Read ‘Surely This [Mother Tongue] Should Count for Something’—A conversation with 5 women poets, from Makhosazana Xaba’s new book Our Words, Our Worlds

The JRB presents an excerpt from Our Words, Our Worlds: Writing on Black South African Women Poets, 2000–2018, edited by The JRB Patron Makhosazana Xaba.

Our Words, Our Worlds
Makhosazana Xaba
UKZN Press

Our Words, Our Worlds is multi-genre anthology that brings together the writing of over twenty contributors, including Gabeba Baderoon, Barbara Boswell, Diana Ferrus, duduzile zamantungwa mabaso, VM Sisi Maqagi, Malika Ndlovu, and many more.

The book explores the history and impact of poetry by Black women, in their own voices, and answers the question: What did the literary landscape look like in South Africa at the start of the twenty-first century?

Our excerpt features a conversation between five poets on writing and performing in a language that is not your mother tongue.

Makhosazana Xaba reading her new book Our Words, Our Worlds

Read the excerpt:

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‘Surely This [Mother Tongue] Should Count for Something’

Interviews with Five Contemporary Poets from Gauteng

Napo Masheane, Natalia Molebatsi, Vangi Gantsho, Mthunzikazi Mbungwana and Nosipho Gumede with Makhosazana Xaba

An introduction to the five poets

These poets—Napo Masheane, Natalia Molebatsi, Vangi Gantsho, Mthunzikazi Mbungwana and Nosipho Gumede—are part of a larger, contemporary poetry scene in Gauteng. This interview was conducted in 2015. I emailed a questionnaire to the poets and they answered the questions at their leisure and returned the responses. Interestingly, none of them use stage names, a practice commonly seen among younger poets.

Molebatsi has published three poetry collections; her second collection, Elephant Woman Song, is in two editions. Masheane and Gantsho have each published two collections, and Mbungwana has published one.

English is not their mother tongue, although all these poets, bar Gumede, speak more than three languages. The questions I sent them were centred on mother tongue and poetry. In order to get a realistic sense of the languages the poets write and read/perform in, I asked them give a sense of which language(s) dominate(s).

Napo Masheane’s mother tongue is Sesotho. In addition, she speaks Setswana, Sepedi, isiZulu and English. She writes and performs in English and Sesotho, although she adds bits and pieces from other African languages because she is flexible with her use of languages, depending on the audiences she is performing for. Poems also dictate to her how she mixes the languages: some poems are predominantly in English—say, 80: 20—while other are predominantly in Sesotho. Some are 100 per cent English and others 100 per cent Sesotho. As a poet and a theatre person, Masheane feels she needs to work with languages in ways that appeal to all her audiences in order not to exclude anyone. She self-published her poetry collections Caves Speak in Metaphors (2006) and Fat Songs for my Girlfriends (2011) through her company Village Gossip Productions. Her signature poems are ‘Setsotso’, ‘Sebata’, ‘Khoasa Bohlale’, ‘Samburu’ and ‘Hae’. Masheane says her main achievements are being a published poet and having been a part of the spoken word scene for the past sixteen years. She wishes she had written the poem ‘Mmakgutsitse’ by KE Ntsane.

Natalia Molebatsi’s mother tongue is Setswana. In addition, she speaks Italian, Portuguese, English, isiXhosa, isiZulu and Sepedi. She is the author of Sardo Dance, published by Ge’ko Publishing (2009) and Elephant Woman Song, published by Forum in Italy (2017 and 2018) since this interview. Her poems in Elephant Woman Song are accompanied by paintings by the artist Tiziana Pers. She writes mainly in English, but does sometimes include other indigenous languages. The reason she says that English dominates her written and performed poetry is worth quoting in full:

The legacies of the thorough British colonialisation project meant being ‘better’ educated in South Africa, in many instances, meant losing your mother tongue. Also I read a lot of world poetry (which inspires my own writing) in English. Although I went to school in a township all my life, I realised that in townships we use a watered-down language, a mix of a number of languages, mixed with English, thus losing the purer form of language.

Molebatsi says that her main achievements are hosting a night with Alice Walker and editing the poetry anthology We Are, published by Penguin in 2009. She wishes she had written ‘Love Poem’ by Suheir Hammad.

