Our Words, Our Worlds: Writing on Black South African Women Poets, edited by poet Makhosazana Xaba is a unique collection, which for the first time in South African literary history foregrounds exclusively South African Women poets’ voices. In this regard, it is an immeasurably valuable contribution to South African literary history. The book is divided into three parts: perspectives, which comprises four academic essays by different Black women and a detailed introductory essay by Makhosazana Xaba. The second part consists of personal reflections by a variety of poets and the third part of conversations, mostly held between Xaba and various women who are part of the South African poetry scene. The book is framed by a foreword by Gabeba Baderoon and an Afterword by Xaba.
Part I, which to my mind is the most exciting part of the book, begins with a brilliant introduction by the editor, which is meticulously researched and every MA or PhD candidate’s dream who wishes to engage with post-apartheid women poets in South Africa. Not only does Xaba provide the readers with tables and figures which show the publications and publishing houses that have released women’s poetry collections over the last 20 years or so, but she also chooses texts that have been largely neglected by critics and academics alike and offers a wonderful, sensitive close reading of these texts. The introduction also offers a rich reference list that will be fantastic groundwork for future research projects on this subject matter. The book, many of the writers rightly emphasise, is necessary because South African women poets have been extremely under-researched and marginalised. The introduction is a giant first step towards filling this gap.
One of the highlights of the introduction is Xaba’s analysis of various texts published since 2000. Her close reading is delightful to see in a time where this particular form of reading is almost extinct (The same can be said for most of the essays gathered in part I). I was particularly delighted to see her including Isabella Motadinyane’s poetry in her readings.
Xaba States that: “Motadinyane wrote in English, Sesotho and isiCamtho and often mixed languages in one poem. IsiCamtho is itself a mixture of languages with distinct township-specific textures and cadences, highly adaptable and fast changing, with township Afrikaans as an integral part of it. And, often, it is men’s lingo.” (Xaba 24). Deep South reprinted Motadinyane’s collected poems in 2016 with translations of her Sesotho poems by Lesego Rampolokeng and tributes to her life and work by the Botsotso Jesters.
Xaba’s reading of Motadinyane’s work opens up further avenues for research: Xaba points out that Motadinyane uses ‘men’s lingo’ in her writing. How, then do politics of translation enter future studies of Motadinyane’s Sesotho poems? In other words: What happens when a man translates a woman’s work? Motadinyane’s work might be but one example and could perhaps be an entry point to a comparative study of South African women poets in translation.
Here Ronelda Kamfer’s books translated into Dutch by Alfred Schaffer come to mind as one possible comparative angle, which is an idea that has been born merely out of reading this book. I hope that my somewhat sketchy comments on the introduction demonstrate that Xaba’s remarks are not only informative and deeply researched, but also inspiring for any young scholar with an interest in South African poetry in particular and in South African literature more generally.
The other essays by V.M. Sisi Maqagi, Barbara Boswell, and duduzile zamantungwa mabaso in part I are of similar value. Of particular interest to me is Boswell’s essay entitled Reclaiming Sex and Queering the World: Black South African Women’s Poetry on Sexuality which highlights a theme that is on the margins of the periphery: Writing about the disabled/physically challenged/diversely abled body. The essay does the absolutely necessary task of foregrounding writers who write with a disability/physical challenge/diverse ability. Boswell begins her essay by focusing on relatively unknown queer voices such as Olivia Coetzee and Naledi Raba. She then explores what it means to queer the “idealised sexual feminine body” (p. 93). This is where she does a sensitive and extremely perceptive reading of writers such as Xaba and Shelley Barry who write about the disabled feminine body. I had never heard of Shelley Barry’s work before reading Boswell’s close reading of it and am now determined to find her work, again something that the volume and particularly part I does well: To arouse the readers curiosity for ‘new’, or at least mostly marginalised voices within the country’s poetry scene, even that of a by now somewhat skeptical reader like myself.
Although the essays, without exception do wonderful close readings of texts the authors have chosen to foreground and engage with, I hope that one gap will be addressed in future research on South African women’s poetry, something most of us seem to shy away from these days in literary spaces: A rigorous, engaged critique of both content and formal aspects. I often find, as a reader of and listener to poetry, that we do not engage critically enough with texts or performances, at least not openly. Very often we stand in corners, sit in bars after launches or send each other long-winded, ‘secret’ WhatsApp messages in which we tear texts apart where we will display a close reading of the texts that is sadly lacking in public. I am aware that this edited collection serves to highlight marginalised women’s voices and thus it might seem somewhat counterintuitive to have this critical engagement. However, I do not believe that critique/criticism must necessarily be born out of malice or spitefulness, but rather, it can also be perceived as an act of love and care for something the critic deeply cares about and the ‘harshness’ in tone might be read as a call for action rather than a berating or belittling of the work in front of us.
My further observations on parts II and III will, I hope, be read with the idea of critique as an act of love in mind. As beautiful and inspiring as I find part I of the collection, as lacking in depth, excitement and interest I find parts II and III to a great extent. Part II consists of personal reflections, which save for a few exceptions that I shall highlight below, are a repetitive, tedious read. They are variations of the poets as so-called ‘closet poets’, rehersed sounding tributes to Feela Sistah, a performance collective formed by Myesha Jenkins , Lebo Mashile, Ntsiki Mazwai and Napo Masheane.
