Belinda K. Zhawi
Winter was turning to spring when I met Belinda Zhawi in a pub not far from the Cutty Sark and the Greenwich Meridian line. For someone who came to London as an “immigrant child” aged 12, and whose work responds to the impact of colonialism on Southern Africa, Zimbabwe, and the wider African and Black diaspora, it was a fitting place to talk. Frank about the moral stain of racism, and the barriers that ‘white’ society can put in the way of articulating your identity as a person, and woman, of colour in contemporary Britain, Belinda shared with me her process of claiming and making her own unique voice, as a poet and performer. We explored why the poems in her pamphlet small inheritances came into being, how she faces down her own insecurities and why, as women, we cannot be afraid of confronting our own fears and sadness if we want to heal. A former London Laureate, and ICA Associate Poet, who has run BORN::FREE for five years, Belinda celebrated the energy she finds in the London jazz and beat scenes. She also spoke of what it means to work out of the Thamesmead Estate in South East London, as a creator, and community activist. Paying tribute to other Black voices which feed into her work, and give her the determination to keep going when times are hard, Belinda described the lineages and blood lines which are integral to her work. Found in her Shona and Southern African heritages, and the works of other Black writers, these are key to her creative agency in music, performance and on the printed page. We sat outside as the light faded, and sensation slowly vanished from our feet, talking and sharing our experiences for the best part of three hours – and I left feeling both strengthened, and inspired, by a woman who speaks with extraordinary power, and reach.
AH:Can you tell me about how and when you got started as a writer, Belinda?
BZ:I was reading from a very young age, because Mum was a primary school teacher. I always knew deep down I wanted to write books. At boarding school in Zimbabwe, I was reading everything. When I came to England, aged 12, the love of reading was there. Because my mother was so stressed about young people in this country, the first thing she showed us was the library in Woolwich. Woolwich Library became my sanctuary. I remember reading pretty much everything in that children’s part of the library and then noticing the Black and Asian and gay interest section. I mean – what were they doing together? But it was a revelation. At 14 I decided that I was only going to read Black books. That was when I realised that I really wanted to write – because I was reading characters that looked like me. Even if I couldn’t always deeply relate, because some of them were American. I thought I could tell my own story, and represent myself. I could write about people who looked like me, my friends. So, I used to write these little stories for my friends. When I was about 15 or 16 I became really interested in poetry because for GCSE we got this anthology with all the poems for the exams.
AH: I still have mine.
BZ: We started with Seamus Heaney. I just couldn’t believe his language. There was a section of poems from other cultures. I read the John Agard poem ‘Half-caste.’ At the same time, I was watching Def Poetry Jam videos on YouTube as YouTube was a new thing at the time. I bypassed a lot of things that a lot of people thought was important to read just because I wanted to read James Baldwin, I wanted to read Toni Morrison.
AH: Their work is essential, world-class writing.
BZ: Exactly so. On Wednesdays we had to bring a book we were reading. My teacher, Miss Bruce, she was just about done with me saying ‘This is about racism in the 60’s.’ She was supportive but she was also like, ‘Come on child. You should read other things.’ She was a great teacher – one of my favourite teachers – but for me it was realising that these Black voices were representing a centrality I hadn’t really seen since I left Zimbabwe. I had that desire to read and write things that other people that looked like me could relate to, or feel connected to. It has snowballed into other things since then – but I started writing fundamentally because I felt represented when I read Black writers, and then I felt that it was my duty as well to contribute to that.
AH: You wanted to keep the conversation going? Be the next generation of those voices?
BZ: Yeah, yeah.
AH: Were there other creative role models and teachers?
