‘Pushing out from the centre’: (Black) feminist imagination, redefined politics and emergent trends in South African poetry Pumla Dineo Gqola
This is a particular moment that has allowed us to inhabit the spaces of our humanity more fully, I think. Some people whom I encounter overseas find me a little outside the arena they know as South African poetry. In South Africa I never find that. Here, we have actually entered a time when the political is known to include the full humanity of people, so that in addition to resistance, we can explore our madness and failures and doubts and loves. And at the same time, to draw a solid line under apartheid is deluded and dangerous (Baderoon, 2006c: 3).
The most dramatic shift in the South African English literary scene has occurred in relation to women’s place within written and performed poetry in the second decade of democracy. Although there were always women poets writing and/or performing in English even under apartheid, these were rarely well-known; prior to this recent shift women writing in English did not fill the ranks of later canonized writers. Although some younger women poets, like Bernedette Muthien, retained a presence in South African poetry anthologies in the 80s and 90s, they remained marginal in the academy. Alternatively, when women poets were widely recognized as such, they were better known for their writing in other genres. Women poet Gcina Mhlope, for example, continues to be better known as a storyteller and children’s book writer, than as poet.
As the national public cultural motif moved from “rainbow nation” to “unity in diversity”, circa 2003, South Africa seemed to be experiencing a creative explosion (Gqola, 2004b). Poetry was at the forefront of this creative flourishing. Poetry readings and performances were in vogue and plentiful in South African cities, campuses and other small venues. In an interview, Lebogang Mashile (2008b), recalls how an “amazing burgeoning spoken word movement that was taking place”. Although it did not start out so in the early 2000s this “spoken word movement” and the larger poetry scene would be dominated by women’s voices a few years later. This prominence of women poets marks the success of women poetry collectives, like WEAVE in Cape Town and Feela Sistah! in Johannesburg, to assert their presence within the poetry scene. However, these poetry collectives also had a ripple effect throughout the written and spoken word scene, so that even those poets who were never part of such collectives have nonetheless also risen to prominence. Currently, among the most recognizable ‘new’ poets identify as Black and feminist, and such politicized self-identification may also account for the specific forms of agency exercised by these poets in shaping their writing careers and public self-representation. The Black feminist imagination is not a “forced construction of a monolithic category imposed externally” (Boyce Davies, 1995: 1), but takes its cue from both the claimed political location of the poets and the explicitly feminist registers fine-tuned in their work, as demonstrated below.
‘Recognizable’ is used here to refer a combination of the factors of high visibility in institutional and informal forums, popularity evident either in book sales or performance attendance, celebration of poetic significance through awards and invitations to read/perform at Literature/Arts festivals. It does not necessarily mean academic recognition through literary criticism. Poetry readings and performances are so strong a feature of the South African landscape that they are arguably the most prominent part of the creative explosion we continue to witness in the second decade of South Africa’s democracy. What still remains unclear, however, is the popularity of women poets in a literary and cultural scene that many feminists understand as hostile to women.
This paper analyses the works of four leading poets in South Africa: Gabeba Baderoon, Myesha Jenkins, Lebogang Mashile and Makhosazana Xaba. Biographically and stylistically varied, their work nonetheless contains a shared idiom, what I call the (Black) feminist imagination here. This Black feminist imagination “demand[s] a more expansive set of interactions at the level of the critical voice” (Boyce Davies 1995: 1). I read them comparatively here, not to suggest that they form a coherent “school” of thought which is prescriptive and allows us to navigate the poetic terrain in South Africa conclusively. Rather, I analyze them because their work illustrates something about the place of the cultural in contemporary South Africa, and the specific ways in which a Black feminist imagination is responsible for a widening of the literary landscape.
It seems paradoxical that among South Africa’s leading literary voices are four women, all of whom self-identify as (Black) feminist, given the highly circulated status of South Africa’s gender based violence and other public hostilities to women, pro-feminist legislation notwithstanding. Given that feminist commentators speak to the multiple ways in which public culture is dominated by globalizes violent masculinities, how do we account for the popularity of poets espousing explicit feminist politics in this manner? What does this receptiveness tell us about the textures of South Africa’s literary and public cultural landscapes? It may well be that these specific poets understand how to negotiate entry into public spaces that is occluded otherwise.
Such questions and occupations will shape the findings of this paper. However, focusing on selected poems by each of the poets will be the primary aim. The questions above may therefore be illuminated or approached tangentially, rather than directly. Structurally, I will turn to one poet and a time in alphabetic order, although connections between the poets will be made in the individual analysis. The paper will then conclude with a teasing out of the collective project which Baderoon, Jenkins, Mashile and Xaba continue to shape.
politically personal: Gabeba Baderoon Gabeba Baderoon was born in 1969 in Port Elizabeth, although she grew up in Cape Town. She graduated with a PhD in literary and film studies from the University of Cape Town. As an academic, she has published extensively on representations of Islam/Muslims, television, film and gender studies. Baderoon’s turn to poetry has been more recent, initially pursued during graduate fellowships at the Universities of Sheffield Hallam, UK and Pennsylvania State, USA. She is the author of three volumes of poetry, The dream in the next body (Kwela, 2005), for which she was awarded the DaimlerChrysler Award for South African Poetry in 2005, The museum of ordinary life (DaimlerChrysler, 2005) and A hundred silences (Kwela 2006). The silence before speaking is a Swedish translation of her poems, published by Tranan publishers. She was also winner of the Philadelphia City Paper Writing Contest in 1999, held the second Guest Writer Fellowship at the Nordic Africa Institute in 2005, a Civitella Ravieri Fellowship as well the inaugural Trust Africa Writers Residency at the University of the Witwatersrand in 2008. Her debut collection sold out and went into reprint within the first six weeks, and had gone into a third reprint a year later, twice making South African literary history.
