Jonathan Lefenya is a certified digital marketer, published poet, performer, facilitator and playwright whose work flings open the narrow window of language through which we are accustomed to describing reality. In so doing, he compels both self and audience to reflect on the plight and plethora of the human condition.
Growing up, he had neither a sense of the world nor his place in it, so as a poet he uses writing as a metaphor for control. As a performance poet, his work is that of remarkable pliability and nuance. On the poetry stage, his art is known for its pathos and piercing nature, which appeals to the delicate senses of the audience.
Jonathan debuted his one-hander, Leru la Mahlomola, at the Tx Theatre and showcased a duo poetry consultation, Uthando Ngumuthi, co-written and co-directed by Thuthukani Myeza. Two of his poems are published in the Poetic Blues anthology, featuring some of South Africa’s talented poets.
He was crowned the Arts Alive (Clash of the Regions) 2021 Slam Champion, was a Poetry Africa 2022 Slam Jam finalist, and is one of 20 South African poets who were selected for the 2022 Right to Speak Poetry Catalogue.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place in South Africa, via email.
Nkateko: Hi Jonathan. Thank you for agreeing to have this conversation with me. I was watching your interview with Fumane and Mfumo Ntlhabane on The Queens’ Fortress a few months ago and something that stayed with me long after that conversation was how you spoke about your family, particularly your grandmother, not only in the interview itself but in the poetry you shared. You said that your grandmother was the catalyst to you becoming a storyteller. Can you tell me more about the transitions you have made from retelling your grandmother the stories she told you, to writing your own stories and sharing them with her, and then to sharing your craft with the world? What has that journey been like for you?
Jonathan: Hi Nkateko, thank you for considering me to be part of this conversation. To answer your question, I would first take you back to where it all started. 1105 A Naledi, where I was raised and spent most of my life. I was nurtured by my grandmother, from whom I was lucky enough to receive the gift of storytelling; she would share old folk tales every night before we went to bed. The images of these worlds unseen to men shaped in my head and have never left me. My journey has been long and relentless, full of learning and shortcomings in rediscovery. From a young age I was taught to always speak from a genuine space and my work has been a reflection of that.
Nkateko: How do you prepare yourself (physically and mentally) for the stage? When you speak of “images of worlds unseen to men” being shaped in your head after hearing those folk tales, I think of your stage presence now as a performer and your ability to embody a character and bring “unseen worlds” to life. How do you train your body and get yourself into the frame of mind that you need to be in for that?
Jonathan: My formula is a simple yet relentless one. I believe that the more you work on something the better you get at it, even if the process may seem tiresome. My preparation is an ongoing thing, I don’t only prepare when I have a show coming up, I prepare every single day, the very same way I am not only an artist when I am on stage, but I am an artist every single day. Also having to embody a character means you have to constantly teach your mind to tap in and out of different moods, this has proved to be exhausting and sometimes it is hard to recover from it. I wish to be the best at what I do, and in order for me to reach that level I have to be consistent in how I think and prepare. This also applies to my body, I ensure that my body is in the type of shape that can bring forward any character and fulfil what is required of it, no matter how challenging.
Nkateko: Daily preparation requires a lot of discipline. At the beginning of the hard lockdown in the first quarter of 2020, I went into a dark mental space. I had just returned from a trip to Tbilisi, Georgia, and I was preparing to travel abroad again, only to find out that I couldn’t. Instead of remaining consistent with my preparation, I allowed the knowledge that I would be in the same place for several months to destabilise and immobilise me. I was not writing, rehearsing, or even moving my body much. When I was finally able to travel again in October 2020, it was such a shock to my body. I feel as if I am still paying for all of those months of stagnancy.
“The images of these worlds unseen to men shaped in my head and have never left me.”
You have shared in great detail how you prepare your body and mind for the stage, how you embody a character, but I am also interested in the inverse. You have said that recovery can be difficult, but what does that mean for you? I am asking this as I struggle to recover from a performance—it has been a week and my body still hurts—and I wish I could have prepared for this part better because it is really difficult to wake up in the mornings. Do you have a tried-and-trusted de-roling strategy, or does the process depend on what the performance required of you?
