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?
"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."
Have you ever not pulled things from the wreckage?
Who left the healing up to you?
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.