|Flame and song: A memoir
Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa
|How to open the door
In 2013, South African-born author Deborah Levy published Things I don’t want to know, a response to George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I write”. The Notting Hill Editions version of this exquisite book flourishes two quotes on the cover. On the front: “To become a writer, I had to learn to interrupt, to speak up, to speak up a little louder, and then louder, and then to just speak in my own voice which is not loud at all.” On the back: “Perhaps when Orwell described sheer egoism as a necessary quality for a writer, he was not thinking about sheer egoism of a female writer. Even the most arrogant female writer has to work over time to build an ego that is robust enough to get her through January, never mind all the way to December.”
Levy’s incisive essay was very much on my mind when I was reading two recent titles published by Modjaji Books: the poetry volume How to open the door by Marike Beyers, and the memoir Flame and song by Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa. But it took me a while to figure out what the connection my intuition had been suggesting was, and then it hit me: since its inception, Modjaji Books has been offering a publishing platform for loud books by authors with soft voices – the kind of soft which utters the most powerful messages. No shouting necessary, please; we are getting all the way to the end of the year here.
“A female writer cannot afford to feel her life too clearly. If she does, she will write in a rage when she should write calmly,” says Levy. Exploring what it means to be a woman who wants to write, and echoing Virginia Woolf’s classic A room of one’s own (1928), Levy speaks up for the things one desires, about “being in the world and not defeated by it”.
Marike Beyers is a poet. Philippa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa is a storyteller, with published poetry and children’s books to her name. How to open the door and Flame and song are books about “being in the world and not defeated by it”. In both, it is often that which is not said that is delivering the strongest punches. When asked why she is in South Africa, Kabali-Kagwa, who hails from Uganda, answers, “I’m a good wife.” No other explanation proceeds or follows. What is unsaid – or unsung – occasionally remains fraught, but not everything has to be remembered, articulated: “There is a lot about those days that I do not know,” Kabali-Kagwa writes of her childhood. The stories are between the lines, in the spaces where one’s own mind and imagination take over and breathe life into the lived and recorded experience of two women who write. Or, as Beyers says, “but the question slipped/ into his open smile/ room for the world” (“writer of days”). Some things have to be left “in the unsaid” (“what is to say”).
“Who would want to read them?” we are asked at the back of Beyers’s poetry collection. The answer is as easy as it is true: “anyone interested in the recent inflection of various Englishes and … inflections of the ‘soul’”. In deceptively simple words, Beyers captures complex memories of family scenes and relationship dynamics, stretching across time and space. Kabali-Kagwa’s memoir is a project of a strikingly similar nature, but her medium is not only poetry, but also autobiographical prose. In both books, moving personal histories unfold on every page.
Flame and song is the story of growing up in the newly independent Uganda of the 1960s. Kabali-Kagwa encapsulates the sounds, sights and smells of her childhood: “the taste/ of her katogo/ lingers in my mouth.” Her family is well off; her parents are professionals with respected jobs: “They were part of the circle of young, well-educated and up-and-coming Ugandans with a passion to build their nation. Theirs was a generation committed to family, community and country.” Two of Kabali-Kagwa’s siblings lived with cerebral palsy. They were “at the heart of our household”, she writes, and her parents “made a conscious decision not to hide Fay and Chris – as was the practice in many families in those days. Disability, in most communities, was taboo.” Instead, in the late 1960s, they helped to start a school for the handicapped in Kampala.
In 1971, Idi Amin came to power, and an era of terror began in Uganda: “From 1972 onwards, the term ‘Gundi bamututte’ or ‘Gundi baamututte’ became part of our speech: ‘So and so has been taken’ or ‘So and so was taken.’” The political situation and the constant fear for their lives forced the family into exile. After years of migrating, including a return to her home country, Kabali-Kagwa settled in Cape Town with her husband and family in the early 1990s. Eventually, the Cape became home, and a sense of inclusion set in: “I return south/ to the home/ by the mountain and the sea/ quenched/ rooted deeper/ in red soil, savannah lands/ and sand.” It feels like the writing and publishing of the memoir forms part of the homecoming, of “weaving threads of my past with threads of my present, and creating a place of belonging”.
One of the most moving poems in How to open the door probes the same idea:
the weekend slumps from my shoulders
swings me straight back here
a road along the sea
and the aloes burning in my breath
– each time it is like this –
the horizon clipped just around the corner
tucked into days rolled tightly home
The grandparents in Beyers’s opening poems are ageing, and, with them, their secrets. The granddad in a hat is suddenly old beyond recognition (“passer-by”); the ouma’s “words/ had weights/ upon them” (“Ouma EEB”). In “what they asked”, we realise that sometimes you may ask, but you will not always be given: “he asked of her/ what she could not open/ like a fern’s inner green/ curled” and “she asked of him/ what he could not contain/ like summer rushing by/ outside”.
What the grandmother passes on is an awareness of language that is not always easy to live up to: “I don’t know how/ my grandmother spoke that way/ as if all her words/ were already recorded/ inside her. my own sentences/ that couldn’t be like that … and so I kept on/ talking to her/ in my head”.
Beyers’s imagery is stunning: “as I open my throat/ the earth pulls me down/ is this who I am/ half-formed under the moon/ a mouthful of mud” (“clay”). Or: “first the voice inside her head broke up –// like the noise of birds/ shrieking at an owl in a daylight tree” (“back to before”). There is loss: “the crying for a brother/ it never ends” (“brother”) as well as tenderness and pain: “here I am all razor blades/ and concrete rubble/ all corners sharp”. Beyers is just as aware of language as of silence: “but there you stood/ your mouth of broken birds” (“you came back”). There are people who live “outside of words” (“envy”) – but not the poet. She invites us to follow into the space of her poetic vision.
Both books are opening a metaphorical door to allow readers into the intimate worlds of their creators. Another Modjaji poet, Helen Moffett, once told me that, unlike people in other professions, artists and writers have the capability to emerge from personal pyres like the mythical phoenix, clutching an artwork or a story to our breasts. Burn us if you must, but don’t take away our songs. Or, as Beyers writes in the last poem of her volume:
can we bear it
can we bear each other
is it how we sing our tears
ignore the ruins
is it all too simple
is home then
in an open door