A Place Where Spring Is Possible: A Dialogue with Linathi Makanda
Linathi Makanda is a multidisciplinary artist based in South Africa.
She is the author of the poetry collections When No One Is Watching and I Say These Things To Myself, and has been featured on Mental Realness Magazine, Poetry Potion, Lolwe and 20.35 Africa, where she was a part of their New Poets Series. New Plains Review, an online publication of the College of Liberal Arts of the University of Central Oklahoma, featured her visual, Seasons, which combines elements of art direction, poetry, and videography. Additionally, this body of work was selected to screen at the Lift Off Online Film Festival in the United Kingdom under the Short Film category. Among the platforms she has appeared on are The Luupe, Hear My Voice, Drum Magazine, Salamander Ink Mag and Busboys and Poets. Makanda is also the Senior Editorial Writer at California based publication ColorBloc Magazine where she has worked with artists such as Kah-Lo, Muzi, Nikiwe Dlova, and others.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place in South Africa, via email.
Nkateko: Hello Linathi. Thank you so much for agreeing to have this conversation with me. Your profile on Latitudes Online describes your creative story as exploring ‘the intersections of impossibility, passion, and the making of everything possible out of nothing.’ This is such a profound statement. Can you tell me what it is about impossibility that drives you to create?
Linathi: Hi, Nkateko. I’m so honoured to be having this conversation with you.
I think the interesting part about impossibility is how it tests threshold and challenges perspective. One person can see a situation as so dark and permanent, the other can be so uncomfortable in that darkness that they push through to see whatever is on the other side.
When I felt the need to really take myself seriously as a creative, I was seeking completion. I was in a very dark and slow season of my life, and I guess I wanted to be able to feel like I was capable of completing something. You could say that was the initial driving force and now, seeing how far I’ve come from that feeling to slowly believing in myself, my journey and what it has to offer me, pushes me now more than ever.
Nkateko: I like the idea of pushing through to see what is on the other side of darkness. In ‘Take me where the sun is’, you wrote,
Where darkness has made a home out of my skin,
I need deliverance.
Take me where the price for fulfillment is not my own blood.
This excerpt of your poem reminds me of a TV show I used to watch a few years ago. In each episode, the presenter, who was a trained counselor, would sit down with people who were trying to fix their lives in some way. She would ask them, ‘What are you not willing to do in order to fix this?’
I am so accustomed to the vocabulary of striving to the point of drawing blood that I am surprised when I see this being challenged. So when the speaker in your poem says ‘Take me where the price for fulfillment is not my own blood’, I am reminded of that counselor asking people to state their boundaries, to place a limit on the extent to which they are willing to suffer to leave the darkness. I find that so revolutionary. I know that we need soft landings, we need to know that there is light that does not come at the cost of our lives.
Linathi: You are actually making me realise that this is a theme I seem to circle back to often. In a more recent poem that is an ode to Sarah Baartman and how we are in many ways extensions of her, I mention this again. Here, I envision Sarah and the speaker freely dancing and embracing their bodies, the sun staying up longer and Sarah not being on someone else’s clock, paying for that with her blood. In that poem, blood is symbolic of control, discomfort, and how Sarah could never, even in death, feel as though her life belonged to her. Perhaps there is something in me that also feels as though as a woman, that is a sacrifice we are often driven to make and have so long identified with maybe as even a form of affection. So in these works and in my personal capacity, I guess I’m unpacking that. What ways have I made myself pay with blood, and in what ways have we all been conditioned to? How can I live and breathe outside of that on this journey?
I also feel this is the beauty [risk] of art. That something can unearth itself, whether you consciously or unconsciously realise that that is a part of yourself that you need to have a conversation with.
“I am seeing clearer now and there is a place where Spring is possible, even for me.”
Nkateko: ‘Baartman and Me’ is a beautiful tribute to Sarah Baartman. The mantra, “Rest. This is no longer a fight”, is so moving, so necessary. When I read your poem alongside Diane Ferrus’s ‘I’ve Come to Take You Home’, the image of rest becomes even clearer to me. Ferrus wrote,
I have made your bed at the foot of the hill,
your blankets are covered in buchu and mint,
the proteas stand in yellow and white
and the water in the stream chuckles sing-songs
as it hobbles along over little stones.
Ferrus’s response to the French government’s refusal to bring Baartman’s remains back home to South Africa was to prepare a final resting place that would be familiar to her. There is something very reassuring about the image of her resting at home, ‘away from the poking eyes of the man-made monster’ as Ferrus says in the poem.
