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A conversation on poetry and emancipation with poet and Forecast 8 mentor Gabeba Baderoon.

  • Jul 13 2023
  • Dalia Maini
    is a writer, editor and urban mermaid.

I am curious to know about your poetic upbringing: can you describe the movement that led you to the composition of poetry? Did it help you navigate different social and political spaces in the strongly apartheid-fractured South Africa? 

My practice as a creative writer began quite late in my life. I took my first poetry class when I was already a Ph.D. student in literature at the age of 30. It was an interesting experience of entering a space in which I thought I knew something, but where I was actually a beginner at the same time. Letting go of notions of knowledge and control has been a powerful and beautiful experience of creativity for me. I grew up under apartheid, so the intimate connection between politics and culture was always visible to me. Since the beginning, my work has grappled with politics, the history of colonialism and slavery, and apartheid in South Africa.  I was aware of how poetry cannot discriminate between the public and the private, as it can evoke the presence of racial oppression in both intimate and large social spaces. So, I was never confused about the political meaning of intimate spaces. But when I took this class at the end of the ‘90s, I gave myself the liberty of not knowing how to express political engagement through poetry. And that was interesting, because it led to my writing poetry in a way that I did not consciously control. My poetry was actually much more expansive in its thematic range, and my approach to it was to not consciously direct it. In retrospect, I felt, thought, and wrote about the private and public, and I also identified hesitancies, fragilities, and failures, and all the things that seem to be a little bit forbidden if one thinks about culture in an insistent way. Poetry ended up being a liberatory space for me, where I could practice feminism without labeling it as such.

I am a young poet myself and I'm interested in poetry’s quality of creating identities that are sensitive and affected by circumstance, and which can contrast or bend the rigidity of the structures of power. In one of your past interviews, you recounted your experience of being an international student in the US, and how, from this experience, you rethought your relationship with your country. I'm wondering if being an English speaker inhabiting the space of migration has functioned as a way for you to organize the complexity of identities in South Africa. 

South Africa is a very multilingual country. And English is enriched by its nearness to other languages, even though it desires to be the most powerful and purest, and most sophisticated language, one that signals education and advancement. When I was growing up during the deep apartheid, I absorbed a contempt for any language other than English. Afrikaans, for example, was for me the language that signaled the oppression of Black people during slavery. Therefore I rejected it, as it carried too much pain, and I entered English in a very insistent way. I am sad for what I lost by that refusal, because I rejected all the other history of this language as a creation of enslaved people in South Africa, from whom I'm descended. So this is one way in which English is the language of loss for me. And then, the other way is actually the way that I sound. My voice, possibly to you, sounds very clear; my accent sounds very clear. But my accent doesn't sound very South African. And this is not because I've been living in the US for 20 years, but because even when I was a child I was already reinventing my voice to sound a little bit less Black, a little bit more educated, more sophisticated. When I was a child, I very quickly absorbed the content of the dominant culture towards people like me, and why the way I looked and sounded was “wrong.” 

So, English is a carrier of lots of meaning in Global Southern poetry practice. Through poetry, I tried to reconnect with some of those losses, so I wrote words back into my poetry that were not part of English or the other languages that I had studied. When I was young in school in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I couldn’t learn African languages. Nobody studied African languages in school, so I studied Arabic after school in Madressa because I am Muslim, and I studied German in high school because there was a political activist who taught at my high school and he introduced the teaching of German. I started French because my brother was interested in French. So, I try to bring these languages back into my poetry, because I am aware of the fact that English takes up almost all of my mental space, and therefore, that there are parts of my life missing because the language itself pushes it away. And then, as a South African living in the United States for the past 20 years, I only recently started to think about the topic. My time is divided between the US and South Africa, but interestingly enough, my academic work and poetry do not reflect the US very much. I realized that, in a way, I've used poetry and my academic work to relocate myself mentally back inside South Africa, and I have not really paid attention to the US, or what the US could mean for a middle-class African immigrant. 

I often think about language as a technology of longing and belonging, especially for people who left their countries for different reasons. But also language has a prescriptive quality that sometimes ties it to an oppressive reality. And instead, with poetry, a sort of intimate revolution can be achieved, as it disseminates a sense of the world that opens breaches into the ideological curtain. However, the act of culture-making, and, in your case, poetry could be elitist and exclusive. I would be curious to know if and how the class discourse is touched upon in your writings.

