A circular journey: an interview with Musawenkosi Khanyile
Updated: Oct 14, 2019
In conversation with Gary Cummiskey
Musawenkosi Khanyile was born in 1991 in Nseleni, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. He holds a Master’s in Clinical Psychology from the University of Zululand, a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of the Western Cape and is currently studying towards a Master’s in Public Health at the University of Cape Town, where he also works as a Student Counsellor. His chapbook, The Internal Saboteur, was published as part of the African Poetry Book Fund’s 2019 New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set (Sita). His first full collection, All the Places, was also published in 2019, by Uhlanga. His work has appeared in literary journals, both local and international, such as New Coin, New Contrast and Five Points. He currently lives in Cape Town.
You have two master’s degrees – one in clinical psychology and the other in creative writing. What drew you to these two fields?
Poetry found me in high school. I started writing poetry in Grade 8. Then years later, I stumbled upon psychology. It was one of those experiences where life chooses a path for you when you were not wise enough to choose it yourself. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with psychology. Now when I reflect, I think the idea of psychotherapy ‒ the form of treatment offered by psychologists ‒ resonated with me since I was already accustomed to the idea of healing that comes from words, having already experienced that in writing poetry. Poetry and psychology share the common appreciation of the power of words. I studied psychology all the way to master’s because that’s the minimum requirement needed to practice as a psychologist in this country. When I learned that one could work on one’s writing under the supervision of an established writer and then be awarded a master’s degree afterwards, I thought the universe is so generous after all! And then hunted down Kobus Moolman, who ended up being my supervisor for my Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of the Western Cape. So, in short, my passion for words and the appreciation of their power, particularly their healing power, is what drew me to these two fields.
You have said that South African poet Mxolisi Nyezwa has been a big influence on your writing, but what other South African poets have attracted you? Do you prefer local poets to international poets?
Mxolisi Nyezwa has been such a wonderful inspiration to me over the years. I cried tears of joy when I finally managed to get all his collections. There is something about his work that moves me, that is relatable. I can see his influence on Ayanda Billie, whose work has followed the same path of being relevant to people who live or grew up in the township. The local poets whose work I keep going back to include Mangaliso Buzani, Sindiswa Busuku, Vangile Gantsho, Thabo Jijana and of course Kobus Moolman. This is by no means an exhaustive list. I prefer poetry that moves me, whether it is the work of a local or international poet is irrelevant. I keep returning to Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, and to Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda, and to Nicole Sealey’s Ordinary Beast, all of which are international offerings.
I recall reading somewhere that your original focus was on performance poetry, but then shifted to ‘page poetry’. Is this correct?
My initial focus was the page, and then I drifted to the stage after a positive reception of my performances in high school. I became popular in high school for my poetry performances in the morning assembly. I continued performing poetry at varsity and went as far as representing KwaZulu-Natal in the Drama for Life Poetry Competition held in Johannesburg in 2013. Dashen Naicker, who lectured in the Department of English at the University of Zululand at the time, introduced me to the works of Mxolisi Nyezwa and Kobus Moolman. That’s when I started going back to the page. He is the one who advised me to submit my work to literary journals such as New Coin. Having my work accepted by the editors of different journals, including yourself Gary, validated my decision to focus on the page.
You have had a chapbook titled The Internal Saboteur published. How did that come about? Chapbooks don’t seem to be recognised as ‘real publications’ in South Africa, for some reason. What is your opinion about chapbooks?
An email from Kwame Dawes landed in my inbox in 2017. I remember that it was a Friday afternoon when this email popped up on my cellphone screen. I was on a bus from Eshowe, where I had just started community service as a clinical psychologist at a local hospital. Kwame had just sent me an invitation to submit a chapbook manuscript for consideration for inclusion in the New-Generation African Poets: A Chapbook Box Set. I had sent a manuscript for the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry the previous year, which had caught his attention. A few months later I got a rejection email, Kwame informing me that my work had not made the cut. But then after that he approached me about publishing my chapbook. I see chapbooks as equivalent to what is called an EP in music. A musician who hasn’t released a full album may try to test waters or introduce themselves to the market by releasing a few tracks that are not enough to make a full album. This is what the African Poetry Book Fund is doing for poets who haven’t published a full-length collection ‒ introducing them to the literary world. Chapbooks are therefore necessary, not only as platforms for poets to introduce themselves to the literary world, but as other ways of creating and publishing. Kobus Moolman, the multi-award-winning poet who has published several collections, is working on a chapbook. Therefore chapbooks are more than just ways to test waters. I think them being deemed less than “real publications” is more a reflection of the crawling local literary scene, which still has a long way to go. Create Relevant Content
Your first full collection All the Places traces a protagonist’s journey from rural and township experiences to an urban environment. But the first poem deals with the urbanised protagonist’s return to the rural environment, so the journey could be circular rather than linear.
