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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

 

Re-Imagining Culture: A Dialogue With Caroline Anande Uliwa

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Caroline Anande Uliwa is a Culture Journalist, Poet & Singer from Tanzania. She has been working in print media in the country since 2008, when she was opportune enough to run a column in a weekly newspaper, ‘The eXpress’ titled I am an African. To date she has worked for the National newspaper as a features reporter, in Flare Magazine as Assistance Editor and as a contributing writer in Lucky, The Bold & Bang magazine, plus as a columnist in The Citizen Newspaper in their Saturday insert magazine ‘Woman’.

She’s currently running her own blog titled ‘MKEKA,’ as well being a contributing writer in the ‘Magazine’ inside The East African Newspaper (distributed in Kenya, Uganda, Kenya & Rwanda).

As a Poet, she has been the Chair & co-founder of a burgeoning Poetry Club called WAKA, which in 2015 worked with Badilisha Poetry (The biggest online archive of African Poets). To amass over 40 Tanzanian poets works for their website. 

As a Singer her debut was in Tusker Project Fame the East African iconic singing competition, here in 2009 she attained the 11th position (2nd in Tanzania). Since then she’s performed in South Africa, curtain raised for Oliver Mtukuduzi at ‘The East African Vibes Concert’ & mostly she’s worked in local live bands in Dar es Salaam. With seasoned musicians from her country like guitarist Norman Bikaka, sax player Rashid Pembe, percussionist Twaba Mohammed & Kauzeni Lyamba as well base guitarists Bakuza Moshi & Leonard Kayoya.  

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the Soma Book Cafe in the chilly, rainy city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Caroline, you are a cultural journalist, which absolutely sounds cool and interesting. Which aspects of culture do you explore in your job,  and why was it important for you to explore culture?

Caroline: It happened quite organically, growing up I was always drawn to fiction. When I returned home from college, at my first job working with a Journalist & Communications expert, she hooked me up to an editor at The eXpress Newspaper. A weekly English paper in the country. Through that the editor, I got to start writing a column titled “I am an African”. It’s here that I started to sink on the surface of culture journalism.

I wrote on the topic to affirm my being an African. As most of the fiction and literature I had read till then, was on foreign cultures mostly from the west. The column was my ‘pop’ attempt to uncover more of our own stories/heritage. Starting with the little things; how we make our hair, how we eat our food, where we sit when we are eating, how people talk with their accents etc.  

To date I am drawn to sharing on this inner journey of the African persona, his/her emerging culture particularly the Afropolitan emerging sphere, which showcases our interaction from domestic norms which for the majority are from tribal environments to the globalized context in Africa today. I see then that this ‘Afropolitan’ description is still an embryo which requires stronger voices from African perspectives.

Gaamangwe:  The “I am an African” column is so important, because modern Africa knows far too little about her history and culture. Hopefully, the emergence of the “Afropolitan” culture is here to dismantle this. What does it mean for you to be “Afropolitan”? Where do you think we are going with this “Afropolitan” culture?

Caroline: I find that the Afropolitan culture is being forged strongly in the cities of Africa then trickling down to the rural areas. Though of course this varies from country & region to region. It’s in the city that a lot of diversity meets. A year or so back I was at an art exhibition ‘Impose/Expose’, with Tanzanian sculptress Safina Kimbokota. Herein she showcased a metal plate wind chime. She said the clash of the metal plates were indicative of the clash of traditions and norms that occurs in the city, forcing a new culture, in my eye the ‘Afropolitan’ culture.

Personally I am very interested to inform on it, this drive is empowered by my noticing that it’s endangered in maintaining its authentic African emblems. Due to the heavy influence of globalisation, which on this continent is felt triple, what with our past of colonisation, slavery etc. So now you have our popular music with a heavy western influence, the South America’s telenovela’s prevalent in our local TV’s. Not to mention our publishing industry faces stiff competition (economies of scale) from the west, with our own low standards of living that make buying a book for many a luxury.

This battle is then to amplify the voice of the native african footprint in the equation of ‘Afropolitan’ culture. Noticing how Afropolitan in Kenya is not the same as Afropolitan in Mozambique for example; is what I foresee my life work being anchored on. 

Gaamangwe:  One thing I am seeing with the emergence of “Afropolitan” is a lot of our culture seeping in our creativity. Our literature, music, fashion  is becoming more Afrocentric.

It is empowering that no matter how much we have been influenced by the outside western world and colonialism, nothing can remove the aspects of us that is rooted in being African. Our essence is still integrated in our Africanness.

Caroline: Very true, there is hope for sure. Even for individuals like myself who don’t speak their native tongues (my parents speak two different native languages & I grew up in the city where Kiswahili is spoken). The ancestors still have a latch on us, not just in our DNA but in our ghost african accents, our mannerisms, how we eat our food, how we raise & discipline our children and how we respect our elders.

I recently interviewed a young jewelry maker Sekela Nyange of KusKus Jewellery, I was  fascinated that even though most of her raw materials come from China. Her designs are so intrinsically African with notes from the Maasai culture, tapes from the Nubian choker necklaces, not to mention her play with bold colors that can be seen in various tribes from the Ndebele in their homes to our ‘vitenge’ fabrics. This tells me there is still a beautiful thread that we ought to be proud of and expose more boldly.

So yes there’s a brave resilience of our essence budding, it’s there in our bold african prints, the thrive of new natural hair movements, the joyous music genres that have more of african beats like Kwaito & Nigerian pop music. 

Of course I think we have to dig deeper because there are so many norms and traditions of Africa that are positive & being left to the wayside. For instance in Tanzania there are music instruments like the Zeze, Irimba, the Makonde Drums, that have fewer and fewer of the younger generation learning to play them.

I’m moved to look into the past, pick the thorns from the gold and amplify the jewels of our traditions, inviting all of us to forge a ‘new/today’ that is more authentically ours.

Gaamangwe: That new and braver reclamation of our heritage is surging all over. Women with their Black Girl Magic & Melanin Poppin hashtags; which is basically us appraising and encouraging ourselves to to be entirely okay with who we are, because we are magic just the way we are right?

Yes, the challenge  is we didn’t record a lot of things, so we are trying to get back to who we were with little information of how things were done back then. Also, globalization is really pressing hard, and sadly the majority of what has been promoted as Global, for a long time now, is not from our ways. It’s an interesting state to be in right now.

Caroline: It can get frustrating. Though once you’ve sniffed the pandora box of our histories, you can’t go back. There are times however when I wish I was oblivious, that I still thought wearing weaves every day was empowering and/or beautiful. That gorging on popular African music which has only 10% of our real essence, entertaining. As there is economic power backed to those who stick to this lane, I saw this connection clearly when I watched a documentary.

Aired at the Zanzibar Film Festival by John Antonelli, it highlighted the plight of the tribes like the Suri in Northern Kenya living around Turkana Lake. Their very livelihood is in danger due to the construction of the Gibe III Dam in Ethiopia on Omo River (the biggest water source for lake Turkana). Now you’d think there’d be an uproar from the East African public through mainstream media & or social media.

As our own people are being prosecuted with clear cases of land grabbing and environmental crimes. Yet the thing is, these people aren’t wearing normal clothes, many of their women still walk bare chested with gleaming brown skin covered in ground clay, an assortment of jewellery and leather skins for skirts.

It dawned on me that to the public they are not us but an ‘other’, a clear indication of the danger of the subliminal messages in our society. Propelling the themes of ‘heathens’ and such regressive perspectives.

Gaamangwe: The worst act done to the African human is the de-humanizing of African ways and realities. We have lost so much of our cultures and beliefs systems because time and again, we’ve been told they are barbaric and regressive.  And now we have adapted those perspectives as our own. Its absolutely sad.

Do you think that art can play a role in redefining, influencing and impacting  the way that we perceive our cultures?

Caroline: I think we have to recognize that art is the one profession that reminds humans we are creative beings. We don’t end at food, clothes & shelter; we enhance our food by cooking it with recipes (chefs), knowing how to best let it nourish us through nutritionists. We don’t just protect ourselves from the elements with clothes we also express ourselves through a fashion designer. We enjoy our environments better with architects and  interior designs, we connect to that intangible space of our spirits through music & literature (holy texts).  

Despite this in our third world economies in Africa, Art & Culture takes a back seat with stringent budget allocations and poor policy & laws to support their infrastructure.

I believe if our leaders were empowered with a modern ‘griot’. Hailing the pride of their histories, by stumbling into works from African storytellers in all genres of art. They would meet that intimidating space, filled with foreign tongues and etiquettes backed by financial prowess (that our ancestors through slavery, colonialism helped cement). Where they negotiate deals that affect all our lives, they’d be there with more confidence and therefore fight for us more diligently.

Instead of what is the case right now, where brave leaders like Thabo Mbeki release a report showcasing that Africa loses Billions of USD per annum. More so that what it gains through financial aid (illicit financial flows). Still we don’t see a unified cry from the continent demanding a stop to this modern slavery.

We instead have cases like in my own country where our Ministry of Culture in less than a year has seen two Ministers despite being in a serious bid to uphaul our ‘Art Policy’. With the current one Hon Dr Harrison Mwakyembe quoted publicly to say ‘musicians shouldn’t bother with integrating social political messages in their works…’??!!.

They have to see that art enhances culture and culture is our backbone. The foreign powers that have ravaged our continent for centuries knew this and so they always first aimed to undermine our culture (what with mentioning our way as ‘heathen’ ‘barbaric’ and sanctifying us with their religions). Before showing their fangs and severely regressing our progressive evolution.  

Gaamangwe:  Its absolutely maddening. The power of the artists in the average person’s life is far understated in Africa. Yet the artist reflect the things of the time as they see it. They mirror socio-economic, psychological and political state of human existence.  When you see, you can change. How can that be minimised? 

Caroline: I draw inspiration from persons before me who have persevered in even tougher times. Recently our own John Kitime, a musician and notable activist in the art circles of Tanzania. Took funds from his own pocket to interview and document views from various artists in the country so as to give our ministry of culture, a wholesome representation in their deliberations of tabling of our new ‘Art Policy’.

I know many such s/heroes like Demere Kitunga, Elieshi Lema of E&D Publishers, Carola Kinasha-Musician/Teacher. They pushed through despite the challenges. I think with this age of social media, the opportunity to create meaningful dialogue is present and it is being used. However the case is that of David & Goliath for as I said the capitalist powers that be, wouldn’t have it in their interests if we really knew our histories. As then perhaps we would demand reparations for all that has and continues to be embezzled out of this continent in ways of natural resources and low/unpaid labour.

Gaamangwe: This is sadly true. But yes, artists are fighting in the ways of rendering new spaces of interaction with our culture and heritage. You are one of those people who have created this new, empowering space by the way of WAKA Poetry. How are the artists who are coming for WAKA poetry sessions re-imagining culture? What are the dialogues that they opening up in the sessions?

Caroline: WAKA has certainly been a space where I’ve witnessed the re-imagining of culture. Through the monthly meetings and the interactions on social media mostly through our whatsapp group.  We attempt to strengthen our poetry and always end up giving each other food for thought in way of discussions and debates that arise from the poems.

