Tjawangwa Dema (hereinafter “TJ”) is a force — the best kind. When the trifecta of her words, presence and wit hit you, being spellbound is your only option.
If we are talking titles, TJ won the Sillerman Prize for African Poetry in 2019 with her collection “The Careless Seamstress”. She is a poet, producer, teaching artist, thinker and an honorary Senior Research Associate in the Department of English at the University of Bristol. But these aren’t the things that endeared me to her. When we met I was struck by the fact that she had no interest in performing self. It wasn’t so much the things she said, but how she said it with a calmness that said you don’t want to mess with this woman.
I’m always interested in how people step into womanhood so I began our interview with this question:
“Psychologically, I’d say it was in my twenties, but I have reimagined and reinvented my idea of womanhood so many times that I have lost count of each of those moments except to say that they are cumulatively important because all those bits and pieces of trial and error make me who I am and I am still a work in progress, most aware of myself when I am resisting something. When I feel like I don’t want to do that, or be that person. I have always been like that. There are literally childhood photographs of me with a face that says I will not be anybody except myself.”
I’m curious to know what TJ’s name adds to the picture by way of meaning. Incidentally, she mentions a Setswana [national language of Botswana] saying that goes “Ina lebe seromo” which roughly means, you become your name, so it’s only right we explore that.
“Tjawangwa is a Kalanga name and it means ‘it has been found’. I always think of it as a very generous gift from my parents. I feel like every time people say your name, they are summoning a thing into the world.
When I analyse ‘it has been found’, what jumps out at me is process. To find anything, you must do the work of looking. Which means you must be dedicated to the process of slowing down. Perhaps it makes sense then, that TJ is invested in slowness. Refraining from easy answers, she throws out ideas like fully cut patterns. You have to do the work of putting them together. Who is a strong woman I ask, and the first answer contains its own questions:
“Anyone’s response is bound to be seemingly complicated because what is strength? We identify it and misidentify it in all sorts of ways. And the older that I’ve gotten, I suppose my definitions of what different types of strengths can be, have broadened, if not changed or shifted.”
Thankfully she doesn’t stop there. Instead, TJ offers me a museum of women who through their actions have provided a template of strength, sisterhood and exemplary womanhood in big and small ways. We speak first about her maternal great grandmother:
“She raised my mother who lost her mother quite young. I can’t quite imagine walking in her footsteps and also losing her son who had many wives and then essentially becoming the matriarch of that family and seeing into the world very many great grandchildren and just kind of being the pillar that held that home together in a society that would have been dismissive. That said, I think it is also dangerous to only define strength in relation to long suffering and overcoming adversity”
So I’m also thinking of women getting a divorce in a culture that doesn’t allow women to remain whole human beings when they are no longer attached to the appendage to which they say we must all become attached at some point. Rebelling against this idea that we must all be read through absence. I think that’s a powerful thing. Many women, much older than myself in Botswana have recently got divorced and this is not a celebration or not a celebration of divorce. It’s a celebration of the fact that these women thought long and hard, recognised what the consequences were or might be, depending on their individual circumstances and still, chose happiness or the hope for happiness when they were certain that where they were no longer held the hope for happiness. That’s strength.”
Having been given this spectrum of what female strength can look like; I want to know what the museum has to offer in terms of women who were exemplary in broadening TJ’s sense of possibility for who she felt she could be in the world. I am aware that the list may be long and we both laugh about how it may span to 1000 if I gave her a few days, but we don’t have that. So I settle for three examples.
“Professionally, Tracy K Smith, the 22nd US Poet Laureate.She is deeply invested in slowness, which I think in practice, speech, and in the way she thinks through what she can do with her platform and practice, offers her a kind of wide field to practice empathy, attentiveness and to produce work that is really meaningful. The idea of slowness was already something I was moving towards. One or two people had pointed it out but I didn’t claim it as fully until I paid attention to Tracy K Smith and to how she pays attention to the world and to her craft . This was a formative experience. Outside the professional field, if I telescope to Botswana, Lauri Kubuitsile and Wame Molefhe come to mind. Both are writers who work primarily with fiction. To see these women who had both chosen marriage, babies and at different points, corporate or other jobs outside of the creative field, move towards the creative aspects of themselves so fully, offered me community when I didn’t know that I desired or needed it. The fact that they were local to me meant I could see a model for the trajectory of what that possibility could look like for me”.
I’m reminded here of how important it is to have representation and sisterhood. I ask TJ what sisterhood means:
“Allyship — the actions of seeing each other, hearing each other, questioning each other and encouraging each other with an emphasis on questioning which helps I suppose all of us to settle into knowing. The right kind of question always helps you become more of yourself”.
Becoming yourself is obviously a constant thing and since slowness has come up a few times, I’m curious about what it offers to the process of knowing yourself.
“The world is not in a slow moment for very many reasons. So many people are practicing how to be faster and we all want our books out yesterday and so many things are demanding speed of us or we are demanding it of ourselves, but learning new approaches requires slowness.”
This was of course written pre-covid but I don’t think enforced slowness changes the meaning of the above statement. I ask about unlearning things and TJ extends the same practice of slowness to this discourse.
“ I’m cautious in my old age of dismissing things off-hand as old women’s ideas about X and Y. And I find myself more and more now moving closer to them and saying why do you navigate the world in this manner and not that? For a specific example, when I got married, I decided not to have this ceremony called go laya. I don’t quite know how to translate it but I suppose it’s a kind of counselling session where primarily married women would come and gather with the bride-to-be on the day of her wedding and offer their wisdom. A common proverb they would say is ‘Monna ga a botswe kwa a tswang teng’ which means ‘one should never ask a man where he has been’. I interrogate this in my poem ‘Self Portrait with a Missing Tongue’, when the speaker asks:
“Who amongst us knows whether our mothers truly favour silence or whether the price of asking a man where he has beenis far greater than the shame of knowing?“
“Right now a lot of thinking is focused on the idea of you are either with us or against us — all or nothing. There are contexts in which I understand fully where that spirit of non-negotiation comes from. Still, if like me you are more nuanced, you will instead say, lets interrogate, let’s ask three more questions before we settle on fire. I’m not saying we are not going to end up in the same place, but before we burn everything, do we not want to ask some questions. Not even questions that necessarily benefit the other side, in fact forget about that, but questions for ourselves”.
Since the world tends towards speed, I ask how TJ ensures she doesn’t succumb.
“I have less time now in front of me than behind me. Iam making choices all the time about which scuffles I am willing to find myself in. I’m not a fantastic fighter. Again, too slow to be witty in real time, to respond to that tweet and be ready for it. I know this about myself so I am quite careful about where I get caught in the mud. May I never be a slave to speed.“
But don’t you ever get imposter syndrome I ask?
“I don’t know if that’s ever going to go away. I don’t know what they’ve got going on inside, the people who don’t feel any imposter syndrome. I’m very happy for them. But what I’m more preoccupied with most of the time is the poems themselves. And then I’m thinking about distribution, publishing, how you draft a letter to an agent, or respond professionally to an email that says come and perform for us but we have no budget. Because I do the work, the thing I can offer is the ways in which I have been consistent in productive ways. Sometimes this is enough to get you the job, sometimes it isn’t.
All life is unequal parts good luck and hard work but you can only control and work at the hard work and understand that this can shape or manufacture what we call good luck or fortune or blessings. Because I work hard on my writing and I’m very invested in craft, when all these people come into the room, with or without their PhD’s, their 30 books, their own experiences of running even more festivals with budgets I never knew people would put behind poetry, when they are in the room, I’m able to hold myself upright.
I have learnt not to overestimate not only my capabilities but also my time. I don’t promise what I can’t deliver. Because rest is important to me as part of slowness, I claim my quiet time with my husband and with myself and I say no to bookings.
I know the idea is that you are supposed to constantly say yes to everything because maybe this next yes is the one that is going to make you the next Warsan Shire (who I love). Beyoncé is going to know that your poems are strong and she’s going to work with your writing. But you can’t spend your whole life on full speed. Maybe, there are actually some people with the strength of mind not to snap, but physically, you are not going to be able to keep this body permanently upright and healthy and we know that the two are tied together. Your wellbeing must be approached holistically. And so for me, because rest is important I say no to things and I think carefully and strategically about what I say yes to.”
What scares you?
“Laziness — just the idea of it. The threat of it is always there, that suddenly rest blurs into laziness. You are supposed to be working. Writing is work. That’s what you are supposed to be doing. That’s the beast eye. I see it appear for other people — you start to make excuses, to be sloppy. You start to overcompensate in entirely unproductive ways for you as a human being, and as a creative, so, yes, laziness”
What drives you?
“On one level, figures that have come before me who I think are really exemplary. Kwame Dawes is an example. As a human being, as a writer and as a figure who is generous in the way that he comes at what his idea of community is; how expandable, how encompassing and how empathetic it is at its core. He helps me model, in a sense, the path I would like to walk”.
When I think of TJ, I think of authenticity, a willingness to question everything, to learn, to be and to care for yourself and others. I am interested in who TJ sees:
“ I hope this changes all the time or at the very least, that it has changed. I just hope that through age, living and meeting people, whatever ideas I had about who I was have shifted for the better. All I know is that I never want to be thought of as unkind. More importantly I never want to be unkind.
My idea of kindness is being inclusive, being accommodating, not asking people to perform certain labours over and over or to explain themselves. It’s being generous, taking the load off other people even when you have your own load to carry especially when maybe it no longer feels to you like a load but because you have the skillset or the personality to do this work. It’s clearing the path for the ones coming up after you.
I’m ambitious but when my ambition is slowed down, I am able to steer it. It doesn’t steer me and that has made all the difference for me”.
I ask about legacy and we talk about the two young Botswana ladies whom the University of Iowa asked TJ to mentor, how one of them wrote back to say I want to do what you did for me for other people. We talk about a similar letter that TJ wrote to her old MA supervisor at the University of Lancaster who fought for her and even fought her when she was starting to give in to the system in her style of writing, and how she wants that effect of a quiet kindness that changes lives to be her legacy. If that isn’t a strong woman way of thinking of your impact in the world, what is?
Follow her on social media on handle @tjdema and visit her website at www.tjdema.com
This post was first published on Medium on 22 May 2020