Vangi Gantsho’s mother tongue is isiXhosa. She also speaks English, isiZulu and Afrikaans. She writes and performs most of her poetry in English (98 per cent) and a little bit in isiXhosa (2 per cent) because, ‘shamefully’, she translates in her head from isiXhosa into English. She is the author of a collection Undressing in Front of the Window, which she self-published in 2015, and Red Cotton, published in 2018 by Impepho Press, which she co-owns. Gantsho says her main achievements as a poet are receiving a standing ovation for her performance at the Thabo Mbeki Africa Day lecture in 2012 and being profiled and featured in Sable LitMag (the South African writers edition) alongside Don Mattera and Keorapetse Kgositsile. She wishes she had written the poem ‘Ugly’ by Warsan Shire.

Mthunzikazi Mbungwana’s mother tongue is isiXhosa. She also speaks Sesotho, isiZulu and English. Her signature poems are ‘Abantwana’, ‘Ngubani Na?’ and ‘Msokoli’. Her poetry in isiXhosa is included in the anthology Isolezwe lwesiXhosa (2015) and has been featured in literary journals and anthologies, including Home is Where the Mic is (Botsotso, 2015), To Breathe into Another Voice: An Anthology of South African Jazz Poetry (STE Publishers, 2017) and Atlanta Review 25 (2) in 2018. She self-published her debut collection Umnikelo in 2015. Mthunzikazi says her main achievements as a poet are headlining Night of the Poets at the State Theatre in 2013 and performing at One Billion Rising at the Constitution Hill, under the banner of ‘Poets for Change’. She wishes she had written the poem ‘Mbambushe’ by the legendary SEK Mqhayi.

Nosipho Gumede’s mother tongue is isiZulu and she also speaks English. Her signature poem is ‘Knock Knock’. She writes and performs in English (98 per cent) and isiZulu (2 per cent) and has two poems in English that each have one stanza in isiZulu because, she says,

to be honest, I feel I do not have the ability to do justice to the isiZulu language sometimes. I’m always uncertain about how to play with the language, how to create images and hide meaning. Whenever I use it in my work I’m afraid that I’m not using it as creatively as I should but I’m working on it!

Gumede says her main achievements are co-founding the Wits Poetry Corner and co-creating a spoken word show called Meanwhile. She wishes she had written ‘Black Women Plotting’ by a young, Johannesburg-based poet, Vuyelwa Maluleke.

Interviews

Makhosazana Xaba: Have you translated your poetry from English to your mother tongue? Do you have plans to do this in future? If yes, please tell me about the process and the end product. If not, why not?

Napo Masheane: No, I haven’t. There are a number of reasons. Some words in Sesotho, including totems or clan names, certain phrases or words, are hard to translate. But more so, some words have a better meaning in my mother tongue than in English. For example: ‘Setsoto’ is a Sesotho name, which I have used in a poem, it is a name given to the ‘most beautiful girl’. Setsoto comes from hotsoteha … which means ‘beauty beyond understanding’, the kind of beauty one only dreams or reads about in fairy tales. Now, I can’t say or explain all this in a poem, so it is best to keep to the original use of the name ‘Setsoto’.

Another example: when it comes to my family clan names (totem) … I can’t explain or translate: Ke mo Hlakwana waha Masheane, wa phoolo ya Disema Maila Ngwathela. Ngwana wabo Paile le Paise. Yena ya sa jeng sengwathwa sa maobane. Phakwe e tona e hlolwa ke e tshehadi. I can go on and on. But to explain this in English, it is a sin or a hopeless trick. All I can tell you is that I am of the ‘crocodile clan’. But you missed the beauty of me singing praises to my ancestors and pride in who I am.

I honestly feel that if I choose to write in Sesotho I should do so proudly. In translation sometimes we lose the meaning or understanding of what it is meant in a poem (like above). However, I know I have been able to do this in my theatre plays mainly because it’s a dialogue or monologue. Poetry is something else. I have noticed lots of papers written by academics who try to translate certain Sesotho poems into English and I get frustrated because the beauty is in the original language, not in its translation.

Natalia Molebatsi: No. I hadn’t thought about it. I wouldn’t know where to start. I might think about it.

