Author of Deluge in Swarga, Wazi M. Kunene is truly a special breed of artist. Her total disregard for the orthodox and ordinary makes reading her poetry or watching her live shows such a jarring pleasure. She is creative and brave. She is a disruptor looking to shock you out of complacency and then she’ll tell you joke to restore the calm. Originally from Pietermaritzburg in KZN, Wazi has steadily been etching her name into the Johannesburg poetry scene. She is hosting shows, promoting her debut collection and running her production, Bedlam in Bedlam. She is doing what she wants and however she pleases. Our editor Quaz Roodt threw a few questions her way to see and hear more of what she does.
Q.R: It has been out for some time, but congratulations on ‘Deluge in Swarga’.
W.M.K: Ngiyabonga! It’s been a test of my strength and I am grateful for all the lessons and have enjoyed the journey thus far.
Q.R: The title itself reads like the beginning of an epic poem to me. (In Hindu cosmology Swarga or Svarga is one of eight esoteric planes. Overseen by Indra, the God of storms, rain and river flows, lightning and thunder and you know, wet stuff). Why ‘Deluge in Swarga’?
W.M.K: Thank you so much for looking into this before asking ‘why Deluge In Swarga’. I have had a run with people with this title. It was the best way I could describe a mental crisis, a crisis in faith, turmoil in ones make and relationships and a tempest even the water gods could not fathom. I thought the title Deluge In Swarga was straightforward, there is a flood in the heaven where the god of storms, rain reigns. This, showing the collapse of control, of power over yourself and that which you believe should be under your reign.
Q.R: Who is drowning in your version of Swarga? Those awaiting ascension, or the Gods watching over them?
W.M.K: Hawema! The depth of these questions. Thank you. The gods are drowning.
Q.R: The collection has taken on a new life and morphed into the theatrical ‘Bedlam in Bedlam’. You describe the work as “…an elucidation of the complex experience of purgatory.” (Easy with the English comrade). What does this purgatory, that we find ourselves in now, look like?
W.M.K: Comrade, I bought this English with so much money at Rhodes, I gotta use it here and there yo! Hahahaha!! The purgatory we find ourselves in is in the struggle to purge your past. The loss of yourself in trying to detach yourself from your makers (which is my biggest struggle. I am in many negative ways, my father and mother’s clone.) In my efforts to not be my parents, I have found myself becoming them in ways that are difficult to explain because I really do not know them or where they are. The purgatory is being in limbo, battling with mental health and the slippery slope of hope.
Q.R: The performance struck me as a conversation with and about the entropy that envelopes us. I experienced it as an interrogation of personal and shared communal sanity and the blurred lines we cross in and out of it. Was this your intention? What did you hope we take away from ‘Bedlam in Bedlam’?
W.M.K: Definitely! Thank you for seeing me. So, after launching Deluge In Swarga, I did a couple of shows as an introduction to the book as the first season. I decided to break up the topics in the book into seasons. So I had the introduction season and then Bedlam In Bedlam, which focused on the chaos in ‘healing’ methods and represented this in a scene of mayhem in a mental institution. My hope was for people to be brave and look into their chaos, I have found that I am a better person and doing so much better mentally, all by being brave and looking at myself. The first step is to know the condition of things and all else can follow.
Q.R: eBlackbox, the band that plays with you, is amazing. Please tell them.
W.M.K: Woo woo!!! They are amazing and are so easy to work with, as all my shows have different themes and Bedlam In Bedlam was tricky musically, with the mayhem and calculated mess.
Q.R: With work as highly conceptualized and layered as ‘Deluge in Swarga’ and the live show ‘Bedlam in Bedlam’ taking the musical and theatrical shape it has, how are audiences receiving it? I guess what I’m asking is; do they get it? And do you care if they don’t?
W.M.K: This is a very emotional question for me yo. Why!!! I am emotional because I have been asked this question many times and now I’m wondering wassup people, wassup?! I know I’m not received smoothly as I would if I packaged my work differently, however, I am not impatient, iThongo livumile, I see ahead. All will come together in due time. I trust people get it, if not, in due time they will.