Our dialogues here touch on gender roles, politics, humour, spiritual journeys. The nature of our meets nurture a safe space, we sit in a circle, we introduce ourselves at each session (kind of like AA).  So due to the personal nature of poetry & the environment we provide (thanks to SOMA book Cafe) many of our dialogues veer from the heart and the consequent osmosis of ideas, change our lives. This space has certainly enhanced mine.  

Gaamangwe: That is amazing, you’re doing a great job. On this vein of enhancing lives, you wrote a poem Fundamental Lessons of Four, on the lessons humanity needs to learn in order to enhance our lives. One stanza says;

“If the world were well-educated

they’d be no hunger.

As lesson namba mbili,

humans here are the smartest species

should translate least effort goes to survival”.

What was the source of this poem?

Caroline: My own journey as an artist has found me being uncomfortable with labels, noticing how they ultimately don’t really define me. This poem then walks on a spiritual vein, that speaks to what really unifies us in our ability to draw breath.

See despite many of us being religious, where we are taught to value life, see each other as brethren. In reality there is still a strong ‘other’ in our day to day. How else do you explain some of us going to the moon whilst millions starve to death.

I heard a woman say “We have to respect racism is a disease and should be treated as such, like someone suffering from alcoholism“

I think our systems have a disease of ‘inequalities’ stemming from our own decree of ‘other’. We have to bring awareness to it and perhaps that is where the role of the artist shines through. For me it has been art in the form of film, literature, fine art that has poked me to see we have more in common than not.

Gaamangwe: I agree with everything that you are saying. So as an artist how do you use your artistry to re-imagine culture?  And how would you like to contribute to this endless conversation that we are always having as human beings?

Caroline: I have to say meeting persons like yourself, who see the importance of telling authentic stories that forge our true evolution on the continent. Keeps me refreshed, inspired, for it can be lonely working with infrastructures that don’t yet recognise our presence as poets, culture journalists or afro-jazz/ spoken word artists.

I use my articles to allow my audiences to be better informed on the cultural resources of their own treasures here in Tanzania & to a less extent the rest of Africa. My music & poetry many times is my own therapy, though I don’t live in a bubble. So they’re an honest engagement with what bombards me. Somewhere in there I find I relate with various people, which I am grateful for.

I’d like to contribute to this endless conversation by continuing to grow in this work. Learning from those before me, where my prayer is to be so immersed in it that the universe doesn’t have a choice but to keep me sustained in it.

Gaamangwe Joy Mogami is a writer, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue. She is the curator of Brunel International African Poetry Prize Interviews With Africa in Dialogue.

Caroline Details:  @CarolAnande- Twitter @CarolAnande- Facebook  @CarolAnande- Instagram  Caroline Anande Uliwa- Youtube Website: carolanande.blogspot.com

 

 

Poetry as Translation: A Dialogue With Ladan Osman

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Ladan Osman is a Somali-American poet and teacher. She is the author of the chapbook, Ordinary Heaven and poetry  book collection, The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony selected for the 2014 Sillerman First Book Prize. Her writing appears in a variety of journals such as Narrative Magazine, Artful Dodge, Vinyl Poetry, Prairie Schooner and RHINO. She has received fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center, Union League Civic & Arts Foundation, Cave Canem Foundation, and Michener Center for Writers. Osman edits for ROAR Feminist Magazine, and curates for The Blueshift Journal.

This conversation took place in the cold, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the magnetic city of Brooklyn in New York, USA by Skype.

Gaamangwe: Ladan, as a storyteller, which aspects of your life experiences do you find yourself needing to translate?

Ladan: A lot of times I am chasing something that is inside of me. I started developing a theory that there are images we carry inside of us, almost like Plato’s essential or original image except it may not be as rigid or even as advanced as that. There are some things in our moment to moment lives, that we carry and attempt to put into language, artifacts, and pieces of writing. I am regularly doing that, to the degree where I feel there’s no clear rest from that. It’s a form of work that’s always happening, in listening and studying, in my dreams and in waking life. Sometimes it’s just a breath or the thrust of the breath, or a melody, that could be encouraged by a song.

There are certain songs I listen to until I start hearing the song in different ways. There are poems I have written listening to songs on repeat (for example: I wrote the last poem in my book listening to Maxwell’s “Pretty Wings”). There’s something about the tone of the song I wanted to understand. It was also opening something in me, so I made myself listen to it over and over again. But then it gets to a point where the song is almost atmospheric, and you are not even listening to it anymore. You are just feeling all the other parts. It gives me the opportunity to deeply listen.

I look at visual art at least once or twice a week.  There’s an invitation that paintings make to me, that is almost tactile.  I am also really drawn to listening to people as they speak. From a young age, people have always been comfortable sharing information with me.  Sometimes it can sound a little bit like a confession. I try to take that very seriously because there’s a lot of loneliness in this world, especially in this heavily-digital area. It’s practicing compassion for others and for myself.

Gaamangwe: How do you navigate the things that are not easily translatable?

Ladan: There is so much  that is not translatable. The acceptance of that is what makes it possible to even try. I think that’s the main thing actually. In art especially, but probably in all areas of life. It is the sincere effort of trying to translate. And there is something in the art that you don’t have control over. It’s going to do its growth and hopefully it does work on you. It does evolve you as an artist and as a thinker. I think of it as human work. Your heart and your mind grows. You feel more deeply connected to the physical world around you. You are a more responsible custodian. You are more self-aware and you connect to other humans. I think, hopefully, the things that we are doing day to day, lead us to greater sensitivity, which can be very painful and uncomfortable but with magnificent reward.

I have learned a lot from other artists. Some of these people are emerging or we haven’t seen as much of their work in publication and exhibitions. The things they have made, very often it seems, were with some difficulty, strain and effort. I think my main goal in life is to be a good artistic citizen. I don’t feel good about myself if I don’t have or make an opportunity to edit, to mentor, to look at a friend’s work. To sit with a work and look at it very carefully, with some generosity.

The thing I return to outside literature is photography. It’s a very productive anxiety because I don’t feel as technically proficient, even if I have the knowledge or the practice. I used to take photos, then stopped for eleven years, and only returned to that in the last six month. It’s been a good exercise and it has taught me to be vulnerable while working in real time.

With photography, you are present. I experience that torment, of not quite being able to make the work communicate what I want it to communicate, but I think that is a form of a gift. It allows me to experience this as a sweet torment and it encourages me to further study. I think it’s just good luck and I have to be mindful to develop whatever it is that I already have, to take emotional risks. Doing something hard, that’s a little bit scary, something that I am not proficient in at all. For me, that’s the best thing.

Gaamangwe: Do you think that there is a piece of work of poetry or photography where you feel like you came close to the perfect translation of whatever it is that you wanted to translate?

Ladan: I don’t know how much that has happened. I think sometimes the thing is better than your intention. That’s the most exquisite thing actually. To work with an artifact and to continue to work at it, editing and revising it, placing the work and figuring out the right way. Sometimes that work is more advanced than you and you realize that you have evolved as a human being to meet the expectation of that work. And that has happened to me a few times to the degree where there were poems that came before and poems that came after.

In my book, one of them is “How to Make a Shadow.” I wrote it when I was having a very hard time in Grad School. I didn’t fit in and I was really uncomfortable with the sense of intellectual and class-based evaluations that subtly played out in a space and I was kind of having these nightmares. My jaw was completely locked and my bones were being crushed. It was awful, and I would wake up, and my face would actually hurt in waking life.  And I realized that there was something that I needed to look into but I had no idea what to look at. I was frustrated at this thing and I did recognize some of the language and commentary as racialized, and that’s kind of what made it so difficult to remain temperate and hold my ground in that space.

I didn’t realize at the time but  I was also thinking about all different things and  gathered them  into myself. I was looking at medieval poetry, from where the people were praying for help from the plague and they have a collective vision of a black dog that comes to destroy their religious implement. I was also watching and reading interviews related to Mike Tyson at the time. His coach said that he was a dog, and he really emphasized it,  and said  “a black dog.” It got me thinking of the word “nigger,” which is extremely sensitive, and I grew up hearing that and being called that a lot. At that young age, it was an anger that would sometimes make me feel out of control. But it was an implosion, over and over, because I wouldn’t show anything in class. I would take it with me to other places. I took it to my personal space, to my desk and it was not productive. And so the act of  writing that poem, felt like I was breaking something and taking away something from myself.  At first I had male pronouns, then I went to read it somewhere, and I changed it to female pronouns at the last minute. I was so emotional reading the piece that I almost couldn’t get through because it needed some distance.

It’s not what I started with but somehow it came together. I just think that; everyday try something. It doesn’t actually matter whether everyone understands what a work is doing or to rate it as beautiful or good. I think that if it’s real, then it’s the best that you can do at that time. So I always stand behind my work and say, this is the absolute best that I can do at this time. It can be better but I am not going to obsess over some standard of achievement, even within myself. There has to be a point where you can put it to rest and be at peace with it. Because I think for me when I don’t do that, it opens me up to evaluation outside of myself.  So I just ask myself;  does it do something in the world? And I count myself and my own work as work in the world.

Gaamangwe: That’s powerful and necessary. To give oneself the space to be oneself in the moment. I think great art comes from that. The total immersion of the self in the moment, with no second guessing or calculating. The experiences that you translate in poetry often have to do with different themes such as displacement, home, love and longings. Do you find yourself gravitating towards the same kinds of things in photography as well?

Ladan: That’s interesting. I don’t know if I gravitate towards the same things.  I have realized that I am more interested in humans than conceptual things and objects as studies in light. I did not know that I was interested in portraiture of people, especially natural portraiture. I think it requires certain parts of my personality.  It requires a boldness. I wouldn’t say I am shy but some social things are really challenging for me. Because I am not comfortable taking a photo unless I have clear or implied permission from the subject, which requires me to look more carefully and to communicate with strangers at times.

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

Landan: One of my main questions is subjectivity. There is an interesting article that address the notion of reality, I think it came out in The Atlantic, and it says there is no such thing as a public object. So the way I understood it over time is how we can speak to objectivity. How we could and speak to make work from outside of ourselves. But also how do we deal with questions of connections and a responsibility to each other.  So these questions are playing out much more right now, where the stakes are much higher to this current, political moment. There is such a thing as an American story and there is such a thing as a public story.  

I’m also thinking about what it does to have borders and to have nations. This is the resident or this is the citizen, and this is the migrant who is now a fugitive, or this is the citizen who is now is a fugitive. America has become very messy in the last little while and I  started to think of these notions and how we are philosophically grounding everything on things that are a bit ancient and things based on concepts that a person cannot fully attend to, because they are ambiguous.

This is my everyday obsession. Our voices are being taken from us. Whose testimony is valid? But I don’t believe in being voiceless. How can it be that we are voiceless and powerless, when we are our own self generating machine to some degree? And so for me sometimes that’s the only thing keeping me okay in the midst of all this racism and prejudice and profound loss of human compassion. I don’t know if we can lose dignity. I think we can attempt to humiliate other humans and make them lose dignity in themselves, and that is a part of what is deeply hurting people. Because if we are going to make a shortcut at concepts that include all of us then it’s so much harder to deal with a person’s full story standing in front of you. That is what makes it easy to treat people as “migrant” and “refugees,” as non- people.  We don’t have the same tangibility and intangibility as them. Some of these issues are really unbelievable. I feel like for months now I have been in one unbelievable moment of tension and commotion.  

