Turkish author Ahmet Sait Akçay chats to Indo-Mauritian poet Moshumee T Dewoo about being denied Africanness, the hypocrisy of religion, and speaking freely through writing.
‘Where were you hiding?’ he asked.
‘I was not,’ she said. ‘I was lost.’
—from ‘Death by Nutella’, in Zero Point Soldier
Ahmet Sait Akçay for The JRB: Let’s start with your story. Tell us something about your background and your engagement with poetry.
Moshumee T Dewoo: I like to think of my background as an intangible grey space where things are and things are not; where lines get blurry; where nothing is ever clear; where nonsense makes sense and sense is nonsense; where nothing can be defined or is definite; where there is no black and white, or brown (like me) for that matter.
It is a space where I am, and I am not. It is a space of being a sort of non-being, for me. And I imagine that my non-being has a lot to do with constantly being marked by others, and quite rigidly, as Indo-Mauritian and African and a woman of the modern age, and at the same time never fully being allowed or allowing myself into or out of these markers.
There is a quest that has grown from this non-being and the boundedness of these markers: to find myself. I have continuously looked for myself. I have continuously sought myself. I suppose that reading was always my way toward that: I would read everything that came to me (by anyone—from psychology to sociology to anthropology to religion to biology to conspiracy theories and alien stories too), and I would get more and more information, and I thought that the more information I got, the more sense I would make of myself: the closer I would get to finding myself. This did not happen. On the contrary, the more I read, the less I understood; the less I found myself. At some point in my life, so frustrated with this, I decided that if reading others would not help me find myself, then I should try reading myself. The only way to do that was to start writing. I would write about myself and everything around me. Then, I imagined, I would find myself; I would be able to make sense of myself, of who I am and what I am—if I am anything at all.
A bond beyond blood
I have slept under foreign stars
For ten thousand nights already
They are all that I have left
You had to be the last to know
—from Ex Absurdo Sequitur Quodlibet
The JRB: You are from Mauritius, an island nation off the east coast of Africa. In a way, this means you do not have direct access to Africa, although you are fully African. My question would then be: How do you manage your Africanness?
Moshumee T Dewoo: Well, that’s the problem. I do not manage it very well. I am politically African. I do not recognise any other geopolitical space on this planet than Africa that I call home, my birthplace. In my heart, in my mind, and on my birth certificate, I am fully African. But many a time I have been denied this marker, either by Mauritians, who for the most part have remained attached to the motherlands of their forefathers, and by many continental Africans, who do not have any trouble telling me that I am not a true daughter of Africa, that the place that I call home is not my home, but theirs. I do not manage my Africanness. I fight for it. I constantly have to defend it. My hair and my nose and my accent, also, do not help make my case.
The JRB: Can you still access your Africanness when or if it is denied to you?
Moshumee T Dewoo: I do. And it comes in the manner of feeling that I belong here. But I tip-toe around this very carefully now because I am aware of the response to my accessing my Africanness. It is not received very well, particularly on the continent, where I have often been denied it, like I said earlier. But it is also challenging in other geopolitical spaces. I was in Europe some years ago, where I was asked if I would not like it better if I were European. When I access my Africanness, it seems to always come with some form of slap back in my face.
You once said to me
That you believed love to be the religion of the spirit
The experience of infinity, inevitable,
Against the tyranny of selfishness
And antagonistic commitments
I fell in love with your voice that day
—from Ex Absurdo Sequitur Quodlibet
The JRB: What about religion? The theme comes up many times in your poetry, and strongly in ‘Lady River’, for instance, in which you refer to the hypocrisy of religious practices. Is this something that you can access without a slap to your face?
Moshumee T Dewoo: Yes and no. I access it without a slap back in my face when attempting to understand it and understanding how it may or may not have shaped me. See, I was born into a mixed family. My father is Hindu, my mother is Catholic. I had the luxury of having to choose between Hinduism and Christianity. I chose neither. In fact, I refused them, happily, and that must be what you saw in my poetry. I truly believe in a higher power, but I do not trust humankind to tell me about that higher power through religion because a large part of humankind that tells me of religion is as twisted as it can get. I am not a great human, trust me. But I do sit in a world where I see evil more than I want to, and this is often done by those claiming to be religious, of God: churches have waged wars on peoples; priests rape boys; supposed holy men start cults that end in mass suicide; supposed holy men and women promise salvation, becoming millionaires from it, but never delivering it; churches and temples speak of humility and love and generosity and being kind to each other, but are also among those that cause suffering in this world. This is my slap back to the face, and I refuse religion because, for me, it’s a network of ill-minded people bent on controlling humans. But I do believe in a higher power, and I do access that—beyond religion.
The JRB: When reading your collection Zero Point Soldier I felt a sort of in-betweenness, a kind of ambiguity that is embedded in the poetic structure, exactly like what you are saying here, being a believer in a higher power but refusing organised religion. Can you tell me more about that in-betweenness?
Moshumee T Dewoo: That would be the grey space that I spoke about earlier. My poetry is reflective of that space where I am and I am not; where things are and things are not. It’s constant for me. A constant state of being: in-between.
You taught me
The language of the sand
Born of the gods
Carved in the land
—from ‘Sand Lines’, in Zero Point Soldier
The JRB: What about English? You also had a choice here. Your mother tongue is French and yet you write in English. Is French something that you refused and English something that you accepted?
