‘Before I even believed in myself, women writers older than me held my hand’—Busisiwe Mahlangu in conversation with Makhosazana Xaba

This is the sixth in a series of long-form interviews by Patron Makhosazana Xaba to be hosted on The JRB, which focus on contemporary collections by Black women and non-binary poets. The first, with Maneo Refiloe Mohale, can be found herethe second, with Katleho Kano Shoro, herethe third, with Sarah Lubala, here; the forth, with vangile gantsho, here; and the fifth, with danai mupotsa, here. In opening up a space for wide-ranging, erudite and graceful conversations, Xaba aims to correct the misdeeds of the past by engaging black women and non-binary poets seriously on their ideas and on their work.

Two previous long-form interviews, with Mthunzikazi A Mbungwana on her isiXhosa volume Unam Wena, and with Athambile Masola on her debut collection Ilifa, were published in New Coin in 2022.

Makhosazana Xaba (MX): Let us start with the poem ‘House’ from your debut collection Surviving Loss, which was published by impepho press in 2018.


When the police come to arrest him
tell them to put handcuffs on the door,
this house is a culprit
watching us bleed without moving.
The first time he turned beast,
the walls collapsed our screams into a song
the neighbours danced to the sharp melody.
This house
will watch us get killed and say nothing.

The walls wear our blood like paint
our DNA washes off into colour,
It is a battle
with only one boxing champion.
Constantly we break through kitchen tiles
we slowly rise to our knees,
we are learning prayer
with the ceiling slapping our words back to your tongues  

As if to say,
what we are asking for
is a different kind of heaven. One that we will never reach,
where men don’t molest women,
where houses are not ghosts,
where fathers love their daughters,
where fathers love.

This house will watch us get killed,
the floor will swallow our skeletons.
This house is a graveyard
dry bones pull us back when we walk
our suitcases decay before we can pack our bags to leave.

There is a memorial service in each room
old obituaries hanging like curtains
windows open to wave life goodbye.

Those who came before us never touched victory.
Those who came before us were us.

We have touched death every evening.
We have bled out eulogies and goodbyes
But today the police are coming.

And if we are dead when they get here
tell them
to put handcuffs on the door.
This house is a culprit
watching us die. 

I listened to your rendition of ‘House’ in your TEDx Talk. I have read it to many friends, in person and over the phone. How have audiences, critics, readers and other poets responded to this poem? Were there any surprising responses?

Busisiwe Mahlangu (BM): Oh, I don’t know if there’s any bigger praise than someone reading my work and finding it worth sharing with someone. Thank you. 

I used to think ‘House’ was my most popular poem (and I stopped performing it because I wanted to be known for other works). A vivid moment stands out: during my Current State of Poetry showcase at the Joburg Theatre, the audience began reciting the poem with me on stage! It felt like the poetry version of a sing-along.  

I performed the poem in Cape Town at the Open Book Festival. After the show, I was standing with Siphokazi Jonas in the parking lot, and she told me that when I was doing the poem, she felt like she was watching a full theatre piece. That has stayed with me because it sparked my interest in producing poetry as theatre.

The other images in my head are a bit jumbled. I remember lots of crying after shows, a few people saying ‘you were speaking to me’, but I am not sure if these were directed at ‘House’ specifically or at my overall performance on the night. 

I’ve experienced something magical recently, unrelated to ‘House’. A therapist from Taiwan reached out to me, she found my work through Kevin Chen, a brilliant writer who was part of my cohort at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program. This therapist told me how she’s been using one of my short poems, ‘Your wound is growing into a person’, during sessions with her clients. She later told me our conversation was happening through a translator. What a heartwarming moment! The centre of everything I am creating is healing, I want my work to facilitate a space where healing can happen. This exchange, alongside my poems being read during a yoga session (I wish I was in the room), are affirming my vision.  

