ko ko thett is the co-editor of Picking Off New Shoots Will Not Stop the Spring, a new collection of “witness essays and poems from Burma/Myanmar 1988-2021.”
Guest host Kathleen Maris Paltrineri talks with Zimbabwean and South African writer Panashe Chigumadzi about literature's relationship to feminism, jazz, and anti-racist discourse as well as Chigumadzi's forthcoming collection of essays, Beautiful Hair for a Landless People.
Panashe Chigumadzi Interview Transcript
I’m guest host Kathleen Maris Paltrineri and you’re listening to Origins.
Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.
The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Last year, the Program celebrated its fiftieth anniversary; visit the fiftieth anniversary website at iwp50.grad.uiowa.edu. To learn more about the International Writing Program, visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
This episode of Origins features Zimbabwean and South African writer Panashe Chigumadzi.
Panashe CHIGUMADZI (novelist, essayist; South Africa/Zimbabwe) is the author of the novel Sweet Medicine, which won the 2016 K. Sello Duiker Literary Award. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, Die Zeit, and elsewhere. A founding editor of Vanguard Magazine, a platform for black women in post-apartheid South Africa, she curated, in 2016, Soweto’s Abantu Book Festival for black readers and writers. Beautiful Hair for a Landless People is her forthcoming book of essays. She participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
We are recording from the University of Iowa on Monday, October 30th, 2017. We had the chance to sit down with Panashe, who is here as a participant of the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.
PALTRINERI: Welcome, Panashe.
CHIGUMADZI: Thank you.
PALTRINERI: Well I’m so happy to have the chance to talk with you today and to talk about your work and your experience as a curator and an editor. And I’m also thrilled that you spoke at an event at the National Museum of African Art titled, “(Re)Visioning Her-Story: The Black Female Body in the Black Female Imagination.” Can you tell us a little bit about that event and what you feel like you really learned from the experience or took away or was able to share with the audience?
CHIGUMADZI: A lot of work I’ve been doing for a while, at least this year, has been thinking about what I call a Trexit moment, Trump in America and on the other side, the resurgence of the right wing in Europe and the way in which there’s this almost hysteria as if this is so unprecedented in some way. And I think where I found at least for a number of people living particularly outside the US but also people who are marginalized, particularly black people, there’s a sense that we’re not entirely surprised by this because to be honest, we’ve seen this in some form or another. And I thought a lot about the way in which World War I and II were sort of a crisis of Western imagination, the crisis of democracy. And again, many African and black intellectuals were like well, what do you call the kind of degradation of humanity, undermining of humanity, that is seen in imperialism, slavery, you know, what is that? And it’s not to say that we’re trying to one up each other, but it’s to say, if we’re trying to address these things, you cannot only really care when this is on your back step and when it’s with people who look like you.
And so I became really interested in trying to understand the intellectual and psychological foundation of where this idea of blackness and race and gender and the focus on the body really comes from. And so thinking about the intellectual foundations of Enlightenment, which is “I think therefore I am,” but as you start to read between the lines and read the silences, you start to understand that this tends to be a very oppositional kind of thinking. It’s based on a lot of dichotomies, “I think therefore I am.” This is in relation to the unreasoning of the other, who is body, whereas they are mind, and that kind of thing.
So within this kind of sense is the idea of where does the black woman fit in, and she is meant to be the ultimate embodiment of unreason and the crisis that comes from the inability to relate to other people without resorting to oppositional and very dichotomous thinking of mind-body, man-woman, black-white and that kind of thing. And so that’s then how I come in to thinking about this question of art and if art is a particular way in how some of the most naturalized ideas of race are seen, what does that tell us? And the texts that I had used to start thinking about these questions is Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness in the Literary Imagination where she looks at the white literary American canon and the kinds of ideas that are put there, how blackness becomes a stand-in for a lot of fears and desires that seemingly aren’t able to be resolved through self-reflexive means by a number of white authors. And you see the same kind of thing in art as well. And that’s where I enter the discussion as someone who’s into literature.
My entry into this is thinking about on one hand we see this crisis of Western imagination and ways in which it colonized black female bodies and the ways in black woman artists have responded to that beyond simply giving critiques but offering a new way to envision themselves and the world to envision itself and that’s what we discussed.
People are really looking to have these sorts of conversation. We had a lot of black women in particular in the audience, a lot of young people but also a lot of older people, so it was great to see that inter-generational conversation about some of these things and how we envision ourselves.