Vangi Gantsho: Truthfully, I guess I’ve never thought about it. Though I did have a conversation with Prof. Kgositsile and Ntate Walter Chakela once about ‘Her Secret with the Moon’ and what it would sound like in isiXhosa. I remember being mortified because my starting point would have to be finding the appropriate word for ‘vagina’. Some things are easier to say in English. Now that I’ve considered it, maybe I will. Let’s get my English collection out though [this interview was done before her book Undressing in Front of the Window came out in 2015].

Mthunzikazi Mbungwana: I have tried to translate isiXhosa poems to English, but failed. I realised that it can’t be direct translation, therefore I had to rewrite a new poem. I had to ask a friend’s assistance to translate and rework the poem to at least try to capture the same meaning and images (if that is possible at all). It was difficult and didn’t sound and feel natural and free flowing as it should be. Yes, I will try again; I am reading a lot and researching on all the rules of writing in both languages, especially in my mother tongue.

Nosipho Gumede: No I haven’t, yet. My plan is to have my published work translated, but I haven’t published my work yet.

Makhosazana Xaba: Do you read others’ poetry in your mother tongue? If so, who? Please comment on their work.

Napo Masheane: Yes! I do. My old time favourite Sesotho writers are Ntate KPD Maphalla and Ntate E Mohapi. Except the fact that they master the Sesotho language, I find that they take pride and respect this language, especially its grammatic use, structure, form, style and depth. They have added to the quality of Sesotho language over the years and made it accessible (to Basotho audiences), making it to appeal to both young and older audiences. But these poets, like many poets of my mother tongue, don’t write in English at all. They come from a different generation. But can they take their work beyond the borders of Basotho audiences? No, that’s not possible unless their work is translated or adapted.

Natalia Molebatsi: Come to think of it, no.

Vangi Gantsho: I recently got a PDF copy of The Collected Poems of SEK Mqhayi. Quite challenging. And beautiful. I also love reading Mthunzikazi Mbungwana’s poetry. Oh! And last year I got a copy of The Prophet by Khalil Gibran in isiXhosa. Wow!!

I usually have to sit with a dictionary when going through Mqhayi. Truthfully, I feel like an idiot. It takes me forever to read one line, never mind a stanza, and still I have to ask Mthunzikazi or my mother or aunt what he means because I don’t always feel like I can trust the translations. Thankfully, I can ask though. Translations make it easier (I admit). Umprofethi is much easier because I have a copy of the English version and I am familiar with the work. The isiXhosa version makes me really appreciate the beauty more.

I guess it helps that I’m not completely clueless, but I do struggle quite a bit. With time, I will hopefully get better.

Mthunzikazi’s poetry is easier to digest because I have heard it. Hearing something before reading it makes it easier. I love listening to isiXhosa poetry. But reading it is how I will learn to one day write in isiXhosa.

Mthunzikazi Mbungwana: Yes, but not as much as I should be. I have been reading and researching on classical / traditional poems written by mature writers who were classified as ‘intellectuals’—namely, SEK Mqhayi and Nontsizi Mgqwetho. I think their work is magical— hard to believe that these poems were written in 1908 and 1925, but they are still relevant and depicting the current sociopolitical space we occupy.

Nosipho Gumede: Sbo Da Poet (Sbonelo Mbutho) and Mxolisi Mtshali. They do spoken word poetry in isiZulu; they both seem to write a lot of love poems. Mxolisi Mtshali wrote a well-known poem called ‘Izulu Love Letter’ —it was even featured on a house song. Sbo Da Poet is said to do ‘Zulu contemporary poetry’ and highly influenced by hip-hop culture.

Makhosazana Xaba: Do you know of publishers in South Africa who publish poetry in your mother tongue?

Napo Masheane: The only company I know is Juta.

Natalia Molebatsi: I don’t know any. I just know that PanSALB [Pan South African Language Board] and the Centre for the Book do support mother-tongue writers.

Vangi Gantsho: I used to know of Lovedale Press, but they closed down. Pooka in Plettenberg Bay published the isiXhosa version of The Prophet and I imagine a number of other smaller, independent publishing houses are also publishing indigenous languages.

Mthunzikazi Mbungwana: No.

Nosipho Gumede: No.