BZ:Next there was Polar Bear. Steve Camden he goes by now. He writes young adult novels. He was a spoken word artist for many years. He started off as a rapper from Birmingham but he was central to the spoken word scene in London throughout the 2000’s. Everybody loved Polar Bear. He was a fantastic teacher at the Roundhouse Poetry Collective. We used to have weekly workshops on a Sunday afternoon. There was just a room of other young people and Polar Bear. It was unlike other workshops I have been in since. Polar gave us themes and topics and we would have long discussions. The first hour was just chatting. Polar is quite young at heart so he got us. We got him. We were just honest. Some of my favourite poets are people from that group – Deanna Rodger, Dean Atta and Bridget Minamore. We were in this room, knowing stuff about each other that we would never tell anyone. One of the most important things Polar said to me was ‘Write for your voice.’ I was like, ‘What is he talking about?’ Now I’m writing for my voice and a lot of that is rooted in music. After I had Jacob Sam-La Rose who just taught me loads about craft, loads, but also loads about life as a poet, sustaining yourself financially, sustaining yourself emotionally, spiritually. He treated me with a gentleness and a kindness that was rooted in his understanding of the work I was writing and the things I was giving him. He was my one-on-one mentor for a while. I ended up doing Barbican Young Poets and then I when I did the MA at Goldsmiths he was a course leader on the Spoken Word Educators program. I had Moira Dooley as my dissertation tutor. She gave me a lot of confidence and made me feel calm when I really felt that my writing was a fluke and I had been pretending all of this time. She grounded me. She made me read stuff out loud that I had sent her. I remember reading one poem. Afterwards, a storm broke outside. She said – ‘See what you did.’ And I was just like, ‘Me?’ She recommended a lot of reading that I don’t think I would have really looked at for myself.
AH: These poets were your stepping stones?
AH: Since then you have been involved in Octavia as well?
BZ:Octavia is a community. Rachel Long leads but it’s more of a sharing and learning space on a mutual level. It’s more like a space of safety.
AH: It’s valuable to have a process of mentorship as a poet – but then you have to take the trainer wheels off. Otherwise you are looking to a mentor for validation. It’s scary to make that transition.
BZ:Jacob Sam-La Rose never really over-complimented me, but one time he invited me to his book launch in Lewisham Library. And I got there and he introduced me to somebody that he knew, he was like ‘This is Belinda, an amazing young poet.’ I was like, wait, what?! You never wrote that of my poems.’ He would be like ‘I read a lot of good poems and this is a good poem. But I want to read a great poem from you.’ It was about me finding myself. Sometimes he said things to me, that I didn’t get at the time.
AH:People used to tell me about my voice. It took me years to understand. I couldn’t see it and didn’t know what it was. But I realised it is rooted in my spoken words. And the rhythms of my body as well.
BZ: Yeah. That was what Polar was teaching me, which Jacob solidified in a different way later. Which is that your voice on the page, is your voice as a speaker, and your voice in your everyday regular life.
AH:The first time I heard you read, there was both a looseness, and tightness in your voice – a kind of freedom and control. It’s very beautiful what you achieve. It’s like you learnt to walk a tightrope, without noticing that you are doing it.
BZ:Jacob taught me to make my own forms and to trust my own intuition. I want to speak the way I speak with my friends in small inheritances, but I also want to speak as a scholar of poetry, a scholar of Black writing, specifically because that is what I have been for so long.
AH:Can I ask you about when you were the London Laureate and then the ICA Associate Poet?
BZ:The London Laureate was the name they gave to the short-listees of the Young People’s Laureate. It was a great experience for me. I wanted to apply twice before but I didn’t – because I was terrified of not being picked. Man, the things that insecurity can do to you right? I wanted the things that come with this award, leading up to when you find out who gets the to be the Laureate. There were retreats and workshops – things that I knew existed, but nobody was teaching me how to get access to them properly. The ICA thing came at a time where my confidence was lowwww. I’d finished my MA at Goldsmiths. I had started a job as a book seller. I remember checking my emails on the way from that job and I had an email from the ICA saying they would like to interview me. Kayo Chingonyi had done it before. I got really excited because it was affirmation. Within a few days the ICA were saying ‘We would like to have you on board.’ That was a responsibility I wanted – the element of freedom. The end of that residency was amazing because I pushed through a project I really wanted to do collaborating with artists in Southern Africa which became my cross-continental BORN::FREE. With the British Council, we brought these South African poets over and it was amazing, beautiful – and then I could get to South Africa. What happened in South Africa was really life-changing for me. I had been to South Africa many times but I had never been for work and I never really sat down with other artists in that way. I would always go to see family or my friends’ families. Meeting with other Southern African artists set into motion a new confidence in myself. I think it started from just being offered that ICA residency – which got me back connected to South Africa, and really changed my perspective in a deep way.
AH:Do you want to say something about BORN::FREE?
BZ: BORN::FREE was started as an events night and a Poetry Event between me and my friend Chima Nsoedo nearly five years ago. We actually met at The Roundhouse during Polar Bear days. Born Free started off as a monthly night then became a bi-monthly community project. Right now I’m finding ways to expand it outside of events. I want to make it a platform where we talk about Black literature in an interesting way. I’m still trying to solidify those ideas and get money. You want to pay poets properly. I’m trying to get a radio show as well. I want to start a writing platform that celebrates Black writing. It’s getting slightly better, but numbers in publishing are still low and these things make a difference.