In an interview with me, Gabeba Baderoon (2006b), remarked,
A few weeks ago, someone introduced me at a reading by saying I was a South African poet who puzzled her because I didn’t write poetry about South African topics. That caught my attention. I think I am a South African poet who writes about South African topics, but maybe I’m redefining what that means to me. Maybe it means that a South African who writes about Iraq is a very normal South African who, like most of us, thinks about the whole world.
The response Baderoon references in the extract above may be the result of limited readings of the political, but it is also understandable. For decades, debates in and on South African literature were prescriptive about the meanings and place of politics. One strand insisted that “art for art’s sake” was decadent and irresponsible since all fields of human endeavor should contribute to the toppling of apartheid. Another strand dismissed this political preoccupation as dangerous for the imagination. The academy responded with classifications of “protest art”, “committed art”, “Soweto art”, and the like as umbrella terms for all creative work by Black artists. Such categories paid no attention to the nuanced shifts, and varying quality, that the creative forms themselves suggested (Ndebele, 1991). For example, Oswald Joseph Mtshali’s Sounds of a cowhide drum (1971) written in a style that appealed to wide audiences, (assumed white protest) as well as poetry targeting Black audiences (in the Black Consciousness tradition), were lumped under the same misnomer. Whereas there were varying creative registers among poets writing at the same time, even for the same literary magazine, South African literature nonetheless returned to a preoccupation with the political. The political was apartheid and responses to it.
Baderoon insists that her work is very political, but suggests broadening the meanings carried by such recognition. She enters the political through the intimate in a style that uses the “ordinary” as a site worthy of exploration, rather than a focus on the “spectacular”. Njabulo Ndebele (1991) had earlier critiqued the limitations of South African literature obsessed with the spectacular political sphere, and suggested that more nuanced writing was attentive to the micro levels of people’s lives. Baderoon’s focus is on interiority that invites her readers to rethink the political and personal.
In the poem “Point of view” from her debut collection, the speaker is cooking in a second home, away from a more familiar one:
In the kitchen she reaches for the nutmeg grater
and remembers it is in another cupboard
another place (l. 1-3)
Cooking is affected by the kind of kitchen she is in: her location determines the process and utensils available to her. The kitchen and cooking, traditionally considered private feminine terrain in many cultures, offer a space to speak from as well as a language for speaking about displacement. Later in the same poem, writing functions in similar vein:
In the post office she fills in the address
she has left behind.
She tears up the form
and starts again.
Her mail follows her
like outstretched hands. (ll. 4-9)
In the study of literature, letters have functioned in similar ways to cooking, as a language of the intimate. Here, again Baderoon returns to ‘feminine’ metaphors to evoke longing for home. The body and mind’s knowledge are articulated through the language of the intimate. Yet, the larger issues evoked are homesickness, displacement, and possibly exile. Home is not in this new place, even though there is familiarity of sorts and ease of movement. The “outstretched hands”, the automatic associations and the confidence of place are comforts of the unnamed place she calls home. Baderoon’s evocative language issues from women’s spaces, asserting such settings as valid vantage point from which to speak about larger human and political experiences.
Food, language and longing mesh again; all require great care, as is also evident in her poem “My tongue softens on the other name”, also from her debut collection. Here, home is a physical space as much as it is a state of mind in language. The herbs, “kapokbos” (wild rosemary), and trees, “witolyf” (white olive) in her yard mark a place of psychic safety. These plants invite gentle recognition because they symbolize and are from home.
As has emerged from the above, cooking is very important in how Baderoon speaks about home and place. The prominence of food, spice, home and language also gesture at time. Baderoon wrote the poems in her debut collection at the same time that she was writing her doctoral thesis, on transhistoric representations of Islam and Capetonian Muslims in literature, art and media. In that dissertation (2004), as well as in some published essays (Baderoon, 2002; Baderoon 2007) Baderoon uncovers how food has symbolic presence for Black Capetonians descended from Muslim slaves. Understanding these codified, personally handed down and closely guarded recipes is key to understanding how memory, gender and slavery intertwine(d) in the South African case (Gqola, 2007).
Memory, signs and objects carry so much about community that Baderoon declares that “I forget to look” at the picture of her mother, then the only Black woman in her medical school class at the University of Cape Town (UCT), the same university Baderoon would later graduate four times from. She has explicitly identified the speaker in this poem as herself in public readings. Again, Baderoon crafts a poem layered with memory, gender and other politics through her speaker’s reflection on an object, the photograph she has carried in her purse for two decades.
She was the first in her family to take
the bus from Claremont
up the hill to the university.
