The New Vision released a report that said that 14 million Ugandans are mentally ill. 70 to 80 percent of this country’s population is youth, people under 35 years of age. This makes me wonder what the government is doing about this. Also, as citizens, as people who call this nation home, what are we doing about it?
On the process of decolonizing, how are we decolonizing the definitions of things? I love that this poem does not tackle mental illness from a scientific or western perspective, but a personal, intimate perspective which invites me to check myself. When the colonisers came, they gave us Christianity and now, when that is no longer working, we are given what I call the science religion, still from their point of view. The narrative is that all that was and is African is evil. It is hard to trace how our societies dealt with mental illnesses, or even what the conversations around mental wellness were.
Can we discuss the last stanza of that poem?
They all want to know
what I’ll do when I’m ‘out there’.
God with me: I’ll die, and I’ll return,
I’ll wound, and I’ll be wounded,
I’ll swallow the white throat of fear.
Sarah: Being in that hospital was an interesting experience that underscored everything you mentioned, even how mental illness is treated very much from western epistemologies. It was interesting being in a facility with largely people of colour; it made me think a lot about why we were in there and what some of the historical reasons might be. As you pointed out, some of it has to do with the way in which our history as Africans has been occluded, and occluded as a word is important because it refers to a strategic kind of disappearance, it is a rewriting of history that leaves key points out so that we are positioned in place as Black people, as Africans.
I was getting so many interesting questions from mostly white doctors, and one of them was on the question of intergenerational trauma, what I would do once I left that place and what I would put in place to support myself. Also, there were questions from my family, ‘You are done now, you are good? You have gone to the place, so you are great now?’ They almost wanted to forget that it had ever happened. I was facing all of these different pressures about what I should be doing once I had left that place, and I tried to think for myself what that might look like. In some ways I thought a lot about resurrection and how my writing has allowed me to do that. There is a kind of reconstruction of self, a very healing bringing together of disparate parts.
The answer to the question of what I would do once I got out was that I would live, and living involves wounding and being wounded in very real ways, and fundamentally what knew I would do is what I had to do while I was in there, which is to face myself, to face the places in which I am fragile, and also to know in some senses that I am unconquerable because I survived. Regarding the description of ‘swallowing the white throat of fear’, I always think of fear according to where I feel it, which is in my throat, and it also has to do with what you can’t say, as the fear sits there. When I think of ‘white’, I think of white-hot, I think of a kind of searing pain or pressure and I felt very much leaving there having written this poem that I had conquered fear itself, of what I was dealing with, being my depression, and in terms what others expected: what my recovery was supposed to look like or who I should be now that I had been there. I tried to dig deep into the truth of it for me, which is that I was unconquerable.
Bwojji: I believe the words of the Apostle Paul when he says that if you have been called to God’s work, you should marry God’s work. I think that love is a call to die to yourself and for the other. A friend of mine often says that dead people don’t feel pain, so if love is a call to die, what does that look like? In the last stanza of the poem ‘Honeymoon’, you painted that picture for me,
Tender and Only Beloved,
show me how our bodies are hidden in each other;
say touch is the only way of knowing;
say we are kept for better days.
I ask myself, what are the better days? Are better days when we are eighty years old and we have seen every single thing, and nothing can shake the foundation that we have? This poem is heavy for me, that even when you are in love, you are in this union but you cannot share your hunger, you cannot share your pain with your loved one. Most times they see you grappling with your pain and all they could give is their presence, which in most cases is not enough.
Sarah. This is a relatively lighter poem in comparison with the others, at least in theme. The thing I have been telling people who have gotten the book is “don’t read it all in one sitting”, both because the content is incredibly heavy but also because it is meant to be experienced. As I was writing the book, I remember I got about twenty poems in and it was remarkable and cathartic but I started to think that I was writing a lot about everything that has been lost or taken or disappeared, and I wanted to write about something that I had found, which was love and what it can do to your belief in yourself, your view of yourself. I very much feel that we believe each other into being and this was kind of a reflection on what it means to be in love.
The reason why I love this poem is that it is about love and yet it is not the Disney idea that we were fed, that it is hard in the most beautiful ways, that there can actually be people whose presence is enough, even when you think you are lonely. There is also loneliness in love; I think that we are taught that it’s a feeling to avoid and run away from, but it’s a part of the experience of love and loving, and not necessarily in a negative way. It also speaks to the way in which we need each other. When I say ‘Tender and Only Beloved’, that beloved is my love, it is God, it is love itself. When I pray to God, I often say ‘oh Great Love’, and I felt that it taught me just how much we need each other. Sometimes that is the lesson of loneliness, the truth that it brings home, and that is the most beautiful thing. It is the thing that holds humanity together.
Bwojji: Thanks so much for this conversation, Sarah. Where can readers get a copy of your book?
Sarah: The African Books Collective is a site that houses a lot of really great African fiction; that is the best place to find it if you are based outside of South Africa. Locally you can find it in independent bookstores; Love Books in Melville, The Book Lounge in Cape Town. You can also go to my website, which is sarahlubala.com, where you will find links to the stores that have the book.
Elijah Bwojji is the beloved son to his mother and father, a storyteller and an avid consumer of literature. He is a member of the Lantern Meet of Poets, producer of theater productions and audio-visual productions. He cofounded ibuajournal.com, an online publishing outfit in Kampala Uganda. He moderates A Poetry Meet, which is a space poets and poetry lovers come every fortnight to read and critique poems they have written. When he is not thinking about why leaves fall off trees to die, he freezes motion to tell stories in snapshot moments using photography.