PALTRINERI: It sounds like the conversations went into many really interesting directions and it’s wonderful that there was such a broad audience as well, to receive it. So how do you think that your experience connects with the work you’re doing now with your forthcoming collection of essays Beautiful Hair for a Landless People?
CHIGUMADZI: I think I’ve been really interested at least for the last year and a half in questions of the body and the black female body in relation to this current moment and the idea that the body situates itself in history. All of our bodies do but it’s more obvious with some than it is with others. And so this essay is something that I’ve been working on for a while.
Very often in a lot of anti-colonial discourses, anti-racist discourse there’s a way in which black women are completely displaced and not just black women, people who are not the sort of heterosexual able-bodied black man, for example. There’s a whole range of people who are not always captured when we talk about black people, for example.
And this is to say that I want to center that particular aspect of this experience and to think through the ways in which even within our own anti-racist dialogue there’s ways in which we replicate the patriarchy of what bell hooks calls the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy because we haven’t done the job of re-imagining. Very often it’s simply to say, “We want a seat at the table,” as opposed to saying, “well maybe this whole table needs to look very different.” Maybe we need to rebuild the table as opposed to simply shuffling around who gets to sit at the table. And that’s what I’m quite interested in.
The book of essays actually started when I went to The Writivism Festival in Uganda. There I’d seen a group of young school girls who had the best uniform I’d ever seen in my life. It had all these school colors and it was really bright. Maybe for someone from America it doesn’t sound as great but from someone who had to wear a particularly regimented type of uniform, this was really great. You could choose whichever color you wanted, and the style was very form-fitting and very flattering to the girls. And they all that these different hairstyles, right, but not straightened hair. It was markedly different than say when my mother would have gone to school in Zimbabwe and it was a black and they were forced to shave their heads, for example, and there’s a particular dynamic around that. But the idea of them being able to find different forms of individuality without reference to forms of so-called “hair that falls” in a way that I didn’t get to do. I always knew when I went to school in South Africa; I went to private school and it was majority white and we always were quite aware, without the word being said, that we were falling short of a particular kind of standard. Best if your hair was short, best if your hair was long but not kinky long, as in straight long. All those subliminal messages. Swimming was always something that was particularly fraught because you knew, you are growing and puberty is there and you’re not as tiny as the white girls in your class, for example, and there’s a particular kind of anxiety you had at that age.
And the week that I left from Uganda, there was an internationally covered scandal in South Africa where girls at Pretoria Girls High were protesting racism at their school, and particularly they mobilized around the issue of hair and how they weren’t allowed to have their afros at school and that kind of thing. And so I’ve just been thinking a lot about that and how in different contexts, it’s not necessarily that black girls will feel the particular same kinds of way about different kinds of issues because of the environments they grow up in. There’s a point that’s also made by Kwame Appiah thinking about the different kinds of childhoods and therefore the different kinds of responses we’ll have to colonialism because colonialism isn’t a blanket system, it works very differently in different countries. South Africa, for example, is a settler colony. Zimbabwe, where I’m also from, is a settler colony, versus Nigeria, which had a more indirect form of colonialism and it’s not surprising. When I went to the Ake Festival in Nigeria which is the hometown of Wole Soyinka, he was famous for saying, “What is Negritude?” We have Tigritude, a tiger does not announce the fact that it has stripes, or the tiger does not announce the fact of its tiger-ness, i.e., why do you have to announce the fact of your blackness? And of course it makes sense in somewhere like Nigeria. Many Nigerians I think you will often hear when they come to America, is the first time I knew I was black wasn’t in Nigeria. Well for many South Africans it’s like no, I’ve known it for a very long time that I’m black. And that’s also something I’m interested in thinking about, is how the body situates itself in history, how different spaces, well I mean you’ll have different kinds of responses not just as black people but also as white people, but all of those things is what I’m sort of working through right now.
PALTRINERI: So I want to move now and talk about your novel Sweet Medicine. Brittle Paper Review called your novel “feminist in every way.” First of all, do you agree with that? And secondly, what are ways in which fiction can support feminism that perhaps nonfiction doesn’t? Perhaps, I don’t know, even situating, as you say, in lived experience, even if it’s a fictionalized lived experience. How did you approach working feminism into that novel?
