Q&A: The ‘Self-Confessed Rambler’: In Conversation with TJ Dema

AiW Guests: Dani Payne and Isobel Clark


TJ Dema – sourced from http://tjdema.com/

TJ Dema is a poet and arts administrator, currently living in Bristol. As a spoken word poet, she reads her poetry all over the world. In 2018, she won the Sillerman Prize for African Poetry with her manuscript The Careless Seamstress, released March 1st 2019. She now carries this enthusiasm for literary art and performance over to Bristol as 2019’s co-producer for Africa Writes-Bristol which will be running from 28 June to 4 July 2019 at venues across the city. An experienced cultural curator, Dema is interested in the structures in place for the literary production of writers from Botswana. Having founded SAUTI Arts and Performance Management in 2011, she continues to facilitate the publication of Batswana writers. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University.


Isobel Clark for Africa in Words: Let’s talk about your work as a literary producer. I’ve learnt that you curated and programmed various Botswana-based festivals – what inspired you to do this?

Is there a straightforward answer to this question… or any question that you’re going to ask me today!?

Right now, Botswana is an interesting space economically, as well as in terms of its education system. One thing I’ve always found interesting is that because I was looking at the country as an artist, I couldn’t help but see gaps.

We didn’t have a capital city until 1965, so they built this place from scratch to make a city. Then the practicalities got prioritised: like hospitals, training doctors, accountants, people who can work for the Ministry of Finance and the Government, etc; and I think the arts just didn’t quite fit into that programme. Things like dance always seem to find a way to fit in between the cracks but I think it’s much harder for literary art forms to find a way to step into the space if someone doesn’t champion them.

So, there I was as a practicing writer trying to navigate my way, assuming that I would probably be spending all of my life in Botswana; that this would have to be the space I would create in and produce in, finding people to think both with and alongside me. I just did what I could.

There isn’t a lot of private-sector capacity to support initiatives either. Whenever I worked on a project it was more of a collaboration: they may have had the resources, while I had the knowledge about, say, publication platforms. I don’t know to what extent it was successful but sometimes you just have to work within your limitations. At the very least, it means that when someone else steps into the space, they can point to you (maybe as an example of what not to do!). But at least you’ve done something with that space.

So, in a sense, you had a team that came together, with each one playing to your own strengths? Is that the essence of how you first formed festival projects? 

I set up SAUTI Arts and Performance Management primarily as a one woman show. Initially, I realised that professionals responded really well to the structural aspects of a company. It negated the overarching dismissal that surrounds artists, allowing us to be taken more seriously.

Then, I got a volunteer Gofamodimo Lekaunyane. She was the first person who came on to the team and was consistent throughout the years, even though I could only pay her if the company made a profit. She was interested in the arts but was not an artist, and she had PA experience in very detail-oriented work. So, the company’s open-ended structure formed, with me at its core. In hindsight, a structure that perhaps is much more like Word N Sound in South Africa, with multiple professionals playing to their own strengths (bringing their day job skills to the team), would have been more productive. To date, I think that Word N Sound created one of the best working models I’ve encountered because it was both quite structured but open to change.

Does the Africa Writes festival in Bristol this June follow the same process as SAUTI? In terms of preparation?

Not only does Bristol demand that you have a different structure or working pattern, it supports it. For example, when applying for the Arts Council England grant, you have to answer a very specific set of questions. Through this, you can deduce what the person on the other end needs to know for it to be a successful bid.

I’m new to the space, but already just by putting together this new bid in Bristol, I can see how different the process is. I didn’t care how much paperwork was required. The problem has never been having ideas, it’s been working out how to make funders interested in a particular project. So of course having somebody just give me the criteria to meet means that I’m working at it from a completely different space in my head, and I think it’s cleaner, clearer. Botswana doesn’t have an Arts Council. It has a Ministry of Sports, Youth and Culture, so you’re competing with a platform that’s considering a variety of things. Sports can be quite attractive – whether the team does well or not, it’s really a question of if they can mobilise spectators. It’s comparing apples and oranges; you really can’t compete with that.

Would you say, then, that funding has held you back?

Absolutely. I have no doubt that I worked as hard as anyone else anywhere in the world who wanted to do this.

