Athambile Masola’s debut is a poetic tour de force

Titled Ilifa, her poetry collection breaks new ground in South African literary and feminist writing and shows a deft hand that impresses on many levels.

In a compelling entry into public literary life by literary historian and essayist Athambile Masola, the reader is left with no question about her talent or range as a poet. Based at the University of Cape Town (UCT), her academic work interrogates Black South African women’s literary traditions across different generations and literary disciplines. 

Academically, hers is first a project of recovery, since her research does recuperate early to mid-20th century Black fictional and non-fiction writing lost owing to varied processes of canonisation. Second, she is interested in plotting what it might mean to speak of Black South African women’s literary traditions that cross language barriers.

Masola’s debut poetry collection, Ilifa, brings together 51 poems thematically arranged into three sections: “Umyalelo wentombi (On Feminine Instruction)”, “Uthando (Love)” and “Apha (This Place)”. Ilifa is named for both direct inheritance and legacy, as a volume that unpacks the intersections of race, culture, gender, memory and expanding registers of freedom – much like her other forms of public writing and academic interests. 

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Umyalelo wentombi” moulds a feminist idiom to respond to contextual lessons of feminine hygiene, comportment and religion. After highlighting the vigilance demanded by “proper feminine embodiment” in patriarchal settings, Masola elevates wayward women’s failures and choices through odes to unruly femininities in Isifebe (The Whore) and Iintombi ezilala emini (Women Who Sleep During Daytime). This feminine unruliness is represented through a cocktail of tenderness and humour. In stark contrast to the patriarchal treatment of transgression through lenses of correction and punishment, Masola invites her reader to relish such women’s irregular behaviours. 

Uthando” spotlights inherited traditions, structures and languages of love as simultaneously affirming, confusing and restricting. Masola explores the meeting places of love and religion, revisits communal rituals and their ideologies of love, the trials of romantic love and taboo affections, and holds up love as the battle against erasure, in line with thinking of love in political as well as personal ways. The poems in this section mine valuable traditions of individual and collective care while chiselling away at the burdensome bits.

Artistic genius

The speakers in Masola’s poems map post-apartheid disillusionment – rendered as collective heartbreak – in “Apha”. Here, in thematically coherent and stylistically sophisticated verse, Masola is at her most literary: a lyric crashes against a haiku, a shape poem dances on the page, an incantation follows on from a dirge, then a disturbing encounter with free verse. And on it goes, as Masola demonstrates poetically the breadth of her artistic genius. 

In the sad puzzle poem Rayi-Rayi, Masola inverts the playful, humorous mood “rayi-rayi” usually invokes. There is delightfully clever wordplay as the riddle is solved – to reveal a devastating answer made even more so by the poet’s loyal rendering of the literary structure of a rayi-rayi here. 

Ikaka hints at Chumani Maxwele’s faeces-throwing at the statue of Cecil John Rhodes on UCT’s upper campus, and literary uses of the rhetoric of disgust in novels by Ayi Kweyi Armah and Dambudzo Marechera or the plays of Zakes Mda. Yet Masola’s older woman speaker is written through anticipatory heartbreak rather than the reactive disappointment we are accustomed to in the literary traditions espoused in such work. In part, Ikaka is Masola’s commentary on recurring preoccupations in the African literary canon in English. Yet, the mood is isikizi – empathic shame – rendered entirely ngesiXhosa (in isiXhosa). 

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Equally striking are Masola’s stylistic choices in depictions of material and psychic homelessness in Ngobani aba?, irony in the poem Apha and confusion over one Covid-19 announcement by President Cyril Ramaphosa in UMongameli

In her preface (Intshayelelo), Masola writes “Le mibongo ndiyibhalela intombi endakhe ndayiyo”, which translates to “I write these poems to/for the girl I once was”. Traces of this girl show her multiple relationships to self, socialised into proper religious heterosexuality in the opening poem Umyalelo wentombi, while unable to recite her full ancestral poem, or “clan names”, in Coconut, where she is also caught between the demands of a private school education that insists on the exclusivity of English-language conceptual capacity, on the one hand, and a mother who refuses to surrender her to this world, on the other.

Resisting displacement

Ukunyamalaliswa (Being Disappeared) complicates notions of erasure as previous generations of southern African women are shown pushing against the dictates of the different eras under which they live(d). What comes into view are trans-generational strategies of resisting displacement evident in the work of Nontsizi Mgqwetho, Noni Jabavu and Miriam Tlali as well as pioneering, difficult women like VNM Swaartbooi, whose “first” status did not guarantee them an enduring place in history. There is brilliance in poetic form here, but seldom deference. Masola’s wordsmithery presents Ukuzilanda (Lineage), Imbali (Narrative), OoMama Bomthandazo (Praying Mothers) and Incoko (Talk), her feminist origin poems, ancestral songs and literary history. 

Masola’s layered treatments of canon, language, form and aesthetics bring to mind the words of the late, great Native American feminist literary scholar and novelist Paula Gunn Allen – “we write into and out of traditions” – in her framing introduction to Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women

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Gunn Allen was writing about Native American women’s literary antecedents across precolonial, colonial and 20th-century registers. In a linked vein, Masola’s inherited traditions multiply, foisted on her, bequeathed on her, hidden from her and written on her very skin. They include the ones used to discipline her brain and, unsuccessfully, her imagination. 

In a southern African context where tradition, heritage and culture are often used against women, Masola’s project brings us face to face with the question: what can an African feminist make with the resources of cultural legacy? 

Ilifa becomes legacy, the tradition she writes into, and collective memory invested with a generative conceptual capacity not conventionally associated with the word. As a collection, it deliberately stakes claims on space across geography and time. Fluent in multiple aesthetic traditions, stylistically mobile and conceptually daring, Masola’s debut collection is a breakthrough in South African literary and feminist writing.

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