"I address women in the world."

  • 0
“I write poetry from my personal space, in my personal voice. I say ‘I am here’. I address women in the world.” Makhosazana Xaba

“I write because I am furious”
Antjie Krog, ‘nightmare of A Samuel born Krog’
Down to my last skin (2000, p. 49)

“We arrive in all our shapes and sizes,
Connect in many languages”
Makhosazana Xaba
The alkalinity of bottled water (2019, p. 65)

Anger and pain! That is what we remember from a conversation between Makhosazana Xaba and Njabulo S. Ndebele at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS). Xaba and Ndebele spoke, honestly and astutely over lunch, about the affective potentialities and pitfalls of their work.

Makhosazana Xaba, Njabulo S. Ndebele and Yves T'Sjoen (Photo: Juliana M. Pistorius)

How does one use literature to express deep-rooted anger at social injustice, without falling into simple description? Ndebele spoke about the interiorisation of emotions in literature, and ruminated on the power of words to communicate pressing concerns, while resisting the urge for reactions to social inequality, oppression and neglect to become overpowering or paralysing. It was a remarkable experience to be part of a conversation between “mother” Makhosazana and “son” Njabulo, and to witness the enormous mutual respect that exists between these two literary and intellectual giants. Ndebele is well known as a scholar, an author (including of the acclaimed novel, The Cry of Winnie Mandela (2003)), and as an internationally recognised public intellectual, esteemed especially as an authority on political reconciliation, educational reform, and racial and cultural politics. Xaba, who enjoys a significant public profile in South Africa, is deserving of an international audience equal to that of her friend and mentor.

Agency across languages

Poet and academic Makhosazana Xaba (born in Greytown, KwaZulu-Natal), is an undeniably authoritative voice in South Africa. Associate Professor of Practice in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Johannesburg, she combines a legacy as activist and writer with a profound historical interest and a commitment to South Africa’s literary future. Xaba spent four years in exile, from the declaration of the first state of emergency in 1986 until Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990. Along with the African National Congress Women’s League she returned to her country of birth when the apartheid government finally lifted the ban on Black liberation organisations. Apart from her academic work in the field of creative writing, she vigorously champions the creation of public fora for women and non-binary writers. In Xaba’s own description, poetry and writing offer a means to see more clearly, to articulate a point of view that cannot be captured outside the poetic form. It can give words to experiences of oppression, discrimination and other forms of structural injustice.

Xaba hosts a regular conversation series in The Johannesburg Review of Books, where she conducts captivating exchanges with Black women authors across languages. In this way, Xaba seeks to draw attention to these authors’ poetry, and to their views on the arts and contemporary society. Xaba herself is an isi-Zulu speaker who writes in English.

She has published several collections of poetry, including these hands (2005), Tongues of their Mothers (2008), The alkalinity of bottled water (2019), as well as a collection of short stories titled Running and Other Stories (2013). Xaba has also compiled a number of anthologies, such as Like the Untouchable Wind (2016), which feature Black feminist authors. Like the Untouchable Wind was made possible by GALA (Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action) and SRC (Sexual Rights Centre). Another collection, Our Words, Our Worlds: Writing on Black South African Women Poets, 20002018 (2019), draws together contributions on Black Feminism as developed by Gabeba Baderoon and Black African women writers.

Currently, Xaba is a Creative Fellow at STIAS, where she is developing a project of historical short fiction ‒ a genre that has had limited uptake in the South African literary context (in contrast to historical novels or poetry with historical themes). She has previously fulfilled a writers’ residence at Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER) at the University of the Witwatersrand (2006-2007). STIAS styles itself as “a creative space for the mind” (https://stias.ac.za/). In this setting, the presence of authors such as Xaba fulfils a far greater function than mere disciplinary diversification. Interactions with artists and literary authors are crucial for researchers across diverse scientific fields. The literary author contributes dimensions and insights that would otherwise remain inaccessible to scientists. Academic publications, excellent as they may be in their own disciplines, remain limited in their engagement with the fullness of human experience. Poetry can articulate beyond the confines of academic language and thought.

“We go back and revisit the wounds we have … using art as a tool or as a weapon to reconstruct what was destroyed” (Hope Azeda, Rwanda, in conversation at Africa in the World Festival 2023) 

Makhosazana Xaba is of course much more than a poet and an anthologist. She is a feminist activist and a mentor for women writers. In her research, public performances and publications she focuses explicitly on those who have for too long been left out of patriarchal literary historiography. She especially champions women within and beyond the LGBTQI community, who have faced systematic exclusion from a literary canon constructed and policed by male critics and academics. Black feminist writers’ voices were silenced not only under apartheid, but also in the more recent post-apartheid past.

As Xaba uses them, interviews and anthologies become structures of agency. Xaba’s biography on the website of Poetry Africa Festival (where she performed first in 2006, and again in 2015 (https://poetryafrica.ukzn.ac.za/map-location/makhosazana-xaba/?mpfy-pin=9577) and 2020 states, “‘[t]o encounter Makhosana Xaba’s poetry is to enter a space where an activist past and engagement with current social problems are refracted through a unique personal vision that is sharp, witty and ripe with experience’ [Clare Wyllie, in Agenda]. To Xaba, writing is necessary because of the historical perspective it gives to these problems, to speak and to “listen to the voices that come”  (https://poetryarchive.org/poet/makhosazana-xaba/). Her work offers a practical example of Rwandan playwright Hope Azeda’s creed to employ creative forms in service not only of historical reconstruction, but also as a route into the experiences of those rendered voiceless by dominant systems and structures.

