‘In Conversation With Mahogany L. Browne’ by Sista Zai Zanda


Photo by Shell Daruwala. Image reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

We at The Lifted Brow are presenting this conversation in support of Footscray Community Arts Centre’s phenomenal West Writers Forum 2016 program. If you like what you’ve read/heard in this conversation, come along to the One Night Stanza event at FCAC on Sunday July 22nd, 6pm–7pm, where both Mahogany L. Browne and Sista Zai Zanda will be performing alongside Candy Bowers, Bigoa, and DJ Wahe.

Introduction: I Stand as One But I Come as Ten Thousand

I first met Mahogany L. Browne when she came to Australia in 2011 as one of three poets on the Global Poetics Tour. We all need role models; and when she came to town and spread her poetry over us like the fairy dust that is #Blkgirlmagic, we all fell in love.

When I first met Mahogany, I was tongue-tied but I knew in my bones that there was something about her and her poetry that allowed me to see myself as a performance artist. As a young Black woman who had just started out on the local scene, I needed to hear a voice that spoke bravely about experiences and themes I had tucked away in my heart and only shared within the secure confines of my storytelling collective, Stillwaters.

As a Black artist I live in a time when there is an urgent need to speak out about the silently-acknowledged-and-yet-still-unspoken. Collectively unleashed, our tongues could expose systematic oppression and alter the status quo; they do say that the personal is political. Even so, I definitely still battle an inexplicable urge to self-censor and to tell ‘pretty’ and ‘uncomplicated’ stories that do not rock the white supremacist boat. We all need to stand in the physical presence of: the writer and performer who looks like us and dares break free, willfully lives liberated outside of pre-determined boxes. Mahogany taught me to honour poetry as a place to speak up, take up space and tell my truth.

Soon after that first meeting, I kept this particular track on high rotation as inspiration to dig deeper and place my honest truth on paper. I livicated the first volume of my first self-published work, Journey Back2Centre: Love. to women writers who have accompanied me on this difficult journey and pointed out the way back to self-love:

I give thanks for Stillwaters that lead me to dive deeper for wisdom and there I found XAPA, d’bi., bell, Akua, Mahogany and Alice … and the list goes on …

Black women who write, your work permanent inks my skin.

Mahogany’s poetry gave me the courage to be honest and vulnerable so that I could draw on my own inner strength to find my feet, stand my ground and speak my truth lovingly back to power.

Last Friday, I walked into the room where I met Mahogany and recorded this conversation. I arrived for our appointment with ideas that I owe to many women writers of colour: Black women whose writing has seeded ideas in my mind and heart. For those of us who know, although I do not mention their names explicitly throughout the conversation, you will feel their presence holding space in between the lines and within the pauses. You might find Xapa, a poetess from Zimbabwe who directly inspired me to reclaim myself by reclaiming the traditional cultural concept of God as a Black woman, as a loving and fierce Feminine spirit essence that ought to infuse my poetry with all the rich complexity of Black womanhood.

In that dub poem, you will hear the words ‘Black Pussy’, which I sampled from a poem by Mahogany where she reclaims the gaze and displaces misogynoir.

In any conversation about Love, I constantly refer back to bell hooks. Her trilogy on love intimately informs and inspires my own internal love revolution; and the soundtrack to my inner revolution is ‘This Mo(u)rning’ by Akua Naru who blessed me with the mantra “self-love is the very first romance”. Holding space between these lines you might also recognise d’bi.young anitafrika who taught me that performance art is a path to self-liberation. Last but not least, Alice Walker is also present as a constant reminder that the revolution for social justice begins with the self because “we are the ones we have been waiting for”.

All of these women have taught me that it is not only okay, but rather it is a necessity to write about the painful stuff – the first step towards healing is the acknowledgment and speaking of the pain.

In keeping with the idea that we need new tools—new ways of representing self—I offer the conversation to you in multiple formats. You can listen to the entire conversation here. You can also read my summary—my interpretation—of the interview below and reach your own conclusion after listening to the audio attached to each discrete section.

Many thanks to Candy Bowers for giving me her opportunity to write this review of Redbone for The Lifted Brow. It was an honour to speak with Mahogany in the lead up to her workshops, panel discussions and performances at the 2016 West Writers Forum. The full program of West Writers Forum events is available here. Mahogany and I met and recorded this interview at Footscray Community Arts Centre on Friday June 22nd 2016.

I. Encountering Pitfalls in the Daring Quest for Identity and Belonging

Not every biographer and family historian/storyteller is privileged with access to complete or accurate genealogical records. The search for roots can lead to a dead-end. How do we negotiate an impassable silence in the official written record or the verbal family record? Like towering rocky cliffs that we will never be able to climb, these silences could potentially throw the biographer into a state of denial, unspeakable frustration or saddened defeat. In a world dominated by the obsession with solid proof that is the consequence of our tacit acceptance of the ‘scientific method’ as the supreme method, suddenly, one genealogical report can throw a carefully ordered sense of self—a narrative of identity and belonging informed by verbal family record—into disarray. What do biographers from historically silenced and marginalized communities do when the dominant culture’s obsession with ‘fact’ and ‘evidence’ renders their oral record of identity and belonging a ‘lie’?

My conversation with Mahogany started with the silence and the silencing, which you can hear in the recording. We shared with each other our own experience of the collision between ‘fact’ and ‘myth’ during the process of researching and writing a family history.

II. Biomythography: Writing the Myth of the Self

In the 1980s, the intersectional feminist writer Audre Lorde created a literary genre that equally accommodates both myth and fact. Biomythography is a form that purposefully uses its own tools to carve its own path outside of the “master’s house”. Lorde recognized that the methodological pre-requisite of fact and chronological order inherent to the traditional form of biography actually served to uphold the dominant white supremacist, imperialist capitalist heteronormative patriarchy and silenced alternative voices and visions of ‘the self’:

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.

Mahogany and I spoke about Redbone, her biomythography. This poem is about love. Specifically, Redbone tells the story of the relationship between her mother her father. In this part of our conversation, Mahogany speaks about her research process, revealing the tools she used to navigate the silences; and how she fashioned literary language to create a poem out of her mother’s verbatim testimony. You will also find out what motivated her to write the story of her parents’ love relationship.

III. The Personal Is Political: the Influence of Social Forces on How We Love

True intimacy arises out of a commitment to uncompromising honesty and vulnerability. In turn, in order that we can give nuanced expression to the complete range of our emotions and thoughts, we commit to remain open to the full texture of our vast emotional landscape. Yet, in order to survive misogynoir—a world that fails to embrace Blackness in general and Black women in particular with unconditional recognition, love and respect—many of us numb our emotions or seek love in all of the wrong places. In this particular time, can we name some of the social forces that negatively influence our capacity to sustain true intimacy – to truly see, love and respect one another and our selves?

Listen in to the conversation as Mahogany shares her ideas about some of the social forces that played a role in the breakdown of her parents’ relationship. Hear why it is so vital that we listen with equal respect to both reason (intellectualism) and emotion, especially in the context of the continuing genocide that is now thrust into public view and thrust up for political and legal resolution through the activism that takes place under the umbrella of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

IV. Righteous Anger and the Angry Black Woman

As a writer, anger is the emotion that I struggle with the most. I ask Mahogany about her experience with anger and writing. We delve into the “Jedi mind trick” that perpetuates the lie that it is never okay to speak our anger. What is the function of this mind trick? How can we tell if we have fallen prey to this trick? How can we embrace and use our anger constructively, without falling prey to its potentially debilitating and corrosive effects?

Any mention of ‘Black Anger’ is also a discussion about ‘respectability politics’ – the the binary notion of the ‘un/civilised’ person and ‘un/civilised’ behaviour. Mahogany draws a parallel between continuing genocide and the self-policing or internalized racism of respectability politics. What is the impact of performing respectability on the capacity of Black people to regenerate their cultures from a space of self-love?

VI. Respectability Politics in Redbone: Women Who Transgress in the Search for Happiness

We return to Redbone and focus on the women who, apparently, reject respectability politics. Hear Mahogany reflect on how it is possible to read the character of Redbone as a woman who shunned social standards in the search for happiness. We discuss the impact of personal decisions to transgress from the heteronormative standard of a patriarchal nuclear family unit on the configuration of the ‘Black Family’ as an extended family unit comprised of kin and kith. How does this configuration of the Black Family highlight how ‘respectability politics’ is fundamentally at odds with the unique ways in which Africans in the Diaspora actively define ‘family’ as a direct consequence of impact of chattel slavery on the ability to sustain close family ties?

VII. Kin and Kith as Family: a Black People’s Global Sense of Self and the New Era Civil Rights Movement

I wonder if this extended family system is part of the reason why Black people the world over generally feel such an affinity towards one another – even a stranger. I wonder if this sense of affinity informs the sense of solidarity we feel for the #BlackLivesMatter movement?

VIII. The Poet and the Social Movement in an Era of Celebrity

In an era where every raised platform easily converts to a stage; and every stage is often confused with an opportunity for celebrity; and every celebrity champions a cause, I am always left wondering – what exactly is the role of the poet in the social movements of the 21st century? Mahogany answers my question but takes the conversation into new terrain by describing tools that the writer can use to counter the narrative of celebrity and to keep telling their truth to power despite the fear that threatens to censor us from within. She finishes by explaining that her revolution is one of Love.

IX. Radical Love: Why Every Revolution Must Start and Finish From a Place of Love

The beauty of Mahogany’s work is that she writes so exquisitely and honestly about the most painful experiences of ‘not-love’: Smudge is just one example. Earlier, she told us why she wrote the biomythography Redbone and now, she finishes off by explaining further why her work is so deeply concerned with love; and why she believes that love in its many forms is the revolution for any enduring and effective movement for social transformation. Here, we also mention some of the great Black women writers-warriors-revolutionaries for Love.

X. Self-Care and #Blkgirlmagic

I could not finish our conversation without referring to Ms. Nina Simone and the influence that this iconic singer of the Civil Rights Era had on how so many Black women, including Mahogany, who wrote a poem to Ms Simone on page eight of her book, #DearTwitter: Love Letters Hashed Out Online in 140 Characters or Less:

#dear nina simone: sing me beautiful, again and again.

We ended our discussion with mention of more incredible Black women, whose memories we evoke – the ten thousand on whose shoulders we stand even though we come as one. After excavating the pain and laying bare the fear, it was beautiful to end the conversation on that resilient note of that #Blkgirlmagic, which persists despite our daily encounters with a machine that is designed to kill us. #Blkgirlmagic is a tonic, a reminder that we have the power to transmute toxic social forces; and while the machine threatens to defeat, its genocidal attempts can also make us stronger as long as we remember that “self-love is the very first romance.”

I walked out of the Footscray Community Arts Centre with a bounce in my step, covered in the sparkle of that fairy dust that Mahogany brings.

Black women who write
Your work permanent inks my skin.

I hope I did the story proper justice, Mahogany: there are just so many textures and layers to capture when two Black women who write for the purpose of self-discovery, self-recovery and self-exploration meet and ‘Namaste’.

Sista Zai Zanda is a storyteller, educator and radio producer, performing and facilitating workshops in Australia, Denmark and Zimbabwe. Her current work-in-progress is a trilogy in the form of Biomythography called Journey Back2Centre:Love. Zai Zanda recently released her first soundtrack, God Is a Black Womban, a naked protest poem created in collaboration with Dub Reggae Producer Third Culture in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter, #SayHerName, and organizations working with Sovereign Australians and towards decarceration. Zai has a self-published mini-book of essays and poetry that speaks to this naked protest poem, which has roots in her Afrikan cultural traditions. Zai curates a fun and intimate monthly spoken word event called The Pan Afrikan Poets Cafe, which she describes as the home of new, cutting-edge and classic Afrikan literature.