Xhosa poet challenges rigidity of language in SALA win

First prize for “A Naked Bone”

A Rhodes university creative writing graduate won a national poetry award with his isiXhosa book Ndisabhala Imibongo at the South African Literary awards last week.

Ndisabhala Imibongo, an anthology of isiXhosa poems by Mangaliso Buzani, won the Poetry Award at the South African Literary Awards on 7 November alongside Charl-Pierre Naude and Bishop MT Makobe, who write in Afrikaans and Sepedi respectively.

The title of the anthology means ‘I still write poetry’, which speaks to the enduring nature of creative output as well as the challenges faced by indigenous languages in an English-centric literary industry.

This debut work is full of dreams and nostalgia as well as scenes from Buzani’s childhood in New Brighton, dealing with themes of death, love and HIV/Aids. “It was once beautiful,” the poet said, recalling the township of his youth. “I wrote about what I was seeing, some good, some bad.”

When the book was published a year ago Buzani’s publisher Mxolisi Nyezwa said that the anthology was welcome because he felt that isiXhosa is in “tatters”. Now, the poet is being celebrated for his innovative use of the language, defying old structures and the rigidity of formal isiXhosa as it is taught in schools and universities. “I was trying to come up with a new language,” Buzani said. He allows the language to breathe through his work, and the result is a debut work worthy of celebration at the South African Literary Awards.

Close to his heart is the issue of the hegemony of English in South African literature. He hopes to inspire younger people to use their own languages in creative self-expression rather than relying on English. “It’s important for people to gain the confidence to write their stories in their mother tongue languages. Your own language is a resource; it’s like a library. You know where to find things, you’re comfortable there,” he explained.

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This anthology is like an act of defiance against the constraints of Eurocentricity that defined Buzani’s early work. “My first poem was in English, and the first poem I had published was in English. This is because there are no publications that publish in any language but English or Afrikaans, except for Kotaz,,” he said.

Buzani is a graduate of the MA in Creative Writing course from Rhodes University and this anthology forms the first part of his thesis. The second part is likely to be published as well in 2015 or 2016. Published by New Coin, Carapace and Kotaz, Buzani won the 2014 DALRO New Coin first prize for his prose poem ‘a naked bone’. “I always write, I’m always working on something,” he said.

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