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Brunel International African Poetry Prize Shortlist: A Dialogue With Kechi Nomu

Kechi-Nomu

Kechi Nomu was born in 1987. She grew up in Nigeria under two Nigerian dictatorships. Her poems have appeared in Saraba Magazine, The ANA Poetry Review, Expound Magazine, Sentinel and Brittle Paper. She writes film and theatre reviews for Olisatv. Her short stories have been workshopped at the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop and the Caine Prize Short Story Surgery. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared online and in print.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the busy hub of Yaba in Lagos, Nigeria by Email.

Gaamangwe: Kechi, congratulations on being shortlisted for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize. What does it mean for you to be on the shortlist?

Kechi: I am still processing all of what it means, but gratitude is the clearest emotion. The news came at a time when I had a lot of questions. So, it felt like an answer on some level. It is also just stunning to me to be on a shortlist with poets whose works I greatly admire, for the Brunel!

Gaamangwe: What kind of questions are you exploring in your poetry?

Kechi: I am very interested in memory. In the ways that this works for the individual and for people connected to a place (country and community) who have shared history. How certain events move from the center to the fringe of a larger consciousness but may remain very present for some people. Particularly in the ways that these things touched their lives. I was talking to a poet friend about this exact same thing days ago because well, it just is something I’m very preoccupied with.

The ways that a glitch in the day can mean so many different things in a place like Nigeria where things like memory and nostalgia—just the right to say that this happened in my small corner and this is what it means or continues to mean for me—can feel like such a luxury and in some cases, such a contested thing. In my writing, I try to reclaim a space to say these are the things I know that don’t fit into the general story and yes, they happened.

Gaamangwe: I am also obsessed with memory, specifically the collective unconsciousness of our ancestors, and how that affects our lives now. Latent memory. Which specific memories are you exploring?

Kechi: Wow. I had to sit with the thought of ‘the collective unconsciousness of our ancestors’ for some time. The weight of what remains untouched just stared me in the face. It is so important that you do this.

For me, you know, I am never sure what memories want to be told or explored. It is just the ways that memories spill out of places where a lot of effort has been put into containing them. But I am interested in selves or people set up to function outside of the memory of what they have lived and how this effort to contain/shut their memories fail. When a country for instance tries to negate memory with nationalistic slogans and the lid keeps coming undone or does not fit properly and there is a bubbling over. I think in this way, poetry functions as a collector. These are the things I think of.

Gaamangwe: That kind of nationalistic forced amnesia is disturbing. Because a lot of violence is performed within this space, where there is the expectation that people will forget. But memory doesn’t work like that, even when you think you have contained it, most time it’s seeping in unconsciously in daily events. This got me thinking about the memories in my country that we’ve been forced to forget, and also wondering, what memories in your country and personal space have been negated?

Kechi: Very true. I couldn’t agree more. Memory is very autonomous. It belongs solely to the individual. In Nigeria, there is just a lot that has been negated by this collective silence and denial. This, even in the face of the work done, currently being done, to write these memories into being. In our contemporary history, there has been a civil war, there have been dictatorships each with its own specific brand of trauma. In the last decade, terror has had an incalculable effect and there has been a denial narrative consistently put out by the state. Such that, in the face of the relentlessness of this denial narrative, to be sentient, to remember, to claim memory, the ones that space is made for in the larger conversation and the ones that seem not to matter in mapping the big stories, becomes a radical thing.

Gaamangwe: At this point in human history, we really need to be radical. Because accepting these denial narratives is a very dangerous space where our existence is made to be insignificant. Which we cannot and should not have. How are you, and the speakers in your poetry becoming radical?

Kechi: The people in my poems, the poems I have been feeling my way through for a while now (as the poems I sent in for the Brunel International African Poetry Prize reflect) are wondering what love means, what it is worth when the object of love becomes a thing that is dangerous. How do boys love/long for fathers who want to consume them? How do men for whom the love of country/ideas of duty/honor/responsibility/expectation, return when the systems they have given themselves to fail them, what do they return to. How do girls love fathers whose memories they want to discard as much as they want to claim parts of them? How do children love mothers who make memory by the erasure of self, for whom this is what the equation of love looks like. How do people love places that turn on them? How do they carry the memory of these places across geographies, or for people who cannot afford physical distance, across time?

For the speakers in my poems, it is looking at a beast from angles that are familiar. Processing from these points that are true. Claiming the right to start from the confusion of what you are and then working your way to some kind of question.

Gaamangwe: These are really powerful angles of looking at love, especially love that walks on a tightrope. What are you and the speakers discovering about love? What meanings and understandings are you and they making about love?

Kechi: You know, I wish I could say that we have begun to make discoveries for certain, things we can frame with language just yet. It does feel like we are on the road to understanding… there is a way that Toni Morrison frames it that makes sense to me and seems to fit where it is that we are and what it is that we are working through.

There is really nothing more to say – except why. But since why is difficult to handle, one must take refuge in how.

It’s from The Bluest Eye I think. Not very sure now. But, you know, I think to arrive at some point of discovery or meaning, I and the ‘people’ that inhabit me are feeling our way through the ‘how’.

Gaamangwe: This speaks to me, Kechi. Thank you, and all the best with Brunel International African Poetry Prize and your poetry.

NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted poets for the 2017 Brunel International African Poetry Prize.

Download the full book HERE: Conversations with Brunel Poetry Prize Shortlist

 

Poetry of the Human Body: A Dialogue With Mahtem Shiferraw

Mahtem Shiferraw - Author Photo copy

Mahtem Shiferraw is a poet and visual artist who grew up in Ethiopia & Eritrea. Her work has been published in The 2River View, Cactus Heart Press, Blood Lotus Literary Journal, Luna Luna Magazine, Mandala Literary Journal, Blackberry: A Magazine, Diverse Voices Quarterly, The Bitter Oleander Press, Callaloo and elsewhere. She won the Sillerman Prize for African Poets and her full length collection, FUCHSIA, was published by the University of Nebraska Press (2016). Her poetry chapbook, BEHIND WALLS & GLASS, was published by Finishing Line Press. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

This conversation took place in the warm, sweet-spot of Gaborone, Botswana and the  yellow-hot of Los Angeles, USA by Email.

Gaamangwe: Mahtem, I found your reflections of your poem “Blood Disparities” on Poetry LA, quite striking. You said;

“I am very interested on the human body. The way it works, on the very small or simple level. Like the cell, and what it does. I find that there is so much poetry in the human body, and the way it also works with the mind. And the body of the mind or the mind of the body. So there is a lot of exploring to do.”

Let’s start here, on your fascination of the human body, and the poetry you are unpacking and discovering in your exploration of the human body?

Mahtem: This is a great question. I think a lot about the human body, and how it moves in the world. How we, as human beings, are affected by the things we experience, and how differently our bodies react to our experiences. We know the body as an inherently biological element, but what do we know about its psychology? And how does the body inform the things we do, the way we react to certain things? These are all fascinating things to think about. The body is filled with small poems, whether you’re thinking about flesh and blood, or the resilience of scars, or the magnitude of certain organs … I can go on forever!

Gaamangwe: I have never thought about the psychology of the body! Just fascinating.  What ideas do you have about the psychology of the body?

Mahtem: Memory comes to mind. The first thing I know about the body is: it remembers things. The mind does too, of course, in a logical sense. But the body has a memory of its own; as do parts of our bodies. A simple example: hair remembering how to curl or uncurl under a toothless brush. Or the body refusing to fall asleep because of a quiet distress, the body sweating in fear. The thing is, we are accustomed to the body and mind being in synch; but at times, they’re not, and we, are left in the middle, questioning our decisions. These bodies remember everything: the sound of a specific laughter, the smell of a new season, the rumbling of a dropped bomb. They can distinguish between the fear of longing, the fear of anticipation, the fear of death. How many times do we actively think and categorize our fears? We usually don’t. But the body does that for us, among other things. It labors quietly to help us exist in the world as we do.

Gaamangwe: I am now thinking of the way the body also exists in spaces of dis-ease, constrictions and violence. How the body contains grief and sorrows, which are some of the themes that you explore in your poetry.  What griefs and sorrows within the body are you interested in exploring?

Mahtem: Exactly! I write a lot about grief-stricken bodies, it is a fascination of mine. Not because I take pleasure in the aching, but because I am marveled by the beauty and perseverance that occurs within our bodies. In Ethiopia, when a loved one dies, we show our grief explicitly: women shave their hair, wear black for at least forty days, they turn their netela upside down. These are all things that signal grief. But the mourning, although communal to some level, is also quite private, personal. In times like these, the body moves as it ought to be; although our mind is shut down from trauma, the body gets up, fixes things, prepares food, arranges the wake, etc. The body shows up; while the mind meddles in sorrow. I think I’ve said too many times that I am the keeper of sorrows, which is a pretty grim profession. But I consider it to be worthy, mostly because a lot of sorrows go by undocumented, and some fester within us without our knowing. How can then someone claim to be a poet, and not bear witness to such things?

Gaamangwe: As I grow older, I understand how wise our ancestors are, in the way that they have created and kept what might seem as elaborate and unnecessary cultures of grieving. These long days of mourning that seem to be for communal purpose, yet on closer inspection one sees how this communal practice of funerals allow us to individually integrate our loss, to move from shock, to not crumble. On cultures, do you also marvel at how bodies react and navigate different geographies; countries and lands that hold our greatest joys and greatest pains?

Mahtem: Our ancestors were SO wise. I think a lot about my ancestors these days, connected, inherited, longed for – all of them. They have woven intricate ways of living so we could continue to survive.

Navigating different geographies is a source of joy and sorrow for me, which is why I think and write a lot about the immigrant experience. I just wrote a poem about our bodies being maps – each limb part of a land we crossed and uncrossed, each organ hiding a different flag, these feet used to running and running. Ultimately, our bodies just want to be – whether in America or in Ethiopia or in Botswana. But the lands we cross have an anatomy of their own – they give us different names, they place us in a specific social strata, they expect less from our intellectually driven minds. By this, our bodies come close to disintegrating. How can we not? But something keeps us going – a glimmer of hope, whether in the shape of a loved one, or lost ones, or, the will to live and make something of ourselves over and over again. This hope does not let us wallow in our sorrows. And so our bodies know this, and they learn to muster sorrow or grief or longing or whatever is thrown our way, and adjust to move within new boundaries. It’s as if they protect us from the ugliness of a world that chooses to see us as destructive. And this, I take to be a gesture of grace, learned from ancestors, from God, from others.

Gaamangwe: On speaking about the anatomy of our lands, cities and countries and world bodies, I am also vigorously learning to seek and find the poetry here. Because as you said our bodies are so endowed with a beautiful grace, and if we think about the sources of our sorrows, these things that try to disintegrate us, and how they enable us to see this beautiful grace, perhaps then there must be poetry in them?

But I speak as someone who knows only a small fraction of the immigrant experience, but I do wonder if you find poetry in all the countries you belong to? If your body has created a magnificent poem out of existing in different geographies?

Mahtem: That’s a very interesting thought. I never really considered myself as belonging to any particular land, though I develop strong attachments to each, for various reasons. I would hate to romanticize it too much because the experience of the immigrant is turbulent at the least, and continues to be so. Meaning, the experience does not become suddenly pleasant because you have set roots in a different land; the journey is not the only harrowing thing. Some of us adjust better or more quickly than others, some don’t. And I’ve heard different versions about the immigrant who belongs to many lands, and therefore is better because of it. Although we are better for having been traveled, we have also to be realistic about these experiences. I think I’m one of those few who don’t really feel the belonging, and always seeks for it. I belong more to water than to land, which is to say, belonging has nothing to do with physicality. The first time I was kicked out of my birthplace, I felt betrayed, I mourned for the white city. And refused to set roots elsewhere because I did not see myself anywhere else. Thus, the body must have been in mourning. But I can see how bits and pieces of the body must belong to different lands; my hair is from Addis, my chatter from Asmara, the food I cook from both, my first poetry from Rome, the blue I crave from San Francisco, and so forth. And by leaving pieces of itself in different lands, the body becomes a geography of its own; a map of our collective histories.

Gaamangwe:I can’t imagine what that betrayal must have felt like, and still feels like. How is the feel or color or texture of this specific mourning? I say this because I imagine that mourning for something that is inaccessible but still exists, and still could possible become accessible someday, is different from say mourning for something that is gone forever?  I am wondering about the kind of space or emotion the body occupies in this kind of sorrow.

Mahtem: I don’t think mourning can be completely gone from the body, at least not without leaving traces here and there. Perhaps the body hosts that emotion and decides to store it somewhere so we can move forward, somehow. It’s very dense, a liquid kind of mourning that continues to scrape your surfaces many years later.

Gaamangwe: You once said “there is a kind of silent existence in the body”, which I have never appreciated before. But then I also started thinking about different kinds of silent existences, beyond the human body.  I thought about silent existences of lands, that we don’t take note of. I resonated with your “Talks About Race”, poem, especially when you said;

“And how to cradle, and contain the disappointment that is

rekindled whenever someone does NOT know

my Ethiopia, my Eritrea.”

I have also experienced that kind of disappointment about my Botswana. In the way that I have to always explain about my country’s existence. Much like the way we disregard the whole poetry of the body, my Botswana, and your Ethiopia, and your Eritrea and many other lands all over the world exists on this silent existence. I am interested on knowing a bit more what is beneath the silent existence of Ethiopia & of Eritrea. What don’t we know and witness about them?

Mahtem: The silences we practice when we leave our birthplace or home are many. But these depend on us always remembering fondly our lands, our traditions, our culture. It’s one thing to be an immigrant and have to explain where you’re from (which is a natural curiosity of people, I assume), but it’s a completely different thing when your countries are erased completely and simply replaced by “Africa” or “African”. It’s sort of an implicit sense of entitlement westerners have; we and the other. Geography was not my favorite subject, but I knew the existence of 50 states in the U.S., the capital city of Venezuela, the ancient Greeks and their city-states, I had a pen-pal from Uruguay, and dreamt about the islands of Malaysia. I don’t know all the countries in the world, but at least we learn the continents. You have no idea how many times I’ve had to correct people about Africa being a continent and NOT a country. This kind of continuous erasure comes with arrogance; and over time, you learn to deal with it. This doesn’t mean I have anything against being called African; I find that very humbling actually. But it’s still disturbing to know  we don’t get to learn our origin stories; Ethiopia was once one of the greatest kingdoms in the world, and yet, I never learned about it in school. Why are our black monarchs any less important than the Romans or Greeks? These are the thoughts that occupy my silences.

Gaamangwe: This is my daily narrative. The way that our histories have been made to disappear is deeply disturbing. Sadly, this erasure is also so prevalent in the continent. Our education systems are deeply Eurocentric. We know far less about our countries and our own neighboring countries.  We have adopted so much that is not ours, and the systems (education and politics) seems to not be bothered by this de-valuing of our experiences and histories. It makes you wonder, who will become the custodians of our existence? What will say we once lived here?

So I am always trying to unsilence myself. I wonder, for you, do you have ways that you try to defy this erasure? How do you un-occupy these silences?

