Vuyelwa Maluleke, is a Joburg based Spoken Word Artist, Scriptwriter and Actor, with a B.A. in Dramatic Arts from the University of Witwatersrand. She was shortlisted for the Brunel University African Poetry in 2014, she is the author of a chapbook THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE. The slam champion of the Word and Sound 2015 Poetry League Competition. She describes herself explicitly as a storyteller, archiving through her writing a personal experience of her blackness and womanness whilst navigating present day South Africa. Her writing serves as evidence that the Black female body in South Africa is constantly being broken into in various spaces, but that it can love and affirm itself is evidence of its ability to survive and want to survive.
This conversation took place in a green bedroom in the sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and a white bedroom, in Johannesburg via Skype.
INTERVIEW BY GAAMANGWE MOGAMI.
Gaamangwe: Vuyelwa, I love your one minute videos on Instagram. I cannot properly describe it, but I often find myself transcended beyond my time and space. It’s beautiful art.
Vuyelwa: Thank you. A lot of my works are feeling work. I always try to make people feel something. I take myself as having a heavy duty of transposing—taking a feeling that belongs to me and transposing it in this public way—not knowing how anybody will relate or not relate to the impulse, but still putting it out there to be viewed and have people react to it.
There is much concentrated effort and time that goes into making those one minute videos. When I write, I have to figure out what I am leaving out, so it’s important for me to think about the words that I use when I write because I am black, and I write in the English language—which is the only language I can really manipulate completely because I have been incubated in it for long—and that leaves a lot of people out. I need to decide who I am leaving out, and who I am keeping in and be cognizant of that fact always.
I remember a member of a poetry audience once said that ‘‘sometimes you poets like to get on stage to just show us how smart you are, but you are not actually giving us anything. We are not getting any feeling from it.’’ I don’t want that with my art. I feel that if people don’t feel anything, then it is useless. So, I have to think about language and how it buries feeling, and how I can use it to show vulnerability in my writing.
Gaamangwe: It is interesting trying to articulate our blackness and our experiences using a language that has always tried to exclude us. For us, those born post-colonization, there is a dissonance because we want to reclaim ourselves, but we have to use the language of the oppressor to do that. It’s a strange war because when will we know that we have arrived at the place where we are truly the best version of our black selves?
Vuyelwa: But who defines the truest version of what Black people are? It has to be an individual’s experience because my truest black self is not my mother’s truest black self. Because we come from different places and frames of thinking, it can never be the same from a person to another. Yes, it is very weird that compared to our parents, we have stronger control of the English language, and we (perhaps I) identify as English speaking people more than anything. But I think we can use this same language to find the words to affirm ourselves so that this same language can never again turn back and say things to us because now we can answer back.
Gaamangwe: I agree. I guess the struggle is that we have to unlearn the shame, such that we don’t feel that in using English to affirm and articulate ourselves, we are not excluding or rejecting our self-hood and heritage. There is a sense that we need to strike a balance between who we could have been if colonization didn’t happen and who we are as people who have only existed in the world of post-colonization.
Vuyelwa: There are lots of past experiences where I found myself having that kind of struggle because when you go to white schools all your life but you live in the township, there is this double identity. You have proximity to whiteness, which makes you feel like racism is nothing you’d ever have to deal with because you are able to inhabit both worlds with a particular level of ease. Yes, there are things that will be said sometimes that will make you uncomfortable, but it will not be on a daily basis, such that at the time of the experience you don’t have the voice to say ‘‘this is what made me uncomfortable about that situation.’’ But because I am older, I am able to go back and say these are the problems with those past experiences.
This is how I found myself having to unlearn things such as what I think intelligence is, and that English language does not house intelligence. And that because you and I can speak English, we belong to a particular class that is very dangerous to other Black people, which I have to constantly acknowledge.
Gaamangwe: This also translates to our womanhood as well; some of the experiences that we go through as Black women are different from other women who are not of color. We cannot paint womanhood in the same way: for us blackness and womanhood are the two spaces that we exist in, and each brings it own separate difficulties.
Vuyelwa: Yes, there are differences in our identifications as well as certain levels of hierarchy. I have also seen people who identify themselves as belonging to some kind of identity first, such as being an artist, then Black, and then a woman. Do you think that identification is the same for Black women?
Gaamangwe: It’s interesting because I am only ever aware of my blackness when I am outside Botswana, since we have a really small percentage of white people. But I am always aware of my womanhood because in every single space in the world, there is always a man. So, my womanhood comes before my race.
Vuyelwa: Your experience sounds Utopian. Here in South Africa, as soon as you go into primary school, somebody is already meddling in your blackness and adjusting it so that it looks as close to whiteness as possible. It will never be, but the expectation is that you must always be trying to achieve this proximity of whiteness.
Gaamangwe: Racism was a concept to me for a long time until I moved to India. But even then, when I did experience racism, there were times I was not sure if it was racism, or if I was imagining things because it was the first time I was fully experiencing my blackness.
Vuyelwa: That is the thing about micro-aggression and racism; you always wonder if you are being sensitive, but most of the time it is actually happening. You can’t be so sensitive that you manufacture an entire hateful experience for yourself, just so you can say you experienced it. Nobody would do that.
Gaamangwe: It’s the same with sexism. Women are often made to feel that we are imagining our experiences or overreacting over the daily violence in their lives. Women traumas are either normalized, or women are silenced. It’s disheartening.
Vuyelwa: This is why it matters that we have the words to describe the things we are going through. Writing has been important to me because that’s where I go to figure things out or hear what others are saying. So, for all the words that I cannot make to describe what I am going through, I go to other poets and writers to see if they have come up with the words. This helps me understand racism, sexism or the idea that spaces can be gendered. People who are whites have never needed to protect themselves from anything, so in trying to protect ourselves from things we need to name the experiences.