You cannot make claims and say this is what your work does for people. I am grateful for everyone who’s ever taken a moment to let me know that it matters to them. Thank you. 

MX: I often enjoy poems wherein inanimate objects take centre stage because they exude a unique creativity. Please take us through your journey of choosing to centre an inanimate object in such a profound manner.

BM: For me, it is about care and responsibility. How can I write about the violence without depicting it? Where do I place the intensity if not on the visual? Do I want to make the preparator smaller or bigger? If I were to imagine ‘House’ in a film, the camera would zoom in on the shadows on the wall. 

MX: When your book was released, I couldn’t read it from the beginning to the end in one sitting because there was far too much pain. Over the years I just dipped into it in manageable chunks. In preparation for this interview, I decided to read it in one sitting, using a marker for lines and stanzas I found poetically profound, as a way of distracting myself from the pain. Oh, what a feast! Congratulations, Surviving Loss is precious!

BM: Thank you for being so patient with the book, for returning to it over and over again, even when it was hard to read. 

Writing is sense-making for me. Much of what is in Surviving Loss are things that kept me up at night. It felt like I couldn’t write anything else until I wrote Surviving Loss. And the first few years after writing Surviving Loss, I felt like I couldn’t write anything close to it. I had other things that kept me up at night. My sexuality. Love. Family. Friendship. This big world and its everyday surprises. It took me a long time to qualify them as poetry. One day I asked myself: Would I be okay if my first book was the only book I ever wrote? And the answer was yes. Letting go is a miraculous exercise sometimes. It empties the room. From then, it felt like I gave myself permission to explore and experiment. To write because I want to. And that is what pleases me. 

MX: You start the book by giving a definition of the word ‘survive’ in isiZulu as you quote from Injula nokujiya kwesiZulu by OL Shange: 


  1. Ukuphepha engozini: to escape from danger 
  2. Ubunzima bento ikalwa: the weight of what is being measured

I have taken the liberty of translating a) and b) for some readers. Not only did this take me down memory lane, I thought it was a poetic choice. Please explain why you needed to open your collection in this way.

BM: When I spoke to my mother about my depression, the code word for the terrible days was, ‘umoya wam’ uphansi’, and that would encapsulate my experience. I did not have the language for what I was undergoing besides that. The quote from Injula nokujiya kwesiZulu carries the same force for me. Because surviving is heavy; long after you are out of the danger, survival is hard work. I felt like I was carrying around weight everywhere I went. My fear settled in my body, and I felt like the anxiety was a physical presence and I went everywhere with it. I was out of danger because, yes, I am writing, but I wrote Surviving Loss because I wanted to remove items that were making this weight too difficult. 

MX: You were born in Mamelodi, Pretoria. Please write a poem about Mamelodi, one that will give readers your perspectives and memories of your birthplace.


Portrait of Mamelodi in Midnight light  

Mamelodi, you are the song of my night
Heartbeat quiet, noise decluttering my thoughts
Down the tavern, up the church,
I wrote every dream I did not own,
With the soundscape of the streets awake
With your tempo and those who did not fear
the night, fork in hand, must’ve given them a bowl
full of youth. I eat the aroma, I am no stranger
to your offerings. Your tapestry,
colour and sound, prayer and poem,
is a language I wish to know,
Because you know me,
You know me from inside my first word,
infancy and first step, shielded
kept away from your glare
Now, I am old enough
To see past the streetlights
You are so beautiful  

MX: You are the founder of Lwazilubanzi Project, a non-profit organisation that focuses on literature and creating learning spaces in townships and public schools. Please translate Lwazilubanzi into English? What are some of the key successes of Lwazilubanzi since its inception, and what are you still working to improve on and how is that unfolding?  Lastly, how has the funding worked since inception and during the Covid years?

