Review: “too much water”? Sarah Lubala’s ‘A History of Disappearance’

Retelling her experience of meeting a Nigerian man on a crowded street in Hong Kong, the persona in Sarah Lubala’s “I am never more black”, from her 37-strong debut poetry collection A History of Disappearance (2022), concludes that “we are everywhere at once” (p.49). While that statement may vouch for presence, being everywhere at once may also be a sign of displacement – the individual having no specific place with which to identify. Being everywhere may as well mean being nowhere, which is how one disappears. 

The trauma of displacement and its uncountable loss is at the crux of Lubala’s collection, which was published in March this year (2022) by South African small independent press, Botsotso Publishing. When, in one of the poems, “A Burial Hymn”, the persona mentions that “I am told my poems hold too much water” (p.15), she paints its mood: water, everywhere and nowhere at once, begins the flow of tears accompanying the lamentations that run along it. Throughout, the reader finds recurrent images of hunger, fire, rope, bones, illness, all of which have been carefully woven into the verse, effectively communicating the multiple traumas that various personae encounter in the many senses of disappearance. Disappearance is rendered to denote, among other things, how women are invisibilized and victimized by violent patriarchal cultures; losses that come with forced migration; the obscurity of refugees and black bodies in exile; and even the numbing of human affection. The powerful imagery is accompanied, in instances, with actual pictures, gore we see pasted in, serving more or less as ghosts of the histories that torment the personae’s minds.

In most of the poems, we meet a persona who tries to recollect her memories, which are at once tragic and crucial to her identity formation. Lubala gives us an ambivalent figure who longs to hold on to as much as to forget, to avoid as much as to share and talk. In “A List of Things I Don’t Tell My Mother”, the persona confesses that “i want to write it. i never want to think of it again” (p.31). In this poem, and in the entire collection, writing is represented as a form of ambivalent catharsis born of necessity, one of the adverse effects of trauma. 

The personae and the people they speak for are mostly the displaced victims of war. This is a lived experience for Lubala and her family, who escaped from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) two decades ago due to violent conflict. In this way, the semi-autobiography of the poet-persona not only laments the trauma of war, forced migration, and violence. She is also in a constant search for love, affection, companionship, and belonging as avenues of release. She is looking for a language that can ably communicate the memories she has lost (and is losing), as well as that which takes her forward in her aspirations, but that language also seems to have disappeared in the multiple furrows of traumatic memory. In the opening poem, “6 Errant Thoughts on Being a Refugee”, the persona confesses that “i was raised/ on the Congolese-gospel/ i can teach you how to forget/ where you are from” (p.6). 

Lubala communicates most effectively when she explores the experiences of women at the hands of men. Some of the women she writes here have escaped wars fought by men, while others have not been so lucky. We also meet women who are just trying to live and own themselves in a world dominated by male figures. Expressing how women lose their agency under patriarchy, the persona in “Questions you are Likely to Hear in an Asylum Interview” laments: “No woman belongs to herself,/ You are a borrowed thing – / gold for the dowry” (p.45). And in “Dispatch from Ward C”, the persona – now a patient struggling with mental health – recalls the suffering of her family’s matriarch: “I think of my great-grandmother, thirteen and wed,/ the chicken coup in/ red earth/ the kneaded dough of girl-limbs,/ the clutch of a doll in one arm,/ a baby in the other” (p.35). These experiences give us a glimpse into the disappearance of the agency and subjectivity of women that has tainted human history.  

In the poems dedicated to the personae’s experiences in exile, we encounter displaced Africans who roam the globe – from Johannesburg to Cape Town, Trieste to Hong Kong – looking for a place they can belong to and/or call home. It is here where, among other things, Lubala explores the racism, subtle or overt, that African migrants face in the West and the blow it deals to their identity formation. At one point, the persona remembers that “In the 4th grade/ an Irish nun tells me my braids are a distraction;/ I’m sent home/ to practice disappearance” (p.49). Such are the memories she tries to rid her mind of. 

A History of Disappearance explores the multiple traumas that haunt African victims of conflicts that terrorize the continent. It is an indictment on the men behind this violence, and a cry, too, for empathy from the victimized. Lubala capitalizes on powerful imagery to communicate in an emotive voice. The tone is meditative, the mood somber. At times, she deliberately bends the rules of grammar and syntax to challenge dominant narratives that invisibilize “others”. Her style and choice of subject matter put the collection in conversation with other African poets who expose the plight of women who are victims of war, displacement, and patriarchal violence – Warsan Shire, Mahtem Shiferraw, Ladan Osman. In the end, Lubala’s debut is not just a litany of dirges holding too much, but a witty, unnerving call to attend to keeping afloat – all the ways of surviving difficult times. 

Sarah Lubala is a Congolese-born poet. She has been twice shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award, and once for The Brittle Paper Poetry Award, as well as longlisted for the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award. She is also the winner of the Castello Di Duino XIV prize.

Her debut collection, A History of Disappearance, was published by Botsotso Publishing in 2022.

(Bio and image c. of Sarah’s website – https://www.sarahlubala.com/).

A History of Disappearance is available in SA direct from the publisher’s website:

A History of Disappearance

And internationally from African Books Collective:

https://www.africanbookscollective.com/books/a-history-of-disappearance

Our reviewer of Lubala’s collection, Wesley Macheso, is an editor on the Reviews team with us here at AiW. His bio has been through a few changes since our Words on the Times Q&A in 2020 – here’s the update in brief:

Wesley Macheso is a Malawian writer, editor, and academic. He holds a PhD in English Studies and teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Malawi. He is also a Research Fellow in the English Department at Stellenbosch University, South Africa. 



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