Poet Kayo Chingonyi on Grief, Masculinity and the Limits of Language

Kayo Chingonyi
Kayo Chingonyi | © Naomi Woddis

UK Books Editor

Born in Zambia and raised in the UK, Kayo Chingonyi’s poetry explores notions of loss, belonging, identity and masculinity. Following an evening celebrating the shortlisted writers for the Swansea University International Dylan Thomas Prize at the British Library, we sat down with Chingonyi to discuss his collection of poems Kumukanda.

Culture Trip: Kumukanda, directly translated as ‘initiation’, refers to the ceremonial rites of passage that boys of the Luvale tribe in Zambia must go through to become adults. You moved to England when you were very young and so missed out on this experience. What was your kumukanda?

Kayo Chingonyi: I think in the book several things stand in for that singular moment of transition. For me the particular things have to do with an awareness of mortality that came to me comparatively young. So I guess grief and bereavement have been central to my notion of adulthood. Losing people in my family has given me a perspective that is focused on getting the most I can out of life – not in a capitalistic sense, more in the sense of love and connection and kinship with people. So there’s an intensity with which I’ve approached certain things.

I’ve been writing poetry since I was about 10 years old and it’s been something that I’ve always done. And so I guess writing is another thing, in that it’s through writing that I’ve read lots of the stuff that I love and which has inspired and expanded my understanding of the world. It begins with grief and then moves into writing, those are my points of initiation into the kind of self that I inhabit now, or the selves I inhabit now. But I think also there’s something crucial about the book which is that it reflects on the ways in which somebody’s selfhood is a continual process.

KC: I come from a multilingual understanding really. My entire life has had different languages threaded through it. And so there’s a sense in which Zambia is never remote in that sense, because Zambian words, Zambian food, Zambian culture are a big part of who I am as a person and what constitutes my home life.

The ways in which I feel distant are to do with the shifts, the shifts that come from moving from one place to another and the kind of access to certain things that that gives you. So sometimes I feel a distance from a very particular version of myself which may be thought of as more authentically part of Luvale or Bemba or Zambian culture. But I also think about how Zambia is a number of different cultures covered under one umbrella, and about the ways Zambian people are all over the world, expanding the notion of what ‘Zambian-ness’ is. In those moments I feel very close to my Zambian identity because it’s an identity which is open to other influences as indeed living in Zambia, various influences inform the ways in which people carry themselves, how they speak, the music they listen to, the language and slang they use.

When you leave somewhere you also affirm some of its very particular tropes and cultural norms, as a kind of nostalgic project to begin with, and then it becomes a very real kind of longing which you will always carry, for this home place which maybe never really existed. At various moments I felt distant, but lately I’m starting to feel more integrated in who I am and which cultures I belong to and how they speak to each other.

Kayo Chingonyi

CT: In the poems this idea of speaking in a tongue that isn’t yours is really powerful. I also wondered to what extent that refers to a more philosophical dimension, to the idea of language as something we can never truly own?

KC: When you participate in any kind of writing you’re confronted with this fact – or feeling – that language is in some shape or form incomplete. That it gestures towards things and sometimes it calls things into being, but it calls things into being on a kind of cerebral plane. And I suppose texts, poems, stories, novels can be things in themselves but quite often they refer to things which is one of the qualities of language which reminds us that it is unfinished, that it refers always as a constant mode of reference.

That’s one of the most interesting things about language, that it’s constantly gesturing towards something that it can’t express, and yet we still use it to express. I find that kind of central tension very generative to my writing. And so, the observation you had around ownership of language and language as a common stock is very much something behind that poem and the poems in the book certainly.

CT: Music and dance both play a huge role in the book, perhaps as a way to pick up from where language falls down. Could you say more about the inclusion of these different artistic forms?

KC: Music is a way of organising sound into a kind of system of feeling. And I suppose feeling is something that can exist inside the body, and feeling can be explored through dance. Both music and dance in the forms that I appreciate the most, have a very bodily concern, they’re concerned with the ways in which we move through the world in our bodies. And the thing about music is that it’s physical vibration, it acts on the body, and dance is taking that action and responding with an action of one’s own. So, both music and dance are threaded through my work because they come out of this experience of the world as a bodily existence rather than just a cerebral one, or at least, they think of the cerebral as being also bodily. They ground some of what I’m trying to do in my poems in the body.