BM: Lwazilubanzi means ‘abundance of knowledge’. Our vision is to create a space where creative education happens. At the height of our operation, we ran weekly workshops in five high schools in Mamelodi and we had the privilege of mentoring over thirty young writers in 2019. In 2018, we participated in Science Week, curated by the Deutsche Internationale Schule Pretoria and Deutsche Internationale Schule Johannesburg. Our role was to present an intersection of literature and science to learners in grade 9 to grade 11. 

It was not sustainable running the programme without enough resources. We worked without any funding for three years before taking a break. Last year, I started attending grant-writing workshops with the intention of reopening. I cannot wait to see what else we can achieve with enough resources.

Speaking to young people about the realities of the literary world felt like making empty promises. While honesty about the industry was crucial, I didn’t want to extinguish their hope. I am at a better position in my career; without any doubt, I know literature matters and there’s a place for it, even in Mamelodi. 

MX: Surviving Loss was adapted for theatre at the South African State Theatre Incubator Programme. You spoke about this in a PUO Podcast interview. Please share three lessons you took away from this experience.

BM: The process was so demanding and exhilarating at the same time. When they gave us a huge rehearsal stage—I couldn’t believe all this space we had access to. It felt like I had stepped into a dream, and the dream itself obeyed my vision of it. Before Surviving Loss was published, I attempted to produce a play, ‘Fathers Who Are Water’, from my own pocket. I sat down with two theatre practitioners I admired, Mosie Mamaregane and Kamogelo Walaza. We had two sessions. They taught me new ways to read my poems—they asked me to see if each line could be a new thought. If it introduces a new thought, then it has the potential to sound different from the previous line. I love the idea of lines in a poem as thoughts, because one poem can house so many ideas, images, emotions, and so on. 

When we were putting Surviving Loss together, I learnt that the poem in print is never final. The first sacrifice I had to make was to give up how I performed the poems. My director, Palesa Oliphant, often gave me very peculiar morning exercises that made me feel silly. The one I hated the most was running around that big open space while shouting out the poems. You must know, I hate running, and I think my body doesn’t like it much either. I had to practise surrender a lot. Thank God the body adapts to obstacles. I appreciate that process, it did not just help me prepare my voice but my body as well. We played with pitch, tone, character and space. Each afternoon I became less aware of myself—poetry had taken over. I was merely embodying it. I became a vessel. 

The rehearsal space offered me an opportunity to transform, change and grow with the poetry. The page is never final. When my book first came out, I felt that I had an obligation to the work—to present it as it was in print. Rehearsals are tedious, repetitive work and they taught me patience. It reminded me that the writer was done, now the trained performer that I am had to do her job. And that included adapting the work how I wished. 

This programme was my first wildly collaborative work. Palesa Oliphant directed the play—I had to trust her vision, let go, and allow myself to show up, not as the owner of the work, but as a part of the work. You mentioned that the work was heavy to read—it was also heavy to embody, but my collaborators helped me carry the load. My co-performers were Nthabeleng ‘Darlianoh’ Lesoli, who sang and played all the music in the production, and Susan Nkata, who danced and choreographed the movement. They brought so much magic and talent to the production. 

MX: During the PUO interview you mentioned that it took watching Napo Masheane perform poetry on television for you to think: Oh, we can do that? I want to do that! I can still see the excitement on your face as you said that. How connected, or not, are you to poets who are in Masheane’s generation and older? 

BM: I’ve been so fortunate, before I even believed in myself, women writers older than me held my hand. I don’t think I would’ve been able to face the work without the women who inspire me, who also happen to be a text away. I am grateful.

MX: In your acknowledgements page you list and thank nine ‘organisations/movements/poetry houses’ that you have journeyed with. Please share one meaningful lesson/personal connection/memory/unique experience with each of the nine organisations, something that’s specific to you and your engagement with each one.

BM: Surviving Loss wouldn’t have taken the shape it has if it wasn’t for the community and the collaborative efforts they provided. Most importantly, these organisations have provided a structure for my practice, validated my efforts, provided space to learn. 

