The black womxn outside of protest

This talk was first delivered by writer, poet and playwright Koleka Putuma at 10and5’s X conference for creative womxn on 13 August 2016.

I am currently on a quest. I am trying to find ways of rehabilitating my body and identity as a black womxn. Perhaps this talk will seem like a reflection more than anything else. I’ll try and express my ideas/thoughts through a series of narratives; narratives that I know about myself, narratives that others know about me and the ones that people would rather write about, and how that feeds into my quest of trying to find ways of making work and telling stories that rehabilitate the black femxle body, or at least my body.

Narrative one: The pen as a saviour

The journey begins in grade nine.

I am 14 and queer. (I do not know this yet.)

In this story I am an awkward human who has just discovered that she can write, rap and put together plays. In this story I see myself as a cool-ish kid, but not top cool – the ‘I’ll go to detention and still study for exams’ kind of cool. The poems in this narrative are more about purging and escaping. The more I write, the more reluctant I am to share the poems I have written because they are raw and honest. In this narrative, the more I write the less trouble I am getting into.

My environment is toxic, so I write to create a safe space for myself and sanity.

Narrative two: The dream

End of matric. I am 17.

I tell my parents that I want to study theatre at UCT.

My mom’s response was “Yeah, sure” – which is rare in black families.

My mother takes out a loan to put me through a degree that may or may not work out.

In this narrative, I spend four years chasing the dream.

Learning what the dream is. Bringing myself to find the audacity to articulate the fact that I want the dream without making myself feel small or stupid for saying “I want to be a full time theatre director, poet and writer”. In this narrative, while studying theatre full time, I am chasing open mic sessions in Observatory in the rain, sharing poems that are ok and in need of work. In this narrative I am beginning to see myself, hear myself, and wanting to share my voice. I am opening up a little bit more. I may or may not be starting to like myself. In this narrative I am also full of doubts.

Narrative three: Gunnin’ for Plan A

The degree.

Four years on Hiddingh campus.

Here my voice is in constant rage. Here I learn rage.

How to rage. And that it’s ok to rage.

My work is one huge rage fest around this time.

Throughout my undergraduate programme at the University of Cape Town, I am unable to source contemporary/recent plays published by black South African womxn playwrights (to stage and perform). This perturbs me for two main reasons. The first being that black womxn currently making original work exist, some who also identify as playwrights (but dololo publishing, which is sad and disturbing). The second being that I began to notice that the black womxn’s narrative was reliant on authorial prejudices in texts that were written by black and white men, as well as by white women playwrights/theatre-makers. Often as black womxn we were advised by lecturers to source the “classics” or works from the “canon”, and these works often saw us on our knees or bruised and bloody lipped. In this narrative our tongues were twanging in Shakespeare and other things considered epic or legendary. In this narrative, the alternative to playing a maid or slave was being a black Juliet or black Medea. In this narrative I am reminded that even though UCT is hard and painful and uncomfortable, I have to do the damn thing, because someone has taken out a loan for the past three years for me to finish this. And in this narrative, I also realise that I have to make it work. There is no Plan B. I don’t have a model or memo for what a black womxn who was raised in Bellville and who wants to direct for theatre and do poems full time looks like. So I must create the model one for me. And so I do.

Narrative four: Theatre for young audiences – a turning point

End of my final year at UCT.

I get offered a residency with a physical theatre company called Magnet Theatre.

I am asked if I would be interested to make work for children under seven.

I say I don’t know what that looks like but yes.

When we talk about theatre for young audiences/children, people automatically think Takalani Sesame or the puppet shows you see at the aquarium that are designed to keep children busy/distracted. But under the residency I witness how sophisticated the work is. How challenging and beautiful theatre for young audiences is.

Under the residency, I got the opportunity to create a 30 minute piece called Ekyaya aimed at for 3-7 year olds, and a 20 minute play called Scoop: Kitchen Play For Caregivers and Babes which is the first and only South African play for babies aged 2 weeks to 12 months. These works were created with a company of four actors. In this narrative I don’t know what the hell I am doing. But I am doing it anyway. And relearning the essence of theatre (under the mentorship of Jennie Reznek). I am learning new ways of making theatre, relearning from children the fundamentals of theatre. I am trying to figure how to have 0-7 year old black children see themselves whole and reflected in plays that respect their intelligence. In this narrative, making work for under 7’s teaches me how to slow down and consider my audience and reflect them in a way that does not dilute their experiences.

Narrative five: Little torches

Two years after graduation.

Awards. Awards. Nice inboxes. Nice things. Twitter followers. Followers in general.

Work. Collaborations. Awards. Publishing. Lavish nice things. 

My plays are being showcased in huge theatres. I am travelling to do poems.

(I’m still trying to figure out what all of this means.)

I am getting cash dollar to wake up in the morning, write, direct plays and look fabulous if I want to, or jump into my pjs and binge on series all day if I feel like I deserve it.

Poetry/theatre/writing pays the bills. Theatre pays the rent.

In this narrative I am creating the model.

In this narrative I can’t believe my life.

This is an important narrative for me.

No one wants to hear about this narrative.

People call you vain or indulgent or bragging when you share such narratives.

To that, in this narrative, I say “I dont kerrr!”.

Narrative six: What the water gave me

Then there was water.

In this narrative I am becoming someone worth looking at. It’s hard to say that, and it shouldn’t be.

In this narrative I am someone worth writing about.

But in this narrative the writers keep asking me the same things about my journey/processes/practices.

The interviewers only want to know the following:

“As a black female theatre director/writer/poet, what are your biggest challenges or struggles?”

or

“How does it feel to be a black female in the arts?”

[As if I have been something else.]

This question is seldom followed by:

“And what are your triumphs or joys of being a black female artist?”

Conversations around being black, womxn and creating are always centred around hardship and struggle, and as black womxn creatives we have to work hard at normalising the idea of being black, womxn, and creating work that can be both whimsical and protest. Questions in interviews or when I am sitting on a panel often make me feel like I am being done a favour, or being accommodated, or being done a survey on, or I am in the process of earning a spot (that was always designed and purposed for me anyway). The concept of earning your spot or place in the world in general has always been a weird one for me. A friend of mine and I were talking recently about how much she is celebrating my coming into focus, and that she hopes I continue doing the work when they stop looking or start looking at someone else or when they do not look as much. And for me the gaze or hype feels more like a pan rather than a still shot. The lens is catching me at different moments and phases of my life, career, or whatever. And sometimes I’ll be in the frame, and sometimes not, and not because I’m not there, but maybe I’ve just bent down for a second to pick something up or I’m elsewhere doing something really small or insignificant like that. This thing of the gaze/hype/pedestal has been coming up a lot in conversations with people, and my response (well, for now) is that the absence of those things does not scare or pressurize me, because the lens that is focused on me right now is and was always intended for me. It pans with me as I move. And I am standing in my own light. I have not borrowed it from someone else. I am not taking over from someone else, as people love to say, “You are walking in so and so’s shoes”. And I’m always just like, no, no. So and so has their own shoes. So in two days’ time or five years’ time, should there be noise and flashes behind me or next to me of someone else, that’s ok. That’s beautiful. And that’s how it works. It shouldn’t cause panic because I’m moving with my own lens, in my own time. Doing whatever it is that makes sense for me right now.

When that popular question arises, “As a black female in the arts industry, what challenges do you face?” my answer is always: That question is one. People seldom want to know about your triumphs or joys as a black womxn creative, or the people who made the road somewhat easier for you to travel on. It’s disheartening (for me) to always have to present my entire life or emerging career as a struggle, even the parts that aren’t.

It’s annoying.

This question of challenges or struggle is right up there with questions around accessibilty and giving back, or how I deal with white people and the way they respond to my work.

And I’m always just like: Uh. Uh. Uh. ‪Irrelevant. Next question please. I want to talk about my favourite poem, my favourite writer. The last writer’s block I had and how gin & tonic helped me through it. I want to talk about random shit.

