Poetry As Prescription: A Dialogue With Musawenkosi Khanyile
Musawenkosi Khanyile is a South African poet and clinical psychologist. He holds an MA in Clinical Psychology from the University of Zululand, an MA in Creative Writing from the University of the Western Cape and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Public Health at the University of Cape Town, where he also works as a student counselor. His debut collection, All The Places, was recently published by Uhlanga Press, and his chapbook, The Internal Saboteur, appears in the 2019 New Generation African Poets: A chapbook box set (Sita).
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between Cape Town and Pretoria, South Africa, via email.
Nkateko: Hi Musawenkosi. I often start off by congratulating my interviewees on their most recent literary achievement/s but I am not sure where to even start with you because you have done so much lately. Your debut collection, All The Places, was published earlier this year with Uhlanga Press. You also have a chapbook, The Internal Saboteur, published in the African Poetry Book Fund’s 2019 New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set. You’ve also recently completed your MA in Creative Writing. Congratulations on all this, and thank you for making time to have this conversation with me.
Musawenkosi: Hi Nkateko. Thank you very much for considering me for this interview, and for your kind congratulatory message. It’s been a good year. Every writer knows that the journey to publication is one of rejection after rejection and many disappointments. The universe outdid itself in consoling me for all of this by arranging a beautiful coincidence in which both my debut collection and my chapbook were released to the world in the same month of June 2019. Even to date, I am still processing such grace.
Nkateko: It certainly has been a good year, which reminds me of this quote from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” Do you believe that this was a year that answered questions for you? Do you have more clarity about the work you want to be involved in and the art you want to create, more so than you did in the years that were plagued with rejection?
Musawenkosi: Beautiful quote. This year has indeed answered many questions. I’d like to think that clarity about my work predates the publication of both my debut collection and chapbook. It is probably the very same clarity that led to these publications. It would be disastrous if we came to be clear about which direction we want to take with our art only after someone has validated it by giving it a platform it deserves. There are years that ask a lot of questions, years when doors do not open, years of rejection letters and self-doubt, but we emerge from them with the realization that our art had long defined its path even in times when we were hopeless and felt stuck. I look back at the poems that I wrote years ago and I hear the same voice. A voice that is clearly mine.
Nkateko: I can relate to the idea of emerging from the “questioning years” with the realization that the art has charted its course. However, I often struggle with the disparity between what my work addresses and what society (or a literary microcosm) wants writers and poets to talk about or be concerned with. How do you stay true to your voice in a world that constantly tries to dictate what you should write about or respond to?
Musawenkosi: Nkateko, this is such an important question because it brings the conversation to the crucial issue of authenticity. For me nothing is as important as my voice. Writing has been, for many years, a lonely journey, a solitary undertaking where I was alone with my voice. It was only after the debut collection came out that it dawned on me that what I create is not only mine, that other people are willing to join me on this journey. The idea of myself as a writer stripped of this voice is therefore unfathomable. I don’t know what remains when a writer loses their voice. I was fortunate to be mentored by a brilliant poet, Kobus Moolman, who assured me that my voice is also necessary, also needed. There are voices that are readily welcomed by the literary scene, voices that are traumatised, that are political, and now there is a growing reception for voices that are queer. Poetry has, over the years, degenerated into what subject one is writing about. So I was worried that my voice, which speaks of the everyday experiences of the township life, would be overlooked. But I could not let go of what was mine.
Nkateko: You recently launched All The Places in your hometown, Richards Bay. What did this event mean to you, and was it different to previous launches that you had since the release of your book in June?
Musawenkosi: The irony about the launch in Richards Bay is that it was the least attended of all the launches I have had. Before Richards Bay, I had already launched the collection in Pretoria, Johannesburg, Cape Town and McGregor. But the Richards Bay launch was the most special one for two reasons. The first one was that I was finally launching my debut collection just ten minutes from Nseleni, where I grew up. Most of these poems were written in a four room house there. There are memories in this book that emanate from my experiences in that township. For the first time since launching the book, there were people in the audience who’d known me since I was a boy. So that was special. The second reason was that I had returned to launch my book in the very same bookshop where I bought my first ever book, Lebo Mashile’s In A Ribbon Of Rhythm, which I bought during my first year at varsity in 2010. The event left me with the realisation that there is a lot that needs to be done in inculcating the culture of reading in our people.