Mahtem: This is such an important question. Our first act of defiance, I think, is our mere existence; we continue to live and exist despite a multi-layered system that seeks to erase us and our histories, one way or another. We continue to question the status quo. We continue to be vocal and reassert ourselves in the history books. Because we matter, because our stories matter. And our elders have bestowed the most important element for our freedom: along with our languages and cultures, oral traditions play a vital role in our shaping. I might not have read books about my kings and queens, but I’ve heard stories about them. I might not have read about folktales, but I know plenty of Aleka Gebrehanna stories to tell my children. And as human beings, but especially as artists and writers, we have the obligation to bear witness to these stories, and continue the tradition of storytelling. By choosing to do this, I un-occupy the silences a bit less.

Gaamangwe: I absolutely agree. Storytelling has this surging outward and inward, physical and psychic flow, that refuses and defies and protest the things that try to make us disappear. When we witness our silences and sorrows, and the world’s attempt to erase us, we can and the future generation can un-occupy what has been done and what is being attempted to be done.

I am given even more energy and faith by this powerful line, from your poem “A Secret Lull” (in your book Fuchsia);  “Now who’s to say / their roar’s strength / does not lie in their sorrow?”

So much power here Mahtem! I live for this line, and mumble it in days when it feels the world is almost winning. So, thank you for this poetry. What else do you hope the readers of Fuchsia discover about human strength, histories and sorrows? 

Mahtem:  I’m so glad to hear that. Many people think sorrow and hopelessness go hand in hand, but the strength of our sorrow is also important. Fuchsia is complicated on itself, but through it, I hope to connect with readers and their unique experiences, I hope to tell the immigrant story, the story of the nomad, and document the loss that comes from such experiences. Thank you for this wonderful and thought-provoking conversation! I do hope to bring Fuchsia in person to Botswana one day.

Gaamangwe: Wonderful! I would love to have you and read Fuchsia in Botswana! Thank you so much for joining me in this space.

Poetry and the Fullness of Things: A Dialogue With Ejiofor Ugwu

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Ejiọfọr Ugwu  lives and writes in Nsukka, Nigeria. His poetry chapbook The Book of God was selected by African Poetry Book Fund in collaboration with Akashic Books to be included in the 2017 New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set. His poetry and short fiction have been published in Guernica, African American Review, Drumtide Magazine, The New Black Magazine, ELSEWHERE Lit, Cordite Poetry Review, Sentinel Nigeria, The Kalahari Review, and The Muse, a journal of creative and critical writings at the University of Nigeria.

This conversation took place in the warm, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the hilly town of Nsukka, Nigeria by Email.

Gaamangwe: Ejiofor, you once said that “I come from a Community of stories: beautiful and gory”, and I think there is no other perfect way to describe your poetry.  Beyond communal imprints and influence, what is your obsession in/with poetry? 

Ejiofor: It may not be a marvel to you but to my poetic mind, it’s a huge miracle. People kill and get killed every day. Many go unreported; unaccounted for: the reason for spelling blood does not even have to be tangible. Then again, we see where one death could trigger off concerns that would travel many nations, just one death, because the world thinks that such death is ‘important’. You check where I am coming from, and you find many sites of mass burials and they would quickly fade away. We have gotten used to mass burials – so we are no longer bothered, especially, since it is far away in the North or the North East or a small farming village in Ukpabi Nimbo.

Then Aleppo and many other places trying to deal with manuring their lands with humans.  It’s as if the whole world is a monstrous ‘blood god’ (apologies to Mary-Alice Daniel). I am not obsessed about death and the monstrous conspiracies of the world. No, I am not. After all, as a speaker in one of my poems would say, ‘I have no debt to worms except / wads of silk’. I think I seem to be saying: this is one important way we are now; perhaps, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.
My art is a personal protest. How far this protest will go is not certain though. What bothers me more is living with the reality of not having protested at all! You know, against humans and against Gods. The small fowl carried off by a carnivorous kite says that she is crying down from the air, not for the kite to leave her but for the whole world to also know that she is about to die. I have this feeling about most of the speakers I find in my poetry. They don’t seem to be tired of looking at life directly into its face. The speakers are also not better peoples. Sometimes, their personal daemons are so overbearing that you wonder: that is how they love the world.

Gaamangwe:  I am heartbroken for you, for the many humans who are violated, killed and buried, only to fade away the next day, unaccounted and undocumented, never spoken of, never known and cried for, except as statistics, as just victims of “Nimbo Massacre”.  

It’s not right. Even and despite that we will all die, and we are in a world without end, we should, all of us, care about the violent killing of any human.  With art, and much more— our hands, our bodies, our actions, our words are all the ways we should protest. But here is a conundrum, to protest humans and their ways, to say out loud that these are all the things we will accept and live with, is hard but possible. But now Ejiofor, how does one protest against God? 

Ejiofor: I am not just concerned about human destruction say, around me (it does not have to be around me). I am concerned about it happening anywhere in the world. I am concerned that people are no longer allowed to wither on their own and die. And there again, why should we even wither in the first place?

So, to be concerned this way is to begin a protest. The speakers rage not just against God or society but against their own souls. They make you see that they are also broken humans. Sometimes, they speak about things that we would like to keep secret; things we would not like to give speech; things we most suffer from but which we would not like to confront with words. You know, that is why I am not ashamed to write about bones. That is why I am not ashamed to write about small lives. The sense of protest I see in the speakers is in terms of speaking back to things, to all supreme deities including Gods in human forms. Job spoke back out of love: ‘Why hast thou set me as a mark against thee, so that I am a burden to myself?’ If you say I am your beloved, why do you chose this way to show me your love? Many unleash suffering out of strange senses of love; it could be love of Gods, what you call religion or love of power. There are many other strange forms of love in the world. Art in becoming art can open up questions about these loves. It is opening up things in order to win over erasure, to defeat time, to defeat silence. Nothing is past for Poetry, I think.

Even Christ felt forsaken. Say, He had a self apart from the ordained. We hear Him, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ That is a powerful form of protest against erasure. The answer to such question is for Philosophy or Religion to deal with. Poetry can unnerve Gods and things that way. It can keep questioning meanings and even unmeaning meanings in order to mean afresh. In this way art becomes more historical than history. It connects most to our common humanity.

So whether my poetry will succeed in speaking to things is also there. But more importantly it re-brings things; opens up things; enlarges things with their fullness of life so as to help them assert their lives. Poetry can do this even when we know that it is not statistical. It can record the history of say, the ‘defeated’ in a way most spiritual: enchanting and liberatory. Things don’t fade away completely where you have poetry. Things don’t get exhausted with the hurry of everyday speech. Everyday speech is almost powerless without poetry. Poetry rescues everyday speech for it to start to live. Poetry is a word that defeats time. You ought to have heard this before. What protest is more spiritual than this? Poetry, not in the immediate, or in your personal hurry but in steadfastness.

Gaamangwe:  Why should we even wither in the first place? What a fascinating thought. Is this not the basis of all human wars? This desperate attempt to not wither. To not annihilate. Are we not all, in some way trying to be immortal? Because withering is abrasive to human life. It is this withering that makes us question if all of this is significant after all. 

I understand this personal protest against the human soul. I am also haunted by how we have not been able to contain and transcend our withering nature.  But sometimes, I think that all roads must lead to withering, because perhaps the beauty of life, the poetry of things comes from the very fact that all things eventually wither. What amplifies and gives meaning to the smallness of things is the very reality that all things eventually ends. And love, well they do say love is the elixir of life. It adds fullness to the smallness of our lives. 

 I find what you said about how art asks questions about the many strange forms of love interesting. Now, I am interested to know the kind of questions your poetry asks about love, and the kind of answers your poetry is finding along the way. 

Ejiofor: We do poetry. Man does poetry, and say, he cannot do without doing it. About why he does it, apart from being a feature making him to be what he is, we are the ones to know. Those strange forms of love are possible, so that we know. So that we keep knowing. The much I know, as someone through whom poetry comes into existence, is in rethinking those possible forms. Why do we love that way? Why do we self-destroy?

Say, we can gain insights into certain truths of our being. What are these inexhaustible values of our being? That is spiritual and a oneness of being. Why do we make violence for instance? Why do we make destruction, knowingly or unknowingly? And how do we live with destruction? Again, how is it in our nature to make violence? Can we do self-cleansing?  We are yet to arrive at the complete answers.

Again, whether there is completeness at all? Poetry is in the asking. And that is part of why it will keep tugging at wholeness. The energy that comes from this can make the artist mad. You can crash down trying to dispel the energy. It’s a spell. That is why writing begins like an involuntary action. You spoke about eventuality; man infinitely in doubt of its possibility. That is, man knowing this eventuality, still does poetry. Poetry is an act of transcendence for him. That is one answer we can see along the way – a radical act, say. A way to tell the world that it is well. A way to also say, it is not always rosy for the world. Why the world needs to be always retold is the question of poetry. It can make the world feel nervous. It can make the world feel loved. They are all possibilities of feelings. Say, when it speaks about bones, it wearies the world.

Gaamangwe: The aspiring philosopher in me will say that the world needs to be retold because we, humans, are trying to clutch and connect the missing and incomplete dots, to fill the spaces between the eye and the heart, and to meet pasts and presents and futures, into one complete moments of nows.  And yes, I think, I really think poetry has in many ways, has transcended the in-between missing and incompleteness in our world.

On completeness, I wonder, is there a poem or poems of yours, that you feel has tugged at wholeness completely, one that comes close to the perfect spell and the complete act of the transcendence of Ejiofor?

Ejiofor: The other day, I was going to Arochukwu for the burial of a friend’s mother. Derek Walcott had died in the morning. I had avoided the news early that morning. It was out of shock, I think. And I was going to travel. And I needed to be a bit collected. My avoiding the news helped. But even by the evening of that day, the news had not yet stopped spreading. I had thought that it would have died down by the evening but it kept coming on more and more.  By early evening that day, I had covered half of the distance to my destination.

I decided to check social media. I opened Facebook and each time I did, the news would pop up as if to make sure that I accepted that Derek was now completely dead. We had just left Umuahia, passed some gmelina plantations. I kept getting worried again. The taxi kept speeding amidst hearty banters. The driver and some of the people in the taxi knew that we still had a long way ahead of us. So, they understood the speed and did not complain. We were only two strangers in the car. The lady going to see her would-be husband’s people for the first time and myself. I couldn’t join the hearty conversations. I kept thinking about Walcott and poetry and me. We got to a Jehovah Witness Hall along the entrance to Bende and I was already breaking. I became completely afraid, in form of panic attacks. I felt hopeless. What is this beast that never got tired of eating people? What is the need of poetry?

We passed some two small children running about with used tyres which they steered with double-pronged sticks, unaware that we passed them, unbothered by the world. Then almost immediately, Romeo Oriogun shared a part of ‘Love for Love’. And I reread the whole of it. A voice said in my head, ‘hey, don’t break down, keep working’. I began to type into a word pad in my phone. A title came first, ‘St. Lucian Air’. I wrote under it, ‘for Derek Walcott’. I marveled at the countless land gullies at Bende as we negotiated them. I continued typing into the St. Lucian Air even as we passed onto Ndi Oji Abam through a slim bridge. I feel my whole life will be devoted to writing only just one poem. The meaning of the poem will be ‘transcendence’. That is where everything that I have done is going to be collected and preserved. I hope for the grace. It’s not new. People past that I know did similar things. Derek has just left.

I like ‘The Land of Uz’. The speaker appears to have started speaking since ‘Sunrise’ or ‘Rats’, or ‘Children of the Moon’. The speaker in ‘Children of the Moon’ would say,

‘and we hear birthsongs

in akparata travelling

through the soft mutters of sand’

‘Akparata’ is a native coffin. The speaker and the people are not so much worried that the dead are dead. They rather hear birth songs in the coffins being guided into the sand. They believe in regeneration. For them, I think, nothing is really lost. That awareness is a form of transcendence. It seems to me that ‘the perfect spell and the complete act of the transcendence of Ejiofor’ is a life-long endeavour, so that as long as I have breath, I keep writing into it, into the big single poem. What do you think?

Gaamangwe:  I think that’s really powerful. I think that, a young poet, can only be expected to transcend himself only as a life-long endeavor.  I also really like “The Land of Uz”, but my favorite poem by you is “The Book of God”. Let me share my favorite part:

When the time came
in that small world of
half-woken stars
and broken moonlight
we were gathering palmnuts
un-cracked palmkernels of
previous years
lying silent in the dust
breeding thick and lice
termites eating away detachable peelings
and building endless houses,
eating up sand
I was a boy of unspecified age.
It must have been the time
we took ogwu uwa- the drug that
cured the whole world:
I don’t remember.
my father knew everything for us

The last five lines Ejiofor! Just powerful. And the whole of the poem is just, for me, absolutely genius. Can you tell me about this poem? And more about your chapbook, of the same name, by Africa Poetry Book Fund? 

BOOK PHOTO 1

Ejiofor: The poem grapples with what is it means to remember. Especially, how do we remember? And what can we remember? There are pieces of my personal history in the story, say, in form of scattered remains. Those scattered remains percolated with bits and pieces I picked on the way, or from friends I cared about. It was not clear to me why those remains needed to be given speech when the poem began. I had borne things in my mind long before the poem. I didn’t know what those things meant but they kept assuming importance to me. I had several false starts at writing about such things before and when I was in the university. They didn’t make sense. I threw them away, sometimes after typing them. In a sense, it’s a story I grew up with. I was the one that looked at the St. Martins de Porres Prayer Book that my father kept differently. My siblings or my mother only thought about the book as a place they could go and look up dates of birth when they were required at school or in church. I looked at the book as some kind of treasure. It connected me to certain things that existed before I was born. It held an infinite dread to me. For instance, when I came back from High School and I saw that moths had made in-roads into the book, I bought moth killers and placed them in the box where the book was kept alongside other documents or things. I begged my mother to buy moth killers and spread in the box from time to time. And she agreed.

So, ‘The Book of God’ long started as a desire to protect that small prayer book. Again, I grew up in the village. We were free range children in the village. We didn’t grow up being very protected from say, kidnappers. You know, I am not sure we had any kidnapping value as say, city children. So, we grew up taking a lot of risks. We ran down rocky hills, steering used tyres. We climbed tall trees. For mangoes, cashew, salt fruits or just to dangle happily from them. Sometimes, we fell and sustained injuries that we hid away from our parents until we began to writ in pains in the nights. Mother would ask in threatening voices, “Did you fall?”. “No!” “What happened?” “I fell from a tree”. Sometimes, she would give you some quick hot beatings on your way to the kitchen where she would boil hot water with which to massage away your pains. If we got better from the pains, we still went out to look for salt fruits the next day. So, this is part of what I mean when I speak of scattered remains. Then, very importantly, I took eleven years to process the death of my father. There were many other deaths too. My immediate younger sister, Oluchi died on a market day at the age of six or seven. When my mother came back from the market, a small grave of her size was dug and she was covered with sand. After two or three farming seasons, we lost the grave. I mean, I think I had attained a certain maturity in early two-thousand-and-fifteen when the story came. And it then achieved that ability to speak to anyone anywhere. My chapbook with Africa Poetry Book Fund has what I have been trying to point at here as part of its background.