CHIGUMADZI: When I was at the start of Sweet Medicine, I was actually really interested in a question about religion versus Christianity and our traditional belief systems because I had not grown up in a home where that was even something that we really discussed. It was just something that happened out there, to other people, but you know we were a very Christian home and this was the first time I really considered what would that have meant for my family, who were the first to be converted. What were the disagreements, or did the whole family decide, “let’s do this thing” and what were the things that were the considerations? So almost sort of the very lived things of colonialism beyond the grand idea that this is what happened to these people, but I was starting to think about what this would have meant in my family.
And so Sweet Medicine actually was an idea of thinking about, when are the moments when people do return to our traditional beliefs and our own healing systems as opposed to Christianity and particularly in moments of desperation. And given where Zimbabwe has been over the last twenty years, particularly in the 2008 period where there was the economic freefall, there were just a lot of things that were undone, a lot of expectations that were undone for many people. Particularly again, Zimbabwe has a very high literacy rate, for example. Many people are pretty well-educated, and the notion of education and hard work is something that is very integral in our society, very important. But that really began to be questioned a lot in that economy, where the idea that people have gone to school, but I’m not able to get a job, I might have to go to South Africa and I am a teacher but now I have to be a domestic worker. All kinds of things that were just completely undone for a lot of people is actually what I was interested in before I even thought of any questions of feminism. And again, the reason why I didn’t think in particularly feminist terms is because the feminism I knew was a very mainstream feminism, which was a very white feminism, meaning that issues of race are not going to be addressed. And before I had, and through social media, really, I was introduced to ideas of intersectionality and womanism and the idea that you can’t separate blackness from womanhood or whatever. I was the kind of person who would say I am black before I am a woman or whatever it was. But if you ask me now, I’d say, I’m a black woman before I am black or before I’m a woman, you can’t ask me to separate those things because those things happen simultaneously.
And so I didn’t really think much about those questions, it just happened to be that way. But over time, that also meant that I had a lot of contempt for my characters at first, because I was very judgmental and I had a particular kind of politics that meant, oh my God, look at what these people are doing, that kind of thing. But over time I began to really empathize with and understand my characters and think through what this means and feminism, I think, particularly intersectional feminism, black feminism thinks a lot about the politics of survival; what are the things people have to do under difficult circumstances. And I think in that way, I was not interested too much in giving a moralistic vision of this is what someone should do, or needed to do, I just wanted to give a picture of this is what it is. It’s not the most liberatory at the end either, with the ending of the book. It was just to say I understand you, I get you, I see you, and this is what it is. I didn’t aim to say, wow, this is the feminist manifesto, this is how everybody gets out of whatever kind of marriage or whatever, this was just to say this is how some people and some women are going to have to handle their situations and that’s valid, too.
PALTRINERI: So addressing music, you were talking about learning from or learning about the intersectionality of life of existence from music. I had a chance to hear you sing in New Orleans, which was amazing.
CHIGUMADZI: I told my partner and he was like, “Don’t do that again.”
PALTRINERI: No, do it again, it was awesome. Do you reference music a lot in your works? What inspiration do you take from jazz and other forms of music? I read an article where you were talking about Solange’s latest album in For Harriet and it seems like you really interact with music a lot.
CHIGUMADZI: I think a lot of these things, my thinking through music and even visual art, is a lot more recent. And again, I think that’s a kind of legacy of the schooling that a lot of us have, which is very binary and compartmentalized; if you’re doing literature, you’re doing literature, music you’re doing music, and that kind of thing. I would really have to thank the Fallist Movement, sort of being part of some of those protests for really forcing me to rethink a lot of things. It’s been really great space for me emotionally, intellectually. And a whole lot of things were coming out in that moment and with it, it is sort of being part of that process and having to reckon with yourself and also seeing what’s on Black Twitter, South African Black Twitter and American Black Twitter. It’s a time when you had things like “Formation” and Solange’s A Seat at the Table. And with it, on Twitter you were seeing a lot of young black artists who were taking a lot of amazing photos, interesting GIFs. And that visual aspect, against the recurring loop of dead black bodies, for example, and sort of bodies in abjection, those things happening in the same time has been something that has been interesting and also very painful and frustrating to deal with.
And so one of the things I really began to think through is the idea of jazz. I think South Africa and the United States share a love of jazz in a way that I don’t think jazz is taken up as much on the rest of the continent. And again, I think that’s also to do with the similarity in our experiences, with being black in a way that other parts of the continent don’t as easily relate to. And in thinking about jazz not just as a music but as a philosophy, a practice. This is in response to very often when people are saying, “Well if you want to decolonize, what do you want?” almost as a way to shut down the conversation as opposed to say, “Right, let’s really think about what other ways can we do this.” It was meant to end the conversation, right. And what I really appreciate about jazz is its timelessness in something that is very much rooted in its African past and present and it’s also forward looking at the same time. And just how jazz came about, and idea of remaking of self in the way in which it was not seen as a serious art form art first and now it’s seen as America’s classical music after a lot of that hard work and really saying that “We’re going to do this the way that we need to do.”