“Writing has been, for many years, a lonely journey, a solitary undertaking where I was alone with my voice. It was only after the debut collection came out that it dawned on me that what I create is not only mine, that other people are willing to join me on this journey.“
Nkateko: I agree that the reading culture in South Africa is poor, but is it not because the poorest of our people do not have access to basic resources, let alone reading material? How do we create a culture of reading for leisure when the children in South Africa’s primary schools struggle to read for comprehension?
A week ago, President Cyril Ramaphosa launched an online book club called “The President’s Reading Circle”, which was started “in an effort to boost reading across the country”. It is said that readers will be able to share their views on the books with the president through a chat service on the website. When I read the news, one word came to mind: Access. What percentage of our population will have access to the books on the reading list? What percentage of our population will have access to the internet so that they can engage with the president after reading these books? I wholeheartedly agree with you that a lot needs to be done, but where do we even start when we are still struggling to make the most basic of needs accessible to the people in our country? Are books a priority in the country’s current state?
Musawenkosi: When I learned about the online book club recently launched by President Cyril Ramaphosa, one of the first things that came to mind was that this is only going to benefit people who are already reading. This is for the middle class and the upper class; people who have bookshelves in their homes; children whose parents read to them in the evening before they go to sleep. In the hierarchy of needs, basic needs such as food, water and sanitation take precedence. So, in a country like ours where many people still do not have access to such basic needs, expecting them to buy or read books comes across as insensitive because reading is commonly perceived as a hobby as opposed to a need. Last year I moved to Cape Town, the city of dualities where the contrast between poverty and wealth is in your face. In the poem called “Reporting from Cape Town”, I refer to the sad reality of people in Khayelitsha who do not have toilets. I wrote this poem after I had read a newspaper article reporting about toilets overflowing there, leaving people with nowhere to help themselves. I find it interesting though that even in places such as Khayelitsha where there is heart-wrenching poverty, the slanting shacks there have satellite dishes protruding on the side. How much do people in the township spend on alcohol every weekend? So the question then becomes: how do we get people to prioritise books? There is a paper written by Kelwyn Sole in which he argues that South African poetry is dominated by better-educated and middle-class individuals with unconscious expressions and perceptions of privilege and class. Perhaps this is influenced by the thinking that poor people do not have the means to access books anyway, thereby rendering the notion of representing them in books fruitless. My argument is that we can help poor people prioritise books by writing literature that validates them, that speaks to them.
Nkateko: Is that what you wanted to do when you compiled the poems in All The Places? To write poems that would speak to people who come from the same background as you do? In “All The Places”, the titular poem in the book, you paint a picture of a man who “cannot escape his background”, even when he has made it out of poverty and has a seat at a table where he eats with a fork and knife, in contrast to him eating maas with his hands as a young boy. What fascinates me most about this poem and others similar to it, like “Bantry Bay” and “Mowbray”, is the narration. In other poems you use the “I” voice but in these poems, it is as if you are speaking about someone else, and it works because you narrate experiences that are very relatable, especially to young black professionals. Is the use of “he” instead of “I” intentional in these poems, in contrast to the ones where you employ first-person narration?
Musawenkosi: Definitely. I wanted to write a book that speaks to people from the same background as mine. I fantasized about a child in my township picking up this collection from a shelf at a local library and seeing the name of their township in it. I think there is validation in that, in seeing names of familiar places in a book, in reading about lives that look like yours. That validation bridges the gap between our people and books, such that they can see books as their own instead of giving in to the long-standing perception of books as for a particular class. Over the years, we’ve managed to do this television. People living in KwaMashu, a township in KwaZulu-Natal, see the very same streets they walk on when they switch on the television to watch Uzalo. There is something about that experience that is validating; something that says television is not a distant reality to a child who dreams of becoming an actor; something that says our stories are just as important. I believe that’s what we need to do as writers as well. The shift from “I” to “he” in the last section of the book was not intentional. I don’t even think that it was conscious. I have been grappling with this question ever since I encountered it at one of the launches. Perhaps this was a way to allow other people who can relate to the poems to own them as well by making the poems ownable. Perhaps the poems became too heavy or too intense to inhabit that I felt a need to distance myself from them. I don’t really know what the answer is.