Gaamangwe: Memory is an interesting thing. There are things that we know we have lost, some we barely remember that they happened, and some that exists as scatterings, as remains of the people we once were and lives we once lived. And then there is the time of memory, when she is very elusive but helpful, because she helps us not to remember the things that hurt. Like grief. Like death. 

To process and understand the meaning of death is a difficult and painful part of the human experience. In writing, The Book of God (the poem), what kind of meanings did you create for yourself to process your father’s death, and your younger sister? 

But also on the book level, what meanings/lessons did you, the writer, extrapolate or discover or create from your personal history & your world history? 

 

Ejiofor: My personal losses called forth a poem like ‘The Book of God’. In the process of remembering, I think a lot of things come together to yearn for speech. I think the artist especially, remembers that way. That is the same way stories come to him or her. They come to him together; you know, as if they have been there all along. When my sister died, I remember I cried but I didn’t make much of it. I was also young. I only had a mind that was susceptible to impressions quite early. So, I could keep pictures in my mind that early but I didn’t know what they meant or could mean. When my mother, in a way to help us forget things, said she would give birth to another sister, I agreed and kept quiet. My sister’s was a small death so there was no much mourning or ceremonies. When my father died, I didn’t even cry in that elaborate ways. If not for those paternal women that are usually around and who would want to make sure that you are human by expecting you to cry, I am not sure I was that excited to cry. It was later that I cried on my own from time to time.

So, when the stories I have told so far came, they came as things of various kinds coming to take forms in ways that they could now begin to mean; things that are speakable in many faraway places; things that can speak other languages; things that are human. I am not sure you need to know me before you can connect to the stories. I feel the reason could be because they have moved from the personal and ascended to the universal. The personal has that potent force but maybe not for every writer. Maybe what I wanted to say also is that when you train your imagination enough, you may not need to look so far for stories. They will come to you on their own. I am trying to describe my own experience as a young writer who is just starting out. A lot of us are quick to lock our hairs and live the writer. Sometimes, we, in this process, lose completely the temperament that one requires to write well. There are temperaments that will never produce art. I can’t really point at these temperaments in their black and white forms, so don’t ask me, but I know they exist. I think I should stop because I am already pontificating as if my own poetry has already bought me a car or a house. But really Gaamangwe, I am only writing because I can’t stop. If I could, I would, but I can’t. You know how automatons are? If na for the money or fame, I no sure say poetry na the beta place to start. Writing no dey give fast money or fame like that o. So, if you are in so much hurry, I think you should better find many other fast places.

Gaamangwe:  I resonate a lot with your reflections on losses, memory and writing. And yes to never stopping to writing poetry. Thank you so much Ejiofor for the shifting reflections. I look forward to reading more and more of your work.

Ejiofor: Thank you so much Gaamangwe for this opportunity. Keep up the good work. I wish you great successes in your own writing career.

Poetry Meets Music: A Dialogue with Tsitsi Jaji

Jaji by Gilliam profile pic

Photo credit: Tanji Gilliam

Tsitsi Jaji is a Zimbabwean American, who grew up in Harare before moving to the U.S. for college. She earned a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Cornell University. She is an associate professor of African and African American studies at Duke University.

 She is the author of Carnaval from a the collection Seven New Generation African Poets (African Poetry Book Fund/Slapering Hol, 2014) and Africa in Stereo: Music, Modernism and Pan-African Solidarity (Oxford University Press, 2014). She was awarded an honorable mention in the African Poetry Book Fund’s Sillerman First Book Prize.

Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Boston Review, Madison Review, Runes Review, InTensions, Munyori Literary Journal, Black Renaissance Noire, Bitter Oleander, Illuminations, Eleven Eleven, Poetry International’s Zimbabwe page, and the Center for Book Arts Broadside Poetry Series.  Her poetry collection, Beating the Graves, was published February 2017 by University of Nebraska Press

This conversation took place in the warm, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the vibrant city of Durham, USA by Skype.

 Gaamangwe: Tsitsi, I am fascinated by how the poetry in your first chapbook, Carnaval, started out as program notes for music you were performing. How did you arrive in this space where music meets poetry?

Tsitsi: My mother is from Ohio, and her grandmother was trained as a professional pianist and so music had been important in her life. It was classical music for the most part even though that grandmother never became a concert pianist. She played in the beginning of jazz in silent films.

I started to feel strange about the fact that I was studying classical music the older I got. When I was younger, I didn’t think about it because you just do what you are told, and I was quite serious about piano at the time, so I applied to go to a Conservatory of Music in the US. When I got in, I was also studying literature and it was the first time I took a class on just African writers because I grew up in Zimbabwe in the late 80s and early 90s when the literature was still very colonial.

In secondary school we read Bessie Head, Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiongo and one or two Zimbabwean authors. Those were the sum total of set books by African writers at my school. Music was the same – all European composers. So, when I came to the US I started to have a complex about singing western, European music. At one point, I thought about quitting and my teacher said that is not a very smart way to think about it. Why don’t you change what you are playing?

So, I started to play some compositions by black American composers and even to write some music, to set poems I liked to music. When I was about to graduate, I felt like, I don’t know why I started doing it, but it became a way to say that this composer from the 19th century in Germany was my composer.  To claim it and say just because I grew up somewhere else does not mean I have nothing to do with that work than a person who grew up in Ohio. For me, when I hear those pieces of music, there meant a lot to me.

For example, one reason I like this composer, Schumacher, is that he has some mental health problems, some mood disorder and bipolar and I also had some experiences with that. He had these two characters in his music, Eusebius was supposed to represent depression and Florestan represented mania. I felt a certain kind of kinship or resonance with this composer. His composition, Carnaval, has pieces where two of them are named characters, and it’s very literary — he loved literature and he also started a journal of music writing.  So it didn’t seem all that strange at the time but to tell you the truth I have never seen anything like that either.

I feel like the best thing about being a writer from Africa, whether you are on the ground or in the diaspora is that it is a relatively new literature and so we are free to keep inventing forms with the kind of energy that I don’t know if other people in the same platform believe they have. We can take whatever we want and remix it. So, for me some of the poems in their original form were descriptions of the music or how I felt about the music. Some of them where portraying the characters that the music would choose to represent. But after I first wrote them, I didn’t touch them for probably ten years. When I went back to them, I cared about them in a different way. Some of them didn’t change. Like Sphynxes which is dedicated to Cecil Taylor, an experimental jazz musician, who I just love because he is also a poet. He is extremely individual and challenging. I didn’t change that one. There are some poems in there, like Chiarina which became much more African poems. Chiarina is in honor of Yvonne Vera, one of my favorite Zimbabwean writers. Another one is a portrayal of Fela Kuti because he has this fire energy that I associate with that figure and experience of mania.

I found this great quote when I was studying for my doctorate, by Abdullah Ibrahim, the South African pianist. He wrote in a column in the 60s that the piano is an African instrument and it made total sense because pianos used to be made of ebony and ivory, which are materials that were extracted and stolen from Africa. Piano is also a percussion instrument and we know that the whole history of drumming and complex percussion starts in Africa. So, on one hand it sounds like a surprising statement but on the other hand on a fundamental, material level, he has a point. Plus I think that if you play any instrument with your own sensibility you make it your own. And for the piano it has a lot to do with how you touch it, a certain kind of attention. I learnt to do that in Zimbabwe. I would practice with the door open, and I could smell the rain and I could hear whatever was happening outside. For me now, I would say piano in Zimbabwe is Zimbabwean music. I try not to compartmentalize my life too much because these are all just music and poetry and walking and meditation, they all the ways of getting through life.

Gaamangwe: The image of you playing the piano while it rained is incredible. Did the inspiration or the interest in what Schumacher did with his mental disorder and music translate into how you created your work?

 Tsitsi:  Definitely. I would say that the period when I started writing more or less every day, which I don’t do anymore, was in my twenties. That was a period when I really was having a hard time coming to terms with the disruption that I had experienced due to my mood disorder and another autoimmune disease.  I had to take some time off from university and it was tough.  At one point a nurse recommended a book to me that was about creativity. The book was called The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, and it was very transformational for me. It’s like a twelve-step program as if you are recovering from alcoholism. Basically, it encourages you to recover your inner artist because we do live in societies that have some strange concepts about artists– who can be an artist, what your life looks like which is often assumed to be chaotic, broke etc. So anyways, I went through this period, and wrote a lot of poems, which were terrible, I think only one of them made it into the Carnaval series in the book. But at least I was writing.

So what I would do is kind of make a collage, I would cut out images from a magazine and I would write the poem from that because this book encourages you to do things like “artist dates,” where you do something that inspired you. For some reason, taking magazines and cutting out images appealed to me. That helped me to process emotions in a less direct way than talking to someone in therapy.  I think therapy is a very strange and cultural thing, like that closed room and one person who you are paying. But in Shona society (and probably in other parts of Africa) we have family structures where there are particular uncles and aunts you are supposed to be able to confide in. Or ceremonies, which often involve music, that are supposed to make you understand things more holistically or feel better. Anyways, for me poetry was helpful.  Almost my entire life music has really been a powerful way to express emotion and I think that’s true for people whether they make music or they listen to it or they dance to it. It’s powerful.

The one thing I have not done is to put music into my own words. I don’t know if I have ever done that but I find it easier to talk about other music or musicians or to make music responding to other words. I also just like improvising with no words myself. I guess I can also say the same kind of learning, a certain kind of judgmental rationalism, goes to the background and helps let whatever is coming come, it’s something that is a part of my creative practice.

That’s not always how I write and it’s not always how I play but sometimes I feel as if I receive certain kinds of information into my consciousness. Time is a very funny thing; I have had experiences where I write something and I don’t know it at the time but it has something to do with something that’s going to come into my life. And when I look back I realize that the poem opened for what was coming in a way that I can look back to make sense of it. Those poems have been healing for me. I feel real continuity between that and how Shona people think about ceremony, to try and resolve things, where music is important and dancing is important.

A certain kind of formulaic speech is often involved and you can think about being a medium as a kind of performance art. We have different vocabulary in society for these things, and I happen to have spent a lot of time in the global north and so I just try and think about how these things can translate.

That’s exactly how some poems like the ones about family trees and my ancestor, VaNyemba have become part of the collection. Even the title ‘Beating the Graves’ does that — some Shona people think it’s funny and maybe an inappropriate direct translation. There is a ceremony in Zimbabwe called kurova guva and that’s literally what it means, because kurova is to beat someone. Guva is one of the names for a grave. It’s an important ceremony done several months after someone dies, marking the transition between loss and accepting them as an ancestral figure.

It’s complex, of course. I have one American parent and one Zimbabwean parent. At this point I have lived in the US since 1993, which means at this point I have spent more of my life in the US than in Zimbabwe. I live in a space of translation, I can either let myself feel undone by that or inhabit it. At different times, I feel both. Poetry is one of the places where I can try and inhabit all the dimensions of myself.

Many people have helped me with that along the way, but I would say someone who was transformational in talking about this is Chris Abani. I met him through that chapbook, Carnaval. He’s one of the editors of the African Poetry Book Fund. I have known his work for a long time and I loved his novel Graceland and even taught it in courses I was teaching in university. So, when I met him I was terrified but he’s a very generous person. His mother is from Britain and he himself is actually an initiated Babalawo and his first long collection of poems Daphne’s Lot is about his mother. This is someone who is fully Nigerian, fully the son of his mother, fully part of the Nigerian diaspora in the US, and truly an African in a pan-African sense: he lives in himself. He doesn’t apologize for his differences and it makes him a generous and open person. He said something powerful to me sometime because I felt ashamed that I speak French better than I speak Shona. I had started to work on the VaNyemba poems and he said you have lost more than some people have ever had. And it just made me realize that what I still have, culturally, is actually a lot and that I have a lot of memories to draw on and that I shouldn’t spend so much time feeling conflicted and guilty.  These are the stories I have been given by the life I lived.

No one can tell those stories if I don’t open them and give the opportunity for other people to maybe recognize how idiosyncratic they are, and how they also can own their own stories,  because we are all neurotic at some level.  If someone reads and says, “Wow I have never imagined that experience,” maybe they will start to think that even if they don’t see a mirror of their own life in the world they can recognize and value their experiences.

There is no way I can conform to some pre-existing cultural norm because where in the world can I find another mixture of a young person born in a country that no longer exists with the cultural experiences I’ve had? The only other person is maybe my brother — and we couldn’t be more different, now as adults! So, it just frees me to say to myself,  well; I am made up of all those things, all those things belong to me but so does the whole world.

There is another quote I love by Publius Terentius Afer, commonly known as Terence. He said “I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me”. That’s who we are, we are people of the world. Some of it we didn’t even choose to be pulled into. Africa is the continent that life and civilization as human beings started on. And we are people who have loved through colonization and slavery. We are part of the world and the world is within us.

Gaamangwe: That’s powerful. There is a certain liberation you get when you know that you are not the only person experiencing something. But I also know that even if someone hasn’t exactly experienced your experience, our interconnected universality allows us to relate to almost all human experiences.

I was reading the “Book of VaNyemba” and it shook me. It’s such an interesting and unexpected, beautiful creation. Can you tell me more about it?  

Tsitsi: So Book of VaNyemba opens with a true story but at the same time, I am very nervous about this one, because this figure, VaNyemba, really did live and I did not know about her until I was an adult. I call her, “her” but it’s an open question. The way the story was told to me by my aunt was that she was hermaphrodite. But I have also seen versions of this story where she is described as keeping bullets in her womb, which I think it’s a very poetic way one might describe someone who is intersex, with undescended testicles.

I live in the US where sexuality and desire is talked about in different language than in Zimbabwe. I do think that the homophobia that people talk about in the diaspora is based on a fiction of Shona culture. There is a book called Hungochani and the researcher interviews people that live in the very rural areas, who speak Ndau, and they would talk about people who have same sex desire and those people lived with their partners, not necessary in the same household but people didn’t hassle them, they were just quietly accepted as they were.

For me when I heard this story about VaNyemba, I was shocked; it was so different from anything I had heard. I had never heard of it before and this was when I was twenty-six and my grandfather had passed away, and I couldn’t go for his funeral but I went afterwards and I stayed with my aunt who had taken care of him.  She told me this story because she knows a lot of traditional information that my father probably knows but didn’t tell me because he is very committed to the church. So, she told me the story and I just kept it in my heart and it stayed with me all this time. I would research her from time to time so that’s how I know some people described her as having bullets inside her womb. There are certain ceremonies around sexual difference in Shona culture that honor her.