My first community outside high school was the Current State of Poetry. It was intense, but in many ways I still reap the fruits of that programme. The main event was the poetry slam, but the monthly workshops led by Vus’umuzi Phakathi, Sarah Godsell and Ziphozakhe Hlobo were my highlight. They would also bring in working artists, it was such a great time. A well-rounded and thought-out initiative for young writers. The tagline was ‘we are building an industry’. During lockdown 2020, I had to reimagine how else my work can exist, and the most pressing issue, how could I, a performer, keep earning from my skills when we were all locked up at home? The panic, along with the hysteria about the pandemic, it felt like the world was ending. I remembered Zipho’s words, she said that every company needs a writer. I made my entry (transition) to copywriting and content writing, and still work in that arena. The Current State of Poetry definitely provided an essential toolbox that I still dig into. 

Speak Out Loud and Hear My Voice definitely opened the world to me. My first poetry trip was to Cape Town. I travelled with Anga Mamfanya to Lingua Franca’s Naked Word festival (two birds one stone!). 

I still work with Hear My Voice from time to time. After winning Tshwane Speak Out Loud, we toured Sweden and the United States as part of the Azania to DC poetry exchange, and much, much more. HMV made me realise that I was a professional poet, not only because of the trips but the ways they’ve advocated for me, negotiated on my behalf, showed me how I ought to be treated. The art industry is hard, especially when you are an independent poet.  I love how they’ve introduced me to poets all over the country, especially through the Relief Fund during lockdown. Shout out to Ishmael Sibiya, MoAfrika Wa Mokgathi and Phomolo Sekamotho. 

I know Black Labone is not in my Acknowledgements, maybe this is a chance to rectify that. I’ve spent so many Thursday nights on their stage. I appreciate that I had space to share new work and not stress about being scored out of ten. This was very important. If I didn’t have that; I wouldn’t have known where the competition starts and where it ends. I would’ve only written work I thought would win the slam. In slam, I took poems that mattered to me. I always prioritised the story that demanded my attention the most, that scared me and would not let me rest until it is written. 

This is a very long list. [laughs] I think all in all, I wouldn’t have been able to do this work without community. 

MX: You also thank Mr Kekana with the words ‘you are a gift to Mamelodi and to Gatang Secondary School’ Please write a tribute poem to your teacher.

BM: I don’t know if I have this poem in me. I am grateful to my teacher, who went beyond the scope of his work and created a platform for us to explore and have an outlet. I also want to thank Mrs Mphuthi for her support that has carried me for years.  

MX: There are four ‘notes’ in this collection. The word ‘note’ is at the space where the titles are often placed and the ‘poem/note’ sits in the space often used for footnotes. However, notes numbers 3 and 4 are called ‘Birthmarks’ and ‘Rescue’ respectively. 

Note 1: There are characters I will not stop writing until I know they will live.

Note 2: Fixing a boy makes me forget I am broken

While these notes read like ‘notes to self’, ‘Birthmark’ and ‘Rescue’ are tercets. The former speaks to intergenerational trauma, while the latter reminds me of ‘House’. What was the significance and motivation for presenting these four in this way?

BM:  Some of those notes were born from poems I did not like except a few lines. That is how the ‘notes’ happened. In Collective Amnesia, Koleka Putuma has footnotes as full poems: ‘Love … some drugs come as twelve step programs’ and ‘Footnote2 … some poems show up undo your silence’, these are lines that have stayed with me for a long time. I think a footnote on a blank page commands attention, it is not an extension of the text, it is the text. ‘Birthmarks’ was intended as a full poem; I wrote ‘Rescue’ as a response to a prompt from the ‘December Poetry Challenge’ on Facebook.

For me, writing is a choice-making exercise. I love short poems. It intrigues me how much you can conceal yet everything is laid out in the open.

