Q&A with Poet, Writer and Academic Gabeba Baderoon

06 May 2015
Gabeba Baderoon

Gabeba Baderoon is a poet, writer and academic. She has published several poetry collections including The Dream in the Next Body (2005), The Museum of Ordinary Life (2005) and A hundred silences (2006). The Silence Before Speaking, a volume of her poetry translated into Swedish, was published in 2008 and in 2014 she published the monograph Regarding Muslims: from slavery to post-apartheid.

In 2005, Baderoon received the Daimler Chrysler Award for South African Poetry and held a Guest Writer Fellowship at the Nordic Africa Institute. In 2008, she was the recipient of a Civitella Ranieri Foundation Fellowship in Italy and a Writers Residency at the University of the Witwatersrand.

A hundred silences was shortlisted for the 2007 University of Johannesburg Prize and the 2007 Olive Schreiner Prize. Gabeba’s short story “The Year of Sleeping Badly” was selected as one of the Best Short Stories of South Africa’s Democracy in 2014. Regarding Muslims has been longlisted for the 2015 Sunday Times Alan Paton Award.

Gabeba teaches Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and African Studies at Pennsylvania State University and is a member of the PEN South Africa board and the African Poetry Book Fund editorial board.

Favourite South African novel / poem?

David’s Story by Zoë Wicomb, and “How to write about Indonesia” by Rustum Kozain.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m currently working on a book called Public Privacies on South African autobiographies that link religion and sexuality, and a poetry collection tentatively titled Axis and Revolution.

Favourite part of the writing and publishing process?

If you work on your writing despite the difficulty of it, occasionally during the long slog there is an epiphany that feels like a piercing joy. Then sending it off.

Any characters (yours or another writer’s) that have stuck with you?

The wandering writer in Nadia Davids’ An Imperfect Blessing, the dream that passes between two dying lovers in Zoë Wicomb’s David’s Story, and the silent, furious Sila who seeds names and poems into the soil in Yvette Christiansë’s Unconfessed.

Any advice / tips for writers starting out?

Two apparently contradictory acts: 1. gather a good group of fellow writers with whom you can share time, generous reading and one another’s work, and 2. nurture your own stubborn ear. And rest and take solace in reading.

Hardest part of the writing and publishing process?

The most bruisable part of you is also the part that enables you to write, so dealing with the vulnerability of writing is the most difficult aspect of the process.

South African writers, poets or books that have made an impact on you?

All my teachers, from nursery school onward. Rustum Kozain, who turned the world I knew, my world, into poems, in his books, readings and even emails. Before then, poetry was about impossible, unreachable places. Makhosazana Xaba’s incantations and love poems, in These Hands, and Tongues of Their Mothers.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’m rereading The Kanga and the Kangaroo Court by Mmatshilo Motsei for an essay I’m writing – and am reminded of what an exemplary work of feminist writing and activism it is.

If you had to pick one book or poem to give to all South Africans to read what would it be?

Mzwandile Matiwana’s I Lost A Poem, Deep South Books

Any other genres that you’re interested in trying your hand at?

Poetry and criticism are more than enough, but I dream of writing more prose. Perhaps biography and perhaps memoir.

Proudest moment of your writing career?

Finishing any piece of writing.

Favourite quote from a book / poem?

I love a poem called “Sea” by Mxolisi Nyezwa – like him, I was born in the Eastern Cape, and I find his writing about the ocean intensely alluring.

“the sea is so heavy inside us
and i won’t sleep tonight.
i have buckets of memory in a jar
that i keep for days and nights like these.”

From “Sea” by Mxolisi Nyezwa, in his collection Song Trials (2000).

(Photo of Gabeba courtesy of Adine Sagalyn)