Book Review: Collective Amnesia by Koleka Putuma

Quaz | April 24th, 2018 | Book Reviews, current issue | No Comments

Collective Amnesia by Koleka Putuma, is arguably one of the most intriguing collections of poetry to come out of South Africa. Putuma’s first collection of poetry struck me as a beautiful disruption: A loud, unapologetic voice yelling back at the monsters that feed on us, serenading her heroines and a call to arms against the status quo. uHlanga Press has a reputation for churning out phenomenal collections and Collective Amnesia seems to be abiding by that tradition. The allure and excitement splattered across the internet had me thoroughly enthused.

Koleka interrogates memory; the personal and political, in a myriad of forms and structures. She speaks oceans, full of blackness, family, childhood, community, Christianity, survival, sexuality and so much more. This is not a collection of pretty rosy words. Collective Amnesia picks at scabs and forces one to look inward, to ask questions, to remember, to reprimand and affirm self.

Collective Amnesia is presented in three movements:

  • Inherited Memory
  • Buried Memory and
  • Post-Memory

In “Inherited Memory”, Putuma looks at religion with new eyes and asks us to remember our childhood and community through striking poems such as “Black Joy” and “hand-me-downs”, “Growing Up Black & Christian” and “Growing Up Black & Wxmen”. “hand-me-downs” is like a walk through every black household, just surviving the passing time. In it she writes:

“I come from a lineage of borrowed and borrowing/ The neighbour’s

sugar was an open jar without a debt collector”

 and later continues:

“My oversized uniform was a savings account in fabric.”

 She also speaks to and of the chaotic intersection of being a Black Queer Woman in the poem “No Easter Sunday for queers”.

In “Buried Memory”, the second movement, Koleka starts with exploring loss and directs the reader through the silent minefield of grief, showing us how mourning weaves itself into our lives wherever we find ourselves “inland”, “at the church”, “in the kitchen” etc. The poems speak of trauma, and healing. A reminder of the violence. A reminder of our agency.

In “in the kitchen” she writes:

“Fixed gaze and clenched breath,

stapling your thoughts together

rehearsing how to say

I’m fine

Just in case someone calls to ask

How are you?” 

Post Memory” is a rage filled clarion call. A stance against homophobia and the relentless attack on black bodies. It is also affirmations of self. A to-do list for the revolution.

In “Memoirs of a slave and queer person” she aptly states:

“I don’t want to die with my

hands up


legs open”

She speaks to the idea of this new South Africa in the satirical “1994 : A Love Poem”

 “I want someone who is going to look at me

and love me

like white people look at

and love


 And reminds us of the politics of space In the poem “Kakstad”.

“Lifeline” (One of my personal favourites) is more than a shout-out to black women. I read it as a love poem to world changers. A celebration of greatness. Black women. Revolutionaries. “Water”, arguably her most famous poem pre-Collective Amnesia also makes a welcomed appearance, and will serve to remind readers why they have offered Koleka all their attention.

Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia is shifting borders. It is a collection of work that is needed and necessary – now more than ever. It is a manual for black bodies. An ode to the spaces we occupy. A hymnal for the weary. A celebration of self. A great collection if you ask me.


*This Review appeared in Poetry Potion 12: The Others

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