20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, the first independent African anthology to focus only on poetry from across the continent, arrived in November 2018—the ninth e-anthology Brittle Paper has published. The brainchild of a team of Nigerian poets and creatives—Ebenezer Agu; D. E. Benson; Gbenga Adeoba, finalist for the 2018 Brunel Prize; the visual artist Osinachi; and Chisom Okafor, finalist for the 2018 Brittle Paper Award for Poetry—the project was guest-edited by Brunel Prize winners Gbenga Adesina and Safia Elhillo, and collects verses by thirty-two poets including Brunel Prize winners Liyou Libsekal and Romeo Oriogun, Brittle Paper Award for Poetry winner JK Anowe, and Winter Tangerine magazine founder Yasmin Belkhyr.
In the stimulating conversation below, two of the contributors, Cheswayo Mphanza and Nkateko Masinga, discuss trauma, language, identity politics, affective fallacy, and the poems in the anthology.
Nkateko Masinga is a poet from Pretoria, South Africa. Her work has been supported by Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. She is currently a 2019 writer-in-residence at the Ebedi International Writers Residency in Nigeria.
Cheswayo Mphanza was born in Lusaka, Zambia and raised in Chicago, Illinois. His work has appeared in the New England Review, Prairie Schooner, American Literary Review, RHINO, and elsewhere. He has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Callaloo, Hurston/Wright and Cave Canem.
Hey Nkateko. First off, how are you and where are you in the world right now?
Hi Cheswayo. I am very well, thank you. I am currently in Nigeria, a writer-in-residence at the Ebedi International Writers Residency in Iseyin, Oyo State. This is my third and longest visit to West Africa in as many years. In preparation for my 2019 tour, I am fleshing out my new performance art piece called “Wither/With Her”, which was selected for the 2019 ANT Mobility Travel grant by Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council.
“Wither/ With Her” deals with the relationship between mental illness and creativity, and how we can often gauge the mental state of a writer by reading their work but are often too far removed from their lives to interact beyond engaging with the art. So, my piece is about allowing the audience to wither with me as I share my experiences through spoken word.
When Ebenezer Agu approached me to take part in this conversation, I went online to read your poems in Columbia Journal as well as your interview with the Hurston/Wright Foundation. I have always been of the belief that we meet fellow writers through their work first, and I loved yours immediately. In a poem in Columbia Journal, you talk about ‘the torn torso of New York’s boroughs’ and it took me back to my time in the U.S. last year. I had an unlimited metro card and on my off days, I loved taking the ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan and then taking the subway to Brooklyn, then Queens. Sometimes I would go to Coney Island and spend the day at the beach. Despite the noise and bodies always in motion, I felt incredibly lonely in New York, a longing for home constantly gnawing at me. I know you were raised in the U.S. so a lot of your work is informed by your experiences there, but was your loneliness in that poem, as you scoured the five boroughs, brought on by a longing for home? Also, where are you currently?
Naija! I’ve been binging on Niniola’s music videos for the past week and trying to see when I can make a trip there in the near future—or anywhere on the continent. I have not been anywhere near the continent since I left Zambia in 2002. The residency sounds ideal for you preparing your 2019 tour. With your performance art piece, it is interesting to see how a lot of the poets I know are intersectional. And maybe that comes with being a poet specifically because poetry is a genre of art that is really contingent on being conversational with other genres. Be it epistolary writing or ekphrasis writing, poetry is always about trying to form a sense of centrality in terms of what can be accessed—to be intimately broad.
Your project sounds like it is very much in conversation with New Criticism in terms of the affective fallacy. Something a lot of the modernists were dealing with. And maybe part of the privilege of their conversations about the separation of the holistic individuality of the artist from their art was based on them not really having to think about their whiteness extensively. Which is a privilege that seldom few writers of color can engage in—if they can? I like how you phrase it, “allowing the audience to wither with me”. So, I ask: Is art for you—and I guess this is also in conversation with your poem in the anthology—about that reconstruction of the fragmented while inviting the gaze of the spectator, or can those things exist separately and is it okay for them to exist separately or collectively?
I appreciate the affirmation in those poems of mine, but, really, I am a bit embarrassed by them. I wrote those poems in my undergrad years and so much of my writing back then was affect driven. Which is probably how most poets start out and their writing after that is really having a sense of control or balance between their affect and logic in their approach to the work. At least that is how it is for me. Those poems felt rushed too in the sense of just having something out there. I did not really think about craft that much. I didn’t read criticism or poetics. Which is what I am doing now with the writings of Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian, and other L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets.