Jonathan: The one thing that works for me best is constantly visiting my poems, the more I read and analyse my work the better prepared my mind is for the physical aspect, that is performance, this allows me enough time to rest a day before the show. On the day of the show I am at my optimal best. It has helped to improve my rate of recovery and how to better control my nerves. I try as much as I can to avoid any form of stress on days leading up to the performance and after.
Nkateko: Congratulations on your recent performance at Leano Poetry Night. I was reading Dr Linda Masilela’s review of the night on Facebook and my first thought was “I wish I had been there”. How do you feel when you receive feedback after your performances? Does it impact you in any way, and does your response or reception to what is said depend on who the praise/criticism is coming from?
Jonathan: Thank you so much, I am always happy to receive any kind of feedback, positive feedback means that the work I have put in is now evident to people and if the feedback is negative it only allows me to get better, to work a bit harder, to move away from my comfort zone. So it doesn’t matter who it comes from, I listen to all criticism, I don’t let it get to me, but I use it as pointers on things I can always improve on.
Nkateko: Constructive criticism has always helped me to improve; I agree that we should embrace feedback regardless of the source. I recently listened to your Twitter Spaces conversation with Quaz Roodt, and the part where you spoke about language reminded me of a poem from Serurubele, the debut poetry collection of Katleho Kano Shoro. The poem is titled ‘Sesotho sa ka will not be written in italics’. In the poem, she asserts that her Sesotho will not be bent or slanted. She writes,
‘Sesotho sa ka will not be written in italics.
Next to English, Sesotho sa ka, too,
will have her back up straight
because I have decided to make it
a back-up-straight kind of poem.
Sesotho sa ka will not be written in italics.
Not unless italics is the theme of the poem or that exact line needs to
slant so that when I recite it I know to lean back and emphasise hore …
Sesotho sa ka will not be written in italics.’
After reading this poem for the first time a few years ago, I reflected on my own journey as a Tsonga-speaking person who writes exclusively in English and italicises every word that is in any other language. I felt ashamed, and shortly after this revelation I embarked on a project called “Eku Sunguleni”, which means “in the beginning”, where I traced the roots of my relationship with Xitsonga (my father’s language) and Tshivenda (my mother’s language). I am still on that journey, but I am thinking about the influences that have led me there. If I had not read that poem by Katleho, I would have continued making my mother tongue ‘bend’ to English.
Are there any artists who have influenced you in similar ways, in terms of making you rethink your artistic process?
Jonathan: Sabelo Soko has to be on top of my list; the first time I engaged with his work, it felt like sitting through a masterclass. Umkhondo and Spin Venek are not just well rounded works, but both speak to this very conversation that our art in our language is just as beautiful.
Writing in my language offered me an opportunity to find myself. I get to create a new world in a language my mother doesn’t struggle against.
Nkateko: Sabelo Soko is absolutely amazing. I like the idea of a performance that feels like a masterclass. There is so much that we can learn from each other as creatives, and sadly we struggle to see that sometimes because of how underfunded our sector is; we are conditioned to see fellow artists as competitors instead of collaborators as we are all trying to reach for the same funding, the same platforms, the same opportunities. How do we continue to create and sustain meaningful relationships and partnerships when the system discourages the collaborative model of creating art?
Jonathan: I believe there’s space for both. I feel like the industry is fairly young, people are trying to find what works for them and competitive spaces have proven to be easily accessible. We also have platforms like CSP, Hear My Voice, Right to Speak, Poetry Africa, World of Words, Views Avenue and Soetry Media who make it one of their core values to create and maintain collaborative spaces. It falls on us as individuals within the poetry space to grow into a community.
Nkateko: I agree with you. All the platforms that you mentioned have done incredible work and I am honoured to have benefited from a few of them as well. Last year we both took part in poetry retreats by Hear My Voice, albeit different cohorts. I am singling out the retreat specifically because I believe that writing residencies, retreats and fellowships are really beneficial incubators for new creative work. My own experience of the retreat in August/September 2022 was cathartic; I was coming out of one of the most difficult winters of my life and I feel that the retreat gave me the time and space to process my feelings and prepare to welcome a new season of my life. Looking back at your experience of the retreat now, a year later, what were some of the highlights for you?
