Searching for Women Like Me: A trip to the library saved my life
‘Colouredness is a phenomenon I had been grappling with for a long time,’ writes poet Tereska Muishond in her chapter, ‘Searching for Women Like Me’, from the anthology ‘Our Words, Our Worlds: Writing on Black South African Women Poets, 2000-2018’, compiled and edited by Makhosazana Xaba and published by UKZN Press. ‘This idea of not being white enough or black enough is not just a cliché many Coloured people use to express a sense of victimhood. It runs deep and wide.’
For women then, poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought — Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider
I meditate on Lorde’s words as I reflect on my journey as a writer and poet. While wrestling my way through school during the 1980s and early 1990s, poetry formed part of language studies. But it was a subject I found foreign, written by poets from England, the United States and even those from South Africa: Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Wordsworth, CJ Langenhoven, Breyten Breytenbach and NP van Wyk Louw, to name but a few. Amid these males who loomed large and overbearing was the lone, small, gentle voice of Antjie Krog.
These poets’ words, although beautiful on the page, held little enticement for me because they told of landscapes and concepts I could not relate to. I was unable to make their words mine, could not hold them close to me and allow them to caress me because, first of all, I did not understand the essence of this particular art form nor its purpose. Poetry, I decided, was something for privileged people, and in apartheid South Africa that meant white people. In fact, I was repulsed by it. I guess poetry was an undesirable luxury for me then.
When you are woken up
By angry voices
In the cold silence
Some things break
When you hear the beat
Of his fists
On her fragile flesh
Some Thing forces You to your knees Where you pray Beg
For the terror
And it does
But just when you think
It was but a fleeting nightmare The walls whisper to you Telling you
The quiet is too quiet
This poem describes my childhood home. But it was only many years later that I could formulate the recurring trauma of domestic violence into words. It made me withdraw from the world around me. Sadly, many of my peers, cousins and neighbours lived in similar physical and emotional jungles, so there was nowhere to run to. There was no Childline or 16 Days of Activism, as there is today. We were not even familiar with the word “abuse”, so we walked around, pretending that all was well, but locking the shame and pain into our Selves. A trip to the library saved my life.
I was seven years old when an older cousin who used to babysit me in the afternoons dragged me with her and sternly warned me beforehand to be quiet once inside the biblioteek. I had no idea what she was talking about because I had never heard such a strange word before. It was quite a far walk and I was complaining all the way because the sun was hot. But once inside the inconspicuous little building, I was flabbergasted by the rows and rows of books. “So this is where books live?” I questioned my annoyed cousin. “You know, a home for books…?” I tried again, but she hushed me by grabbing a few children’s books off the shelves, shoving them into my hands and telling me to keep my mouth shut and read.
That day a brand new world opened up for me. The literary world was a magical carpet that lifted me out of my painful life and transported me into the magical land of Oz and introduced me to the fables of Aesop, and the characters of Heidi, Huckleberry Finn, Aladdin and Oliver Twist, as well as Die Swart Kat.
During my early teens I became besotted with Mills and Boons because they made me believe that some mysterious stranger with blond hair and blue eyes would come and rescue me from my dreadful life and walk with me into the sunset, where we would live happily ever after. In the back of my mind I used to wonder why there were no Black men who would stroke their fingers through our coarse African hair (our skin colour, hair texture and body shapes were regarded as inferior, unattractive and even disgusting). In high school I was introduced to the likes of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Harper Lee and Dalene Matthee. These stories had a bigger punch and they pulled me in because they dealt with harsh realities that made my existence look like a walk in the park. Still, no poetry.
In 1999, at the age of 22, I was hospitalised for severe depression. I could not sleep or eat or speak. When I managed to pull a few sentences together, the words felt heavy and tasted like blood on my tongue. Days turned into weeks of me just staring into nothingness, and crying became a lifestyle. For the first time I could not seek refuge in books because my mind was dull. Words were a confusing jumble on the page and I panicked. My parents could not understand what was happening to me. They were convinced I was going insane and I couldn’t prove them wrong.
I could see the confusion and pain in their eyes, so I decided to write them each a letter to try and explain the agony that imprisoned me. I reached for a pen and paper and wrote and wrote and wrote. Still I wasn’t satisfied because ordinary language somehow was inadequate. I kept writing and miraculously the words that I have ingested over the years tumbled forth on paper and I was born to a new language. Or shall I say a new language was born to me? I gave birth to my very first poem.
For the last ray of sunshine to disappear
To curl up in the comfort of despairing darkness
For the ominous clouds to dissipate
So I can see the glory of a smiling day
Waiting Anxiously Alone
For someone to mend this broken soul.