I’m currently back in Chicago for a year or two, working and finishing up the last leg of what I am hoping to be my debut book. The book is really stemming from my love of ekphrastic writing and how to extend or transcend it. The last leg of it is the title poem which is part long cento and part fragmented pieces of my own writing. I appreciate the cento form because it is really a lesson in learning to read, re-read, and writing as revision. I am hoping to have a first draft of the book by the end of April or early May, then spend the summer editing. And take it from there.
I am glad we are both tethered by that New York experience. Ha ha. New York was hard for me because it really does not let you see yourself. I was seeing myself in contrast to what other people were doing. I find it much easier being in Chicago, where I immigrated to in 2002. It is a big city, but there are so many gaps—in terms of how systematically and institutionally neighborhoods are spaced out from one another—that it allows you to have a space you can claim or imagine as yours.
The poem you read in Columbia Journal is not so much about loneliness as it is about longing. And that longing was for a form of stability. It was written at a time when I was really struggling with my own mental health, which was refreshing to see in 20.35 Africa: An Anthology of Contemporary Poetry, with poets such as Akpa Arinze articulating on a subject that was/is so repressed by so many Africans due to how we have internalized our various post-colonial traumas. And how those traumas have effected/affected how we articulate whatever qualms we have. It makes me wonder about how you see the anthology in the context of the voices, poetics, aesthetics, and linguistics it represents with the writers included? Which poems in the anthology brought a sense of familiarity to you, expanded something for you about this ever-evolving thing we call being African or of Africa?
Your debut book! That is so exciting. I love the cento form and I look forward to seeing how you will have merged that with pieces of your own writing when the book comes out. What I appreciate most about contemporary poetry is the acknowledgement of form as a necessary tool in learning to write but also as a point of departure; we can break the rules because we know what they are. On that note, I must confess I only learnt about ekphrasis last year, even though I have been responding to visual prompts for much longer. Is there a name for that: using something and not knowing what it is called? Is that not what losing language does to us, renders things useless because we cannot call them what they are in the setting we are in? Is that the fear you have about going back to Zambia after seventeen years? “The intimacy of language I’m severed from”, your poem says. Is that the fear, that you have lost the language and therefore have lost everything that binds you to the place?
In “Prodigal Son”, you juxtapose the story of Diouana in La noire de… and Sili in La petite Vendeuse de Soleil with your own experiences as a Zambian in America. Is there a part of you that imagines what your life would have been like had you never left Zambia? Is that what you see in Sili and Diouana, a comparison of the fate of the native and immigrant? If one must suffer, is it better to suffer at home or far from home?
About my poem in the anthology, it comes from an experience I had during my fourth year of medical school at the University of Pretoria. It was my psychiatry rotation and my rotation group was visiting a private sector psychiatric clinic that had a chapel on its premises. It was beautiful. The chapel had a mosaic on the floor and when I walked in, I imagined myself as a patient at the clinic praying for healing at the chapel, then as a person wanting to get married at the same chapel. I wrote “Genesis” as an exploration of what you aptly called “reconstruction of the fragmented”. Does the brokenness of a mentally ill person make them unworthy of having access to certain spaces in the way that “normal” people do? Can I claim a space that society has reserved for the sane, for those able to give consent to what is done to and with their bodies? I think it was a time when I was thinking a lot about reclaiming spaces. As a mentally ill person, stepping into that space not as a patient but as a doctor-in-training, I felt a sense of victory over my own suffering.
Simultaneously, I was dealing with being a black student in a traditionally white institution and fighting the battle against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction during ward rounds and lecture halls. I was constantly aware of how the space was not designed for people like me to succeed and yet I had to make it because so much depended on it. You spoke about poets of color not having the privilege to disengage from their lived experiences. I felt that. My work stems from personal experience, although I try hard not to put myself at the center of every narrative.
On the topic of affective fallacy, I keep rereading Nica Cornell’s “Thirteenth” in the anthology because it speaks to me on an emotional level. I cannot engage with the poem in any other way except to cry and read it again. Perhaps a person who has not been personally exposed to sexual violence would read it very differently from me and that’s okay, because I think it should be alright for a poem to exist separately from its writer and therefore open to interpretation, so as not to out people who are processing traumas they are not ready to talk about off the page. I felt as if this poem should have come with a trigger warning. Except that trauma is our default setting here.
Tariro Ndoro’s “Asphyxia” affirms that trigger warnings are useless in Africa because the truth itself is triggering and “no one is safe here”. This is the part that gripped me: “there is no rest for the living, the dying, the dead in black skin. . . .” In Afua Ansong’s “Reincarnation” is perhaps the answer to this: we will die and come back. Of the language struggle, Lillian Akampurira Aujo says, “my tongue is cut” and it is in this violence of the act of being maimed that we find the words for what it means to lose home.
The poems I have mentioned speak to me because they highlight how disposable the black body has become in Africa. There is a gruesomeness I find strangely comforting in poems that talk about the reality of living here, as if someone sees the political turmoil in South Africa and is saying, “Hey, it’s not just you.” Do you find that Africans living in Africa write about home differently from those in the diaspora? Is there a pattern? How does this play out in the anthology and is this important? Someone once told me that all poetry is political, so whose politics do you engage with as an African in the diaspora—that of the old or new home?
Ah yes, I definitely agree in the sentiment of form “as a point of departure”. Which is really the vision behind the Oulipo poets who mean a lot for me in taking risks. It is a different type of writing that is reliant upon carving new air into tradition, but still having that balance of risk taking and accessibility. That in-between space that is so hard to occupy. Really, I think ekphrasis is the most guiding form that every writer abides by. In its strictest sense, it is writing responding to visual art, but it is really writing that is responding to any art in how we have come to see it. By default, I think we are intertextual people.
That is a great question about the loss of language. Language is really accessibility. It hinges upon so many possibilities. I am in that weird space of being able to somewhat understand my native language and verbalize a few words, but to be at length is a different story. I would not say that it is fear as to why I have not returned. It is a long story of immigration policies, understanding family in all its aspects, and whether once an immigrant becomes a citizen of his/her country how much of themselves do they see in their previous country? I want to return to Zambia for sure, but there are so many socio-politics surrounding my return that returning would not necessarily mean the same for me as it would mean to most people who make their way back home every now and then. The return would be more or less governed by this desire to fully grasp a part of my early self that was severed from Zambia. A part of me that wants to understand the country more in its history, politics, and economics.
I migrated when I was eight and, in some regards, I feel more tethered to America. Which is something I felt uncomfortable saying earlier in my life out of the fear of losing some imagined African credibility. So much of the idea of nationhood for the fellow immigrants I grew up with involved constantly performing their identity politics in order to prove to themselves that they have not lost home—themselves. (Knowing all the latest African dances, speaking in pidgin, and having an opinion or two on the geopolitics of each African country). And I partook in those performances, and catch myself even now when I am performing some form of an Africanness in front of other Africans, but the truth is I feel American, which is different from being American.
It is not about claiming allegiance to any particular space, but part of what I feel I am in; whatever identity politics I express has to do with being able to occupy a multitude of spaces and be comfortable. And maybe I am contradicting myself there, but I can’t help it. That’s what immigration does to an individual. Ha ha. It makes a contradicted being in the sense that one has a geopolitical origin, but finds home in another space. In terms of imagining what my life would have been like if I never left, I don’t know if I ever seriously thought about that. I have only recently been able to imagine Zambia again through my writing. I lived a good life in Zambia, but I credit being an immigrant as giving me a nuanced life.
I was re-reading “Clothing” by Aremu Adams Adebisi in the anthology and I was like, wow, I was also an African in Rajasthan bargaining with vendors over “cashmere” saris and camel skin bags to take home, and felt somewhat comfortable doing so. I guess what I am trying to say is that I am not shocked by spaces because of being an immigrant. The rapture of losing home at eight years old when I came to America gave me this subconscious preparation that I should always be ready to be uprooted. I have lived in the suburbs, cities, and villages of Zambia. I was raised on the south side of Chicago and went to school in white ass Vermont, and then spent five months of my life in India attempting to learn Hindi. And every part of that felt somewhat natural for me to adjust to, as tumultuous as some of those moments were. You went to med school? Oh my god, what haven’t you done? I like that nuance in your poem for getting into some of disability poetics within African writing.
