Resuscitating & Reclaiming Alternate Wisdoms: A Dialogue with Vuyokazi Ngemntu

RESUSCITATING & RECLAIMING ALTERNATE WISDOMS

A DIALOGUE WITH VUYOKAZI NGEMNTU

Vuyokazi Ngemntu is a writer and performer whose praxis uses poetry, song, storytelling and ritual to navigate ancestral trauma, confront inequality and inspire healing. Her work has appeared in publications including African Voices, Aké Review, Aerodrome, The Kalahari Review, World Literature Today, African Global Networks, Herri, Ibua Journal, Short.Sharp.Stories, New ContrastPepper Coast Lit, and Culture Review Magazine

NKateko Masinga

BY NKATEKO MASINGA

This conversation took place in South Africa, via email.

Nkateko: Hello, Vuyokazi. Thank you for agreeing to have this conversation with me. We met nearly two years ago at the Hear My Voice poetry retreat, which culminated in our performances at the 2022 Open Book Festival in Cape Town. Since then, I have been fortunate enough to witness you wearing many hats, often simultaneously, in the pursuit of your artistic endeavours. I am starting to believe that there is no such thing as a “scope of practice” in your definition of artistry. I am a shameless advocate for the unapologetic pursuit of multiple passions, so I am here for all of it, but I want to know if there is one artistic form from which all else flows (my first and eternal love is the written word), or if they are each seated on their own thrones in your world.

Vuyokazi: Hi, Nkateko. It’s an immense pleasure being given an opportunity to share about my work. Very seldom do we as creatives get to step back and be intentional about framing how our work is perceived. As a result, our work gets curated according to the external gaze, which often produces distortion. So let me start by saying how awesome you make it all sound, this wearing of many hats business! For me what’s at the core of all my forms of artistic expression is the need to tell stories. Be it through poetry, playwriting, song, actual storytelling, short stories, beadwork and whatever else I do, I’m governed by the need to synthesise my experiences and those of others around me and impart something universally relatable that speaks to human nature and our collective aspirations, failures, wondering, passions and everything that connects us as we journey through life.

Nkateko: There is such a profound sense of urgency in the expression of a “need” to tell stories. I love that you say you are “governed” by this need. Your assertion makes me think of Safia Elhillo’s “Self-Portrait with No Flag”, in which she writes:

“i come from two failed countries

& i give them back      i pledge

allegiance to no land    no border

cut by force to draw blood    i pledge

allegiance to no government    no

collection of white men carving up

the map with their pens”

The notion that art allows us to choose what governs us is truly empowering. In your response you speak of the “collective”, but at times we, even as fellow artists, are not all pulling in the same direction. How do you reconcile your need to tell stories that are relatable and representative of our lived experiences and aspirations while making room for how differently we perceive the world as individuals? Do you leave room to be misunderstood?

Vuyokazi: I love how this poem compresses such complex ideas. Ultimately, the lived experiences of indigenous humanities and BIPOC have a universality to them that belies any notions of geography and similar colonial demarcations. That said, there is room to amplify the individual voice within the chorus. It’s in the uniqueness and sincerity of our voices that we can adequately contribute to any discourse that purports to further the cause of the oppressed – and I use this word with caution, understanding the multitudinous ways oppression shows up. Simply put, I want to play my role by walking in my truth, whatever that looks like at whatever stage in my life I may find myself under scrutiny.

Of course there’s room for being misunderstood. We’re constantly evolving, even at a cellular level. This rapid evolution can be messy, judged from the outside. I doubt it will always make sense to the next person, so it should come as no surprise when we’re taken out of context or even accused of hypocrisy. Some of the foundational principles that framed my beliefs and my thoughts a few years ago appear myopic and wanting, now that I’m older. I can only commit to a sense of total surrender to the unknown, accepting that I’m being molded into who I need to be, even when that image seems blurry to myself and those who bear witness!

Even in my commitment to sharing the journey through my art, I can little purport to hold the answers. At best, I hope to ask the right questions, find the stillness to listen, actively hear, process and apply the answers. That’s the place I share from. Though bound to err, I can only hope to do so with integrity. Those with whom similar truths resonate become fellow travellers on the journey.