I remember reading Milisuthando Bongela’s interview with Lindiwe Matshikiza and feeling like her questions were the dopest. Milli’s questions included:

  1. A thing that you do every day without fail is
  2. Do you have a job or a career?
  3. Your greatest achievement is
  4. If you were a polyglot, which 7 languages would you speak?
  5. Do people meet you or do you meet them?
  6. What have you learned about work and working so far
  7. Are you proud of yourself?

Among others.

These questions really blew my mind because they weren’t subconsciously asking “what have you transcended” or what is your “transcendence tactic”. They were about Lindiwe as a womxn, as a creative, and as a black body who just nje discovering things and wakes up and does really dope shit.

[Post the talk]

As I edit this, I realise that the interviews and conversations that allowed me to share my other narratives were the ones I had with other black womxn writers. In my interview with Vuyisile Kubeka, I got to reflect on how poetry sustains me. My sit down with Lindokuhle Nkosi reminded me of the importance of really listening and holding each other as black womxn. That particular conversation with Lindokuhle made me realise that we will never ask of each other to be gaping wounds or tragedies for readers to dissect and applaud our ‘Imbokodorism’. That, inherently, as black womxn all we want to do is celebrate each other and talk, and write about each other in a wholesome light, and not just in half truths that are rooted in struggle.

[Back to the talk]

It’s important to note that my desire to imagine my blackness, body, creative journey and documentation outside of protest is a response to my lived reality and the corners that society constantly puts me in. Corners where I am always in protest, fighting something, resisting something, explaining all the damn time. I am always explaining something or resisting the expectation that I should be living a life of explanation or accommodating.

So now I am at a place where I am asking:

What do I sound or look like when I am not pushing back, screaming, holding up a placard, reacting to a stupid Tweet, spending hours on Twitter following and adding to a thread that is trying to dismantle fucked up thinking? Who am I when I am not sharing a poem that talks back to whiteness or patriarchy, what do the ‘other’ poems sound like? Who am I in my creative space? What do I feel like?

And:

Is my creative space safe and sacred enough for me to express joy?

Is my creative space safe and sacred enough for the people that I work with to express joy?

Narrative seven: Rehab

Black womxn in history and contemporary society are constantly at the centre of an assassination attempt, assassination in the form of abuse, rape and oppressive experiences in various spaces. There are terms, conditions and limitations attached to the freedom and identity of the black womxn body, and this is reflected on stage in South African theatre. We seldom see the stories of our grandmothers who love to sit and knit while telling stories, or the girls at Sunday school who fall in love with the pastor’s son, or the stories of girls exchanging lunch during break time, or how embarrassed we would feel when our period leaked on our uniform. While studying towards a theatre and performance degree I began to realise that the institution, by constantly introducing and imposing texts that are one sided and depict the black female in roles of poverty and servitude, forces the black female body to learn how to articulate violence and rage before it learns how to articulate joy or freedom or agency.

Narrative eight: An honest legacy

I am interested in who gets to write about me and why.

Narrative nine: The other protest

I am interested in how the black womxn’s body can be rehabilitated through the telling of the untold story or the telling of the violence against the black female body, without asking how it transcended it’s experience or pressurising it to resemble or embody the trope of the ‘strong black woman’ or ‘Imbokodo’ that is never enraged by the violence it encounters. Seldom, in South African theatre, does the black womxn get to live or have other fantasies other than being a slave or victim to something or someone. But here we are, everyday, as black womxn loving, indecisive about nail polish and negligent in taking care of our hair sometimes, so why not make plays about that? So that theatre can reflect the rage and violence and healing of the black womxn’s experiences in its entirety.

I am now only interested in interviews that are interested in asking me about my favourite hairstyle or the relationship I have with my hair, or what sweets I would buy with the offering money my father gave me to put in the tithes bucket, or just questions about me outside of being a something or someone that is always bleeding or being tossed about. You know.

Narrative ten: My personal protest

I write love poems too.

but you only want to see my mouth torn open in protest,

as if my mouth were a wound

with pus and gangrene

for

Joy

Photograph: Lauren Mitchell
Photograph: Lauren Mitchell

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