Poet Koleka Putuma is a South African cultural icon-in-waiting. Her straight-talking multimedia poetry tackles racism, sexism and social ills head-on, giving young African women a formidable global voice.
Putuma’s words are never minced and are delivered without formula or platitude. Whether in spoken word format or written, her poetry tackles serious issues with the gravity they deserve.
Following her win at the inaugural South African National Poetry Slam in 2014, as well as a 2016 PEN SA Student Writing Prize, Putuma released her first anthology of poetry in April 2017, titled Collective Amnesia. The book has gone on to sell more than 2,000 copies; this in a local literary market where poetry books rarely sell more than 100 copies.
The anthology is a top seller in a number of South Africa’s most popular independent bookstores, but what makes Putuma’s success different is her approach to delivering her work to the world.
Embracing new media such as video and social media, she delivers her voice directly to the people.
Collaborating with video artist Jarryd Kleinhans and photographer Andiswa Mkosi, Putuma presents visual interpretations of her work through online video-sharing sites. The effect is immediate and collaborative, changing poetry from being a monologue into an interactive dialogue.
However, to read her words in print, in book form or through her social media postings, the full effect of her use of language and metaphor offers a closer exploration of her work.
Following an intense three-month book launch performance tour to 13 centres across the country, and as it is about to enter its third print run, Collective Amnesia has been chosen as a prescribed text for second-year university students. Putuma is turning South African poetry into the new rock ‘n’ roll.
Born a year before South African post-apartheid democracy, Putuma is of a generation that doesn’t have a living memory of apartheid, yet she still feels and can articulate the repercussions ingrained in modern social ills of gender violence, entrenched patriarchy and ongoing discrimination.
Milisuthando Bongela, cultural editor of the Mail & Guardian, praises her precocious talent, saying: “This person who was born in 1993 was never meant to experience apartheid or any sort of discrimination, has now written a book that archives her experiences in this so-called free country that we live in.”
Her performances are delivered in an idiosyncratic and eccentric style, a very modern mix of meme-culture, quirky slang and unapologetic youth coolness.
The poem 1994: A Love Poem is an acidic tongue-in-cheek take on South Africa’s middle-class obsession with Nelson Mandela and how it is very different in real life interactions between black and white South Africans: “I want someone who’s going to look at me and love me the way white people look at and love Mandela. You don’t know love until you’ve been loved like Mandela/ You don’t know betrayal until you’ve been loved like Mandela/ You don’t know [expletive] until you’ve been loved like Mandela.”
Her poems celebrate young Africanness, yet mourn the deep-rooted problems of gender politics. In the poem Black Solidarity, Putuma explores the hypocrisy of sexism and patriarchy, particularly in social and political activism: “How come your revolution always wants to go rummaging through my underwear?… How come references to your revolution are limited to Biko and Fanon and Malcolm?/ Do you read?/ Your solidarity, it seems, is anchored by undermining black woman’s struggle.”
Speaking during a Johannesburg launch of her book at the end of June 2017, Putuma explained her position: “I used to look at my mother and my auntie’s choices and think, ‘Why would you stay? Why would you choose that in that particular situation?’ But after writing this book and having experienced things as a black woman, I learned that, in that particular situation, your mother and aunt chose silence so that they could live, or so that there could be peace in the house, so that they could eat.”
Established South African poet Lebo Mashile calls Putuma a revolutionary new voice in South African poetry. “She’s exploding the model of South African literature, which is a wonderful thing. She is emerging, and with authority, to claim her space and audience. The work that [she is] doing is very necessary. [She is] opening the way for [young people, particularly girls and young women to find their voices]. Ten to 15 years from now, they will reference and thank [her].”
Source: Okay Africa
Would you like to use this article in your publication or on your website? See Using Brand South Africa material.