Nkateko: When did you know that you had a complete manuscript, both for the chapbook and your debut collection? Did you ever question the completeness of either of them? I ask this because I know a lot of people who hold back on submitting their work because of a fear that it is not complete. I, on the other hand, tend to send work out and only later realise that maybe it was not quite ready to be seen, let alone published. Over time I have learnt to embrace this flaw of mine, because it has allowed to me to get more work done because of how easily and recklessly I let go of a past project. What is your process? Do you worry about completeness?
Musawenkosi: I struggle with completeness a lot because oftentimes it is not easy to let go. And poems are always inviting you back, wanting more of you. It becomes difficult to know when to stop. Writing, I’ve come to learn, is about constantly striking a balance. Sometimes you are looking for a balance between revealing and concealing. Sometimes you are looking for a balance between holding and letting go. In most cases intuition is what guides us. There’s something that tells you that it is enough and what happens next is a question of trust. So yes, I worry a lot about completeness. In most cases, I have to trust the voice telling me that it is now okay to let go.
Nkateko: Do you find any intersections between the fields of poetry and clinical psychology, particularly in your own life? In other words, does being a poet make you a better psychologist, and vice versa?
Musawenkosi: The poet and the psychologist have a common appreciation of the power of words. The psychologist knows that words have a healing power. Healing in psychotherapy, the form of treatment provided by psychologists, is facilitated through words. The poet, similarly, embraces different kinds of powers that words have. These include the power to create and, for some poets, the power to heal. During my internship in 2015, I realised that I became uncomfortable when things got emotionally intense in my interactions with patients. I needed to learn to engage with emotions. Some of us grow up in home environments that do not encourage emotional engagement. As a result, emotions are foreign, uncomfortable, intense, frightening, and so we retreat from them. My journey to becoming a psychologist challenged me to develop a healthy relationship with my emotional self. That process has benefited my writing. I used to write with my thinking brain, because that’s where I used to live most of the time. Now I write with my emotional brain, because that’s where I now live most of the time. Some people are drawn to the kind of poetry that makes them think, some are drawn to the kind that makes them feel. I prefer the latter, and I think psychology has made it possible for me to claim it.
Nkateko: In medical school, we had a Family Medicine block and our exams for this block involved closed-room sessions where psychology students came in as “actors” depicting the roles of patients we were likely to meet during our careers. There was a two-way mirror and our professor would be outside the room looking and listening in on the simulated doctor-patient interaction. It was unnerving at first, because these “patients” behaved in very bizarre ways, and we had a limited time (about ten to fifteen minutes) to figure out what was wrong and give a differential diagnosis and treatment plan before moving on to the next station in the exam. I remember after one very confusing exam, my friends and I sat discussing the cases we had seen and I asked them, “What was wrong with the lady in room 4?” and one friend said she was grieving. “You were meant to find out what had happened and then counsel her on dealing with her loss,” she explained to me. Looking back at that interaction, I had failed to ask probing questions and ended up using my ten minutes with the patient asking if she had any physical ailments. The previous station had been on “breaking bad news” so I should have taken the hint. Needless to say, I had to write a supplementary exam for that block.
I am reminded of the above because of what you said about your initial discomfort with emotional intensity in your consultations. Over time I also got better with this too, but I struggled again when I started therapy in 2017, as a patient this time. It was my first time sitting with a psychologist since being diagnosed with and treated for clinical depression ten years before that, so I felt like a dam wall ready to burst. I cried for most of that first appointment. When my younger sister was hospitalized, I remember a friend telling me, “Don’t cry. You need to be strong for her.” I was so devastated that the tears came as easily as oxygen to my lungs, but being shamed for falling apart made me want to “woman up” instantly and be the strong big sister, even though I felt the opposite. So, it seems to me that it’s only okay to cry in a therapist’s office. If you cry at work, with friends, at home, or anywhere else where the person who sees you is not trained to assist, you are in trouble.
Then there is the New Criticism’s affective fallacy, which I learnt about during a conversation with fellow poet Cheswayo Mphanza, and this made me realise that I was drawn to poetry as you are, on an emotional level. I had already been learning about form prior to that conversation, because I wanted to improve my craft (I felt like a one-trick pony with my litany of free-verse poems) but I realised that even in my favourite ghazals or sonnets or villanelles I was looking for that stab of the heart, that gasp-inducing line. It was like Adam and Eve seeing their nakedness for the first time, I swear! Even now, I deal with shame (for the things I love and do not love) daily. There are times I want to denounce my earlier work and start afresh with a new name. Is this just part of life, to be shamed into denying our emotions, to be shamed out of expressing what we enjoy until someone else endorses it? How does one break out of this loop and live authentically?
