Author: Tjawangwa Dema
Year published: 2019
Genre: Poetry

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

Cover artwork: Mary Sibande

“That childhood is stitching together

what will be turned to sew together two lives,

that time is a waiting room

from which I cannot ask the obvious.

How a body learns to navigate such straits,

how long it takes to lose a woman from her name––  

the answer is:

I know who will be buried far away from home

and whose language the children will speak.”

–– Tjawangwa Dema, “Batting”

In the excerpt above, the word ‘straits’ holds me hostage: I realise that I am yet to meet a man ‘in dire straits’ – the Afrikaans expression “‘n boer maak ‘n plan” (a farmer/man always makes a plan) comes to mind  – and so it seems that distress is a disposition reserved for women, yet in reality they are the ones making plans that will hold, mending silently in the background, fixing what has been torn at the seams (by the men) and making do with the little that is placed on the table. For the women in “The Careless Seamstress” the constant labour seems a reluctant kind of survival: of those not forewarned that there would be a need to fight, and the subsequent resilience of developing a new language when what speaks for the body has joined in the betrayal. Throughout the book, we are confronted with the image of the body as an accomplice in the treachery of self. In “Red”, Dema writes:

“Your own body betrays you,

Taut as itself aches a bloody ache,

Coalesce and collapse, congeal, curdle,

A face all cheeks.”

The alliteration in the third line of this stanza, akin to the sound of tearing and ripping, perfectly captures the moment of the girl-child waking up to realise that her life has been altered and she now inhabits a new body, one that will forcefully exclude her from activities she enjoys, like sports and jumping fences with the boys.

In “Not No Body”, Dema repeats this sentiment:

“And I felt betrayed

as though my body had wandered off

while I slept

and to not feel the blood pulsing

like waking up after the war has ended

all carnage and no story”

Dema does for us what the body of the speaker above could not: she gives us the carnage and the story. In “Ovaria”, we come to the acceptance that our journey with the women she speaks of (and for) continues, because the pain and loss of blood they have been subjected to is not fatal:

”Women know

that sometimes there is blood

but not death; they learn

to conceal the womb with breasts,

to choose that which can be lost––”

This reminded me of a refrain in “A Medley of Black Girl” by Vuyelwa Maluleke:

“I’m okay

I have not died

I’m okay

I’ve not died.”

In our exploration of the terrain Dema is guiding us through, we come to learn that often ‘that which can be lost’ in a scuffle to preserve life is a name, or an identity. In “Batting”, she writes:

“To begin with

your maiden name was never yours, only that

your father loaned you his own

to tide you through the morning you would wake up,

with women saying exactly this to you.”

The understanding that a name is a borrowed thing, that last names belong only to men, and women are loaned those of their fathers until a suitor arrives to offer his own, is similar to what we learn about the body when men are involved: sometimes the result of the body’s betrayal is a bulge that must be accounted for. In “Before the Wedding”, Dema writes:

“Everyone knows a cow will undo the damage.”

This refers to the payment of damages when a woman has ‘fallen pregnant’ (a term which fails to acknowledge the role of the man who impregnated her), so when Dema says “Your dog has eaten our eggs” and “smashed our prized gourd” it is a correction of this shift and we learn to whom the weight of liability should be attributed. Yet later, she who is injured says “they played together” and we find out that a mouth can betray the body it belongs to. Here the author sheds light on the doublemindedness of that which has no mind itself but is an unreliable amplifier of the mind’s intent: the mouth.

In “Red,” she writes:

“the mouth a strange thing.

It says one thing and opens to let another in.”

Throughout the book, we come across mouths in different acts. Men unabashed and brave, women maimed: the mouths of men “raising ash and phlegm into the air” in “Apoptosis”, in sharp contrast to the shame of a woman being ‘without a tongue’ with which to ask her unfaithful husband where he has spent the night in “Self-Portrait with a Missing Tongue.”

In “Before the Wedding”, the men sent to negotiate the bride-price seem to speak with one mouth:

“They send a bevy of beards,

gravel-voiced, grey-haired coat wearers,

who speak in song without the drum,

hum as many though they employ only one tongue.”

The skilful stitching and unstitching of body, memory and identity in Dema’s book reminds me of these lines from “Adam’s Curse” by William Butler Yeats:

“A line will take us hours maybe,

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought

Our stitching and unstitching have been naught.”

I think also of the response of the ‘beautiful mild woman’ in the same poem by Yeats:

“To be born woman is to know—

Although they do not talk of it at school—

That we must labour to be beautiful.”

The above quotes from Yeats’ poem are the two points at which I want to linger a while to gather my final thoughts about Dema’s book. The stitching and unstitching in “The Careless Seamstress” has certainly not been naught. This poetry collection is well-crafted. The meticulous effort of the African Poetry Book Series’ editor, Professor Kwame Dawes, is evident in his musings in the foreword of this book: he has sat with the women in Dema’s poems and interrogated their stories as carefully as the author herself has done. The statement by Yeats’ ‘beautiful mild woman’ in “Adam’s Curse”  takes me back to Dema’s assertion in “Ovaria” that “women know…” and this is the strange-yet-familiar knowing of waking up to a life uprooted, an achy body, a new name, a different man to call one’s master, the familiar knowing (and burden) of constant labour. Reading this book felt like a conversation with a wise older sister. In “Lares”, Dema writes:

“Let me tell you what it’s like

to carry a child that’s not yours”

I was intrigued by Dema’s use of the “I” voice at different points in the book and how it created a sense of intimacy between us, as if she were sitting beside me telling me these stories while sewing a garment, an extension of an interview I had with her for ‘Africa In Dialogue’ earlier this year, in which she said: “The ‘I’ in a poem best serves the poem when it is legion, not singular.”

Without a doubt, the voices in this book are legion: they speak for each of us and all of us. “The Careless Seamstress” is a masterpiece and a deserving winner of the 2018 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry.

My final verdict is that the seamstress is not careless at all. There is intention and intricacy in how the poems guide us to and through each other. I rarely read the poems in a collection chronologically but in “The Careless Seamstress”, the speaker’s “I” voice led me, an enchanted visitor, through different rooms in the house of our seamstress: in one room I met a brother, in another a mother, a husband, a child. I urge you to read this book and meet them too.