It’s an interesting time to be a young poet in South Africa right now. With an eye toward reinvigorating a once stodgy, inaccessible, and unyielding art form, publishing houses and less traditional platforms are looking to new voices to add new energy and life into poetry. Many of these voices speak to the complexities of living in a country that is still struggling to address and express the injustices and inequalities of its monochromatic past.
Slam poetry platforms like the popular Word N Sound Poetry and Live Music Series provide open and inclusive spaces for young performance poets to test out their words and style, while connecting South African performers with international heavyweights such as Striver’s Row favourite Alysia Nicole Harris and British-Somali former Young Poet Laureate Warsan Shire. For poets who are more page than stage, publishing houses such as uHlanga Press actively seek out diverse and exciting young voices, and are responding to the new hunger for poetry in truly inventive ways.
Within this maelstrom of swirling poetic energy, two of South Africa’s most exciting Black women poets, Vuyelwa Maluleke and Koleka Putuma, have distinguished themselves with their fierce combination of brutally honest writing and thrilling performance.
Maluleke is a spoken word artist, scriptwriter, and actor based in Johannesburg. She was the 2015 Slam Champion in the Word N Sound Poetry League and was shortlisted for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2014. She is also the author of Things We Lost in the Fire, a chapbook exploring her experiences of navigating South Africa as a Black woman.
Putuma is an award-winning theater director, writer, and performance poet based in Cape Town. She was nominated for the Rosalie van der Gucht Prize for Best New Director at the annual Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards in 2015, and was recently awarded the PEN South Africa Student Writing Prize for her gut-wrenchingly powerful poem: “Water.” She recently released her debut collection of poems, Collective Amnesia, with uHlanga Press.
I interviewed Maluleke and Putuma about the intricacies of being Black women poets at such an exciting and compelling time for poetry in South Africa. What follows are excerpts of our conversations, in which we spoke about living and writing in between urgency and agency.
Maneo Mohale: Is identity important for you in how you position and understand yourself as a poet?
Koleka Putuma: I think it is. I think labels serve as containers that contextualize the work that we do. As a writer yourself, I know that you know this. But I think that I identify very simply: as a poet, as a theater person, as a director, and as a feminist. Not as a box, but as a contextualizer. Also, people just add on to that as they want. You can’t stop people from adding their own ideas of who they think you are or who they want you to be. And of course, labels are allowed to change, they’re allowed to shift. I think that where the problem comes in with labels is that as Black women, people don’t give you the space to change. People don’t shift their ideas of you easily.
Vuyelwa Maluleke: I’ve said this to people before, but I feel like as soon as I say I’m Black, I’m a woman, and I’m queer, somebody’s going to want me to write a “queer poem.” You know? And I’m like, “What? Hold on!” The Black woman poems are already difficult, they’re tough to write, and I haven’t gotten to the queer parts yet. Just give me a second to just step into myself and figure it out. I’m definitely comfortable with saying “queer.” I just think that there are particular expectations that are projected onto you when you adopt specific labels. Suddenly, there’s an expectation for the work to be “Black Woman Queer Work,” whatever that is. Not to say that this isn’t necessary for visibility, but I don’t know if I want to be made a banner for all forms of visibility.
MM: I hear you. For Black women, there’s this expectation that you have to perform your identity in packages easy enough for people to consume. Also, that in order to be visible and legible, you also have to produce receipts for aspects of your identity.
VM: I think for us this kind of thing is a double-edged sword. First, there’s this expectation that the writing must be universal, it must fit everybody in. At the same time, you need to be Black and feminist and all the other labels, and perform those identities in a way that makes you digestible too. Also, on top of that, you can’t alienate white audiences too much. I’m very aware of this, while also trying to write outside of these expectations and be truthful and honest. Which is difficult, because there are too many people watching you, and once you speak, they won’t allow you to change your mind about some of the things you’ve said. I want to be allowed to change my mind.
KP: It’s so ridiculous. There’s also this idea that if you’re not writing about reclaiming stolen land, then you’re not radical enough. Sometimes, I feel like there’s a scale about what you’re allowed to write about and how it will be perceived—especially with Black women artists.
On the one end of the scale, there are so-called shallow themes, and on the other end there are deep themes. In between, there’s this vast, untouched world. Women who write about mining, violence, land, colorism, and queer issues are labelled as radical and political, and women who write about McDonald’s or cheesecake or breakfast are seen as apolitical, diluted, and frivolous. And I think that this is such a central thing about being a Black woman writer: There is no room to move freely within that, to move from breakfast to landmines. What I feel that many people don’t get is that you can write a poem about cheesecake and have it be incredibly profound in the same way that you can write a poem about the ruling political party in South Africa, the African National Congress, and realize that the poem is quite shallow and meaningless.
MM: So in the midst of all this, who do you write for? Who is your audience?
VM: Very recently, I’ve come to the understanding that I write stories and poems about Black women and Black womanhood. I didn’t really want to say that before; I was very reluctant to admit and assert that. That when I say “women” in my poems I mean Black women, I never mean white women, unless I specify them as such in my poems, and usually when I do, they’re doing something I don’t like.