Voices for the voiceless

Xaba uses her own work as a medium to give Black women writers a platform. Maneo Refiloe Mohale, Katleho Kano Shoro, Saraah Lubala and vangile gantsho, among others, have featured in long-form interviews with Xaba in JRB (https://johannesburgreviewofbooks.com/2024/02/29/conversation-issue-poetry-refuses-the-abstraction-of-theory-danai-mupotsa-in-conversation-with-makhosazana-xaba/). In South Africa, these authors have scant opportunities to bring their work into the public domain, or to get it issued by established publishers. These voices are nonetheless vital; they must be heard. The aim of Xaba’s work is to conduct conversations with poets and academics, in order to make visible “Black women’s creativity” and the extent to which it is channelled through the medium of poetry.

Corrective to the image of South African poetry

In her remarkably instructive contribution to Our Words, Our Worlds, titled “Black Women Poets and Their Books as Contributions to the Agenda of Feminism” (pp.15-61), Xaba reflects on Black Feminism and the literary agency of Black women authors. She takes her lead from a statement by celebrated South African scholar and feminist Pumla Dineo Gqola, who asks, “What do we make of the dramatic shift in who publishes poetry in contemporary South Africa from a handful of recognizable white men and women writers, to a proliferation of Black women poets?” (in “Whirling Worlds? Women’s Poetry, Feminist Imagination and Contemporary South African Publics”, Scrutiny2, 2011). Following Gqola, Xaba seeks a corrective to the image of South African poetry, which was long dominated by white male voices. She examines a total of 84 poetry collections by 59 Black authors writing not only in English but in a variety of languages. Xaba discusses these authors’ poetry as both “act” and “event”. Her agenda is partly shaped by Jonathan Culler’s remarks about the diverse ways in which poetry can be described: “A poem is both a structure made of words (a text) and an event (an act of the poet), an experience of the reader, an event in literary history”. Xaba regards the collections under discussion in her essay as “feminist acts” and “literary events”. Drawing on a term first promoted by Barbara Boswell, Xaba describes the poems that make up these collections as “acts of restorative justice”. The voices of these Black women poets need a larger forum. Xaba’s counter-canonising work as anthologist fits within this activist strategy.

Platform for powerful voices both locally and internationally

A difficult, even painful, question is why these women poets receive so little recognition in the South African literary context. Why do they struggle to get their work published in their own languages, and why do they enjoy limited to no acknowledgement within the English and Afrikaans cultural communities? Xaba devotes herself to correcting the disturbing void in public awareness and attention around these voices. Led by a commitment to restorative justice and corrective action, she is dedicated to obtaining greater appreciation for these authors and their work. As a poet she is a unique voice in South Africa; more significantly, she is a generous activist who seeks to obtain public access for numerous women writers who would otherwise not have had such opportunities. A multitude of South African voices, forced into silence by cultural, political, and social circumstances, and trapped in a world where they cannot be heard, find new resonance thanks to Xaba’s efforts. Thus, she reveals a hitherto unknown wealth of individual authors, and champions specific experiences and histories that must urgently be heard in South Africa and beyond.

Several conversations during our concurrent research fellowships at STIAS have revealed the critical need for work such as Makhosazana Xaba’s. For too long, Black women writers have been forced under the radar. Even now, their voices are barely heard in the South African public sphere. We support Xaba’s call not only to publish and promote more of these authors’ work, but also to translate such work, and finally to make use of the literary infrastructure of publishers, libraries, and translation programmes to develop a platform for these powerful voices both locally and internationally.

Call me not, a Woman of Colour

Please, call me not,
a woman of colour.
Call me, a black woman.
The name from my political context.
The name grounded in my experience.
The name I call myself, sometimes.

Call me, a black woman.

Tongues of their Mothers (2008, p. 37)

Tomorrow awaits our awakening.

The reconstructed us.
The self-conscious collective.
The responsible & inspired us.

Tomorrow will not abandon us.

The alkalinity of bottled water (2019, n.p.).

STIAS Nobel in Africa – Literature

Plans are in the making at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study to organise and host a Nobel in Africa symposium on literature. The first Nobel in Africa symposium was organised in 2022, thanks to financial support from the Swedish Wallenberg Foundation. To date, the Nobel in Africa programme has promoted international meetings focused on four scientific domains, namely physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and most recently, economic sciences (https://stias.ac.za/initiatives/nobel-in-africa/). STIAS has recently confirmed that it will be hosting symposia in the two remaining Nobel Prize categories, namely literature and peace. In this regard, the presence of Makhosazana Xaba as STIAS writer in residence is significant, not least due to the crucial role she plays as “patron” of other South African authors across languages. In 2023, several authors, including Nobel Prize laureates Abdulrazak Gurnah (2021, STIAS writer in residence in 2018) and Wole Soyinka (1986), appeared at STIAS as part of the five-day “Africa in the World: Festival of Hearts and Minds” meeting. This event was initiated by Nigerian journalist and activist Dele Olojede in 2019, and will have its third instalment in 2024 (https://africaintheworld.com/). STIAS has already shown its capacity to draw together influential thinkers and authors from the worlds of literature and the arts. A Nobel in Africa symposium, with an academic and literary programme dedicated to literature in Africa, and with delegates such as the authors mentioned here, as well as South African and African poets working across a diversity of languages, promises to become a remarkable gathering.

Makhosazana Xaba will present a public lecture and reading of her poetry on Monday 25 March at STIAS.

Yves T’Sjoen and Juliana M. Pistorius

Ghent University | Stellenbosch University | University College London | University of the Witwatersrand

Many thanks to Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study

Also read:

Nobelpryswenner Wole Soyinka bring aktualiteit en letterkunde in kaart op Africa in the World

Africa in the World-fees: Nobelpryswenner Gurnah verken op genuanseerde wyse postkoloniale ervarings van tuiste en ballingskap

  • 0
Verified by MonsterInsights