Nica Cornell is a South African writer, with her Honours in Political and International Studies and Masters in African Studies. She began her writing career aged 14 with the newspaper column ‘The Teenage Frontier’ in The Times. Since then, she has published a wide range of poetry and academic research. In 2023, her debut poetry collection a sky is falling was published. Her full publication portfolio, and podcast Girl Next Door, are available on her website.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place between South Africa and the UK, via email.
Nkateko: Hi Nica. Thank you so much for agreeing to have this conversation with me. Firstly, how are you doing?
Nica: Hi Nkateko. Thank you for speaking with me! I really enjoyed speaking with Ugochukwu last time so I am looking forward to it. I’m well – I’ve been swimming in the sea frequently in the past few days, which always makes me happy. It’s also just been confirmed that I am going back to South Africa for a month soon, which is thrilling. How are you?
Nkateko: Your conversation with Ugochukwu was a fantastic read. Swimming in the sea sounds so refreshing. I am also well – I have been waiting patiently for the weather to improve so that I can do more outdoor activities, but I think I will have to wait a while longer.
Your debut collection, a sky is falling, was recently published by Mwanaka Media & Publishing, with your online launch happening a few weeks after publication. Congratulations on this brilliant achievement. Do you have any book-related events planned for your visit to South Africa?
Nica: Ah, thank you. It has been an intriguing and unexpected process in many ways. In answer to your question, to be honest, at this point no. I’ve just been focused on ensuring I can spend time with everyone back home while there. I’m reading at an event here in Plymouth, England, on Thursday – and then will just remain open to any opportunities that emerge while in Cape Town.
Nkateko: That’s amazing, Nica. I hope the reading in Plymouth went well. I am recovering from what has been a brutal winter (for both my body and soul) and when I read the poem, “The Spring”, in your collection, I felt that it captured the relief that I have felt in my gentle unfurling and preparation for warmth. I gasped when I read the words “When that which is unbearable/ends” because I felt as if it reflected my struggle with seasonal affective disorder and how it feels to finally “breathe the World again”.
My latest body of work, Daughter Wound, is coming out with Hazel Press in a few months and I can relate to the journey towards publication being intriguing and unexpected, especially when releasing a solo collection. How has the experience of preparing a sky is falling for publication been different to projects where you have been published amongst other writers, particularly with Mwanaka Media and Publishing? Did this process feel like the continuation of an ongoing creative collaboration?
“It’s more about what I have kept as opposed to what I’ve shed – I’ve continued to turn to the written word to articulate and hold my truth, in moments of distress and joy. I’ve just kept writing, regardless of what else is happening.”
Nica: I am so sorry to hear it has been such a brutal winter for you. It does make my heart glad to know my words could bring even a moment of ease.
Congratulations on Daughter Wound!! That is so exciting.
I first published an essay, “Kate Middleton and White Femininity: Excess Transgresses,” with Mwanaka Media and Publishing in 2018, and since then had published seven individual poems with them. So in that sense it’s certainly the continuation of a creative relationship. The process of preparing a sky is falling for publication happened slowly over the years as I placed all my poetry that I felt was strong enough together in a manuscript that I hoped would someday be published. That’s more consistent with my experience of poetry publication generally, where things move slowly. What was unexpected was how quickly the process moved with Tendai once he’d committed to publishing it – and how much content he wanted to include! My instinct with poetry is always to pare back, and so it was an intriguing challenge when he was quickly satisfied with the quality of the first draft – and then asked me to add more. I thought it’d be a process of weeding out the stark ones, not a process of adding what I thought of as those with less clarity or originality.
But your reflection on “The Spring” is an excellent example of why it was worth trusting his instinct. It wasn’t a poem to which I had given much attention, for instance I hadn’t submitted it frequently over the years to publishers. And yet here you have demonstrated that it has the power to reach people.
Lastly, the experience of preparing it for publication was different to publishing alongside a range of authors in that I did not foresee feeling so acutely vulnerable having a whole book of just my work. Since about half of the book’s poems had been published elsewhere previously, although individually or in trios, I somehow thought putting it all together would be more of a practical task than an emotional one! I was definitely proven wrong.
Nkateko: Thank you so much for your kind words. Putting your work out into the world is a different kind of vulnerability. Have you had to cultivate an alternative self that exists publicly along with your poems and other writing or is your writer-self the same person as you?