This is why it matters that Black women are writing now, that we see and read their works. There is the likes of Nkateko Masinga, Koleka Putuma and Ashley Makue. They have created beautiful works about Black women experiences from a particular kind of location and perspective.
For me, to have South African women doing that is important because the bulk of my learning about poetry comes from Black American women, if you are looking for Black people who look like you. So, it matters that Black South African women are writing and publishing, and I get to inhabit the same space. They are doing amazing work, and it’s our responsibility to keep supporting one another.
Gaamangwe: I also love that African women are doing these amazing things. Their works are helping us to claim our own experiences and what you said in the last stanza of your poem, “Black woman plotting”:
“Look at her,
She is sitting for a moment,
to count her feet and laugh
and every time that sound eats her neck
Black Woman is plotting
how to love herself.’’
I love this because the best thing we can do in the midst of all the wars we encounter on a daily basis is to love every single aspect of ourselves. So, how have you been plotting on loving yourself?
Photo by Pranabesh Das.
Vuyelwa: Sometimes, I think that my poems are a dare or a reminder to love myself. Because sometimes, I forget. Self-love is the thing that I am learning over and over because I want to be a whole person. The ways of loving myself is to keep writing because those are the times when I allow myself to be honest and to speak clearly.
I write myself little affirmations, I put them in a mirror, and I read them all the time. As soon as my eye gets numb to seeing a particular affirmation, I change it because the words no longer impact me. I have learnt to create spaces for myself to be vulnerable because I feel that is the one thing Black women are not allowed to do, to just create these pockets of spaces where they can be really be soft with themselves, with each other or with their lovers. I am regularly trying to find those spaces to do that, and I am learning how to make those spaces for myself and for other people to be able to be soft with me and cry with me.
Strength is something that we learnt from our mothers; we inherited the constant need to know that we must move on, keep going in life, that you have a goal in life, and no matter what, you must keep going and get there. But I believe the softness in between is what makes us people and is very important to acknowledge.
Gaamangwe: For me, your poem has helped me to embrace and remember that rage, darkness, and anger are also paths to self-love. When I am angry, it is vital that I feel all that rage out of my bones because this is how I am going to arrive at self-love. Rage is a human thing, and it deserves to also be experienced without judgement.
Vuyelwa: The rage is very important because I think we are ashamed of having rage as Black women and Black people. The ‘We’ I speak of is always the Black women and people I have known and interacted with. We go through so much; yet, we are expected to go along in life as if all is well. If we have any other reaction, we are shamed, but rage is so necessary for holistic development and healing.
Gaamangwe: My rage lately has been towards men who often say “you are not being objective” when I talk about my woman experiences. I have noticed that some words are used to diminish the legitimacy of our experience.
Vuyelwa: Yes. Its like you are supposed to get some kind of distance from what you are experiencing. It is very unbearable because the same Black man on talking about race can be very subjective and won’t even question their position on whether or not they should be speaking on this, but as soon as you talk to them about gender, all of a sudden they give you that line.
Gaamangwe: Imagine how subjective they were when we did the hashtag ‘men are trash’. They could not be objective with that.
Vuyelwa: For me, ‘the men are trash’ hashtag was really important. At the same time, I saw rationalizations about why ‘men are trash’ is probably not conducive in a conversation, how it doesn’t bring men to the table and pushes them away more than anything. For that, I would say, anytime Black men want to complain about the things that Black women are saying about them, we should just turn it around to race. All these rules we have for white people are the same rules we have for Black men because Black men are oppressive to us in the same way. I find that their oppression is even more visceral because they are so close to us: they are in our houses and our spaces. We have an everyday experience with them.
Gaamangwe: It is not that we have not been trying to initiate a conversation. For as long as Black women have existed, they have tried to have the conversation with men, but they don’t hear us. There are many hashtags like ‘He For She’, but there is not that much participation from men. ‘Men are trash’ was also important because we got to discover how majority of men are unaware of the lived experiences of women. But I feel like we are making some strides because we are now speaking, and maybe it is necessary for us to shout and scream at each other before we hear each other clearly.
What do you think is urgent for us to do or to experience as Black women at this point in time?
Vuyelwa: I believe that the anger that people feel is definitely necessary. You are right, the conversation has been happening, but people aren’t listening. That’s why we need to keep having this conversation over and over again.
For me right now, what is most urgent is having these conversations with black women inside the spaces that are being created for Black women to tell their stories by themselves, for themselves without anyone else translating it to mean something else. I think those spaces are really urgent. I know sometimes, we will be talking about our blackness and womanhood and there will be that one person who says how long are we going to be talking about that and when are we going to start doing something about it, and I feel like we haven’t even been talking for long. We don’t know if we all want the same things. We need to talk about what freedom looks like for each of us and what it means. So, when someone is quick to talk about doing the work, I wonder what work they are referring to because we don’t all have the same goals in life, and we need to figure that out; whilst we decide how each of our feminism looks like and understand that they are different from each other. So, it is important for me to have such spaces where women can be openly vulnerable, to openly talk about things that they face. To open such a space is part of my feminism and loving myself by opening myself up to softness. I think we need more talk and more space for talk that evolves into action and reaches out to others.
Gaamangwe: I completely agree with that. Thank you so much for joining me on this conversation.
Photo by Pranabesh Das.
Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and interviewer from Gaborone, Botswana. Her poetry has been published in Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, African Writer, Kalahari Review, Poetry Potion and Expound Magazine. Her interviews have been published in The Review Review, Praxis Magazine Mosaic Magazine, Alephi Magazine and Peolwane. Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is the Founder and Managing Editor of Africa in Dialogue.