When I think of rest in the realm that we exist in, I think of something that is temporary, a brief respite from my daily burdens. Perhaps a two-week holiday at the coast, or a few days off from work. But I am yet to experience rest as a culture, as something to embrace. You rightly say that we are driven to make sacrifices in the name of love, or as a mark of our womanhood. But how do we step away from that in ways that are sustainable? I also want to ‘live and breathe’ outside of these expectations but if they are built into our society’s fabric then how do we rebel and still make a living? What does rest look like for you?
Linathi: Thank you so much, that poem holds a very special place in my heart.
I am so moved by how you perfectly articulated your experience with this temporary form of rest. I absolutely agree that it always feels like we are on borrowed time.
The way I see it, though, is that rest may not only be defined within the sphere of time spent moving or time spent stationary. Maybe it can also look like refusing to let go of certain sacred parts of yourself and others, or the decision to have something that belongs to you that the system or society cannot take away from you. So I can be moving, sleeping, praying, crying, holding my lover’s hand and that can feel like rest on my body. The ways I tell my body, “we are safe now”.
And if you think about it, that is not far from Ferrus’ wish for Sarah; wanting her to have what was familiar to her.
Nkateko: I love the notions of safety as rest, and defining rest outside the sphere of time and how it is spent. In your interview with Precious Okpechi for 20.35 Africa’s New Poets series, you said that “poetry challenges us to contemplate, dream, and unpack the full spectrum of who we are and can be”. That is so beautiful, and it makes me think beyond poetry, to consider how other art forms also facilitate the exploration of the “full spectrum” that you speak of. As a multidisciplinary artist, is there a common starting point for everything you create or is there a unique way in which the ideas manifest depending on the genre or discipline? When an idea comes to you, do you immediately know in which art form it will begin or end?
Linathi: I appreciate you asking such a beautiful question. In retrospect, I realize that my starting point has always been to feel. I am not a half measures kind of person, and slowly, I am trying to make peace with the fact that I deeply feel much about anything I engage in.
Initially, some bodies of work are somewhat experimental, and as I go along, I feel more, and they take on more shape.
Personally, I also experience creativity as very spiritual, which I believe is not unique to me, but true for most creative individuals. So far, I’ve been intuitive in how I approach my work. I listen to what Spirit is saying and move within the frequency of imagination and trusting the process. Yes, these are multiple disciplines, but I feel they are also different forms of healing work, for myself and others, and even though I am sometimes unsure how my work will turn out, I am learning to trust it because it is medicine.
The intersection of these crafts is also beautiful. In my photo-series, Imagining Home, I was fascinated by how my writing influenced and shaped where and what I wanted it to be.
Recently, I have felt as though my creative disciplines also know when to give each other space (Laughs). When it is photography season, the writing knows when to show up and when to step back and vice versa.
Nkateko: ‘…even though I am sometimes unsure how my work will turn out, I am learning to trust it because it is medicine.’ This really speaks to me. In my own journey, I am learning that seasons of silence and deep reflection are conducive to my creative process. There are months when all I want to do is travel, read and immerse myself in art that inspires me and makes me think deeply about the world, and I have really struggled to get to a point where I don’t feel the pressure to create something just to prove that I am an artist at work. The digital space has often made me mistake my contemplation for stagnancy. I know that as artists we are encouraged to use online platforms for the benefit of our work, but these spaces can also be very harmful. How do you successfully navigate the online world as a creative and an empath?
Linathi: You are so intuitive in how you ask questions. I love it!
I have been in a deep state of reflection when it comes to this. For the longest time, I underestimated what it meant to me to be accessible on social media as an empath and an artist, and I somehow feel most people do. I would then have periods of deep anxiety, over thinking and just general discomfort when opening these apps or thinking about posting. I later realized that when I’m on social media, I am taking on so much energy, consciously and unconsciously and if I am not careful about how much of myself I give as an artist or how often I am on these platforms, I am going to slowly sink.
Right now, I do not have the formula yet. To some level, I still have the same backdrop of fear you speak of. What affirms me, sometimes, though, is how the work travels on its own and heals where it needs to, social media or not. I am also deeply grateful for people who go beyond supporting me as an artist, but also check up on me as a person. For now, that is enough. I post whenever I have capacity to. But mostly, I stay in my own bubble.
Nkateko: Thank you so much, Linathi. Your responses are giving me a lot to reflect on.
The affirmation that the work heals where it is needed is really powerful, and it speaks to the ability that art has to break down the borders between us, whether geographical or otherwise. Whenever I apply for art residencies or fellowships, a question that always comes up in the essay section is ‘Who do you write for?’ and I have to resist the temptation to say that I write for myself because I know that’s not what they are really asking; although it’s true that we are healing ourselves first and foremost, the hidden question is ‘Who are you holding up a mirror for?’ In ‘I Say These Things To Myself’ you use the ‘you’ and ‘we’ narrative voices, which for me felt like a mirror was being held up, so I could see myself. It was often difficult not to turn my eyes away, especially if I was seeing a Lesson or Reminder, because inner work is so challenging and the realisations that lead to meaningful change often feel like gut-punches. The title of the book reassured me that you had held this mirror up for yourself as well, as if you were now saying, ‘Look. You are also here.’ Can you tell me about the writers and artists whose work has done this for you, those who have given you the opportunity to see yourself through the mirrors they hold up?