Makhosazana Xaba: What are your views on the dominance of English within poetry circles in South Africa?

Napo Masheane: I made a vow that I will make English speak my mother tongue. But for a while I was worried that that will be like empowering someone else’s language. I had to consciously know and understand that my body of words, though mine, does not fully belong to me. An artist belongs to his or her community. I am an artist of words; I serve a higher purpose than me. What I have is a gift, which I am born with, so what is the point of having a gift that I can use to share with others? My words—no matter in what language—should be part of change and should provoke new thoughts or even question life. What use is a gift if it cannot become a source of a connection with others?

Natalia Molebatsi: I think it proves my earlier point. I don’t possess enough vocabulary in my mother tongue for poetry and I don’t have enough examples. My late grandmother helped me a lot with Setswana and I actually realised when she died that I lost a library in her.

Vangi Gantsho: I think it’s a shame. I really would like to hear more poetry in indigenous languages. Not only on stages, but also on the airwaves. It should not be reserved for certain radio stations and Heritage Month. Most of the South African population speaks isiZulu. Surely this should count for something!

Also, as far as the preservation of our languages goes, we really need to make a concerted effort not to allow our generation to be the reason why languages die. We owe it to our children and our grandparents to preserve all that is beautiful about the people we are.

Mthunzikazi Mbungwana: I would like young people to write/read/perform in their mother tongues to restore the language and also make sure that it grows. The truth is that those who feel marginalised/bullied by the dominance of English in the storytelling platforms, such as theatre and poetry sessions, need to create a space wherein mother tongue/isiXhosa/Venda stories are told by its official storytellers.

Those who speak the language—and it was their first encounter with words from being a toddler who was cautioned against sticking their tiny-little fingers on a brazier, or it is the language they use when communicating / connecting with their elders and ancestors—they need to be brave enough to be that ‘awkward’ performer that people would say, ‘We didn’t hear what you were saying but we felt it.’

I have been told that if you use your poetry/art to tell a true story with the dignity and respect it deserves, another fellow human being will get the meaning, it matters not whether they speak your language.

Nosipho Gumede: The basic function of language is to facilitate interaction; it’s a medium used to communicate. Living in a place with eleven official languages the question is: How are we to communicate while ensuring that all people are included in the conversation? English is seen as the tool that is used to achieve that, it’s regarded as a tool for intercultural interaction—hence the dominance. If that is the case, then that’s all it should be. It shouldn’t take away from other languages, but unfortunately it is.

If knowledge / subjects / concepts are introduced to people only in English and are not presented as translatable into mother tongues, it makes it difficult for people to know how to use their mother tongues in their work / art. So my view is that the dominance of English has not made people unwilling to create work in their mother tongues, but it has made them unable.

Makhosazana Xaba: How do your family members engage with your poetry? Please illustrate this by giving specific examples.

Napo Masheane: My grandmother loves the fact that I still take pride in my mother tongue and that I somehow find ways to fuse it with English in my literature work. So every year when she goes to Lesotho or remembers something historical or from her childhood that has to do with Basotho, she tells me about it and I use it.

My mother was my first storyteller. All the Sesotho idioms, proverbs, riddles I learnt from her as a child inspired me as an overall writer and performer. All the Sesotho books I read as a child and now own are a result of her support and understanding. The first Sesotho poem I learnt is the one I wish I had written, ‘Mmakgutsitse’ by K.E. Ntsane. What a beautiful poem!

Natalia Molebatsi: I don’t think that my family reads my poetry. Sad.

Vangi Gantsho: I remember the first time my mother came to one of my shows in 2009: Katz Cum out to Play. She told me she thought I was very talented and said that I need to focus on content. She is very conservative, and I guess she felt like I should be using my voice to praise God. My brother saw me for the first time that night. He told me he gets it now. Said this is what I am meant to be doing.

Last year, my late father’s younger brother came to my show at the State Theatre. I thought they didn’t support me and had convinced myself that I didn’t need their approval. He came to fetch me backstage and gave me a warm hug. Told me he was proud of me. It meant the world because I know that I expose so much of my family in my work and that they still love me and support me through it. I am so grateful.