Again, I think part of our post-colonial traumas as Africans are about how we have internalized certain aspects of who we are as shameful because we are unable to reconcile them as being human components. So, when I read J. K. Anowe’s “Tender Crow’s Feet”, I’m like YES! The poem reminds me a lot of Ousmane Sembene’s Moolaadé which dealt with Female Genital Mutilation. And Anowe’s poem continues that conversation of how African women don’t have possession or accessibility to their bodies. And how part of that is what we have problematically normalized as inherent African culture. Which is a poem that is a lot in conversation with Nica Cornell’s “Thirteenth”.
And it is interesting you say trigger warning because I vividly remember a friend of mine saying, “As Black people, we inherently have triggered bodies”. And while I agree that trauma is part of our lives as Africans, I think it’s also careful to not see that as a point of us being desensitized to whatever grotesqueness happens and hinge upon “Oh we are black and that it is our way of life”. And maybe what unsettles me in that sentiment is because it sort of goes back into this performance of blackness where we might conflate blackness as this singular entity, that being Black is solely based on suffering.
So, as you find those particular poems comforting for their “gruesomeness” in the reality of living there, I wonder if that is the only way in which Africa can be read. I ask because those readings and understandings of Africa become conflated as to being its sole reality and we continue to reinforce that Western gaze that is always projected onto the continent as a place of toxicity, which is why I find comfort, or perhaps nuance, in Lillian Akampurira Aujo’s “A Dream in English” for its struggle with the idea of ancestry and memory. It sort of challenges my own assumption of whether the severance of language has to be the only way in which we define loss and accessibility to a community—country? What transcends language? And this sentiment is further explored in Yasmin Belkhyr’s “& I Mourned What I Could Not Name” when she writes “When I return, the land spits at my feet/ There is no shame in this, I’m told…/ Contrary to ache, I still know nothing of guilt”.
This is not to say those poems are in direct conversation of their objectives, but there is a shared conceptual map in terms of existing and being that resonates with me. Outside of those politics we readily assume of African writing, I really appreciate Malak EL-Quessny’s “Acacia” for its linguistic milieu. Or Sarah Godsell’s “Ten Lessons in Bleeding” which deals with menstruation and in that subverts or challenges patriarchal normalizations of decency. And again, that idea of decency goes back to the shames we have inherited. M. E. Mustafa’s “Poem to be read from Right to Left” picks on The Arabic form by Marwa Helal. This emphasis on the politic of the poem as being form is really interesting for me because I think at times affect becomes the over-reliant mode in which we as writers think a poem only functions.
I am also interested in how though this is an “African” anthology, a lot of the poets in this anthology push the boundaries of what Africanness means by reaching into various parts of the diaspora to draw inspiration. Instances: Olatunde Osinaike’s “When My Mother Speaks of New Edition” or Tariro Ndoro’s “Asphyxia” which begins with an epigraph quoting Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come”.
I guess what I am trying to get at is, there is a profoundness in what I see as writers who happen to be African versus writers who are writing as an attempt to emphasize their Africanness. Those are two different conversations and two different politics. And maybe one is not better than the other, but there are certain things that are lost or become at stake when a writer settles into particular frames of their responsibility as a writer outside of producing good writing. And perhaps this maybe goes into your latter questions of patterns. There is a difference between what writers living in Africa are writing versus that of those living in the diaspora. And that is not to say either/or is better. As an African living in Africa you are writing about your lived experiences within those spaces and how you have positioned yourself within those spaces. And your accessibility towards people, customs, or whatever may have you in regards to what is shaping your African identity looks different.
As an African who has lived across the diaspora for quite some time, I seldom see myself as solely tethered to an African identity because of the various influences of people, culture, spaces and places. So, my lived experiences become processing the various contexts in which I occupy. And I am also someone who has been part of institutions that have emphasized Western literary training as well as a global literary training, which is something that can exist with living in Africa as well as across the diaspora. So, yeah, there are differences in lived experiences, but if there is anything that the anthology teaches me it is that the common goal is really exceptional writing. And we could get into the politics of what that means, but I think turning to the anthology again gives a good groundwork of what our concerns are. To write clearly. To write with nuance. To write intimately. To write intertextually.
And as for your last question as to what politics I engage with as an African in the diaspora, I don’t think it’s about whether I can choose or not. I simply engage in politics by being. Those politics of being are always going to be imposed on me and if I let them dictate what my concerns are as a writer, one of the few places in which we can create and restore, then I am doomed as a writer. I’ll write about what the hell I want to write about. Flowers. Cinema. Glissant. Wilson’s Snipe. Miyazaki, etc. Do you feel bound to certain tropes as someone who identifies as an African writer?