Linathi: You are absolutely right! I think for me, that is the most challenging yet satisfying aspect of my work.
I often feel seasons of discomfort in my personal life, let’s equate them to autumn or even teething, where I can tell there is a certain behaviour or mentality I cannot take with me if I would like to ascend to a specific kind of self, emotionally and otherwise. I cry through it, I have trouble sleeping, I want to unpack it all the time (I’m quite challenging to be around, haha) and what I get after that is a sense of calm that yes, I have not completely fixed it, but by weathering it, I am close to. That I am seeing clearer now and there is a place where Spring is possible, even for me.
The writers who have held this kind of space for me are:
Nedra Glova Tawwab, whose work has inspired me so much to examine boundaries and where they factor into us trying to be better individuals to ourselves and others.
Nwabisa Mazana, who brings me so much closer to softness and so perfectly articulates thoughts I sometimes do not have the words for.
The Story Doula, who caters for the sensitive creative in me.
The ladies behind Afrosexology who have taught me so much about healing in the space of the body, pleasure and intimacy.
Those are just a few of the artists and creatives whose work I channel whenever I do my personal reflective work, but also when I am trying to extend myself in the same way as an artist.
I feel that there is now also the added advantage of social media making healing and self-work more accessible, and I think that is the beauty that pulls me in with these writers and the communities they are building.
Nkateko: Thank you so much for sharing these artists and creatives’ names, as well as the ways in which their work has influenced you. I am inspired.
I have been thinking about the ‘seasons of discomfort’ you spoke about and this reminded me of a poem I wrote in 2018 when I was going through a very difficult period of loss. I titled the poem ‘Pruning Season’. Here it is:
You said it was just a trim
You said I would not lose much
But look at me, my light has grown dim
I am fading with every raindrop’s touch
to my skin
Look at me, God!
I am dying!
I am drying
in the sun’s cruel heat
I am breathless, asking
“Is this how You and I will meet?”
You can stop cutting me now.
Something is changing.
I am growing back.
You have made me new.
Just when I felt you were ruining me,
I found out you were only pruning me.
I wrote that poem while I was making the transition from clinical medicine to a career in the arts, and in the process I lost the support of many people, including my family. Being on the other side of that loss has taught me that turbulence is uncomfortable, but it is not permanent. Spring is possible, as you have so beautifully said.
Linathi: I have had to sit with this one, Nkateko. Those last two lines punched me in the gut. It is also interesting how these seasons are not so far from each other. We are constantly pruning and growing back and pruning again. Thank you so much for sharing this. I will be keeping it very close to my heart.
You mention the difficulties of transitioning into your career in the arts, which is something I think we all experience in a variety of ways. I would love to know what words you can give someone longing to take that same leap.
Nkateko: Thank you so much. I agree with you, these seasons are a constant part of our lives and we cannot skip past them without missing crucial steps in our journeys of healing and growth. I just wish that they weren’t so incredibly painful.
I am still taking the leap, every day. It has been five years since I made the decision, and with each new day I feel the effects of the choices I made. I spent six years of my life training to be a doctor, and the instincts that come from that training don’t just go away. It is the process of meaningfully redirecting that energy elsewhere that makes my current work fulfilling. What I would say to the person longing to take the leap themselves is this: Evaluate the costs (advantages, disadvantages, risks, benefits) of staying where you are, and weigh them against the costs of moving on and pursuing what your heart truly desires. What most people want to know is whether they will look back in five years’ time and say it was all worth it, but nobody gets to find that part out without actually taking the leap. Not even observing the experiences of others can give you a hint of what your own journey will look like.
Thank you for this conversation, Linathi. I have been so enriched by everything you have shared with me.
Linathi: So many things have happened around and while we were navigating this conversation and I think it interests me most that some experiences influenced how I thought I would show up here vs. how I actually showed up. Thank you for your care and patience.
You have also challenged me to integrate so much more of everything into who I am and my crafts. Into my world view and I am so grateful for that spirit of expansion from you.
Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African writer and scholar. She is a 2019 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency, a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow and a Golden Key Scholar. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018 and her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. In 2019, she co-won the Brittle Paper Anniversary Award. Nkateko is the director of the Internship Program at Africa In Dialogue, as well as the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. She is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s 2021 International Writing Program (IWP). In 2022 she was selected by News24 as one of South Africa’s 30 Young Mandelas of the Future.