But I was worried that the explicitness of my poems would upset some people including my father. I was very relieved when I showed it to him and he was delighted that I was praising our ancestors. I am also interested in praise poetry, specifically clan praise poetry because it’s one of the high forms of poetry in Shona oral literature but it’s also one of those things that shows that you are good mannered or a well-educated person, especially if you know some of the praise poetry of other clans. My father is very good at that, he will meet someone who is from the Nzou elephant clan and praise them and their horns, their tusks you know. I read some of the praise poetry for the Tembo, the umbrella group for Zebra Clan. I just thought, What would this look like in English? Let me read you a few lines of a translation by Hodza and Fortune, of one of these praise poems;

 

You’ve done a service you who yearn to give

You whose horns grow down to meet together

harmless beast without horns

You striped one, you who love to share

Harmless beast from round there’

So, I think about what that would be like in Shona and nyemba is the word for bean, it’s not a butter bean but I just thought butter bean and sugar bean sound delicious in English, so that’s how I translated it. I just thought if you praised the characteristics of someone you can go overboard. But also, I was raised in a Christian household, and the forms of prayer that I know have a lot of that kind of language. So, it’s trying to weave all those things together. At one point I thought it would be a longer series with more poems but these are the ones that I have so far, the ones in Beating the Graves. It felt great when I gave this reading at the recent Africa Poetry Book Fund event at the Library of Congress. There was a Zimbabwean man who is an ordained priest, and who is also studying counselling for Shona traditionalist, whether that’s their primary religious orientation or not. His name is Father Guria, and he came to the talk and I knew I didn’t make major mistakes with the VaNyemba because afterwards he said this is a great rendition of her story.

These stories of women and female identified persons who are macho are quite heavy but I think its important to remember them and their past and the suffering that they have sustained.

Gaamangwe: Lately I have also been drawn to the idea of telling the stories of our ancestors whether they are myth or not. For us in Botswana we rarely ever teach or at least we were not comprehensively taught the histories of our forefathers. I am quite interested in our own myths and legends as Botswana, and as Africa because they are slowly sipping away, and there are parts of ourselves and our heritage. I think it’s so powerful that you are translating and re-telling those kinds of stories.

On this idea of translating music through poetry, Shona praise poems to English, how are you translating Zimbabwe’s history and current state?

Tsitsi: I think about this a lot. Regardless of how long I have lived outside Zimbabwe, it will always be the place where I learnt language, where I learnt music, where I learnt what it means to be person, where I learnt the concept of what it means to be connected to other people. That’s my foundation, my intellectual, emotional and constitutional foundation. It’s also the place I spend my formative years.

I feel a lot of sadness because I grew up very privileged in Zimbabwe. To be born right before independence, into a family that already had university education, I cannot imagine a better time and place. I went to good schools and I had music and ballet lessons, and my family was very close. The first few years of my life I lived in the rural area in the north-eastern part of the country, because my parents were teaching in missionary schools there. Zimbabwe is where things make sense to me on a gut level:  the correct smell of rain is the way rains smell in Zimbabwe, and the correct look of soil is the way soils looks in Zimbabwe. The correct sound in the morning is the way the doves and the cock crows in Zimbabwe. So even though I have spent a lot of time in other places, the place where everything fits and makes sense to me is Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe is also a country that’s changed and has become disordered in so many ways. You see that more when you are away and come back for a short period. I honestly feel like the disrepair is just like the potholes on the road. When I first came to the US and people were talking about this undeveloped Africa, I got so angry because Harare is such a beautiful city, it still is, and when I was growing up, the downtown and the nothern suburbs where I grew up were idyllic. But I have also stayed with cousins (in Shona they are my children, not my “cousins”) in high density areas and it wasn’t not idyllic there. It was vibrant and safe but you couldn’t grow up in Zimbabwe without knowing deep inequality existed.

My Zimbabwean grandparents never had electricity or running water even though my father built them a house with separate rooms and all that. They had a hard life. I think it’s part of why they lived into their 90s, it’s because they were strong people. Coming out of that, there is a part of me that feels angry about the economic and political chaos in Zimbabwe. Very angry. But what came before independence was profoundly unjust, truly shocking abuses. Some people will say out loud that Zimbabwe before independence was better but it’s not true. People were not treated like actual people. There were daily humiliations. My grandfather was forced to sleep in the kraal during the war. People will be rounded up at night and there were not allowed to go out. Basically, a concentration camp. So however inexcusable the rule by the same person over nearly the past forty years in a country that calls itself a democracy is, it is also the case that we were building something other than what we went through.

I have loyalty to Zimbabwe, but also, I have a lot of complicated feelings about Zimbabwe because I am protected, I have a US passport so if I criticize the government, I am not really the one who is likely to suffer; I worry that my relatives might well be targeted because we don’t have a very common last name. So, I don’t write things directly, there are metaphors in my poems that if you are from there you do know exactly what I am taking about and I worry about it. But most people would not recognize them. There are animals that are very symbolic for political things. And I can’t stay silent. But what reassures me is that Yvonne Vera wrote about very charged, political things and she was never arrested. Her books were never banned because her writing was very poetic, it was never direct. I feel like the gift of poetry is to bear witness and obviously, I don’t always write about Zimbabwe now because I don’t live in the situation but at the same I cannot not talk about it. As a responsible citizen of the world, there is no way I cannot talk about politics.

Gaamangwe: It is important and valid. The writer can write about the current society and experiences from their point of view.

My high school tutor was from Zimbabwe and he used to tell us stories of Zimbabwe before the war. It sounded idyllic like you said. And when the war broke, highly educated and hard-working people left Zimbabwe and some of them came to Botswana. And when they come here, they don’t get the jobs they are qualified for, many of them settle for menial jobs, and it’s just heartbreaking because people’s lives are shifted, and their lives are not what they could have been if they live in a stable state.

Tsitsi: Its very true. The discourse around immigration in the US is very related to what is happening is Southern Africa. When my parents moved here, my father couldn’t find work as a professor even though he had been heading his department for years. My brother helped him find work as a salesman, but he was too focused on giving people advice – actually counseling them that they were spending too much! At one point, he was working as a janitor in a car dealership. I think about amazing teachers from Zimbabwe who end up doing very menial work in South Africa, Botswana, the UK. It is heart-breaking especially when people struggle so much to get an education and end up not using it. One thing that made Zimbabwe such a strong country was how people valued education and they still do, and for the most part they must, to survive. That’s not mentioning migrants or refugees who are involved in politics — that’s another level of vulnerability.

Gaamangwe: Yes. Thinking about what Beating the Graves means in Zimbabwe, I wonder if this body of work is a sort of a cathartic process of exploring what Zimbabwe is and what she lost, and opening new spaces of perhaps acceptance and healing?

Tsitsi: First, having lived abroad I haven’t been involved in that ceremony for either of my grandparents.  In a way, writing these tribute poems is a way that I can attend that ceremony. It’s considered as an important transition when someone has lost someone and they are not yet settled. It’s the transition when they become an ancestor who can really help you in your life.

So, when I wrote some of those poems, like the one for my grandfather, he had passed away recently. I sent that one to my aunt and she read it at the funeral. Some of them I wrote when my grandmother was still there. So, writing about your country from far away, it’s always about the relationships and people from far away. I guess writing is a sort of ceremony too. It’s a kind of settling and powerful resources of those experiences of loss into the present. I think of Shona culture as an amazing set of technology for moving through the world and I think of Beating the Graves as a gesture of acceptance and of recognizing that even if we people and things are no longer with us, their lives and presence in our lives have power and meaning that continues in death. I don’t have a Shona traditional, spiritual perspective but the way I would express it is that to this day, if I do something that my father is proud of he will say “Oh your grandmother, the things in your head, there!” as if she expected great things, and it kind of reminds me to stay in that kind of trajectory

My grandfather was very gentle with animals. I am probably that way too. And, know that our totem is connected to hunting and farming honey. So, when this happens, even when I see a bee which is associated with our totem I am reminded that all the good things that he did are still good, and they are a source of my own research in a sense of what’s right and wrong. The thing is, that’s a Shona technology but it’s also my technology for understanding the world. I view my American grandparents in the same way. There is a poem in the series about my Ohio family. It’s called Vindication because the newspaper there is called Vindication. Just to remember them and what they did, which is more than a memory, it’s kind of affirming that their lives continue to have meaning and influence in the present.  These are my very loose poetic translations of things that other people might think of in another way.

Gaamangwe: Wonderful. Thank you for being in this space with me.

Gaamangwe Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.

Speculative Elements in African Storytelling and Film: A Dialogue With Dilman Dila

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Dilman Dila is a writer, film maker and a social activist from Uganda. He is the author of Cranes Crest at Sunset and A Killing in the Sun. His  work has been recognized by internationals awards such the Jalada Prize for Literature (2015), the BBC International Radio Scriptwriting Competition (2014), the Commonwealth Short Story Prize (2013), Short Story Day Africa prize, (2013 and 2014), and  Million Writers Awards (2008).  His works has been published in The Sunday Vision, The African Roar 2013, Storymoja, The Kathmandu Post, The Swamp, Dark Fire, Shadow Sword and Gowanus Books.

His films include What Happened in Room 13 (2007), The Young Ones Who Won’t Stay Behind (2008), Untouchable Love (2011), The Sound of One Leg Dancing (2011), and The Felistas Fable (2013). He films have been nominated for Best First Feature by a Director and Best Make-Up Artist at the Africa Movie Academy Awards (2014), and Best Make-Up Artist at the Africa Magic Viewer’s Choice Awards 2014. He was the winner of The Jury Award at the Nepal International Indigenous Film Festival in 2012. The Felistas Fable won Film of the Year (Best Director), Best Feature Film, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor during the Uganda Film Festival 2014, and also received nominations for Best Actress, Best Sound, and Best Post-Production.

This conversation happened between the sun-drenched city of Gaborone, Botswana and exuberant city of Kampala, Uganda by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Dilman, in the two forms of storytelling that you work with; prose and film, you gravitate to speculative fiction.  What is the origin of your fascination with this kind of genre?

Dilman: Like most children from where I grew up, the first stories I encountered were folktales and urban legends. Back then with there being no TV and little access to radio, storytelling was very popular, not just among children, even among adults, and not in the way you would think, where people gather around a fireplace. Most of it was informal, anytime, anywhere. Folktales, I must say, were much fewer for there is only a limited number of those from the communities I grew up in, but urban legends abounded. Almost every day we would hear something new, from how John Akii-Bua can run faster than cars to how cars can drive on trees in Kenya. When I grew up, I just didn’t grow out of it.

I started reading books at around the age of ten, and by that time I was already engrossed in these urban legends. So in books I looked for those with the most speculative elements. I remember one title Yoa and the Python, about a boy who befriended a snake, and it was very similar to a story I had heard in the streets, about a who had a pet snake that guarded his home. We had a library in our school which helped me access a lot of stories. One of my early memories is of my mother reading a red book on her bed, which I read after she finished it. This was The Clocks, of Agatha Christie.  It was before I was twelve. I think that was when I started reading adult books, and books that were not purely fantastical, but I always went back to spec books.

That said, I think all stories are speculative whether its fiction or documentaries or any other genre. I think there is a thin line between genres. I think genres were created because publishers wanted to create markets to publish their books. And maybe also because of the industrial revolution when human beings started separating magic from science. But I look at stories as having the same elements or drive behind them. The reason why human beings tell stories is basically the same. Whatever is it that makes one read stories, there is some instinct that drive you to read the story. So there is little differentiation between genres, for me anyways.

Gaamangwe: I am also quite fascinated with the strange, magic and the things that are outside what we accept as real. I love those kind of stories.

Dilman: The problem with human beings of the modern age is that the things that they don’t understand they write them off as unreal or illogical, and yet magic is really all around us. They are many things that science can never be able to explain. Some of them can be as simple as dreaming, why do we dream? When we dream what exactly happens to us? Do all animals dream? Do trees dream? Science has some theories, but they are merely speculation, and they have never understood dreams.

Gaamangwe: Sometimes I think; how strange will it be if an extra-terrestrial or someone who is not from this planet came and witnessed this phenomenon whereby when the sun goes down and time strikes 9pm or 10pm, all human beings go into their rooms, fall into the bed, sleep and dream. How vulnerable and strange. 

 Dilman: Yes. There is a story I am writing where people are able to go into the world of their dreams. There is one particular woman who is experiencing domestic violence and travels to a nightmare world where the only other person is her husband, it’s kind of a horror, and she has to deal with a world in which there are a million copies of her husband.

I drew inspiration for the story from my own experience because I grew up in a family where there was domestic violence. The thing with stories is that what you grew up with, what you experienced, and what you encounter in your everyday life, will make your story very different from all the other stories that have been told before.

 Gaamangwe: That’s fascinating. Freud says dreaming is for wish-fulfillment but I also think that in dreaming, the subconscious purges and integrates our daily traumas. Otherwise we will all probably have psychotic breakdowns because too much happens in a day.

Speaking of childhood experiences, I am interested in knowing some of the folklore stories that you grew up with, that have been influential in you getting  fascinated with  this kind of writing and film-making. 

Dilman: Well there are two that popped into my head right now. One is about a leper who went to the well and asked young unmarried girls to give him water, of which they refused because they could not share their calabash with him. But one girl is kind to him and gives him the water. So after he has drank, he tells the girl not to go to the dance that night and the girl heeds the warning and a rock falls from the sky and buries all the people who were dancing. There is a place in Uganda where you can see the rock, and it bleeds at certain times of the year. I have never been able to find that rock but one time I hope I do. That’s a story that has really stayed with me, I think that it was just the idea of a rock falling from the sky and burying everybody. You know when we think of aliens we are thinking of this super cool, shiny spaceships with lights and we don’t imagine that maybe their spaceship could be a rock.

The other one is about a girl who was about to get married and every man will come to her, and she will refuse and reject the men. And one day she meets this strange man who was very handsome and who sweeps her off her feet. So she goes to his home, and because her sister is disabled and cannot get married, they go together. It is said the girl was blind or a leper, depending on who is telling the story. So one night the disabled girl overhears the husband sharpening a knife to kill the bride. It turns out the husband was a shape-shifter and transforms into a monster some times. The disabled girl tells the sister and the two flee.

I like this one because when you look at the popular monsters like the werewolf in the European culture.But do you know that werewolf are in almost every culture? Some creature that will transform from human to animal. That fascinates me. It’s kind of saying there is a beast in every one of us. That there is darkness in every human being. I think that’s what I took from that story.

Gaamangwe: That’s fascinating. You do work a lot with this darkness and violent aspect of us. 

Dilman: I think it’s not conscious. When I was just starting out I use to not like stories that had bodies in them, somebody had to die somehow. I think when you go back to the folktales I used to hear, all of them are not like Cinderella stories, even though Cinderella stories have also been watered down to suit children of this age but if you listen to them in their original form, they are violent. They were all about good and evil. They revealed the worst in humans, and the worst in the world. It’s not about the statistics but it’s also about not sugar coating the world as we know it. Because the world is a very cruel place. Some people grow up in shielded homes, they have no problems getting what they want, because they are privileged. They have money to go to the best schools, after they graduate they get big parties, then they get a job then they are married and they have children, and it’s really kind of nice for them. But for most of the people it’s not like that. Everything you gain is from a lot of sweat and pain and struggling. So maybe that’s why there is a bit of darkness. I think I aim to thrill the reader with my stories. I want to affect the reader’s emotions in some way. And I think I find it easier to do that with something that hurts one of my characters.

Gaamangwe: Where do these stories come from? How do you think of this fantastic and shocking story-lines?

Dilman: I don’t know. It’s one of those questions that writers don’t like answering. I can’t give you a good or clear answer of how these things come about. You see a doctor or a surgeon, you will wonder how they cut up a person and stitch them together. It’s just one of those mysteries of the human brain. When you train it to do something, it just naturally starts doing things.