This isn’t to say that the Africa Writes – Bristol team doesn’t have a lot of work to do now after putting together the funding application. But in Botswana, due to the absence of literary project-specific structures, we had a triple consciousness: you think as yourself; you think as the audience; you think as the person who may potentially be interested in funding it but who also has an application on their desk for something else entirely that absolutely needs to happen. You’re always starting from scratch, and usually not getting the amount you asked for. If you’re working in a space that you consider hostile to your field, you’re most likely not asking for as much as you actually need from the outset. Then when people come back and say ‘ok, let’s do 50%’, you do with it what you can. You try to adapt, changing the plan to achieve something that’s as close to your initial goal as possible but of course it’s not the same.

But yes, absolutely, there’s no way, within three months, that we would have been able to put together a bid like the one for Africa Writes-Bristol, and get the kind of response that we did in such a short time from multiple partners in the community through to the funder.

Is there anything in particular that you want to come out of Africa Writes-Bristol? Maybe there’s a specific author that you’re hoping to place in the limelight, or are you yourself going to be there as a poet?

The programme is a reflection of not only our ideas as co-producers, but also of the public through a call for ideas that the Royal African Society put out late last year. We had a proper look at that to find out who was interested in participating at an event in Bristol or who respondents wanted to hear from. The call is a wonderful idea as it gives you a sense of what people are thinking.

But other than just being excited about the whole programme, I’m also excited to be working in a new space. Bristol is new for me, and we’ve got to think about what it means for Bristol, that half of the team curating this is somebody that’s from the Continent. It was important to both Kate Wallis and I that we use specific venues, considering them very carefully, thinking about what kind of audience we’re looking for and how to make target audiences feel welcome. We’re rooting it very specifically in Bristol, it’s not a London festival that’s just here for a day. We love how it’s shaping up and we’ll hear, come July, what the people thought of it and that feedback is something that we’ll then build into our review process. We have a lot of partners on board, from the University of Bristol, to St Paul’s Carnival, Festival of Ideas to Come the Revolution, whose roles as we proceed will be to ensure that we have explored all possibilities. As many minds with as much relevant experience as you can have on board, the more engaged your project is likely to be.

* * *

A woman knows the way things puncture and hold.

The Careless Seamstress

Dani Payne for Africa in Words : Onto some questions about yourself as a poet. What inspired you to start writing poetry?

I think reading… I always struggle with this question which crops up in different ways. If I think of answers that I’ve given in the past, I think maybe at the core of it is that I was a reader first. My mother signed me up to a children’s book club after I showed an interest in stories, and by the time I was five, I got a package of books every month. I think it was because of all of those stories, that books never felt foreign to me. And now, by extension, moving into the world as an adult, the world never really feels foreign to me. There is always something new and always something the same I think that comes from stories and books, and I think that is where the impetus to create came from.

It begins in a kind of childlike mimicry. I wanted to do what I saw others doing, and my ‘others’ just so happened to be authors. I did well in primary school with what we called composition writing, and this meant that I would be given books at school for winning prizes; so, I just read more and more. Then I figured out how to use the library, discovered Roald Dahl, was asked to read a poem at a school assembly. So, at different points, people may or may not have been intentional in encouraging me to write, and that has led me to here. Before here, I was someone writing in Botswana who insisted that was what I wanted to do and only that. Due to the lack of structural support my process was quite slow. But now I choose to work slowly, I want to learn and to take the time to learn. This ‘slowness’ is a choice I am happy I ‘made’.

You’ve received a lot of praise for your writing. I’ve pulled out a quote from Kwame Dawes who said that you’re one of the most ‘assured and inquisitive poetic voices emerging in Africa today’, and in so many descriptions and reviews of your work you have been described as one of Botswana’s leading contemporary poets. But, I wondered if that label also comes with certain expectations and pressures of you as a writer. Do you ever feel that you have to write in a particular way, or represent Botswana in a particular light in your writing?

Yes and no. People walk up to you after shows and say, ‘don’t you want to do more light-hearted stuff?’, or, ‘don’t you have any love poems?’ Sometimes people are well-meaning and maybe they are even thinking strategically, looking at the space you are in and thinking that ‘if you only did this then more people would be interested.’ So, for example, one of the things that people used to comment on when I started performing in Botswana was that a lot of other performers got responses mid-performance. Whether that was finger snapping, or clapping, or just saying a line back, that almost never happens for me. People are often absolutely quiet while I read, which perhaps prepared me for England in ways that it didn’t prepare some of my colleagues. But in the Botswana context, I think that was one of my first moments of anxiety because alongside thinking I really, really want to do this and I really want to do it my way, I’m also quite practical, and at the end of the day someone has to read the poem.

