How do I find my voice? Who do I ask? A spaza-shop lady owner at the middle of the end of her road? “Dumela mama, do you know how I can find my voice?”. Do I ask the spotie wearing taxi driver at the beginning of my trip? “Sawubona baba, ngi lahlekile, where can I find my voice?”


I journeyed around asking for the exact address where my voice could be housed. I realized that, the deeper I searched for my voice, the more I began to understand that, it is more of the process that leads to the discovery of one’s voice.

My father, Matsemela Manaka, reverberates the pieces of my search in his book, Echoes of African Art: “Making art is more important than the finished product…it is some form of a ritual. A spiritual obsession that becomes some kind of a religion…”[1]

On the quest for understanding my process to producing art, I found myself walking barefoot on a bed of sharp and rusted nails. Living on the edge of oblivion. Making art from the toenail of a cliff, and trying to make sense of everything … how to sky dive from the mountaintop of self?

French poet Arthur Rimbaud echoes my sentiments on the processes in which the artist has to undertake, in order for him/herself to get to the core of what they are communicating in or through their art,” … This is an unspeakable torture during which he needs all his faith and superhuman strength” [2].

I was disappointed to find out that I am only human, and that my superhuman strength only extended on paper and canvas. I was admitted into hospital for two weeks after an intense year of trying to find my voice. During that year, it was as if I was possessed by what Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca calls duende [3]. Stripping down my human form, undressing all of myself to be naked on the canvas and on stage.

But I pushed too far. I was painting in the early hours of the morning, and then I would quickly have to prepare myself for a shoot or a voice over, and then ready myself for stage. During all that madness outside of my duende, I found myself loosing the meaning of what is art, and placing myself in compromising situations where my voice was becoming banal.

I found myself constantly asking myself, ‘who’s reality am I mirroring?’ because my soul was fed up with how society expects the artist to mirror reality, and yet, that very same society pushes the artist so far from their selves, to a point the artist now produces mediocre work only to entertain that same society, and fill up the stomach. How do you stay true to your voice when reality pressures artists on what they should produce?

Kathy Acker in The Killers, [4] points out the effect reality has on writing, and how realism in writing can deprive the writer’s imagination:
“Realism doesn’t want to negotiate, open into, even, know, chaos or death, because those who practice realism want to limit their readers…’I am the one’ says the realistic writer. ‘I am telling you reality”.

After going through the introduction to Extreme Fiction edited by Robin Hemley and Michael Martone [5], which looked at the breakdowns of which category any writing should fall under, I found myself looking for a lighter and having the urge to burn the book.

I felt as though, in order for my voice to sound authentic, I have to be boxed, labeled and then categorized into a group of either, Fabulist or Formalist. Can I just not do what Biko did, and ‘write what I like’? [5] Why do we have to be concerned with where the voice belongs or where it fits in, as opposed to feeling the sentiments expressed by that voice?

I want to pull down these walls that categorize and label my art. Break down the form to reveal the true nature of the art, strip the car down to its engine.

And I have seen people go through extreme levels of inner turmoil to find the sculpture in the wood. In a conversation I had a long time ago with a friend of mine, a fellow artist, about what he goes through every time he writes, he said, “I lose a pound of blood every time I write”.

12th Century Chinese poet Yan Wan-Li says:
“a man doesn’t go in search of a poem
      The poem comes in search of him” [7]

It slowly became clear to me – the extreme levels of intense processes we all go through for the poem to find us.

I never understood why my father would work on his typewriter in the dead of night, during the bewitching hours of the morning. I never understood until now, that in the silence of solitude, the universe is loud, and it is at that point, that all of you is naked, and that’s where duende is:
“Through the empty archway a wind of spirit enters, blowing insistently over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents: a wind with the odor of a child’s saliva, crushed grass, and Medusa’s veil, announcing the endless baptism of freshly created things.”[8]

The process of finding one’s voice is somewhat that – to tell something that has been captured and imprisoned within.

I listened to Zim Ngqawana’s song, Resolution, and after listening to the song for the first time then read the title on the sleeve, after the song was done, I had what alcoholics call a moment of clarity; art is truly every child’s birthright. The song opened my gates and flooded my space with vulnerability, taking me through a rollercoaster of emotions that I once tried to bury. How was Zim able to say so much with so few instruments? Every time I listen to the song, I feel like I’m not myself.