I started writing at an early age, I was about 15. Students were studying for exams and I was reading The Stand by Stephen King, which is really a huge book and these kids were asking me why I am reading a novel when I knew exams where happening in two weeks and I said because I’m going to write a novel someday. And they started laughing and it was kind of like a challenge, and I started writing to prove to them that I can actually write.

From that time until now, I don’t remember a time where I was not writing, or at least trying to write, every single day.  Every time when I am walking or in a bus or in a meeting, I am daydreaming stories. It has become a part of me, it’s some form of madness, maybe because I think a lot about things that don’t exists and people who don’t exist.

 Gaamangwe: I totally understand. What kind of themes within speculative fiction are you mostly fascinated with?

Dilman: I think I am not drawn to anything in particular, the only thing that I have never written is time-travel. I don’t like time-travel and superhero stories. Although I will enjoy a time-travel story more than I will enjoy a superhero story. The way that they tell superhero stories of late is predictable.

I do think that there is a lot of social justice in my work. Once I thought of myself as an activist. It’s not about good versus evil but it’s about being decent to other human beings and respecting others.

Gaamangwe: Speculative fiction is not everyone’s cup of tea, do people relate and see the power in your stories?

 Dilman: I will use my first feature film, The Felistas Fable, a fairytale fantasy as an example. It’s like beauty and the beast but in this case the beast was a woman and she had a terrible smell. A shaman finds a way to cure her of this smell. When people watch this film they identify with the shaman, even if they are Christian or strongly religious. If I was to use the English words like “witchdoctor” then the evil connotation will come into play, right? So I don’t call my characters ‘witch’. It’s kind of a soft cushion for readers to get into the story because I am aware that readers have biases, some of which are religious. It’s about playing with terminology if its prose, and on film it’s the way that I presented this shaman character.

In my film, the shaman didn’t paint his face and didn’t have a costume that makes him terrifying. He only had a piece of bark cloth, which is associated with traditionalism in Uganda. So somebody watching the film can see that they are watching a traditional healer, but they will not associate them with the evil that Christianity insinuates is there.

Gaamangwe: That’s great. What are your thoughts on African film especially the kind of genre you gravitate towards?

Dilman: It’s really great that a lot of Africans are creating African films. But the problem is a lot of the productions are not high quality storytelling. I am not talking about just the technicalities but I am talking about strong story content. If you look at the comments on my films “What Happened in Room 13, you will see that people are surprised that it is a story out of Africa. The biggest problem with filmmaking in Africa is that you need the backing of someone in Europe or America to make it internationally. For example, I cannot think of a film that has been produced hundred-percent in sub-Saharan Africa, without any input from producers or grants from Europe or USA, and that has become an international success. There is some kind of bottleneck, so submitting to a festival, there is a bit of politics and a lot of European influenced decision making. It’s just like African economies, it’s very difficult for economies to grow because there is neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism, and I think that translates into film.

I think that it’s changing, especially with YouTube and other online platform. Eventually if internet costs keep going down in Africa it will be easy to make money on films online. Right now I am making a bit of money from my Youtube channel. When I look at the stats most people can afford to watch only 3 minutes, which becomes a bit tricky because now you have to produce a film of only 3 minutes, and that makes it difficult to tell a good story. But if internet costs go down then the market can grow and filmmaking does not need to go the traditional way of producing for festivals and all that. It will be possible for people to also see that there are actually good films produced in Africa.

Did you hear of Wakaliwood? A Ugandan made a film and it is being reported in all the big media outlets like CNN and BBC. At first I liked it until they all started making all these news where they were promoting it saying that this is what Ugandans are making. There were condescending and patronizing, I would not go as far as calling it racist, but they were kind of laughing saying “Oh look, this people are trying to make films”, because why will all this big media feature Wakaliwood and not talk about all the other good films produced in Uganda?

Gaamangwe: That’s terrible and devastating. Because the other issue is that as much as we have good filmmakers who understand that film-making is a craft, and that every single aspect must be accounted for, we also have other people who think that just because they are good at directing or cinematography then they can write scripts, without actually bothering to understand the art of script-writing.

We have people who are really trying, and we have who aren’t trying so much and at the end of the day the poor quality productions are the ones known and then we have a situation where companies and independent investors don’t want to invest in our own productions because they think we are going to make the same poor quality films.

Dilman: That’s what I said to business people who expect to make tons of money from films. There are some TV series in Uganda that are really popular, but then they look more at the money than the craft, and they compromise on the art and storytelling, and so they go from 90 to say -50. It’s just being greedy and short-sighted.

Gaamangwe: I think that a lot of Africans want to look at films that reflect their own experiences so that they can relate and who better to tell our stories than other Africans, right?  For example your film “What happened in Room 13” had 6 million views, which is a lot of people. It’s very rare to get that many people watching an African film on Youtube. Its saying people want stories, people relate to our stories.

Tell me about “What happened in room 13”, its creation and the doors it opened for you.

Dilman: So we had a small lodge where I used to work, when I was a student and I used to see this kind of stuff where people sneak in with other people’s wives. It bothered me and perhaps that’s why I am not married right now. Working in such an environment, you can’t trust people and you think marriage is useless, cause the kind of people who come in there are maybe people you thought were very faithful to their husbands. This was in the early 2000’s and when I set out to make films, because I didn’t go to film school, I started to read books online on script-writing and commentaries by other filmmakers. One of them was Roman Polanski and his advice was that if you want to be a good filmmaker, you should make short films without dialogue. It wasn’t the first film I made without dialogue, I wrote two or three, very short, one was one minute and the other was three minute.

So my experience in the lodge stayed in my head. My original idea was to have the film in one place, like everything happens in this one lodge and it doesn’t get out. I wanted to write a detective film where there is a dead body and there is a detective finding clues that will lead him to the murderer, but somehow in the re-writes the detective disappeared and then it just became what you see on YouTube.

Production wise, I would think it’s a student film, because there was a film lab opened in Uganda and I got mentor-ship. So after production only three festivals were interested.

I put it on YouTube and somehow it just got views, I didn’t even promote it.  In the beginning of 2014, it has only 200,000 views and so most of the views have come in the last two years. And it has made me more money than I would have ever imagined with this film.

It has encouraged me to make productions targeting online audiences. One of the things I am doing this year is to produce a short film every month. I’ll try to write something as good as What Happened in Room 13. There is one that is already uploaded in December, What Happened to Jilted Hearts, and I am shooting the next one and by the end of this month it will be up. And then every month I will be uploading one short film.

The only thing with online production is you never know what’s going to go. You can put in a lot of money and advertising but nobody watches it. I won’t do advertising because I want it to grow organically. The one I uploaded has like 600 views, which is not bad for a one month upload. It’s actually better than What Happened in Room 13 in its first month and then the views kept on growing. So I am thinking that by the end of the year hopefully, there will be huge viewership.

 Gaamangwe: I wish you all the best, I think that you are taking the initiative to make sure that we are growing the film-making industry in Uganda & Africa. It will happen organically. What you put in will come back to you.

Dilman: I hope so, thank you.

Gaamangwe Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.

LINKS TO SOME FILMS

What Happened to Jilted Lovers https://youtu.be/FpU2y1SD-5M

What Happened in Room 13 https://youtu.be/RZnpN86hPzo

Love Makanika https://youtu.be/boKzdd6fcX4

Saving Mugisha https://youtu.be/6lkYP4EZw2A

Untouchable Love https://youtu.be/fQUCl_YlUDg

The Sound of One Leg Dancing https://youtu.be/8Hi6qwU7TaA

A New Prayer https://youtu.be/kVpNKsDOuUM

Muyenga Mansion https://youtu.be/zpBBeic0Yz0

Side Dish https://youtu.be/we_pdjFTtWk

What Happened in His Bedroom https://youtu.be/MFGpIHr5AFQ

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Poetry of Embodiment: A Dialogue with Kobus Moolman

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Kobus Moolman is an award-winning poet and playwright from Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. He is an Associate Professor at the University of the Western Cape. He holds a PhD in English Studies from UKZN. He is the author of eight collections of poetry; Time like Stone, Feet of the Sky, Anatomy, Tilling the Hard Soil: poetry, prose and art by  South African Writers with Disabilities, Separating the Seas, Light and After, Left Over and A Book of Rooms.

Kobus is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and winner of Ingrid Jonker Prize for 2001, South African Literary award for poetry, Sol Plaatje European Union poetry award, Dramatic and Literary Rights (DALRO) Prize and 2015 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry.  He has received fellowships for Mellon Writer Fellowship, Caversham Centre for Writers and Artists and Helen Martins Fellowship. He was special guest of Creative Writing Research Group at the University of Calgary in Canada.  Kobus was the founding editor of the annual KwaZulu-Natal poetry journal, Fidelities, which ran from 1995 until 2007.

Kobus’s author of collection of radio play, Blind Voices, Full Circle, and Soldier Boy of the BBC production and Stone Angel. His plays have been awarded the Jury Prize for Best Script in the Performing Arts Network of South Africa (PANSA) Festival of Reading of New Writing, BBC African Radio Theatre Award (1987), Macmillan Southern African Playwriting Award (1991) and Noupoort Reward for Playwriting. He was a finalist in the Amstel Playwright of the Year Award and joint winner of the 2007 NLDTF/PANSA Festival of Contemporary Theatre Readings of New Writing. His play has been produced at  the Oval House Theatre in London in 2006. He has adapted Zakes Mda’s the novel, The Madonna of Excelsior, and Gomolemo Mokae’s short story, “Milk and Honey Galore, Honey” for the radio. 

 This conversation took place in the warm, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the small, beautiful village of Riebek West, South Africa by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Kobus, your work is haunting and shifting. I think it’s powerful the way that you put the elements or things that we often think do not exist in your poetry, as part of what is possible, of what exists.

Kobus: Thank you. I am much honored. As a writer, you understand that a lot of this stuff doesn’t come easily. It is almost like putting one’s self against one’s self. I have to keep pushing myself deeper and further. But I appreciate what you are saying because it means that the work I am doing is getting across, and that’s important.

Gaamangwe: Yes, I think to be honest and raw the way you are is the ultimate aim for any writer, even if it’s very scary.

Kobus:  Yes, it is very scary. For example the poetry collection, Leftover, took a long time for me to be able to say the kinds of things you find there, because I had to ask myself a lot of really intimate questions. I finally reached a point where I was able to separate the words on the page, from the person that was saying the words. That meant a great deal for me. It’s a complicated relationship. I am not completely separate from the words but I do insist on refusing to read those words as autobiography. Many people that know me very well will say, “Oh Kobus, there is a guy in the poem and he’s got no hair and he walks with a stick, it must be you.” And I will go, “No, it’s not me!” Because if I say it is me that will be to diminish and limit the words. And you, as a black woman, will not be able to access those words. And I cannot as a writer do that. My aim is to make the words as wide as possible. So that you can come in. As you have said to me, you responded to that rawness and to that kind of honesty, and that tells me that I must continue working in this kind of vein, even if it puts me in that difficult and uncomfortable place.

Gaamangwe: I think that’s where we need to be and create from because that uncomfortable place is what tells us a lot about us as human beings, and as a species.

Kobus: I also feel that if one is writing out of a place of comfort, or certainty or feeling comfortable, or knowing what you are doing, that is very, very dangerous. I once read an interview with the British painter, Francis Bacon. If you look at his work it’s incredibly violent painting. He was painting throughout the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. And the interviewer was interviewing the painter about his life, after he had been painting for 40 or 50 years. A long time for him to clearly know what he was doing, and Bacon said, “The moment I approach a canvas and I know what I am going to do, that painting will be a disaster. I have to approach every single canvas as if I have never painted before.”  It’s shocking because he needed to be that open, that exposed with his painting. If he relied on tricks and things that had worked before, and he was going to try to do them in the next painting, then it was going to fail. And he was able to say that. I think the same applies to us as writers.

Gaamangwe: Yes, my experience has been that when I write from that place of discomfort, my work is very honest and very raw but I am still learning to trust and release that to the world.

Kobus: Can I also add that I believe very strongly in the value of form. Despite what we’ve discussed here concerning rawness in writing, I must insist that poetry is a craft. Poetry is not about raw emoting. It is not about pouring your emotions onto the page; getting it all out as it were. Poetry is a making. It involves decisions. And this making, or what we can also call craft, is very critical in writing. In fact the forming of a piece of writing – the putting into form – is what makes that writing art, and not therapy.

Gaamangwe: I am only starting to appreciate and understand that now, and that has led to some of my best work. It’s an evolving thing though. Now, just to pivot slightly, you once said;

“Much of my recent poetry is driven by a personal engagement with the concept of embodiment and particularly two aspects. First, a concern with the interface between the inside and the outside, and secondly, a concern with the non-normative body”.

I am interested to know; what is your notion of embodiment? What are your ideas of the interface between the inside and the outside? And how do you use poetry to explore these concepts?

 Kobus: I suppose in a way this goes back to a writer’s residency I did around 2008/2009. The residency consisted of writers and visual artists, and at some point in the residency, each of the writers were paired with a visual artist and we started collaborating on a project, where the visual artist would work with visual language, while the writer worked with verbal language, and this experience started making me think of language in a different kind of way. I was working with an African American artist called Fahamy Pecou, and I was just watching him work and there was a kind of physicality in the way that he worked. He worked with his material and I started thinking of language in a physical way. I think that language is quite often regarded as abstract and mental and ethereal. So I turned it around for myself, and thought of my poetic language as not being a mental language but actually a language that comes through the body, from the body. And what’s that meant for me, was for me to investigate the relationship between what is inside and what is outside. The inside being I suppose thought, feeling but not just thought and feeling; the inside is also blood, the inside is breath, the inside is flesh. And these things have a concreteness, a corporeality and that became very crucial for me because of my own personal relationship with my body.  A body that I struggle with. In many ways I have had a difficult relationship with my body.  And that made me approach my own writing with a greater gutsy-ness, a gut level rawness. A working with meat kind of thing. There is nothing gentle about a bone. There is nothing ethereal or intellectual about a bone. For me, it’s almost elemental. It’s like fire, like earth. And that grounded me in myself, and then the writing in the self.  Not about the self.  For me, I needed to write much closer to the self that was writing. And not to claim that the self that was writing was not a self that struggled in the body, in the flesh. And out of that struggling in the flesh, came a deeper writing. And it had a resonance that I hadn’t had before in my work. And that rang true for me and started to make me understand things in the way that I hadn’t understood before.

One interesting thing about us human beings, which we can’t get away from, is that we are flesh and blood. We break, we bleed. That is such a commonness to all human beings. Before we get to language and those other distinctions between us, we all share bodies, and we share a common experience of the body. The body’s failures, its joys, its elations, love in the body, disease in the body, we all get sick. And those are the kinds of things that I started to realize that if I can make my writing bodied, and there is no word like that, and so therefore the closest word to that is embodied, that is the correct term, but if I can embody my work basically put it into the body, to ground it in the body then I think it will grow in a different way from the work before that.

Gaamangwe: That is illuminating. I am drawn to what you said about not writing about the self but writing in the self.  

Kobus: Yes, I am not writing about, I am writing from. There are two distinctions here; about and from. About will be limiting.