Gaamangwe: We are just here watching and it’s surreal. How are you translating this experience emotionally and philosophically? How did the Muslim Ban impact you, especially as a Somali?

Ladan: I was not necessarily responding to this as someone from a nation in the ban but rather as a person responding to what is clearly a human injustice. I am attempting to translate this and it’s not easy. It’s important to share that there is a lot of despair and I understand that people want to personalize those feelings. I am also interested in a sense of public grief. For example, I was in New York waiting on a platform and it was rush hour, and it was completely silent.  People were not saying anything; they were just standing there. Looking at the ground, not doing anything and not talking to each other.  If I attempt to give language to this, it is that it all felt apocalyptic. I am looking at this with a deep sense of disappointment.

When we talk about the Muslim Ban, I think it should have been looked at legally. Not that there haven’t been some really serious shifts in executive powers. I think definitely there was a general sense of trust in the last president when it came to specific actions. I don’t think there was a sense of fear of who could come after.

It’s something that is easy to many of us. We are comfortable with the story that requires less thinking and less effort.  I think trying to convince people that they have no story and that they have nothing and that they have failed their own democracy is actually a very powerful story. That in itself is an attempt and a tactic. I think it’s important to look at that on a personal level because what is disturbing is that people who were in the ban are family, friends, formers students and neighbors.

We need to look at anti-blackness that is playing out even in some of these communities we are part of. Where is it that my mind is colonized? Where is it that I am not a womanist? Where is it that I am not in touch with a sense of anti-blackness?  

I don’t think I have ever been comfortable travelling as an American citizen. It’s hard to travel, even travelling domestically is a challenge. I have been stopped on US flights to prove my citizenship.  It disturbed me how casual people are with their laws and how they don’t understand the law, and that you are afraid to apply the law for your own safety. It’s many layers of dangers.

One of the many things is a sense of discouragement to such a degree that you believe  you have no power, that even your own productivity and your own processing of these things is meaningless and counterproductive.  When there is really an opportunity to question and maybe continue to be an agent for exploration, even in yourself. How can we be ideal citizen? How can we contribute in real and many ways that shift vocabulary?  

I have never been comfortable with this segregation of margins, of being other. It’s really hard even in communities that are sympathetic, that are fighting for justice on behalf of people of color, on behalf of refugees. Sometimes I don’t feel comfortable with some of the sanctions because even as they look like they are lifting it’s actually more deeply segregated. I am really disturbed by policies and laws that involve ways that people are treated. I am disturbed by what’s happening in the content of the story, because that’s a deeper violence and that’s something that will outlast the current political moment. This has revealed that we don’t see each other as full human beings that want the same things like a comfortable and peaceful place in our communities. I understand why people are where they are, because how often  has the heart been broken in public, especially for the people who are really invested in the community. We have to give space for disappointment but also unfolding crises many times a day.  The temptation is to hyper localize, I am Black Muslim woman, this is among the worst of the worst. But I recognize that I am in a privileged position. Literacy is a privilege; if you have certain connections and you don’t need an immigration lawyer that’s all privilege, if you can argue for yourself when an official confronts you, if you have parents that trained you how to deal with an official when they ask you for your identification or attempts to be in your space, that’s privilege too.  I can take a walk and think about these things as opposed to just carrying a harmed heart and having to work very hard for someone else, to the point of physical exhaustion.

I can look at my own sense of responsibility and if I have time to think, and if I have any kind of platform to say anything about it, and how can I do that? It’s not just compassion, it’s tenderness. How can I do this work tenderly? Some of that is looking at my own self. Where is it that my heart has been hardened?  I think one of the main things I have to  do is not have too many bruised feeling to the degree that I get distracted and can’t do work and can’t have a full sense of tenderness for everyone around me. For the people that I cannot have tenderness, I try to at least have questions for them, to work from a space of tolerance, even if I don’t agree.

The things that were happening in the airports, one thing that was very hard is how annoying it is to cause a human being to be scared and to waste time. To put people who don’t know what’s going to happen in unlabeled rooms. Also the administrative chaos, because people had jobs they were going to, family and loved ones to see and their lives were held up over this. Watching all this unfold was deeply uncomfortable. The immigration ban returned me to moments when I was a child and bullied, and how I would often look for a place to privately and freely cry. To experience that as adult was a little scary honestly. To return to the crying that you do when you are in a moment of true heartbreak. I don’t think the impact can be underestimated at all but there are so many people around the world that have hurt feelings.

The enormity of escaping war, of being a citizen in a nation that is being destroyed before your eyes, and of becoming a refugee cannot be understated.  Nobody wakes up and wishes for that.  To be a refugee in a camp and to deal with tons of paperwork, and then to wait for something to shift, and to be told, last minute, that this is not going through or you’ll be turned back and you need to wait 24 hours in a holding room, in an airport is just simply heartbreaking. The surprise and the pain that came from that, let alone the ongoing process which preceded that, is an ongoing, pure disregard for humanity.  I cried for hours because in all of this is the fact that people followed the rules, they filled out the paperwork, they did what they were supposed to do and they had good intentions. How difficult and annoying it is to be told you are invalid to some degree even though you participated in all the things you were supposed to do. Even though I recognize everything that is at stake politically, legally, and philosophically, I can’t get past that very simple delegation, total undermining of human movement. I’m still there. I think I will be for some time.

Gaamangwe: This is such a powerful reflection Ladan. You have expanded my understanding of the depth of this violent act. I really can’t comprehend this cruelty and the total disregard of humanity, over ideas of otherness and countries and belonging.

Ladan: It’s also wasteful because the way I understand it, you can’t take someone away from their humanity. It’s a wasteful exercise.  As humans we struggle to carry our own burden from day to day.  Let alone what’s happening in the community of nation or multiple nations that are in conflict with each other.  So what is the function of all this? It’s just causing problems that should not exist.  And it’s not just about being empathetic and sympathetic but efficiency. If you don’t have a heart, can we also look at this logistically? It’s a waste of resources.

Gaamangwe: So goes the quest for power. Its maddening and terrifying because, apparently in this world, an act of terror is still happening, where now whole cities and countries and human beings are terrified and rattled up.

Ladan: It’s hard. Even though the apocalyptic language is common around this time, people are turning to each other for understanding and comfort.  There is a harmony to what people are feeling, such that even when it’s sad, there is a hope, in that we are in a wavelength together, and maybe there is an opportunity for growth and for tenderness. I know even though it’s not totally logical and doesn’t make sense with my own experience especially inside these questions, I would say I am overall an optimist. I do believe overall in the generative power of good people. And there are tons of those around. If I have a sense of optimism, if I can really get out of my house and go out to connect with other human beings, that’s helping. To be present with people and try to be alright together. To be nicer to each other and to remind ourselves of our vastness. That we have the same complexity and that we each are carrying and navigating that complexity. It makes it a lot harder to put a label on someone and to say this person doesn’t belong, or this thing is a problem that I cannot overcome.

Gaamangwe: I agree. I think if we are speaking on that optimistic note, what this whole moment is doing, is inviting everyone, the whole world, to pay particular attention to other aspects of ourselves, and to truly stretch and immerse ourselves in our oneness.

Ladan: I totally agree. I think for now we just have to survive the day.  Thank you for these illuminating and thought-provoking reflections.

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

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.

The Poetry of the Observable World: A Dialogue With Liyou Libsekal

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Liyou Libsekal is an Ethiopian poet living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She grew up traveling and living mainly in East Africa. She won the Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2014 (now the Brunel International African Poetry Prize). Her chapbook, Bearing Heavy Things is part of the 2015 African Poetry Book Fund’s New Generation African Poets series. Her work has appeared in Missing Slate Magazine, Badilisha Poetry, Elsewhere Lit’s African Poetry edition, Expound Magazine’s The Woman Issue, and she has curated an African Poetry e-chapbook for Cordite Poetry Review.

This conversation took place in the warm, sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and the lively, summer city of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia by Call.

Gaamangwe: Liyou, you are a self-professed observer—why are you drawn to observing the world, particularly the environment that you see?

Liyou: I think it’s probably because I am an introvert. I like to take things in. Naturally, I don’t just jump into any situation. I step back and watch what’s going on first. I think it helps me to understand the world a little bit. I like to watch, even when I am speaking to somebody, I prefer face to face interactions. I like to see and read situations.

Gaamangwe: What aspects of the observable world are you particularly drawn to?

Liyou: People and people’s interactions. For example, here in Addis Ababa, like other places in Africa, things are changing so fast economically, socially, politically and so on. When I came back from college I was thrown into this world that was very different from when I left. Everything was growing and changing and booming. So that was really interesting to me because I was experiencing being at the cusp of that change. I couldn’t help but notice everything that was going on especially in the city.

It’s really interesting to watch how people’s lifestyles and values are changing. Just walking the streets I see so many changes happening compared to when I was growing up. This is sort of a silly example, but when I was growing you didn’t really see boys and girls holding hands on the street, and now it’s everywhere. And that’s just in a span of ten years. It helps me understand where we are going and where we came from. You see so many people’s lives changing and you see so many people who are stuck in the same sort of situation that they were in before or worse, because the disparity is more pronounced. It’s something you can’t really avoid. You cannot avoid observing.

Gaamangwe: That same rapid transformation has been happening in Gaborone as well, and I have been particularly more aware of the changes after I came back from living in India.   Do you also think that living in different places all across East Africa and outside the continent, has allowed you to particularly pay that much attention to the environment, the country and the world?

Liyou: Yes, that definitely plays a part in it. I have been to both developed and developing countries but when I came back home I started to see how bad it really was. But also I think all my experiences abroad have made me more critical. You’re trying to mitigate this view that you have about how the world should be with the  understanding that there are 80 million people in very poor conditions so it is not so simple. You see all the little things that play a part in why things are going wrong and why things are going right at the same time.

Gaamangwe: There is definitely that aspect of also noticing the privileges that one’s country has after travelling abroad. Especially if you’ve been to other places where some basic stuff are quite difficult to access.  So I wonder, what are some of the things that you are appreciative of in your home? 

Liyou: Well, there are a lot of things I appreciate because I have chosen to make a life here. Because, first nothing is like home. There is no place where I feel more comfortable than when I am here. Life is slower and calmer here. I have people around me and there are just a lot of things that you understand within your community and culture that you can’t completely assimilate, in a few years, in another place. So I appreciate just being around my people and my culture. Having a support system that I didn’t have somewhere else, and also learning all this stuff that I missed out on when I was a kid growing up someplace other than home. I definitely appreciate the culture and family and community aspect. Just being around your own traditions and being able to make a life in my own home is a big deal for me.

There are a lot of things that can be improved, but I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I am comfortable here and it’s not that growing up I wasn’t comfortable, but there is a difference when you are somewhere else and when you are home.  Just having that support system and big family and having people to go to.

