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The poet speaks about her book

On the fault lines of racialization and colonization


The title Beating the Graves is a literal translation of the Shona memorial ceremony ‘kurova guva’.The poems in the collection are arranged in three thematic sections-- “Ankestral,” “Botanical,” and “Carnaval,” – reflecting three personal obsessions: family lore, our relation to the environment, and music. I was interested in finding a lyric voice that could investigate my own history in a deeply personal idiom that would still resonate with other readers. Born to parents of different ethnic backgrounds, my black Zezuru father and white mother from Ohio have gifted me with the challenge of writing about our dual heritage. My family sits on the fault lines of racialization and colonization so writing our histories is necessarily a political act. And those politics are complicated because I write from the vantage point of diaspora. I have lived in the U.S. since 1993, and so there are things I can and cannot see from this vantage point.

The anchor sequence in "Ankestral" is a series of praise poems for VaNyemba, a founding figure in the Tembo Mazvimbakupa mutupo. Like the poem "Holy Departure" this series took root during a visit home after my grandfather passed away. VaNyemba was a powerful person who suffered horribly. In oral history she is described variously as a  hermaphrodite, as carrying bullets in her womb, and as physically arresting. I am inspired by this deep Shona lineage of sexual diversity, and I explore "out loud" in these poems how to honor her memory in a time when stars like Castor Semanya of South Africa have shown us how broad the spectrum of gender identity can be. There are also poems to honor some of the poets who have inspired me most, including Chris Abani, with whom I took an inspiring week-long residency course, and Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, who has published five collections in the U.S. about the Liberian war and her life in diaspora, and really carved out a place for younger writers like myself.

The poems in "Botanical" extend the exploration of praise poetry and lineages to draw in the living generations of my "family trees", as one sequence is titled. It is in poems like 'mother' in that sequence, 'Vindication' and 'The Go-Betweens' (my translation of munyai) that I speak most clearly of my American family's entwinement. Stories repeated many times at gatherings can be condensed into a few lines, the opposite of narration and yet its fond cousin, perhaps. There are other ways this section branches out, addressing the cross-border migrations across the Limpopo to South Africa and the arcane linguistic consequences of having a government-controlled official press. I find it unsettling but perhaps also exhilarating to recognize that publication makes many of the coded metaphors I assumed would be inaccessible far more political, simply by virtue of uttering them in a public forum.

Ironically, the oldest poems in the book are the core of the last section. They originated as programme notes for a concert I played in the final year of my university degree in piano performance. The musical work, Carnaval, was by the German composer, Robert Schumann, and consists of 24 individual pieces, so each of the poems responded to a respective piece, although I revised many of them heavily in the intervening years. I began studying piano at age 5, so I remember practicing Beethoven, Bach and Bartok with a background soundtrack of hoopoe and mourning dove calls, bicycle bells, and other sounds of Harare. Later, when I read a newspaper column where Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand) claimed that the piano is an African instrument, I realized that not only was the piano materially African– its ebony and ivory were literally taken from the continent – but the aesthetic of contrapuntal lines doing independent things sonically is one that runs through the fingers of a gwenyambira as much as through a concert pianist's.

The African Poetry Book Fund was instrumental in the actual publication of the book. Its mission is to fill a yawning gap. These days there are a growing number of high-profile platforms for African fiction, including new presses like Cassava Republic in Nigeria and major international publishers like Norton, Alfred Knopf, Penguin. However there is a dearth of presses solely dedicated to publishing African poetry. Among its many initiatives, the African Poetry Book Fund runs a first book competition, the Sillerman First Book Prize, which I entered for the first time in 2012. The judges thought kindly enough of the work to select 24 pages of poems for a chapbook (pamphlet), part of what is now an annual boxed set of chapbooks by poets who have not yet published a full collection. When I met Kwame Dawes, the visionary behind APBF, he encouraged me to keep writing and to send him a manuscript, and that is what I did, after a couple years more of revising and swapping out old poems for new. Giving readings facilitated by Kwame Dawes with other African poets has been a very powerful part of my experience, and gives me confidence in claiming not just Zimbabwe, the U.S., or diaspora life, but Africa in all its breadth as the platform from which I leap.

© Tsitsi Jaji  

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