OkayAfrica's 100 Women
Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

100 Women: Upile Chisala Is the Malawian Writer Offering Black Women Solace Through Poetry

For the first feature in our OkayAfrica 100 Women series, we speak with Malawian poet Upile Chisala about the healing power of her words and her commitment to championing African women's narratives.

"African women own the best stories," the 23 year-old Malawian poet Upile Chisala tells me, when asked why she intentionally and uncompromisingly writes for other black women.

There's absolutely no argument to be had there. Especially when you read either of her self-published works Soft Magic and Nectar—or that of the countless African woman writers before her who've documented our existences with care.

The words of Chisala's most recent offering, Nectar are comforting in a way that I'm certain only another young, black woman writer's words could be—like, "darling, don't fold too much for people. It could break you." Upon reading them, I felt pity, sadness even, for those who may never be able to connect with a piece of literature on a level as visceral as what I experienced with Nectar.

For African women, storytelling is a lifeline, a treasured source of guidance, knowledge, healing and sisterhood that arises from the uninhibited expression of our shared experiences. It's in women like Chisala, who possess this audacious command over our stories, that one can readily recognize her own power, her own "soft magic." Her voice encourages internal confrontation to take place. And there, grappling with the pain, love, anxiety, optimism, anger, elation and generational trauma that has struck many of our lives, an unexpected strength is discovered. Upile braves all of these subjects for her readers, with pithy yet compassionate reassurances that serve as remedies each time they're revisited.

In conversation with the poet, she shares her journey to becoming a writer, the ways in which her Malawian upbringing shaped her storytelling, how she is learning to accept the gravity of her words, and why, she too, is in love with the writings of African women.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

Is there a specific event that occurred in your life that led you to start writing poetry?

When I was younger I struggled with the fact that I'd only ever be able to experience life as this one character, Upile. To satiate this need to live life as someone else I gave all my dolls these elaborate life stories.

Eventually, I started writing these stories down and forcing everyone around me to read them. I remember my father pointing out that he'd never read a story about me and that he'd really like to. That became my struggle—writing about myself or people who looked like me. When I moved from Malawi to New Mexico for college at 17, I quickly grew tired of all the ignorant questions and assumptions [about me]. So, I decided I'd finally take on the challenge of telling my story my way. There, I found poetry and prose, and these two loves have carried my story since.

Why is it so important for you to write poems specifically for black women?

The lessons in self-hate that target black girls are ongoing, overwhelming, overt and subtle. I always want my writing to be a place where black girls and black womxn feel safe and celebrated.

When I decided to start unpacking all the self-hate I'd been handed throughout my life it was writing by black womxn where I found refuge and love. Black womxn have always lifted me. Writing about them and for them is important to me because it's my little way of lifting them as well.

Your poems are like therapy. I hear the word "healing" used a lot when describing your work. Do you think of them in that way when you're creating them?

It's never not surprising to me when someone says my work helped them. I have always thought of my writing as healing—for myself that is. I am trying to shake this habit of underestimating my impact. In the meantime, though, every message I receive appreciating my work gives me this joy and that never gets less exciting. I don't know how many times I've opened my inbox and wept. People share so much of their lives with me and I'm humbled by it and softer because of it.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

Are there any particular authors whose works have had this same therapeutic effect on you?

I read Ntozake Shange's work and weep, every time. Yrsa-Daley-Ward's work makes me ugly-cry and I always come out the other side of her book Bone feeling new. I deeply love Sandra Cisneros, Q. Gibson, Mary Oliver, Koleka Putuma, and Sharon Olds. There are so many more names and so few names for the gifts their writing has given me.

Where do you find the inspiration to constantly mold and shape words into poems that hold so much meaning?

Sometimes I go months without writing. I struggle with being intentional about my craft and sticking to a routine. It's not a kind thing to do to myself. Writing has always been therapeutic for me so if I am not writing I am bottling things up until eventually I sit down at my computer and pour. What I write is what I find from just living in this black body and all the intersections of my existence. While writing Soft Magic I was going through a period of self-discovery and so the poems came as they came. And as I wrote Nectar I was looking backwards at my upbringing in Malawi and making meaning of its impact on my present. Inspiration is all around us, I just have to work on being more disciplined about making use of it.