While it is important to highlight such movements because they have evidently contributed to poetry spaces and platforms for Black women poets, it reads almost like a play which has a chorus that is repeated in various essays. The readers, however, know everything there is to know about Feela Sistah after reading Jenkins’ contribution which outlines the collective’s history. Interestingly, somewhat contrary to what the collective is portrayed as, namely a platform for growth and innovation within the poetry scene, Jenkins’ own words, calling subsequent attempts of emulating aspects of the platform “copycats” (p. 129), sound at best critical of later attempts to revive the concept by other people and patronising at worst.
The same goes for the ‘closet poets’ and their subsequent ‘coming out’ with little differences here and there in essays by Sedica Davids, Tereska Muishond, Makgano Mamabolo, and in parts Lebo Mashile. They make this section of the book feel much longer than it is and subsequently quite a few essays feel like tiresome, almost monotonous reads. Welcome highlights are Toni Stuart’s, Ronelda Kamfer’s, and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers’ essays. In Voices in the Mirror: Poetry as a Tool for Social Change Stuart takes us on a journey about how she teaches writing and what writing means to her, and how she is “slowly experiencing [her] heritage, and [her] relationship of being light-skinned, yet ‘of colour’.” (p. 163). Particularly beautiful is her recounting of a workshop in which the participants strip down their identity to the bare but nonetheless sublime idea of being first and foremost human.
de Villiers’ essay entitled Playing with Shadows: Finding Poetic Language through Theatre and Life makes some vital observations on how theatre, acting, dance, and poetry stimulate and inform each other. The readers are taken on a journey with the author of her story as actress and poet and I found myself wishing that I could have been there when she performed in plays during the late 90s and early 2000s, asking myself whether I also might be able to trace her journey as poet through theatre and curious as to whether I would see other intersections between poetry and theatre besides those that she outlines herself. She also poignantly highlights the importance of silence for both poetry and acting and ends the essay with the powerful statement: “Behind words lie the shadow hands of gesture, nature, everything that life has printed on us – up to this moment of speaking.” (p. 217).
Ronelda Kamfer’s deliciously witty and straight forward essay There is Another World and it is in This One is a delight to read both in terms of style and content. Her astute anti-white comments (both about the poetry scene here and abroad) found this reader clapping and smiling with glee and drawing a huge portion of empowerment and inspiration from her offering.
Kamfer says, for instance: “my second book sold less than my debut. […] I got invited to fewer poetry events; also, my white friends seemed to thin out gradually. I was quite pleased with most of these developments, as I had always felt concerned about the fact that I was a writer that white people approved of. My impression had always been that this must be the first indication that there is something lacking in your writing, or that the writing is being misunderstood, if you are writing from the perspective of the subaltern.” (p. 186). This is one of the simple truths that many of us in academic and artistic spaces seldom dare say in public. All the more revitalizing and affirming it is to see these words on a page, where no one can erase them and we who go out into these spaces will remember and repeat them with more courage both to our mentees as a mantra and in the faces of white people.
Part III, conversations, consists of interviews mostly conducted by Xaba herself with various poets or organisers of poetry sessions/events/spaces. They hardly bring anything new to the fore except being affirmations and variations of part II. However, they will in all likelihood prove to be valuable material for future projects which focus on the interviewed writers and their work. The largest section within part III forms an interview between five poets on language, writing in one’s mother tongue in particular. But it adds very little to either the debate on this topic which has been going on for decades or to mabaso’s excellent essay on this very subject matter in part I.
One of the highlights of part III is, for me, the conversation between Baderoon and Xaba which yields a variety of wonderful insights into Baderoon’s own writing process and her thoughts as a critic. However, she also makes a remark that leads me to my final observation, which is, I believe, the main reason why parts II and III of this book speak far less to me than part I. When Xaba asks Baderoon about her wishes for the future of poetry, the latter responds: “I hope the poetry scene will continue to be modestly scaled and welcoming of singular voices and also sweetly communal” (p. 277).
Somewhat more problematic than wishing for a ‘sweetly communal’ poetry space is Jenkins’ and de Villiers’ remark about Jozi House of Poetry being a “church for the poet” (p. 237). To my mind, a church is a stifling, autocratic institution that does not like to hear criticism. And this is where I find particularly the Jo’burg poetry scene problematic. The one time that I did attend a Jozi House of Poetry session I felt as if I was coming out of a therapy session I had not signed up for rather than an actual gathering of poets who care for the word. Everyone was speaking about ‘holding’, ‘caring’, ‘holding space’, being ‘gentle’, ‘spiritual’, and ‘vulnerable’. And yes, it was all very sweet, so Baderoon’s wish that she asked for a few years back was granted. But do these spaces, particularly within the Johannesburg poetry scene really foster growth when we all gather to sing each other’s praises or will they derail the potential that so many young poets have? Is it really nurturing to do nothing but ‘hold’ and ‘be gentle’ when rigorous editing, and a thorough engagement with the word is also needed?
My points of criticism on parts II and III, however, should not be read as a call to overlook this important contribution to contemporary South African literary debates. Nor would I want my remarks to take away from the thorough research and the labour of love that the editor of the collection and many contributors alongside her have put into this book. I believe it is an important milestone that will hopefully create interest in, debates and criticism around, and many a heated public discussion on contemporary poetry written by South African Black women.