Sometimes it feels like the more I seek, the more alienating the journey. Bittersweet, really. But we’ve always known the life of an artist to be a solitary one. I don’t mean the stuffy self-martyrdom that makes us poke our noses in the air and believe ourselves to be above mortals, no. But in order to traverse the abyss, we must leave behind what is known and court the unknown/unknowable. The only assurance is that we will be wholly transformed by the experience, and, by default, transform others.

Our ways of knowing as Africans are experiential, hereditary and largely unarchived. The kind of scholarship that enthralls me eagerly veers into the grey spaces, excavating, resuscitating and reclaiming alternate wisdoms.

Nkateko: A few years ago, I took part in a leadership training camp in which one of our group tasks was to expand on the long-standing goal of a single currency for Africa by designing banknotes with foolproof safety features and proposing a name for the new currency. I cannot recall the finer details of my group’s submission for that task, but when I read your piece, “A New Dawn”, in World Literature Today, I thought about that task and how my group had argued that it was only realistic to assume that some countries would refuse to use the new currency.

In your piece, which is set over a quarter of a century from now, five African nations have dissolved in order to form a new country called Embo, with a woman president at the helm. The world that you have built in this story is so intricate that I can see the story play out in my mind’s eye. I am not surprised that South Africa is part of the alliance that becomes Embo in the story, and with our current reality situating us in a crucial election season, tiptoeing towards the polls lest anything breaks, your piece made me long to see a future like the one depicted therein. 

Vuyokazi: That leadership camp sounds exciting… The concept behind ‘A New Dawn’ is premised on decoloniality and proposing pragmatic, Pan Africanist approaches to the socio-economic challenges we find ourselves facing as a continent. As simplistic as it seems, the resolution of borders feels like a progressive step in that direction in my mind. Granted, it’s not likely to be a concept every country buys into, given the various stakeholders (read ‘puppet masters’) with secret agendas to be found behind the scenes.

Let’s face it, the West benefits from the genocide, famine and disposession suffered by many African nations. Proposing to cut ties and form a conglomerate nation looks like economic suicide at first glance, but I believe that in the longer run, such an autonomous body would rise to be a global superpower. We have the raw materials, so why not exercise the bargaining power that comes with that? Again, I speak not as an economist or a political scientist but as an African writer who has the audacity to dream up a better world.

Nkateko: “…the audacity to dream up a better world.” I love that. On the topic of dreaming, there was a brief period earlier this year when I could not remember any of my dreams. I would wake up and know that I had dreamt about something important and that I needed to write it down, but it escaped me just as I was reaching for it. I told a friend how worried I was about this, and over a period of about a week, I would wake up each day and tell him that yet again, I had forgotten what I dreamt about.

The day that my dreams came back to me was the Monday following a weekend in which I had attended two funerals, one on each side of my family. I realise now that my grief, which involved numbness, long silences and a foggy brain, had spilled over into my dreams. I also realise how much my dreams inform my artistic practice, because my writing had stopped during that period. My personal circumstances have improved considerably since then, but my interactions with the world, especially through social media, have found me operating between extremes of emotion. I don’t know which is worse, feeling nothing or feeling everything? Both have been deeply uncomfortable, I must admit. How do you cope with seasons that throw you off balance, personally and professionally? 

Vuyokazi: Your experience with dreams is so relatable. I too used to get anxious when I’d wake up remembering vague details with nothing to relate those to. If it bothers me enough, I go the herbal medicine route, which offers many treatment options to clear blockages in the dreamscape. Yet oftentimes, I tend to leave things be, filling the time with the mundane rituals of everyday living. Being numb is the first feeling. The sense of detachment comes with an air of morbidity that tends to consume me, whenever I enter that space. A vacuum I don’t care to dwell on for too long.

On the other hand, I think my approach to life is a commitment to feeling everything. There’s an element of beauty to it– the sense of surrender to both the known and the unknown. Even in the pain, there is room to affirm that you feel it precisely that you are alive; that your senses are awake to the experience and the bodily sensations that archive it. Don’t get me wrong, pain is, well, painful. Far be it for me to romanticise some of the shit I’ve gone through. Yet I guess it asks that you render yourself open and bare, until you’re nothing but the essence of who and what you are, minus the contrived graceful demeanour we think we owe the world!

Nkateko: I admire your commitment to feeling everything. I have become so pain-averse that I trick myself into a type of dissociation that I call “processing”. If I tell you that I am still processing something and then refuse to talk about it for months or years, just know that I have convinced myself that it did not really happen to me. You frame being “open and bare” so beautifully that I am tempted to give it another try, but I may end up in the nearest I.C.U so let me sit this out for a while longer. 