And it’s been a really important metaphor for a whole range of things, even just thinking about questions of form. Again, I’ll refer to Toni Morrison. Her novel Jazz, for example, does something really interesting to form, not just speaking about jazz as the actual music but form of jazz and what that means. Particularly, the idea that I find most interesting with jazz is the notion of the individual also working within the group as well. I think very often people see black discourses or anti-racist discourses as homogenizing or stifling the individual, but something like jazz shows that there’s very much space for the individual, but the individual also needs to work within the group as well. That’s something that I think through; there’s a whole range of metaphors that can come through jazz and it’s inspired me and my own writing, just thinking about experimenting with form and being okay with the fact that maybe it’s not considered great because you experimented with something different. And that’s something that I really think through a lot, is jazz and a number of other art forms, whether things that are specifically African, jazz is a very African art form, thinking about the call and response, that you’re always are responsive to people, you don’t just work in isolation. There’s a whole lot that I find in thinking about jazz, not just as a music form but as a philosophy and a way of doing and of being.
PALTRINERI: That’s awesome. And I wonder if that philosophy of doing and being, has that carried over to you in your experiences as a program curator or as an editor, for the Abantu Book Festival and then also for Vanguard Magazine?
CHIGUMADZI: I think, now that I think about it, yeah. I think a lot of it, let’s say with Vanguard, it’s as a space for young black women, a lot of it was out of the idea that I’m not seeing what I’d like to see, or I’m not reading what I’d like to read, so let’s try something different. We had like a newsletter, we had videos that we were uploading, we did podcasts, we did radio, and this was just two people with laptops, right, that were sitting and doing this work and we had a lot of contributors. And we really just tried and experimented with what we thought worked. When I started Vanguard, I didn’t know anything about black feminism or womanism; it was just really a space to grow with our readers and with our audience. We were interested in one, listening to people, where that’s also just being on social media and seeing, what are the conversations people are having, what seems to be top of mind, are people talking about religion a lot these days, are people talking about this music video, are people talking about, you know, that trending conversation. In whatever we did, we always demanded that our contributors would situate themselves, so you could never talk about anything as a manifesto and a disembodied figure just speaking to something; you had to situate yourself and where have you been with this topic before. Maybe you were, for example, homophobic or now you are struggling with your own internalized misogyny, or whatever. That was really important for us to do so that we could really think through what are the difficulties in creating the visions that we’d like of the world. What are the personal and also community level contradictions that we have and speaking to that, and really creating, I mean the word is really over-used now, but a safe space to sort of fail and try and be honest and see, but with the commitment to each other and to our community, and that was really, really important. So I think in many ways, jazz was important, that kind of thinking about just allowing yourself to experiment and see because there were many iterations of the space.
With Abantu as well, that was founded by Thando Mgqolozana who had again, in the midst of this particular moment in South Africa with the Fallist movement, he spoke about the need to decolonize South Africa’s literary industry because again, it is very white dominated. There’s ways in which not just black writers, but black readers, black editors, black publishers are marginalized in that space. His idea at the very start of this was to think about a black literary festival where we didn’t have to feel like you’re being treated like an anthropological subject in your own country, right. That was really something that he did, and I thought it was an amazing vision so I was like, “Hey, I’d like to join you.”
And when we did that, a lot of it was really experimenting. It wasn’t enough to say we want to do what the white festivals have done but with black people; that’s not for me a vision of liberation. How do we do things differently, how to be more inclusive of not just black people, but all black people. Along the way, we’d have someone literally a couple days before who sent us an email saying, “Wow, we really love what you’re doing, have you thought about sign language interpreters?” And we hadn’t thought about that and again, just sort of limited visions of what liberation looks like for all black people. But as soon as that person had reached out to us, we were like, “Yes, please,” and we got her to be a part of as many of the panels as possible. But again, even the idea of re-visioning, it also means like things like that are very bread and butter, that means like paying people for panels, right, paying them well so that this is something that is viable, because if you’re marginalized by definition, you don’t have access to resources which is why many people can’t be authors, for example.