Moshumee T Dewoo: Absolutely. The moment I allow myself to think, speak or write in French, I automatically lose all capacity for rational expression—French is too close to my heart. It is the first and primordial carrier of my emotional self. It is the language through which I first felt. If I am to find myself, which is my quest, I need to be able to express that too, and I would have to be a little less emotional. And so what my emotional self grapples with in French, I can easily express in English. English is the first and primordial carrier of my rational self. It is the language that I learnt, the language of my head. Not the language of my heart.
The JRB: Are there any poets who have inspired your poetry?
Moshumee T Dewoo: William Blake, definitely. I loved and still love his style and the depth of his poems. It’s like peeling an onion with Blake. The more you read his poems, the more layers you find to peel. And the deeper and deeper it gets! I love that about his style. I must have loved it hard enough to try it in my own way, in my poetry. Because things are never black and white, not in my world. There are always layers to uncover and discover.
I remember the melancholy of your body
The wisdom of your breath
And the stillness of your screams
You were the darkest painting
That I wished I had constructed
Layer after layer
The beauty of your soul exposed on my canvas
On days of painless torture
—from ‘The Darkest Painting’, in Ex Absurdo Sequitur Quodlibet
The JRB: Your last collection Zero Point Soldier can be read as a healing process put into words. Pain and loss seem to be two major themes. The source of this pain and this loss is unclear. There seem to be layers here, too, to peel away until we get to the source.
Moshumee T Dewoo: It is a healing process. It was. Zero Point Soldier came at that moment in my life when I suffered the most emotional pain and had to face the biggest psychological loss of my life: me. I lost myself. If a death can happen to a person where the body stays alive but the heart and the mind are dead, then I died a little while before writing Zero Point Soldier.At the time, I had lost someone very close to me and I was mourning him. There was this emptiness inside and around me. A blank space. But the deeper I looked at that emptiness, this blank space, the more I realised that I was not mourning him. I was mourning me. And I probably had been mourning me for a long time, and this showed when I lost a tangible, physical extension of me, which was that person. See, I had lost many parts of me over the years but because they were inside it was not clear that I had lost them. It was also easier not to look. But when I had to face death outside of me, the consequences of that death on me were familiar, which made me dig deeper only to see that I had faced death before. It was like a reminder of something that I had felt before. Mourning that person was no longer the biggest loss, but a part of a bigger loss—of myself. From then my healing process began, which unfolds as my quest: to find myself, the self that I then understood I had lost.
Three ghosts in dark
Knocked at my heart
On one sunny day
To tell me that the only way out
Out of there
Out of everywhere
Was to see, first, that there was no way at all
—from Zero Point Soldier
The JRB: Can the personas in your poems heal too? They all seem to be bound to something, unfree, like prisoners. They have no choice. They can speak but they don’t say much. You speak for them.
Moshumee T Dewoo: The personas are prisoners. Always spoken for, never saying much on their own. That’s right. I speak for them. Now I have to tell you a little more about these personas. In a way, they are all parts of me that I lost. They are also actual, real persons whose pain and loss I witnessed, but that’s just the surface, the first layer to my onion. So, if they are prisoners, it is because we all are prisoners, in a way, of our failing humanness, our incompleteness, our imperfections, our common fate as humankind—to suffer, to lose—and the consequences on us are always the same. And if I speak for them, it is in fact speaking to them, soothing them, telling each part of me that I lost, first and foremost, that there is a human in the room that cares about them, that thinks about them, that feels for them, that speaks for them, that will bring them out from the shadows. In that sense, even if they are prisoners, I am present with them, I know what they endured.
I made a new friend
He does not talk to me much
He never wants to kiss me
I like it
—from ‘Aslan’, in Zero Point Soldier
The JRB: This reminds me of Gayatri Spivak’s term ‘subaltern’, the colonial populations who are socially, politically and geographically outside the colonial hierarchy. Do you have to deal with subalternity in any way, maybe as a woman, a woman of colour in Mauritius or Africa, or both? And, if yes, how does that emerge in your poetry?
Moshumee T Dewoo: I don’t think that I have ever lived without the fact of subalternity in my life, as my life. There isn’t a week or a month that passes where I am not reminded of Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ Can I speak? Another reason I write is that I have never been able to speak, freely. Passivity and blind acceptance seem to have been expected of me from a very early age. I resent that. There was also nobody really to speak to, nobody who would listen. And so, I wrote. I write. Because nobody can take my voice from me. It will come out any way it can, in my writing. It is not my subalternity as a woman and a woman of colour that I express. It is against my subalternity that I express myself.
The JRB: These lines from your haiku-like poem ‘Point of No Return’ are very striking:
If I am not master of my sound
Am I work in progress?
Or, am I bound?
It seems you are expressing yourself against your subalternity here.
Moshumee T Dewoo: Absolutely! It is expression against my subalternity! This poem speaks for itself, doesn’t it?
The JRB: Lastly, you are working on a new collection. Do you know when it will be published?
Moshumee T Dewoo: Indeed I am, and I hope to have it out by the end of this year.
- Ahmet Sait Akçay is Turkish literary critic and short story writer. He is currently doing a Masters in African Studies at the University of Cape Town.