I can relate to the notion that the loss of language is a loss of accessibility. I went to Model C schools (former whites-only government schools in South Africa) because my parents wanted me and my sisters to have a better education than they did under the Bantu Education Act, which enforced racially segregated educational facilities during Apartheid. As a result of this, we only spoke Xitsonga, our father’s native language, at home and with family members when we visited the township I was born in.
The move to Model C schools means moving to the suburbs too because the daily commute between the two worlds (of black and white South Africa) is too long and too expensive. It was an uncomfortable uprooting, but my parents were convinced that it was for the best. I tried to speak English with my parents those first few months because my teachers encouraged us to practice the language, but at home we all found that there is an unkindness and abruptness that came with my tongue learning English and my mother often would say, “I don’t pay school fees for you to disrespect me”.
At school, teachers would find black students huddled in small groups during break time sharing stories and would disapprovingly say, “Speak your home language at home. Here, we only speak English”. At first, there was that awkward switching from a ‘home’ language to English whenever a teacher was approaching us, but eventually we succumbed to the pressure and were placated by comments such as “You speak so well”, which in many ways is the juvenile equivalent of statements such as “You’re not like the others”, and we began speaking English exclusively to not lose our new-found credibility.
In “& I Mourned What I Could Not Name” by Yasmin Belkhyr, I have found the perfect way to describe what happened to me, to my tongue: “They beat our tongues smooth”; “I teeth the language, pocked and bloody”. Over time I lost access/the ability to relate to old friends in the township because they began to refer to me as a coconut (brown on the outside, white on the inside) because of my “Model C” accent. It is strange how language can be both inviting and alienating. It is true that one has an origin and then makes a home elsewhere. Few of us end up settling where we were born, and while some of us just move to another town or state, others move to the other side of the world and it is in us trying to bridge the gap between the new home and the original home that we begin what you describe as a performance of Africanness—to reassure ourselves and others that we are not lost, we have merely travelled. You said that leaving home at the age of eight gave you a subconscious preparation that you should always be ready to be uprooted and this takes me back to the introduction to the anthology where Safia Elhillo says, “While so many markers of my identity shifted—my nationality, the language I acquired for my race, my language—Africanness remained the only constant, the only identity that survived across borders because of the multitudes it was able to contain”. Africanness is a constant regardless of where one goes but at the same time one can feel, as you have expressed, the need to perform it, to conjure it as if by being far from home one has allowed an essential part of one’s identity to lie dormant.
In “When They Ask Me What My Name Means” by Gloria Kiconco, the speaker’s name is referred to as “a placeholder until I return” and “a way to keep existence from coming into existence”, and perhaps we remember the “first” home when someone asks “What does your name mean?” because some things can only be explained in their language of origin. In “The Dead Bodies’ Artist” by Ejiofor Ugwu, a name is “highly flammable”. I think of Africanness as this name too, a volatile garment we wear in different ways but have no doubt that it belongs to each of us and to all of us simultaneously.
What the anthology affirms for me is that the ways in which we see the world are as different as the poems we write within it and the ways in which we exist as Africans is as diverse as the countries we point to when asked “Where is your (first) home?” In “Loneliness” by Romeo Oriogun, the speaker says, “…I’ve been on this road for ten years, searching for a boy to translate the sweetness in my language” and I love the idea of the body as a site for discovery, for the learning of a new language, how in fact the exploration of one’s sexuality is in itself a new language to learn.
I am learning to write about sex, a delicious and tentative exploration of what was taboo but is now accessible because English has given me the language for it. As a Tsonga woman, I have been taught that sex is something that is done to me and not with or by me, and I am unlearning the shame and silence so that I can reclaim my body as a site of more than just inherited trauma and pain but also pleasure that I am able to access on my own terms. The last stanza in Sarah Godsell’s “Ten lessons in bleeding” says, “I am not in control. / ever” and in that statement is the evidence of the body becoming an enemy, complicit in its owner’s suffering. Perhaps, by writing, we reclaim our control in a small way, a way of saying, “I will not die without naming what killed me”.
To answer your question about being bound to certain tropes as an African writer, I must admit I initially read the sentence as “certain traps you have to fall into” and it still made sense to me because I was once trapped in the idea that my writing had to be about suffering, colonialism, and navigating post-Apartheid South Africa. I have freed myself from that and now write about everything that moves me, or, to borrow your words, “whatever the hell I want to write about.”