At one point during the lectures at medical school,
black students had to pack their notes, get up and walk
Behind the closed door, in an autopsy
black students were not meant to see,
the uncovering and cutting of white skin (ll. 8-16)
In the extracts above, her mother’s medical education is an achievement and a reminder that even at the most prestigious medical school in the country, her mother was not allowed forget that she is Black; that apartheid was in the daily details. Yet, in the photograph, her medical student mother, “poise unmarred” (l. 21), offers hope whilst inviting questions about why the speaker carried this photograph.
In the poem, “Today she is not here”, Baderoon turns her attention to the scourge of gender based violence. At a family engagement party, this joyful event leads to reflection on the complexities of heterosexual marriage. An earlier union haunts the looming marriage and an abused absent sister. The missing sister previously refused help offered to get her out the abusive relationship. Baderoon’s speaker lingers on these details as part of the meanings and difficulties of family portraiture. Here, Baderoon uses questions and suggestion rather than assertion. It cannot be clear why the missing sister continues to stay, but she will be at the wedding, bruises healed.
of women’s universes: Myesha Jenkins Myesha Jenkins was born in 1948 in Washington, DC but grew up in Pasadena, California. She has a BA in Black Studies from the University of California, Riverside. Jenkins was active in the women’s and anti-apartheid movements in the San Francisco Bay Area for many years prior to 1993, the year of her immigration to South Africa. Jenkins was co-founder of the immensely popular Feela Sistah! Spoken Word Collective (with Lebogang Mashile, Napo Masheane and Ntsiki Mazwai), and works with Jozi House of Poetry, a monthly poetry event for upcoming poets. Her performances at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival, Poetry Africa 2004 and the Macufe Festical won her further critical acclaim. Widely published in literary journals and often anthologized, Jenkins is the author of Breaking the surface (Timbila, 2005). Her second collection and a self-produced CD are in preparation at the time of writing this article.
Aptly titled, Jenkins debut collection Breaking the surface (2005) is an unapologetic tapestry of discovery, love, adventure and community. Her speakers reflect on, embrace and question various communities available to them from familial, to political, to historic. Her opening poems frame this collection as one which prioritizes not only women’s lives and connections, but also one which decidedly privileges thinking and feeling by such women. The opening poem, which is also one of Jenkins most famous poems, “Birthright” introduces a theme of women’s communities that will be returned to in different ways and tones throughout not only this collection, but also beyond. This opening poem is short enough to quote here in its entirety:
I am a woman.
A birthright is inherited rather than chosen. However, in Jenkins’ poem, such inheritance is crafted into that which gives the speaker identity as well as legitimacy. Her speaker claims and embraces the varying levels at which women matter to her, and make her matter. Women are both at the centre of her universe and her entire universe: her point of origin and reference point.
“Birthright” is more than just a list of ways in which the speaker relates to women. Rhythmically like a chant, the “I” repeats connection to a world of women. Lines 1-4 build on the biological origin of babies from women, linking the literal fact to the many other ways in which women give the speaker meaning. The following lines establish a link between women, knowledge and faith/religion. Claiming women’s knowledge contradicts patriarchal understanding of enlightenment (science) as masculine, just as embracing women’s spiritual realms goes against validated faith (religion). Women are further worth fighting for as feminist and the source of her creative energy. Finally, women are her community of reciprocity.
Having covered all of the major areas of human endeavor: intellect, spirituality, companionship, family, justification, politics, culture and history; her world is complete. The “I”, capitalized in the usual grammatical convention, stands out here because of repetition along with “women”. The poem is consistent at the levels of meaning, structure and rhythm in communicating a reinforced bond between “I” and “women”.
This centrality of women is sustained throughout the poem. Later poems such as “Smell she” and “Revolutionary woman” build on what it means to reflect on this community of women.
In “Smell she”, the woman’s smells are not those conventionally mythologized in patriarchal femininities. She is neither perfumed nor deviant. Instead, Jenkins uses the world of smells to give her reader entry into non-physical details of this woman’s life. Titled “Smell she” rather than “Smell her”, makes the discussed woman grammatical subject rather than the object of the sentence. The slight jarring caused by use of non-standard grammar in the naming serves the jarring caused at the conceptual level; this is not the usual access we have to such a woman in documentary and anthropological discourse. In Jenkins’ poem, she is who matters and not the passive object of the poet’s gaze. This is particularly important because of who “she” is: a woman who works with the soil or lives in a rural area because she smells of “mud and grass” (l.3). In other words, the subject of Jenkins’ poem is the much mythologized and overwritten rural African woman, appearing elsewhere earth mother, victim, and usually helpless. “Smell she” invites a different kind of engagement with her, an awareness of her agency and the ways in which, like all human beings she is not fully knowable. Smell is an elusive sense, the terrain of the trace rather than the concrete. Through her smells, we catch hints of her agency, know that she cooks because she smells of “smoke and paraffin” (l. 6), engages in other physical activity because of her “glistening beads of sweat” (l. 7). Jenkins’ is a working, moving woman whose smells blend in “Sunlight soap/and the pungent tobacco/in her pocket” (l. 11-2).
“Smell she” offers its readers layers of scents rather than a body of evidence. Her odors hint at who she is, at her location, her choices and her agency. The tobacco in her pocket staining her tissue point to this, as does the brand of soap the speaker catches a whiff of. Jenkins retains some questions and ambiguity on the assertion of this woman’s agency, and the reader may well ask about the Sunlight soap: the body soap or the laundry one, given the high circulation of both. Through the layers of her smells, we imagine something about this woman’s life, but are not able to come to certainty. In other words, although she is represented, she is not defined, as Jenkins chooses open-endedness, rather than prescription.