At the time I didn’t know that this was a poem. Poetry, after all, was for the elite. I kept writing though, moved by an unexplainable force to capture my emotions, thoughts, experiences and perceptions into words. Each time, after a piece of writing was sitting proudly on the page, I felt a sense of catharsis. But I kept these scribblings to myself. Little did I know that I was a closet poet, until my younger sister, Laverne, discovered my “poems”.
A few years later Laverne and I moved to Johannesburg. Being a singer, she quickly got roped in to sing in a hip hop band called Obita. She would come home on weekends in the early hours of the morning after gigs and excitedly tell me about “spoken word” and that I should come and check it out. She tried to explain that these artists were writers like me and that they performed their poems and that it was inspiring and powerful and captivating, but I wasn’t listening. Despite seeing a few glimpses of people reciting poems on American television programmes, I was unaware that spoken word was a legitimate art form or that it even existed in Johannesburg. I tried to convince her that I wasn’t a poet and secretly I thought: “Me, show the world my misery? Never!”
Laverne finally had enough of me and took matters into her own hands. She entered me into a spoken word competition held at Horror Cafe in Newtown, hosted by Julius Makwero. Prior to the event, she selected the poem I would recite and ordered me to memorise it. On the day she dragged me to the event and, as I listened to the other young performers like myself, I became excited by the fierceness of not only the poets, but by their words and ideologies too. I was up for the challenge, but before I went on stage I told the judges that my stage name was “Bushwoman” because somehow I felt safer under an alias. I made it to the top five and a week later recited my poem on YFM. Having always wanted to perform on stage, and struggling to make it as an actress, I felt that I had found a home in the poetry scene and I dived into it wholeheartedly.
I was mesmerised by this young but vibrant scene! Although Black men like Mak Manaka, Kabomo Vilakazi, Kojo Baffoe, Thula “Zee” Cube, Ayob Vania and my favourite performer, Thabo “Flo” Mokale, dominated the scene, it was the Black women’s voices that captured my attention and galvanised my spirit to speak my own truth and to give voice to the myriad thoughts and feelings that were trapped inside of me.
I attended a show by Feela Sistah! at Couch and Coffee and seeing these beautiful Black women – Napo Masheane, Lebo Mashile, Myesha Jenkins and Ntsiki Mazwai – on stage ignited something in me. It was my first time hearing Black women my age being so vocal about a range of topics, including femininity, sexuality, politics and a variety of social themes. I befriended Flo and followed him around town, hungry for words and new images that sometimes shocked me and at other times comforted me. I frequented the nooks and crannies that poets were known to inhabit, places like Cool Runnings in Melville and the freshly built Constitution Hill in Braamfontein. Natalia Molebatsi’s mixture of poetry and song opened my mind to new possibilities within the art form. Performing alongside Phillippa Yaa de Villiers at Bassline, where we opened for the singer Lira, gave me the confidence not to confine myself to slam poetry and to dance to my own tune.
Soon I was introduced to women who were not part of the young spoken word scene, but were prominent writers and their work soon made a mark on my world. One such writer is Makhosazana Xaba, who had just published her first collection called These Hands. I was encouraged to find published poets and was introduced to the likes of Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes and many more.
Laverne and I formed a collective and became known as “!Bushwomen”. We combined poetry with song and dance and were well received by our audiences. Poetry became alive for me and I was revived by it. These women encouraged me to take my poems out of the closet and breathe life into them with my voice and my being. Poetry became a drug and I couldn’t get enough of it. With poetry we broke through barriers of race, oppression, sexuality and celebrated our freedom and womanhood. I noticed, however, that I was the only one speaking on Coloured identity. Was it because I was the only Coloured woman actively involved in the scene? Or because this was a forbidden topic? Or was I really the only one addressing it? This from an unpublished poem called “My People”:
What happens when you take away a people’s identity? Like snatching mother’s milk from a suckling baby? Classifying them as a non-entity?
Neither this Neither that Neither bad
Neither good enough
What happens when you force a people to live in-between two shades?
Shades of white Shades of black? They die inside
They slowly forget who they are
Then they forget that they have forgotten themselves
Colouredness is a phenomenon I had been grappling with for a long time. This idea of not being white enough or black enough is not just a cliché many Coloured people use to express a sense of victimhood. It runs deep and wide. Apartheid had taught me that I was better than the black person, but not as good as the white person, based on various laughable criteria – homogeny, the shade of my skin, hair texture, language, location. Then apartheid ended and the rules changed – overnight almost. Suddenly it was better to be black and dangerous to be white and yet again I didn’t fit either demographic. It certainly didn’t help matters that the oppressor’s language was my mother tongue. I felt like an alien in my own country and was in desperate need of a place of belonging.
Even though I saw myself as being Black at the time, courtesy of a multiracial private school education, and also because I could identify with being oppressed, many black people differed and they were not afraid to make me aware of their indifference towards me and my kind.
