Writing your own way during 16 Days of Activism – Sindiswa Busuku-Mathese    
Wed, 24 November 2021

Every year on 25 November, South Africans commence 16 Days of Activism to end violence against women and children. As the call to “be an activist” is sounded, we turn to poetry as a uniquely powerful tool for transformation. The AVBOB Poetry Project aligns with this initiative by featuring award-winning writer, Sindiswa Busuku, who is committed to caring about the ethics of writing about trauma. Her views offer valuable insights and encouragement to survivors needing to voice their own experiences.

Sindiswa Busuku is an award-winning writer whose Loud and Yellow Laughter (Botsotso, 2016) won the 2018 Ingrid Jonker Prize for a poetry debut. This fascinating and boundary-breaking text looks at the violence done to women, including psychological and financial injuries. It’s a naked, brave, open and open-hearted text that tackles human anguish and alienation in a cross-genre collage of photographs, lists, fragments of documents, prose and poetry. It’s a powerful text that speaks of suffering, survival and the transformative power of bearing witness through writing.
Sindiswa names local poets whose experimental poetry have influenced her own exploration: Liesl Jobson, Colleen Higgs, Gail Dendy, Makhosazana Xaba, Rustum Kozain, Karen Press, Toast Coetzer, Gabeba Baderoon and Kobus Moolman, her MA supervisor and friend. “Internationally, Ann Carson’s NOX, Roberto Bolaño’s The Romantic Dogs, and Tadeusz Różewicz’s Mother Departs were key works that inspired me, but it didn’t stop at poetry… music, film, all the arts played their part,” she says.
Finuala Dowling’s Notes from the Dementia Ward helped Sindiswa think about how to write across generations into time zones and geographies before she was born. “Many narratives that stirred my creative work preceded my birth as gaps and omissions, as silences and traumas, yet they faintly reverberate in the room,” she says.
“I wrote these characters as composites or assemblages; the characters are not strictly auto/biographical. I didn’t ever set out to write trauma through poetry – what I wanted was to find a language for things caught in the body. When I was writing, I knew I was leaning into painful, tender, buried things, things that had their histories and vocabularies, yet I also learnt, as I was writing, that some things can never be fully resolved or settled – that I must be watchful of romanticising writing.  Some things can’t be touched or cast out – they will always be in the room looking back...” she volunteers.
Little Girl Portraits is a lyrical prose poem that hints at the haunting presences of longing and abandonment, delivering a powerful, visceral impact.
And while I thought, the voice crept higher, till it reached the corners of my mouth. And I knew then there was neither escape, nor suffocation, nor death. That when the voice of a mother finally comes for you, you stop waiting at the front door, moving with a rhythm, swinging in a chair. And you give away your muteness for a moment to talk in the sun. To help her gather butterflies torn in half by the weight of her absence.
Sindiswa considers the ethics of writing trauma, saying, “I believe it’s healthy to care about the authorial ethics of your work – to think about writing with care, respect and sensitivity, yet not being held hostage by the past or veracity. I worried about representing trauma and held the responsibility at the forefront of my thinking, yet without wanting to stifle the writing.”
She found it important to think about how she represented the histories of those who are unable to respond to how they’ve been represented. She continues, “Fragments of many lives have been arranged into words… and I wanted to do that sensitively and delicately without abandoning the emotional truth of the writing. It requires a lot of introspection!”
Sindiswa believes that prizes like the AVBOB Poetry Prize have merit. “I remember how the Ingrid Jonker Prize created interest in my work and widened the circle of readers, it helped the work spread into all sorts of places. After winning, my inbox was suddenly very full. The prize money was nice, but the real beauty of winning was the number of people who started reading and reaching out,” says Sindiswa.

“Another fascinating moment was the response of fellow black womxn writers. Many stopped me and said, ‘You may not downplay this moment! You’re the first black womxn to win this award, so it’s a moment for all of us in this space.’ That was true! That literary moment was much bigger than me, and I got over myself – because although I was the first, I knew I didn’t want to be the last. That whole moment made some of us ask: ‘Why has it taken this long for a black womxn writer to be recognised?’”
Sindiswa encourages new poets to take the time to listen deeply and hear their own voices. “Write the way that only you can write and nurture the voice you have. Don’t try to be anything other than who you are.” She offers poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, Wopko Jensma and Jolyn Phillips as examples of artists who speak in ways that are distinct to themselves.

“When we think about womxn writing in the 16 Days of Activism, I would say it’s important to listen and nurture your voice, to work with your own tongue and rhythms, and the sentence structures you know. We all have much to learn, so keep reading. Keep finding the words that nourish and jolt you. Then, tell the story your own way.”
In the final days of the fifth AVBOB Poetry competition, poets are encouraged to write their own stories of emerging through life’s challenges and submit their poems before 23:59 on 30 November. Find the rules of the competition and register online at Poets may enter up to 10 poems in any of the 11 official languages.