At this exact moment, I was lost. Where can I find my voice?


Aimé Césaire writes, in Poetry and Knowledge:
“The music of poetry cannot be external or formal. The only acceptable poetic music comes from a greater distance than sound…” [9]

So I cannot talk about the process of making art without talking about the background of where that distant sound comes from. The closest reference and most personal to me are my parents. Where did they find the time to raise a family and still make time to produce art?

Almost every Sunday morning, my father would be up very early, playing Malombo very loud, listening to his ‘distant sound’ in front of a canvas, with a glass of red wine. And even when things  got so rough that the fridge would sing of emptiness, my father continued to search for his duende.

It was the look in his eyes I cannot forget, when he walked in from his studio and saw his family ‘…lose their minds in the marshes of hunger [10], and dropped everything and went to go borrow some money from his friends or family, so we could eat.

Art life is no easy life when you have children. This is the reality many artists find themselves in, outside of their search. During my parents’ tours overseas, my brother and I were raised by grandmother, and after my wall accident, only my mother returned but for my father, it was the thought of his son almost dying and his hidden truths, that he felt it was his fault my accident happened.

This drove the man to total self-imprisonment. His last years were spent in search of sanity, inside the bottomless pit of solitude. At that point in his life, even art could not save him.

Coming to this realization after 10 years of hating my father, I tried to write the hate out of me. After my first book was published, many reviews came with different headings yet many of them articulated the same sentiments; ‘Poetry born out of Pain’. Was it pain that wrote my voice? Looking back now, I think it was more than just pain.

3rd Century Chinese poet Lu Ji makes it clear in not so many words, “Sometimes words come hard – they resist me” [11]

I now know that we are all in constant struggles to finding our own voices. After writing this, I realized how much I am nowhere near finding my voice; I am still waiting for the poem to come in search of me.

I think the day I find my voice will be the day I die, because what happens after I find my voice? How will I write without sounding the same? Will I still have my duende? After I find my voice, will I have to give up the word? And begin searching for my sound on what South African musician Johnny Dyani calls “the devil’s ribs” [12].

Some questions are easy to ask but tough to answer, though somehow South African poet Lesego Rampolokeng comes close to making me understand this journey, my search: “There are other struggles that are as important as the political one. There is the struggle for all of us to be born and the struggle to grow up. And the struggle not to die.” [13]

Reference list:

  1. Matsemela Manaka [1956-1998] Echoes of African Art. First published by Skotaville Publishers 1987, second edition published by Mutloatse Arts Heritage Trust 2007.
  2. Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891) from Letter to Paul Demeny, 1871
  3. Federico Garcia Lorca [1898-1936], The Theory and Play of The duende, translated by A. Kline 2007.
  4. Kathy Acker, The Killers, in Burger, M. et al. Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative. Coach House Press, 2004
  5. “Introduction” by Robin Hemley and Michael Martone, in Hemley, R. and Martone, M. (eds) Extreme Fiction: Fabulists and Formalists. Pearson Education Inc. 2004
  6. Steve Biko [1946-1977], I write What I Like first published in African Writers Series, 1977
  7. Yang Wan Li, 12th Century Chinese Poet
  8. Federico Garcia Lorca [1898-1936], The Theory and Play of The duende, translated by A. Kline 2007.
  9. Aime Cesaire [1913-2008] Poetry and Knowledge 1944
  10. Aime Cesaire [1913-2008] Return To My Native Land translated by John Berger and Anya Bostock, Steerforth Press, 2014. Copywrite date: 1969
  11. Lu Ji 3rd Century Chinese poet. From The Art of Writing: Teachings of Chinese Masters. Translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping. Shambhala, 1996
  12. Johnny Dyani [1945-1986] interview with Aryan Kaganof 1985, The Forest and The Zoo in Chimurenga | Chronic. 2013
  13. Lesego Rampolokeng in an interview with Robert Berold, South African Poets on Poetry: Interviews from New Coin 1992-2001, ed Robert Berold. Gecko Poetry 2003


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