Nica: I started publishing for a large audience at a young age, when I became a weekly columnist for the South African national newspaper The Times. As such, I had to teach myself quickly from 14 how to share myself in a way that was truthful but not harmful to my life. I don’t think it was anything as conscious as the cultivation of an alternative self. Rather, my writer-self is the best part of me, in that she is less insecure and full of anxiety. She has to be in order to have the courage to share such acute vulnerability publicly. But I learned to do that by letting the work go somewhat, accepting that once it is public it doesn’t entirely belong to you anymore. There was something in the weekly rhythms of a column that was helpful for this. I wrote it on a Thursday, but it got published on the following Tuesday by which time my head had moved on to the next one I needed to write. I had to make peace from an early age that not everyone was going to like what I wrote. That was the only way I could keep at it. I feel that way with the work in the book too. It’s so deeply personal but in the writing of it, and then the sharing of it, I’ve released a lot of its tension and pain.
Nkateko: I was an avid reader of your column in high school. My parents had a Sunday Times subscription and we would receive The Times daily newspaper for free. I loved it. Over a decade later, I remember having a fan-girl moment when I was facilitating the pre-interview introduction for your conversation with Ugochukwu in 2019. I cited ‘The Teenage Frontier’ as my first introduction to you and your work. It has honestly been such a gift to engage with your writer-self over all these years, and in the process to catch glimpses of the person behind the pages.
You mentioned the weekly rhythms of a column as being helpful in your process back then, so I am curious about how that has changed over the years. Do you set weekly deadlines for yourself when working on a project? Have the rigors of academic writing influenced how you approach your creative writing? I am thinking about the fact that at 14, you were in high school and already writing for a national audience, and that your entire journey has been an expansion of that, but how much of that initial writer-self have you had to shed over the years to birth the version that exists now?
Nica: I remember vividly getting that email from you. The column feels long ago, and it did then too, so I was deeply honoured to receive mail from someone professing to have been a fan! My current writing practice is deeply shaped by The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, specifically the practice of morning pages wherein one free-writes three pages in the morning after waking. I don’t always get to it, especially when I am working full time. But most writing projects grow out of that these days.
The rigors of academic writing can hold one back creatively. I’ve been writing academically for a decade now, if I go as far back as the beginning of my undergraduate degree in Politics & Drama. Specifically, all the time I spent reading for academia changed how I read which I think is a huge part of one’s inspiration & writing landscape. But I have found that the best academic work I’ve done, in my opinion, draws directly on my life. For example, I published a Visual Essay in the International Journal of Fashion Studies earlier this year, entitled ‘Whose body is it anyway? Disguising a disabled self.’
While less experienced obviously, I think I was a more confident writer at 14 in some ways – as I carried that hubris of youth. Reading old columns can be quite an embarrassing experience for me now, to be honest, in that sense. I just think – where did I get the courage? But in many ways, that’s what makes that first experience such a miraculous one – that I was given that opportunity, and that I was able to rise to it consistently for three years. That’s still the part that I’m proud of, demonstrating discipline at such a tender age. Just as I’ve grown since I stopped writing the column, aged 17, my writer self has grown. For me, it’s more about what I have kept as opposed to what I’ve shed – I’ve continued to turn to the written word to articulate and hold my truth, in moments of distress and joy. I’ve just kept writing, regardless of what else is happening.
Nkateko: I have just read the abstract of your visual essay. Your description of dressing as a “performance of invisibility” and a practice of disguising disability is very moving. As a confessional writer, I have always been fascinated by body poetics, and I am struck by the unflinching honesty in the poems that depict the body in a sky is falling. “Disability Advice” made me cry. It took me back to my history of self-harm in adolescence and young adulthood and how much healing it has taken for me to view a razor blade as a tool for shaving and nothing more.
How would you describe the relationship that you are cultivating with your body in the aftermath of your relocation?
Nica: I am glad you found “Disability Advice” moving. The body does seem to be a recurring theme in my poetry, especially.
