Poetry Meets Music: A Dialogue with Tsitsi Jaji

Tsitsi Jaji is a Zimbabwean American, who grew up in Harare before moving to the U.S. for college. She earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell University. She is an associate professor of African and African American studies at Duke University.

 She is the author of Carnaval from a the collection Seven New Generation African Poets (African Poetry Book Fund/Slapering Hol, 2014) and Africa in Stereo: Music, Modernism and Pan-African Solidarity (Oxford University Press, 2014). She was awarded an honorable mention in the African Poetry Book Fund’s Sillerman First Book Prize.

Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Boston Review, Madison Review, Runes Review, InTensions, Munyori Literary Journal, Black Renaissance Noire, Bitter Oleander, Illuminations, Eleven Eleven, Poetry International’s Zimbabwe page, and the Center for Book Arts Broadside Poetry Series.  Her poetry collection, Beating the Graves, was published February 2017 by University of Nebraska Press

This conversation took place in the warm, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the vibrant city of Durham, USA by Skype.

 Gaamangwe: Tsitsi, I am fascinated by how the poetry in your first chapbook, Carnaval, started out as program notes for music you were performing. How did you arrive in this space where music meets poetry?

Tsitsi: My mother is from Ohio, and her grandmother was trained as a professional pianist and so music had been important in her life. It was classical music for the most part even though that grandmother never became a concert pianist. She played in the beginning of jazz in silent films.

I started to feel strange about the fact that I was studying classical music the older I got. When I was younger, I didn’t think about it because you just do what you are told, and I was quite serious about piano at the time, so I applied to go to a Conservatory of Music in the US. When I got in, I was also studying literature and it was the first time I took a class on just African writers because I grew up in Zimbabwe in the late 80s and early 90s when the literature was still very colonial.

In secondary school we read Bessie Head, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiongo and one or two Zimbabwean authors. Those were the sum total of set books by African writers at my school. Music was the same – all European composers. So, when I came to the US I started to have a complex about singing western, European music. At one point, I thought about quitting and my teacher said that is not a very smart way to think about it. Why don’t you change what you are playing?

So, I started to play some compositions by black American composers and even to write some music, to set poems I liked to music. When I was about to graduate, I felt like, I don’t know why I started doing it, but it became a way to say that this composer from the 19th century in Germany was my composer.  To claim it and say just because I grew up somewhere else does not mean I have nothing to do with that work than a person who grew up in Ohio. For me, when I hear those pieces of music, there meant a lot to me.

For example, one reason I like this composer, Schumacher, is that he has some mental health problems, some mood disorder and bipolar and I also had some experiences with that. He had these two characters in his music, Eusebius was supposed to represent depression and Florestan represented mania. I felt a certain kind of kinship or resonance with this composer. His composition, Carnaval, has pieces where two of them are named characters, and it’s very literary — he loved literature and he also started a journal of music writing.  So it didn’t seem all that strange at the time but to tell you the truth I have never seen anything like that either.

I feel like the best thing about being a writer from Africa, whether you are on the ground or in the diaspora is that it is a relatively new literature and so we are free to keep inventing forms with the kind of energy that I don’t know if other people in the same platform believe they have. We can take whatever we want and remix it. So, for me some of the poems in their original form were descriptions of the music or how I felt about the music. Some of them where portraying the characters that the music would choose to represent. But after I first wrote them, I didn’t touch them for probably ten years. When I went back to them, I cared about them in a different way. Some of them didn’t change. Like Sphynxes which is dedicated to Cecil Taylor, an experimental jazz musician, who I just love because he is also a poet. He is extremely individual and challenging. I didn’t change that one. There are some poems in there, like Chiarina which became much more African poems. Chiarina is in honor of Yvonne Vera, one of my favorite Zimbabwean writers. Another one is a portrayal of Fela Kuti because he has this fire energy that I associate with that figure and experience of mania.