MX: One of my earlier attempts at trying to avoid pain was reading the three poems that are untitled, not listed on the contents pages and are what I will call ‘section breakers’, but doing that didn’t help, then. The pain persisted. On page 14, separating the first section of eleven poems from section two, made up of ten poems, is this poem:

Paint your left foot red
and your right, green
a woman needs emergency signs
to go
running at 5 p.m.

This poem resonates with many South African women. There are book-worthy stories we could write on the violence of men in public spaces as we walk and run as women. On page 29, between section two and section three, is the tercet:

Your wound is growing into a person
you can touch your pain
and tell it to let you go 

And then the titular quatrain separates the third section from the last and longest section of thirteen poems. Its centredness claims and owns the space in a grounding manner:

Look at yourself
you have not died yet
you are an unending revolution
you are surviving loss

These section separators are accompanied by the images of the string that first appears on the front and back covers of the book. The string takes up space on the page in a manner that says: I belong here. My reading of its resurgence is, I suspect, very wrong. So please tell us: why this design?

BM: I did not want to explicitly section my chapters. I wanted the poems to be the division, so that the book flows without any stops. Having vangile gantsho as an editor was a huge blessing. The editing was intense and I am grateful that we looked at the work closely. 

The string is all Tanya’s [Pretorius] idea. I saw the proof copy and I went crazy over it because she completely captured what I was trying to do. Tanya did the cover as well. She read the poems and translated that into what we have now. 

MX: The opening lines of some of your poems are striking in how warmly they welcome the reader. They offer unique lessons on the function of an opening line. Three examples: 

The pages are missing inside my grandmother       torn (‘Lost shelves’)

I know about the taking that having nothing does (‘Scraps’)   

My anger is a log of fire (‘Violation’) 

What is your process of arriving at opening lines?

BM: When I start writing a poem, I am not completely sure how I’ll get to where I am going, what the journey will look like, and sometimes I am unsure of what I really want to say. I believe in allowing the first draft to be all mess and chaos; I think of it as collecting clay. Once I’ve fetched my clay, I can form, mould, design, cut it. I am patient with poems, I let them sit, I send them to friends, I get them workshopped. 

During editing, I love swapping the lines around to see which one is a great entry into the poem. I know there’s so much power in the opening, the point of departure for the poem. In poetry slams, you operate with restrictions, and you want the audience to walk with you from the first word to the last. I want the first line to be true to the poem. If it is a door, and the poem a house, they should match and fit together. Every line plays a crucial part.

MX: ‘Lost Shelves’ is a poem that describes Alzheimer’s disease beautifully, massaging the pain of living with someone who has it. Those last lines: 

Grandma, there is still a book that has your name clear on the cover
I am a book that will never forget you    I will never forget you   

Thank you for writing this poem. 

BM: Thank you, I am glad you resonate with the poem, this was one of the hardest poems to write and a tribute to one of my paternal grandmothers (I have five and they’re sisters). I wanted to find a way to say that language fails me. 

MX: Poetry has opened the world for you. Please list all the countries you have travelled to because of poetry—including the writing residency—and share your most positive experience.

BM: I will start with my writing residency at the University of Iowa last year. It was three months and the longest time I’ve ever been away from home. Thirty-four writers from different parts of the world. Three weeks into the programme I lost my grandmother, it was maddening being away from home. I didn’t know if I could go on with the residency.  This was my second visit to the US. 

On my first visit, I went to Washington DC with Moafrika [wa Mokgathi]. The vibrant spoken word culture, Busboys and Poets (a weekly open mic event) and the tacos were my highlight.

Iowa: It was easy to walk around Iowa, everything was close, especially the library and Studio 13. We lived by the river, where I spent most of my time journaling and reading. 

Chicago: I got to reunite with Nando’s. 