On a personal level, my mother came from a working-class family. She is 83 now, and she was studying in the 1950s and early ‘60s to become a doctor. What she achieved was really miraculous at that time, for a working-class girl. Even today, I think, what a miracle that she managed to do that! Her achievement gave me the stance that everything was possible. The fact that she had gone to university transformed the whole family's possibilities. She loved poetry, she recited poetry, and she — despite the class of her family — was also a person of culture. But she had the ability to create a tie with both ordinary and elite cultures. She never wrote poetry, but when I began to write, I wrote about ordinary, everyday, domestic, “unimportant” topics that were overlooked and gendered, and deemed lower-class activities. Mundane chores sounded like poetry to me. 

However, for me, the element that has been really remarkable in South Africa is how poetry has been an instrument of emancipation for Black women in the past 25 to 30 years. In the post-apartheid period, feminist poets and Black women abolished the division between high and low culture. There was something that people understood was transformative about poetry, and that it works in ways that don't require you to have access to power, budgets, or infrastructure. Poetry can help to create this infrastructure that can be socially transformative. And so what happened is that many women started to form their own writing circles, creating poetry groups the way that other people create music groups, booking theaters for poetry readings, self-publishing books, selling them, creating radio shows and television shows that eventually attracted a greater audience for feminist poetry. This legacy of poetry was taking on some of the pieces of apartheid, but also a much longer history of slavery and colonialism that had left a trail of severe sexual violence in the country, which is still extremely relevant today. But to the post-apartheid political culture, sexual violence was not a national issue: it was a woman's problem. But these women interlaced different struggles. In 2015, during the student protests against the high cost of the South African education system, which excluded poor Black and working-class people from studying, women members of feminist political movements insisted on combining the education struggle and the struggle against sexual violence. For them, it didn’t make sense to fight against fees while keeping quiet about sexual abuse. So they insisted that the feminist project of fighting gender discrimination and sexual violence was as important as the anti-discrimination political project. When they were holding up their placards, the feminist students were holding up feminist theorists, academics from all around the African continent, and poets. So for me, this is a demonstration of the power of poetry to link together different social classes and also different struggles from the late 1990s until now.

This is a powerful story of how poetic thinking can be a way to imagine and reclaim emancipation by naming power, abuses, or brutality across different geographies. However, I'm curious to understand the balance between poetic language and silence because, when I read the thread of your Forecast mentorship, Voluptuous Silence and Sociality in Poetry, I had to think about how silence then comes into play in organizing reality. It becomes an active, and not a passive, gesture, but also a possibility of allowing oneself to be touched or affected by the circumstances. 

Silence is such a delicious topic for discussion. It's infinitely rich and yet so multi-dimensional. As you point out, silence is a generative space; it can be a language as well. And it can be a space of intimacy, reciprocity, and a language that is hospitable to you. Things that we don't want to hear, things that are impossible for us to articulate. So silence is, in itself, an original invitation to reflect. In South Africa, there have been so many silences, such as the unexpected erasure of Black women from the political struggle in the post-apartheid period, and that to recognize those silences was very necessary to recognizing this oppression and not fall back into it. Former President Thabo Mbeki was really furious about feminists drawing attention to sexual violence in South Africa in the 1990s and early 2000s. He claimed that calling out the abuses was a project of racism against Black men. Black women were put in a position of defending themselves against these accusations, but still finding a way to call out the abuses. But feminists didn’t allow the erasure of sexual violence, which was, after all, part of the apartheid and colonial legacy. 

I understand better now what you mean about reciprocity as a broader sensibility to be affected by the environment, and then finding the strength to counterpower dominant narratives. How have you experienced this collective voice in the framework of Forecast’s mentorship program?

All the mentors and mentees, through their practice, pay attention to the interstitial spaces between the actual project and the actual performance, and they pay attention to the relationship between practices. I am surprised and delighted about the terms by which mentors and mentees have been brought together. Everyone is bringing multiple dimensions into their practices and also speaking about their relationship with one another. By exchanging with the other mentors, I learned a little bit more about their vision of mentorship, which nourished my own way of thinking. I think this is a great platform, because it creates contamination and intimacy by cultivating transdisciplinary relations among practitioners and people.


Forecast Forum will take place from July 14th to 16th at Radialsystem, Berlin.

  • Gabeba Baderoon is a South African poet, editor, academic, memoirist, and performer. She took her first class in writing poetry at the age of 30 and still describes herself as a student of the writing arts today, a quarter of a century later.



    Gabeba Baderoon. Photo by Victor Dlamini.



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