The poem “Revolutionary woman”, like “Smell she”, addresses the ways in which women are languaged and recognized across different traditions. “Revolutionary woman” deals with the difficulty of relating to women who defy patriarchal categorization. The speaker declares:
Don’t admire a revolutionary woman
No one will encourage that
To want to be
A relentless killer woman
A militant organising mother woman
An earth strong rooted woman
An intelligent courageous leader woman
A blood witch warrior woman
An unassuming worker-bee spy woman (l. 1-9).
While such women are difficult to handle for patriarchy, they nonetheless are not rare. In the poem, Jenkins creates a community of renegade women. Naming women who fit the categories of women described in the excerpted lines above, Jenkins asserts that women like this exist all over the world. They are activists whose names are recognizable from movements in South Africa, the Americas, Palestine and Vietnam. Their apparent contradictions do not seem to hamper them from living lives hard to make sense of in patriarchal vocabulary. The quandary Jenkins addresses is that women like this are not supposed to exist; they are unnatural/abnormal and yet they are abundantly recognizable. The refrain “kind of woman” after a line describing or naming women, gestures at many other women just like these ones who names line the page, all over the world. We know some of their names, but women globally carry complex identities because there are infinite possible ways of inhabiting femininity.
In the poems above, as well as in many others besides, Jenkins offers a liberating vision of women’s community. Community is envisioned as a space built on the recognition of difference, but where such differences are not arranged as hierarchy. Communities are sites of diversity, as an inescapable fact as well as a necessity in Jenkins’ vision.
Jenkins’ reflection on the lives of women is not limited to community. In “Dream girl”, her speaker is irritated by how little girls have to project a hard exterior in order to live their dreams without persecution. What the speaker offers is a critique that invites us to re-examine the exteriors women and girls put up as well as the conditions that push them into such roles as part of widening possibilities for inhabiting femininity. Patriarchy places pressure on women to pretend to be tough and fearless, to modulate behavior as a condition for safety. However, this is a false promise, as explored in a later poem, “Another woman is dead”. All of the ways in which “another woman” dies suggest that she is different women. Each time she dies from gender based violence. In all the stanzas, she knows the man who kills her. These women are in a radically different state than Jenkins’ other women who encounter men in playful, sexual, intimate, political and loving settings. In other words, the strength of women’s chosen communities does not exclude rewarding participation in relationships across gender. At the same time, gender based violence is a constant haunting for women in South Africa.
In all of Jenkins poems, the speaking “I” is very strong, and her personas have a clear sense of belonging. She has a community that she returns to, made up primarily of women. She returns again to the textures of women’s lives, exploring the meanings, gaps, dangers and joys in their lives. She dwells on who they might be, how they live, what they chose and who they love. However, such a characterization of this poet’s body of work also simplifies a layered text in order to better discuss it comparatively. Her treatment of community as difference is one of the many strands that exist in Jenkins’ representations and theorization of women beyond the obvious.
While presenting diversity as a fact of life and imagination, Jenkins charts a textured, layered universe which highlights the meanings of women’s lives. Here, difference is not deified and a woman-centered universe is complex in its juxtaposition of apparent opposites. Nonetheless conviction enables open exploration of the possibilities opened up by this engagement with difference. While many of her poems are joyful and gentle, hers is not an easy kinship. Jenkins plays around with structure and packs much into her poems even as she has a particular preference for short poems.
In many respects, Jenkins’ poetry offers a vision of self-reflective feminism in her preferred terms of engagement and the space they clear. Consequently, her poetry values intertextuality as part of inviting questions such as: what are we creating? What is the relationship between recognition and creation/creativity?
everywhere inside of me: Lebogang Mashile Lebogang Mashile was born in 1979 in Providence, Rhode Island to exiled South African parents. Returning to South Africa on the eve of the first democratic elections, she later graduated with a BA in International Relations and Law from the University of the Witwatersrand. The most prominent South African poet, she conceived of, executive produced and presented L’atitude (2004-7), a prime time television series which fused a travel show with poetic reflection. Mashile was co-founder of the immensely popular Feela Sistah! Spoken Word Collective (with Myesha Jenkins, Napo Masheane and Ntsiki Mazwai). An actor, who has had significant theatre and film roles in productions including Hotel Rwanda (2004), and released a self-produced 19-track CD, Lebo Mashile Live (2005), she is the author of In a ribbon of rhythm (Oshun, 2005) and Flying above the sky (self-published, 2008). Mashile has performed at numerous poetry and literature festivals internationally, and at President Mbeki’s inauguration 2004. Mashile was awarded the NOMA Award for Publishing in Africa in 2006.
In her debut collection, Mashile brought together a range of poems some of which had been so familiar to the South African public, that they had become refrains. These included the title poem of In a ribbon of rhythm as well as the signature poem for her television show, “What is L’atitude”. Others found echoes, emulation and clear imitation in a range of televised poetry events. Such proceedings included the specific poems and delivery style written by poet characters in advertisements and drama series alike. In an oft-quoted article, feminist essayist, Gail Smith (2005: 6) noted of Mashile:
Lebo Mashile is a wordsmith extraordinaire whose poetry has tapped into the zeitgeist of the new urban underground, and speaks of love and ‘liking it deep sometimes’, identity, abuse, ‘smoking spliffs with Jesus Christ’ and the travails of being a black girl negotiating the streets of Jozi.