You had to think about issues of language, for example, and these are not things that you’re going to get right the first time. This year I won’t be curating it, but they just announced the second edition of Abantu Book Festival. Just before we had launched the first one, I’d gone to Ake Festival where I met Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and he is very much about languages, for example, and we spoke about that and those were things were very clear that this is a shortcoming. That this is a festival for black readers and writers, but this is going to be mostly in English. We do have spaces dedicated to other African languages, but we don’t have that. Again, it’s just the idea that it’s not going to be a fix all, like everything that needs to be done, because a lot of issues are structural, you’re not going to fix them overnight. But again, being open to seeing how things work.
It’s not just about the actual book, you’re thinking about what is the space I want to cultivate for people. How do I make it so that when people are there, they can feel like they can fully participate. And to me, that’s part of the work of decolonization and the improvisational ethic that goes along with it, knowing that you’re not always going to get things right, but you should be open to the journey and being accountable to yourself and also the people that you are saying you are doing this for.
PALTRINERI: Nice. Before we wrap up the conversation, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about if you have any recommendations for our listeners, what you are reading. We’ve talked about your forthcoming collection of essays, but is there anything else you’re working on in terms of your own writing as well?
CHIGUMADZI: It’s mostly been the book of essays. Aside from that, I haven’t been doing as much as I should be doing is sort of what I would hope would be my next novel or another novel. I think it’s something that will be a very long time in the making because it is a historical novel so there’s a lot of research that I need to do and a lot of people I need to talk to.
In terms of books, I actually bought a lot of old books, particularly in art and African literature specifically. A lot of these are decommissioned library books. A lot of them are out of print. And one of the remarks that he made, this is actually Thando of the Abantu Book Festival, who made the remark that the sad thing is that a lot of our archive and our meaning Africa’s archive is based here, right? In the West. Because a lot of those books, the reason why I literally hoarded a big bag-full is because it’s a lot more accessible here than it is at home.
I can name a few, both from South Africa but also the rest of the continent and other African diasporic ones and by that I mean including African Americans, Caribbean Americans. There’s a great series, which I got a hold of some of it which is called The Image of the Black in Western Art, which is edited by Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and that’s a really amazing series of looking in antiquity to the present, what sort of images of black people have been particularly in a lot of canonical Western takes but also looking at pop culture as well, right up until the current moment where we see black artists in the West taking hold of that image. That’s been a really great book.
But talking about archive and the upcoming visit to the Smithsonian Museum for African American History, there’s a really great book by a black academic by the name of Matt Richardson and their book is called, The Queer Limits of Black Memory: The Queer Limits of Black Memory, and that’s a really fascinating book particularly when we’re talking about issues of archive, issues of collective memory, particularly for people who have been historically marginalized and the ways again the silences end up showing up with regards to black queer people. Their take is sort of thinking through that in the ways that black lesbian women writers have thought about the past without the archive necessarily being there or being silent on them, they’ve sort of recreated visions of queer blackness in the past and that’s sort of been something that’s interesting. And that’s a text that very much about literature but also just does a whole lot of work to think about questions of memory as we go into a lot of these different sorts of spaces and challenging us within the community to again think beyond the heteronormative nuclear family as sort of the site of struggle, that there’s a whole range of ways of being and doing that don’t necessarily fit into what is often a lot of politics of respectability and normativity that often figures into our politics.
Another book that’s really great is by Farah Jasmine Griffin and it’s called If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday and that’s about Billie Holiday and the myth around her which it’s a really, really brilliant book. And the last one I will mention, actually, since I have been talking about African childhood, I finally got a copy of The Dark Child: The Autobiography of an African Boy by Camara Laye, who was a French-Guinean writer and it’s not a book I could easily find in South Africa, again, a number of these texts I’ve been looking for, and I got to finally read that book. And I finished it today! It’s a really beautiful little memoir of his childhood in French Guinea. I would definitely recommend that, it’s a really beautiful little book.
PALTRINERI: Wonderful, thank you for these recommendations.
CHIGUMADZI: Yeah, thank you.
PALTRINERI: And thank you for spending time with us today, I really appreciate it.
CHIGUMADZI: Thank you very much, Kathleen, I really, really enjoyed it.
The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.
Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with research and editing by Ashley Chong, design by Donna Brooks, and production by Todd Johnson; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your guest host, Kathleen Maris Paltrineri. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available June 15, 2018 on ApplePodcasts and SoundCloud where Christopher Merrill talks with Burmese writer Maung Day.