Koleka Putuma took South Africa, and a large chunk of the globe, by storm with her poem "Water". She's a poet, playwright, director and many other things, and has an astonishing number of accolades under her belt. Her debut poetry collection, Collective Amnesia, is being published in April 2017 by Uhlanga Press. We recently sat down to discuss the women in her poetry.
First off, we agreed not to talk about "Water". Though the poem had changed many things for Putuma, it had also brought with it challenges. On her blog she wrote about the violence that results from being identified not just with the poem, but as the poem, and the resulting entitlement people feel to her and to her space. We decided to talk about the women who feature prominently elsewhere in her poetry instead. In "oh dear god. please! not another rape poem" women, girls, mothers and daughters are in a sense held captive by a "problematic uncle", as Putuma puts it. When asked about the recurrence of the (somewhat menacing, certainly unsettling) uncle in other poems, she says, "We all have a problematic uncle, in one way or another...There are a lot of stories to be told about our uncles, and the kind of violence our uncles in the private space [...] are allowed to get away with in the name of family or in the name of being civil or keeping the peace, but the peace is kept at the expense of someone in that house."
Though she sees these poems as political in one sense (resistance, pushing back against the things women aren't allowed to talk about), Putuma also argues for another aspect of her poetry as a radical act: telling stories of love and joy. "The act of choosing yourself [...] after you've broken up with someone or after you've left someone, and going, okay, I'm gonna fix my life now, or I'm gonna figure out how I can get back into my groove, how I can heal, that's a huge act of resistance."
Choosing yourself after heartbreak is in itself a political act, and Putuma says she wants to tell these stories that can be both very personal and radical at the same time. Her poem "Black Joy" was longlisted for and subsequently published in the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology (Vol. 6) in 2016. The poem, along with others in the same vein, like her "21 Love Poems", resists the urge to focus solely on the pain associated with being black, and black women especially.
The tendency to erase the joy, love and other positive aspects of life from black narratives is problematic for Putuma, who says she writes for herself, because she would have liked to read poems like these when she was seventeen. In her ideal world, she'd like to write stories that celebrate black women "not in relation to white women, not in relation to black men, just her, what does she look like or feel like when she's not fighting patriarchy".
The way she writes now, she says, features men quite prominently because she observes what's going on around her and writes about that, hence the "problematic uncle". Even poems that are empowering, like "interview", talk back to something. When you say to a woman that she is "strong" (a word Putuma dislikes), you're saying that in relation to men. We considered for a while whether it would be possible to create a body of work just about women, and Putuma, joking that it might be her next collection, said, "Because our work models society, we feed off what's happening around us, that shift would have to happen in real-time in real life, where we are not. We would have to not be responding to patriarchy."
When we talk about what that may look like, or whether it would be possible to write that collection in a post-patriachal society if you still remember being unfree, we get stuck on the concept of freedom. "There are variations of freedom. There are moments when I feel free, in my own personal space and time, where I go 'I feel free right now'," Putuma says, "I feel the most free when I'm writing, when I'm doing things that I like, that I love, when I'm in my home, when I'm not being whistled at."
Even so, she thinks it's possible to write about women in relation to themselves, because there are many things that make up who she is not in relation to a man. "Society [...] has done a good job of putting a lot of shame where women's things are concerned, our bodies, our vaginas, how we look, our hair, mental illness... There's a whole lot of shame around the things that we experience as women, and for a lot of women there comes a lot of silencing with that shame.
Even things that shouldn't have shame around it [...] let's talk about stretchmarks! It's bizarre, when you actually think about how much shame there is around stretchmarks and how much cosmetics have been designed to take that shit away." Silencing and shame leads to misconceptions around women's bodies, and eventually things that belong only to us are co-opted by the men in our lives (anyone else ever ruined a man's day by having their period?). Putuma wants to take back these experiences and write about them in a way that's not sanitised.