I found this great quote when I was studying for my doctorate, by Abdullah Ibrahim, the South African pianist. He wrote in a column in the 60s that the piano is an African instrument and it made total sense because pianos used to be made of ebony and ivory, which are materials that were extracted and stolen from Africa. Piano is also a percussion instrument and we know that the whole history of drumming and complex percussion starts in Africa. So, on one hand it sounds like a surprising statement but on the other hand on a fundamental, material level, he has a point. Plus I think that if you play any instrument with your own sensibility you make it your own. And for the piano it has a lot to do with how you touch it, a certain kind of attention. I learnt to do that in Zimbabwe. I would practice with the door open, and I could smell the rain and I could hear whatever was happening outside. For me now, I would say piano in Zimbabwe is Zimbabwean music. I try not to compartmentalize my life too much because these are all just music and poetry and walking and meditation, they all the ways of getting through life.

Gaamangwe: The image of you playing the piano while it rained is incredible. Did the inspiration or the interest in what Schumacher did with his mental disorder and music translate into how you created your work?

 Tsitsi:  Definitely. I would say that the period when I started writing more or less every day, which I don’t do anymore, was in my twenties. That was a period when I really was having a hard time coming to terms with the disruption that I had experienced due to my mood disorder and another autoimmune disease.  I had to take some time off from university and it was tough.  At one point a nurse recommended a book to me that was about creativity. The book was called The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, and it was very transformational for me. It’s like a twelve-step program as if you are recovering from alcoholism. Basically, it encourages you to recover your inner artist because we do live in societies that have some strange concepts about artists– who can be an artist, what your life looks like which is often assumed to be chaotic, broke etc. So anyways, I went through this period, and wrote a lot of poems, which were terrible, I think only one of them made it into the Carnaval series in the book. But at least I was writing.

So what I would do is kind of make a collage, I would cut out images from a magazine and I would write the poem from that because this book encourages you to do things like “artist dates,” where you do something that inspired you. For some reason, taking magazines and cutting out images appealed to me. That helped me to process emotions in a less direct way than talking to someone in therapy.  I think therapy is a very strange and cultural thing, like that closed room and one person who you are paying. But in Shona society (and probably in other parts of Africa) we have family structures where there are particular uncles and aunts you are supposed to be able to confide in. Or ceremonies, which often involve music, that are supposed to make you understand things more holistically or feel better. Anyways, for me poetry was helpful.  Almost my entire life music has really been a powerful way to express emotion and I think that’s true for people whether they make music or they listen to it or they dance to it. It’s powerful.

The one thing I have not done is to put music into my own words. I don’t know if I have ever done that but I find it easier to talk about other music or musicians or to make music responding to other words. I also just like improvising with no words myself. I guess I can also say the same kind of learning, a certain kind of judgmental rationalism, goes to the background and helps let whatever is coming come, it’s something that is a part of my creative practice.

That’s not always how I write and it’s not always how I play but sometimes I feel as if I receive certain kinds of information into my consciousness. Time is a very funny thing; I have had experiences where I write something and I don’t know it at the time but it has something to do with something that’s going to come into my life. And when I look back I realize that the poem opened for what was coming in a way that I can look back to make sense of it. Those poems have been healing for me. I feel real continuity between that and how Shona people think about ceremony, to try and resolve things, where music is important and dancing is important.

A certain kind of formulaic speech is often involved and you can think about being a medium as a kind of performance art. We have different vocabulary in society for these things, and I happen to have spent a lot of time in the global north and so I just try and think about how these things can translate.

That’s exactly how some poems like the ones about family trees and my ancestor, VaNyemba have become part of the collection. Even the title ‘Beating the Graves’ does that — some Shona people think it’s funny and maybe an inappropriate direct translation. There is a ceremony in Zimbabwe called kurova guva and that’s literally what it means, because kurova is to beat someone. Guva is one of the names for a grave. It’s an important ceremony done several months after someone dies, marking the transition between loss and accepting them as an ancestral figure.

It’s complex, of course. I have one American parent and one Zimbabwean parent. At this point I have lived in the US since 1993, which means at this point I have spent more of my life in the US than in Zimbabwe. I live in a space of translation, I can either let myself feel undone by that or inhabit it. At different times, I feel both. Poetry is one of the places where I can try and inhabit all the dimensions of myself.