Jonathan: Before the Hear My Voice poetry retreat I was still trying to find my voice, the space allowed me the opportunity to be myself and be comfortable with who I was at the time. My greatest highlight came with spending time with all those incredible artists, away from the public eye, but connecting with them without any barriers made me realise that we often judge people and their characters based on some of the small misunderstandings that come from social media spaces. Being in that space and being with those people taught me to be honest with myself with my work and always do good by myself before I try to do good by anyone else, for if my good comes from a genuine space then it will be good enough for the rest of the world. So the engagements we had with the Hear My Voice crew and the poets were my biggest highlights, because a lot of things changed for me after that retreat. I never looked at things in the same light and I am grateful for it.
Nkateko: “…we often judge people and their characters based on some of the small misunderstandings that come from social media spaces.” This is so true, and it makes me think about an article I read about Zadie Smith, in which she is quoted saying that she is not on social media because she is protecting her ‘right to be wrong’. This is what she said:
“I have seen on Twitter, I’ve seen it at a distance, people have a feeling at 9am quite strongly, and then by 11 have been shouted out of it and can have a completely opposite feeling four hours later. That part, I find really unfortunate. I want to have my feeling, even if it’s wrong, even if it’s inappropriate, express it to myself in the privacy of my heart and my mind. I don’t want to be bullied out of it.”
When I first read that, it made so much sense to me because that is the exact reason I no longer share my thoughts or any personal anecdotes on social media; I do not want to argue with anyone online. But as much as that protects me, it also alienates me. I want to connect with people, but only in a way that preserves my mental health. I haven’t found a balance yet.
Also, some artists have agents or publicists and do not have to do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to the promotion and marketing of their writing or performances, whereas writers with no representation have to rely on social media to get the word out. As I fall into the latter category, I know I need social media. I am just not sure if using it as a marketing tool is sustainable long-term, because there are times that I wish I could take an extended break but then a project comes up and then I need to be back online.
Jonathan: I have been having difficulties with the same thing recently. I need to take a break from social media for mental health purposes, but most of my work comes as a result of me being active. It gets to a point whereby you feel like if you deactivate your account you’ll miss a lot of opportunities, but at what cost? As much as I love being on stage and performing this year was the most challenging for me in terms of where I was mentally. I still feel like I need to disconnect from everything for a while, especially social media. There’s a lot of negative energy on these platforms and I don’t understand why people tend to behave that way when they get online. Having someone who would take care of your social media pages would be a great benefit, I understand this because I have been a social media manager for a client before, unlike handling my own account the things I would deal with didn’t quite affect me in the same way.
Nkateko: I agree. It is very difficult to disconnect when work opportunities are found on the same platforms that are detrimental to our mental health. I hope that as artists we can find ways to properly incorporate rest and disconnection without the fear of missing out on opportunities. I know that you were recently on stage for another iteration of Leru La Mahlomola at the Joburg Theatre. Congratulations on that. I hope that you are finding time to rest and recharge after your performance. Thank you for this conversation, which has spanned months and taken place amidst many triumphs and challenges in both our lives. Your kindness and patience throughout this process has been a gift to me. To know that you have made time for this during a difficult year is something I do not take for granted. Thank you. I admire your work a lot, and I will keep my promise to watch you perform live someday soon. In the meantime, please take care.
Jonathan: It means a lot coming from you, but I wouldn’t be able to go through all of it if it wasn’t for your kindness and patience throughout this time as well. I am grateful that you reached out to me of all people, I am a huge fan of your work and a bigger fan of you as a human being. Also there’s always a next time, when I have summed enough strength to take to the stage to share Leru once more I will send you an invite, till then be kind to yourself and know that all the work that you are doing is brilliant, you are brilliant.
Nkateko: Thank you Jonathan. You are brilliant too.
Photo credit for featured image of Jonathan Lefenya: Michael Blacks.
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) and served as the guest editor of the ‘Please See Me’ Summer Supplement, comprised of work by fellow IWP alumni. In 2022 she was selected by News24 as one of South Africa’s 30 Young Mandelas of the Future. Nkateko’s poetry has been translated into French, Bengali and Tamil.