Gaamangwe: The subtle ways that we belong to our countries, people, customs and traditions. How has travelling influenced you?

Liyou: I think that now I try to understand people and the world. When you are plucked from your environment at a young age and thrown together with different kinds of people, it makes you a more inquisitive person. I want to understand where people are coming from. I am always coming from a place of “How can you put yourself in this person’s shoes”. For a lack of better way to put it, I am curious about human beings, how people think and how their backgrounds affect what they will react to or what they experience. So I think that comes from always going to international schools and always being exposed to different people from a young age.

But also I think that in some ways, it disconnects you from your own culture and background. There are little things, like jokes that you don’t fully get when someone is telling you something or when you say something that you think is a perfectly normal thing to say and you offend someone. And that’s just from a different cultural perspective, right? For example when I moved back here, we are a very conservative people but you can like wear whatever you want. I never had any issue with that when I was here for three years in high school, because also I was living in a bubble with people who had a similar background. But I moved back, and I stopped wearing shorts, because I realized the reaction I was getting on the streets.  So things that are minor issues that you don’t think are such a big thing and you go like “Oh wait, I haven’t been paying attention to this stuff when I came here for summers”, you grow up and you come home and there are all this frustrations that as an adult you have to deal with, that you didn’t have to deal with in other places.

So there is a period of adjustment to little cultural nuances that you didn’t pick up on when you were younger. And it’s the same for a lot of people that I know that have lived abroad and come back here – as an adult you sort of have to be re-introduced to things you didn’t think about.

Gaamangwe: The gift of travelling is that there is this level of invincibility that you are kind of afforded. Because your language and culture, half of the time you don’t fully notice and experience a lot of things going on. The curse is when you leave the bubble and come back home, you are fully alert and aware and you notice everything. 

Liyou: Yeah, you get more critical of your place. It’s like “Wow, I didn’t know it was like this before.” But for me because I was younger, I didn’t notice this things and if I did, I didn’t really understand the full ramifications of it. It’s a whole lot of reality hitting you in the face and you being like “okay I am going to be frustrated by a lot of things.” But you decide if it’s worth it or not and for me it’s absolutely worth it to be home. You just learn how to be a woman in this place and you hope that things will change.

Gaamangwe: Or you become part of those people who are trying to change things. What I found is as compared to before, if someone was catcalling me I will just move on and just pretend not to hear them, and now I am like “No! Don’t talk to me like that.” I am just more proactive about it and I don’t know if I got confidence from living outside or it’s just that I really can’t handle it anymore.

Liyou: That’s so crazy because it’s the complete opposite for me. When I moved back here I used to be like “why are you saying this to me?”  and confront people but then I got into situations where I was like this is going to escalate. I have been in situations where I really thought they were going to slap me in the face. So then I decided to just ignore it and now I walk with a blank face and pretend I didn’t hear a thing —and even that is an issue. If you ignore them sometimes they get more aggressive. It’s not really in my nature to not be confrontational but I do stand up for myself. But here,  at least in Addis Ababa it’s kind of like playing with fire.  It’s like you have to go against your nature in a way. But it is the politics of survival.

Gaamangwe: The politics of being a woman in this time and age. It’s terrible.  Just pivoting a bit to you as a writer, how do all these experiences influence what you write about?

Liyou: My main thing in writing is me trying to understand the world. What is this thing to be human?  How does being from a certain culture or place or background affect how you perceive things and how you behave? I think that’s where the observation comes in too. I think it’s like that for a lot of people but the way I do it is I put things down on paper. It’s a process of explaining the world to myself and how I thought about a situation. It like, let’s let this out and sort of suss out what happened and what I saw. It’s a very internal thing. So I go internal and pack it down.

Gaamangwe: In this moment in time, from your own observation what have you learnt about being human and the way that we are trying to navigate this planet?

Liyou: That’s a great question and it’s something that I think about all the time.I have learnt that no matter what motivates us or makes us different, we really can understand each other. The bottom line is we all have the same desires and fears. So a street kid who is trying to get by cleaning shoes is not going to exactly want the exact things as someone who works at a Fortune 500 company but I think deep down as human beings we are all struggling with trying to understand this chaos that is life. Whatever it is. We all have this thing that binds us together and that allows us to understand each other if we try. And I think that’s what I try to do, not just in my writing but in life.  What is going on? What is up with this place? Why are we here? If we understood that we all have the same core feelings and core fears and core needs then we can understand each other a lot better.

Gaamangwe: Paulo Coelho’s concept of Soul of the Universe in The Alchemist. That despite barriers like language and culture and religion, we will always somehow innately understand each other, because we are innately the same.

Liyou: Absolutely, and I think that’s what the world forgets sometimes.

Gaamangwe:  Sadly true. I suppose it is a part of the human experience. Now pivoting to your poetry, my favorite thing about your work is the titles. Your titles are poems themselves. How do title come to you?

Liyou: I also like my titles more. I think that’s because it wraps everything up, right?  So, I do the titles at the end. I honestly can’t tell you how it actually happens but I think that once you feel a piece of work is concrete enough, it comes. I do think it goes back to what I was saying earlier; poetry is how I understand things that I experience or see or observe. Sometimes you don’t know why something strikes you and at the end of it that’s when you understand and that’s when the title comes.  It comes with understanding that this is why I wrote this.

Gaamangwe: And why did you write, Bearing Heavy Things? A powerfully titled collection.

Liyou: Thank you. I was seeing all the changes and reflecting back on the past as well. Bearing Heavy Things was a poem about a cousin of mine who had a child at a young age, and it made me think about all this young girls, because we have a huge problem with child brides here. My cousin wasn’t married as a child but her experience got me thinking of that. But as I titled the whole thing I think it reflected being back and experiencing something with newly grown eyes. And it was really difficult to sort of like mitigate the person I was before, when I was a child.

I think it suited the whole poetry collection because it really was sort of coming back and realizing all the things I never realized about my country before because I was too young to notice. So it was seeing reality for the first time about a place that I love. I think that title suited that because there are a lot of things that are messed up in this place and it was sort of like me dealing with that for the first time as an adult.

Gaamangwe: The moment I saw Bearing Heavy Things it just really reminded me of us, women, the kind of things that we bear and the kind of wars that we go through. In the spirit of everything, what do you like in a poem?

Liyou: Truth. And it’s not just about poetry, any writing or any work of art that explores something that is a fundamental human truth even if no one has told it or read it  or never talked about it and I read something and I am like “Yeah, I know that, I know what that’s about”, that’s real to me.  That’s what I like. For me, if something links to truth, even if I have never experienced it, it’s gold because it binds you to other people, it tells you “you’re not alone after all”. So truth. I am a sucker for anything that rings true.

Gaamangwe: I resonate with that. I also love this kind of abstract poetry, which you do really well. For example, when you said;

I left Africa carrying my skin.

Who does that? No one does that. But there is something true about this. But of course not literally. 

Liyou: That’s a thing with me too. I definitely tend to like things that are not so literal. It’s funny that you say my stuff is abstract; sometimes I hate the stuff I write because I am like “A,B,C” about it. I feel that the stuff I write is a little too literal. But I guess that’s perspective. So I feel really good that you said that.

Gaamangwe: I understand. I love the kind of poetry that shifts me and changes the way that I look at the world. And your poetry does that. So thank you for your poetry.

Liyou: Oh, thank you.

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

 

 

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.
 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry as a Meditation on Human Existence: A Dialogue with Gbenga Adesina

 

gbenga-2

Gbenga Adesina is a poet and essayist from Nigeria. He is the joint winner of the 2016 Brunel University African Poetry Prize. He is the 2016 Norman Mailer Poetry Fellow at Pepperdine University Malibu, California. He has received scholarships and residencies from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and the Vermont Studio Center in the United States. He was also a 2015 Open Society Foundation Poetry Residency Fellow on Goree Island, in the coast of Senegal. His poetry and reviews have been featured or are forthcoming in Harriet’s BlogAfricanwriter.com, One Throne, JaladaPremium TimesOpen Society FoundationVinylBrittle PaperPremium Times, Pairie Schooner, Soar Africa and the New York Times. His first chapbook, Painter of Water, is published in the 2016 New Generation African Poets series by University of Nebraska and Akashic Books, New York.

This conversation oscillated between the sweet hotspot of Gaborone, Botswana and a quite glasshouse in Valley Forge, Philadelphia and later New York by email.

Gaamangwe: Gbenga, I recently came across your poetry, specifically the poems that won you the Brunel African Poetry Prize this year, I am in absolute awe. There is something transcendental, alluring and illuminating about your poetry. Particularly because your work meditates on love and loss, the two most powerful spectrum of human existence. Can you talk to me about your interest in poetry as a tool for your exploration and understanding of human existence, and why you are drawn to the subjects of love and loss? 

Gbenga: Gaamangwe, your opening question—the swirl and the generosity of it—
elicits poetry. So let me start by reading you a poem, one of my favorites:

 Requiem

Wole Soyinka

I shall sit often on the knoll
And watch the grafting.
This dismembered limb must come
Some day
To sad fruition.
I shall weep dryly on the stone
That marks the grave head silence of
A tamed resolve.
I shall sit often on the knoll
Till longings crumble too.
O I have felt the termite nuzzle
White entrail
And fine ants wither
In the mind’s unthreaded maze.
Then may you frolic where the head
Lies shaven, inherit all,
Death-watches, cut your beetled capers
On loam-matted hairs. I know this
Weed-usurped knoll.
The graveyard now
Was nursery to her fears.

A friend and I decided to commit that poem to memory years ago as an invocation of sort but also for its melancholic presence. I write, I think, essentially as an attenuation of my aloneness. Sometimes I get the feeling, that I what I do when I write is to ask: “Dear body, where does it ache? Where does it ache?” But this body does not necessarily have to be mine. There is a thread that connects us and allows us openings into the aches or traumas of others.

But the sum total of our lives are not just in sorrows. There is also joy, elation, the tender buoy of love, seduction, mercies.  I write of these things too. What I have found
particularly compelling over the years though is how the personal, the private is also essentially the universal. How my private histories of love and loss surprisingly mirrored that of the world or at least of the worlds around me. So that my landscape of exploration as an artist started to expand, dilating to include sorrows beyond the immediacy of my own, extending to capture the joys and hums from outside the narrow boundary of the surface “I”.

Gaamangwe: Gbenga, you have just reminded me of the profundity of poetry. Its power to explore and meditate on our placement in the grand space and scheme of our personal realities and that of the collective consciousness.

Human existence is fascinating but also awfully lonely and frustrating, perhaps because we are within it. Why are we here? Some days, I think I have half of the answers. I do know that poetry, literature, film, spirituality and humanity are all the things that inform me of myself in relation to All That Is. And in them, the aches, the hunger, confusion and the loneliness subsides. 

 Gbenga, what are some of the things that inform you of your human existence, and how do they influence your poetry?