I recently read your piece, ‘Decoloniality? A Fig! – A Review of Lara Foot’s “Othello”’ in CULTURE Review Magazine and found it compelling. I have been following the discourse around the play since the publication of your review, and I found the playwright’s response to honest, critical engagement with their work quite disheartening. I believe that the conversation is still ongoing, but I am wondering how you are navigating the conversational shift that your review has prompted? 

Vuyokazi: Ooh, the decoloniali-tea has been a scorcher. To respond to your question, I revel in the impassioned responses of people adding their voices to the conversation. We’re engaging in a robust and thoughtful manner and demanding accountability and true inclusion. This should be the norm– that the arts reflect the concerns and aspirations of the proletariat, right? Inspire change and all that. So yes, submitting my voice as a log to rekindle that fire is a small price to pay.

The burning urge to respond, especially to theatre, which is one of my first loves, has always been instinctual for me. I find the maker’s reaction quite telling of a lack of awareness for one’s positionality as the CEO of a theatre attached to a historically-privileged institution of higher learning. To create a piece of work and openly declare your intentions as decolonial, only to throw temper tantrums when someone delineates your failures in achieving such a mandate is… uhm… myopic.

So some anonymous black woman responds critically to your work, amidst the applause of ‘10 000 people’ who saw and loved it. To aggrandise your work by admitting to the conversation only those voices which laud you with praise says much of what you think of the intellectual capacity of the people you surround yourself with. The only cause this advances is the hegemony of elitism at a time when the zeitgeist of the day is fertile ground for the work of deconstruction.

By the time I point out the implications of the racial hierarchies in this scenario, it speaks to how certain white people in positions of influence in this country pay lip service to inclusivity, decoloniality and all that paap without committing to getting their hands dirty. There are difficult conversations to be had. Mine was a belated sensitivity read. The maker shied away from an invitation to decentralise knowledge she assumed to be her own personal domain, extended only to her ilk. That’s why it’s been so easy to erase my review and hyper-fixate on what appears a predating tiff between herself and one of the people who responded affirmatively to it. Never does she address the actual review, nor the person who, in generating it, calls her by name and references her work analytically… nope, her only response has been to address those she recognises as her equals!

I could go on about the disconcerting paternalism which has her refer to fully-trained, long-practising professionals as ‘MY actors’ (who apparently are too vulnerable to be critiqued when they are still expected to continue with the run) in one of her social media rants, and how coopting the bodies, voices and talents of black creatives with such divisiveness callously robs them of agency and autonomy. Such reductionist responses are retrogressive, especially since the work being critiqued purports to subvert the erasure of indigenous humanities. Listen, when this blows over, I hope the necessary self-introspection leads to some kind of epiphany as to the work still to be done on both a personal and a systemic level. No malice was intended in the review. The cast comprises actors whose work I respect nonetheless. There’s no room for oligarchy in the arts. No holy cows.

Nkateko: I agree wholeheartedly. Earlier, you spoke about amplifying the individual voice, and I feel that it is relevant in this situation too because the maker of the play not only silences dissenting voices by blatantly refusing to acknowledge their critique or even engage in the conversation about how this adaptation of Othello fails in its mission to present a decolonial perspective, but also strips the actors of the opportunity to receive valuable feedback.

How we now engage with work as members of an audience is a far cry from the 19th century practice of throwing rotten vegetables at performing actors, but there should still be avenues for critical engagement. The maker’s ‘MY actors’ sounds a lot like the Biblical ‘touch not My anointed ones’, sans the anointing. You have expressed the hope that after this run, the playwright will take the time to introspect and I stand with you on that. I feel that your compassion stems from being well-versed in every aspect of the theatre-making process, and that is one of the things I admire the most about you. 

I saw the announcement that you are on the lineup of the 2024 Franschhoek Literary Festival. I wish I could be there. Are you looking forward to the festival weekend? What can audiences expect from your session with Sandile Ngidi and Mapule Ramaila Moswane?

Vuyokazi: The whole debacle is very telling of the infantile state of critique in the South African artist landscape. I find that when compared to other countries (Nigeria, for instance), we are very young to the concept of critical appraisal. Artists expect their popularity to automatically translate into favorable reviews and when this isn’t the case, cry foul. There are these little stokvels of individuals who, by virtue of their popularity with the ‘in crowd’ are deemed beyond reproach. Submitting work to the public domain means that it will be liked by some, disliked by others. Simple as that. Yet in South Africa, dissent breeds questions like, ‘What have you created?’ Yawn.

