A press release from the Poetry Africa festival, which ended in Durban last night, touted the presence of Mafika Gwala as the “exciting re-emergence of the respected Black-consciousness era poet.”
“Crap,” says the published South African poet, essayist, writer of short stories and soon-to-be novelist. “I have been always where I am today. Why do they speak of me as if I am emerging from the dark?”
That is the first of several questions I pose to him on the eve of the festival’s opening in Durban earlier this week. Gwala throws it swiftly back at me in clipped, decisive tone: “You tell me.”
I grapple for a coherent explanation for the patronising reference to his inclusion on this year’s Poetry Africa bill. I suggest perhaps it’s “in fashion” these days to acknowledge those who came before; to parade them as icons before they die so we don’t habitually chide ourselves for forgetting our “living” culture.
Gwala has no interest in the fashion statement. He dismisses it with disdain. “When was Poetry Africa started?” he asks. We agree, about 10 years ago. “And why have I never been invited before? Why only now am I being asked to participate?”
As if answering his own query he suggests that some of those who would consider his participation at the festival a metaphor for his “re-emergence” from some place forgotten were “sometimes instrumental in keeping me there.”
And then with momentary resignation: “Well, if some people are culture makers, then so be it.”
Gwala admits that he hasn’t created a space for himself. He is not in the habit of “writing for glory” or donning the “masks of etiquette” that might put him in the forefront of the present South African cultural milieu, where grasping for gold card status often strangles the expression of a more meaningful aesthetic.
Out of sight can also render one out of mind and neither Gwala nor his work have been visible or on the public tongue for much of the last decade. His renowned books of poetry Jol’iinkomo (1977) and No More Lullabies (1982) are out of print and anthologies containing his essays and stories are not easy to find outside of university campus libraries.
He was for some time out of the country, in England, working as a researcher at the University of Manchester, and then busy completing his MPhil in Politics at the University of Natal. Otherwise he’s been living, working and writing, though these days “not at a hurried pace”, in Hammersdale, near Durban.
“I went out of the country and when I came back it was a different place,” he recalls. “So firstly, I didn’t feel there was a space for me. Secondly, I felt I needed a rest.”
So was that lack of space to some extent self-imposed? Gwala reiterates that he writes to please no one: “I create for my own benefit, not for others. I am not particularly interested in peoples’ perspectives of me, or what they think of me.”
And if the “culture makers” have suddenly considered him “worthy” of a space on a festival stage it is cause for irritation, rather than reflection.
“Well, they [Poetry Africa] say they are interested in translation – particularly the translation of Zulu poetry, so I will consider what I can say about that. And I will read the voices and the noises around me and then decide which of my poems I want to read aloud.
“But really I am not happy about being categorized as this or that on anybody’s stage. I’m not happy with people who say: ‘let’s see what translation of poetry means to us today’, or ‘let’s talk about what Black Consciousness means to us today’.
“That’s about making it fashionable crap and is simply dishonest. Most of those people have not read my work, so they have no understanding of what I write about – and therefore no sense of the writer and the poet I am.
“Well, so be it,” he says with resignation. But again it’s momentary because Mafika Gwala, at 60, has not lost his eye for outing the “cheaters” and “bullshitters” in his midst or his tongue for sweeping contrived “jive” into the dustbin of literary fashion statements.
Andrea Meeson is a regular contributor to Chimurenga Online. This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent.