By CityLife Arts Writer
What will people remember about the way we live now a hundred, two hundred years from now?
In a world where most people’s lives remain largely unrecorded, one of the most important things poetry can do is to bear witness and do the work of memory.
As South Africans prepare to celebrate Women’s Day on 9 August, the AVBOB Poetry Project is featuring the work of Khadija Heeger – poet, performer, social activist and historian. Her second volume of poetry, Thicker than Sorrow, was published by Modjaji Books in 2022. Aryan Kaganof memorably described it as “poetry from the marrow.”
Heeger chronicles her own coming of age among dispossessed people whose culture was traditionally undervalued and misrepresented. With care and compassion, she sets the record straight by uncovering their rich and complex lives. She says, “Throughout my work, the refrain remains the same: see, you have been lied to. See how beautiful you are in all your colours.”
Crafting these poems has also given her an opportunity to reassess her own personal history. She describes coming
“…from loose tongued women who speak their minds
and drink beer with men under oak trees on a Saturday afternoon;
where the politics of what was proper fell short of the doorstep.”
This celebration of the women in her family, who raised and nurtured her, is at the heart of the anthology. These were women “too strong for their own good”. Even the God they worshiped was “fiery and tremendous”. Often silenced or excluded because of their outspokenness, they nevertheless provided Heeger with role models for a life as an artist and activist.
“Society tells such humans they are fallen, inadequate. Many of the women in my family were unconventional. Me, I have no choice but to be who I am.” She is determined to write more about these women, and calls this book “a love story dedicated to my community and to any human who remains unseen, unrecognised, displaced, dispossessed. I see you.”
In a poem called ‘Koesieste’, Heeger finds a touching metaphor for community in the face of hardship. This sweetmeat, beloved by many, becomes an image for “300 years of unrecorded history”. She writes, “Koesiestes have travelled, filled homes, sat at our tables, have been part of conversations, been guests at weddings and funerals… They are not simply something sweet that we like to eat. They have the ability to transport us. They are keepers of memory, family trees, voyages, bloodlines.”
This deliberate uncovering of difficult history takes courage. In one poem she writes that she “cannot say too much without the sky falling in”. But the rewards of such risk-taking are clearly apparent in the poems themselves. By the end of the anthology, she is able to hail her mother and sister as “women whose arms hold the entire world” and to tell them:
“I am a tall climb of a tree
Because you planted me so lovingly…”
Heeger is moved by the ways friends and strangers alike have resonated with her work. “I wanted the poems to speak to humanness and belonging. To the magic and quiet, sometimes monstrous beauty of the ordinary. With this collection, I am struck by a softness, a calmness even in the poems that hurtle energy like stones through the air. They are clear, focused and unabashed. As the first poem in the book clearly says, my love makes me speak. I come from this.”
The AVBOB Poetry Competition reopened on 1 August 2023. Visit our website regularly at https://www.avbobpoetry.co.za/ for editing tips, advice and updates about upcoming workshops.