Smith points here as much to Mashile’s place in the South African literary scene as she does of the poet’s thematic range. Mashile is widely celebrated for her performed poetry as much as she is recognized for her words on the page. Some of Mashile’s regular themes are the lives of women, cultures of music and diaspora. Rhetorically, her personas linger over embraced and admired traits and soften empathetically when faced with the wounded.
In “Tomorrow’s daughters”, she begins,
I want to write a poem
About pretty black girls
Who don’t relax and lie their dreams away
Voices that curl
The straight edges of history
Hair thin slices of movement
Turning the world kinky (ll. 1-7)
This poem draws on the world of Black women’s/girl’s global hair culture to speak about creating a necessary and affirming space. The desired action is already enacted through declaration since Mashile writes the poem her speaker desires. At the same time, the poem gestures to a large project of creating poetry that validates Black girls’ lives as a part of the human experience. In the curling voice is the echo of chemically unaltered hair. Mining the conflicted world of Black women’s hair processing, Mashile offers a vision of creative space that requires no further work on the body as condition for acceptance and worth. Instead, here history’s linearity will be adapted to make room for more creative, circular narratives and realities than the dominant straight edges. Mashile’s poem critiques more than the mere elision of “pretty black girls” from linear histories. In using “straight edges” to delineate this linearity, the poet also hints as the effects of such boundaries: clear ends that leave no room for flexibility and ambiguity.
Instead, the curling voice in the poems will be like the curling hair unaltered and un-weakened by chemical straighteners (hair relaxers) and corrosive ingredient, lye. The curling voice also echoes the “curling iron” so that the former describes both a curly voice but also a voice that effectively curls history. Mashile uses ‘lie’ to hint at ‘lye’ since her poetry will neither erase nor modify the dreams of these “pretty black girls”. In Mashile’s series of puns, the language and proposed content remain entangled.
Using a familiar idiom, she inverts the conventional expectations of beauty to make the “pretty” curly haired, rather than straight. In this manner, Mashile crafts a language that places these girls at the centre without pre-conditions; it is also a world that adapts to better reflect these girls’ realities and experiences. In this equally desired and realized poem, such girls will neither be Other nor need to alter themselves in order to fit in.
Recognizing that this is a difficult project, Mashile’s persona conjures up Emily Dickinson, the talented US poet whose contribution was only appreciated after her death. Mashile’s speaker, like Dickinson, is prepared to produce poetry that goes against the conventions of her time, emerging with poems which craft their own idiom. However, she hopes that the price to pay is not equivalent to the madness that Dickinson suffered as her poems were “standardized” to fit into the norms of the time, or hidden in drawers as Dickinson would not leave her room in later life.
The “pretty black girls” will be taught
How to look at their hearts
With eyes blarring at full blast
The way you did
Together we can build a bridge
To the promise in their faces
And pull them towards poems
By pretty black girls
Wearing crowns of change (ll. 19-26)
The project that Mashile’s speaker fantasizes about will yield change. It will uncover community and collective affirmation, rather than reclusive mental torment in its poet, as Dickinson’s abundant but unappreciated poetry was during her lifetime. The aspiration finds resonance with Mashile’s experiences of studying, and reading poetry, as related to Barbara Boswell:
As a woman, you get used to the challenge of finding your voice where it isn't obvious. I think men have to get used to that too. I think they should. I mean, you go to school and you find yourself in Shakespeare, you've got to find yourself in Othello and Njabulo Ndebele, you have to find yourself in Chinua Achebe, you have to find yourself in Keorapetse Kgotsitsile and you do. Nobody apologises and says, "Oh sorry little black girl, this isn't a voice which speaks to you." I mean, you're happy if they're black, never mind a woman. You kiss the ground the day you read Toni Morrison for the first time. (Mashile 2002: np)
Whereas Mashile has had to “find herself” in literature deemed universally human, she nonetheless also recognizes the need for poetry that is specific and direct. The “pretty black girls” in her poem need not only find themselves in places where their voices are not obvious. On offer will be a vision of the world that reflects and affirms them too. This is part of creating a vision of tomorrow that varies from the inheritance of yesterday and today’s daughters.
Like Mashile encountering Morrison, the “pretty black girls” will experience joyful recognition when they read her poem. Although spoken of in the singular, Mashile’s poems carry traces of this project. Indeed, in several of the poems, she focuses on the highly varied textures of Black girls’ and women’s lives.
Anti-essentialist, Mashile’s repertoire also contains criticism of the kinds of people who cannot be incorporated into this vision of change and affirmation. Both collections contain speakers whose rebuke require little physical space on the page.
In the poem, “The most powerful (black) woman in the world”, from In a ribbon of rhythm, the speaker denounces this powerful woman who “salivates for the feel of human bones” (l. 3). Mashile writes:
She will be remembered as the one
Who gave us permission to climb
To the highest echelons of evil
And show that we are not the same (l. 5-8)
The above lines offer a critique of achievement if it is only to pursue power for destructive ends. Distancing herself from this woman whose power is violent, the speaker also draws attention to the limits of sisterhood. Indeed, it is not every woman who can be embraced, celebrated and treated with gentle attention. The poem also shows that there are times when differences are politically intolerable. Therefore even as diversity is inevitable, the specific ways in which women exercise agency in the world matters. The responses these (Black) women elicit, then, is directly informed by the textures and consequences of their actions.
