About Makhosazana Xaba
Makhosazana (Khosi) Xaba’s poetry, fiction and academic work reflects a lifetime actively involved with politics. Born in Greytown, Kwazulu-Natal, Xaba is trained as both a midwife and a psychiatric nurse, has worked with national and international NGOs and media organisations in the areas of women’s rights, gender and anti-bias training and violence against LGBT communities, and, during the second state of emergency in 1986, went into exile, returning to South Africa in 1990 with the African National Congress Women’s League. Xaba began writing poetry in 2000, and has an MA in Writing from Wits University. Clare Wyllie writes in Agenda that ‘[t]o encounter Makhosana Xaba’s poetry is to enter a space where an activist past and engagement with current social problems are refracted through a unique personal vision that is sharp, witty and ripe with experience’. To Xaba, writing is necessary because of the historical perspective it gives to these problems, to speak and to ‘listen to the voices that come’. Instances here where she references specific dates and news stories echo Adrienne Rich’s decision to date poems because ‘[i]t was a declaration that placed poetry in a historical continuity, not above or outside history’. Xaba states that ‘[w]e must write as much as possible for future generations to understand. How else can I explain to my child why we couldn’t use the same toilets as white people, and answer her when she asks how could we allow that to happen?’ ‘Summer’, excerpted here, reflects – as she tells us in her introduction – what she values about democracy in the 10 years since the end of Apartheid, and these reflections do of course depend upon the personal and the political being thoroughly enmeshed, where the lilting song of the poet is inflected with violence:
It is a summer of songs composed in blood,
tuned with guns and arranged in conversations.
It is a summer of songs I sing in swelling volumes.
The notion of ‘conversations’ and dialogue, or the critical lack of these exchanges, is central to Xaba’s poetry; and this is explored with devastating effect in ‘She said, he said, we said’, where the unnamed woman’s voice is oppressed by the manipulative rhetoric of her husband and of the culture around her; the blunt, ponderous nature of the repetition moves powerfully on as ‘[y]ears went by [and] nothing changed’, until it does with tragic, irrevocable consequences. In ‘The Speed of Life’ the pleas of a subject called to question by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (‘It feels so long ago, so unclear’) are heard and put aside, as the speaker ‘ask[s] for silence’ that is beyond the continuous upheaval of bureaucracy and arbitration. The idea of reconciliation is portrayed in more tactile, somatic terms in ‘Who will wash my feet?’
Xaba has published two collection of poetry, these hands (Timbila, 2005) and Tongues of their Mothers (UKZN Press, 2008), has featured in numerous anthologies and has been a writing fellow at institutions for health and social and economic research. She has stated: ‘I write poetry from my personal space, in my personal voice. I say “I am here”. I address women in the world.’ She also speaks for and honours women who have been silenced; as with the frank assertions about a domestic worker killed in ‘Brakpan 2002’ in a voice intensely enunciating its (tragic) repetition (‘a body, a black body’); where rhyme draws together the units of a greater structural problem: ‘home owners, white, employers’.
One hears Xaba use the full range of her voice, lilting gleefully in places, enunciating the humming repetition of the eponymous season in ‘Summer’ and elongating the vowels of the last line of this poem (‘This, is the summer of things we can touch.’) as though reaching out for connection. To listen to these poems is to render and feel ‘a summer of women in high places, making meaning’.
Makhosazana Xaba’s favourite quotes about poetry:
“Since poetry turns the individual drama of being human into words, it is an art open to all vocabulary made personal. Poetry changes life into a written drama where words set the stage and where words then act as the characters on that stage.” – June Jordan
“Poet, be like a tortoise: bear the shell of the world and still manage to sing your transforming dithyrambs woven from our blood, our pain, our loves, our history, our joy. The only and inescapable truth simply is that this is the only kingdom you will ever have. This is the home of your song.” – Ben Okri
This recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 9 November 2014 at Leon Erasmus Studio, Johannesburg.