From innocence to exile: Rethabile Masilo in conversation with Gary Cummiskey
Rethabile Masilo was born in Lesotho in 1961. He is the author of four poetry collections: Things That Are Silent (Pindrop Press, 2012), Waslap (The Onslaught Press, 2015), Letter to Country (Canopic, 2016) and Qoaling (The Onslaught Press, 2018). His work has appeared in various literary journals online and in print. His collection Waslap won2016 Glenna Luschei Prize for African Poetry. He now lives in Paris with his wife and children.
You were born in Lesotho but now live in Paris, after stays in South Africa, Kenya and the US. How did you end up in Paris?
Our family was targeted,in 1981, in an organised night attack by agents of the then Lesotho government, the aim being to eliminate our father, Ben Masilo, who had been an outspoken opponent of the government. Following that attack, which failed to kill our father but instead took the life of my 3-year-old nephew, Motlatsi, we left the country in a hurry by crossing the frontier into South Africa under the pretext of ’going shopping’.
In South Africa, in Springs where we were staying, we suffered the rule of pass laws and ended up in jail. Following that episode, we left South Africa for Kenya, where we would remain in exile for 9 years, till the regime changed in Lesotho and refugees started flocking back home, including my parents and siblings. At that time, I was already in the US studying. While there I met my girlfriend, and she would become my wife. We moved to France, her home, in 1987.
Your first book, was published in 2012. When did you start writing poetry and getting published?
I started writing poetry in high school with my friends (who today chide me that “we wrote poems together in high school, not knowing that you were serious”). I was a short story writer at the start; one of our teachers organised a competition, which I won. He kept me behind after class and asked me where I had copied my story from. Despite my protestations, he never believed I had written it myself. I stopped writing altogether. Many years later I realised how much that had been a compliment.
Poetry came to me through a new teacher who would read to us; and she did it so well that I just had to write poems. One summer I bought Dennis Brutus’s with money I had earnedthrough a holiday piece job, helping build the then Lesotho Hilton Hotel, today known as the Lesotho Sun, in Maseru. I was hooked. My first attempts produced poems that gushed and clichéd their way everywhere. But the more I read poetry, the more they gushed less and the more they shirked trite expressions.
I discovered more poets in the US, following exile: Frost, cummings, Walcott, Dickinson andothers. I submitted to the varsity journal and managed to get a few poems published. Then the writer Phil Rice started canopicjar.com (without the dot com, then) and a few poems that would later end up in appeared in it.Early in 2012 Pindrop Press and I agreed on a book project.
What poets have influenced you? Are there any southernAfrican poets who have had a strong influence on your work?
Dennis Brutus influenced me immensely by showing me that it was indeed possible to write good, albeit defiant, poems, when I had thought all along that poetry was only about love and flowers and the shapes of natural things. ‘M’e ‘Masechele Khaketla, a Mosotho writer who wrote in Sesotho, also influenced me. I still recall anot-so-easy-to-translate image she used in one of her poems: “Tšintši e betsa leqhamu poleiting ea sopho”. Or, “a fly doing the crawl across a plate of soup”.
Rustum Kozain has had more than a little influence on me as well. I was shocked when I discovered he was actually younger than me (I hope he won’t see this). The certainty and truthfulness in his voice drew me in. I have had the fortune of meeting him on two occasions (in Paris and in Durban). While at Poetry Africa in Durban together in 2016 we looked at some poems in and he commented that he could hear me echoing him and that he was pleased: I was busted and stoked at the same time. His poems have taught me pacing, as well as finding that one word without which a line remains average. The first poem of his I read was ‘Stars of Stone’. It is about the stoning of an adulterous couple in Afghanistan, and throughout the poem I could actually hear the stones hitting. For my fourth book, , I asked Rustum to have a look at the poems before sending the manuscript to the publisher and,by George,he did.
Reading your work, I detect a common theme of a journey from the innocence of childhood in rural Lesotho, then trauma, followed by experiences of exile and yearning for the lost world. Would I be correct?
Absolutely. In fact, it is difficult to find the right label because I grew up in the capital, smack in it, then when dad was imprisoned in 1970 we moved to a smaller place, still in town, but mom couldn’t keep us there and feed us at the same time, so we moved to Qoaling, which is considered a suburb today but was really a village in the outskirts of the capital then; that’s where I learned to herd livestock and stick fight. The place was quite rural then.
I have in the past tried to resist the tendency to write about my life, but I lost that battle. It is the subject that doesn’t stop coming back with more words and sentences almost every time I start to write. In February this year I read at Rockview Beer Garden in Maseru, and several times the audience chorused me for a love poem after reading. One can only speak of tragedy so much. I did read a love poem in the end and it went well, which made me think that perhaps I do write about other topics but do not give them the weight they deserve.
