Book review: Collective Amnesia by Koleka Putuma

My shelf of South African poetry can hardly be called a collection. Strange Fruit by Helen Moffett, Please, Take Photographs by Sindiwe Magona, Ingrid Jonker’s Black Butterflies translated by Andre Brink, The Tempest Prognosticator by Isobel Dixon, Doo-Wop Girls of the Universe by Finuala Dowing, Matric Rage by Genna Gardini. I’m ashamed that I don’t own more.

There are some collections by artists I admire that I’ve always meant to buy but haven’t got around to – At Least the Duck Survived by Margaret Clough, This Carting Life by Rustum Kozain, Chokers en Survivors by Nathan Trantraal – everything else that Finuala Dowing has ever written.

Poetry is the lifeblood of the South African literary landscape, and by lifeblood I don’t mean money. Perhaps soul would be more fitting. South African books don’t sell very well (a single title sells between 600 and 1000 copies apparently). Poetry, I imagine, sells even less than that.

And yet despite the dismal sales, poetry represents our collective feeling and cuts right to the heart of the matter in just a few lines. Poets use their words wisely, and South African poets know how to sear with theirs.

Recently, there’s been a rising tide of young poets adding their voices to the conversation (thanks largely to passionate small presses like Uhlanga and Modjaji). I recently bought Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, a gutsy collection of poems that punch right through the page.

I was invited to listen to Koleka read her work at one of her Living Room Sessions, an intimate event where she comes to your home and reads to a small group of invited guests. It was wonderfully inspiring. Before and after every (intense/beautiful/crushing) reading, Koleka explained what the poem meant to her, and offered anecdotes from her recent countrywide tour. It was a conversation as well as a recital.

The collection, structured in three parts, features poems that are both personal and universal. Full of emotion and astonishingly perceptive, the reader is absorbed by the artist’s grief, rage, love and sadness.

At the Living Room Session, Koleka read Water by special request. It’s a powerful rollercoaster of a piece where the she takes on the racial prejudices that pop up around crowds of beach-goers at certain times of the year, and cuts right through it, exposing the rawness underneath the surface. It’s a ground-breaking piece of work. Read it here.

Koleka holds nothing back as the words explode like testimony. X-mas dinner with skeletons is brutal.

madness sits at the dinner table, too,

saying grace with one eye open.

In Oh Dear God, Please! Not Another Rape Poem she writes:

some mothers set their daughters alight to keep their men warm.

and some family members would rather describe the smoke than smell like it.

While the poems vary in length the intensity remains strong throughout, like an electric current driving you on page after page.

I can’t recommend Koleka’s work highly enough. The collection has already been prescribed at several universities. I consider it essential reading.

It’s an exciting time for South African literature. Brave new voices are starting to take their place in the sun. The fact that Collective Amnesia has already gone into its fourth or fifth print run proves it.

A friend recently gave me a book voucher for my birthday. I think it’s time I finally start building up my poetry collection. It’s long overdue.


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