Poetics and Narrativity: Raising/Rebirthing Rare Pearls

An Article

By Ntombi K

Rare pearls

have been thrown among us

and we have trampled upon them (Lo Liyong, T. 2006:160).


In his critical article about writing, Tutuola, son of Zinjanthropus, Taban Lo Liyong warns that the beautiful ones, the rare pearls, were long born. In this sense, the role of the writer is not to generate, once more, new pearls but rather, to rediscover the ones that already exist. In regenerating the rare pearls, she [the writer] should search hard for their eyes and harder, in places where they have lost them. If necessary, she should give them new eyes or let them see without them.


her sole mandate during this process is to give up her heart.

let it be a sanctuary through which

the burdened, bedevilled, stoned pearls submit.

with her wrath, word-craft, she must chastise

the wind that fled with their screams.

to pronounce their rebirth, she should call them by name

give them what is due to them

let them be the pearls they have always been.


The act of exhuming rare pearls is what Njabulo Ndebele calls the rediscovery of the ordinary (Ndebele, J. 2006). Ndebele concurs with Lo Liyong when he opines that narrative should realize that which we trample upon or neglect every day for, it is within these unheeded layers that “normalized magic” (Bernheimer, K. 2009; 70) can be resuscitated. To put it in another way, narrative should desist the immediate- the spectacular/official/bizarre in order to embrace the particular/rare (Ndebele, J. 2006). It should not, for example, attempt to capture the tear gas of the Sharpeville massacre. Neither, should it run its front pages on the so-called struggle cadres or classic examples.

Narrative or critical fiction, should and with careful scrutiny, prioritize the rare pearls, the unknown, “the oppressed, the disinherited” (hooks, b. 1991; 59), and the missing in the corridors of power. By articulating the hopes and the aspirations of these people, it lands its body to the literary stripes of what bell hooks categorizes as “revolutionary critical fictions” (hooks, b. 1991; 61) and in the same way, completes the pages of what Linton Kwesi Johnson, in a poem of the same title, chants as Di Anfinish Revalueshan (Johnson, L. 2006). In essence, this literature is capable of resisting, transforming and reimagining our lived experiences (hooks, b. 1991; 55). That it utilizes the imagination to call distant possibilities into being, is not in order to escape the throes of reality it is confronted with but rather, to project and exercise the alternative/reimagined reality as a liberatory gesture against the currently lived (hooks, b. 1991;55).

Such clarity by hooks articulates a tension that I have against the South African theatre and television landscape. A ‘type directing scenario’ whereby writers or directors of these platforms fall into a trap of reinstating the very same images they claim to be in disagreement with. In other words, a case of showing in order to subvert or as per Chris Kraus endorsement of Simone Weil’s “use [of] the ‘I’ to break down ‘I’” (Kraus, C. 2004; 77). Camille Roy in Experimental parallels such representational or narrative butchery with that of genre fiction. She defines “genre fiction as not [so much concerned with] representing experience but [rather with] producing and organizing feeling […] – horror, mystery, [and] fear” (Roy, C. 2004; 176). Highlighting the significance of presenting an already subverted narrative or image, Roy and the others dismiss this kind of resistance as weak and/or Janus-faced. I am in full agreement with this. However, I would like to maintain that narrative that insists on the ‘control and then, release’ representational mode should do so critically (Roy, C. 2004; 176). By critically, I mean, it must answer the question/s: Can the counter-narrative stand on its own, i.e. without a historical/character background? Do we always have to tell/show where it all started? Do we know where it all started? Are we oppressed before we are free or free before we are oppressed?

When not thinking, feeling, writing along these lines, another of her [the writer] writely mandate/s is to ponder about these questions.

Lo Liyong’s rare pearls, Ndebele indicates, are entrenched in the ordinariness. To rediscover them, therefore, the writer, “forcing…attention on necessary detail” (Ndebele, N. 2006: 46), should enter “the dark little room where the unmattressed bed\ the tens and tens of books\ the oversized jacket behind the door\ the holed shoes” live (Zhuwao, P. 1999; 22). To be precise, she must acknowledge that which is, time and time again, overlooked or dismissed as simply plain.

While this is the case, for Francis Bacon, the rare pearls (in the fabric of ordinariness) reside “in the painted scream and not the horror” (cited in Deleuze, G. 2005; 27), i.e. in what the horror precipitates and not the horror itself. Furthermore, in the kicking “scream” (cited in Power, C. 2014), that Doris Lessing heard upon reading Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger (1978).

Bacon’s painted scream rhymes with Audre Lorde’s instruction on the narrative, that being the necessity of writing the feeling. Consequently, it can be said that a search for rare pearls or the rediscovery of the ordinary or the painting of the scream, is a search for feeling and by extension, “a cultivation of one’s soul which was in the first place nourished” (Arthur Rimbaud cited in Kwasny, M. 2004).


we are in an African Literature tutorial

when a young woman stands up to answer:

“I feel that…”

the tutor (male) interrupts,

“in this class, we don’t feel, we think.”

the young woman sitting behind her

and the one next to her drop their hands to keep their feelings to their selves.