AH:You need to look after the pipeline.
BZ: Exactly, who are the gatekeepers? I want to ask different people from all walks of life about a Black writer that they really identify with. If you read James Baldwin’s One Day When I Was Lost when you were 21, what did that mean to you? I want to write essays on these things – so we can get the conversation out there, and there is a paper trail when you Google. Before Alice Walker drew attention to Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God was out of print. Alice Walker did that legacy work about the lineage of writers who you come from, and then the lineage of family you are making. I really want to make BORN::FREE a very Black-centred project – but without being exclusive.
AH: I think that is a strong place to be. You claim your home ground – but say others are welcome too.
BZ:This year I have been waking up early to do funding applications to do the work the way I see it. I want the vision to come out right. I paid my dues in other ways – and then with time you learn you don’t have to pay them any more.
AH:You shift from being mentored to saying ‘I am the next generation.’
BZ: Yeah. We have Malika Booker and Salena Godden to look up to. As they say in the US, they had to walk so we could run, you know. Right now we are kind of jogging. We need to be allowed to sprint. How do we help others get through without unnecessary struggle?
AH: You told me earlier that the Arvon course you did was a booster pack to your career and your creativity?
BZ:It was with Caroline Bird and Roger Robinson. I was like, ‘C’mon the blessings of the universe!’ I really had given up on writing. In that week, I was awakened literally from the third eye. I was like ‘I am a writer!’ How do we make this easier to access? How do we help people to hear about it?
AH:If you have to come through difficulty, it gives you empathy for other people. When you have an easy path, you may not be aware of other people who can’t access that path. In different ways, we are both trying to act for many by going forward.
AH: Writing about my experience of sexual abuse in childhood, which a lot of people over the years have told me that no one wants to hear about, I know that following a community-minded approach gives me strength on the bad days. You can say to yourself, ‘I’ll keep going for them – if not for me. I’ll take this ton of shit. I’ll face this rejection – because if I get through, others will come after me.’
BZ: Exactly. That’s so important.
AH:When you come from a hard place, it pushes you forward.
BZ:Got to, man. Just don’t see any other way.
AH: The first poem of small inheritances – ‘thamesmead estate (dregs of south east London)– is a ‘we’ poem, not an ‘I’. It seemed to me that you were claiming community? It begins:
We know this city wouldn’t spit on us
were we flagrant
red & ablaze, top deck of a bus.
We learn to hear our screams walk
thru walls before they’re cast into concrete silence.
This city wouldn’t even spit on us.
BZ: I am really pleased you picked that up. It was about setting in place this sort of ‘south’ connection – Southern Africa and south London. I live on this estate man, but I was born somewhere else. But you have people who were born on this estate, whose parents were born on this estate. It really started as a poem about Grenfell.
AH:You used the Master P quote saying – “Black kids …we don’t have rehabs to go to … You gotta rehab yourself” as your epigraph to set it up?
BZ:It really stuck with me when I heard it on Seat at the Table by Solange Knowles. Towards the end of the album he says something like Black kids – you gotta really help yourself. I really started thinking about that, particularly in my personal experiences, which are related to people I am close with from the area. Sometimes you can’t go to your parents with your problems because they’ve got things to worry about. Some of them are working all kinds of hours. So you have to figure out for yourself. Your own rehab can involve getting past actual drug abuse, or it can involve maybe just travelling. Rehab can go in so many ways. But what is expected of you really – coming up in that space of grey? A place of concrete, like you know you can’t win. You’re expected to pull yourself out of that, and if you don’t it’s your fault – because others pulled themselves out. No one wants to talk about the fundamental, structural problems. Black boys are dying every day in the city, and nobody wants to talk about the real causes behind this knife crime. Nobody takes care of the places they come from. Nobody presents alternative options for them. If that lifestyle without opportunity is normalised – then you wake up to grey because you don’t have any way to look outside of that.