Gbenga: To be a writer, I think, is to be aware. You live at this level of supercharged sensitivity. Historical and emotional. The private histories, the private traumas that arc around our lives, individuated and unindividuated, as humans living in the world. The continuum of our accumulated histories. Inherited ones, but also those ones we acquire within a life span, no matter how short. My thinking really is that when a human being—I or someone else—walk into a room there is an invisible cloud we carry with us. I tell myself that I ought to be sensitive, that I must make allowance; I must understand that what we have here is more than just the body or whatever has been offered on the surface, sensory level.

I carry a sense of geographies with me. A place is never just a place for me. I always find myself asking: what do we have here? What’s the hidden history of this place, what is beneath whatever façade of modernity, of current reality this physical landscape might be trying to wear on her face, what lies beneath it all? My friend, brilliant Indian poet Rohan Chhetri said “…..the way the fear of a people seeps into the clime of their soil, hardening, giving back nothing”. I’m drawn to these things.

I’m always asking who lived here? Who loved here?

Gaamangwe: Who loved here? Who lived here? There is so much philosophical profundity to this thought Gbenga. I think, perhaps this is the sum of human existence. To love and to live. To carry and to be all the places and times and humans we have loved and lived in. And in between love and life, within our psyche, our personhood, we have our traumas, our fears, our shadows, without forgetting our bliss, our innocence and our faith, albeit blind. Which really adds vulnerability and urgency to human existence.

 But how do we create a kinder world Gbenga? How do we stop the world from burning itself to debris?

 Gbenga: How do we create a kinder world? Who knows!

Did James Baldwin not say the role of literature is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden their answers? I take solace in my uncertainties.

But something Svetlena Alexievich said comes to my mind right now. She said, “What can art accomplish? The purpose of art is to accumulate the human within the human being”.

Perhaps if we accumulate enough of the humans in human beings and distill them in works of art, maybe we’ll move towards a kinder base in ourselves.
Gaamangwe: James Baldwin’s words reminds me of the other saying, ask the questions and live the answers. It seems that is all we can do. In all of our human history we are still asking the same questions, still attempting to understand who or what we are. 

In my personal attempt to understand my own personal existence, I had to do what you are saying. Collect all the humans within me, meditate on them, heal them and love them as they as are. To love them is the hardest part. Because love requires generosity to all the parts of the self, especially the ugliest parts. Love requires that we both witness and give voice and life and meaning to all the humans, broken and striving inside us.  Let us speak of love, what it means to you and how it informs your poetry? 

 Gbenga: A couple of hours before now, for no inexplicable reason other than the fact that I had some time to spare in between commute I decided to re-read James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of A Native Son” , I found myself  again (how many times now?) upended by the sinousidal flow of his lyrics and their prophetic leaps. Our consciousness has never been the same because Baldwin lived. But let’s talk about love. Baldwin himself said:

“Societies never know it, but the war of an artist with his society is a lover’s war, and he does, at his best, what lovers do, which is to reveal the beloved to himself and, with that revelation, to make freedom real”.

So here we have a very complicated love that is at once full of culpablity and vulnerability but also it carries the burden of prophecy,  of memory, of conscience, the calling unto repentance. It is this sort of love maze that the writer finds himself entangled in with his society.

Let me pivot a little. I do believe that I have never encountered a human being (in my imagination or in narratives or in real life and I do think I’m a keen observer of the patterns and tendencies of the human being) totally devoid of love. I do not believe that the complete absence of love exists as a human phenomenon. Some of the most brutal personages of terror and violences in our histories have also been people who loved their mothers or fathers or spouses or children or even animals. Or something.

What we do as humans, what we do is to construct artificial cities of the heart outside the boundaries of which we declare love cannot exist. In fact the epidemiology of hatred have always centered around love and not even hatred itself. When we create labels and call people those terrible identity tags as instrument of othering and we pass those things to our kids  (through subtle osmosis of the media or culture climate or even in some cases directly through propaganda). What we are saying to Junior is “Hey, little Junior we know there is so much love in you, we know there cannot but be love in you but please you cannot dare extend it to this person or such persons/people.

Hatred is not a concept in itself I think. I think it is what seeps in when there is the withdrawal of all the humanizing tendencies of love.

I do believe that my role as a writer, how love beckons me in this regard is to participate in the deconstruction of the facilities of “othering”. The rigid identity markers, the instrument of false dichotomies and fencing out. My role is to complicate your easy binaries. To add a hundred more colours to your unbelievably narrow spectrum of Black and White. This is love. I believe. All of it.

But let me wrap this up and perhaps in the process explore another dimension. One of my favourite songs in this world is “Georgia on My Mind” by Ray Charles. (Other arms reach out to me/other eyes smile tenderly/…the road leads back to you). Anytime Ray started singing that song, people were swayed and were never sure if he was singing about Georgia, his home state or Georgia, a woman he loved. Because in love there are multiplicities.

When the slaves had started to land in new, far away lands, scissored by large bodies of water away from the people they loved. They would sit by the shores and cry and wail and sing for the homeland, the old country from which they had been snatched, their voices pitching into night’s darkness like birds of grief. Home in that instance was the daughter that was sorely missed; home, the old country in that instance was the lover, the spouse whose touch the body had not yet learn how to forget; home was familiar smell, familiar cries. Because in love, in attachment there are multiplicities.

Love is a venture of faith. For love is always present from the very begining with the seed of it’s own attrition. The possiiblity is inherent. To not know this is not love, it’s ignorance. To say love, I know present in you is flaw and fallibility  and the seed for ache. But in me the bearer of this love, there is no faltering, no shadow of turning. It is of these things I write.

Gaamangwe: You are right in many of the words you said here, but perhaps what jumps to me is how all that which is not love is our own doing, wherein we really try and teach ourselves how to withdraw from the true nature of our humanness. And we try to withdraw from love, in the way of fear, anger, hatred and war because of our terrifying belief that we are powerless to life’s way. And in our misguided belief that we can and should shift life’s way. That we can have and should have only yang, without yin. But then we cannot deny the ways of being human, of becoming and unbecoming in this insurmountable and unbearable heaviness of life’s way.  

Now, I want to us to meditate on one of my favorite poems by you. It reads,

HOW TO LOVE             

This is how you love in war:
You put a bit of yourself in salt and water and
feed it to him. You make his hands write a map
that softens the night on your cheeks and then you
open a tiny follicle in his eyes and say Shabash, Shabash
Shabash. Shabash being your name, so that when
the city slips out of your hand and becomes the fire
you and your son are running from: he to the South,
you towards the North; you pray your last, knowing
he will live with your name singing in his eyes.


Take me here, Gbenga. Speak to me of how to love in war. And speak to me of your chapbook, Painter’s Water.
You wrote of war, of love, of memory, of the unspeakable, and the silence of humans in terror and love. I am interested in knowing, what this work meant to you, its origin and the seeds it wants to plant. 

Gbenga: The writer that I am is also the human that I am. That’s what I think at this stage of my creative career. So naturally the things that are important to me as a human being make it into the aesthetic explorations that I’m drawn to.

I have had the incredible luck of reading my works in great places of the world in recent times. And I’m so grateful and still in a daze about that.  At one of those readings and this is quite recent, I read the poem “HOW TO LOVE” and after the event and the immediate hubbub and chatter and exchanges and all, a woman walked up to me and in a quiet voice told me how much she was moved by the poem. This woman, I surmised, must be in her sixties. She asked if we could sit and talk. We did. She remembered the lines and went over them again, saying what this line did to her and what that meant to her etc. And I was sitting there thinking any moment from now she would say it. She would say it. That she had worked in war torn Darfur or that she had adopted a black kid from the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict. What she told me instead was that she had an estranged daughter. In her late twenties, a medical doctor, living two states away from her, with whom she had not spoken, hard as she had tried, in five years. She said she admits that there were experiences the daughter had as a child, later as a teen and finally in her early twenties (the details of which she didn’t tell me) for which she the mother might be blamed. But by God she had tried hard to remedy things. And when she heard me read the line about a parent and a child running in different directions, a sob had suddenly caught in her throat because she, in that instant, thought of her daughter.

A lot of things happen after readings: people slid you notes, people want to invite you over; some of the most amazing and generous friendships thus far have their beginnings in this; people send you copious emails. Variegated reactions. Some are remarkable. Some are not. But this particular experience with that woman stuck with me.

It was a completely different interpretation and engagement.

And now that I think of it, I’m reminded of what I had always thought that perhaps historians and writers, people of conscience and memory have always been drawn to chronicling the savageries and traumas of wars and conflicts because they—these wars, these conflicts— mirror  the ones within us with so much acuteness. The ones in the micro spaces of our intimacies and attachments. I think it is of these things that I write.

Gaamangwe: And these things naturally percolate into your creative outputs?

I have found myself in my young adulthood moving away from the spaces of factual knowledge as it were (dialectics, the science of opinions and numbers, for which I have solid training and upbringing) into the spaces of transformational knowledge, metaphors, the calling unto repentance through abstraction.

I have found myself wanting to move humans rather than instruct them.

My new persuasion is that factual knowledge is not what is lacking in the world. That the possibility of transformation is what we must now seek. The republic of kindness, of tenderness. Cornel West said “The condition of truth is always to allow suffering to speak”. I’m drawn to this. Eternally. My works basically map such human and aesthetic spaces. Human and aesthetics.

It was from such mental posture that I wrote poems like “HOW TO LOVE” and the bulk of the poems in my chapbook “PAINTER OF WATER”.

But as I conclude let me talk about ordinariness. Because ordinariness is very important to me. There is a book before me called “The Years of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion. Now, I’m suddenly reminded of one of the most compelling poems by Derek Walcott “PISSARO AT DUSK”. In that poem he painted a transformative portrait of ordinariness. But I digress. In Ms. Didion’s book, a dissection of her grief after such a tragic loss, she spoke of the “Ordinary instant” and dilated it with such heart and clarity.

In the bulk of the poems that was later pruned into what became my chapbook , there were poems about walking on Lagos streets, poems about hanging out with friends, poems about lovers, about bodies in such intensity, an ode to Lips, to my shoes, to my pens etc. because it is in such quotidian measures that our lives are lived. It is the human fact. But even in such poems like “HOW TO LOVE”, HOW MEMORY UNMAKES US, CITY UPON MANY WATERS etc. in which, as you said, I explored grief and loss, you will notice that they are solidly ensconced within the ordinary: kids in their hostel rooms, a mother feeding her child, people singing or dancing or walking down the road until the ordinariness is distended.

The ordinary is how we experience emotional highs. The contrast. Like someone singing alto in a choir of tenors. The alto stands out because the tenor does not. In fact the ordinary is how we measure horror. The pain of horror, of loss, of absence, I think, is often felt in the fact that the ordinary has been snatched away. I try to plot my arcs around the ordinary.

Gaamangwe: And here, is exactly why we yearn for poetry. This poetry. And that poetry. And your poetry. Yes, your poetry. Because here, we remember ourselves, our human hood, and our everydayness. It’s so easy to forget and hide the scars and the debris of our lives. 

So we thank poets, we thank your poetry, and the poetry yet to come, by you, and by all of us. 

So in this final reflection, if we find the painter of water, what will he paint? Essentially, what world do you intend to paint?  