In her second collection, Flying above the sky (2008), Mashile returns to the heterogeneity of women’s lives. Interested in understanding those differences and humanizing them, in “What kind of woman”, she asks
What kind of woman leaves?
What kind of woman stays?
What kind of woman kills?
What kind of woman prays? (l. 1-4)
But the momentum builds up so that by line 30, her speaker is asking:
What kind of woman dreams
What kind of woman sleeps?
What kind of woman practices the art of living
what she preaches?
What kind of woman believes that her highest desire
is within the scope of her reach?
What kind of woman knows that what she needs
to learn is exactly what she teaches?
What kind of woman conforms to her own norms
as society chastises her for the codes she breaches? (l. 30-39)
The poem has 48 lines over which the tempo and entanglements increase. Inversely, Mashile’s poem grows gentler and slower with each stanza. From the crisp sentences of the first stanza which probe categories in straightforward ways, the speaker goes on to consider human complexity through questions that already hint at possible answers, and sometimes those that border on the rhetorical. With each development, the questions and answers prove more rewarding for the speaker (and reader), hinting at play and joyful possibility. By line 30, the women are self-defined, freer and better able to embrace both calm (“sleep”) and possibility (“dream”). They are no longer reactive women who can be understood only through isolated behavior.
In lines 32-3, the woman is able to choose consistency. What she proposes is in line with how she lives her life. In these lines, such existence is neither easy nor pervasive; women are usually pressured women to exist as expected, rather than as desired. The woman in lines 32-3 has moved through this coercion and can offer insights for living her convictions. The same applies to the woman in lines 38-39. Lines 34-7 offer a vision of a woman so empowered and convinced of her own worth that she spends time and energy on what matters to her. Confident, she believes in her capacity to live out her desires. Assured, she circulates what is of value, understanding that what she “needs” is available for co-creation and circulation in the world. As the poem develops, the questions offer more insight as questions illuminate multiple realities.
Although different in specific focus, the poem “Womanchild” also broaches the continuities of violence in women’s lives. For Mashile, the patriarchal violence continuum begins with child abuse whether directly sexual or in the practice of child brides. In this poem, she traces the difficulties of surviving such violence, given the pervasiveness of such problems. Her global examples emphasize the large patterns of misogyny and therefore the magnitude of the efforts needed to overcome them. The poem can be read as a reflection and tribute to those who attempt the painful work of survival. “Womanchild” links directly to another poem in Mashile’s second collection, “A daughter’s wish”. The stories and techniques of survival are valuable because they chart new ways to healing and possibility. They also enable freer lives for future women. In an imaginary conversation with enabling foremothers, Mashile’s speaker notes:
When they ask of you tomorrow
I will tell them that you are alive
everywhere inside of me
especially where I love myself
more than you did
where I love myself
almost as much as you did (ll. 25-31)
Where “Womanchild” focused on the scale of patriarchal inscription, “A daughter’s wish” locates Mashile’s speaker in a place here she has access to varied women’s heritage. Here it is the patterns of solidarity and the gains towards more women-friendly realities that are indexed. The daughter benefits directly from the struggles of women before her; her experience of freedom is mindful of this. The continuities in relationships to self suggest that the daughter is also part of building on the heritage left for her so that she, too, may be an enabling foremother.
Finding a way to define the line: Makhosazana Xaba Makhosazana Xaba was born in 1957 in Greytown, and grew up in Ndaleni. Xaba is a midwife, biographer, activist, and development worker. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from the University of the Witwatersrand. Her poetry is widely anthologized, and she is a regular reader at Poetry and Literature Festivals in South Africa. Xaba was awarded the Deon Hofmeyr Award for Creative Writing in 2005, and a Writing Fellowship at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) from 2006-7. She is the author of These hands (Timbila, 2005) and Tongues of their mothers (University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, 2008).
In “The language of knowing” from These hands, Makhosazana Xaba’s speaker notes of the ‘new language’ learnt without recourse to the usual ways and avenues:
It’s the language of looking,
of looking and seeing,
seeing then knowing,
knowing without evidence
beyond the looking
The language of recognising community
through seeing and knowing. (ll. 12-25)
The poem details ways of creating knowledge and meaning. The ones focused on exist outside of the conventional and elevated. Nonetheless, this language which is attentive to these nuances already exists in the world because the speaker points out that “It’s a universal language” (l. 9). In this language, connection and specificity are possible in equal parts. Therefore this universal language is nonetheless a space where the specific things she wants to say are her own. The entry of this new language offers a whole new set of rules for learning. It offers no “tutor” or “mother-tongue speaker” (l. 2/7), no intention to acquire an additional language (l.3). It simply arrives, takes her by surprise but proves to be such joyful discovery that she embraces it. Clearly, to encounter and imbibe such knowledge, be part of this new linguistic space offers poetry.
The title poem of her debut collection, placed immediately after the poem above, on the opposite page expands on this new language. In “These hands”, Xaba builds on the new forms of knowing. The opening lines of the first four stanzas repeatedly draw attention to the knowing hands, before they are revealed to be hands that “remember/recall” (stanzas 5, 6, 7).