It's clear that you also have a real appreciation for visual aesthetics. I love going through your Instagram account and taking in the color and looks. Where do writing, visual art and style intersect for you?

A short while ago I started calling myself a storyteller rather than a writer or a poet because I think it's more fitting. Photos can carry so many stories at once and mean different things to different people. Every time I am involved in creating an image I hope to honor the girls who look like me—the darker skinned, the curly haired, the fuller lipped, the thicker "thighed" and wider "hipped." For me, it's bigger than just putting on a fancy dress and smiling wide for the camera. It's about seeing myself as beautiful and celebrated and creating images that I wish I'd seen as a child. In this way, through photography I tell a story and my dream is that the right people don't just see me in those pictures but they see themselves.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

What role does sisterhood play in your life and work?

I have so many sisters beyond my three immediate ones. Womxn are the lights of my life. I depend on womxn both in my life and in my work and have had the privilege of seeing how far-reaching true sisterhood can be. More womxn than men buy my books and invite me to read and endorse my work just because. Womxn keep me sane and keep a roof over my head.

If you absolutely had to pick, which of your poems is your favorite?

Easy.

"There is danger in letting people misname you.

If you are a fire, do not answer when they call you a spark."

(Nectar, page 2)

How does your Malawian heritage impact your work?

I always carry bits of my "Malawianness" into my writing. For many years Malawi was the only home I knew and so when I want to write about familiar things I unpack my memories from growing up in Zomba, to the weekends spent in Blantyre, and to my visits to my village in Likoma. I also find that being Malawian has in the past impacted what I write about negatively. I have this fear of writing about sex or sexuality or mental illness or dysfunction in the family because of that Malawian heritage and the taboo surrounding these themes. But I am working on it. I am working on being comfortable with making people uncomfortable.

What was the process of self-publishing your work?

I used Amazon's Createspace platform to self-publish. All the technical bits were straightforward, it was the writing and editing that hurt. In my mother's apartment in Baltimore, I wrote and edited both books myself, hence all the grammatical errors. I probably would have benefited from the pressure and support of a publishing house but doing it on my own has been an experience I needed. I have had to forego my shyness to sell my work to people wherever I go. I have had to be my biggest fan.

How did you come up with the titles of your books, Soft Magic and Nectar?

The title Soft Magic came to me when I was depressed and looking for little bits of joy. I would ride the train in Baltimore and just watch people perform sweet acts like smiling at each other or holding the door for strangers. 'Soft magic' is those subtle instances of joy that make life and living beautiful. When I was thinking about my journey and how I wanted to use my growth to help others the title Nectar came to me. Nectar is important for bees in the process of making honey and for me nectar refers to that essential part in our journeys to blooming. I stick with the gardening theme throughout the book and my only hope is that it's not cheesy.

Why do you think the art of writing is such a powerful tool for African women?

African womxn own the best stories and we are far from monolithic; writing gives us a chance to share them on our terms. The exclusive nature of the publishing industry and academia and the film industry make it hard for us to be visible but we're here and every day we are kicking down doors and demanding to be counted in. I also think the celebrating should start at home and we don't have to wait on the West for validation.

I am so in love with the writing of African womxn, we all need more of it in our lives.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

Upile breaks down two of her poems for us:

Pray for the creatives whose vulnerability amuses us,

whose pain reminds us of our own,

who had to feel something again and again for our sake.

"Often we romanticize sad poetry and prose. We repost it and leaves comments like "I can relate" or "I feel this". But we forget that a lot of writers write from real experiences and have to capitalize off of their hurt. They make their pain look pretty and we have something to use as a screensaver. I wrote this as a reminder to check up on your creatives."

Darling,

Have you ever not pulled things from the wreckage?

Who left the healing up to you?

The mending?

The restoring?

The making things whole again?

Are you tired?

Do your arms hurt?

Who offers you honey when you need it?

Who lets you rest?

(Nectar, page 9)

"I am convinced that worry has sent so many of the womxn in my family to early graves. This poem was for them. I wish they'd gotten more rest whilst they were living. They were always healing others and taking on burdens even as their backs weakened. I think worry weighs heavily on the body. In my grandmother's last years she used two walking sticks. In her illness she was still worrying about other people. Often women carry the brunt of it, they carry their share and our shares and then some."