Pittsburgh: City of Asylum’s resident writers live on the same street in a ‘gallery’ of houses. Each one is a unique painting. They had a House Poem (which was the first one, created by Huang Xiang), a Jazz House, a Comma House, and the Hinged House (with inscriptions by Wole Soyinka from his memoir The Man Died on the door). All these houses are safe hubs for writers who’ve been exiled or fled their homes. 

New York: Except for the nap I took in Central Park with my friend Raoul de Jong, I barely slept! Times Square felt like Joburg with unlimited electricity. As a queer woman, the lesbian bars were my highlight. I desperately wish there was a space like that in Joburg. Or maybe there is? 

In Sweden (with Hear My Voice), I loved the train. I loved Uppsala. In Stockholm, there’s a poetry organisation called Revolution Poetry, a collective of Black and POC (People of Colour) artists. Oh, and Sweden has Cinnamon Bun Day! Every event we went to had a spread of assorted cinnamon pastries. My sweet tooth was happy. 

My best friend, Xolile Mabuza, and I planned a trip to Lesotho. We were hosted by our friend and brilliant multidisciplinary artist Nthabiseng TeReo. We shared poems, music, and we brought our jewellery to exhibit. My highlight was watching Nthabiseng fire dance in the mountains of Maseru. It is an amazing privilege to get to travel with friends. I do not do it enough. 

Mozambique: This was our second trip as book sisters (impepho press). Maputo is beautiful. I’ve convinced my siblings that we should go there this year; I did not make it to the beach last time.

Nigeria: The food, in particular fried plantain and jollof rice. The markets had the prettiest fabric and dresses (I got one for myself). I think this is the best place to end the recollections. 

MX: Congratulations on the many awards you have won! How do you handle the hypervisibility that often comes with prizes and success?

BM: Thank you. My work is first a practice and a ritual. It is a personal thing. I think there’s making the work, in this case writing poetry, and then there’s making the language for the work, defining it, defending it, showcasing it. For me, visibility is more like representation for the work. I am not writing in isolation; I care about if and how my work is read. Whenever it feels too much, I unplug (sometimes to the extent of deactivating social media). I remind myself that at the core of it all, I want to write, I want to make the work. That is my job, everything else is an addition. 

But also, I understand the contrast. Documenting is important to me. I want to be part of the conversation. I am here, I am working today, and I want to contribute to the conversation. Interviews are important, for sense-making and owning the work. I am still learning the duality of these worlds. I used to be so terrified in interviews. Especially recorded ones. Afterwards my answers would haunt me, and I would replay them in my head repeatedly. Now, I feel like I have a choice whether I want to participate or not. 

Winning and success is a whole other layer. All I can say is, yes, I want it all!

MX: One of your online biographies describes you as a ‘dreamer’. During a television interview on World Poetry Day in 2022 you talked about how the accessibility of poetry would mean it becomes an ‘accepted career option’ for school-going children. Do you have dreams about poetry in South Africa that are bigger than accessibility? 

BM: There will never be a time when we don’t need writers and artists. I hope the youth—in whatever shape of form—feel like this is a genre that has space for them. I wish for the industry to sustain itself and its makers. 

MX: Your poem of six numbered stanzas ‘Forgetting home’ ends with the line ‘Pack a bag for your freedom.’ When I read the last but one stanza of ‘Scraps’, I was reminded of this last line and began to wonder about how you describe freedom.

Sometimes the country forgets to apologise
Sometimes we apologise for the protest and the smoke
We have to apologise for speaking.  

Please write a poem that will inform readers what freedom looks and feels like to you. 


We will never give up lust  

‘I’ve bought abandon dear
And sold all piety for pleasure.
My own free spirit I have followed.
And never will I give up lust’—Abu Nuwas  

Everyday freedom means something different to me

I am looking at you spread your joy over the couch
The velvet of your laughter 
Pouring over fabric 
This map of you  

I want to journey the top of the mountain 
And dive to the navel of its depth
Pulling my screams 
Coating a room with abandon  

Tonight, we close the distance that punished us 
Loneliness has grown itself into tall grass
We cut and reveal ourselves
We coil and crook and crack our fingers

We are rain drops, we are storm, tucked in night
Nothing can stop us from dancing the danger 
Feeding the current
Shocking off our shells  

We are alone now
We can enjoy the freedom we’ve been owed.