In her article, Poetry is Not a Luxury, Lorde foregrounds this saying that, “white fathers told us, I think therefore I am (Lorde, A. 1984; 372).” That it is inaccurate to rely on one’s feelings because feelings are not facts but mere reactions. To a young woman who stood up to express herself in an African Literature tutorial and was interrupted. (The one who sat behind her and the one next to her who have to this today, left their feelings unsaid. To a young woman writing today. To myself). Lorde makes us conscious of our hearing, our feelings, our experiences, when she writes, “the black mothers in each of us-the poet-whispers-I feel, therefore, I can be free” (Lorde, A. 1984; 372) – a critical direction to start a sentence with “I feel…”

If the writer looks close enough, Lorde’s feeling/s knows Bacon’s painted scream. How exactly?


Feeling/s release/s the scream.

Feeling/s is/are the scream.

Feeling/s, unmolested/unrestricted, scream/s.


Like Lo Liyong’s rare pearls, feeling/s too are among us and are consistently being trampled upon. Feeling too, like rare pearls, the painted scream, and the rediscovered ordinariness in the narrative, ought to be rescued and highlighted (Lorde, A. 1984). Lorde’s article makes emphasis, that to write from the point of feeling is to write from a point of knowledge. This is a significant notation for; the one who has worn the shoes knows exactly how far they can stretch. To speak from feeling, therefore, is to speak from experience. To paint the scream is to paint the feeling-the experience. To revive the ordinary is to unravel the passively felt or unfelt experience.


a grandmother of twenty-one grandchildren,

girls at most, opens up, for the first time,

about her rape by a family member when she was a teenager.

it does not matter how long ago the incident happened.

what is essential is that she would not be taking this to her grave.

she is confronting this past because this is where she lost

her scream.

her feelings.

where her pearls went missing.


Therefore, a confrontation of this past. Of territories, aching our stomachs. Territories so dark had some of us admitted for instance, to hospitals, asylums, rehabs, prophets, traditional healers.


had some of us turn north

when the sun fell on south.

to die in the cold that binds us with Heaven

had some of us beg death to take us in its pockets

left some of us smile where we weep

to numb the pain that ought to be felt.

had some too soft to charge.

to roar in whispers

‘til we are chocked by our polite verses.


These moments and more, the no-go areas or “aspects of [ourselves] we are embarrassed by” (Nutting, A. 2015; 244), the ones we simply overlook as our past or unlike us, Lorde cautions, are worth revisiting for this is where we bury our feelings. Where our screams kick the most and our pearls, experiences, are confined. This is where we stopped feeling what it was like to feel (Monteilhet, H. 1961), what it was like to scream, what it was like to be a pearl and, what it was like to be alive, to experience. This is where we lost our power and where we ought to reclaim it (Lorde, A. 1984).

In citing Thomas Carlyle, Lo Liyong posits, “it is difficult […] to believe that the […] mere [woman] whom they see…toiling at their side through the poor jostlings of existence, can be made of finer clay than themselves” (Carlyle cited in Lo Liyong, T. 2006; 160). This is in tandem with Ndebele’s idea of the narrative, that of going for the ordinary or what Matt Bell, Alissa Nutting and Brian Oliu fundamentally call flatness or a flat narrative. There is a general consensus among these writers that the spectacular or magical narrative has already been outdone (Ndebele, N. 2006 & Bell et al. 2013). The poet has nothing new to discover under the sun and narrative/s can no longer be yielded from “the skies” (Oliu, B. 2013; 16), unless, like in Lesego Rampolokeng’s case, where “the writer takes it unto [herself] to punch a hole through it [and] go beyond that” (Rampolokeng, L. 1999:08).

Within this context, the only way of attaining newness is when she draws closer and intimately to the mere woman (the rare pearl)-unbridle the finer clay (the fabric of her feelings/experience) that she is made of. Punch her skies. Her limits. But, how will she achieve this?

Insisting on writing for oneself, Philip Zhuwao derides Carlyle’s notion of the narrative arguing that, “[his] poetry is something to do with [him]” (Zhuwao, P. 1996; 4) and nothing to do with the ordinary man or woman. Concurring with this Rampolokeng says, “[y]ou [have] to go deep within yourself to be able to project whatever it is to grab the attention of the people” (Rampolokeng, L. 1999; 4) which is to say, a single narrative maps that of the several. And so, to reach within, in this instance, is to reach the masses. I am in full agreement with Zhuwao and Rampolokeng’s model of the narrative. At the same time, this does not mean that I am abandoning Carlyle’s way of seeing the narrative. If the writer so believes [to paraphrase Carlyle] that an experience of the mere woman is far more refined then, she must deter from entering her narrative as a sightseer or with an anthropological lens. Like Toni Morrison, if she is “going to imagine what it takes [for a mere woman] to kill [her] baby then, [she has] to put [hers too in her] arms” – sacrifice it (Morrison, T. 2010; Toni Morrison: Beloved).

Clearly, the journey of excavating the rare pearls, rediscovering the ordinary, painting the scream, glaring at the holed shoes, earning the stripes of revolutionary critical fictionists, of feeling and punching limiting skies, can only be achieved when the writer “get[s] drunk on […] virtue or poetry[or prose]” (Baudelaire, C. 1996). I concur with the latter because the best writing for me has been the one prepared to impair its faculties- lose control.


having gotten drunk on poetry or prose,

her [the writer] drunken imagination shall be filled

with fists that sob the political air.

the ears of her citizens shall ship our dreams.

our screams shall choreograph the drunk steps of bellied state heads.


“Building [a drunken] faith of the community” (James Cone cited in hooks, b. 1991; 61), her narrative, backwards, sideways and on all accounts, shall assemble these parts. Drunkenly herald what is to come by either, incorporating all of these writing forms, selecting a few in order to build on them or rejecting all of them.