“These hands” is a poem that juxtaposes apparent contradictions through the revelation of an entire life. These hands are not simply channel or limb. They exist as body, spirit and mind in Xaba’s poem; the hands fuse together what this means by becoming the terrain of experience and reflection. The hands define the speaker.
These same hands felt “putrid puss/from oozing wounds” (l. 2-3) and “warmth/of gushing blood from gaping bodily spaces” (l. 9-11) and “mucus, sliding/ out of orifices” (l. 13-14). These graphic details relate hands that have encountered infected wounds and tried to heal these. The owner of the hands has not run or turned away from the site of wounding and possible death in others. The hands have touched other bodies in disrepair. At other times, these hands are familiar with the “varying forms/of feacal formations” (l. 6-7). It matters little whether these were encountered as either healer or in the process of changing baby nappies. Both experiences would be interventions, offering assistance to those rendered helpless, unable to change themselves.
The poem constantly blurs whether the hands are healing a broken body or childcare, these are the unclear boundaries of the body. The details of bodily emissions are listed matter-of-factly, in the ways people in the medical profession are wont to do. Each of these encounters are ordinary for medical professionals, suggesting that the hands belong to one so placed, or previously so engaged, as indeed the poet. All these encounters are about intimately touching the body of another, encountering it in quite a direct way.
It is against this backdrop that the shift in stanza four startles. From being life saving and affirming, the hands now become a soldier’s hands. These same hands are equally familiar with the above as they are with “the metallic feel/ of numerous guns/when the telling click was heard” (l. 16-19), “grenades/ready for the release of destruction” (l. 22-24).
These hands belong to a healing, killing, midwife:
have felt pulsating hearts
over extended abdomens,
the opening mouths of wombs,
they know the grasp
of minute, minute-old clenched fists. (l. 35-41)
These hands have additional dimensions in their previous lives because they have also been responsible for “producing vibrations/from receiving lovers” (l. 49-50). Much detail is provided over eleven stanzas of their experiences. Suddenly, the mundane is squashed together in stanza 12. These activities include driving, fixing households, holding various tools and implements, and turning switches on and off. Then, in the final stanza, the hands are in love with the written word:
now caress the keyboard,
that massage papers,
wishing with every finger print
that this relationship
would last forever. (l. 63-71)
I have spent considerable time on this poem because it evinces Xaba signature aesthetic: juxtaposing vastly different lives and systems of logic to great success. As she remarked elsewhere:
What is important to acknowledge and speak about, to be public and unapologetic about is that as women we have multiple selves, we have multiple lives, multiple identities and we need to honour them all. That to me is important (Xaba 2008a: 4).
Consequently, the hands are the embodiment of lived contradiction and multiplicity. Such hands capture the untidiness of women’s lives and it is fitting that they should be writing hands, since they are better able to represent variety and discomfit than would more unchanging hands.
Coming at the layered lives of women from a different angle in the poem, “In the silence of a lifetime”, Xaba comments on the cumulative rapes of a single woman. Much South African public discourse relies on the pressure for women to “break the silence” around gender based violence. However, there is little regard for the many ways in which such silences cannot be broken, or the ways in which breakers of the silence receive inadequate support. The poem is equally open to readings of this as one woman, as it is of these stanzas as describing different woman. Nonetheless, the picture of the many forms and sources of rape is cumulative. In each rape case, she knows the men involved intimately, and they range “her uncle” (l. 2), a gang rape by school mates, a date-rape, rape by her husband, then her work colleagues and, finally, in old age by a neighbor. These poems were published around the time of former national vice president, Jacob Zuma’s trial which highlighted the many ways in which the South African legal system refuses to deal with the fact of women’s multiple rapes. Public discourse often mocked the complainant’s characterization of the accused as her uncle, even though she had addressed him in this manner for most of her life. She was also dismissed as disturbed when she revealed that she had been raped more than once prior to this case. This poem is direct about the varied and extensive experiences of rape by girls and women of all ages, reinforcing the findings of feminist researchers and activists that multiple rapes are not unheard of.
The speaker in “Suggestions please” is exasperated for slightly different reasons. She is a Black woman who feels routinely harassed in the daily course of going about her business in public places. The numerous swear words encountered by constantly pierce through whatever else she may be trying to focus on. The italicized dialogue, swear words and put downs contrast with her thoughts rendered in regular font format. The question she returns to is about appropriate response, hence the title of the poem.
What overwhelms her are the deafening public readings that harm her. These range from swear words using women’s vaginas from men she will not respond to in the street, to white women who assume she must be the hired help. These women constantly ask if she works at the shops she frequents even though she wears no uniform, unlike all other staff. Her own name, presented in the shortened version as Khosi, is inserted in the dialogue but seems unnoticed. This adds to the experienced frustration since all of this happens “nine years of democracy” later.
She adopts a radically different “For Fanny Ann Eddy”, a short poem about the speaker’s poetic difficulty linked to the murdered Sierra Leonean lesbian activist. Xaba’s speaker looks both for a poem about Ms Eddy and for the words to write such a poem herself. This process lasts several months, and finally exhausted from the effort, the speaker allows this short poem to form.