There is no real victim status given to these young people, but they are victims. They are 14-year olds running around with serious mental health issues. Serious home issues going on. To talk about it will damn the government or damn people in power so they’d rather not go there. It is such a white system – so inward and so obsessed with itself – that we need to say these boys are being vilified. There are a lot of young Black people dying in this country – incredibly talented and incredibly intelligent. They are also being matched up to their Black counterparts who have managed somehow to figure their way out. I also wanted to point out this outskirts-of-London experience as well, because we talk about the inner city but Thamesmead is not really. It’s like Kent. It’s like Croydon, all that stuff. These brutalist estates, Zones 4-6, can be complete chaos but also like complete cohesion because of our common experience.
I have mates who I grew up with, most of them have a Southern African connection. Because of our backgrounds and our love of reading, accessing different things from a different country, many of us were leading a kind of interesting middle class life – not necessarily myself – but a lot of my peers have become school teachers, heads of department, lawyers and doctors whatever. But we are aligned with the Black community. Grenfell messes me up every day.
AH: People are still struggling to get heard around Grenfell.
BZ: Heard yeah, and then it’s like whose voices get heard right? It’s the construct of class. When we leave the estates we still are not listened to properly, we are still not treated with the same dignity that we deserve as human beings. I really would never know what it is like to be given the benefit of the doubt outside of my own community, yeah. And the constant watching over your shoulder – like ‘why did that person behave that way towards me?’ Sometimes they just behave in that way because they are a prick. It’s like ‘Are you doing that because you are a bit racist – or are you doing that because you are just not a nice person, or you are just having a hard day?’ You don’t want to go through life like analysing people’s behaviours like that.
AH: You had a different experience in Zimbabwe?
BZ:I lived 12 years of my life not being scrutinised. Then I came to this country – and the constant scrutiny really fascinated me. I didn’t feel inferior ever at any point. If anything, I became more and more open-eyed to denigration. The ‘we’ in ‘thamesmead estate’ also comes from an accepting that I am also from this place, I contributed to the British narrative. A lot of British people don’t want to hear is that Britain is not only for white people and hasn’t been for a long time. There was a time that Britain was colonising half of the world, and also contributing to my narrative as a Zimbabwean – which is about the exit, and migration, and what caused that.
This country is full of Black kids who are first generation or no generation whatever – either just come back from their parents’ countries, or their parents were the last ones to leave, so there is always a connection with our cultures in this way, but then also a disconnect from them as well.
For Black children in London – first, second, third or fourth generation – there is limbo. You feel like this is your home, but your home is not entirely accepting of you, but then your other home is not entirely accepting of you. A lot of the time we just want to be one thing – because we want to belong somewhere. I think that ‘we’ was really an angry lamentation, but also compassion.
AH:‘thamesmead estate’ is a rightly enraged, pain-filled poem, but its power derives also from its imagistic and sonic beauty. Did the act of creating help to reframe a difficult experience? You didn’t surrender the pain – but you gained agency by writing about it.
BZ: That’s it. And as soon as I learnt that word – agency – I was like – oh my god, that’s sexy.
AH: Yeah, I felt the same. It was a breakthrough word for me.
BZ: Before I had that word in my vocabulary, I understood the importance of agency but I don’t think I was exercising it. Sometimes I thought maybe I’m being arrogant, who am I, this little Black girl – and all that shit. Fundamentally, this whole pamphlet is about agency. Writing for me is about agency. Nobody can tell me what do to and I can really transform what I am feeling. I can work with these things in any way I want. I can tell you a story. If you noticed, there are a lot of ‘you’s used in the poems, which are really ‘I’s.
AH: ‘You’ makes a little bit of space for the reader – and for yourself.
BZ:Yeah, it really does.
AH:Mary Jean Chan often identifies herself within her poems in a hurry of english. She chooses to – because it’s a narrative about queerness, and she needs to inhabit her own queer body to speak about it. It seems to me that by using ‘you’ and ‘we’ you are making space which is both your life, and a collective life. It is a space for other people to enter.
BZ: I am also creating images that people can relate to. I’m trying to get that longing and yearning that most people have. The essence of the poem should just have that.
AH:I was going to ask you next about ‘rye lane (foul ecstasy)’ which is a stunning ‘drugs poem’. It starts out with B and D sounds –“Black girls don’t do drugs/ said the bouncer/ at Bussey” – this percussive battery – so you know you are in club world. And then it goes inwards. The drug usage becomes a portal to these different selves. It’s not a poem advocating drugs – but it is a poem which suggests they can be a way into meeting yourself. There are real moments of psychic, physical and linguistic beauty that you are giving space to –
under drooped eyes
which flood the wet
stay open, each
touch from the bass
in upward spirals
of blue starlight.
the night not
BZ: I wrote that on a come-down. It was really about writing about my feelings and that space and really kind of writing from a personal perspective, but bringing in other girls I had done that with, been out with. We’d talk about it, and this is how we feel, you know. I’m sure that you know the facts about drugs. Let’s say this is about MDMA. You come up and you feel at one but you feel incredibly sad at the same time – because you don’t always feel that happy every day. I wanted to kind of bring that across, the ecstasy, but also how this is so sad.