CT: There’s this lovely image of the battered, old Walkman in ‘Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee’ and ‘Guide to Proper Mixtape Assembly’. It felt very nostalgic for a time where Walkmans were a way to show your artistic devotion. To what extent is this also a dig at the ease with which people can claim to perform artistic devotion today?

KC: I think if I’m digging anyone, it’s also me. If I’m levelling any criticism, it’s also at me for shifting from an understanding of music which was listening to it on a physical format on cassette, on tape, on vinyl and shifting to a very easy interaction with art that people spent a long time writing and spend money recording. Buying things, music particularly, in a physical format honours the process by which it was made. But in the poems, I was merely critiquing mostly myself and my generation who had access to tapes, had access to CDs and vinyl, who in a kind of wholesale fashion started to think of those as old formats and went to the new ones immediately. So I was just trying to look at the continuities of certain forms. In being nostalgic, I was also thinking about the ways in which we lose certain things in the quest for a kind of capitalist progress which is always about selling us something that is new and so whenever we buy into what is new, we maybe lose something which we were devoted to. If we buy into the new thing, then things are just arbitrary. But if we settle on a thing and grow to love it and really nurture it – and that thing is really intentionally owned and intentionally a part of our lives – then I think something special happens.
CT: I want to talk a little bit about masculinity. In the poem ‘Kumukanda’ there’s this that very profound image of the hug you wanted from your father, that ended up being a handshake. I wondered from where you’ve drawn your ideas around masculinity?

KC: I’ve been processing certain questions around masculinity for some time, just in a certain unease in some of the images I was presented with in order to belong and present as a man. As time went on I started to question some of those, and it’s in that questioning that I’ve moved into looking and studying feminism and being part of feminist programmes. There was a project which started deconstructing certain elements of masculinity and working with young men and boys which Sarah Perry (author of Let Me Be Like Water) started. The remit of the programme was to get a group of men to interact with gender equality and feminism and to engage our young men and boys in that conversation. To get those young men and boys to ask questions about why it is that masculinity in the wider consciousness has to do with certain performances of violence, the defence of one’s self against shame, that masculinity is tied up with sexual violence, is tied up with risk taking, is tied up with all of these things. There was no such programme for me as a young man, so participating in it and being somebody who was supposed to share knowledge and start discussions also opened up conversations for me through both training and participating in the programme.

CT: Writing is such a powerful way to address these issues as so much is premised on silence, not just the silencing of women but men staying silent because they have so much to gain from not changing the way things are. So I think the act of giving things language cannot be overestimated.

KC: One of the central problems you encounter with men socialised in those stereotypical notions of masculinity, is that giving language to things is one of the most difficult processes. Having a language for things, giving things words is an antidote to shame. And shame can be a very damaging place to act from. The antidote to shame is self-knowledge and a kind of patience which comes from thinking things through, and language is helpful to that process. If I can give words to something then I have a discussion, and if I have a discussion I can move from the shameful place that I’m in to a different place, to a more nuanced understanding or an understanding of some kind. There can be no healing unless you confront things in that way, if you open them out to conversation, dialogue.

CT: There are a couple of poems, ‘Casting’ and ‘Callbacks’ that ironically explore how the world casts you as a particular type. Though often in the media I read about you as a poet of resistance, and that too seems to essentialise something. And I wonder how that identity – as a poet of residence – resonates with you?

KC: I think I do resist stereotypes in a sense or perceived tropes. But that’s not all that I’m concerned with. I’m also concerned with universal questions of love and loss and belonging and various things which can be understood by almost anybody. In the sense that those things are open, they come out of human experience, experiences that we all have at some point.

That kind of notion of resistance is an easy thing to focus attention on in describing what my work does, but I think if you interact with the notion it resists being placed in one category then that’s viewing the work in the ways it was created. And it’s that openness I’m hoping people have for the work to find its tributaries and various resonances, some of which they might feel really closely and some of which they might not understand on a referential level. I do resist certain things up to and including this notion that I’m a poet of resistance.

CT: Finally, what are you reading at the moment?

KC: I’ve been reading lots of poems as part of working as an editor for The White Review. I read a number of poems and so am open to different ways that poems can be. At the moment I’m reading Will Harris’ book Mixed-Race Superman,which is a single essay about mixed-raceness and cultural icons that people have. It’s a really interesting essay, and the ways in which it aligns with Will’s poetry are really moving to me.

Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi is published by Chatto & Windus, £10.

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