AiW Guest: Stephanie Selvick
I asked Makhosazana Xaba what it was like hearing that her debut collection of poetry, These Hands: Poems (2005), was accepted by Modjaji Books for a reprint due to demand by readers and teachers. “There is one word to describe the feeling,” she said. “Ecstatic.”
In 2005, Xaba was a new writer on an emerging scene. When These Hands: Poems was released, it was the first complete anthology written by a woman author published by Timbila Poetry Project. Even then, when South Africa was celebrating having achieved just over ten years of democracy, much of These Hands remained cautious—eyes intently fixed on the work ahead. Clare Wyllie of the South African Human Rights Commission asked Xaba in an interview: “What makes these poems part of the first decade of freedom in South Africa?” Xaba says definitively that prior to 1994, she would have written about the need for freedom. In 2005, she writes about the problems that continue when one has it—with the transformation of violence and racism. There was also not room for the individual’s voice and desires during the struggle. However, in 2005, her personal political voice can spotlight. Like many black women artists working to augment a historical record that has been denied to them, Xaba embeds specific references to time and place in her poems and synthesizes the personal and political to etch black women’s history—to say definitively “I am here.”
What does it mean to re-read These Hands: Poems in 2017, twelve years since its original publication and 23 years post-apartheid? There is something mischievous and consoling about reading Xaba’s words now. The panorama that her perspective offers shows just how prescient and ahead of their time these poems were, and how iconic they remain as literary works. In 2017, there is a new collective and activist voice. Students and young people have utilized social media and economy of language as activist tools. The hashtags #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall have gone viral—igniting direct action and difficult conversations about the skewed access to higher education which has become normalized. The #FMF movement was sparked by the material decolonization that students and staff demanded at the University of Cape Town. Refusing to let the geographic reminders of empire visibly occupy UCT, the Cecil Rhodes statue—which once awkwardly looked over Cape Town from Upper Campus—was swiftly removed. The “fall of Rhodes” has become symbolic for the “inevitable” fall of white supremacy and preference in South African higher education, and elsewhere. Xaba says that “when the call for decolonizing the curriculum came from the #FMF students, mine, and other Black poets’ books were there, waiting to be picked up.” There are surprising resonances too. In These Hands, Xaba’s recalls the mundane, dirty intimacies that were forged during the anti-apartheid struggle: the “feel of varying forms of faecal formation,” for instance (17). This poetic moment now echoes the “poop protest” that Rhodes Must Fall activists creatively used within their diversity of tactics. Black student excrement was flung at the Cecil Rhodes statue to metaphorize collective disgust and black pain. This stark transformation—from the indignity of resistance to activist instrument—must not be missed.
Locating and expressing desire amidst struggle threads together the pieces of this collection. In “The brown pelican,” references to the female-only, lesbian owned Key West Hotel, “Pearlsrainbow,” are casually and intimately bought into conversation with memories that feel so concrete (28). Xaba writes: “I smelt you, felt your breasts against my back / your broad right arm over my right shoulder / your playful fingers on my collar bone” (27). And then: “I wondered; are you wet?” (27). In “Your Eyes” the unspoken language of subtle glances eventually builds to swaying “belly to belly on the dance floor.” Then again, exactly half-way through a fifty-eight-page book, the poet-narrator says: “I make you wet” (29). This is not subtextual innuendo. This is unequivocal, NSFW, consensual, sex talk.
This collection is not only about nostalgia and desire, however. Xaba has enormous talent for taking a deep look at monsters who hide behind the guises of “grandfathers, fathers, uncles, brothers and sons” (54). In “The silence of a lifetime,” a woman survivor looks back at her six experiences with assault, starting from the age of seven. The extensiveness and variety of contexts in which these rapes occur are elevated to a state of emergency that is left “undeclared” (54). These assaults occur: in lounges where 11 people lived; in “broad daylight;” “on concrete pavement / behind the movie theatre” among “millions of city dwellers;” by colleagues and neighbors, and finally “by her husband / at six o’clock in the morning / on their matrimonial bed / while their child was feeding on her breast” (23-25). Sexual violence has become a public matter in South Africa—then, in 2005, as well as now. Yet, this is a different kind of publicness—an open, not yet acknowledged, secret. “Don’t ever tell anyone,” the uncle says to the narrator when she was seven (23).
These poems do not flinch while recalling histories of trauma and documenting a willful desire for freedom and intimacy. Through this collection, Xaba illuminates the cost of body politics. The poet’s bodily experiences become definitive proof of the efficacy of resistance; her very hands “recall,” “remember,” “know,” and “will never forget” (17). Now, however, “[t]hese hands caress the keyboard / fondle pens that massage papers / weaning fear, weaving words / wishing with every fingerprint / that this relationship will last forever” (17). These Hands is about writing as freedom and sustenance. It’s about the “soldier-poet.” It’s about stories that are passed down “about the early days of the ANC” and archived here (18). It’s about the “love poem” Xaba has for “her writing group” (32). “Words,” for Xaba, have the capacity for “deliverance” (26).
Makhosazana Xaba was kind enough to talk over email about the important role that writing can play within activism. She admits that her “biggest question” and source of doubt was whether “writing would make any difference at all.” Her “feminist and political activism had been about making a visible and tangible difference” (her emphasis). But, now she has “concrete evidence” that her writing “is making a difference in the world.” This difference, “at a very deep level,” fills her with “contentment.” Writing “frees” her—and, I would suggest, her readers.
Stephanie Selvick has a PhD in English and specializes in African literature, postcolonial studies, and queer theory. Her book in progress, “Love in a Time of Trauma,” analyzes contemporary South African representations of queer desire amidst sexual violence. Stephanie serves as the LGBT* Coordinator at UW-Whitewater, where she organizes a queer lecture series, directs the Pride Center, and teaches LGBTQ studies.
The reissue of Makhosazana Xaba’s These Hands: Poems is available from Modjaji Books.