I was trying to create some aesthetic of yearning you know – the longing for something. I think it is the longing for a deep, solid self-acceptance, and a joy, a continuous happiness, but I am also saying these moments are beautiful because you get to really see yourself.
AH:Often with severe depression, people are put on drugs as a short-term measure so they can experience ‘normality’, and then work their way towards it. The take I got from ‘rye lane’ was notthat you were a ‘drugs missionary’, but more that that experience of MDMA, good and bad, with all its sadness, had let you see something new in yourself which, in the rest of the collection, you work towards in a much more anchored way. I love that poem. It’s a poem about big experiences, and being human.
BZ:I will go into it further in other things I will write, but I grew up very Christian and thinking I would never do drugs.
AH: ‘holstein way (reclamation song)’ and ‘evonlode house (self-care)’ look inward to the body for salvation. Ecstasy comes from “sweet communion with self” – not drugs. Was that a next step for you?
BZ: I think when things happen to you as a child, or growing up, that seem like abandonment, neglect, or abuse whatever, you separate from your body. Maybe that’s why I’m always in my brain. I’m not necessarily like in touch with with what is going on – even though my heart is right here. D’you know what I mean?
AH: Yes, I do. In ‘holstein way’ you write:
Learn to touch yourself again & yet again
till you wander into those moments of ecstasy,
sweet communion with self, begging you
to fulfil a wish, to no longer erase yourself.
BZ:When I took MDMA, everything was unleashed in a very beautiful way like. I was around friends and I was loved – a lot of touching. I always had issues with touching. A lot of hugging. I’m working on those things – initiating affection, telling people how I feel and not caring about rejection. That one night showed me that I didn’t necessarily need to do that drug again.
‘holstein way’ and ‘evenlode house’ are really about deep, deep introspection. I want absolute freedom in my body. I want freedom between my mind and my body. In the past couple of years, that has really led to to this other journey of yoga every day and meditating and training the mind. I want to be in control in a way that is free. I want to be able to really get myself. I want to hear my body but I also to hear my mind. But I didn’t have those tools. I had to get the tools to combine everything and feel safer in myself. I am not completely there yet but I am starting that journey. ‘evonlode house’ is about living by myself.
AH: You wrote about buying flowers as “a weekly ritual when you learnt/ no one was going to heal for you/ so you figured it best to start small.”
BZ:I have plants instead now. These are the two newest poems. A lot of the poems I was starting writing from very young, and then I just edited the fuck out of them. These two particular poems, I wanted to put across this feeling of a little of where I am now. I think I really got to that stage where ‘joy is imminent – joy is there.’ I can go and get it – and there is work to do. Those two poems are really about looking into what that work entails. I think that a lot of that just entails stillness.
AH:You also write about the inner darkness: “Teach her to pray with precision/ for there will likely be days/ when her breasts will search for ripeness/ but black rot might come easier.” It’s like locating sort of psychic calm in the body – but also expressing the whole of what you have to work with to get there. We talked before about the couch in ‘evenlode house’ which held you like a womb and allowed change to happen. It’s that whole process of being held in stillness and letting yourself change through that. Almost breaking down into yourself.
BZ: Yeah, it’s just like so alone but I love it. I love self-indulgence in that way. It’s just like – ‘I’m so saaaadddd’ – and then just like, yeah, ‘I am’, and just kind of doing it.
AH: But not being scared of the sadness.
AH: Not having to run from it, just like being ok to sit with it and let it pass when it does.
BZ: That is hard too – because you don’t know that it will pass.
AH: Exactly. It can be very tough. Do you feel as women, and as writers, it’s important for us to have strategies for restarting out lives – symbolically and actually – to embody our intentions.
BZ:I do yeah. I cut off my hair. I didn’t do it to be a woman writing or whatever. I did it because it was hot and I was fed up.
AH: When did you cut it off?
BZ: Summer of 2017. And that’s the summer I moved in alone so that’s the point.