This is what makes Putuma one of the best poets in South Africa right now. Her stories are universal. When she says we all have a problematic uncle, I immediately recall one of my own. But they're also intensely personal. She says, "No one can tell your narrative like you can. No one can write about your period, even though you and I have both have periods, your period and my period, it's not the same thing."
This makes the recent allegations of plagiarism against Kenyan poet Redscar McOdindo K'Oyuga even more problematic. Not only did he steal words from other poets, but he stole words from women of colour about women's experiences. Women don't need men to talk on behalf of them. What we need is women like Koleka Putuma, who are emphatic, honest, and unapologetic.
Below are two of Putuma's poems: "interview" and "oh dear god, please! not another rape poem".
Why did you leave?
I grew tired
of being the coffin in the room
of having other coffins lowered down my throat and being asked if I'm breathing ok?
of having tombstones lowered down my nostrils and being asked if I'm breathing ok?
of pallbearing the news of murdered lesbians and being expected to breathe ok
of the expectation that we must exist as obituaries
of being hung at half-mast and being expected to breathe ok
of being written about as if I am already dead.
Black men and white womxn
Always write about black womxn
As if we are already dead.
Seems like the world
Does not know what a
Black womxn walking
Really looks like when she is breathing.
Why are you always murdering our narratives with your gaze?
Why are you always hijacking our narratives with your gaze?
Why are you always trying to assassinate us with your gaze?
OH DEAR GOD, PLEASE! NOT ANOTHER RAPE POEM
some mothers set their daughters alight to keep their men warm.
and some family members would rather describe the smoke than smell like it.
- sometimes [hell] is a penis
- sometimes [girls] repent just to save themselves from encountering the devil
- sometimes [uncle] is a boyfriend. a random. a test you will keep taking but always fail
- sometimes [uncle] is a siren in some living rooms
- sometimes [uncle] is an aircon everyone is too lazy to adjust or switch off
- sometimes [the daughters] are not left alone with him
- but [he] is not banned from family gatherings, either
- sometimes [collateral damage] is another way of saying:
- I am a coward
many things are cultural. like:
- crop tops.
sometimes [rape] is placed in the same sentence as:
a term that makes the act seem like
- something you could wear (
- or wash
- or take off
- or drop off at the laundry
- or buy tickets to see
- or an experience you are excited to tweet about
- or a meme that goes viral
- or something whites anticipate to appropriate
- or a zol passed around at a bonfire
- or salt at the dinner table
- forks scraping empty plates is a soundtrack for when that uncle enters the room.
- nobody wants to do the dishes until the secret slips.
- the womxn in the family would rather toil in the kitchen than crucify their husbands or brothers or sons or respected elders.
- (sometimes) hell is burning between their thighs, too.
- (sometimes) they can no longer find salvation in their vows.
- but the gospel has taught them how to stay
- even when the devil is the one promising eternity.
- it's easier to hold the [child] accountable for a 'lie' than it is to hold the [uncle] accountable for the truth.
- the [children] play Hide-n-Seek and find grown people's things in forbidden rooms.
- the [family] is not interested in the nightmares they have thereafter.
- no one wants to have xmas dinner with skeletons.
- and, anyway,
- the [girls] were warned.
- hide-n-seek is for heathens
- and [girls] should not be out so late playing with
somewhere, a loud sigh finishes this with
oh dear god, please! not another rape poem.
- Xmas Gathering
- Uncle So-and-So
- Boyfriend #6
- Proverbs 31
- Sistah Bettina
- Black Solidarity
- The neighbours can never see your dirty laundry
- Bazothini abantu syndrome
- It is the Model C school (we sent you to)
- Vaginas with emergency signs
- Drunk girls
- Slutty behaviour
- Sluts in general
- Matric dance
- Serving that uncle a glass of water.
- Hug uncle
- Greet uncle
- Stop being funny
- Stop being antisocial
- Give uncle a kiss
- Sit on uncle's lap