In its closing, Xaba’s speaker fails to account for this absence deciding, “Maybe women like you still bewilder some, even poets/This way I salute you and your legacy” (l. 6-8). The last line echoes and connects with the South African poet laureate, Keorapetse Kgositsile’s work. This way I salute you is the title of a collection of tribute poems to writers, poets, musicians and activists. The dedications are drawn from the African continent and diaspora, with one Filipino and Mongolian poet-activist each. The actual line is drawn from the third stanza of Kgositsile’s “Song for Ilva Mackay and Mongane”:
Here I meet you
and this way I salute you
with bloodstains on my tongue (l. 25-27)
Xaba brings to mind Kgositsile’s poetic embrace of artists who were/are also activists, affirming the fusion of art and politics. The evoked community created in the original collection share battle scars and joys, and this reading is echoed in Xaba’s poem to Eddy.
In her pioneering work on Black women’s writing post-apartheid, Barbara Boswell reminds us of the importance of attention to detail in individual writers’ lives at the same time as tracking and understanding the role of shared Black women’s creative energies at this time. Writing on WEAVE, a Black women writers’ collective, she takes their words seriously across different formats. Against this backdrop, Boswell observes, that “[i]n order for black women to develop into writers, reimagining and reinventing the self is necessary” (Boswell 2003: 583).
Boswell’s observation resonates with my analysis of the poets I have turned my attention to in this paper. Although Baderoon, Jenkins, Mashile and Xaba have very individual styles, preferences and ranges, each returns to a reinvention of the self through her diverse speakers.
Above, I have selected poems from each poet to demonstrate how they differently craft a space from which to explore a Black feminist imagination. Each poet offers us a vision that widens what is conventionally understood as political through their treatment of the heterogeneity in women’s lives.
Reading them against one another also allows for the emergence of similarities across the poets’ work. Among the most obvious traits are how each poet chooses gentleness, sometimes called a ‘softening’ or ‘embrace’ in my analysis above, when speaking about women’s suffering and lives. Each poet also chooses a questioning mode, sometimes tinged with anger, at other times with pathos when encountering broken women’s bodies and spirits. This empathy takes women’s agency seriously at the same time that it pauses in the face of abuse. In Xaba’s “In the silence of a lifetime”, “Baderoon’s “Today she is not here”, Mashile’s “Womanchild” and Jenkins’ “Another woman is dead”, there is no wavering over how endemic gender based violence is. In all of these poems, it is both a deadly haunting, personal and political.
Community is longed for in Baderoon, crafted and revisited in Jenkins and Xaba, and defended in Mashile. For these poets claiming women and women’s spaces does not just mean recognition, but also living with difficulty. Jenkins and Xaba suggest that women encounter each other differently, but with chosen tenderness, akin to Baderoon’s “softening” and Mashile’s protectiveness for achieved affinity.
Notice, for example, how similar in focus Mashile’s “Tomorrow’s daughters” is to Jenkins’ “Dream girl”, even though they are vastly different poems stylistically. Both poets feel a responsible connection to Black girls and young women. Mashile’s girls will also not have to “toughen up”; she will write a poem that affirms them and permits them to be.
Similarly, the woman to whom “these hands” belong could be Jenkins’ “Revolutionary woman” and she who sits with her daily contradictions in her body as per Baderoon’s “I forget to look”. She is part of the answer to Mashile’s “What kind of woman”.
The project of writing and being written is revisited in various poems analyzed above, from Xaba’s “The language of knowing” and her final stanza to “These hands”, Mashile’s poem to “pretty black girls” to Jenkins’ “Smell she”. Baderoon approaches the same obliquely through the mis-written address in “Point of view“. Words matter both for historical reasons and as a critical tool for creating more enabling possibilities.
As feminists, all of these poets consciously place women’s and girl’s lives at the center of their writing, returning to varied experiences, locations and textures. Baderoon uses the intimate and domestic as entry to larger political openings. These women’s spaces are chosen as perspectives from which to theorize and craft a specific Black feminist aesthetic. Jenkins’ concentrated tenderness and recognition of diversity as a fact of community stand out as central to her universes of women. Indeed, she invites the recognition that all of us have to share this planet, inspiring appreciation for variety. Xaba’s attentiveness to texture and finesse at letting the apparently mutually exclusive rub against each other foregrounds the complexities that are women’s lives. For Mashile, the world contains edges that need to be curled in her own image, because if community matters, then it must be built and defended as she creates a heritage and literary worlds worth leaving behind.
Not only do the works of the poets analyzed here question received notions of the political in relation to South African literature, they suggest different idioms altogether. These are not marginal poets, reacting, resisting and asserting that they too matter. Rather, they are at the vanguard of imagining possibility into being, attentive to various pasts, with a clear eye on a future that must still be realized. They show the limitations of much of our current literary critical vocabulary within South African studies. The engaged Black feminist idiom in the words of these writers “allows the reader/spectator to move to a different level of aesthetic response, one that is informed by a sense of possibility and opening rather than closure” (Boyce Davies 1995: 6). Their work, as well as the work of some others not analyzed here, offers exciting possibilities for literary scholars given that “the academy generally operates on the basis of the production of new knowledges and redefinitions of existing models” (Boyce Davies 1995: 6).
As we embark on the work of understanding the suddenly prominent place of Black women in South African poetry, these poets also necessitate a wider vocabulary to speak about creative production in South Africa across identity and institutional locations.
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