Many people have helped me with that along the way, but I would say someone who was transformational in talking about this is Chris Abani. I met him through that chapbook, Carnaval. He’s one of the editors of the African Poetry Book Fund. I have known his work for a long time and I loved his novel Graceland and even taught it in courses I was teaching in university. So, when I met him I was terrified but he’s a very generous person. His mother is from Britain and he himself is actually an initiated Babalawo and his first long collection of poems Daphne’s Lot is about his mother. This is someone who is fully Nigerian, fully the son of his mother, fully part of the Nigerian diaspora in the US, and truly an African in a pan-African sense: he lives in himself. He doesn’t apologize for his differences and it makes him a generous and open person. He said something powerful to me sometime because I felt ashamed that I speak French better than I speak Shona. I had started to work on the VaNyemba poems and he said you have lost more than some people have ever had. And it just made me realize that what I still have, culturally, is actually a lot and that I have a lot of memories to draw on and that I shouldn’t spend so much time feeling conflicted and guilty.  These are the stories I have been given by the life I lived.

No one can tell those stories if I don’t open them and give the opportunity for other people to maybe recognize how idiosyncratic they are, and how they also can own their own stories,  because we are all neurotic at some level.  If someone reads and says, “Wow I have never imagined that experience,” maybe they will start to think that even if they don’t see a mirror of their own life in the world they can recognize and value their experiences.

There is no way I can conform to some pre-existing cultural norm because where in the world can I find another mixture of a young person born in a country that no longer exists with the cultural experiences I’ve had? The only other person is maybe my brother — and we couldn’t be more different, now as adults! So, it just frees me to say to myself,  well; I am made up of all those things, all those things belong to me but so does the whole world.

There is another quote I love by Publius Terentius Afer, commonly known as Terence. He said “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me”. That’s who we are, we are people of the world. Some of it we didn’t even choose to be pulled into. Africa is the continent that life and civilization as human beings started on. And we are people who have loved through colonization and slavery. We are part of the world and the world is within us.

Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. There is a certain liberation you get when you know that you are not the only person experiencing something. But I also know that even if someone hasn’t exactly experienced your experience, our interconnected universality allows us to relate to almost all human experiences.

I was reading the “Book of VaNyemba” and it shook me. It’s such an interesting and unexpected, beautiful creation. Can you tell me more about it?  

Tsitsi: So Book of VaNyemba opens with a true story but at the same time, I am very nervous about this one, because this figure, VaNyemba, really did live and I did not know about her until I was an adult. I call her, “her” but it’s an open question. The way the story was told to me by my aunt was that she was hermaphrodite. But I have also seen versions of this story where she is described as keeping bullets in her womb, which I think it’s a very poetic way one might describe someone who is intersex, with undescended testicles.

I live in the US where sexuality and desire is talked about in different language than in Zimbabwe. I do think that the homophobia that people talk about in the diaspora is based on a fiction of Shona culture. There is a book called Hungochani and the researcher interviews people that live in the very rural areas, who speak Ndau, and they would talk about people who have same sex desire and those people lived with their partners, not necessary in the same household but people didn’t hassle them, they were just quietly accepted as they were.

For me when I heard this story about VaNyemba, I was shocked; it was so different from anything I had heard. I had never heard of it before and this was when I was twenty-six and my grandfather had passed away, and I couldn’t go for his funeral but I went afterwards and I stayed with my aunt who had taken care of him.  She told me this story because she knows a lot of traditional information that my father probably knows but didn’t tell me because he is very committed to the church. So, she told me the story and I just kept it in my heart and it stayed with me all this time. I would research her from time to time so that’s how I know some people described her as having bullets inside her womb. There are certain ceremonies around sexual difference in Shona culture that honor her.