Gbenga: I’m just going to quote a passage to you from Marcel Proust’s Contre Saint Beuve (Against Saint Beuve). I first came across this in a lecture by V.S. Naipaul years ago and it has stayed with me.

“The beautiful things we shall write if we have talent are inside us, indistinct, like the memory of a melody which delights us though we are unable to recapture its outline. Talent is like a sort of memory which will enable us finally to bring this indistinct music closer, to hear it clearly, to note it down …”

I read somewhere, I think, it was from Teju Cole, that “When we write fiction (and I think other genres too) we write within what we know. But we also write in the hope that what we have written will somehow outdistance us. We hope through the spooky art of writing to trick ourselves into divulging truths that we do not know we know”.

This sums it up for me. The use of abstractions, of metaphors to negotiate specific human and aesthetic spaces which is essentially the idea behind the Painter of Water.

Gaamangwe: Perfection.

Gbenga: This has been wonderful. Thank you.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The History and Future of Literature in Botswana: A Dialogue with Barolong Seboni

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Barolong Seboni is a poet and writer from Botswana. His works include Images of the Sun, Screams and Pleas, Lovesongs, Windsongs of the Kgalagadi and Lighting the Fire, and several other publications that include a play; Sechele I , and Setswana Riddles Translated intoEnglish. He received his BA from the University of Botswana and his Master’s Degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. He is currently a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Botswana. He has completed a translation of Setswana idioms and proverbs into English. He is also co-founder of the University of Botswana Writers’ Workshop and the Writers’ Association of Botswana. He is also the founding chairperson of the Petlo Literary Arts Trust, and founding editor of Mahube literary journal of the Writers’ Association of Botswana. He has creative works in poetry, dramatic writing, newspaper column writing, translation and radio.

This dialogue was held in Gaborone with Gaamangwe Joy Mogami and Bame Mogami.

Gaamangwe: First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to be part of this dialogue. You are one of the pioneers of Botswana Literature. You have done a lot in terms of growing Literature in Botswana. You have seen the birth and rise of modern literature as we know it now. Botswana is celebrating her 50th year of independence and this naturally invites us to look at our journey, specifically our journey in literature. What are your reflections on the history of literature in Botswana?

Seboni: That’s an interesting question because we have a course here in the University called Botswana Literature, where we explore, investigate, interrogate and teach the literature of Botswana from the mid 70’s up to now. We start from that period because we believe that’s when there was a great flourish of literary activity in Botswana, especially in Gaborone. The establishment of the Writers’ Workshop in 1974/1975 is a marker for this as it became a central point in the discourse of literature in Botswana. Part of the activities of the Writers’ Workshop at the time was to organise and share poetry performances for the community, to organise conferences and workshops on Botswana and African Literature. The other reason for the literature flourishing and burgeoning was because of the establishment of a creative journal called Marang. We do acknowledge that there was Botswana literature even before that but an avalanche of great literary activities began in the mid 70’s. We had more writers writing poetry and short stories. A few writers were also publishing in journals and magazines in Botswana, South Africa and abroad. We had newspapers & magazine interviews and on the BBC and Voice of America. So there was a lot of great activity. And that is why it’s important that as a country we have such institutions. They not only inspire older and younger writers, but they also give them importance, inspiration and some sort of structure they can fall back on.

However, before then the most obvious example of written literature is the bible, which was written in English and translated into Setswana. So that inspired not only literacy but also writing as well. When we talk about Botswana Literature, although I am concentrating on the literature that was written in English, we must always know and acknowledge that the original foundation of literature was in Setswana. And before that it was spoken in Setswana, in our folktales and storytelling.

But for this course of contemporary literature we start from the 70’s. One of the influencing factors for literature flourishing at that time was of course the war of liberation that was going on all over Southern African countries surrounding Botswana. The direct consequence was the influx of political refugees and other exiles into Botswana. And some of these were notably writers, poets, journalists and artists, in their own right. The war of liberation created impetus for creativity because a lot of the themes at that time were predominantly from the struggle of independence. The language was very fiery and revolutionary, written by Batswana, observing what was going on around them.

Even though Botswana was democratic, poets and writers showed concern for liberation in their work, because there was the question of how we were living with refugees and political exiles. There was an exploration of love relationships between Batswana women and South African political exiles. The couple falling in love but having issues of the man being in exile and involved in the liberation struggle.

Gaamangwe: Funny you say this because that theme is back now. There is a theatre play called Born Around Here, produced by Gao Lemmenyane. The play is about the exact scenario you are talking about. The play has been touring in both Botswana and South Africa. And it’s really good. It was just in Cape Town and people are being receptive to it because I think the dialogue of Batswana helping or being part of apartheid is something that many South Africans are unaware of. Or even us Batswana, we are not really truly aware of our role in it. So yes, continue.

Barolong: So, the struggle for liberation ceased towards the mid and late 80’s. Many countries within Southern Africa became independent and black people were ruling themselves except for few civil wars. So what then did Batswana write about? Well, the mid 80’s became the period of introspection for Batswana writers. We then started writing about our immediate environment, within our borders, our communities and our homes. The theme became more domestic, intimate, and introspective but still political and social, especially regarding internal political and social issues.

For example, a poem by the late Albert Malikongwa, about a seemingly mundane thing like a train journey from Gaborone to Francistown in a fourth class carriage. And he talked about the deplorable conditions of the state of the carriage. He talked about spit on the walls, dirt everywhere and then he says “This is good for the black man, this is good for you and me”, sarcastically of course. Obviously poking fun at the time where the railways were owned by Rhodesian Railways under Ian Smith. So there were racial issues going on as well, that writers talked about within Botswana. I must admit it wasn’t all peaceful then. In 1985, there was a disruption where South Africa Defence Force marched into Botswana and bombed places in Gaborone. So writers wrote about that.

Then we move to the early 90’s, where the literature showed for the first time the social phenomenon of the homelessness of street kids. Children who did not go home at night. That phenomenon started manifesting itself or at least writers, poets and civic societies started noticing and talking about it. Some of the people who started talking about it fearlessly and relentlessly were the women’s organizations. Because they were mothers, of course. So they were saying ; let’s pay attention to this. The writers and journalists were also talking about it in their literature and their newspapers. And the name “Bo bashi” came about, popularized because “Bashi” is every other boy, and at the time street kids were predominantly boys. So writers got on board with exploring issues of juvenile delinquency and homelessness.

There was of course always the theme of love in both poetry and the short story. We had the rich boy and poor girl narratives. But we didn’t have a major novel until Andrew Sesinyi wrote “Love on the rocks ” in the late 70s, early 80’s. It did really well. It went into the schools and people talked about it. He then came with the theme of carjacking, which was a phenomenon at the time, in his novel “Carjack”.

After Andrew Sesinyi, we had Unity Dow, who introduced a whole new thing of the female hero in the novel. The girl child at the center of society and events, whose story we then followed.

Gaamangwe: I have so many questions. So maybe we can start with the Novel. Because for me as a young person, I have interacted with mostly poetry and short stories from Botswana. But like you said the novel has been there since the 80’s. Even though it’s not so out there. I want to know, where is it now? What is the status for the novel by Batswana writers now?

Barolong: Well the novel has firmly taken root in Botswana and we have Andrew Sesinyi, Unity Dow, Lauri Kubuitsile, Toro Mositi and many others to thank for that. If you look very carefully you will see that some of them dabbled in short stories before they went full time into the novel. In fact, there is a book entitled Novels of Botswana in English written by Dr Mary Lederer, where she discusses novels written from 1930 to 2006. We should of course also speak about the ones written before independence by non-Batswana. We can claim Sol Plaatjie who wrote Mhudi and other things. He was a Tswana speaking South African in the time before the borders between Botswana and South Africa were defined. So we can even claim him in that sense. He wrote at the turn of the century, the first English novel by a black person in this region.

We also have institutions and structures like the Bessie Head Heritage Trust which organizes the annual writing competition and Petlo Literary Arts Trust which has found a niche in publishing Batswana writers . The Writers’ Association of Botswana founded in 1980, which is also linked to members of the Writer’s Workshop, has a huge impact on writing. Some of the people working on the craft of writing are members of the Writers’ Association of Botswana. So organizations like this are important because they have a huge role that they have played historically in sharpening writers on their craft.

Gaamangwe: How about the novelist of now? Because honestly I haven’t seen a novel that has been released by a Motswana writer that is also read by Africa and the rest of the world. If we think of other countries, we can say a lot about NoViolet Bulawayo from Zimbabwe, Chimamanda Adichie from Nigeria, and Ngugi wa Thiongo from Kenya. Where is our Botswana novelist?

Barolong: Batswana are very busy writing novels and short stories. It’s just that a lot of people don’t know about it. Because our media doesn’t talk about it. All those foreign writers you talked about, you heard about them on TV or you saw reviews of their books in international newspapers. And you read them because they are available in the bookstore.

We have two issues here. The lack of exposure that our writers experience. The media is doing its best but it’s never enough. The absence of non-commercialized and non-multi-corporate educational publishers. The publishers we have here publish only for the school. If it’s not in the schools you will never hear about it. The other problem is the most successful bookstores are foreign owned. They are multinational franchises controlled in South Africa. And they don’t put anything on their shelves that Cape Town and Johannesburg have not approved. If they are not in the system then it’s so hard to get them into the shelves of this multinational franchises. CNA, it’s impossible to get your titles there as a Motswana. And yet they have shops here. Exclusive Books is a bit better but it’s still not enough. They will limit you to five copies, if you are lucky as a local writer. And there will even put it behind the shelf as the mainstream/ South African authors are right in your face.

We have Smiths-Books Botswana, but it’s exclusively an academic book store, where they cater exclusively for University market. They are very good because although they are focusing on the university, they have a lot of titles by Batswana. They support literary competitions and donate to small organizations that want to publish local writers. We have benefitted from the collaboration with them. So that needs to grow. Unfortunately, the only indigenous bookstore that was doing well and exposing Batswana writers was Botswana Book Centre but there are not doing as well as they used to, both in publishing Botswana local writers and selling their works. So these are the problems we are having.

So now to answer your question, where are the Botswana writers in the Novel? They are there. There is Lauri Kubuitsile who has recently published “The Scattering”, a novel set in Namibia, and she is also famous for Murder for Profit, the novel which came out in 2008. Although she was born in the United States, is a Motswana, who lives and works in Botswana.

There is a novel by Christian John Makgala which came out in 2010 which is called the Dixie Medicine Man. It was quite a thick book, I can’t remember how many pages. And then there is a guy called Nsununguli Mbo who publishes outside Botswana. He is a medical doctor, with published novels such as Wrong Turn, The Crisis of the Heart and others. He has about five or six, so that’s quite substantial. And then we have Phidson Mojokeri’s Curse of the Dream published locally. We have Cheryl Ntumy who did The Crossing. Khonani Ontebetse who did Born with a Husband which was done by Pentagon Publishers in 2008. Pentagon Publishers is also a local publishing company. We have Tshetsana Senau’s Travelling to the sun: the diary of Ruth, Gasebalwe Seretse’s The Pursuit of Xhai and Andrew Sesinyi’s Rose of Birth, which came out in 2010. Yeah, we do have them but they are not out there. And that’s because of the problems that I told you about. They are published by small publishers, trusts or organizations. Some are self-published. And we don’t have a good distribution network like the commercial publishers do. And of course if it’s not in the school lists, it doesn’t get really far. It doesn’t sell.