In terms of the relationship I’m cultivating with my body, it depends which day you ask me! It’s still a fluctuating and challenging relationship, truth be told. I’ve come a long way since the early days after my relocation where I lost all faith in my body, as it lost mobility and speech regularly, and it lost all faith in me, as I continued to push it to endure such an alien and toxic environment as Oxford. I’m now profoundly grateful to my body for surviving that period, and I’ve come a long way in understanding what’s happening in it when I have a panic attack or a trauma response. Simultaneously, I still feel irrevocably changed by that months’ long period when I was having three panic attacks a day, losing speech and mobility almost as a matter of routine, and did not understand what was happening at all – and the years’ long period of recovery I’ve been in since then. I’m still learning to accept my body as it is – and seeking to be gentler, kinder and more appreciative of its strengths!
Nkateko: I can definitely relate to the “it depends which day you ask me” part because each day comes with its own challenges and surprises. I am sending you love as you continue your journey of recovery and healing. Apart from your own, whose art heals you? Are there any artists (regardless of genre) whose work or presence soothes your soul every time you encounter it, or them?
Nica: I actually have a whole genre I’ve discovered in the last year and a half that I’ve found enlivening – which is romantic Korean dramas. I’ve watched subtitled work before, of course, but this is the first time I’ve fallen in love with an entire new world. There’s something healing about the universalism of storytelling – and I’m a total romantic, so it scratches that itch of making me feel about 14! But there’s also something remarkable about just watching a TV show for escapism, and through it discovering new foods (japchae and tteokbokki are now favourites in my household), familial and gender dynamics, music, and war histories. I’ve also been emotionally entranced by the themes that are explored – in line with this conversation, there’s Rain or Shine, also known as Just Between Lovers, which explores the lives of three young people who are all deeply impacted by a building collapse that happened when they were children. It explores the theme of trauma – and healing – with such delicacy. It has been a real gift to learn, reflect, and expand my world through these stories.
Nkateko: I love romantic K-dramas too. My all-time favourite is Crash Landing on You, which I watched while isolating at home during the first hard lockdown in 2020. It’s about a South Korean woman who crash lands in a North Korean army base after a paragliding accident and then falls in love while stranded there. I was far away from my partner at the time, and the story made me think about all the barriers we would have to cross if we were to ever see each other again. I cried a lot while watching it, but it made me hopeful at a time when I could have become disillusioned about love.
My younger sister introduced me to K-pop and K-dramas, so last October we booked a two-day trip and went to the Korean Cultural Centre in Brooklyn and the Korean Film and Food Festival in Centurion. It was a really fun weekend, and the food was absolutely amazing. Now that you have mentioned japchae and tteokbokki, please save me a seat at your dinner table next year when I travel for my book tour. I would also like to ask you to sign my copy of a sky is falling, so I will be bringing it with me.
Nica: I have watched Crash Landing on You, of course! It’s a terrific show. I’m glad you were able to find comfort in it. Well done to your little sister – it was my aunt for me. That sounds like a wonderful excursion. You’d be most welcome at our dinner table & naturally I’d be honoured to sign your copy. I wish you all the best for your book tour too – how exciting!!
Nkateko: Thank you so much, Nica. When Psalm for Chrysanthemums was published in 2020, in-person book launches were not possible, so I am excited to finally get the opportunity to travel abroad again with Daughter Wound.
Thank you for having this conversation with me. Congratulations on the beauty that is a sky is falling. Are you working on anything new at the moment? Where can our readers interact with you?
Nica: I’m so pleased you will have that experience!
It’s been intriguing to observe what form my writing would take after a sky is falling was published, considering it contains poetry that I wrote over the past 14 years. I am now in the early stages of a new project, a book about the year for which I suspended my Masters degree. It was a wild time, with severe health crises and immigration nightmares. It’s only now, years later, that I’ve become able to write about it wholly – first in my visual essay we’ve already discussed, and now with this new piece. I am excited to observe its progression.
The best place is my website, where you can find my full portfolio and are always welcome to get in touch.
Thank you for speaking with me. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.
Nkateko: Thank you Nica. I have thoroughly enjoyed this conversation too. I wish you the very best with the new project.
Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African writer and scholar.
She is the director of the Internship Program at Africa in Dialogue, as well as the founder and managing director of Nsuku Publishing Consultancy.
Nkateko’s poetry has been translated into French, Bengali and Tamil. Her latest body of work, titled Daughter Wound, is forthcoming with UK publisher Hazel Press in 2024.