Q.R: You trained with Kwesukela storytelling academy. Can you tell us more about that, please?
W.M.K: After finishing my studies at Rhodes and I packed a bag at home and came to Jo’burg and I was hungry for anything that will help me reach my full potential. As I was finding myself in the city, I was invited to Kwesukela and I learned the art of storytelling there. I have gone around the country as a storyteller in IsiZulu and I truly enjoy that side of me. I don’t do a lot of storytelling as I do other work but man, I learned a lot at Kwesukela!
Q.R: Through Oxford University Press, You’ve published stories for grade 1 students. How difficult is it to move between the dense poetry that you write and crafting a simple palatable children’s story?
W.M.K: Oh man, I love writing books for Oxford! I author school books for all primary grades in my mother tongue. How fantastic yo! I must be honest though and say writing for children is so demanding. The technicality is tricky, it is also personal in the sense that I have to regress to a child very often and that upsets my progress in mental health, hence the poetry. However, moving from poetry to children stories and even comedy is not too wild. All are within reach, with research, sharpening my skills and fully devoting myself to what I am currently needed to devote myself to at that moment.
Q.R: You moved from Pietermaritzburg to Johannesburg and slotted yourself into a community that seems encouraging and supportive of your work. How has Joburg treated you thus far?
W.M.K: I have been a loner for most of the time until last year really. Oh my gosh, I couldn’t make friends. I only had one that I felt so lucky to have. My friend Kwanele Mathebula, who is still my dear friend, since our internship at the SABC. I have been afraid of really getting to know people because it demands that they get to know you too and you don’t want people to see you. I am more open about some of my fears now and I have allowed myself some more friends. Gahd it is amazing to have friends. What?!! Okay, getting back to the question, Jo’burg has been real. I’ve gotten mugged, almost got stabbed walking to a gig, so yeah I guess Jo’burg been real. I love the hustle though. It is has been beautiful and tough but I was raised by a granny so I’m out here. I’m here braving it out yo!
Q.R: What are you reading right now? What is that one book you want others to read?
W.M.K: I’m finishing Nakhane Toure’s Piggy Boy’s Blues (Such an awesome writer) Manju Kapur’s Difficult Daughters. Poets in South Africa edited by Roy Macnab, 1958. I think people should read- Ben Okri– The Famished Road. Let’s start there.
Q.R: You tell jokes on days when you’re not a poet. Tell us more about that.
W.M.K : Hahaha. Yes! I have always loved writing comedy and I’m hilarious so hey why not grab a mic and let people laugh with me?! I want to give myself some time learning crafting comedy and stand up before I call myself a comedian, so people must be patient. However I am working, I’m learning and practicing the art of stand-up here on the Jo’burg stages.
Q.R: What are you working on next?
W.M.K: I am working on my next season that further explores Deluge In Swarga, titled ‘Collapse In Constellation’ and taking it around the country as much as I can. I am working on testing my comedy on different stages. I am finishing the books for Oxford that need to be out in schools next year (Strength guys, send me strength) I am also focusing on the second half of the year with CSP and Joburg Theatre, we have our Provincial Slam coming and taking the National slam champion to Chad this November, so there is a lot of work that we need to do.
Q.R: Before I bid you adieu, please share a short poem with us.
Extract from Renegade (From Bedlam In Bedlam without Chant text)
From the pit of your facade
You emerge a renegade
Aroused by your gasp,
A season of pugnacious jingoism
I’m man, I’m a man
I can eat a woman.
A coming of an overthrow
I’m a woman I’m a woman.
I will eat a man
A paroxysm of purging
I ate God.
From the pit of your living,
Time undergoes a seizure,
You are living,
My father’s clone
In death and birth throes
Sparing with the illusion
In the dungeon
King of bondage
Q.R: Thank you Wazi for your time and for the brave and inspiring work that you are giving to the world.