AiW Guest: Toni Stuart
Vuyelwa Maluleke’s Things We Lost in the Fire is a meditation on all that still lies broken within and between South Africans. It is at once a meditation on the woundedness of South Africa’s black men, and, in turn, the women whose lives also bear the scars and injuries of this woundedness.
“And so, when you tell us to forget it,
to build a bridge and get over it,
you speak like people desperate to commit new sins
while we are still trying to forget your fathers
walking into our homes without
knocking first.” – from 1978
The extract above feels to be the fulcrum around which the entire collection pivots. In this single sentence, Maluleke encapsulates all the complexities of post-apartheid South Africa, and our present discussion around race, reparations and inequality: the hurt still lingers, and, forgetting is a long and slow process. Also, what she successfully does, is take the weighty and burdensome idea of apartheid as systemic racism, and explains it in a simple concrete moment: white men bursting into black men’s homes violently.
Maluleke asserts our right to heal in our own time. Pushes back against the notion that we should and must get over it. How does she achieve this? Through wrenching through the facades we’ve erected in order to appear whole in our daily lives, those we hold on to in an effort to avoid tripping over the ever-present fissures between us – black and white, “coloured” and black, “coloured” and white. Her poetry cuts through this façade with a fierceness, with a tenderness, and, unapologetically.
The strength of Maluleke’s work lies in her ability to make abstract ideas – such as rape, grief, abuse and injustice – real and tangible. She does this through her close observation of everyday moments and interactions. She carefully constructs these scenes of the quotidian, in a way that is at once visceral and alive in our mind’s eye. So real that they cut through our ability to turn away, as we see in the poem “Seventeen Seconds”:
He folded himself around the jiggle of her frightened body
and built new monsters.
His tongue and hands rummaged through her
like he had lost something of his inside her.
How many girls do you have to break into
before you have enough pieces to put yourself together with?
Maluleke’s use of the volta is exceptional. Each poem delivers a surprising moment of changing trajectory, thus offering us multiple perspectives from which, and lenses through which, to view a story. As we see in the final lines of “Black Girl”:
You are brave. That is what you’ve always been,
but you’ve never believed it until a man said it was true.
You’re going to have to learn that you don’t need a man.
Things We Lost in The Fire interrogates the many direct, indirect and nuanced ways that South African women find themselves being defined by relationships to the men in their lives – fathers who leave or die, husbands and partners, brothers – whether positively, violently or unconsciously. This is poetry exquisitely crafted, at once arresting and delicate. Maluleke’s voice is strong, clear and unapologetic, and shows absolute command of her craft and content.
Toni Stuart is a poet, performer and spoken word educator working between Cape Town and London. Her work has been published in anthologies, journals and non-fiction books in South Africa and internationally. In 2013, she was named in the Mail and Guardian’s list of 200 inspiring Young South Africans for her work in co-founding I Am Somebody! – an NGO that uses storytelling and youth development to build integrated communities.
Vuyelwa Maluleke, the author of Things We Lost in the Fire (Akashic, 2015), is a Johannesburg based poet, writer and actor, with a BA in Dramatic Arts from the University of Witwatersrand. Maluleke began competitive poetry in 2012, winning the TEWOP Poetry Slam and the DFL Lover and Another 2012 Johannesburg Regional. She was awarded the Leon Gluckman Prize in 2013 for her creative work.
Vuyelwa Maluleke’s Things We Lost in the Fire is part of Akashic Books’ chapbook set, Eight New Generation African Poets (April 2015). This 8-piece boxed collection features the work of eight African poets with an introduction by Kwame Dawes and Chris Abani, and each chapbook has its own introduction from a thoughtfully paired stalwart African poet and writer. Maluleke’s chapbook is introduced by John Keene.
The set also contains A Pagan Place by Peter Akinlabi; Who Are You Looking For by Amy Lukau; The Wire-Headed Heathen by Inua Ellams; Viola Allo’s Bird from Africa; Mitu’s Spice Tour by Blessing Musariri; Janet Kofi-Tsekpo’s Yellow Iris; and Bearing Heavy Things by Liyou Libsekal.
For more on AiW’s deep dive into the box set, see our latest post in the series, AiW Guest Tamara Moellenberg’s review of Viola Allo’s Bird from Africa.