But I was worried that the explicitness of my poems would upset some people including my father. I was very relieved when I showed it to him and he was delighted that I was praising our ancestors. I am also interested in praise poetry, specifically clan praise poetry because it’s one of the high forms of poetry in Shona oral literature but it’s also one of those things that shows that you are good mannered or a well-educated person, especially if you know some of the praise poetry of other clans. My father is very good at that, he will meet someone who is from the Nzou elephant clan and praise them and their horns, their tusks you know. I read some of the praise poetry for the Tembo, the umbrella group for Zebra Clan. I just thought, What would this look like in English? Let me read you a few lines of a translation by Hodza and Fortune, of one of these praise poems;


You’ve done a service you who yearn to give

You whose horns grow down to meet together

harmless beast without horns

You striped one, you who love to share

Harmless beast from round there’

So, I think about what that would be like in Shona and nyemba is the word for bean, it’s not a butter bean but I just thought butter bean and sugar bean sound delicious in English, so that’s how I translated it. I just thought if you praised the characteristics of someone you can go overboard. But also, I was raised in a Christian household, and the forms of prayer that I know have a lot of that kind of language. So, it’s trying to weave all those things together. At one point I thought it would be a longer series with more poems but these are the ones that I have so far, the ones in Beating the Graves. It felt great when I gave this reading at the recent Africa Poetry Book Fund event at the Library of Congress. There was a Zimbabwean man who is an ordained priest, and who is also studying counselling for Shona traditionalist, whether that’s their primary religious orientation or not. His name is Father Guria, and he came to the talk and I knew I didn’t make major mistakes with the VaNyemba because afterwards he said this is a great rendition of her story.

These stories of women and female identified persons who are macho are quite heavy but I think its important to remember them and their past and the suffering that they have sustained.

Gaamangwe: Lately I have also been drawn to the idea of telling the stories of our ancestors whether they are myth or not. For us in Botswana we rarely ever teach or at least we were not comprehensively taught the histories of our forefathers. I am quite interested in our own myths and legends as Botswana, and as Africa because they are slowly sipping away, and there are parts of ourselves and our heritage. I think it’s so powerful that you are translating and re-telling those kinds of stories.

On this idea of translating music through poetry, Shona praise poems to English, how are you translating Zimbabwe’s history and current state?

Tsitsi: I think about this a lot. Regardless of how long I have lived outside Zimbabwe, it will always be the place where I learnt language, where I learnt music, where I learnt what it means to be person, where I learnt the concept of what it means to be connected to other people. That’s my foundation, my intellectual, emotional and constitutional foundation. It’s also the place I spend my formative years.

I feel a lot of sadness because I grew up very privileged in Zimbabwe. To be born right before independence, into a family that already had university education, I cannot imagine a better time and place. I went to good schools and I had music and ballet lessons, and my family was very close. The first few years of my life I lived in the rural area in the north-eastern part of the country, because my parents were teaching in missionary schools there. Zimbabwe is where things make sense to me on a gut level:  the correct smell of rain is the way rains smell in Zimbabwe, and the correct look of soil is the way soils looks in Zimbabwe. The correct sound in the morning is the way the doves and the cock crows in Zimbabwe. So even though I have spent a lot of time in other places, the place where everything fits and makes sense to me is Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe is also a country that’s changed and has become disordered in so many ways. You see that more when you are away and come back for a short period. I honestly feel like the disrepair is just like the potholes on the road. When I first came to the US and people were talking about this undeveloped Africa, I got so angry because Harare is such a beautiful city, it still is, and when I was growing up, the downtown and the nothern suburbs where I grew up were idyllic. But I have also stayed with cousins (in Shona they are my children, not my “cousins”) in high density areas and it wasn’t not idyllic there. It was vibrant and safe but you couldn’t grow up in Zimbabwe without knowing deep inequality existed.

My Zimbabwean grandparents never had electricity or running water even though my father built them a house with separate rooms and all that. They had a hard life. I think it’s part of why they lived into their 90s, it’s because they were strong people. Coming out of that, there is a part of me that feels angry about the economic and political chaos in Zimbabwe. Very angry. But what came before independence was profoundly unjust, truly shocking abuses. Some people will say out loud that Zimbabwe before independence was better but it’s not true. People were not treated like actual people. There were daily humiliations. My grandfather was forced to sleep in the kraal during the war. People will be rounded up at night and there were not allowed to go out. Basically, a concentration camp. So however inexcusable the rule by the same person over nearly the past forty years in a country that calls itself a democracy is, it is also the case that we were building something other than what we went through.