Follow Upile Chisala on Instagram and Twitter. You can keep up with her new releases and purchase her previous works via her website. She is currently writing a collection of poems tentatively titled "Homeward," and is the co-founder of a craft making company called Khaya Means Home.

*

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

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From Chale Wote Street Art Festival 2016. Photo by Ofoe Amegavie.

5 Ghanaian Creative Spaces Doing Afrofuturist Work You Need To Know

These Pan-African outfits are actively visualizing and creating realities for black people that are better than the ones we inhabit now—get to know them.

In her praise for Octavia's Brood (an anthology of science fiction stories from social justice movements), filmmaker dream hampton quotes these words of adrienne maree brown, a co-editor of the anthology: "All social justice work is science fiction. We are imagining a world free of injustice, a world that doesn't yet exist." A respectable appropriation of brown's statement would be: all pro-Black/African activism is afrofuturism in praxis.

In that frame of social justice activism being twined with the useful framework that afrofuturism is—envisioning and exploring viable realities for black people all over the world—here are five Pan-African outfits out of Ghana who're doing advocacy work, and variously tasking our imaginations to visualize an existence for black people other—and better—than the one we inhabit presently.

Accra [Dot] Alt

Photo courtesy of Accra [Dot] Alt.

The "Alt" in Accra [Dot] Alt stands for alternative, which should say much about this organization's orientation: an invested interest in facilitating the alternative. To that end, A[D]A creates programs which provide spacial and other forms of support for the expression of alternative thought, and also for spawning boundary-breaking art. A[D]A's most popular initiative, the annual Chale Wote Street Art Festival, since its inception in 2011, has been thematically preoccupied with imagining and creating existences that are more humane and fulfilling—particularly for black people.

The African Electronics Trilogy exemplifies this. Between 2015 and 2017, the Chale Wote Festival's themes, African Electronics, Spirit Robot and Wata Mata—have altogether exhorted festival participants to "tap into a super power grid [and] create a new encounter with reality that is entirely of our choosing and construction." The theme for this year's festival, Para-Other, does not stray from this visionary mission. A[D]A partly describes Para-Other as an order "embracing of a black labyrinth and establishment of an aesthetic that captures our cessation of flight and transit into a non-contested existence."

Last time the statistics were checked, in 2016, over 30,000 people were at Chale Wote; which is a more than 6,000 percent increase from the number that attended the first edition of the festival. Talk about possibilities.

African Women's Development Fund (AWDF)

Photo courtesy of the AWDF.

This grant-making foundation, Africa's first pan-African women's fund, was co-founded in 2000 by three African women: Hilda Tadria, Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi and Joana Foster, who passed in 2016.

Since setting up, the African Women's Development Fund has funded and supported close to 1,500 women's rights organizations and women-led initiatives in countries all over the continent.

In April 2017, the institution launched their ground-breaking AWDF Futures Project. The initiative is basically composed of projections on the future of the continent as seen through an African feminist lens. These projections are based on a mix of data/trends analysis and sheer imagination.

The AWDF Scenario Stories is one aspect of the project. It comprises of four short stories imagining four different kinds of futures—desirable, undesirable, wild card, transitional—for African women, in Africa. The protagonist in each of these scenarios (set in August 2030) is Mariam; a queer, intelligent and free-spirited young woman in a wheelchair.

The full narratives of Mariam navigating each of these four futures can be accessed, in both text and animated audio-visual formats, on AWDF's website, together with the Futures Africa: Trends for Women by 2030 report.

What will Africa be like in 2030? What would we see if we looked through the eyes of a woman? The AWDF Futures page holds a number of possible answers to these questions.

AfroCyberPunk Interactive

Photo courtesy of AfroCyberPunk Interactive.

Sci-fi writer and self-proclaimed afrofuturist, Jonathan Dotse, created AfroCyberPunk in 2010. Then, it was a blog whose focus was on "exploring the creative potential of African science fiction and speculative narratives."

Almost a decade after running as a blog, AfroCyberPunk morphed into AfroCyberPunk Interactive—a digital hypermedia content developer and publishing house—in 2017. Still, the preoccupation with "exploring the future of Africa" (as went the blog's tagline) remains prime. A part of what could be referred to as their mission statement reads thus: "Our roots in afrofuturism continue to inspire the recurrent themes, motifs and aesthetics of our publications. We aspire to [...] address the global imbalance in the representation of marginalised peoples and perspectives."