MX: The poem ‘After School’ reminds readers that schools are institutions that nurture sexism and the attendant violence meted out by boys and men against girls and women. And the last two lines say it all:

Is the man laughing about the knife
or the boy who taught it to cut apples? 

This poem will resonate with most South African women, who can attest to the violence experienced in schools. The innocuous sounding words ‘After School’ sometimes carry unimaginable threats. 

BM: I have no words. It’s a scary reality. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been afraid to do simple things like take a walk during the day. 

MX: The poem ‘Soldiers come home from war’ reminded me of Myesha Jenkins’s short poem ‘Fighting men’, published in her debut collection Breaking the Surface. What do soldiers and war mean in your personal life?  

BM: Oh, Myesha! This took me back to the nights at The Orbit, her magical fusion between jazz and poetry! May she continue resting.

There are poems that I feel don’t belong to me, and this one is one of them.

I had an uncle who was a soldier, but he passed away (from an illness) when I was young. I always wondered what that meant. When you are a child, your questions get dismissed or you would be rebuked, ‘ufunani ezindabeni zabantu abadala?’ In my teenage years, I started reading so much about soldiers. What was available in our public library were bits and pieces about American soldiers and the PTSD they experience (looking back, I really hate that this is all I could find), and in South Africa I would find stories of apartheid. I feel that this poem is writing that was born from text, without a clear understanding of what I was writing. I don’t know enough about war. I don’t know enough about soldiers. 

MX: In her review of your collection, Vuyelwa Maluleke refers to ‘the holy reunion we are shown in “Worship”’. In this poem there is an uncommon gathering of words: prayers, hymn and gospel convene with clitoris, fingers, labia and orgasms, as well as faith, fire and freedom. It is a poem of pleasant surprises. Then there is the poignancy that begins the second stanza:

I know how to move dead cities.
There is magic in my body that loneliness cannot empty out.
Do not touch me like you are digging a girl out of a grave
I have saved myself through orgasms
Over the gospel and the preaching.
Pleasure is holy. Do not waste it on your ego.

Sexual self-pleasure is not a very common theme in poetry, let alone when it shows up in a poem that I will loosely frame as ‘religious’. What is the story behind this poem?

BM: At church, I learned that I could talk to God like a friend. This poem, and others like it, aren’t meant as critiques, but rather as conversations with God. It all started with me writing transparently in my journal, without the fear of judgmental eyes.  Nothing was off limits, and that included exploring my curiosity about queerness during my teenage years. This open and honest relationship with God has allowed me to understand myself and others on a deeper level, free from judgement. I also do enjoy writing the erotic. 

MX: If I had a soft copy of Surviving Loss I would have searched for the word ‘fire’, because I became conscious of its recurrence in the collection. So I decided to count, and then I realised that while the word appears only once in a title—’Wash me with fire’—inferences of fire show up in a lot of poems, often unexpectedly. For example, in ‘Violation’ there is fire, flame, inferno and volcano; fire and flames show up more than once in ‘Fathers who are water’; and in ‘Process’ there is ash, ash, and more ash. Fire seems to have found a home in Surviving Loss. Why? Is it a sheer coincidence or do you have a specific connection to fire/s?    

BM: This is so funny because I did a similar exercise with a manuscript I am currently working on and the word that kept popping up was ‘body’. I wonder how much of it is due to limits of vocabulary, the struggle with building the poem, the comfort that comes from certain words … During the writing process, this evokes the need to find clearer ways of definition and imagery. Maybe I don’t want to say ‘body’, maybe I want to say ‘feet’. I probe until I reach the bone of what I mean. 