In Botswana we don’t have very many literary journals, but newspapers would occasionally publish work when they felt that poetry was something very popular and had an audience. But, in a sense, I was always aware that part of my audience, or listeners, or readers, were probably outside of Botswana. But how could I do this in the way I wanted to whilst being conscious of the fact that I’m in a space, not only with 2 million people, but which doesn’t really have adequate structures internally in terms of the reach of its press, etc. I wasn’t writing in South Africa or Nigeria, and work was not moving outside of Botswana as Botswana is not really mapped as part of international literary networks. When those networks look to Africa, they are not necessarily looking to Botswana. They will look at Bessie Head and maybe Alexander McCall Smith and then move on to South Africa, Nigeria and maybe Zimbabwe or Kenya. At that point, that’s that.

So how to be true to myself while thinking strategically means that I ended up questioning what I should be writing about. Who am I writing for? What am I writing about? But, I think I am grateful for that confusion and that struggle. Although it rears its head every once in a while, I think I have a much clearer and firmer response to it now, and that is that I resist any kind of prescriptiveness. I don’t like to be told what to do anyway; I am quietly disobedient. That is just what I am like as a person. I am invested in relationship anarchies, even personally in terms of who gets to cook and when you ‘must’ marry, etc. I like to do what I like to do, and that is what is going to allow me to be the best kind of human being, to allow me to be kind and generous. I feel like the world has been generous to me because I get to do what I want to do.

The older I’ve gotten I realise without that resolve I might have been more strategic than true to self. It was popular at some point to take off your clothes while you recite your poetry, you know, all sorts of sensationalist stuff. So there have been opportunities to do what wasn’t necessarily what I wanted to do, but what would’ve definitely gotten me headlines. But I decided that this works for me and this gives me peace of mind and now that The Careless Seamstress is out I’m happy to hold this very ‘slow’ product. I now think of slowness as a way of being in the world, not as an accusation that you are not producing enough or not moving enough. Sometimes things loop back around; I will think, ‘I wish I had put out that poem’, but then I am sitting on it and five years later we are back in that moment again, maybe this time for a different reason. So there’s no rush. I have a lot of grey hair now, but I still feel like this way of being in the world is what works for my personality and allows me to sleep at night. I’ve done what I wanted to do.

Exactly, and been true to yourself as an artist. You’ve read your poems all over the world, and I wondered if sometimes what you are trying to say and convey gets lost in translation?

The answer to that question is probably absolutely, although that is an unverifiable fact.

I am not a white, Christian, European male; I am not the default of anything. No one really has to try and work to understand me. Often audiences are only working with what is in front of them: a body, a mouth, a female body, a black body. They may have read one article which has fixed certain ideas in their heads about how blackness is meant to perform identity politics. I might be writing a love poem to the Earth, it might be an eco-poem, but they are looking for the politics, and I mean that in the most explicit, traditional sense of the word: because I am black. They will look at this poem about morula trees and randomly ask ‘what about the situation in Zimbabwe?’, trying to politicise my work in specific ways when that was not what this poem was about.

Often that will show itself in Q&As after the reading. Other times people will laugh in a reading at the wrong point, whatever that means. But, for me, within a reading, I want that to be a safe space for the listener, so I am not judging if people laugh at a point where I didn’t necessarily think they were going to laugh. In the same way that I resist being told what to do, I also resist telling the audience what to do. I just want them to engage, and to see this as an invitation to enter into a conversation. But that can often mean that, yes, in a Q&A session, while I am trying to sound clever, in my head I am thinking ‘oh, this person doesn’t get it at all’. When I’m feeling generous I take the time to teach but that’s not my job.

As a spoken word poet, do you think that there’s more power in what can be heard over what can be written?

At some point, I think I said something crazy to my MA tutor; he was asking me to edit something in a particular way that we’d been working at and gone back and forth with. I was just ready to abandon the poem, even though I didn’t want to as it was important to me to kind of find a way to make it live. And at some point I said to him, ‘I think I trust my ear more than I do my eye, and so I don’t know what to do about the form of the thing here.’ And he basically came at me with generosity and said, ‘what is this false distinction?’

It’s all sound, it’s oral text; what is on the page is a transcription of what is in the voice. I think in the most successful poems both of these things are happening. It might be a spoken word poem and so much good work is happening that the reader might as well be sitting with a book or be watching this on television or their computer. Certain lines will stay with them and they will be able to close read them in a sense, even though they are listening to the poem. I think a poem sits on the page as dead weight if the poet/reader can’t hear it and they can’t sound it out.

When I run workshops, and I work a lot with young people, I always say to them don’t hand in anything that you have not read out loud even if you never mean to perform it. What do you think a reader is doing when they read, what do you think is happening in their head? They are reading out loud to themselves, even if their mouth doesn’t move. There is the reader’s voice in their own head. I recognise where the impetus to ask the question comes from but to respond to your question fairly I have to assume what I now think is a position premised on a false distinction.

The new book – congratulations by the way – we were wondering where you got the title from? What made you call it The Careless Seamstress?

A year into the MA, I had a selection of random poems and had a moment of outward panic. I was thinking ‘I have one more year’, and all these poems which were about 12 million different things; how am I ever going to try and pretend that there is some coherent thread that is going to hold all of this together? However, I still didn’t get it, despite saying over and over again to my husband, ‘I can’t see the thread!’ What you are getting in The Careless Seamstress is a little more than half of what is in the dissertation. Kwame Dawes, who is my editor and an absolute genius, just said ‘this work is another book, so let’s set those poems aside’. And the work that survived that first cut was what became The Careless Seamstress.

My maternal grandmother, who I never met, was a goat farmer and seamstress, and my mother took up formal seamstressing lessons when I was about twelve or thirteen. So, I wrote the poem ‘The Careless Seamstress’ first, but found that it was in conversation with very many cultures, speakers and thinkers. Even the title itself is inter-textual, leaning on the conceit of W.B. Yeats’ ‘Adam’s Curse’ and a translation of Marina Tsvetaeva’s ‘Bound for Hell. I was really interested mainly in Tsvetaeva’s idea that ‘our seams all ran whether we sewed or not’. As part of thinking through my process as a writer I began to wonder about the ways in which even the labour of writing may be gendered. I think it’s Antjie Krog who asks, ‘Does truth have a gender?’. I also remember reading Praise Poems for Tswana Chiefs by I. Schapera where he asserts that, ‘There were in every tribe also age-sets of women, […] but as they are not mentioned in the praise-poems they require no special description here.’ And I thought, well then… Then my tutor, Tom Pow, introduced me to the work of Eavan Boland, who writes of wanting ‘to read or hear the narrative of someone else – a woman and a poet […] who had made the life meet the work.’ Suddenly I didn’t want to substitute ‘kitchen’ for ‘boardroom’ just to make a point or avoid all the fabrics of domesticity. I wanted the life to meet the work as it did for my mother and her mother.

Nothing is very straightforward with me. I often loop back in on myself and this conveys itself in the way I work. I remember lots of different people and poems when I work and write, but I have to ask myself, ‘do I really want to cite a man?’ ‘Maybe I should look at someone who, like me, is anglophone, but not English, or someone who has been translated into English.’  Hopefully some of that seeps into the work, and Kwame’s very generous foreword makes me think that, at the very least, I have been partly successful at that kind of entanglement. It makes me think I am not entirely crazy and that there is a usefulness in tirelessly asking questions that are not necessarily offering any answers.

I am not intent on fixing the gaze one way, but I resist if there is a default that is already fixed a particular way; then I want to make it sweep. And so the work is intertextual, I wrap everything: folklore, myth, and sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes it’s not; I don’t need it to be. The point isn’t for me to sound clever; I just need to know that it works. If someone knows that mythology, the poem makes another kind of sense to them. But I want it to work even without that. The point isn’t to create some sort of puzzle that readers have to spend hours trying to put together.


The Careless Seamstress is out now from The University of Nebraska Press and distributed in the UK by Combined Academic Publishers.

Africa Writes – Bristol is taking place between Friday 28th June and Thursday 4th July at venues across the city, including Malcolm X Community Centre, Arnolfini, The Cube, Foyles,  Wickham Theatre and Waterstones. Featured writers include Koleka Putuma, Namwali Serpell, Wanjeri Gakuru, Malaika Kegode and Nick Makoha and the full programme is available here.

One of the programme highlights includes the Bristol-launch of The Careless Seamstress.  TJ Dema will be reading from and discussing her new collection with Nick Makoha at Malcolm X Community Centre on Saturday 29th June at 6.45pm.



Dani Payne and Isobel Clark are both in their final year of undergraduate degrees in English at the University of Exeter. Dani’s current research is focusing on borderlands, and in particular, those of the United States and Mexico, and the female’s placement within that space. Isobel’s current research interests include urban spaces and mapping within African narratives; and the function of the boy-player in Early Modern Drama.


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