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Memory & Burping Justice in Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia.

Reading Koleka Putuma’s poetry felt like being immersed in a sermon on every page. A baptism of reality to a society that has for the most of its life decided that ignorance is bliss, that ‘if it doesn’t affect me personally then it’s non of my business,’ ‘if the injustice does not directly affect me then it’s fine.’ If another’s oppression is non of your business, then I don’t know. It ought to be our business and it is personal because of intersectionality. The ongoing experiences of marginalization demand that we check ourselves. This anthology of poems is a timely reality check that comes to call out complicity and other things. Written in varying tones of grief, rage, nostalgia and longing, ‘Collective Amnesia’ is a necessary reminder and for others a necessary awakening. The foreword by Lebogang Mashile (a powerhouse) accurately captures the flexibility and the power of language. Through various forms that I discovered in her poetic prowess, Koleka Putuma illustratively weighs into race, heartbreak, sexuality, religion, history, escape, language, relationships and politics.

The collection is divided into three; Inherited Memory, Buried Memory and Post Memory where memory is explored. One of the most clear messages in this anthology is that we are living with collective ache and trauma suffered from collective erasure. In addition, we often use amnesia to wash away the bitter, painful and injustices that we face every day. Does this make it easier to move on? But how far are we really moving, if at all when we do not remember and address these experiences that attempt to erase and silence us? Even then it is not always by choice, for there are times when this forgetfulness has been enforced upon us. Koleka Putuma comes to say to the reader, you have a duty to remember even when it hurts. You must remember. There are a lot of points to tackle this from be it race, language, sexuality or politics. I found the examination on language very important.

In ‘Local,’ one has a view of how our mother tongues have become ‘unworthy’ as if they are deficient in something that will take away the sparkle in schools, workplaces and relationships. The perceived tensions and conflicts that come with allowing our mother tongues to roll out of our mouths in schools and workplaces is deeply concerning. In these and other spaces have to whisper or talk like thieves afraid of getting caught in the middle of committing a crime. For a country with more than ten official languages, that is ridiculous! Our languages are good enough to be spoken, to be reduced into text and used as a mode of instruction (not that the standards of good/not good enough matter anyway). What does this say about linguistic access, equity and social justice in employment and educational spaces? This reminds me of some of the stories in Intruders by Mohale Mashigo, you can read my review here.

Even our names are swallowed as shown in ‘Mountain,’ to create comfortability, syllables moved/removed in disrespect. Disrespectful and aggressive on so many levels. How come they are not enough to warrant some effort to say them right?Names are important because of identity. Now we are at a point where those languages and names sit on our throats like allergies seeking to be treated or released! Scratching us and demanding that we do something. Our names are somehow deemed unworthy to appear next to the land that belonged to our ancestors. Land that we now have to shout, protest and beg for. It is not a mistake when Tsitsi Dangarembga shows us the various wounds associated with our being that call for healing in NervousConditions and I see this here in a different literary form. What Koleka Putuma does with her poetry is immeasurable.

Here are some quotes from the book:

1. ‘But isn’t it funny? That when they ask about black childhood, all they are interested in is our pain, as if the joy-parts were accidental.’ – page 16

2. ‘I also come from a lineage of borrowed and borrowing. The neighbour’s sugar was an open jar without a debt collector.’ – page 18

3. ‘And yet, we are taught that mourning is the opposite of strength.’ – page 58

4. ‘Blasphemy is wrapping slavery in the gospel and calling it freedom. Blasphemy is having to watch my kind use the same gospel to enslave each other.’ – page 101

5. ‘Telling us our movements do not matter unless we are moving out of the way or moving to make way or moving out,’ – page 107

I loved that the poetry was accessible, in terms of language and form. The beauty about this book is that there are no form, language and thematic boundaries, it just flows commanding attention and knocking some sense to the reader. It is quite relatable because of our experiences as black people across borders, seas and skies. It asks the reader to see people as they are, to remember/see history as it is even with those harsh and hurtful truths, to question the present as it is with the continued perpetration of various injustices, to see and address our collective traumas, to think about how our future will be. This book comes with necessary visibility. I highly recommend this anthology.


Author’s Profile

Koleka Putuma is an award winning poet, playwright and theatre director from South Africa. She is the founder and director of Manyano Media, a multidisciplinary creative company that produces and champions the stories of black queer artists and queer life. (Bio extracted from inner front cover). Collective Amnesia is her debut anthology and has been translated into four languages since its release. There are also two upcoming translations. The anthology has won the following awards; Glenna Luschei Prize for African poetry (2018), Sunday Times Book of The Year (2017), City Press Boook of the Year (2017) and commended for the Ingrid Jonker Prize (2018).


Book Details

Title: Collective Amnesia

Author: Koleka Putuma

Genre: Poetry

Pages: 114

Publisher: Manyano Media (2nd Edition, 2020)

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