At first I thought I was imagining the hostility aimed at me, but when interacting with family, friends and other Coloured people, I soon realised what was happening. Because Coloured people were placed higher in the racial hierarchy than black people during apartheid, many black people were now retaliating against us. Today I cannot blame anybody but the system of apartheid. Divide and conquer was, after all, Verwoerd’s most dangerous weapon and I was starting to feel the sting of its effects now that his machine of racism has been dismantled. I was saddened, but then I got mad. I decided that, instead of merely complaining about the situation and licking my wounds with my kin, I would voice it on the only platform I had at the time. This took a lot of courage, which was in short supply, so I looked around, but I could only see myself, standing alone on a stage in the Jo’burg poetry scene. I used to discuss these issues and how to address it in my work with fellow writer and poet Ricky Groenewald, also Coloured, but where were the other female Coloured poets and was Coloured identity equally important in their writing?
My question was soon answered when !Bushwomen was invited to perform at Badilisha Poetry X-Change in Cape Town. There I met Malika Ndlovu, whose poem Born in Africa, but tapped me on the shoulder and welcomed me and made me feel less alone.
Now here was a woman who had walked my journey and spoke my language. I could relate to Malika’s work because she and I share a similar background – having grown up in what was previously known as Coloured townships. Malika looked like me, sounded like me and hence I could relate to what she had to say, especially about heritage and identity, which held immense importance for me as a young, Coloured woman trying to find myself, my voice and my place in the world.
Years earlier, while a Drama student at the University of the Free State, I had seen a play called A Coloured Place, which ran at the Civic Theatre in my hometown, Bloemfontein. The play moved me, as it addressed the very topic of Coloured identity and womanhood. When I met Malika I didn’t know that she was the playwright. I was in awe of the fact that writing, and poetry, could change my life in such a powerful way. Little did I know at the time that I too would soon write the award-winning play Te Veel vir ’n Coloured Girl (Too Much for a Coloured Girl), which also dealt with Coloured identity. So now I had one female Coloured poet as a pebble thrown on my path back home.
While in primary school, my schoolmates and I used to scare each other whenever we went to the bathrooms. We believed they were haunted by a ghost by the name of Saartjie Baartman, who would do all sorts of horrible things to you if she caught you alone in the toilet. Also, being referred to as a “Saartjie Baartman” was the greatest of insults because all we knew was that she was grotesque. Her “kroes” hair, prominent cheekbones, large bosom and elongated buttocks were spat upon and we used her name to insult each other. Back then I didn’t even know that this was a real person. I thought she was just a myth and happily perpetuated the tradition.
It was only years later that I learnt the tragic history behind this Khoisan ancestor of mine, whose real name was Sarah. Then, in 2002, after years of fighting to get Sarah Baartman’s remains back to South Africa, the French government finally relented. And what clinched the deal? A poem. A beautiful poem written by Diana Ferrus. I was oblivious to this at the time and only paid attention years later when I stumbled upon the poem and the history behind it. I cried when I read the poem. I cried because of my ignorance as a child. I cried for my ancestor’s tragic life and in celebration that she was home. Mostly, I cried because I was astounded by how a simple poem could soften one government’s heart and bring healing and redemption to another nation.
Diana Ferrus’s work has grown roots in my heart. If I had been taught her poetry in primary school, I definitely would have paid attention. I familiarised myself with her other poems and found myself yearning for more. What captivates me about Ferrus’s writing is her knowledge of history and her courage to speak about South Africa’s past, in particular the issue of Coloured identity, which is a complex one to understand, as well as to make peace with.
I was raised by a generation of elders who could not and did not want to talk about the past. Through her writing, Ferrus manages to spell out the sociopolitical nuances that gave rise to the issues my generation of Coloured people are grappling with today. History books – the correct ones – supply us with facts. But these facts are not sufficient for a poet like me. It is in Ferrus’s poetry that I can hear my mother’s voice, feel the pain behind my father’s tears and get a testimony of my grandparents’ confusion. She speaks of our loss of identity and culture.
I discovered her Afrikaans collection Ons Komvandaan in an obscure second-hand bookshop in Bloemfontein. The way I shouted with joy, the other people in the shop thought I had won the Lotto! It was the best R55 I had ever spent and this thin book became my most prized possession, housed in my overlarge handbag. Whenever I could find a few free minutes, the book was waiting for me and I could drink in a poem or two and happily carry on with my day.
On the pages of Ons Komvandaan I find my parents, aunts and uncles and I understand the concerns of their day. Ferrus goes deep, but manages to paint the ordinary as well. She describes how we as Coloured people have lost our culture and then addresses “Antie” Sarie and tells of how she, the poet, misses jazz. Although they are not big on literature, I have read some of these poems to my mother, aunts and uncles and they can relate to and find joy in Ferrus’s words and sentiments.
