Essay: Still in the Making by Maakomele R. Manaka

Maakomele Manaka | July 10th, 2017 | essays | No Comments

How do I find my voice? Who do I ask? A spaza-shop lady owner at the middle of the end of her road? “Dumela mama, do you know how I can find my voice?” Or do I ask the spotie wearing taxi driver at the beginning of my trip? “Sawubona baba, ngi lahlekile, where can I find my voice?”

The more I journeyed around asking for the exact address where my voice could be housed. I realized that, the deeper I searched for my voice, the more I began to understand, that it is not the discovery of the actual voice, but rather the search that leads to uncharted waters in one’s own writing.

South African playwright Matsemela Manaka, reverberates the pieces of my search in his book, Echoes of African Art.:

Making art is more important than the finished product…it is some form of a ritual. A spiritual obsession that becomes some kind of a religion…[1]

And so on the quest for understanding my process, I found myself walking barefoot on a bed of sharp and rusted nails. Living on the edge of oblivion. Making art from the toenail of a cliff, and trying to make sense of everything. French poet Charles Baudelaire answers this maddening question of, ‘how does one sky dive from the mountaintop of self?:

You must get drunk. That’s it: Your sole imperative. To avoid the backbreaking, body burdens of time[2]

Though what he fails to clarify is that, as much as it sounds romantic, it is without a doubt the most health taxing experience, for any explorer, whether figurative or literal. French poet Arthur Rimbaud echoes my sentiments on what the artist has to undertake to get to the core of their art that, ‘this is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength’ [3].

I was disappointed to find out that I am only human, and that my superhuman strength only extended on paper and canvas. I was admitted into hospital for two weeks after an intense year of trying to find my voice. During that year, it was as if I was possessed by what Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca calls duende [4]. Stripping down my human form, undressing all of myself to be naked on the canvas and on stage. Looking back, I felt like what Hip-Hop artist, Thirstin Howl the 3rd says in one of his songs, that “my style is so naked and untouched, on stage I feel like I am half dressed” [5].

But I pushed too far.

I was painting in the early hours of the morning, then I would quickly have to prepare myself for a shoot or a voice over, and then ready myself for stage. During all that madness, I found myself loosing the meaning of what is art, and placing myself in compromising situations where my writing was becoming banal, as South African poet Ike Muila affirms in South African poets on Poetry:

It is when you start distancing yourself from where you come from, it Is then that the writing becomes banal… [6].

Kathy Acker in The Killers, points out the effect reality has on writing, and how realism in writing can deprive the writer’s imagination.

Realism doesn’t want to negotiate, open into, even, know, chaos or death, because those who practice realism want to limit their readers… ‘I am the one’ says the realistic writer. ‘I am telling you reality. [7]

She further explores the possibilities of how imagination can play a major role in finding one’s voice as a writer,

The desire to play, to make literary structures that play into and in unknown or unknowable realms, these of chance and death and lack of language, is the desire to live in a world that is open and dangerous, that is limitless. To play, then, both in structure and in content, is to desire to live in wonder. ‘

After reading the introduction in Extreme Fiction, a book about the different categories and styles of writing, edited by Robin Hemley and Michael Martone[8], I found myself looking for a lighter and having the urge to burn the book. I felt that they were leading me off-track, that in order for my voice to sound authentic; I have to be boxed, labeled and then categorized into a group of either, Fabulist or Formalist. Rubbish. Can I just not do what Biko did, and ‘write what I like[9]’? Modimo! Why do we have to be concerned with where the voice belongs or where it fits in, as opposed to feeling the sentiments expressed by that voice? American writer Stephen Graham Jones calls it like it is,

I trust an artist so much more if they don’t have any name for this weird stuff they are doing. If only they know is that it feels right, that its true to them and if there’s some way I can access it, then that’s enough for me. [10]

South African poet Lesego Rampolokeng brings it home for me in South African poets On Poetry,

I believe that my writing has been informed by the insanity of the world and by my own inner strife and struggle to come face to face with it, to recognize my own insanity and either to bash it into the ground or embrace it[11].

Rimbaud solidifies Rampolokeng’s words and affirms my truth, that,

The poet makes himself the seer by long, prodigious and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons of the world and keeps only the quintessences[12].

And so, I want to pull down these walls that categorize and label my art. Break down the form to reveal the true nature of the art, strip the car down to its engine. Lorca’s duende tears down these walls, that we have built to cover up and formalize our true selves. The process of duende, like decolonization of the mind as Fanon says in The Wretched of the Earth, is ‘a violent phenomenon[13]’. I have seen people go through extreme levels of inner turmoil to find the sculpture in the wood. In a conversation I had a long time ago with a friend of mine, a fellow artist, about what he goes through every time he writes, he said ‘I lose a pound of blood every time I write’. 12th Century Chinese poet Yan Wan-Li says:

a man doesn’t go in search of a poem

The poem comes in search of him. [14]

It is clear that we all go through extreme levels for the poem to find us.

I never understood why my father, would work on his typewriter in the dead of night, during the bewitching hours of the morning. I never understood until now, that in the silence of solitude, the universe is loud, and it is at that point, that all of you is naked, and that’s where duende is:

Through the empty archway a wind of spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odor of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and Medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.[15]

Bob Marley puts it lyrically in his song, Natural Mystic, “There is a natural mystic blowing through the air, if you listen carefully now, you will hear…”[16]. Can Themba resonates this feeling, ‘The poetry of the universe is never silent’ [17]. And Zimbabwean poet Phillip Zhuwao , sums up most of my journey to finding my voice and utters,

Where I write from, its my own experience, personal experience. What I’ve seen. What I‘ve felt. My relationship with people, my love…I am telling something that had been captured within me, imprisoned in me. Writing it out is a big exercise in myself, in my soul. [18]

The process of finding one’s voice is somewhat that, to tell something that has been captured and imprisoned within. ‘If it doesn’t come bursting out of you, then don’t do it’ says Charles Bukowski [19]. Musician Zim Ngqawana evokes a universe of emotions in the way he plays the flute in Zimphonic Suites [20], and ironic to the Chinese poets whom in three lines can articulate worlds of emotions. The title of the song is ‘Resolution’. And after listening to the song for the first time then read the tittle on the sleeve, after the song was done, I had what alcoholics call a moment of clarity: art is truly every child’s birthright. The song opened my gates and flooded my space with vulnerability, taking me through a rollercoaster of emotions that I once tried to bury. How was Zim able to say so much with so few instruments? Every time I listen to the song, I feel like I’m not myself. American poet William Carlos Williams talks about this in R. M Berry’s introduction Writing In The Present:

The reader knows himself as he was twenty years ago and he has also in mind a vision of what he would be, some day. Oh, some day! But the thing he never knows and never dares to know is what he is at the exact moment that he is. [21]

At this exact moment I am lost. Where can I find my voice?

In Mxolisi Nyezwa’s poem, ‘It All Begins’, I find that my journey ‘begins with the promise of peace in the avalanche of lies’[22] because how much of the artist is compromised outside of that search?

Aimé Césaire writes, in Poetry and Knowledge:

The music of poetry cannot be external or formal. The only acceptable poetic music comes from a greater distance than sound…’ [23]

For me, I cannot talk about the process of making art, without talking about the background of where that distant sound comes from. The closest reference and most personal to me are my parents. Where did they find the time to raise a family and still make time to produce the art?

Almost every Sunday morning, my father would be up very early, playing Malombo very loud, and listening to his distant sound in front of a canvas, with a glass of red wine. And even when things got so rough, that the fridge would sing of emptiness, my father continued to search for his duende. Though it was the look in his eyes I cannot forget when he walked in from his studio and saw his family ‘…lose their minds in the marshes of hunger’ [24], that he dropped everything and went to go borrow some money from his friends or family, so we could eat. Art life is no easy life when you have children. This is the reality many artists find themselves in, outside of their search. During their tours overseas, my brother and I were raised by grandmother, and after my wall accident, only my mother returned but for my father, it was the thought of his son almost dying and his hidden truths, that he felt it was his fault my accident happened. This drove the man to total self-imprisonment. His last years were spent in search of sanity, inside the bottomless pit of solitude. At that point in his life, even art could not save him.

Coming to this realization, after 10 years of hating my father, I tried to write the hate out of me. After my first book was published, many reviews came with different headings yet many of them articulated the same sentiments; ‘Poetry born out of Pain’. Was it pain that wrote my voice? Looking back now, I think it was more than just pain. 3rd Century Chinese poet Lu Ji makes it clear in not so many words, ‘Sometimes words come hard-they resist me’ [25] and American blues artist Cecil Gant, reiterates the struggle of my search, in his song titled Blues in L.A:

Blues, Blues why did you come to me”. [26]

I now know that we are all in a constant struggle of finding our own voices. After writing this essay, I realized how much I am nowhere near finding my voice, I am still waiting for the poem to come find me. I think the day I find my voice, will be the day I die, because what happens after I find my voice? How will I write without sounding the same? Will I still have my duende? After I find my voice, will I have to give up the word? And begin searching for my sound on what South African musician Johnny Dyani calls “the devil’s ribs” [27]

Some questions are easy to ask but tough to answer, though somehow Rampolokeng comes close to making me understand my journey, my search:

There are other struggles that are as important as the political one. There is the struggle for all of us to be born and the struggle to grow up. And the struggle not to die. [28]

Reference list:

  1. Matsemela Manaka [1956-1998] Echoes of African Art. First published by Skotaville Publishers 1987, second edition published by Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust 2007.

  2. Charles Baudelaire [1821-1867]

  3. Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) from Letter to Paul Demeny, 1871

  4. Federico Garcia Lorca [1898-1936], The Theory and Play of The duende, translated by A. Kline 2007.

  5. Thirstin Howl III, from the album Skilllionare 1999

  6. Ike Muila in an interview with Robert Berold, South African Poets on Poetry: Interviews from New Coin 1992-2001, ed Robert Berold. Gecko Poetry 2003

  7. Kathy Acker, The Killers, in Burger, M. et al. Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative. Coach House Press, 2004

  8. Introduction” by Robin Hemley and Michael Martone, in Hemley, R. and Martone, M. (eds) Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and Formalists. Pearson Education Inc. 2004

  9. Steve Biko [1946-1977], I write What I Like first published in African Writers Series, 1977

  10. Stephen Graham Jones, “In Defense of Non-Mandates”, from The Force of Whats Possible: Writers on Accessibility & The Avant-Garde. Hoang, L & Wilkinson, J.M (eds) Nightboat Books, 2015.

  11. Lesego Rampolokeng in an interview with Robert Berold, South African Poets on Poetry: Interviews from New Coin 1992-2001, ed Robert Berold. Gecko Poetry 2003

  12. Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) from Letter to Paul Demeny, 1871

  13. Frantz Fanon [1925-1965], The Wretched Of The Earth. Penguin Books 1967

  14. Yang Wan Li, 12th Century Chinese Poet

  15. Federico Garcia Lorca [1898-1936], The Theory and Play of The duende, translated by A. Kline 2007.

  16. Bob Marley [1945-1981], “Natural Mystic”, from album Exodus 1977

  17. The World of Can Themba (ed) Essop Patel, from “The Man From The House Of Truth: A recollection of Can Themba”. Raven Press, 1985

  18. Phillip Zhuwao [1971-1997] in an interview with Robert Berold, South African Poets on Poetry: Interviews from New Coin 1992-2001, ed Robert Berold. Gecko Poetry 2003

  19. Charles Bukowski [1920-1994]- poem titled “So you want to be a writer”

  20. Zim Ngqawana [1958-2011], “Resolution”, album Zimphonic Suites 2001

  21. R. M. Berry, “Introduction: Writing in the Present”: Forms at War: FC2, 1999-2009. Berry, R.M (ed). Fiction Collective Two, 2009

  22. Mxolosi Nyezwa, Song Trials, Gecko Poetry 2000

  23. Aime Cesaire [1913-2008] Poetry and Knowledge 1944

  24. Aime Cesaire [1913-2008] Return To My Native Land translated by John Berger and Anya Bostock, Steerforth Press, 2014. Copywrite date: 1969

  25. Lu Ji 3rd Century Chinese poet. From The Art of Writing: Teachings of Chinese Masters. Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping. Shambhala, 1996

  26. Cecil Gant [1913-1951] “Blues in L.A, album I wonder

  27. Johnny Dyani [1945-1986] interview with Aryan Kaganof 1985, The Forest and The Zoo in Chimurenga | Chronic. 2013

  28. Lesego Rampolokeng in an interview with Robert Berold, South African Poets on Poetry: Interviews from New Coin 1992-2001, ed Robert Berold. Gecko Poetry 2003

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