I have loyalty to Zimbabwe, but also, I have a lot of complicated feelings about Zimbabwe because I am protected, I have a US passport so if I criticize the government, I am not really the one who is likely to suffer; I worry that my relatives might well be targeted because we don’t have a very common last name. So, I don’t write things directly, there are metaphors in my poems that if you are from there you do know exactly what I am taking about and I worry about it. But most people would not recognize them. There are animals that are very symbolic for political things. And I can’t stay silent. But what reassures me is that Yvonne Vera wrote about very charged, political things and she was never arrested. Her books were never banned because her writing was very poetic, it was never direct. I feel like the gift of poetry is to bear witness and obviously, I don’t always write about Zimbabwe now because I don’t live in the situation but at the same I cannot not talk about it. As a responsible citizen of the world, there is no way I cannot talk about politics.

Gaamangwe: It is important and valid. The writer can write about the current society and experiences from their point of view.

My high school tutor was from Zimbabwe and he used to tell us stories of Zimbabwe before the war. It sounded idyllic like you said. And when the war broke, highly educated and hard-working people left Zimbabwe and some of them came to Botswana. And when they come here, they don’t get the jobs they are qualified for, many of them settle for menial jobs, and it’s just heartbreaking because people’s lives are shifted, and their lives are not what they could have been if they live in a stable state.

Tsitsi: Its very true. The discourse around immigration in the US is very related to what is happening is Southern Africa. When my parents moved here, my father couldn’t find work as a professor even though he had been heading his department for years. My brother helped him find work as a salesman, but he was too focused on giving people advice – actually counseling them that they were spending too much! At one point, he was working as a janitor in a car dealership. I think about amazing teachers from Zimbabwe who end up doing very menial work in South Africa, Botswana, the UK. It is heart-breaking especially when people struggle so much to get an education and end up not using it. One thing that made Zimbabwe such a strong country was how people valued education and they still do, and for the most part they must, to survive. That’s not mentioning migrants or refugees who are involved in politics — that’s another level of vulnerability.

Gaamangwe: Yes. Thinking about what Beating the Graves means in Zimbabwe, I wonder if this body of work is a sort of a cathartic process of exploring what Zimbabwe is and what she lost, and opening new spaces of perhaps acceptance and healing?

Tsitsi: First, having lived abroad I haven’t been involved in that ceremony for either of my grandparents.  In a way, writing these tribute poems is a way that I can attend that ceremony. It’s considered as an important transition when someone has lost someone and they are not yet settled. It’s the transition when they become an ancestor who can really help you in your life.

So, when I wrote some of those poems, like the one for my grandfather, he had passed away recently. I sent that one to my aunt and she read it at the funeral. Some of them I wrote when my grandmother was still there. So, writing about your country from far away, it’s always about the relationships and people from far away. I guess writing is a sort of ceremony too. It’s a kind of settling and powerful resources of those experiences of loss into the present. I think of Shona culture as an amazing set of technology for moving through the world and I think of Beating the Graves as a gesture of acceptance and of recognizing that even if we people and things are no longer with us, their lives and presence in our lives have power and meaning that continues in death. I don’t have a Shona traditional, spiritual perspective but the way I would express it is that to this day, if I do something that my father is proud of he will say “Oh your grandmother, the things in your head, there!” as if she expected great things, and it kind of reminds me to stay in that kind of trajectory

My grandfather was very gentle with animals. I am probably that way too. And, know that our totem is connected to hunting and farming honey. So, when this happens, even when I see a bee which is associated with our totem I am reminded that all the good things that he did are still good, and they are a source of my own research in a sense of what’s right and wrong. The thing is, that’s a Shona technology but it’s also my technology for understanding the world. I view my American grandparents in the same way. There is a poem in the series about my Ohio family. It’s called Vindication because the newspaper there is called Vindication. Just to remember them and what they did, which is more than a memory, it’s kind of affirming that their lives continue to have meaning and influence in the present.  These are my very loose poetic translations of things that other people might think of in another way.

Gaamangwe: Wonderful. Thank you for being in this space with me.

Photo credit: Tanji Gilliam

Gaamangwe Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.

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