I was moved when I discovered that she and I share a childhood monster – domestic violence. With delicacy, she describes what it was like living within and around this destructive force and it becomes clear why her work resonates within my soul. It is this pain and torment that forces her to put pen to paper, the same way it did for me. It is through the flaws and faults of our parents and our society that we are able to create meaning and hope with our words and images.
The fact that Ferrus writes in my mother tongue, Afrikaans, lends even more authenticity to her work. I was happily surprised to find the Afrikaans version of the Sarah Baartman poem in Ons Komvandaan. This time I cried even more because it touched me more profoundly.
Ek is hier om jou weg te skeur,
weg van die snydende oë van die monster
wat wegkruip in die donker met sy kloue van haat, wat jou liggaam versnipper, stukkie vir stukkie,
jou siel vergelyk met die van satan
en syne vergelyk met die van God (Ferrus 2004: 1).
(I have come to wrench you away,/away from the poking eyes of the man-made monster who lives in the dark with his clutches of imperialism, who dissects your body bit by bit,/who likens your soul to that of satan and declares himself the ultimate God.)
Nelson Mandela said it best when he said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Because of the Afrikaans I was taught in school, I struggled to express myself in my mother tongue because I believed I had to write the way white Afrikaners spoke and wrote. But Coloured people do not speak Afrikaans in the same way their white counterparts do. My way of speaking, I thought, was insufficient, so I refrained from writing in Afrikaans and stuck to English, even though I yearned to be able to express myself in this familiar tongue. This is how I felt about the language in 1998:
My mother speaks a ‘borrowed’ tongue
Its intonations and inflections I suckled from her breast My father speaks the tongue of a proud Griqua man Rich with wisdom and humility
But neither xi nor xê
But I speak an alien tongue
Beautiful to hear
Its sovereignty bragging in my ear
. . .
Ashamed to speak my own Afraid to make myself known Despite feeling disjointed Alone (Muishond 2003: 16).
Then I remembered the rich tongue of Adam Small, poet and playwright who was born in 1936 in the Western Cape. Small wrote the way he and his people spoke and this gave me the courage and freedom to write the Afrikaans familiar to me. Another reason why it took me so long to write in this language is because of the sad history Afrikaans holds in our country. It became known as the oppressor’s language, one I tried to alienate myself from. But Diana’s love for our language liberated me. She calls it the language of reconciliation:
Kom ons praat weer Afrikaans! Kom ons gee die tong van ons
om weer te dans,
loshande te hang oor die krans.
Kom ons laat die woorde klank woorde vir so lank
afgemaak as mank (Ferrus 2004: 14).
(Let us speak Afrikaans again! Let us give this tongue of ours a chance/to dance again, hang loose hands over the cliff./Let us make the words sound words for so long/dismissed as limp [my translation].)
Khadija Tracey Heeger I met on Facebook. Malika Ndlovu referred me to her and I befriended her immediately. On Heritage Day in 2012 she posted one of her poems as her status and it made me sit upright because it goes straight to the heart of being Coloured. I questioned Khadija as to why she writes about the Coloured issue, and she responded: “I am writing about ‘coloured’ at this time because I don’t believe it has been unpacked enough. We still cringe at the mention of the word and this is an indicator for what work still needs to be done.” I could not agree more.
In 2013, frustrated that poetry was still not getting through to the masses, to the people who needed it most, I decided to create a vehicle to drive the art form and make it appealing to the woman on the street. With the assurance that I was not alone on this ‘Coloured’ journey, I decided to write a stage play and called it Te Veel vir ’n Coloured Girl. I took some of my poems, created a storyline and characters and added music and dance. It worked. The play debuted at the Vryfees in Bloemfontein and the response was overwhelming.
So many women could identify with the issues of womanhood, racism, discrimination, abuse and romance. But most importantly, all the Coloured people who attended the show could relate to the issue of identity and they walked out of the theatre feeling proud to be Coloured. For many, it was their first time at not only the theatre, but also watching performance poetry. They were moved. I felt that I achieved my goals. The play has since been featured at the Vavasati Women’s Festival at the Pretoria State Theatre and Woordfees in Stellenbosch and has been awarded the Vryfees Best Debut Production and the kykNET Award for Best Upcoming Artist.
Slowly, more and more Coloured female poets are coming to the fore. Slowly, the issue of Coloured identity is being unpacked, which will enable millions of South Africans to make sense of who they are and thus give them peace. I have yet to acquaint myself with the works of Toni Stuart, Shelley Berry, Jacelyn Kok and others. It has been an exciting journey thus far and I hope to continue it and find answers to the questions I seek. DM
Searching for Women Like Me: Coloured Identity, Afrikaans, Poetry and Performance by Tereska Muishond is from the anthology, Our Words, Our Worlds: Writing on Black South African Women Poets, 2000-2018, compiled and edited by Makhosazana Xaba and published by UKZN Press. Featured authors are: 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 and Makhosazana Xaba.
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