AH: A new beginning – yes, a new self.
BZ:It’s scary to change things, you know and move things forward, so I think it’s very important to find out little rituals where we can hold ourselves without thinking about what other people think. My mum had to restart her life when she left Zimbabwe. She had to change her career from being a teacher. I wrote about it in ‘reasons for leaving home’, after the Patricia Smith poem ‘Because’. You know Patricia Smith followed me on Twitter? And then I DM’d her and I was like ‘I love you, thank you’. I sent her the video of me reading ‘reasons for leaving home’. She didn’t reply for a month – but when she did, she said ‘thank you.’ It’s so interesting how sometimes we just need simple structures to kind of express the different disparate thoughts in our heads. I want to say all these things about Zimbabwe. I need to make a comment on like what Zimbabwe really was at that particular time, which was chaos. But I wanted to make a personal case.
AH:You wrote a poem out of your own experience based on a model that had been given to you by a Black writer – and then, she picked up on it and, affirmed the heritage. You are drawing lines from yourself, to America and Zimbabwe.
BZ:It was also an exercise in lineage that Jacob taught me. What lineage of writers are you from? What are you contributing, and what are you learning from them? The connection was what Patricia says about being a young Black girl. A lot of her poetry resonates – even though the geographies are different – because those feelings are just so alike. The diaspora, the Black diaspora is so linked from the Caribbean to North America to Asia. We are everywhere. We are absolutely everyone.
AH:The last two poems in the ‘small inconveniences’ section look at the reasons for and costs of migration. In ‘bantuland (dear whinchat)’, you imagine the migrating whinchat flying “Over former colonies still scarred with leftover pain; over red/ dust roads and broken railways.” Did you want to make the post-colonial legacy something people could feel and see?
BZ:I’m always writing about Africa or African issues. It’s very tricky and sensitive. When I write I know that other Black people are going to read it, and I want I want fairness to be there always. It was for an anthology about British birds. I found this bird and the poem didn’t actually make the cut because the lady who commissioned it was saying ‘No, you need to write about the bird specifically’. I was like, ‘There is no other way I can write this poem’ – once this poem came out. I couldn’t change it. I backed out of the project. In the first part I really talk about the beauty and the pain of the continent. I didn’t want to make it sound like we were suffering and sad, because that’s not the truth, but we are suffering and sad in the most part.
AH: ‘dear whinchat’ also catches what is unique to Zimbabwe and Southern Africa.
It has been ten years since I left home.
I’ve forgotten how at dusk the sun slowly sinks
into the ground & the sky becomes still, ablaze.
I’ve forgotten how the night spreads itself
in the folds of a light cold wind;
I’ve forgotten the sound a metal pail,
tied to thick long rope, makes when it falls
into wells swollen with a full night’s rain.
I’ve forgotten the feel of early morning,
how the eastern horizon would birth the sun
til the skies spun themselves violet, as a cockerel
spread its wings wider than its wake-up crow.
AH: The poem makes something extraordinary visible in words – more visible than in a travel documentary because the reader takes your words and plays them inside their head. I see those images much more clearly than something that flashes on a television screen because I have imagined them. In the same poem you also write “my first language’s started to wilt on my tongue.” How does it feel to work as well in a second language?
BZ: Shona is my favourite language. You understand more and more, the older you get, because everything is straightforward, but it’s also so like so elusive at the same time, because you can say so many things without saying anything. The Shona language is really also tied in with culture and tradition which is about respectability and how you look you know all these things. They find nice ways to say really ugly things. I think that is what I love about it the most. It’s so full of like wisdom and history – but at the same time it’s direct. That is something that would be hard to learn if you weren’t born into it because of its nuances. It’s about the underlying message as opposed to actual words so yeah, it’s a fascinating language to me in that way.
AH: From how you talk, it sounds as if the brain that you developed to speak Shona informs how you function in the English language as well – because you have experienced Shona as a space of possibility. Even if you are not actually writing in Shona directly, you still have that heritage informing your work?
BZ:A lot of stuff I write has strong imagery. I think Shona is really about images. Everything is shrouded in like imagery and comparison. That has really informed how I approach the English on the page – feeling through images. How can we create images that make you feel things you know? Specific images but also universal feelings.