Bame: So that kind of forces most writers in Botswana to write academic works. So my question is what are the themes that writers are writing about? Because I do read books but I don’t read a lot of Botswana Books because I don’t see them. And if I do read them it’s in school and I don’t think that I like reading in school that much. So I don’t really read with an open heart like “I am really enjoying this book”. So, what are writers writing about?

Barolong: Well from the titles I just read out it looks like writers are writing about all sorts of things. We just need to get the books and read them. We need to encourage the few books that are already here. We need to buy our local books. And now remember, Botswana literature has taken a new twist, well that twist has always been there. There are the indigenous native Botswana writers writing about their experiences in Botswana. And then there are outside, foreign writers who write about Botswana like Alexander Macall Smith from the No 1 Ladies’ detective novels. So there is that divide. Which raises the question; what is Botswana Literature? Which is a whole other conversation.

Gaamangwe: Yes. You spoke about indigenous languages or indigenous literature. Can we explore Setswana language and how that is interacting with the literary world?

Bame: Because like you said, the most known work is the Bible, which was translated from English to Setswana. And some of the things you have done are academic translation, from Setswana to English. So one of the things that I think about is Lost in Translation. Because when you do read a book that’s written in Setswana, and you are fluent in Setswana, you do understand what it means and you do understand what this person is talking about because that’s you. You have grown up in Botswana and you speak Setswana fluently. So the problem now when we come to this time, most people my age speak English and we don’t actually converse in Setswana. But my thing is why can’t we take books from outside and translate them to Setswana. So that we may get a reading culture. Because we were talking about how the publishers are having a problem with distributing your works as writers. So I think again, it’s because Botswana or Batswana do not have a reading culture. If we do read, we only read in a classroom setting and you just want to read that book in the classroom and go home and not think about it. So we have gotten to a point where Setswana is not a language where somebody will want to read the book or a literary work in. Someone will rather read a book written in English. And there is nothing wrong with that. But we are sort of losing ourselves in the process. We are losing Setswana as Batswana, because we don’t get to appreciate it. It seems like Setswana becomes an inferior language to English. My sister is a writer but she cannot write in Setswana but she grew up speaking Setswana. Why can’t she write in Setswana? And many, many other writers. Yet, there is nothing wrong with Setswana. There is a translation project recently done by Jalada Africa, where they turned one of Ngugi wa Thiongo’s short story into over 30 languages of Africa. A short story that was written in English and translated into other indigenous African languages. This included Kiswahili and other indigenous languages in Kenya, Igbo, Hausa, IsiZulu, IsiNdebele, Afrikaans and other languages in Africa.

Gaamangwe: And they are still inviting more people to translate the work to their native languages. Because Bame is right, you have done a lot of translation work, which is really amazing. You translated Botswana proverbs to English. So I think what she is asking is, what do you think about the fact that our translation is usually from Setswana to English not English to Setswana, and how that could actually change a lot in terms of where the literary world is right now. What if all your short stories and anthologies were translated to Setswana? Would that somehow increase or include more people and ultimately improve the reading culture?

Barolong: Well I don’t think so because even the works that are there in Setswana are only read in the schools. When was the last time you went to buy a Setswana novel?

Bame: I don’t remember.

Barolong: Exactly.

Gaamangwe: Because it’s academic.

Bame: And no one likes to read academic novels.

Barolong: No, no. There is a play called Motswasele II. It’s not academic, it’s just a dramatic play about Kgosi Motswasele of Bakwena. There is another one called Diphosophoso, which actually is a translation from the English Shakespearean comedy “Comedy of Errors”. Rre Raditladi wrote in Setswana, Prof M O M Seboni my grand uncle, wrote in Setswana several works but you don’t see them outside the classroom. There are poems, short stories and novels in Setswana that are available. That’s why I believe that even if you were to translate something from English to Setswana it still wouldn’t sell. Unless it was put on the school syllabus.

Gaamangwe: But what if you were not thinking of the value in terms of only selling but in terms of what it can do to literature? Yes, we are not sure if it will sell, but readership?

Barolong: I still don’t think a lot of people will read them. The fact is there are more books in Setswana than there are in English because Setswana has been written over a longer period of time, but we don’t know about them. Why is that?

Bame: Why do you think that is?

Barolong: That’s the conversation I want you guys to get involved in. If you are interested in Botswana literature, why don’t you go to the Book Centre and buy a book written in Setswana?

Gaamangwe: I think we were talking about it. I think it’s also about the themes you would find in literary works in Botswana. Most of the works that you find here are usually social commentaries. We are always commenting on what’s going on, whether it’s about the war of liberation or “Bo Bashi”.

Bame: We are writing from the community’s perspective.

Gaamangwe: Yes, and I think currently young people are interested in the individual. We are looking for more introspective works. The intrapersonal rather than the outside. This is why we were thinking if we were to change our narratives especially looking at what is happening right now. When you go to poetry shows, there is a lot of “I” and what is happening to me. The issues that happen to an individual on a personal level. And people do connect with that. So I think there is that need to have stories that are more personal.

Barolong: Why is there that need?

Bame: Because times are changing. The youth are mostly interested in the self. We do know about community lives.

Barolong: Really? Young people don’t know their history, their grandfathers and how they lived. Young people are not interested in anything before 1966.

Gaamangwe: We are. It’s just how you tell the stories. Let’s take Things Fall Apart for example. It was about colonization in Nigeria, this was a book that was written in the late 50’s. With all the books that I have read I still remember Okonkwo because what Chinua Achebe did was take the history of Nigeria during colonization not as this big, bulky thing, but rather individualized everything to Okonkwo and we see colonization through one person’s eye, and you can truly learn about the history of this era and the particular discourse through the individual. So in terms of the books written in Botswana, are they also like that?

Barolong: Well we wrote a historical play called Sechele I. Nobody outside the university knows about it. And yet it’s there. It does exactly what you are saying. It takes the character of Sechele, who was the king of Bakwena, and his encounter with David Livingstone. How Livingstone converted him to Christianity and how he rebelled. It’s the story of Christianity in Botswana. It’s the story of how he unified Botswana. He is considered the first person to unite the Tswana groups into a modern nation, long before Independence, in the 1850’s. He died in 1892. But it’s also a story of how Christianity separated us. Tried to separate us from our culture. And it’s told through this one character. So yes, we do have that. But people don’t know about it. And I wonder why. Well, I know why. We are back to the same thing of distribution of books. It’s only available here in the university. When Book stores order it, they only order ten copies because it’s not in the school curriculum. But then we are back again to what I said before. Are young people interested? Your answer is yes. If they were, they would know about it. Cause it’s all over the media. It was covered in the newspapers when it came out. I talk about it all the time when I get an opportunity.

Gaamangwe: I think it’s also about… you see as the youth we are selfish, so it’s also about taking it to where we are, and that’s social media. When you say newspapers, the youth don’t particularly read print newspapers now, which is sad.

Bame: We are living in a global village. I am not always looking on what’s happening in Botswana only. I am looking on what’s happening in South Africa, UK and America.

Barolong: But shouldn’t you start in Botswana? Should you say, like Gaamangwe said, I want to know more about how we came here. I want to know more about how we became Christians. Surely there must be something that is written. Then you Google it.

Bame: You do Google, but you don’t find anything. I was recently doing research on Land and Minerals in Botswana, and it was one of the most difficult and hardest research ever, because when you research something, about five things come up. But when you research about something in another country about ten thousand things come up. A lot of people comment. It’s not only academic work but also personal, where someone is sitting at home and they say, let me comment on this. So I think one of the problems is where we are coming from. The fact that we do works for academic purposes only. For example, has anyone ever done critical reviews on the Sechele book?

Barolong: You are right. There’s not been a lot of reviews. It’s a drama, nobody has taken the challenge to say “let me show people this on stage”. Sechele is an interesting play as I said, it interrogates the history of Christianity in Botswana. It asks the question; “did Sechele sell out when he converted?”. Because Livingstone made him divorce three of his wives and remain with one. He said if he didn’t do it then he wouldn’t baptize him. He also neglected his duties as rain maker when the people needed him most.

Bame: That’s interesting. So yeah, that’s what we are trying to say. We don’t have many people doing reviews and interacting with such important plays. So here is the thing, barge me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram because that’s where I spend most of my time. And I am really, really sorry that, that’s where I spend most of my time but I cannot apologize for that again because I am part of society as much as I am an individual. And right now that’s where I get most of my news and where the community interacts most. I do follow pages that do inform me about books and novels and the literary world on a daily basis, but I do not have pages from Botswana that do inform me about books, book reviews, press conferences and book reading where the novelist comes and shares with us what they were thinking when they were writing their story. So I think that’s the problem, why we don’t have a reading culture. And so I do think that if we did all these things, try translating our works to our languages and engaging with more of the youth in social media then we can change the world. I am being optimistic here but I do think we need more people who elevate and not just people who elevate people who are already elevated. We need more stories that talk about us and our experiences.

Barolong: Do you think if we translated these novels and plays into Setswana, more people would read them in Botswana?

Bame: For me, I think it has to start with the fact that we are writing stories for academic works only. But if we are to translate these works into Setswana and we don’t introduce them as something that you have to read and pass the exam, but we just introduce them as something for leisure. It’s as simple as that.

Barolong: Then they won’t read them, will they?

Gaamangwe: We need to cultivate that culture anyways. I think so. We were talking earlier that our grandmother reads a lot of the bible because I think it’s one of the few texts that is in Setswana, and other than the fact that she is Christian, I do think that she is at an age where she is meditating about life and human existence and whatever her life has been and I think that if she had an opportunity to read your “Windsongs of the Kgalagadi” poetry in Setswana, I think she would be open to that. Right now she can’t because she can’t read English.

Barolong: But why don’t you buy Setswana Books at the Book Center ? The Setswana Books are cheap by the way. Maybe because they are there on the shells for a long time so they reduce the price, or because they are bought in bulk for schools.

Bame: That’s true. But also I think the change has to be big and so we also need to change the narrative. I really do like reading African stories but one book that I think is really good is Across the Bridge by Mwangi Gicheru. It wasn’t about the single story of Africa. You know the usual stories about sufferings, wars, colonization and all those really depressing parts of our realities. And it’s okay, those are part of who we are. We are not saying forget it. But it doesn’t always have to be about that.

Barolong: What was it about?

Bame: It was about a boy who was a criminal who fell in love with a girl. So he didn’t have money to support the girl so he went back to robbing banks because he wanted to impress the girl. At the end of the day it was so beautiful because Mwangi was like he is like “moth to flame”. He keeps going back to the bad things even though he know they are going to burn him. And the girl was his flame. And it was a love story in Africa. Not set in the old times like Lentswe la Baratani. It was just so modern. And they are people like that living in Africa who actually do steal because they want to impress a girl. It’s very well written. It was a simple story.

