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For Women Trying to Breathe and Failing (It’s Not Your Fault) by Batsirai Chigama

Last night I crawled from death I felt wrung like an emergency change of clothes rained on too many afternoons on the washing line.”



Alive but barely breathing, stifled on every corner and caught in the middle, has not enough time passed for us to be saved? It has and we have tried yet we are not giving up. But who must do this saving? Batsirai Chigama brings with her in this collection of poems a season of grace, For Women Trying to Breathe and Failing (It’s Not Your Fault). The grace to be and to look beyond pointing fingers at ourselves for what the system has already set against women. I am grateful to have received an advance reader’s copy and I am still sad that I missed the book launch of this beautiful anthology. In Batsirai Chigama’s latest offering there is a voice that says, do not be still, you can not sit still while your world burns around you, the rage that you feel is warranted. Women are not called to avoid accountability, no, they are called to see the system for what it is. I was greatly impressed with Gather The Children, her first collection, which I read earlier this year (you can read my review here) and this one did not disappoint either. I chose to read these collections together because for me the glue binding these two books begins with ‘Museum of the Death of Tongues’ (Gather The Children, p.45) and runs through to ‘Can We Talk’ (For Women Failing To Breathe, p.7). It’s a rhetorical question, we are being summoned, we need to talk dear reader about the bombs breeding under our tongues that are exploding and will continue to do so if we do not address the problems.

This anthology is made up of 93 poems divided into six sections; Citizen Woman In A Land of the Undead, How Love Should be, For Women Who Forget to Breathe While Alive, For Women Failing to Survive, For Women Finding Their Feet and Random Thoughts of A Woman Sojourner. Citizen Woman in a Land of the Undead finds a pleasant harmony that carries the book. Chigama touches on the politics of the country and its overarching effect on the lives of the citizens. From substance abuse, unfulfilled mandates, coups, the never ending statutory instruments regulating the lives of the people and violence, one gets a vivid picture of the system in place. ‘One day we will wake up not belonging to ourselves,’ (page 26), this is like unexpectedly waking up from a dream and realizing that reality is worse than the nightmare you just had. Yet, it had me questioning if we have ever belonged to ourselves? With all the socialization and indoctrinations what does belonging to yourself look like in this country, in your family, work and generally in the grander scheme of things. It’s like no matter where you turn you are still in the deep end. Chigama’s unequivocal stance and sharp tone in this section is testament to her continued commitment to speak about the Zimbabwean situation.

For Women Who Forget to Breathe While Alive, is one of my favorite sections in the book. Here, Chigama delves into the issues which used to be glossed over and uses her voice to contribute to the present global calls and action to change the state and place of women. The themes are heavy and can be triggering for some. This part of the book bears a somber tone, for no joy can be found (by women) in their own oppression. Chigama skillfully gets into trauma (stemming from various seeds) and it’s effects, the quest for liberation, sexual reproductive health issues and body positivity. What was important for me here was how the poems neatly tied into the purpose of the title of the anthology. Even, when you forget to breathe because you are carrying this burden of shame cast upon you and abuse inflicted upon you, it’s not your fault. The importance of this part of the book is it attempts to rise above the silencing which counteracts the shame that the patriarchal system thrives on and uses as a tool to silence and isolate women. These poems for women who forget to breathe create a sense of community, because Chigama says you are not alone and you are worthy just as you are. More importantly you are worthy of your own grace and love. Is this then the sense of/struggle for belonging that runs through the book? ‘Even in the breath of our mother’s prayers we are not safe these are warriors who fight to keep their church uniforms untainted,’ (p53) Chigama has no kind words for agents of the system. Complicity is costly.

There is something For Women Finding their Feet, how encouraging it is to be held and affirmed. ‘You have stunned the ancestors, stunned even yourself by walking away,’(page 80). Chigama champions self-preservation. It takes a lot of strength, courage and belief to walk away from terrible situations. The victory to walk away should be celebrated for even with its challenges it brings liberation, and it helps other people to see that it’s possible thereby inspiring a change. It’s not easy and we all know this because we live in a society that feeds on dominance. ‘Why don’t you leave?’ and we’ve nearly all heard it before, yet the shame and fear attached to leaving is a heavy burden as well, one that I believe should be shared by a caring community. As an example, it is reported, that ‘on average it takes a victim, seven times to leave before staying away for good.’ Especially in a society that views and teaches that worthiness is proximity to men, a society that teaches forgiveness and turning the left cheek without accountability to serve the system. Chigama reaches out in her poems, probes and encourages the art of survival in letting go, being your own mirror and healing. Sometimes it looks like walking away, saying your words out loud, starting a good habit, reflecting and taking account of your challenging journey.

This is an anthology about rage, accountability, struggle and courage. It’s not a pity party but it’s rooted in self awareness and a desire for an alternative narrative (one that is not rooted in oppression and one that women can write themselves). The small print of the book had me fighting with my eyes and I wish the print had been a bit larger. I am not a big fan of haiku, so I didn’t enjoy a considerable number of the haiku in the anthology. This is a solid collection and reading the poems had me feeling like in this struggle for change we are close yet so faraway, and that’s why it takes courage to keep believing that change is possible and that we are capable. I hope to see Chigama performing her poems, soon. Just like her writing, her spoken word performances are impeccable. I highly recommend this anthology.


Book Details

Title: For Women Trying to Breathe and Failing (It’s Not Your Fault)

Author: Batsirai Chigama

Genre: Poetry

Pages: 132

Publisher: Ntombekhaya Poetry (2021)

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