AH: We talked about Black poets and writers as models. It seems to me that you are also taking Shona and African culture as a literary model. You are using its frameworks to shape your work. It’s not just the Black, and other, writers you read – but it’s also your own living culture that you using to claim agency within the English language and also to make it new. You give it something that it wouldn’t have otherwise. From the start, I found your poems incredibly powerful and magical. It’s really interesting to think that Shona is partly making them work like that.
BZ: I think some of my favourite writers are Bessie Head, Dorothy Masuka, Yvonne Vera and Chinua Achebe – these core African writers. Toni Morrison as well. She writes poetry in novel form.
AH:Beloved was one of the most important books that I ever every read. I read it when I was in my early 20’s, in the 1980’s. It just stopped me in my tracks, completely.
BZ:Whenever you are reading any Toni Morrison you are suspended. I feel that’s a thing that I also get from a lot of my favourite African writers. Chimananda Ngozi Adichie as well – whom I have loved since I was a young woman. She was a writer of my time. There is a simplicity in approach that’s really a simplicity in language as well. An openness in language, but a depth in image, and a depth in the underlying themes.
AH:Toni Morrison was accessing African imagery, storytelling and culture through her African American heritage and oral heritage.
BZ: There’s a distance and compassion in a lot of my favourite African writers works. In The Bluest Eye Toni Morrison is writing about these difficult subjects, but she affords everybody humanity and space – and for me that is very African. It feels like it’s in the bloodline.
AH:That’s a powerful response. African countries and their peoples may have been looted through colonisation, and also slavery – but the heritage resists and persists.
BZ: You can’t take people’s stories away.
AH: The final section of small inheritancesis set mostly in Zimbabwe – where you lived until you were 12. It uses Shona words alongside English. Did it feel like a form of home-coming, using the two languages in your work?
BZ: For sure. A lot of my work is really about trying to solidify numerous narratives of what Zimbabwe means for me, which includes that that particular migration. I think it is going to be written about a lot in the future by other Zimbabweans you know. I want Shona people to read this. I want to write in Shona one day. I am reading a lot of Shona literature at the moment. I’m reading this guy called Solomon Mutswairo, who published the first ever, full-length Shona novel. I’ve got this amazing book of his novels and then the last part is his poetry, with other poets who were writing in Shona at the time, who we study now in Zimbabwe within the education system.
It is really nice to be in that space of my literary ancestors – showing me the possibilities of our language – because what they have also shown me is that our language has got these superior vibes. They can’t come into English with the purity that they have in Shona. I’m in the space of learning that from people who did it before. From people who were really concerned about wide readership but also about clarity.
AH: We were talking about stillness and self-healing. Part of the self-healing is necessary nourishment.
BZ: I am hungry for it when I am reading, I am literally devouring it, and I am inspired at the same time, and amazed – and then full of respect and appreciation.
AH: It sounds like you’re anchoring your own sense of identity – claiming what is you and what is yours.
BZ: Which feels like a birthright. Every time I am reading Shona writing, it makes me a voracious learner in terms of my own traditions and my own cultures. You’ve got to understand that I’m kind of divorced from those cultures because of Christianity. Some of these things were seen as dark and devilish and demonic. The religion the colonisers brought said only the Christian way is valid. My mother’s father was a preacher.
AH: A Christian preacher?
BZ: Yeah, he was a Pentecostal minister who was actually really powerful in in his like energy, his spirit. He was the reason why my Mother and her sisters are incredibly spiritual in this particular way. They passed on something to me to do with spirituality that is very important. They taught me about the possible existence of other realms and all these things that I hold dear despite how I choose to enter their spaces. But the Christianity they taught me was really about divorcing from traditional African ways. In my Shona reading, I am being taught that there is a union, in the organic way my ancestors worshipped. In direct translation, the Shona name for god is ‘creator of people’, ‘creator of humanity’. My people were also spiritual and holistic in their approaches to everyday life – and those cultures don’t exist today. The more capitalist we get, the more global we get, the quicker and easier it is to let go of the Shona language. Some of my cousins born and raised in Zimbabwe don’t speak Shona because their parents put them in very expensive schools where English is the lingua franca.
AH: It’s like identity-genocide.
BZ: It’s like ‘Guys – stop!!’ When I was younger, I felt this heroic responsibility. Now I feel more responsibility towards myself as a Shona woman to be consistently telling my different versions of what it means to be valid. All these nuances are really about solidifying and documenting that culture, because a lot of it is rooted in oral culture.
AH:It seems to me that you have the possibility, through language and through heritage, to access and comprehend that Shona space and articulate it – because its are values about connection to environment, integrity and accountability, which the whole world needs. In a sense, you are a channel.