Gaamangwe: It was also not a social commentary. Also coming from the fact that the story was told from the criminal himself. It just brings a new thing here, because it’s no longer about “oh look at the criminal and what he is doing”. It’s about see the reality of this character, who typically will not be a hero but in this story they are a hero. In this way we get to learn about human existence and human realities. And understand other people. I think Literature is supposed to do that.

Barolong: Yes. It is meant to do that.

Gaamangwe: So bringing this to Botswana, how do we change the state of literature such that we have a lot of people reading our work, people writing novels that become well-received and read by Batswana and other Africans?

Bame: Say someone writes a book and it is so received by Batswana. Obviously one of the other factors is the population in Botswana. But if it is well received and it has great reviews, there is going to be a demand for it to be translated to other languages. Just like the Jalada Translation project. So maybe we need to change our narratives. I think it won’t be easy but it can be done.

Gaamangwe: Yes. Barolong, you have done so much in different platforms for literary works and also interacted with other creatives in different spaces. What have you learnt in this endeavour? What are the pros and cons for literature in Botswana?

Barolong: Yeah, as I have said we have a lot of challenges. Mostly structural and systemic. And they are outside our control. We can only write. Our duty is to write. The other aspects such as book selling, distribution, buying and the economy are beyond our control. All we can do in order to facilitate our writing and our books getting out there is to appeal to the superstructure. And say “what are you doing for the creative industry or let’s partner with you, superstructure”. And create a viable and creative industry. Let’s talk about the economic structure of the creative industry as an alternative to Diamonds and agriculture and other businesses. And also create less dependency on dominant industries by creating alternatives. We have identified that nurturing the creative industry and creating a viable industry is part of the solution to a vibrant economy.

Look at the chain of this industry; writer, publisher, printing, distribution, book selling and the reader. If government focused on developing it, by injecting some funds into all these different components, it then becomes a machine that replicates and duplicates itself. Then once the initial injection is done in the next generation it will run itself. I mean Hollywood is running America. That’s the creative industry.

Bame: The arts are very important. I mean even during Hitler’s time the arts were something he was interested in. He is not a great example but Germany in the 20’s and 30’s was great because of that. They believed in the arts and concentrated on that. So America took over after the fall of Germany. So that’s what we know about America, the arts. So we really have to focus.

Gaamangwe: Yes. Another point is that this systemic issue is not just a trend in Botswana. It’s almost all over Africa. You find that some of the writers considered successful have published outside Africa. This begs us to ask, to be successful as a writer do you need to leave Africa and go to America where the literary world is thriving and the system in place is established? Which is not a good thing because I do think that it’s important that we do things by ourselves here at home and try by all means to build this creative art form. But the way things are right now… Successful writers are either based outside Africa or they have been published outside Africa. And this doesn’t apply to established writers only. Upcoming authors are participating in competitions that are outside their own countries. Do you find that this trend is also common here in Botswana?

Barolong: Yes, this looks like a trend because African writers are finding that in order to really crack it big time they have to publish outside. Lauri Kubuitsile’s recent book is published by a multinational corporate, this means it will reach a wider readership. It was launched in Namibia, maybe because it’s set there. Also in Maun. Kubuitsile is one of our most consistent and widely published writers. Wame Molefhe is another, also published outside. So the way to grow this industry is by encouraging the small publishers. Let’s get local works into the syllabus because they are good. And also this will give writers that push.

Gaamangwe: That’s true. Like why it is that Sechele wasn’t studied in school?

Barolong: Who knows? But we did submit it.

Gaamangwe: I don’t know, are they still doing Goggle Eyes in high school? Because this is the other thing, why aren’t we changing our syllabus regularly with new works by Africans, by Batswana writers for our Batswana students to study? This is very important because this is part of our history.

Bame: I also really like your translation of Setswana riddles book. It reminds me so much of our childhood because we used to play this games as kids but I don’t remember any of them now.

Gaamangwe: We didn’t know what they meant as kids. And so it’s amazing when you read something and you get the meaning of what you were saying all along. This reminds me of Khutsie Kasale’s article about how Setswana is a spiritual language. She was saying ,for example, how we often think of the word Dumela as just hello, when essential it means To Believe. And so when you say Dumela to someone, you are saying I believe in you, I acknowledge you. That is really powerful. Setswana is more spiritual than we realize. And I only learnt this through this creative work. So I do think that meditating and translating our proverbs, riddles and idioms is vital. Also it expands your own understanding of our identity. Where we come from.

Barolong: I agree. We address these concerns through Sechele I. You see here, it is written in English but the English is such that an Englishman will say “what kind of English is this?”. It’s the type of English that is infused with Setswana thinking. The way the character speaks is not in the English of England. It is the English of Setswana. That’s what we are experimenting with. We want to come up with a language which on the surface can be called English but it’s much deeper than that. It is a language like what Chinua Achebe did in Things Fall Apart. It is a language that carries a lot of Setswana and its culture in it. Let me give you an example.

The backstory is this; Mosielele was the chief of Bahurutshe, those who settled in Manyana. And he was running from the Boers. In those days, there was no Botswana as you know it. It was the land of Sechele. The land of Kgama. The land of Bathoeng. There were actual countries. So the minute you cross the river by Ramotswa, you were entering Sechele’s country. Mosielele was afraid of the Boers so he crossed that river. Sechele then received him but the Boers were after him. So they approached him. So this is how the dialogue goes;

Boer Commander: Where is Mosielele? We want Mosielele, why won’t you give him to us?

Sechele: We have spoken words between us, me and Mosielele. I have swallowed his words, he has eaten mine. We are not like you white people who have no respect for words. You keep them in paper and capture them and imprison them in the walls of your pens. You drowned them in your ink and create the magic of meaning through papers and books but you have no respect for words. You trap words in trite and agreements and then you unleash them to grab tracks of lands and minerals and cattle that do not belong to you. You hide meaning in the forest of words, in pages of laws but you do not obey this words. You do not honor your own treaties and agreements and laws and, and how can I say this? … And policies. Recently, you have spoken secretly to the British and written an agreement that stops all black people from buying guns without even telling us. Mosielele has taken my words and I have swallowed his. He thrives on the words that I have fed him, in the cradle of my stomach, that is my policy, that is my trite, those are my words.

Boer Commander (agitated): Is it war you seek with us? Your actions are only leading to war. Surrender him because we know you have him.

Sechele (very slowly and raising his spear and pointing at the commander): Mosielele is in the belly of a cannon. A cannon, you are stoking, a cannon that will soon explode. I am that cannon. He is the sediments that lies at the bottom of the Kolobeng River and you seek to disturb the stillness of his waters. Mosielele is within me. I carry him in my womb like the cow that will give birth to bullocks …. and so on and so forth.

Gaamangwe: Wow. It’s amazing. Oh my God.

Bame: I do get it! Because this is how Batswana speak. So you did a sort of direct translation into how we actually speak.

Gaamangwe: This is amazing. You should also translate it to Setswana and have this play at the theatre because people should know about our history, especially right now. Botswana is going to a new era, the last part of the century. It’s important to know our identity. It’s important to know how this story has affected us, who we are right now. Because most of the time we do not know but our history does affect us right now. So this book is amazing.

Barolong: Yes. And it is based on actual events, although the words are twisted here and there.

Gaamangwe: I do think people will read if it was in Setswana. That question you asked earlier. I think they would. I think if this was in the academic syllabus in high school. I think people might get interested in Literature because this isn’t constrained to just moral education, it’s a very creative work about our history. This is what I was talking about with regards to Things Fall Apart. It’s the same to what Sechele can do. So it’s amazing and exciting that this work exists. And we don’t know about it. Now, let’s talk about Petlo Literary Arts trust, you founded this?

Barolong: Yes. Petlo Literary Arts Trust is a registered trust with government. Its objectives is to support and encourage creative arts in Botswana through workshops. To find a niche in the publishing world and publish creative works by Batswana, on a small scale. We are also liaising and collaborating with other writers in and outside Botswana. And lastly, we aim to acquire land in Botswana to establish a writer’s village. We have found a piece of land along the Okavango River, can you imagine? So we have the land, we just need sponsorship to build the writer’s retreat village.

Gaamangwe: That is so poetic. That is so amazing because many writers need space to do their creative work. So Okavango River, will just be perfect for this. What Petlo is doing is important because as we discussed we need establishment like this that will help in the process of writing. So you guys are doing a great work. Literature is so vital, for every community because it tells us of who we are. It tells us of where we have been and who we can become. Because you have to look at your past and make an informed decision. Literature can serve as that. Oral storytelling has always been in our culture, but now we also need to document our stories. In Print as well as online. And have Batswana and the rest of the world read our work. So now, tell me about Thinking Allowed?

Barolong: Thinking Allowed is a collection of articles I wrote for a column I had when I was writing for newspapers such as The Guardian, The Gazette and The Sun. It’s basically humor,using satire and sarcasm to comment on the social and political situations in Africa and particularly in Botswana. We published the collection after six years. First publication was in the 1990’s, second time was about 5 years ago, so now it sold out so we need a reprint. Thinking Allowed is a precursor to another column that became popular called Nitty Gritty with The Guardian and Mmegi. It’s also a social column based on an imaginary Shebeen that these characters go to everyday, and they discuss politics, life, religion, sex and relationships. It’s also satirical. We have been doing that for almost twenty years. So now we are planning on publishing it.

Gaamangwe: That’s sounds like important and exciting projects. So my last question. You have done everything, which is very impressive because to strive in this field in Botswana is a big deal. To keep writing in all formats and in all opportunities that you find. You have made sure you keep doing what you love, which is impressive and commendable. So what is your hope for the future? What do you hope for Botswana and for Botswana Literature?

Barolong: I hope that government, and the nation will realize the importance of literature. Literature is a way that we can have the whole world know about us in a truthful way. Literature is the opposite of everything that is propaganda, everything that is not good. Literature is the highest form of civilization. We measure a nation’s progress through its literature. You get to the deeper psyche of the society by reading its literature. Nobody is going to know us through our politics, because that’s temporary. Nobody is going to know us through our economy because that changes every day. The world will know us, who we really are, warts and all, through our literature. Because that’s long lasting, that’s eternal. We know about the ancient Greeks and ancient Rome through their literature and arts and architecture. We are not concerned about their politics and economics. That has fallen and risen and fallen. But their art, that has lived forever. It’s living through their literature.

Also, in order to have economic diversification, we need to focus and develop the creative industry. That needs an initial injection from Government. But after that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is a self-generating machine that will in the end put bread on the table of lots of Batswana. We talked about the USA and other nations where a major part of the economy comes from the creative industry. And for us Botswana, it is important at this point in time for us to find and explore alternatives to our economic diversity.

Gaamangwe: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Thank you so much for allowing us to hold this conversation on such a vital topic, also on the most important time of our history.

Bame: Thank you for allowing me to be here.

Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, screenwriter, playwriter and founder of Africa in Dialogue. Bame Mogami is a law student at the University of Botswana, I AM AFRICA Fashion Initiator, and guest interviewer for this dialogue.