Gaamangwe: It’s out there.

Kobus: Exactly. It will say this is just me. And then you and anyone else will not be able to enter the work. That for me is not literature. Literature lets in. It lets the world in. If I say this is from, that for me as a writer, allows me to be completely frank and to be in your face and upfront and cruel. Cruel to myself, okay? I do this to myself. I am not doing it to anyone else. It’s all to me. The understanding and the hope is that a reader will be able to come into that. I perform what I call a necessary violence to myself.

Because all of us as human beings, we basically walk around in a block of ice. There is an interesting quote from T.S Elliot; “Humankind cannot bear too much reality”. And we can’t. That is why we have skins. If we didn’t have skins, we would be dead because one of the thing that the skin does is it protects you. But the definitive thing about writing is that it’s got to evade the skin. You have to allow yourself to be infected, to be diseased, to be wounded, and to be sick. You can’t write with a skin.

The South African poet Breyten Breytenbach once said “A poet is a person born without a skin.”  So we enter into the world without any filter between us and the world. And that’s very difficult because we know what it does to us as writers. Mental problems, the psychic and psychological issues as artists that we have because of the fact that basically you see and you hear too much. But we cannot afford to stop doing that.

Gaamangwe: When you said—we cannot bear too much reality, I thought perhaps this is why we forget. Why we lose memory of a lot of things that happen to us but the poet has to go back to those experiences, painful as they are/were, and attempt to remember them, attempt to bring them back from wherever old experiences go.

Kobus: Totally, I agree with you. And of late, I have been working a lot with memory. I think memory is an extremely powerful tool, for any writer to use. We make a mistake in thinking that memory brings back something back as the truth. Memory is actually an act of invention. It is not an act of retrieval. We do not go and get something that is already formed in the past, complete, and bring it into the present like that. That is not how memory works. We invent our memory, we create our memory. It is actually an imaginative process. And as a writer, that is so liberating.

But we make a mistake to think that this means that we are lying, because we all have this desire to tell the truth. Well, what is truth? And that’s a very difficult question to answer. There is truth with a lowercase and Truth with capital. I think in a certain way an art work is a lie that tells the truth. We are ultimately making up stories. Stories are inventions. They don’t exists. They exist because we give them existence. They don’t have existence outside of us, we give them existence. And that is part of our blessing as story-makers.

Gaamangwe: Now I wonder, where do these stories comes from?

Kobus; I don’t want to answer you because I can name it but in a way I should not name it. It must stay for me dark.  It must stay a place of darkness and a place of silence and a place of tremendous origins. For me, my works don’t come from me, they come through me. What is on the other side of me, I don’t know. That is the place of origins. Now we are getting into the spiritual realm, and the realm where one has to be careful of what one is saying because here we are treading on a place where we need to take our shoes off. Because this is stuff you can’t look at with the naked eye.

But that is where my work comes from. It is from a place that is much bigger and deeper and darker and older than me. There I have said it.

Gaamangwe: I understand. I do not think I can be able to answer this myself.

Kobus: Because it’s about my own personal relationship with things that are bigger than me. With the world that is bigger than me, which existed before me and will exist after me. And ultimately that’s where the words come from.

Gaamangwe. That’s powerful. What I found in your poetry is this exploration of the relationship between the body of the human being and the body of the natural world, and the way that they intersect. For example, in your poem, One Version of The Road;

And the sun was behind his head

And it was much later than he thought

And he thought that he had nothing more to say

And he did not know whether he should

And he thought that he would anyway

And the sun was inside his eyes

And he tried to imagine where the day before that day had gone

And it smelled of turpentine

And it smelled of disinfectant

And he cut his finger on its edge

And he sucked it

And for a moment he tasted what was inside him

And then he closed his eyes

And he saw that he was wrong

And there was a shadow of a sky

And it lay across the brown field

And all the doors stood wide open

And the sound of water came out

And he understood that what was inside him

would always make the sound of blood.

I mean how is the sun inside a human eye? How? I find this fascinating and shifting.

Kobus: It does relate to what we were talking about earlier. To do away with, to merge, and to blend that distinction between the inside and the outside. Between the self and the outside world. So the things that happen out in the world do not happen out in the world, they happen at the same time inside, inside the person that is seeing and experiencing those things. It’s about seeing oneself in a greater connectivity, in a greater way of being part of instead of something that’s continually on the outside and separate. In that way, the wind, the forces, other human beings, other human being’s stories and struggles – those are stories that are happening at the same time inside as what is happening outside.

Gaamangwe: That is profound. Nothing is out there, it’s all happening inside us. Often we see ourselves as bodies separate from the world, or the world separate from us. In social sciences, we often speak about the mind and body relationship only focusing on the human being, never entirely integrating the natural world, and landscape.

Kobus: Because the mind is in the body. The mind is not separate from the body. I mean there have been debates about this for thousands of years. But in my work, I treat the mind as a physical thing. I treat thought as physical and I have learnt in my writing to treat thought in a physical way. To hold it, to wrestle with it, and all these are physical metaphors that I am actually using, deliberately so. Because they speak about the way in which thought and feeling are embodied, they happen along our nervous system, along our blood, and all of these things occur in a physical dimension. And I am interested in a way that can have a similar impact, for me as a writer, in writing.

Gaamangwe: That’s quite fascinating because the mainstream understanding of thought is that it is separate from us, something just there, that goes through us or that is somehow in us but completely out of our control. So to perceive thought as something that can be touched, stopped, looked and manipulated. That’s out there. I imagine that’s the kind of stuff the monks are able to do!

Kobus: I think you are right. Some people are able to do that. They are able to control their thoughts. I don’t know if I am at that stage.

Gaamangwe: Eckhart Tolle in his book “The Power of Now” talks about thought like that.  We chronically identify with the thoughts in our minds, and that is why we suffer. Particularly because we think we are not in control of what comes up in our heads. But he says that we can control and choose what we think about. It is much more complex and powerful when he explains it.

I find that your work and your thoughts are gravitating towards this kind of spiritual and ethereal way of looking at things.

Kobus: It does make sense but I want to make a distinction between spirituality and religion. I think you are quite right in your observation about my work. But it’s related to what I was saying earlier. The fundamentals, the ground, the origin of my work lies elsewhere, in the other. Which includes me but is not me. So in many ways it is ultimately a spiritual dimension. For myself as a writer to be able to talk about it, I need to be able to not talk about it. Does that make any sense?

Gaamangwe: Yes, it makes sense but it’s quite fascinating especially for me as a psychology graduate because I am in the business of understanding things. My first instinct is to want to know and pursue the knowledge of everything. Why is it difficult to say it? But I will refrain from being a psychologist in this moment and accept the truth you can offer now in this space.

Kobus: I prefer the darkness to the light. The light shines too harshly. I prefer the night to the day. You can see further in the night. You can see further in the darkness. To shine a light on something that does not allow you to see it. It actually dazzles and blinds you. Light doesn’t illuminate, it blinds you. The darkness lights something up, so I prefer to leave things in the darkness and that’s how I write. I write in the darkness. Obviously not literally.  But to write I have to close my eyes, to see I need to close my eyes.

Gaamangwe: There is a gravitation to the unknown. You find comfort in that which you do not know. That’s brave.

Kobus: Totally, you’ve put it in one word. The unknown.

Gaamangwe: Yes, and typically the unknown, that which is not like the others, is what many run away from. Which brings me to one of your interests, the non-normative body. What is the fascination here?

Kobus: I suppose it’s a fancy scientific term really for difference, and increasingly in the world I am troubled by the fact that we are, on a religious, on an ethnic, on a gender, on a racial, on so many levels, we are becoming more intolerant of each other, and we have a rise in the world of certain ways of thinking, ways of thinking that say that gender needs to operate in a particular line, that there are certain races and genders, and sexual orientations that have dominance and voice. That is a huge worry for me. That we are heading to some kind of place, and it happens on a religious level as well. For example, Christian, male, white, heterosexual, these are all the normative terms. Now this is completely and utterly destructive. And we see its destruction on so many levels. Colonialism, apartheid. And I would have hoped that by the end of the 20th century, leading into the new millennium we will have somehow learnt to put that behind us, but the last few years have shown that, I think we are for whatever reason, humanity wants things in a certain way. I don’t understand people. It troubles me. Look at the way that the world is reacting to immigrants and how this is bringing up suspicion and hatred and distrust. It’s quite alarming. That’s where the seeds of violence and genocide come from. We have seen it on this continent, we have seen in the rest of the world, in the past and in the last hundred years and it’s something that we have not been able to fix.

On a personal level, I have not been able to see my experience of my body fitting into that bigger story of Otherness. And the story of misunderstanding, mistrust and suspicion. Where people project thought on to the other, on that which is different. And because it is different, it is inferior. It’s not seen as the same as, it’s not equal to. And therefore it doesn’t deserve the same right.

Gaamangwe: I have been thinking about that and I am working with the idea that, that which is different, unknown and that which we don’t understand is scary. It makes us feel not in control and it breeds this level of helplessness. And I think that we have a lot of violence coming up because people feel powerless in the spaces and interactions with that which they do not understand.  When something is new or strange and we struggle to understand it, that space between fully understanding and not understanding, makes us feel powerless and at loss with the way to navigate our world. So we come to this space with physical force and try to fight it off or remove it or undermine it, just so we can feel powerful or in control.

Kobus: Yes, I agree, and we also then create barriers. We put up walls between ourselves, where now other people cannot come in. We say this society is for certain kinds of people only. And all of that is a reaction to a world that I suppose in many ways is becoming more confusing and complicated for people and so they respond like that, which is a huge problem.

Gaamangwe: Because at the end of the day, even if we have certain differences, we are mostly the same. We are one but our expression or the way that we show up in the earth space is not particularly or it does not appear the same.

Kobus: The notion of difference is such a thin idea. I think that sameness is much bigger than difference. What makes us human is much bigger than what makes separates us from each other.  We are all part of the human family.

Gaamangwe: Yes, if only we could all come and treat each other from this understanding. Nonetheless, let’s pivot to the last reflection, as someone who uses two forms of writing, how does being a playwright borrow from poetry, and vice versa? And does that enlarges your whole experience as a writer?

Kobus: That’s a very interesting question. I think that I enjoy writing for theatre because I like the sound of words in a human mouth. Theatre is in front of you, it is a physical experience. You sit there and you watch, and listen and hear somebody.  You could probably even, if you are close, get spit in your face. I enjoy thinking about character in those terms.  And so I started to think about the persons in my poems as characters not as the self. And that’s why in a lot of the poems the self is referred to in the third person. He or She. What I am doing there I am actually creating a particular type of character that allows me to think about him in a way that removes myself from the equation. When you are writing for theatre you have to create something that stands outside of yourself because you as the writer will not be standing on stage, I mean you might, but generally it will be an actor. So you’ve got to be able to create it in such a way that it allows an actor to interpret it. So that they can find and define themselves inside it. And the same way that an actor finds themselves in a character, I started thinking of my poetry in that kind of way. That the reader comes in and makes the poem, in the same way that the actor comes in and makes the character. The character is nothing until the actor comes in and gives that character the flesh and thought and feelings. In the same way I started thinking about the reader. The reader comes in and they make the poem.

Recently I started working with fiction and that has been so exciting. For a long time I avoided prose, I didn’t understand prose and I didn’t know how to work with prose. But after a few years, I have published a few, I have been experimenting and I will be publishing my first collection of short stories.

It all comes from my own interest in form. Different ways of approach a particular topic as a writer, whether you approach it as a play or poetry or a short story, these are for me interrelated ways of talking about the same kind of issues we have as human beings.

Gaamangwe: That’s exciting, I can’t wait. This was just brilliant. Thank you.

 Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.

 

The Art of Unlearning: A Dialogue With Koleka Putuma

 

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Photo credit: Elelwani Netshifhire. 

Koleka Putuma is an award winning Theatre Director, Writer, and Performance Poet based in Cape Town, South Africa.

Her plays include UHM (2014), Mbuzeni (2015), and Woza Sarafina (2016), her  plays for young audiences include Ekhaya for 2-7 year olds and SCOOP, the first South African play for 2 weeks-12month old babies. She was nominated for the Rosalie van der Gucht Prize for Best New Directors at the annual Fleur Du Cap Theatre Awards (2015), named one of the young pioneers who took South Africa by storm in 2015 by The Sunday Times, and awarded the Pen SA Student Writing Prize for her poem: Water.

She is scheduled to release her debut collection of poems Collective Amnesia in April 2017.

This conversation happened between the sweetspot, sunny city of Gaborone, Botswana and the breathtaking, cosmopolitan city of Cape Town, South Africa by Call.

Gaamangwe: Koleka, in your poem “Teachings”, you wrote;

Transparency:

A weapon I use to unlearn a lineage of silence.

Talking:

A medicine I use to heal years of being silent.

Writing:

A doctrine I use to deliver my sanity from the ills of silencing.

Sharing:

A tool I use to dismantle a learnt behavior of suffering in silence.

 Let’s start here, because there are a lot of things to unlearn but unlearning silence is by far the most powerful thing we can ever do, especially as black women. What are the things that you are absolutely refusing to be silent about?

Koleka: When I was writing this, I was thinking about the things we learn from our mothers, aunts and grandmothers. Growing up, they teach us how to be dutiful, good and respectable, and often there is a lot of silencing of the matriarchs in our families, and I know that in some families matriarchs are not silenced/ruled by patriarchy, but for those of us who grew up in religious households, the narrative is submission. The narrative is that there is a head of the house, and there is a lot of silencing that comes with that.

I think that being a writer/poet the work requires of you to defy and unlearn the thing that has taught you silence and the unspoken contract that the neighbors and extended family cannot know and get involved with traumas that are happening in your house and in your life, and that you are supposed to deal with it quietly and soldier on because you are a “strong black woman.”

I think I am refusing to be quiet about that, and the pain that other people inflict on me, and trying to protect the person who is doing harm to me. I think that is something I am refusing to be quiet about my stories that involve other people but are ultimately my stories.

Gaamangwe: That is powerful because our society doesn’t encourage spaces where we open up and talk about our traumas, especially in the home, where it’s inflicted by a loved one. There is also courage and vulnerability that is required when owning one’s trauma, because there is the need to look at the self as the subject in the trauma.  How do you navigate this requirement, where you have to be vulnerable and own how you appear in your trauma story?

Koleka: The thing that comes up for me here is Anne Lamott‘s quote; “You own everything that happened to you, if people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

Two, I find the idea of walking around and interacting with people without a mask quite liberating. I find living in a world where we don’t show our true selves, and where we don’t ever say we are hurting, quite suffocating. What is freeing for me is to be able to say that, that experience or person over there hurt me, particularly as a black person. I think that the hardest thing for black people to say is, “Dad or mum or auntie or uncle or somebody, you hurt me or you broke my heart”, especially when you are younger than the person, and for that person in turn to say “I am sorry”. That is the rarest intergenerational interaction you will find between black people.

So I feel like my writing is for that interaction to exist, where I can honestly and unapologetically write/talk about an experience that happened and I don’t have to sugar coat or sanitize it. I can write about it as raw as it is and whether the other person acknowledges it or not, that is one part of the interaction done. In my work I create a space, where as a black woman, I can name my traumas/hurts, and name the people who have inflicted those traumas in an unapologetic way. I can have it be what it is, and whoever sees the story, can have the choice to perceive it however they want. I need to exist in the world as someone who is allowed to be open and vulnerable.

Gaamangwe: There is a concept of psychic climate from Dreams, Evolution and Value Fulfillment by Jane Roberts.  It basically says that our experiences, especially our traumas exists as part of the elements that make the climate of our psyche. As people in a home, we exists in a collective psychic climate, where all the unresolved and un-addressed traumas hover around us, throughout our lifetimes, as impending storms, which eventually as we know either morphs into something destructive or it just explodes in ways that is difficult to repair.

As African families, our cultures don’t encourage addressing and apologizing for the hurt we inflict on each other, especially between parents and their children. We have to unlearn this.

Koleka: Yes, I agree. I used to think that one of the easiest things black people get caught up in is talking about our traumas and pain. You go to a tavern or a shebeen or a place where black people gather to have a good time and you’ll hear folks talking about injustices or the days of apartheid or struggles or whatever. And I always wondered why it is not easy for us to talk about joy, and the things that make us happy, things that bring us pleasure, and I am starting to see that both are equally hard to talk about. It’s also complex to talk about trauma, because it’s easy in certain spaces and not so much in other spaces. One of the hardest spaces to talk about trauma is with the people who have inflicted pain on us, and yes more often than not that space is with family.

And the other thing that I am trying to learn, which is right up there with unlearning, is that;  it’s okay to be happy, it’s okay to have joy, its okay to write about joy and to talk about joy, and that joy is a birthright even with all the crap around us.

When violence is inflicted on a black body, the world doesn’t flinch because it has been so normalized. I want to document the moments when I experience immense joy and pleasure so I can normalize those in my own life. I am learning that those moments are just as important and valid.  I am learning, that it is okay to have a crush on someone for six months, its okay to desire someone, its okay to flirt, it’s okay to want sex, and all these things we are not allowed to indulge in for too long.

Gaamangwe: I totally agree with that, because we rarely ever see pure and raw intimacy between two black people who love each other, in most of our narratives. We should unlearn focusing on the narratives that only highlight that which is heavy and dark in our experiences, because there are other parts that are light, beautiful and lovely, and that should also get as much witness as the other part.

Koleka: You know, there are people who are making work that highlights that lightness and joy and beautiful intimate moments of being black and loving, of being black and happy, and I want more of that. I am in a space that’s looking for more of that and searching for work that celebrates black joy, black intimacy, black friendship, black sisterhood in the way that is not something that is commercialized.

Gaamangwe: Yes, because I think that also we need to understand that the narratives that we pump into the collective psyche of our community or group, really defines how we perceive ourselves. Is it possible to find good love, great love as a black person? To be happy and healthy and successful? What is the narrative around me, on what is possible for me, for us as a group?

If we ponder on the notion of legacy, of what we inherited from our forefathers, what happened to them and the narrative they held about themselves and their experiences, and on what they thought was possible for them, and we take it a step further and think about the legacy we will leave behind, on what we think is our birthright, and the experiences we think we deserve to have, then we have got much to think about, because then unlearning is not just for us, it’s for the future generation.

Koleka: Yes. But also when we talk about unlearning you have to take into account the kind of systematic violence that black people have endured, and the space a lot of people find themselves in is one where they cannot really afford the luxury of this space; to kind of sit and go, what is it that I have to unlearn? Because there are others priorities that are more pressing, and it seems that that the thing about unlearning is that you have to be present for it.

We can’t assume that everyone has the time to consciously ‘unlearn’ or can afford to give up whatever is toxic for them. And also there are different ways of unlearning, you and I are talking about it in a very particular way, but no doubt our grandmothers and aunts also had/have their own way of unlearning, of mobilizing each other, or getting each other out of toxic or unhealthy situations. The conversation of unlearning has different avenues.

As youth it’s not easy to initiate our way of unlearning with the older generation, but it is important as people, that we have this as a legacy that we leave behind, something to pass down to our children; if something is hurtful, if something is unhealthy, if its eating away at your joy, its making it difficult for you to be your best self, unlearn it. That is the dopest legacy ever. Dear Children, here is a legacy—unlearning.

Gaamangwe: Your reflection reminds me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Someone who is concerned with their basic needs, of getting food and shelter and surviving the day, or week or month, does not have the luxury to do an intentional, unlearning process that we are idealizing right now, because that’s the space they cannot afford to be in right now.

But also what if what I call a limitation is someone’s process of unlearning? Because the process or art of unlearning, like many things, is fluid. We have to appreciate that every one of us has their own path and way of doing things, of unlearning things.

Koleka: Yes, in as much as I would love to, and I love to challenge people, particularly my family, and when I say family, I mean my parents, but I am also mindful of the thing that enables people to survive. And more often than not and that thing for black people its religion; it’s God, Jesus and crucifixion. That’s what keeps them going from day to day; the promise of eternal life on the other side of their death. This world is hard and so I am always wary of this; if this is what enables someone to carry on, who am I to criticize that?

But at the same time it’s important to challenge them (my parents) on their beliefs. I want folks to flourish and live their best life with Christianity, but at the same time I am not okay with how religion has screwed over black people.

Gaamangwe:  Let us not romanticize religion or any other system that can uplift and also limits us. This actually reminds me of what you said in 21 love poems, number 21;

I don’t find it tragedy romantic at all.

I don’t think playing dead is empowering

or good for my ego (even).

I love you

But I’d rather be alive.

What was the inspiration with this one?

Koleka: It was inspired by Adrienne Rich’s 21 love poem. I wrote 21 love poems about 21 love experiences that I had. It has now been retitled to 21 ways of leaving, because I realized it’s a poem about leaving something that is not good for you, 21 ways of re-learning love. It’s about romanticizing tragedy, particularly as artist—we fetishize tragedy, we fetishize being in dark spaces—and the whole poem is like I get it, I get how tragedy can be useful, how it can nuance our work as artists and that it is something that we can draw from but for me, I also value my wellbeing—much more than I value being in a space where I am dying internally all the time. It’s saying,  I really love this person, or I really loved this person but the relationship was toxic, and whatever it was that we were pursuing was toxic and it was unhealthy, and I value me being in a good space much more than whatever was going there. And that is just me generally, I value being in a healthy space, I value being well, and I really value joy, and it wasn’t always like that. It’s a new thing for me. And I see now how joy and peace are weapons, particularly in a society that dispossesses black bodies, and a world where black people can only be these tragic stories or are only tragedies. Seeking and choosing joy and peace every day, and normalizing that is important for me.

Gaamangwe: I resonate with that—my new thing has been to ferociously guard my space. I am guarding my practice of finding and being joy, and being the most of myself, and its liberating. In the beginning of course I was and still am quite self-conscious because this is new territory because you know, we are not taught to put ourselves first. It is often looked at as if you are being selfish, it’s not, this is what I am unlearning.  

Koleka: And also know that the two can co-exist. That you can be in public and you can cry and be vulnerable and talk about your traumas. And the next day you can walk down the street, and be at peace and be happy. The two can co-exist in one body. That you are not just one thing, you can be both. And that you can go for weeks and weeks being depressed and broke, and not opening your doors or your curtains, and the next couple of months you are the happiest you have ever been, and that it’s okay, both are fine, both have their time and space in your life.

Gaamangwe: That’s empowering. I think of a day as a lifetime that we are given, and we can live this lifetime however way we want. If today we are tragic, then that’s fine and beautiful. There are different types of revolutions, and being tragic is one of them. If not, we have tomorrow to start again.

 In this spirit of talking about empowering and revolutionary things, we definitely have to speak about your poem, “Water”, which is an absolutely mesmerizing and deeply shifting work of art. What was the space that you were in and what were you exploring here?

Koleka: One, I am allowing this poem to take up the space that it needs to take up in my life now. Because for a long time I was kind of resisting that, but now I am just like Water is Water, and Water will be what it needs to be in my life for a long time and that is okay, that’s also a gift.

Two, I was in space where they were a lot of conversations that were happening with friends, family, colleagues, about the idea or concept of water for black people. For those couple of months, the topic of water just kept coming up, I would be in a taxi with a friend and we would talk about water, I would be at a conference or at a festival and the topic of slavery and water would come up, I would  be having dinner with someone and water would come up.

To be honest with you, that poem was written in tiny little bits, and I would write a sentence and put that away and the next month I would write something and put it away. I was in a space where I was having a lot of conversation about black people in relation to water, so it made its way into my psyche, and so eventually I kind of pieced the thing together, and that eventually made up the poem which is now known as Water.

Gaamangwe:  There is a beauty in that, because it was this big, overwhelming and powerful thing that came to you in snippets, but ended up as this brilliant poem.

Koleka: It came in bits definitely and it’s a poem that was written over a few months but the day I sat down to finish it, I finished it in that day. In between writing Water I was reading, and re-reading some stuff and kind of having friends go like “oh have you read this philosopher’s theory about water?” and “have you seen this documentary?” I just kind of took a fascination with water, and people were pointing me in the direction of material that had to do with water and black people. I wish I could say that Water is the type of poem that I just woke up in the morning and wrote it in like an hour.

Gaamangwe: Sometimes the things that are powerful take a long time to be purged out.  Also there is something about incubation; taking months or years ruminating on a subject or story, going to the depth of things and later releasing it when it’s ready and fully explored. I find that beautiful.

So, you are writing your first collection of poetry, Collective Amnesia. How is this experience, and what should we expect?

Koleka: I am so nervous, particularly about the thing that we have been talking about for the past hour. Every day I am re-learning that I am unlearning silence. I am learning to own my stories, to tell them truthfully, in the way that I see them.  I am also learning a new courage. I thought that I was a fearless and courageous somebody but the more I write, the more I realize that courage is something that you have to choose, it’s not a given. You have to choose it every day and I had to choose it for this book.

And as I am working towards its release, I am kind of giving myself permission and going like; yes I want to put that out to the world, yes I want to talk about that, yes that particular situation does not have the power that I thought it had over my life, and yes I got the right to talk about this.

I don’t know what people can expect from it, but I know that it’s transparent and talks about a lot of the things that we want to forget collectively; be it in our families or as a country. More than that I think I am trying to unlearn my own silence and amnesia with this book.

Gaamangwe: I think it’s only normal, but at the same time I think the discomfort and nervousness is exactly what the work needs, because if you channel everything from that space you will create powerful stuff. I think that we resonate with people who are raw and transparent because we rarely are and writers like you help us connect to the part of our stories that we need to heal and unlearn. So basically you are doing great and I cannot wait to read it.

Koleka: I think it’s in our nature to be naked as people. To be open. There is a lot that happens between the time when we are born, when we are our most honest and vulnerable, to the time when we are grown up and we have collected all these inhibitions and locks and doors. But I think it’s in our nature as people to be honest and naked but it’s all the other stuff that happens in between that teaches us otherwise.

Gaamangwe: Yes, we have to unlearn some stuff so that we can go back to the origin, to who we really are. Koleka, this was powerful, thank you.

Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.

On Womanhood and Belonging: A dialogue with Ijeoma Umebinyuo

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Ijeoma Umebinyuo was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. She is the author of Questions for Ada, her first published collection of prose poems and poems. Her writings have been translated to Portuguese, Turkish, Spanish, Russian and French.

This conversation happened between the now hailing storm city of Gaborone, Botswana and sunny, robust city of Lagos, Nigeria by Skype.



Gaamangwe: Ijeoma, I read one of your poems where you said –

 “I am writing for the women who were once girls judging themselves through the eyes of souls who couldn’t comprehend their light.”

I really resonate with this because I have been, and sometimes I am the girl who judges herself through the eyes that don’t understand the constellation of my being.  So, I am interested in knowing how you got to a point where you decided that you want to be talking for girls, about girls and their womanhood.



Ijeoma; I started writing when I was about ten. So writing for me has always been in my being. My childhood friends are not surprised that I have a book or I am writing. But the themes of what I write I think started happening around my late teens. It was about exploring everything that I have been taught, from religion to being an African woman, and leaving Nigeria for the first time. I sort of understood my blackness and what that meant for the first time in my life. So I have a lot of stories and you can see it’s not one single narrative. And so many people can see themselves in that. I didn’t know at a certain point that was a beautiful thing.

I didn’t think it was because I don’t really fit into a certain narrative, you can’t really place me in a certain narrative and say “Okay, this is how Ijeoma is”, and “this is how Ijeoma thinks”. I can’t really place myself there and I didn’t. And it was in my late teens that I started to explore and understand what it meant to be a woman. What I began to see did not sit well with me. When I was younger and growing up, there were things I wanted to say, and now that I have an opportunity to say them, I say them and I am no longer scared. So it took a lot of going inward and relearning everything I have been told. Because we have been told that this is what you should think and this is what you should do. And you realize that there are so many things that are wrong with certain narratives.

It came to me when I understood that society benefits when I am being silent, and being silenced. Because the most dangerous thing that I have come to realize is a woman that cannot be silenced. Especially in a society like ours. And when young woman speak up and own themselves and know who they are, that’s very difficult for society to comprehend.

So that quote you said I think I wrote it for me and also for girls to understand that they are not alone. I get messages and girls of different ages telling me that “Thank you for writing this, thank you for making me understand that I am not going crazy, that I am okay, and that I am fine” and these are very important things for a woman to see, especially for a woman who has a name like mine, someone who is like me, someone that has lived in places that someone will tell you women from this place don’t speak up. So for women to see me speak up and write about this things, they are the people I am writing for. My first audience, those are the most important audience to me.

And whenever I receive message that tell me “I breathe better”, “I feel less alone”, “I feel like someone out there understands me”, that’s success to me. These are really important things to me because I understand what it’s like to have these thoughts and feel this way. And someone telling you “you are not normal” and thinking how you are acting and thinking is not normal. So I am writing against that, saying this is totally fine. This is who you are and this is how you think.

It started a long time ago and it’s been a long time coming. I look at this as something normal and should have been there. It’s not groundbreaking in a way but it is
because I write the things that a lot of people are scared to see. Things that women and young girls seat around at night and talk about within themselves but cannot say outside. Taboos like rape, molestation and depression. These are things that affect all genders. And I do write about all genders but I am very particular about the girl child and women, about stories that we tell and that we live, stories that when we are dead and gone people can read, stories that young girls can read and say “I see myself in that”. And it’s so unfortunate that we have such a long way to go regarding womanism or feminism in Africa.

I always say this words ” They always tell men to stand up for power”, like its normalized and men are supposed to stand up for power and run for office but when we begin to see women in complex positions as politicians and judges, so many things like policies change. And that’s vital. I want to say that so much change when women take action. And just seeing African women doing this, it’s so uplifting. You see centers for domestic abuse and you see women understanding the dynamics of being a woman.

I was watching a documentary about women in Cameroon and they were policewomen and you can see the kind of passion that they have for other women who are coming up and saying “this person raped me” or “my husband beats me”. And they are using their language and their own mannerism. All these things are important because for you and I, we can speak perfect English, we are very exposed and we are educated. But these women who don’t speak like us and who don’t even have access to cellphones are making so much change in Africa. And it’s uplifting. Because they make use of the laws and systems in place. Because they have nothing to lose.