BZ: I used to sing in a church choir and what they taught me was when I hear the entertainment, the singing, it’s actually the ministry. It’s about serving people. In my approach to my work, if I’m going to ask people to listen to this or read this I feel this responsibility to be this best I can.
AH: As a performer and enabler of other performers was this a model for you, that whole idea of of a kind of sacred performance?
BZ: I think maybe in my writing I make that space, because I’m trying to talk about an acknowledgement of ancestors.
AH:Before we end, can I ask what you are doing next?
BZ: I am working a lot with music at the moment. I am trying to say things that I feel the rules of the page might not allow me to do in a way that I am satisfied with. Working with music affords me the space to experiment with how I say things and what I mean when I say those things.
AH: Are you recording the music yourself or are you working with musicians?
BZ:I’m recording myself but working with musicians. I’m working mostly with beats at the moment. There is a lot of interesting stuff happening in South East London. Shout out south east London as an amazing Jazz scene – Steez, Trinity Laban alumni, Tomorrow’s Warriors and Steam Down, other creators. For me that’s a space where I am meeting a lot of interesting creators – Brother Portrait, Nadeem Din-Gabisi, Footshooter. Some of them approach me and say ‘Hey would you like to do some poetry over this beat that I made?’ For me it’s all been a challenge, like yeah, why not let’s rise up to the challenge? It really expands how you read things and how you deliver things, and in terms of what I was saying earlier about economy on the page, economy in speech, especially on top of a structured piece of music. I like creating textures that people can feel. You can do it on a page but I find that there is something about also hearing music and being alone with that you know. Not having to read and make notes and understand – but constantly re-listening.
AH: Music is three-dimensional for me. Somehow, it’s a form, like sculpture.
BZ: Please go deeper!
AH: Sometimes words are like a painting, and music is like a sculpture.
BZ: I agree! Depending on what kind of music it is, it’s about emotions and feeling. I love jazz. A lot of a lot of stuff I am interested in doing next in terms of music is working with contemporary UK jazz because they explore the things I explore through words, through sound, and I am just amazed at like what they can do with that. You know how sometimes it can sound so disparate, but so harmonious, at the same time. Jazz is so structured and so textured. You can almost touch it – like you can touch a sculpture. It can be in your body.
AH: And you can touch it with your mind.
BZ:I love the completeness of music. I think that words can always be edited. Whereas with music, you can change it, but it might not be the same emotion, it might not be the same feeling, but it might also not be the same sound. A lot of the time when musicians are saying this is done, it is pretty much done you know.
AH: All the sounds are relative to each other. It’s like they’ve met their matching point. They are all intersecting – once those intersections have happened, that is the energy.
BZ:With music, I relate specifically to beat makers because I think they are poets. They are sound poets. And it’s funny because a lot of producers will send me those beats and I might be like, ahh I think this just feels like a city poem you know, like a night time you know. Because of the energy they are giving me, that feeling that I am taking about, and then you go and talk to them – and somehow it’s always linked. What works best about music and poetry is that they are both about distilling emotions and feelings into particular, almost tangible things, that your senses can access.
AH:. So would you be looking to do some live sets and record a CD as well as write a collection?
BZ:I have been working with a harpist since around this time last year. Through Spread The Word I applied for a small grant where you could work with another artist. She goes to Trinity – Maria Osuchowska. What a legend! She is in her early 20s – but she has been playing harp since she was 11. When we meet, the pieces that she has composed match exactly what I am trying to achieve. We don’t have to rehearse too much. It’s that connection. It was meant to be a one-off thing, but we have performed so many times now that at the last gig her mother said ‘Now you must record.’ Maria came from Poland at a young age and we were both immigrant children in London. London is both our home and our other home. I do a lot with her also inspired the jams that I attend at a weekly night of improv jazz in Deptford. I have also been working with two producers who I have known since I was in my early 20s. We have got two EP’s coming out this year.
AH:Really looking forward to those. We’ll put links up on this blog when they come out. Thank you very much, Belinda Zhawi.
Search youtube for Belinda Zhawi’s performances – here Belinda reading an earlier draft of ‘dear whinchat’
Belinda will be performing live on 27 February 2019 with Maria Osuchowska at Accidental Power Cut at the House of St Barnabas in London, UK tickets by donation.
Review of small inheritances by alice hiller for harana poetry here.