Koleka Putuma uses her work to confront the difficult and sometimes taboo issues of Black people in South Africa. Her aim is to heal through this exploration. And she doesn’t care if she offends you in the process. “When we look at the country—but not only the country, in our families as well—you kind of realize that when you don’t grieve or when you don’t heal from something, collectively, as a group, or as people, things come back,” she told between10and5.com. “There’s a cycle. And even if you try and slip into a kind of amnesia, if you have not dealt with something, in one way or another, it’s gonna return.”
The South African poet-playwright is breaking that cycle, namely, through her debut anthology of poetry Collective Amnesia. Released last April, the book and accompanying photography by Andiswa Mkosi thread together themes of “blackness, womxnhood, history, justice, visibility, trauma, healing, grief, memory, joy, sex, self-care, love and most of all the fight against amnesia,” Putuma shared with Marie Claire’s. But in keeping with the title of the collection, not everyone is ready to take that journey. In line with the amnesia Putuma writes and performs about, she has received negative feedback.
After a 2015 TEDx event in Stellenbosch, South Africa, where she performed three poems, the event organizers approached her with the intent to remove the polarizing poem ‘WATER’ from video of her talk in order to appease the offended. Nevertheless, she persisted. In a statement to the organizers, she wrote, “I feel that suggesting to remove/cut the last poem “WATER” from my talk, in order for TEDx to upload the video, is an act of diminishing my time, craft and intellect...Through this suggestion you subject artists such as myself, who speak openly and honestly about black pain, and stench of colonialism which still lingers and breathes in our city, to artistic oppression.”
That uncompromising fearlessness is not self-sustained. From Audre Lorde and Miriam Makeba to Zethu Dlomo and Yrsa Daley-Ward, Putuma looks to her peers and predecessors for support and inspiration. When asked her favorite poem in Collective Amnesia, her response: “‘Lifeline’. It’s a list of all the womxn who have made me believe that it is possible to be alive and brilliant and unapologetic in my body and existence.”