The poet discusses Africa Writes and shares a poem from her new publication, Small Inheritances


Writer, sound artist and educator Belinda Zhawi is a compelling draw at this year’s Africa Writes literary festival at the British Library. She takes part in its launch event, Our Bodies Speak Poetry, an evening of performance on Friday 7 July that will see poets and storytellers, both emerging and established, address the body as both a vehicle for resistance and a site of possibilities.

Zhawi was born in Zimbabwe and moved to London aged 12. She studied at Westminster and Goldsmiths and went on to be a 2015/16 London Laureate and the 2016/17 Institute of Contemporary Arts Associate Poet. She’s the co-founder of community and performance platform BORN::FREE, which has been going strong for over five years, and this year she’s the Serpentine Gallery Schools Artist-in-Residence. In addition, Zhawi recently published the poetry pamphlet Small Inheritances (Ignitionpress, 2018) and is currently exploring new avenues in London’s jazz and beatmaking scene.

Her work examines, among other things, the impact of colonialism across Africa, her memories and ideas of Zimbabwe, the immigrant experience in Britain and the power of the Shona woman to be present and to make space for others to be represented, too. Here she talks to Nataal about her new projects and shares a poem.

In what ways does the theme of the Africa Writes event, Our Bodies Speak Poetry, resonate with you?
It's an interesting theme because it's highly explored in my work. The focus is on the physical body itself, as well as the mental and spiritual body. I'm interested in the relationship of these three aspects in relation to geographies. What does it mean for your bodies to come from more than one place? How does the body decide it has found home?

How is your practice developing and what current avenues are you exploring?
It's a really exciting time for my practice. I have been dedicating a lot of time to writing for sound whether it be soundscapes, electronic or live music. I feel an excitement I felt as a much younger writer where the possibilities felt endless. I recently bought an SP404SX sampler, which is simply changing the game for me – I’m learning so much! It's also been interesting to see how that has been coupling up with my educational practice and I am currently going deeper with this as part of my residency with Serpentine Galleries' schools department.

What projects are you working on next?
I have been working in collaboration with NTS for the ICA x BBC New Creatives scheme on a sound project which combines field recordings, poetry and voice distortion and explores themes of home and displacement. I look forward to developing this project beyond the scheme and hopefully it can have a live element. I'm still doing loads of readings around the city and slightly panicking about starting the next book!

rye lane (foul ecstasy) by Belinda Zhawi

black girls don’t do drugs
said the bouncer
at Bussey,
without searching
me. Well, let
me tell it, some
of us sit smug
in our youth.
Full of white
silver powders
in cold smoking
areas, waiting
for the come up
to hit us;
chase the cold
that’s set in
our bones.

We gurn
on hand rolled cigs;
pray for the peak.
Our mouths dressed,
tongues, the taste
of the foul
curdled in our
gums. We sink in
this. Buzzed smiles
under drooped eyes
sharpened towards
blue lights
which flood the wet
dance floor.

Our skins
stay open, each
touch from the bass
sending us
in upward spirals
of bright starlight.

We beg
the night not
to end, plead
with it to spend
its morning cloaked
in darkness.
We want to stay
alive in
this wide blackness
our pupils
become; in this ache
of clenched jaws.

Africa Writes is at The British Library, London from 5 to 7 July 2019. Read our full preview here. Our Bodies Speak Poetry is Friday 5 from 7 to 9pm


Photography Theo Ndlovu

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Published on 03/07/2019