Mthunzikazi Mbungwana: Not as actively as they should. They only engage with my work when I need assistance with spelling, grammar, pronunciation and to ensure that the end result reads and flows naturally to respect those who speak / formed it and restore traditional nuances and uphold its value

Nosipho Gumede: I can’t say that they engage with my work. Poetry is not something that interests them; they just know that I do poetry.

Makhosazana Xaba: Any other comments?

Napo Masheane: I once heard ‘English is a mob of all languages’. And the Sesotho language has also evolved over time and years. So if I can manage to make this foreign language speak and celebrate my mother tongue, then my job is done. But more so if I can use English in my work and reach millions and millions of people, I would have done my duty and contribution to mankind in this lifetime (and that’s enough).

Language is a powerful tool in the era that we live in. If I want to bring to the table women’s issues or my take on politics, I therefore need to use (if possible) a language that is both accessible and understood by all. As an artist, I am a part of a global community/society … and to create change and to leave a legacy that is for everyone, I need to use a tool that can be used by the majority, beyond my ethnic group. I am a Mosotho girl before anything … and no matter where I go, I will always carry Basotho history, values, culture and rituals with me. And to further tell the world who I am, so that I am not defined by only others’ perception of me. I will use any language that the majority understand and in this case it is English.

Natalia Molebatsi: No.

Vangi Gantsho: I think I’ve pretty much said all that I can think of. I am not proud of my lack of fluency in isiXhosa. As a result, I have spent the past few years trying to improve my proficiency. It will take time for me to get to where I would like to be, but I make it a point to speak to my nieces and nephews in isiXhosa. Language is one of the most beautiful things a people can call their own. It carries history and a way of thinking. And indigenous languages are in danger of extinction.

Mthunzikazi Mbungwana: We live in hope that other languages will be recognised and will perform / share the same stage with poets that write and read in English. I guess all we can do is to keep on writing and performing whenever there is a chance to do that. And it is not about how many times you read / perform in public, but the depth, quality and hard work you put in your end product.

Nosipho Gumede: Nope.


About the book

This groundbreaking, multi-genre anthology answers the question: what did the literary landscape look like in South Africa at the start of the twenty-first century? It documents a slice of this landscape by bringing together the writings of over twenty contributors through literary critique, personal essays and interviews. The book tells the story of the seismic shift that transformed national culture through poetry and is the first of its kind to explore the history and impact of poetry by Black women, in their own voices. It straddles disciplines: literary theory, feminism, history of the book and politics—thus decolonising literary culture.

Our Words, Our Worlds covers expansive reflections: from the international diplomacy-transforming poem, ‘I Have Come to Take You Home’ by Diana Ferrus, to the pioneering publisher duduzile zamantungwa mabaso; from the self-confessed closeted poet Sedica Davids, to the fiery unapologetic feminist Bandile Gumbi; from the world-renowned Malika Ndlovu, to the engineer and award-winning Nosipho Gumede; from the formidable foursome Feela Sistah, to feminist literary scholars VM Sisi Maqagi and Barbara Boswell. The collective contributions are a testimony to the power of creativity and centrality of poetry in a changing society. This book is an assertion of Black women’s intellectual prowess and—as Gabeba Baderoon puts it – black women’s visions of ‘a world made whole by their presence’.

Makhosazana Xaba is an anthologist, essayist, short-story writer and poet. She has three collections of poetry: these hands (2005 and 2017), Tongues of their Mothers (2008) and The Alkalinity of Bottled Water (2019). She is the editor of Like the Untouchabe Wind: An Anthology of Poems. Her debut short story collection, Running and Other Stories (2013) was a joint winner of the 2014 Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award at the South African Literary Awards.

Contributors: Gabeba Baderoon, Barbara Boswell, Sedica Davids, Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, Diana Ferrus, Vangi Gantsho, Bandile Gumbi, Nosipho Gumede, Myesha Jenkins, Ronelda Sonnet Kamfer, duduzile zamantungwa mabaso, Makgano Mamabolo, Napo Masheane, Lebogang Mashile, VM Sisi Maqagi, Mthunzikazi Mbungwana, Natalia Molebatsi, Qhakazambalikayise Thato Mthembu, Tereska Muishond, Malika Ndlovu, Maganthrie Pillay, Toni Stuart, Makhosazana Xaba.

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