It’s very important that we tell these stories.

Gaamangwe:  I deeply resonate with so much of what you just said. I feel like we are at a brink of a revolution because a lot of people and writers like you are really bringing up all these issues up and it’s great because it’s opening up dialogues. The landscape of womanhood and what it means is so interesting right now. You wrote about the importance of women defining the terms and conditions of their womanhood. This is an interesting thought Ijeoma. How can we do this such that we reach a point where every woman understands her womanhood and how she wants to express it in the world?

Ijeoma; Here is my thing, just because I define my womanhood a different way, and just because I am this way doesn’t mean that you have to be that way. Because I think it’s very important for us to understand that the different dynamics of women are very important to feminism or womanism. Because I cannot tell someone else that as a woman this is what you have to do and this is how feminism is defined. We need to be very careful about that. There are so many dynamics of feminism and there are so many ways that a woman can say I am a woman and this is who I am and this is how I show mine.
We need to understand that defining our humanity and knowing what we call being a woman should always be choice.  So defining the terms and conditions of our womanhood is really about choice. Some of us are privileged, where we can say what we want but we have to understand that so many women don’t.

We have a society that tell men that they can do whatever they want to do and they can be whoever they want to be but a woman is defined by so many borders she has to carry. At the end of the day it’s like she does not have a choice in her life. That’s where feminism/womanism comes into play and that’s where people have a problem with it because when you give a woman a choice that’s a problem for society.

It is important to have that choice to do whatever we want and be whoever we want, and have that equal opportunity like any man would. One thing that I think is important is for women to be in political positions because that will make a lot of difference. If we begin to speak from an African perspective, we can see in most cases when women are in positions of power. Because we can see when people are discussing issues that are about women and women are not there it doesn’t make any sense. Nobody knows a woman’s body like a woman does. Things like reproductive rights, financial independence, political positions, ownership of land and inheritance.

So I think that choice needs to be at the cornerstone of being a woman. Because when choice is removed it’s not equal opportunity, it’s not women empowerment.

Gaamangwe: Yes, it’s inequality. And it’s what we are all fighting for. Because most of the time we are not given choices as women, on how to be or how we are supposed to express ourselves. It’s in the smallest of things.

Growing up I didn’t realize the narrative I was being given on womanhood until I started reading on my own and started being my own self. And I read your work and I read other people’s work and the reality is that we have to unlearn so much as women. It’s sad because our counterparts, our men don’t fully understand the world that we live in, the landscape and the personal realities of women. So your work is empowering and resonate with us, your readers because they are things that pass us and we don’t take note of them but they really define our lives and who we are and how we act.

You write about mental health, rape and depression and domestic abuse, which are really difficult things to integrate in the normal African narrative. In the dialogues that we hold even with our friends. I am particularly drawn to mental health and will love for us to explore it further. 

Ijeoma: It’s very interesting whenever you discuss issues like mental health within African societies or here in the diaspora. You can discuss Malaria or kidney failure or anything that a white man can go through that a black man can go through. But when you discuss mental health, it is not something that a black person can go through?

It’s interesting how we think our bodies are supposed to carry a lot of pain without breaking down. And it’s interesting because I have heard Africans who are very educated say “what are you talking about, this doesn’t happen to us, and it’s not part of our DNA”.

I think it’s important that we don’t deny mental health exists.

Once at a reading in New York, a man thanked me for talking and writing about mental health. He said he was telling his people that he is depressed and they were telling him that it’s all in his head, that Africans don’t get depressed.

A lot of people leave home and they don’t fit in. I am not talking about leaving home and feeling sad one day, I am talking about seriously wanting to end it all. Seriously not understanding where you are. You leave home and probably for the first time you are being called black and expected to understand the history of blackness from outside your country where you’ve only been your ethnic group till now.  You experience racism for the first time. And because being black is associated with being bad, you have to stop yourself from internalizing this and this leads to some of the worst cases of depression you can think of. You feel isolated and with isolation comes a feeling of not being able to talk to someone back home. Because they will say you are in America, what are you talking about? You have so many opportunities that someone back home doesn’t have, how dare you be ungrateful. How dare you talk about being depressed, what are you depressed about? So you have a sense of guilt.

Gaamangwe: I am glad you talked about how people in the diaspora experience culture shock and racism. Even in the smallest ways. People always looking at you and how things are no longer concepts. You captured this perfectly in your poem, Diasporic Blues –
“So, here you are. Too foreign for home. Too foreign for here. Never enough for both.”

I want to talk about this. The idea of home and the idea of belonging in a space or a place.

Ijeoma: I wrote Diaspora Blues because I came back to Nigeria in 2013 after a long time. Unfortunately, I felt very much displaced. It was a little bit of romanticizing the past, entirely my fault. I had this idea that I will come back and I will perfectly fit into the space that I left. But it’s always impossible for us to do that. Because there is the fact that I had grown up so much as a person. And understanding the dynamics of who I am and being abroad and people saying “where are you from” and still getting this question after so many years. I asked myself where I really belong.

“Not American enough,

not Nigerian enough,

I am Ijeoma enough. And that’s okay”.

 

That was the first draft of that poem in 2013. When I was writing my book I went back to this poem and felt that it will only resonate with people who are Nigerian and American. I wanted to write something that will include everyone. And it was a very sad poem for me. Short but very sad, it was very personal.

Belonging and the concept of home for a lot of people is wherever they decide home is. But that can be a very difficult thing for refugees and political asylum seekers. Sometimes immigrating to a country and understanding that they don’t have papers that technical recognize them as complete human beings in a society. It is much more than my perspective because belonging is such a complex issue.

A lot of people don’t have that opportunity to come back home like I do. To have a place that they can call home. It might not be exactly what I expected it to be but it’s as close as possible to what I can call home. It is home. Some people leave and they can’t come back.

I explore home in so many ways. In language, food, clothing and our religion. And these are major things that people bring with them. My personal story is I felt displaced. So I have this concept of home and another foreign idea of home and what I can bring back. And I am sort of in the middle. I am bringing from this place. Some things I cannot change. Like the way I talk. Or maybe the way I think now. I cannot change that. It will be sort of regressing from me to go back to how I was before I left. I have changed and I am not going to apologize for things that took me so many years to unlearn. I am becoming this person that I am becoming right now.

Gaamangwe; I think that a lot of people resonated with that because we all experience that, maybe in different formats. I experienced a lot of that when I came back from India. It took me six months to get to a point where I felt like I am navigating this space easily now.  But when I came back I felt like I didn’t know where I belonged because I outgrew this space, and this person and my home. It’s a very sad thing to realize because there is the question, where do I belong now?

I have to say I also really like original poem of Diasporic Blue.  I resonate with that because after everything that’s what you have. You have yourself. The only constant is yourself. So the idea of home can never truly be a place. But you can have yourself as a home. And there is a lot of that in your work as well, you know like as a human you should belong to yourself and be okay with your skin and be proud of your skin and love yourself. Because I think this is the only home you can truly ever own.

Ijeoma: And we can also go a step further and say because society has always told us that home is belonging to a man as a woman. Home is when you get married and that is where you should find your home. And that is something that you should seek and be. There are a lot of people that we see now that are in our society, making terrible decisions staying in toxic relationships because they don’t have that concept of being alone and being home alone, by themselves. I can find home within myself.

Gaamangwe: This is really powerful because I think we need to change the narrative to that. All of us we grow up being told that we should aspire for that. Especially as girls. We should aspire for a husband, and for love with a man. I get so pissed off nowadays if I see those articles about how to make him fall in love with you or how to be a perfect wife.

Ijeoma: Yes! I remember as we were talking and you mentioned how some men don’t acknowledge that they are privileged and how we have to inform them but as ridiculous as I might sound I think we are not here to teach men anything. I feel like we spend so much time trying to lecture or trying to school others.

A couple of years back I was talking to my brother and he said you know the concept of feminism is simple, equal rights for women and men. The idea that a woman should be able to do whatever they want, a woman should be able to think this way, a woman should be able to act this way without being insulted or demeaned, I am not going to teach you that. That is common human decency. I think a lot of time men has this lazy idea that women should have to teach them the basic concept of humanity. Feminism is the basic concept of humanity. It is human right.

Gaamangwe: Exactly. We should focus more on ourselves. Building our own homes. Having the narratives we want to be having by ourselves as women. I think it will start there. It will start with empowered women. And the system will organically change, I think. Slowly but surely. I think we have done a lot of educating and at some point people just then choose what they want to take out of the whole thing then we lose the whole intention.

I think it’s time now for us to focus on ourselves and realize that we are powerful enough, on our own, by ourselves. We should empower ourselves because we are dangerous this way. So now, I want us to pivot to the idea of self-care and belonging to one self. Why it’s so vital right now with all the chaos that’s happening right now in the world.
Ijeoma: I think we sort of lose ourselves in the whole chaos, we have been taught as women to take care of others before taking care of ourselves. It is sort of others first. And it’s then passed on and on. And even when we say no we even question that no. Yes, I can take care of the people but I need to take care of myself first. I need to understand from within what I really want before I go outside. And we praise the always strong woman. This woman who is so empowered and powerful and she sort of doesn’t break down.  Like she is a mule or something. There is the idea that if you put yourself first then you are selfish. And they make you feel guilt for that. That the idea of taking care of yourself is a selfish act. We want women to keep on going without breaking down. A romanticized idea of a strong woman.

But this also reflects in men. Hyper masculinity. I have a friend who lost his father and two weeks later I was talking to him and asking “how do you feel?” and he said “I want to cry but I am a man. I have to be a man”. And I told him “You are a son that just lost his father, do you not understand that it’s okay to cry?” This is the toxic idea that a man is not allowed to weep, to show emotion, and to cry.

Society does such a disservice to young men and boys. This idea that to be a man you have to conceal your emotions. It can be very toxic.

Gaamangwe: Recently I was talking to Gbenga Adesina, in our dialogue and he said that we need to come back to the republic of kindness. To the republic of treating each other as human beings. Before anything else. Before our genders, our races, before whatever system, we can put in defining us. Can we just start from one human being to another?

When you were speaking I was feeling like they are so many systems that are so wrong in our world that we need to fix but also its  kind of overwhelming because what do we start with. Do we start with empowering the girl child or in that way we are doing another disservice to the boy child because our focus is on the girl child? There are so many dialogues and theories and discourses that we have to touch on so we can create a better world.

Ijeoma: Step back. You have to break it down and say this is what I am passionate about, and this is what I am going to discuss and follow through on. But it’s not like you are saying you won’t talk about everything else but rather about what is most important to you. And do whatever you can, wherever you are. That has always been my motto. I wrote something that says start where you are. Just start you know.

I think I could have gotten overwhelmed if I listened to everyone else but myself. I will have gotten overwhelmed if before writing I sort of started following other people’s voices but mine. It’s important to not overwhelm ourselves, that’s where self-care comes in. It’s very important.

For me if I am not focus then I am all over the place. The idea that speaking about the girl child means not speaking about the boy child, it’s very important that we understand that the playing field has never been leveled. It has never been to the advantage of the girl. No matter where you go.

The concept is equal right for women and men. The concept is choice for girls. Historically and presently, women are at the losing end. We can definitely get into this narrative that if we are discussing about the girl child then it means that we are not discussing about the boy child. Or we cannot discuss about the boy child. And it’s very important for us not to do that. Because that sort of narrative is something that a lot of misogynists use. Oh you know these feminists, that’s what they do. But really we are talking about genital mutilations and child marriages in Africa, Asia and Middle East. We are talking about the fact that a girl at the age of fourteen is being married off to a man old enough to  be her grandfather. We are talking about the fact that girls are not allowed to go to school. We are talking about honor killing. And this is happening right now.

The idea that when we are talking about this very important issue then it means we are not interested in talking about the man or the boy. It deviates from the narrative and what we are trying to say.

The concept of an educated woman is such a feared concept in so many places. And you ask yourself why? Why is it that a woman that cannot be silenced is a very dangerous woman?

Gaamangwe; That’s true. I want to now talk about Questions for Ada. Ada means daughters right?

Ijeoma: Yes. Actually Ada in Igbo means first daughter. It means every first daughter of the house.

Gaamangwe: Interesting. So I am interested in what this work set out to do, the dialogues and discourses and seeds it wanted to plant.

Ijeoma: Thank you for this question. When I was thinking about this work I thought a lot about the title. Originally I wrote in Tumblr and I used to ask these questions as poetry. And it started from there. And I started working with Questions for Ada and I shared with my friends and they told me to go with it because it was very authentic and personal for me. The book itself took me so long to bring it together. The book itself is in stages. It goes through different stages.
I was very close to my grandmother and my grandmother passed away a few years ago. My grandmother was an Ada, the first daughter in her house and my mother was also an Ada. A lot of my writings entwines different generations. It included the older generation, our mother generation and our generation. Those three particular generations. At the back I remember I wrote that we are writing for our mother and our mothers of our mothers and for our generations and for generations to come. So it was journey of these different people and writing their stories. I wanted to give voices not only to our generation but to others as well.

One particular poem I actually called Question for Ada. At first I wrote it for me. Then later on it went from that to Ada. It said –

Ijeoma, are you in love?
Yes.

Is being a relationship hard work?
Yes.

Do you write love poems for your lover?
Yes.

Does your lover believe in you?
Yes.
But sometimes I fear that my lover doesn’t comprehend her light.

What do you on those days?

I bathe her. I play her jazz. I feed her. I weep for her.

Describe her in a sentence.
Her eyes carries strength. Her words crush. She speaks love.


Ijeoma, are you in love?
Yes.
Is being a relationship hard work?
Yes.
Who is your lover?
Myself.

So I changed Ijeoma and I put Ada. So that was the questions for Ada. There were tiny questions I asked. There is one where I asked –
Didn’t your mother carry herself well enough to make you feel like a God?

So inside the book there are very tiny questions I asked. The book is very unapologetic. It’s very feminist. In the very beginning of the book I wrote something called Genesis. I wrote –

In the beginning there were women.

So I am not trying to soften myself or play around or present one thing else. I wanted where our generation could read the book and see themselves in it.

That particular poem obviously you feel like you are lost or you understand that the lover is yourself. It feels like it’s very sad. But the beginning of the book is something like a discourse. I wanted a book that an immigrant could read. A black person can read. A woman could read.  I wanted a book that was very true to who I am. And those aspects of who I am added to create this book.

That’s why anyone from wherever can still read it and see themselves in it. I wrote about what to tell your best friend when she is feeling depressed. Using African names. I wanted to write one thing that goes beyond love. I am writing about self-love in a way and so many other things. And the reception has been amazing. I have been very pleased with the love from the reader. I can’t wait to do more. I am encouraged to do more.

Gaamangwe: That’s amazing because I think every writer wants to do work that impacts the readers. And your work is powerful. It can be just one or two lines but when I read and I am altered forever. So you definitely have to keep doing this.

Ijeoma; Thank you so much for this. I am honored. I am honored that so many women from all parts of Africa are resonating and celebrating my work. It’s so exciting to be celebrated in not just one’s country. It’s very encouraging. I can’t wait to do more.