All four of your collections have been published abroad, three in the UK, by The Onslaught Press and Pindrop Press, and one in the US by Canopic. Do you find getting published to be easy, or do you find that it is difficult?
Getting published only became an objective after some of my poems had appeared in magazines. The first acceptance that piqued my interest and encouraged me was from Orbis. It was a poem called ‘White Canes Bend at Two Places, Like Fingers’. I started submitting furiously and received almost as many rejections. But I had placed a poem in a reputable magazine and had been paid for it. I continued.
Publishing poems is a very difficult task, and I think that one of the tricks is considering a rejection as a lesson; one must look at their poem and wonder why it was rejected. I still do that. Sometimes there may be nothing wrong with the poem, only that it had been sent to the wrong magazine.
Your third collection, Waslap, won the 2016 GlennaLuschei Prize for African Poetry. How did it feel to win such an award?
It was unexpected, and it took quite some time to sink in. But it was a glowing moment through which I had to keep reminding myself that there’s no ‘there’ and that I’d never reach it. I still find more pleasure in writing a poem than in getting one recognised; though there is no doubt that for many days after the announcement of the prize I remained elated.
You have also edited a couple of anthologies. How did those come about?
The first one, For the Children of Gaza, was published in 2014, the year Israel was bombing Gaza full-time. My publisher contacted me in Greece where I was on holiday and pitched the idea of doing an anthology in relation with what was happening. Together we contacted poets and asked for poems, visual art and prose. The response was overwhelming. We worked by e-mail between Oxford and Crete and had the anthology ready in less than two weeks, the aim being to put it out while the world was watching what was happening.
The second one, To Kingdom Come: voices against political violence, was my idea and I edited it alone. In 2015 Brigadier General Maaparankoe Mahao of the Lesotho Defence Force was killed by other soldiers, the motive being a political squabble. And I snapped, remembering what had happened to my own family. I had had enough of political violence. The anthology, published in 2016, is dedicated to the memory of Mr Mahao.
What is your experience of the poetry scene in Paris, especially from an expat point of view?
It is bubbly and lively and a veritable muse. There is an average of three open mic sessions a week, but I had lived in Paris for over 20 years when I found out that all of that was going on, through a colleague who invited me to one, after finding out that I wrote poems.
Going there actually helps me write faster and allows me to test-drive poems. After each session I tweak the parts where my tongue tripped up, or where some infernal rhyme was awkward, and so on. Poets and musicians perform in English or in French or in any language of their choice.
And this: having people from other places performing in their mother languages is actually encouraged and applauded.
Has your worldview changed since you moved to Europe? You obviously still have very strong ties to Lesotho – your latest collection is titledQoaling, your hometown – but by living in Europe do you feel as if you are living in some sort of centre stage of world affairs, especially in relation to, say, Trump and ‘superpower’ tensions? Do you feel you have had an identity shift?
I left Lesotho when I was 20 years old, with a first-hand experience worldview restricted entirely to Lesotho and southern Africa. We certainly did get our news from across the border, too. My dad would always come home with (Bloemfontein paper) the , (both Johannesburg-based), but also with (a Sesotho, ‘Protestant’ paper which he was editor-in-chief of) and (a Sesotho, ‘Catholic’ newspaper).
Indeed, I experienced a sort of identity shift, especially in the USA; one does have to adapt. I sometimes pulled out my Basotho blanket and wore it to class, but the experience was more negative than anything and I only did it a few times. But for all that I never changed drastically from whom I have always been, and I pined for Lesotho then the same way I do now, 37 years out of the country later. My ‘centre stage’ remains southern Africa and the web has helped me stay in touch with that part of myself.
What projects are you busy with?
Rightfully, many: I teach English to business people for a living. But for living, I read and write almost every day. I’m working on a book of poems to follow and I am hoping that it will be published in South Africa. There are also two manuscripts of other poets on my desk waiting to be edited. There is a third anthology on the horizon to be called , for which I have started collecting poems. It will be published by The Onslaught Press. But I am also working to improve my curriculum vitae with the hope of landing a job in creative writing somewhere in southern Africa. Sometimes I tell myself that I might have bitten off more than I can chew.
Poems by Rethabile Masilo
Those people did come in bakkies, four
perhaps, out of the west. When one of the men
came over, and touched our manes
with his hand, our mother rippled.
We had been taught to never neigh.
When one fine day a neighbour beat us
for eating his best beets and lettuces,
even then we only bit our lips and let air
ruffle our hair in his face while he struck.
But these men here spoke a language
we didn’t know. Father stood on his hind legs
and bared his teeth at them. And even
at that dark hour, with the stars watching,
mother walked over to our youngest, swished
flies off his face with her tail, then spun around
to face those men again. No one neighed.
Not even when the shooting began.
for Charity and Francis Matyaka
They occupy the street
like fan club members
and chant against the paucity
of grey men. My father died
in sorrow, one says, a mulatta
in the back. There’s
a silent feeling around
a quiet boy, black as the mood
of this day in June,
bright as what he will become.
He steals glances at me.
Their song is quiet, strong
as a half-night’s wind
that whistles down hills
telling its own grief.
I do not speak his tongue
and secretly hope
he has been schooled enough
to tell his story in words
I’d know—what eats him.
His father was the teacher
they came for at the school:
Francis, whom he watched beaten
in a donga near their home
by angry masks; sand had drunk
all his life as his mother stood
with her head in her hands,
like she wanted to unscrew it
and give it back to God.
(Based on https://goo.gl/ejWQYq)
Preparing the body
for my uncle, Nthaha
He’s dead; in Oort, the gods know.
As the news leaves press rooms
eels, from the bottom of the Aegean,
ribbon to the surface to wave goodbye;
we smear his body with Zambuk
and wash the rotted parts with milk,
parts that are known as the devil’s cut.
His wife washes between the legs
then returns later to put the legs straight
again, before the thigh muscles stiffen.
This is why a man must die before his wife.
At the edge of the open grave I pretend
to be a man, and proceed to find a stone
I spit on, then throw into the hole.
This is how a man accompanies relatives
on the journey out of life. People look
around with downcast faces, longing
for a different chemistry of sleep.
from Letter to Country
after Albert Goldbarth
This sex shop enjoys visits to Bangkok in Thailand /
This sex shop is successful because it has licked all the competition /
This sex shop sells crotch-less chastity belts /
This sex shop is what Willis was talkin' about /
Everyone comes here /
This sex shop goes through a lot of mops /
If you come upon anyone you know here you should wipe ‘em off /
They sell a gun-shaped dildo here dubbed ‘The Sex Pistol’ /
This sex shop hates every ‘–ism’, except ‘jism’ /
This sex shop grows its own rubber trees /
This sex shop pierces women’s lips and men’s heads /
This sex shop showed the Goldbergs how to make whoopee /
This sex shop isn’t in The Encyclopædia of Sex; the Encyclopædia of Sex is in it /
This sex shop isn’t right up anyone’s alley. It’s up yours /
The red carpet leading to this sex shop is a tongue /
The Kama Sutra is dedicated to this sex shop /
This sex shop has a salesman named Rocco /
I saw Adam and Eve browsing in this sex shop /
This sex shop does not have a single die-hard customer /
This sex shop gives you more bang for your buck /
This sex shop’s logo is a cat swallowing a rooster /
Madame Claude was proud to be associated with this sex shop /
This sex shop sells things that go hump in the night /
Red-light districts in Amsterdam were modelled after this sex shop /
This sex shop was given the keys to Sin City /
If Jean-Baptiste Grenouille had smelled this sex shop he wouldn’t have killed those girls /
Workers at this sex shop are bound by contract never to say ‘come here’ /
This sex shop has a portrait of Bill Clinton on a wall /
Instead of feather boas, this sex shop uses real serpents /
This sex shop doesn’t discriminate: its customers come in one colour /
When they go low, this sex shop goes down on them /
This sex shop uses sex pots to cook your meat /
If you die here you come and go at the same time /
This sex shop is governed by sexual congress /
No other sex shop can penetrate a market like this one /
This sex shop’s strong-boxes enjoy safe sex /
This sex shop is up all night to get lucky /
Let this sex shop take the first crack at you /
This sex shop gives naughty employees the shaft /
If you lose your key to this sex shop you’ll get no nookie /
This sex shop is always getting its hands dirty /
This sex shop doesn’t charge much per head /
This sex shop will never do you in the eye /
This sex shop doesn’t cry over spilled milk /
The mother of this sex shop is French and its father is Kenyan /
This sex shop is the first and the last of its kind /
This sex shop smells like an ovum leaving the ovary /
This sex shop requires all phones to be on vibrate /
This sex shop holds tantric sex practicums /
The G-string got its name here when this sex shop bent over and someone cried “Gee, what a nice string!” /
This sex shop taught me everything about life /
This sex shop has a kitchen with nothing in it except a table /
This sex shop has a kitten in its bed /
This sex shop is fresh out of deep throat masturbation cups /
This sex shop talks about my groin like it was my groin /
This sex shop comes in all shapes and sizes /
This sex shop taught me what a glans smells like /
I heart this sex shop /
This sex shop is going to save the fucking world /