KP: My answer to this question has changed quite a lot, but I feel like right now, I write for me. I’m my biggest critic and my most honest listener. I have to like my writing; it has to move me. I used to take my readership for granted. I used to write from a place where I predicted how people would respond to my work and I found that half the time, I didn’t like the work I was producing.
And this just illustrates the importance of changing my mind and shifting. When I used to get this question, I’d give an answer along the lines of, “I’m writing for all the young Black girls and queer bodies out there…” And at a point I had to ask myself, “Who are these young Black girls and queers out there? What do they look like? Do I have a tangible way of locating them?” And what I found was in a lot of ways, that young Black girl out there or that queer girl out there was really just an extension of me. I wanted to write for me, but I couldn’t articulate it at that time. There was a fear of being perceived as vain if I expressed that I was writing for myself. So many things have been demonized in the name of keeping Black women in check. As soon as a Black woman shows any sign of loving herself, as soon as she shares her intellect with the world, in an attempt to push her back into the shadows, we start hearing words like “selfishness” and “vanity.”
MM: What do you think about the poetry landscape in South Africa? Do you think that we’re ready for voices like yours?
VM: I’m trying to think of Black women poets who [are making] an impact right now, and for me, there are some amazing women in slam platforms who I feel are not being rewarded in meaningful ways. They’re not being rewarded in the same ways as perhaps male poets are being rewarded. And I know I’m very harsh towards the kind of mediocrity that’s being rewarded. I feel like Black women are being penalized for feeling and speaking about uncomfortable and unsettling topics out loud. In South Africa, there’s a kind of detached way that people are doing slam poetry right now.
But if we look at Koleka’s “Water,” for example: Many people are open to hearing a poem [that] is explicitly about race, because South Africa is having a really large and difficult conversation about race right now. But if Koleka got up and decided to perform a poem addressed to Black men—which she has—and proclaimed “Listen, this poem is about you,” I don’t think everyone would want to listen to her in that particular moment.
So I feel like, being a Black woman poet is living between celebration and resistance at the same time.
KP: I think that people are perhaps ready for the mass of Black women writing right now, but aren’t ready for what it is that we have to say. On the publishing landscape, on the spoken-word scene, and even in the theater world, you hear and see a lot of activity around people creating platforms and festivals specifically for Black people and spaces designed with Black women in mind. I also see a lot of submission calls for Black women’s work, which is great. So the idea that Black women’s work is celebrated and encouraged is there.
But what people are not ready for is what Black women will do once we access these spaces, once the call is answered. Now structures want to dictate the kinds of things we must perform, publish, and speak about. I’ve found that the song that powerful structures like the publishing landscape want Black women to sing has very particular lyrics that weren’t made transparent in the call for those voices. So while the world might be ready for the presence of Black women in particular spaces, it isn’t ready for the disruption that comes with a Black voice. There’s this shock like, “Why are you writing about dismantling XYZ, or calling us out on the oppression in this space? Yes, slay girl! But don’t slay too much, don’t slay us!” But Black women aren’t here so that you can consume our slay.
MM: My last question is about dreaming. I’m a little obsessed with the idea of dreaming in public, or dreaming out loud. In your ideal, better world, where does your poetry live? What does it do? Dream with me a little bit: If your words could do anything, what would you want them to do?
VM: I really want people to be uncomfortable. I’m not afraid of discomfort; I think discomfort is more meaningful than the quiet feeling of affirmation, because [that] doesn’t really change much. You’re just feeling the same set of emotions as me at a particular time. I think when you’re uncomfortable, it signals inner conversations. Maybe you don’t agree, in which case you have to examine why you don’t agree with what I’m saying. I like it when people leave one of my performances with homework or when they leave with questions.
And who are my poems for? My greatest audience is, and I think will always be, Black women. I want them to know that someone is thinking about them, wondering about where it hurts and caring about that. I want my poems to open up spaces between Black women, so we can talk to each other and talk about what it feels like to be silenced or how love leads us into different spaces.
Also, I really want to write poetry in my own languages! My mother speaks isiXhosa and my father is Tsonga and speaks Setswana. I’d definitely love to write in those three languages. I mean, Maneo, have you heard our languages? They’re so gorgeous. Every time our people speak, it’s poetry. I feel like English is such a pedestrian language, you have to work so hard to activate it. But our mother tongues are already poetry. I mean, when people are greeting you, when people say “Dumelang, le kae?” [a common greeting in Setswana/Sesotho], I always think to myself, “You are greeting me, a singular person, as if there are many of me, and you are greeting all of us.” And the idea of that alone is poetry. And so fucking amazing!
Also, writing in my mother tongue would mean that my father would be able to access my work and connect to my work. And that would be so perfect.
KP: That’s such a beautiful question. I guess in my dream world, the work is sitting with people who have influence and power to shift things. They are people who make decisions that impact the rest of us. But more than that, the work is in the hands of people who think or believe that they don’t have the right to access imagination. I want those people to have the space to dream, sit, read, and indulge in joy and pleasure. In my dream world, the work is shifting something. And not in an airy sort of way, but in a tangible way, which goes back to my answer. That it must be in the hands of people who have influence in the world, and can change things for the better.