Poetry

Koleka Putuma Is the Groundbreaking New Voice of South African Poetry

Koleka Putuma doesn't play by the rules in her debut anthology.

South African poet Koleka Putuma is a rockstar. She's not playing by the rules and her poetry is direct without being cliché. The Cape Town-based poet's debut anthology, Collective Amnesia, which was released in April this year, was accompanied by visuals—both photography and videos, something you don't see in South Africa.


She went against the odds when she released the book. “I remember a veteran writer that I had great respect for telling me: 'Publishing a book of poems in South Africa? You will be lucky if you sell 200 copies in your book's lifetime, and be grateful if 20 people show up to your book launch. Just know you are doing it for you,'" she once mused on a Facebook post just after her successful nationwide book tour in June. “So here we are, in less than three months since its release: a national tour, 13 cities, 17 launches, a prescribed text for second-year university students, four print runs, 2,000 copies later."

“She's born in 1993, and [her book] is already being read in Stellenbosch (University) and UCT (University of Cape Town)," says Milisuthando Bongela, editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the newspaper Mail & Guardian. This is during one of the three Johannesburg stops of Putuma's book tour, which had other stops in places such as Durban and Eastern Cape. “I've never seen anyone do that," Bongela continues. “And when you get inside the book, you see yourself for once. The most powerful thing for me about this book, is that this person who was born in 1993 was never meant to experience apartheid or any sort of discrimination, has now written a book that archives her experiences in this so-called free country that we live in."

The cover of Collective Amnesia. Photography by Andiswa Mkosi.

Bongela is flanking Putuma at the Market Theatre alongside revered South African poet Lebo Mashile. Both of them can't stop singing praises to the ground-breaking poet.

Before Putuma opens the event with a reading from the book, Afurakan, another revered poet and co-founder of the poetry movement Word N Sound, has a few words of introduction. “At this stage," says Afurakan, “I would say she's the dream of the work that we do as a company—to be able to give young poets space for them to perform, to express themselves and watch them run with that opportunity and turn it into something magnificent."

Afurakan goes on to recount the first time he encountered Putuma. It was during the first South African National Poetry Slam, organized by Word N Sound in 2014. “Everyone had props," Afurakan describes the competition. “It was dramatic, but Koleka, with just three simple poems, won the slam. And she took that little credibility that came with that and ran with it. And three years later, look where she is now, with an award for directing, a 2016 PEN SA Student Writing Prize (for her poem Water), and she just launched a book."

Putuma's sharp eyes scan the room, as she stands up with a wry smirk to read her first piece for the night. It's a poem called 1994: A Love Poem, a tongue-in-cheek take on white South Africans' juvenile obsession with late apartheid struggle hero and former South African president, Nelson Mandela. It's a poem that stylistically references meme culture. “I want someone who's going to look at me and love me the way white people look at and love Mandela," she pauses briefly for the audience to finish laughing. “You don't know love until you've been loved like Mandela/ You don't know betrayal until you've been loved like Mandela/ You don't know fuckery until you've been loved like Mandela…"

Her readings take me back to the few events I've seen her perform at in Cape Town. Her book Collective Amnesia includes some poems she has read before. One of the most prominent being Water, one of her most popular pieces to date. It's surreal to hold an anthology of someone who speaks the way I do—with slang, making reference to the internet, hip-hop, Oppikoppi, Nike, God's medical bill, and has no economy for expletives. The South African publishing industry has its own types of books that it favors, and Collective Amnesia just wouldn't normally make the cut.

Which is why Putuma's book is a special moment. She was born only one year before South Africa had its first democratically elected president. She is one of the many voices of our generation that doesn't have any memories of apartheid, but is feeling its repercussions and fighting its own social ills such as gender-based violence, patriarchy, homophobia, and the like.

Collective Amnesia is written in a quirky and unconventional way. For instance, the poem Apartheid, which consists of just a title and a footnote, is an intense one-liner that will first make you chuckle, then ponder, and then realize how little has changed in post-apartheid South Africa for black people.

The poet celebrates and mourns her blackness, womxn-ness and queerness through the book's three sections—Inherited Memory, Buried Memory and Postmemory.

Writer Maneo Mohale described Collective Amnesia best in her review of the anthology on the Mail & Guardian: “The book reads as a deeply personal diary and as a public reflection on the ever-shifting politics of identity, in a country that is still deeply troubled by the past's complicated legacies."

And indeed, Collective Amnesia does come from a lot of personal experiences. “Before this book, about two years ago," Putuma explains during the discussion she's having with Bongela and Mashile. “I used to look at my mother and my auntie's choices and think, 'Why would you stay? Why would you choose that in that particular situation?' But after writing this book and having experienced things as a black womxn, I learned that, in that particular situation, your mother and aunt chose silence so that they could live, or so that there could be peace in the house, so that they could eat."

“What I like about this book, beyond talking about whiteness, white people, and white supremacy," says Bongela, “[is that it touches on] this very difficult subject of our uncles, family members, and [rape] apologists – that's very difficult to talk about. We haven't figured out a lexicon of how to deal with the bullshit that's happening in our families. It's easier to fight the public in the public sphere, which is necessary, but then when it's just us, ah, kunzima (it's difficult). And this book laid it all out. We as black people know what's going on in this book."

On the poem Memoirs Of A Queer Slave & Queer Person, which is just four lines long, Putuma writes poignantly about the dangers of being queer in South Africa: “I don't want to die with my hands up or legs open." On Xmas Dinner With Skeletons, she writes about domestic sexual violence: “Your perpetuator has your uncle's eyes and his cheap brandy breath/ How many abortions have fallen out of your mouth while counting the men in your life."

On Black Solidarity, she talks about the hypocrisy of black male activists, and the sexism and patriarchy of such men: “How come your revolution always wants to go rummaging through my underwear?... How come references to your revolution are limited to Biko and Fanon and Malcolm?/ Do you read?/ Your solidarity, it seems, is anchored by undermining black womxn's struggle."

“If you are a black womxn in this country, you either get a bullet in your head, and they kill you fast, or they kill you slow over the course of a lifetime," says Mashile when her turn to speak comes. She starts by referencing her experience as a black womxn poet in South Africa; how the media never focused on her work, but her celebrity and fame. “None of us are spared," she continues. “It's important to have tools that are going to be a lifeline for you, and I think this book is a lifeline for the second-year students who are studying in the most racist institutions in this country. It's a lifeline for all the young womxn who are working in corporate South Africa, who follow Koleka's work online. It's going to be a lifeline for anyone who feels invisible and unheard, and who needs the reality to be validated."

Mashile's face beams as she admits to being an avid follower of the young poet's work, and how she admires her methods of getting her work out. “She's exploding the model of South African literature, which is a wonderful thing," Mashile says. “She is emerging, and with authority, to claim her space and audience. The fact that she is now on her third print, and the book has just come out is extraordinary. I'm watching with hawk eyes, dedication and admiration, because you are inventing a new model for us in South Africa. And it's important. The work that you are doing is very necessary. The people who you are opening the way for… there are young girls who will be reading this work to survive, and not drink pills and take their lives. Ten to 15 years from now, they will reference and thank you."

Photography by Andiswa Mkosi.

As she sits now, there is a slide show of recurring portraits of the poet on a screen behind Putuma. The images were shot by photographer Andiswa Mkosi. One audience member asks her about the collaboration with Mkosi, to which Putuma responds, “This was not going to be the cover of the book. There was another cover that I wasn't excited about. Then Andy and I got together, and the first thing she asked me was, 'what are you trying to say in this book?'"

Mkosi asked Putuma about the themes in the book and read some parts of the anthology. “Then she said," continues the poet. “'What I'm getting from it is things or faces and names that have been hidden, now being unveiled.'

So the theme for the photography was about hiding and an unveiling. “Unveiling memory, amnesia, stories of black mothers and white babies and us playing with our dolls, and black womxn," she says. “Initially not all of them were supposed to be in public like this," she says pointing at the screen. “We were supposed to choose one for the cover. But they were so beautiful and said so many things about the work that I was like, 'I will take them wherever I go.'"

The images are currently on sale as prints, independent of the book, because Putuma's imagination just goes beyond the box that has been placed around artists. What her next move is, one may never know, and that's the beauty of being her fan.

All videos by Jarryd Kleinhans

Collective Amnesia is available in bookshops around South Africa, and on Amazon.

Revisit our 2015 interview with Koleka Putuma here, and our interview with Andiswa Mkosi from earlier this year here.

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Still from "Kasala!"

Meet The Nigerian New Wave Director Behind the Film 'Kasala!'

One of Naija cinema's new wave, Ema Edosio talks about what it took to film her exciting new film in the streets of Lagos.

Ema Edosio is the director of "Kasala", a comedy set in present day Lagos and centers on the lives of four young men who go on a joyride to a party in a Honda Accord one of them has taken from his boss Taju without permission. Their evening is ruined when one of them crashes Taju's Honda breaking the windscreen and denting the car's body. With just four hours before Taju returns home, all four boys hustle around Lagos to raise money for the car repair.

Taju, who is a struggling butcher, is faced with a big problem of his own: his debtor has just given him an ultimatum to pay back money he's long owed. Bitter and frustrated, Taju's retribution will be double-fold, if he returns home to find his Honda is damaged. The four friends do not need more another reason to expect the worse from Taju if they're not able to fix his Honda before gets home in the next four hours.

"Kasala" is a vivid portrayal of contemporary Lagos and a riotous combination of physical comedy, inventive turns of phrases combined with fluid camera work and committed performances from some of the young and bright African acting talents.

Written by Temi Sodipo and directed by Ema Edosio—who is also the cinematographer and editor—"Kasala" was chosen for the closing gala of the 2018 edition of Film Africa in London this November, out of a total of 39 films from 15 countries.

Edosio flew into London for the film's UK premier at the Rich Mix cinema to a largely pan-African crowd who lapped up the rollicking comedy. Ahead of her trip to the UK, Okay Africa spoke to Edosio about her debut feature, the joys and challenges of shooting on location in Lagos and the rise of Nigeria's so called "Naija New Wave" cinema.

Photo courtesy of Ema Edosio


The fast pace and energy in Kasala is constant all through the film. Was this a deliberate injection or did it come as a result of the writing?

I worked as a video journalist for the BBC and I would go into the streets of Lagos to film, and I would see everything that made Lagos what it is: the traffic, the smell, the dirt, the vibe, the energy, the people. And I wanted to make a story that is authentic and that is the reason why I decided to make Kasala this way.

All the four friends and main characters jell naturally it would seem. How did you get them to work well together?

When I conceived of the film, I knew that I didn't want to work with any "known" faces. I knew that I wanted unknown actors. So I put out an audition call and these boys worked into the room and I told them to read together. And immediately it was like magic.

Why do you think they're largely unknown to the majority of Nigerian movie watching audience?

I think one of the reasons is there's not a lot of movies written about young people. Most of the scripts are for a certain kind of male character: the superhero who goes to save the damsel in distress, and the hunk and a lot of roles are not written for these amazing actors and that's why they're largely unknown.

Tomiwa Tegbe who plays "Effiong" is a good comic actor and has been in "On The Real (Ebony Life TV)" and "Shuga (MTV)". What does Kasala bring out in Tomiwa Tegbe that these other directors and film material that do not?

The thing that made Tomiwa Tegbe and the rest stand out in Kasala is that I gave them freedom to act and I wasn't micromanaging them. They became very comfortable in order to do their best to the film.

The cast as a whole is largely new and young with Jide Kosoko easily the most experienced. Why did you cast him for the role and not yet another "unknown" face?

The reason is I couldn't afford to hire known faces to work in the film and I honestly didn't have the budget. I [also] wanted to bring in a sense of familiarity and that is why I got Jide Kosoko. Even though they're guys are unknown, and they're are fantastic "here is someone you know who is in this movie playing with these amazing actors" which is why I worked with Jide Kosoko.

The different locations in the film are those of back corners, mechanic garages, meat market, communal flats most of which have the red and brown of rust and decay gives the cinematography a visual harmony. How much attention did you give to finding the right locations?

I think I made Kasala with a vengeance. I've had the privilege to work with Ebonylife tv which was beautiful but Kasala kept pulling me in: the people I met in the streets, the things I'd done on the streets of Lagos, the visual aesthetic kept pulling and I decided to make that. I wanted to see Lagos, I wanted to see barbwires. I wanted to see gutters, I wanted to see the people. I knew that the location was a character on its own. And I wanted to be able to find the right location that would be able to represent that boys and the lives they live in Lagos. I'm forever grateful for the people there who let us film there.

Your camera adopts the often frenetic pace of the film and is rarely still for long. Why this visual approach?

I'm very influenced by Guy Ritchie, Edgar Wright, Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. And I would always say to myself that "these characters in their films can be Nigerians". I think that the camera should be fluid, breathe, move with the audience showing us "oh yeah this is a wide, oh yeah this is a close up". My influence by these directors was what I put into Kasala. And this is what made the film dynamic.

Are there any interesting, unplanned events during shooting which you could share with our readers?

Shooting in Lagos is one of the hardest thing to do. You have these agberos [louts] who come to you and literally want to take your equipment. I went with a very small crew and I'm very petite and they would see me and say "who is this small girl? She doesn't have money. Leave her alone, let her shoot". I started bringing them into the film to act and it was very beautiful seeing them react to it. One of the most interesting things is the children in the estates [on location] who act in the film, the joy and the playfulness. In some ways we brought back some joy and some fun into the neighbourhood.


Still from "Kasala!"

Did you worry much about what may be lost to foreign audiences who may not be clued up the pidgin English and "Nigerianisms" used in the film?

You can't come to Lagos and make a film about the slum in English. I felt like the pidgin English was as important as the location. My mind was not about where the foreign audience would accept it or whatever. My mind was "how do I make a film that is authentic to Nigeria? How do I make a film that would show of Lagos?" It would do no justice to use English.

Who are the other key players in Nigeria's "nu wave" film and tv you would like to highlight?

When you talk about new wave key players you're talking about Abba Makama whose film "Green White Green" inspired me to make "Kasala". CJ SeriObasi, ImoEmoren, Jade Sholat Siberi, Kemi Adetiba. So many new directors are springing out nollywood. And they're new directors making amazing stuff. I'm really really excited about the future.

How did you raise the funding needed to make "Kasala"?

When I wanted to make Kasala, it was not the kind of story people would fund. I decided in order to bring this story to live, to use the skills I'd gained over the years—to produce, direct, shoot and edit. Not because I wanted to be in control, because I didn't have the budget. That is the sport of new director coming in now. We're fighting against all odds and it is now beginning to be clear that it's way beyond nollywood. Kasala has been to over 20 international festivals and counting. And there an audience for our films, there's an audience for our voices.

What are you expectations for it at the festival?

I really don't know what to expect. I just hope that they love the film. For the Nigerians in the diaspora,I hope that it brings back memories of Lagos. For black people I hope it gives them a sense of how we are back home to help them connect with us as Africans. For the foreign audience I hope that they see a Nigeria of passion, of community, of tenacity, of brotherhood of love.

"Kasala" will be released worldwide on December 7th

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Indomie: Unpacking a Nigerian Tradition

What does Nigeria's way of preparing this beloved brand of instant noodles say about the country as a whole?

Before I came to Lagos in September to begin a collaborative performance project, I imagined all the ways the place would challenge all I had read and heard about it, and all the ways it might remind me of my home, Trinidad and Tobago. Of all the kernels of similarities I've encountered so far, Indomie is perhaps the most intriguing.

Indomie, a brand of instant noodles originating in Indonesia, has become the household name for all instant ramen noodles in Nigeria.

As a child, I would make Top Ramen, but ours was far less intentionally adorned. I had never seen anyone add anything but Golden Ray. I would try to be fancy with my own and add eggs, but they never quite attained Naruto ramen standards.

Indomie was my first meal in Nigeria. I had arrived in Lagos about two hours earlier. In those two hours I had seen something of the character of the city. In the midst of the clouds of dust and engine exhaust fumes I saw a woman almost fall out the car she was getting into, I saw men sitting atop a truck, like wrinkles in the night sky fabric, I saw selling, so much selling and buying and haggling. It seemed to me that everything was happening here.

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Fela Kuti's 'Zombie' Is Coming Out On Limited Edition 8-Track

"Zombie" and "Mr. Follow Follow" are available in the nostalgic 8-track cartridge.

"Zombie," Fela Kuti's 1976 protest anthem and scathing attack on the Nigerian military, is getting an 8-track re-release.

Knitting Factory Records, Kalakuta Sunrise and Partisan Records have made 300 limited editions copies of Zombie/Mr. Follow Follow which you can pre-order now ahead of its December 7 release.

Fela Kuti's classic song uses zombies as a metaphor for soldiers mindlessly following orders. The song is thought to have triggered the Nigerian government's horrific assault on the Kalakuta Republic, in which the compound burned to the ground, Fela was brutally beaten and his mother, Nigerian feminist icon Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, was murdered.

You can pre-order Zombie/Mister Follow Follow on 8-track now and read more about each song from Mabinuori Kayode Idowu's text accompanying the release below.

Purchase Fela Kuti's Zombie/Mr Follow Follow on 8-Track

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