Founder Jonathan Dotse is himself at work on his debut novel, a cyberpunk mystery/ psychological thriller set in Accra, Ghana circa 2060 AD.

All of the above certainly do echo these words offered by Jonathan in a blog post titled Why Africa Needs Science Fiction: "As Africa marches onward into the future it is important that we as Africans begin to critically visualize the development that will take place on our own soil, and our vision must be based on our own unique reality, cut from the cloth of our own societies and tailored to our specific needs."

Drama Queens

Photo courtesy of Drama Queens.

This feminist and Pan-Africanist theatre organisation optimally embodies the idea of Sankofa: an examination of heritage to select and use, presently, the positive and helpful values, in the ultimate service of creating the future.

Drama Queens is founded on the ancient Egyptian philosophy of Ma'at—which adjures for justice, balance and harmony as ways of being. The world being as it is now—generally unjust, imbalanced and disharmonious, against black people specifically, and more specifically against marginalized black communities—renders Drama Queens' work futuristic.

To ground this, they are avowedly working towards "a just, balanced and harmonious world where highest respect is given to nature and all nature creates."

This year, for instance, is Drama Queens' year of "contributing to an end to homophobia towards the African LGBTQ+ community" through various activities such as theatre productions, facilitating queer film production workshops, social media discussions and talk events.

Nana Akosua Hanson, founder and director of Drama Queens has said in an interview that her organization aims, ultimately, "to end oppression by changing mindsets through the use of cultural tools, to revolutionalize thinking and bring forth the existence of an Africa without heteropatriarchy, and a continent free from the exploitation and destruction of racist nations." Sounds about Afrofuturist.

Squid Magazine

Photo courtesy of Squid Magazine.

Comics, games and animation are probably the most popular media through which creators indulge in futuristic thinking. Add to this the truism that critical, intellectual engagement and documentation are of lifeblood importance to the efflorescence of a culture. Put together, it adds up to the fact that Squid Magazine (simply, Squid Mag) is doing essential afrofuturist work.

Started in 2015 by Kadi Yao Tay and Kofi Asare, Squid Mag is dedicated to the "exploration, critique, promotion and archiving of African creativity manifested within comics, games, animation..." As it happens, Squid Mag is one of the very few, if not only, platforms on the continent that wholesomely covers African output in the above mentioned media.

There's a rather poetic resonance as to why this outfit is named 'Squid.' Here's the import of the name, as explained on their website:

The name is inspired by squids, sea invertebrates that release ink as a defense mechanism. We find it poetic how such a mechanism can be a metaphor for painting a people's realities and dreams fluidly in an ocean of canvases. An ocean that is threatened to be overrun with narratives that exclude us.

So now you know, if you didn't know before, where to go in search of a sea of narratives—of realities and dreams—that include us.

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There is a great deal more than can be said for the imagination—and exercising it. It begets creation, after all. Thus, what these and other entities are doing—engendering alternative socio-political imaginaries for all peoples of African descent—is such a needful venture. But after all is said and visualized, the ultimate challenge, most probably, is to act, to create. Blitz the Ambassador puts it succinctly on his afrofuturist song, "Africa Is The Future" (long since renamed "Africa Is Now"): There ain't no future unless we build it now.

moshood lives in Accra, from where he writes across genres. He has recently taken on painting. He tweets here: @thehamzay

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Following Government Suppression, Sierra Leone's 'People's Popstar' Is Finally Allowed to Perform

Emmerson's music has influenced past elections in Sierra Leone. Here's why his performance at the National Stadium is a win for artistic freedom.

Early December 2017, a flyer was circulating on Whatsapp in Freetown announcing one of the most exciting concerts of the year. Sierra Leonean superstar Emmerson Bockarie, stage name Emmerson, was going to perform live alongside two other popular artists. The concert was to be held at the National Stadium, Freetown's foremost and largest concert venue where the likes of Timaya and Wizkid have performed in the past.

One week later, with no further explanation, the concert was cancelled.

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The two were amongst the 600 guests present for Saturday's festivities at Windsor Castle. Princess Mabereng donned colorful traditional attire for the ceremony, and stood out in the best way possible.

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