Musawenkosi: Nkateko, you’ve touched on a number of crucial things with this question and I can only hope that my response will do justice to it. I am not surprised that when confronted with the bizarre, the psychological, you resorted to asking about the physical. By the time we are adults, we are adept at understanding and dealing with the physical. We are used to regulating physical pain. As kids, we would hurt ourselves and deal with our bleeding toes sometimes without calling for the help of the adults. We are used to picking up if we are not physically well. But the mental is elusive. If we grew up knowing how to regulate emotional or psychological pain as much as we learned to regulate physical pain, we wouldn’t have as much suicide as we do. I’m quite certain that we wouldn’t be able to pick up depression as much as we are able to if it wasn’t accompanied by physical symptoms. So even the little that we are able to achieve with the mental, it is because of the physical. We normally refer to these physical symptoms of depression as “somatic symptoms”. People will go to the doctor complaining that they can’t sleep, that they are constantly tired and are losing weight. The doctor will ask them about their mood and other things, and then give them the diagnosis of depression. I have never heard of any case where someone walked into the hospital and said they were struggling with sadness and needed help to feel happy again. That’s why we still have a long way to go in tackling mental health issues.
I think that most of us do not know how to deal with emotions. Our upbringing robbed us of the opportunity to learn how to do this, because even people who raised us were also deprived of the opportunity to learn how to do this. It’s a generational problem. In most cases, when someone is crying, we are too quick to put our arms around them because the physical comes naturally to us. We do not know how to sit with emotional pain, ours and that of our loved ones.
How does one live authentically? That’s a difficult question. It’s a journey of accepting oneself. Accepting the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. A lifelong journey. Inauthenticity is born of our struggles with accepting ourselves. We become inauthentic when we struggle to accept the parts of ourselves we don’t like. We begin to use a voice that isn’t ours when we don’t like our own. We begin to write about subjects that are trendy in order to increase our chances of being seen. Being seen means we are worthy of attention after all, that our voice is worthy of being listened to. But we trap ourselves into more shame, because in our heart of hearts we know what it took for us to get this attention, thereby confirming that our true selves are not worthy of anything such that they need to be sacrificed in order for us to be celebrated. It becomes a vicious cycle. It’s such a brave thing to wake up every day and choose oneself. And that’s what we need to do every day. That’s what authenticity demands.
Nkateko: “It’s such a brave thing to wake up every day and choose oneself.” I love that. This dialogue, for me, has been an act of bravery. This is the first literary interview I have done since the completion of my six-month internship here at Africa in Dialogue, and it felt like such a leap when I decided to continue this work beyond that period, because it meant I could no longer hide behind the label of “intern”, or say, “Forgive me, I am still learning,” although I do feel like the literary interview is an art form I will be a student of for a long time to come. I believe it’s the same in any field: when the training wheels come off, you remain a student but now with enough experience to know what you do not yet understand, and where to search for answers next. I am grateful to have had this conversation with you. I look forward to speaking to you again soon, and to meeting you in person someday. I was once told that one’s favourite writers are best kept at a distance to avoid the disappointment of them not living up to expectations, but I think we both know that’s not true. I will bring my authentic self and you will bring yours. In the meantime, take care.
Musawenkosi: Nkateko, thank you so much for this interview. I like the fact that we did not limit our conversation to literature, but also covered other important topics, including mental health. We need more open-minded conversations like this one and open-minded people like yourself to initiate them. You’ve come into your own as an interviewer, and of course, as a writer! I look forward to your forthcoming chapbook with the African Poetry Book Fund and more of your work. All the best with your future endeavours. Thank you.
Nkateko Masinga was born in Pretoria, South Africa. She is a writer, performance poet, publisher, TEDx Speaker, 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow, World Economic Forum Global Shaper and 2019 Ebedi Writers Fellow. Her written work has appeared in Brittle Paper, Kalahari Review, U.S journal Illuminations, UK pamphlet press Pyramid Editions, the University of Edinburgh’s Dangerous Women Project, and elsewhere. She is the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. Her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. She is currently a Contributing Interviewer for Poetry under Africa In Dialogue’s Internship Program.