I had a slightly different experience with Surviving Loss. The poems were written individually, slowly and over time. I did not realise I had a manuscript until I had enough work on my hands. When I decided to sit down and compile, I wanted something to link the poems. I wanted uniformity to exist in Surviving Loss because I felt like the work was heavy and some order would curate a better reading experience. What was similar for me in the poems was that they faced my fears. They did not look away from things I was afraid of. 

To answer your question about fire: Throughout my whole childhood, I’ve been afraid of fire. Once, I saw a man burn to his death. Our neighbour. The story goes: he was drunk and angry, wanted to end his life. He doused himself in paraffin but got distracted and fell asleep. When he woke up, he was in a different mind. He forgot he doused himself, tried to turn on the paraffin stove to warm up some food. And then it happened. Fire is unforgiving. That image of him, rolling around on the floor, on fire, has been a terrifying image for me since. I was too young to understand what they meant when they said he burnt himself by accident. I did not want to be anywhere near fire, because I thought it could happen to me too. I wouldn’t even want to touch a matchstick. My sister would braid my hair with wool and I hated the process of burning the ends with a candle. I’ve got better with my fear, now I can do my hair and burn the ends myself.  

MX: ‘A manuscript I am currently working on’—this is very exciting news! In an interview with Yashika Graham you talked about how creativity is a space for experimenting and playfulness: ‘all of this is about playing’. Which poems in Surviving Loss would you score ten out of ten for the ‘playfulness opportunity’ they provided? 

BM: I came to this realisation after writing Surviving Loss. I think that is the place where I am right now with my work; I often write because it’s fun and entertaining. It can be difficult text to work through, but at the same time, it is often the best way I can spend my time in the moment. 

These are the poems that gave me that feeling in Surviving Loss: ‘Cuddling’, ‘This is yours’, ‘My body spells happy different’, ‘Magic Wonder’, ‘Alone’ (I feel like I am really pushing this one, the way it is in its final look, but the process was playful, I remember the sheer excitement). 

I do write playful poems, but I am sad that I edit most of it out. Sometimes, if I am lucky, when I am on stage, the playfulness sneaks back in. I love playing on stage. 

MX: There is such a wide range of structures and lengths in your poetry. It is an engaging variety that helps to intensify the impact of your pain-filled poems. In the last poem, ‘Wake Up’, sarcasm (or it is irony?) abounds! I had trouble choosing lines to demonstrate this,as your stanzas are so impactful, so here: 

You want to know why our food is dirty?
We plant our fingers on wet soil
to grow extra hands, to put our food on the table
We cannot offer you a glass of water
but you can take our sad faces for your thirst

There is an intensity of owning and embracing power in the voice of the speaker in those lines. This has the effect of heightening the impact of the poem while endorsing the title: ‘Wake up’. A great way to end Surviving Loss.

BM: Thank you! This is one conversation that has forced me to think critically about what I am doing. I suspect I won’t stop thinking about these questions. I appreciate these investigations you’ve inspired. Thank you for this generosity. 

MX: You end the poem ‘Busy’ with the words ‘put your tools down’. Please write a poem that will end this interview, one that captures your feelings and the experience of responding to questions about your work. Thank you for agreeing to be interviewed.


Pick your pen up

We have this time with the kettle on,
tea in a bag tied our stories, 
We string it to our lives worn out,
emptied, burrowed to make space 
for new mornings to wake up to 
What is not said takes its place 
in the silence—you’ve heard it, 
with ears that can speak 
and I’ve yelled it 
with a mouth that can hear, 
we boil the kettle for another round, 
guests are here to taste 
the honey.

Author photo: Busisiwe Mahlangu’s website/Composite: The JRB

2 thoughts on “‘Before I even believed in myself, women writers older than me held my hand’—Busisiwe Mahlangu in conversation with Makhosazana Xaba”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *