Thursday 18 April 2019

The Lonely, Contemplative Life of the Writer

This interview with my lovely, whip-smart friend Kagiso Lesego Molope, recently published online, was conducted at the Safe Havens 2018 conference of the organisations that protect persecuted creatives, held in December in Sweden.

Michael:  My obvious first question is: aren’t you tired of talking about your experience of snow? It’s been twenty years [in exile] now, right?

Kagiso: [Laughs] I still can’t get used to it; I don’t know why. Ja, there is something that makes me uneasy about not being able to see the ground, that’s really my big problem with snow; I don’t mind watching snow fall, or even how cold it is anymore, but there is something about not being able to see the ground that makes me really uneasy; I didn’t grow up like that, I always know where the ground is, but it feels very strange. Have I been talking a lot about snow with you?

Michael: It seems to come up every time we meet, but I guess what I was asking is: because you’ve essentially been abroad for so long, aren’t you tired of talking as if you are a new arriviste, someone just fresh off the boat, as if that is going to be your defining experience forever?

Kagiso: Ja [sigh]… I guess what I’m saying when talking about the cold is having been in a country for twenty years and still struggling to feel like it’s mine. I feel lonely. I think that if I had found a community and I’d felt really embraced by the place then I wouldn’t still be feeling like I’m just arriving, but that feeling is still there; I don’t think that’s the same for other people.

Michael: So that’s a metaphor for some kind of social coldness?

Kagiso: Ja, it is actually; it’s funny because I have thought of it that way. I talk about the cold as if it’s the weather, but I’m actually talking about a very introverted people who find it very difficult to include people they didn’t grow up with, people whose paths they don’t understand. I think everywhere you go, people are much more comfortable with you when they know who your people are; they know, ok, you are so-and-so’s child and you grew up in such-and-such a school; people like to make the connections when they meet each other, especially in Canada. It makes them uneasy to not know where you come from and to not be able to relate to a really large part of who you are, so they exclude you; it’s easier than actually taking the time to learn; I think that’s what happens. Anyway, I’m not saying that’s all of Canada, it’s just the part of Canada I live in. A lot of people grow up in the same city and then they go away to university but then they come back; it’s a very big part of Canadian culture; you go back to where you were raised to raise children, and so that means people are always going back home, so I think it’s very odd to them that someone…

Michael: Would traverse the world and uproot themselves?

Kagiso: Ja. And just not go home, because going home is what everybody does. So I am constantly trying to belong, so in talking about it, I always sound like I am just beginning to enter the country – but in a lot of ways, I am. I mean, in terms of time I’m not because I’ve been there two decades, but socially I feel I am always trying to enter the country, I’m always trying to be a part of it in ways that it won’t let me in. It’s an ongoing struggle for me and I think a big part of the struggle, honestly, is that I’m so very proud to be South African and I talk about being South African, and I talk about myself as a South African person, and I write about South Africa – a really big part of what I do in my work is rediscover South Africa in all its different ways. So it goes both ways: a part of it is I think the country has not embraced me; but I think another part of it is that I also embrace my country so much I don’t talk about it like a place I don’t love because I love my country. But I think northerners – in North America and Europe – don’t understand why you would love Africa because their understanding of Africa is that it’s a very harsh place, you know? People will always ask “but it’s so dangerous in Africa, aren’t you glad you left?” That’s the only thing they seem to know about the country and about Africa, it’s so corrupt and there are these problems and those problems, but people don’t understand that your home is your home and everywhere has problems but you will talk about a place that you love.

Michael: Tell me about those expectations through the lens of hair and dress: because you’ve had that experience of having all these expectations projected on to you that as an African woman you are supposed to look and be a certain way.

Kagiso: Absolutely. I think that most of the immigrants of African descent in Canada have been from the Caribbean and people have one picture of what people from the Caribbean look like, so people think, oh Bob Marley, dreadlocks, or they think well, you are African then you should look more African and wear African dress because that’s what we’ve seen in movies and that’s what we expect Africans to look like. There isn’t this understanding in North America that there are cities in Africa, and by that I mean that you are always placed in the past; I think they always place Africa not in the modern age and they still have this idea of all of Africa as being a very primitive place. I mean they have the same idea about First Nations people within Canada, so I think it’s just a matter of this imperialist look on the world: where there are no Europeans there is no civilisation. They don’t know an Africa that has lights, let alone…

Michael: Aerospace companies and satellites…

Kagiso: Ja. Part of also not being embraced is you don’t fit people’s idea of what an African looks like and what an African talks like. People always say: “You don’t sound African.”

Michael: So apart from not being them, you are also not the kind of other that they want you to be.

Kagiso: [Laughs] Exactly! So you can’t win, so here’s what you do: you either deny who you are to fit into the image of who they need you to be, to be embraced, or you refuse all of that and be isolated, and those I think have been my choices. And at the very beginning I was very desperate to be included and I was wearing dreadlocks – and I don’t like dreadlocks – but I did a couple of different things like wear head-wraps, because sometimes you just long for a friendly embrace so sometimes it is just helpful when you are trying to not be isolated and lonely to have people say “you look really nice, so come to my house for dinner.” But then you realise it doesn’t work for you and you stall and you go back to who you really are and then you end up alone – and then you end up like me talking about not belonging, twenty years later.

Michael: So tell me about your community, in other words the people that you commune with in Canada. What does your community look like?

Kagiso: Ah, I don’t really have a community, I mean I’m in grad school right now so I suppose that would be my new community, but my community is all over the world. Two of my closest friends live in two different countries in Europe and my other really close friend lives in the US.

Michael: So your community is not a geographic community, it’s a community of minds?

Kagiso: It’s a community of minds, ja, all three of those people are writers and all of them I met in some writers’ space, so those tend to be my community.

Michael: So what is it about writers? Obviously they work in the same field as yours, but there must be something else to that writing in that you’re continually trying to interpret your environment and they’re on a similar journey?

Kagiso: Absolutely; I mean they lead very contemplative lives and I think it’s nice to be around and talk to people like that you’re always sharing ideas about how you see the world and how you see yourselves, because we have to engage in that work personally to be a writer and to grow as a writer, your spiritual self and how you feed that and how you take care of that part of yourself. Those are conversations I can have with writers, especially fiction writers. Fiction writers have to be involved in the growth of the people they write about so they have to also be very actively engaged, they have to show up in their own personal ways in order to do well in their work. But one writer friend who actually isn’t a fiction writer said something to me recently that really stuck and that was that the writer in society is not traditionally deep in the community; the writer is always a little bit on the outside because you have to be further out to have a clearer view of your society. So I agree with it and think it is true and I think you’re not going to write honestly about the society you live in if you are too steeped in it, so that’s part of the isolation as well. If you look at it that way, then it seems ok, but some days it just seems too difficult because everybody wants people around them [but] I think it becomes too hard to be part of a community as a writer. Most writers I know, their community is composed of other writers and artists or they really just don’t have friends where they live and their friends are all far away.

Michael: So to some degree it is a lonely choice because writing is a solitary task in and of itself and does require some remove from those around one. What are the trends in writing that are exciting you at the moment; are there any? It may even be something old that you discovered, not necessarily something new?

Kagiso: Um, I don’t know if this is new, I don’t think it is. There are two things. There is a large group of black women in South Africa writing memoirs; that’s very exciting for me because we didn’t grow up reading books about black women so for us to say that our stories matter, and I was writing alone in the world. I think that’s very powerful and I think there is going to be a generation of young girls growing up with these books about African women, by African women, for African women and that will be very empowering.

Michael: Karima [Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights] indicated that the very first point of ingress against any culture by a hostile force invariably assaulted the cultural rights of its women first, so if this new layer is being developed it’s going to have to be quite tough because it’s at the forefront of whatever gets thrown against that society by people who disapprove of it.

Kagiso: Aha, absolutely. It’s funny, you know, when I was growing up under apartheid, my father used to say that the future of South Africa was in black women’s hands and I think it’s because he had four girls and he really needed to say that [laughs]. But I think it’s a very powerful movement that’s happening and I think it’s coming up against a lot of criticism and I think they’re not being embraced by the larger publishing houses – but they just don’t care. So there are a few young black women writers who are building their own publishing houses so there’s one called Impepho which was started a few months ago by a woman called Vangile Gantsho and she is a poet, and then there is BlackBird which is an imprint of Jacana, and then [name unclear] who just started her own publishing house. So that is happening and it looks unstoppable when you look at it from that perspective.

Michael: Presumably what that means is first of all a greater diversity of voices in more vernacular languages, but also I’m presuming very soon we are going to start leaving biography behind and start getting into all sorts of genres, science fiction, philosophy, science, or what have you?

Kagiso: Ja, absolutely. There’s no limit. And it’s already happening. You get Pumla Gqola, she writes a lot on African politics, so that’s really exciting. I haven’t read a lot of science fiction but I know that there are a couple of people who want to write science fiction, but right now part of the trend is really addressing trauma and linking black women’s trauma to apartheid, because there is sort of this tradition in South Africa where everything bad started in 1994 [with the first all-race elections] but then you get these women who survived apartheid and want to talk to how their personal trauma is very much linked to the world they grew up in, to broader societal trauma. And I wholly support that. When I started writing in the early 2000s, I remember a really big publishing house in South Africa coming out and saying “we are not interested in apartheid stories, apartheid was in the past and we are excited only about black writers who are writing about South African politics now and South African society post-‘94” and I thought it was just appalling and obnoxious because they were calling on us to just forget the effects of the past, but also they wanted us to participate in their project of forgetting apartheid – which is not going to happen. So what I do like about what a lot of the black women are doing is they are addressing those issues which come from growing up under the apartheid regime and looking and linking them to how life is now.

Michael: Could you critique this prevalent notion, which has become a trope, of the “strong black woman”. There’s a demand that you have to be a strong black woman; you can’t be a contemplative black woman, or a mousy black woman, a shy and retiring black woman, or a black woman riven with self-doubt; you just have to be this uncarved block of solidity. Because on one front, environmentally, you have to be strong, but that denies you the full spectrum of your humanity.

Kagiso: Exactly. And part of what I like about the poetry from black women coming out now is them presenting themselves as sad, depressed, traumatised people – and able to handle all kinds of things – but also able to acknowledge the difficulties they face and to acknowledge that we fall apart sometimes. That is dehumanising to say that someone has to be this one thing; it’s taking away your humanity; we’re all complex, we all have feelings, life gets very hard for us – especially hard for us with everything that we have to deal with. I’ll give you an example of This Book Betrays My Brother: I went to Durban to the writers’ festival to promote the book. I got harassed in the session that I was giving about the book and I had to run out because it felt physically unsafe for me to be there. And when I told the organisers about it, they said “ja, but you’re a black woman, you guys are so strong, you can handle it.” But I have a right to be afraid and a right to be protected. But they compared me to another black woman who came there and had been harassed and had not complained and I felt like I was failing at being the black woman at that festival, I was not being the right black woman, I was failing at black womanhood [laughs]. And I think a lot of us are fighting against that image of what a black woman looks like because we shouldn’t be told what a black woman looks like or how she should behave, it should be up to us. But essentially it denies you the right to be human, it denies you the right to seek safety when you need it, to fall apart when you need to.

Michael: This ties in in my mind to this rising tide of reactionary black populism and its idealised version of black history and particularly pre-colonial history in which black people obviously never fought over anything, in which all wars that they ever waged were obviously on the side of the angels. This to me seems to fundamentally deny black people agency – under the guise of granting them agency. It’s about this projection of this idealised human.

Kagiso: Mm-hmm. It is under the guise of granting them agency.