Yes, I’m looking forward to the lit fest. Sandile Ngidi’s love for the written word and the poetic firm in particular assures me that this will be an opportunity to explore the richness and diversity of voices and influences in South African poetry, as evidenced by the anthology project. 

Nkateko: That sounds exciting. All the best with the festival and all its festivities. I look forward to catching up with you to find out how it went. I met Sandile Ngidi in 2018 when we were both performing at Poetry Africa in Durban. We met again in 2022 at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town. Later that year, he invited me to submit an essay for a special edition of the English in Africa journal in honour of the late Bessie Head. I sent him an essay abstract titled “Bessie Head’s Depiction of ‘Finding Love in a Hopeless Place’ through the Protagonists in When Rain Clouds Gather and Maru.”

I really thought I had done something with that abstract, but he later reached out and asked me to write a poem instead. I am exceptionally proud of the poem that is in the book, which will be published later this year, but I wonder why my writing never quite cuts it as “academic”. A few years ago, I lived with a partner who was an academic (PhD and all the trimmings), and he told me that whenever I edited his journal submissions, they would be accepted for publication without corrections. I wonder if it’s the creative touch that did it. Have you ever ventured into academic writing? 

Vuyokazi: As do I, sis (re: catching up after the lit fest). I’m disheartened to hear your paper never got accepted. I’ve no doubt your insights would have invigorated the discourse on Head’s writing. Personally, I’m seldom inspired to venture in that direction with my work, though I have ghostwritten for friends in the humanities. Personally, I tire of having to pretend that my writing isn’t subjective. Everything is, you just align in with credible sources in order to substantiate your proposition. There’s a hegemony on which sources are considered beyond reproach and which aren’t as meritorious, with the white patriarchal gaze being perpetuated and given undue authority. I dey tire, o!  Maybe layer on but right now, I’m wary of any spaces that need me to perform my eligibility to gain admission into the illusory coven. 

Nkateko: The performance of eligibility extends to the harrowing peer review process, where one either agrees to make major alterations to one’s provisionally accepted work or forfeits the opportunity to be published. I have often heard friends expressing their dismay when reading the comments made by the infamous “Reviewer 2” in the peer review process, who is often the cruelest and most critical reviewer among a manuscript’s evaluators. The anonymity of that process allows for criticism that is very harsh and often uncalled for. 

The white patriarchal gaze and the Western gaze are very pointedly challenged by your artistic process and the opportunities that you create for and share with fellow artists. Can we talk about Indaba, Bafazi! and how we have used science fiction and fantasy to reimagine the world, particularly as African women? I recently spoke to a fellow writer in our cohort of the Indaba Collective about the diversity of perspectives and lived experiences that came through during the online workshop sessions. It was a truly enriching experience for me as a participant, and I am interested to know how you experienced your interactions with us, as a facilitator of the process? 

Vuyokazi: It certainly is an arduous process. And I get how such scrutiny is necessary to ensure that the process of knowledge production is a thorough and mettlesome one. That way the work that gets admitted into the canon can contribute to the advancement of critical thinking and scholarship. I just favour a non-hierarchical approach to knowledge production, as both consumer and producer. My work seeks to honour textual archives as much as it does our intangible heritages and Indigenous Knowledge Systems. Our ways of knowing as Africans are experiential, hereditary and largely unarchived. The kind of scholarship that enthrals me eagerly veers into the grey spaces, excavating, resuscitating and reclaiming alternate wisdoms. More urgent than regurgitating the ideologies of dead white men is the need to begin to language our intersectional realities as Africans.

Nkateko: Your work is incredible. I am proud to know you. Thank you so much for making the time to have this conversation with me.  

Vuyokazi: I’m equally thankful! For this conversation and the invitation to reflect and declare my intentions with my work and for the incredible sense of sorority you exude l, both as a writer and as a sister-friend!

NKateko Masinga

Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African writer whose poetry has been translated into French, Bengali, Tamil, Kanada and Romanian. Her latest book, Daughter Wound, was published by UK publisher Hazel Press in April 2024 and was named Book of the Week at the London Review Bookshop in the first week of its release.

NKATEKO MASINGA

INTERVIEWER

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