The book starts, come to think of it, like those movies that begin at the end and then go back in time to show how things got to where they are. In the first poem, “A school visit”, the speaker returns to the rural context as a visitor. After finishing the book, one can deduce that the speaker who now resides in the urban area is the same one visiting that rural school in the first poem. This, in a sense, speaks to that circular journey you are referring to. My initial goal with this collection was to capture how identities are moulded by place. I decided to divide place into three environmental contexts, namely rural, township and urban, in order to show how the everyday experiences of people living in these environments differ. There is an interesting dynamic that then ensues, some of it stemming from our history, where place and identity clash. In the “UCT” poem ‒ UCT being the University of Cape Town which was historically built exclusively for white people ‒ one can see how some identities feel unwelcomed in some spaces. There is also a sense that identities, being used to the complexities of the spaces they used to inhabit, need to readjust and perhaps unlearn some patterns of behaviour, in order to adapt to new spaces.
There are also themes of identity and place in the book – could you elaborate on this?
The collection was inspired by the interplay between place and identity. As I have already mentioned, I divided place into three environmental contexts to show the unique everyday experiences of each context. I wanted to show that, just by merely existing in different environmental contexts, we navigate and see the world differently. There seems to be a yearning for something better, where identities inhabiting the rural context feel that the township has something better to offer; and people in the township feeling a need to escape to the urban context. Interestingly, the urban dishes its own challenges, with identities having inhabited either the rural or the township, now struggling to feel a sense of belonging. There is a line in one of my favourite Mxolisi Nyezwa’s poems that goes: “We will go back to the township where our lives are waiting for us”. This implies that people leave themselves behind when they exit the places they grew up in. It’s not easy to let go. There’s the letting go that must happen when identities change places. If one is not ready to let go, they must deal with the feeling of un-belonginess.
What is your opinion of writing as therapy/healing?
One interesting coincidence with poetry and emotional trauma is that they are both housed in the same brain, the right one. Human beings have two brains, the left brain and the right brain. The left brain is the thinking brain, the calculating brain, the logical brain. The right brain is the emotional brain, the creative brain, the brain that uses metaphors, that composes music and writes poetry. It is such an interesting coincidence that the brain that is emotionally traumatised is the same one that is creative. Why would it not heal itself by writing itself out of trauma, by singing the pain away? So, in short, I believe that among the things that move us to the pen and paper, is the unconscious need to heal ourselves.
You have been up and down South Africa doing launches of your collection – from Johannesburg and Pretoria to Cape Town. How have audience responses been like? Do you feel that events are essential to boosting poetry sales in South Africa?
My first launch was in Pretoria. I was nervous, despite knowing that the many friends I grew up with, who now work and live in Gauteng, would show up for me. It’s been such an amazing journey, seeing people engage with the work, signing books and getting positive responses about the work. I think the reception has been heart-warming so far. Book launches do boost the sales. People bring friends who think they don’t love poetry only to discover that they do. I received a message from one of the people who bought the book at the Pretoria launch, saying she didn’t even know about my book launch and was in the store looking for her next read when she heard me responding to the questions that were put to me during the launch and decided to get herself a copy. These events are very much effective.
What are your feelings about overseas readership? Do you feel South African readership is enough for you?
The interesting thing that happened to me is that the first publication contract I ever signed was from a publishing company named Akashic Books, based in Brooklyn, in the United States. This was for my chapbook, The Internal Saboteur, which Akashic Books published in collaboration with The African Poetry Book Fund. Another interesting thing is that both my chapbook and debut collection were released to the world in the same month this year, so there was a simultaneous introduction of my work to the South African readership and the overseas one. I think that there is a lot more happening overseas that is exciting and inspiring. I want to be part of it.