[No] Time To Mourn

I need you to be honest and to pay attention to the parts of you that have been drowning; they need you more than ever – save them.

Thandiwe Nqanda

We are unified by the things we have in common and the one thing we have all in common is loss; yet we shy away from grieving together. Perhaps that’s because we do not want to be perceive as weak or worse, we lack the emotional skill to hold space for those in mourning. But it is in those trying times that we need each other most and the reason poet Thandiwe Nqanda has taken it upon herself to not only share her experiences with grief but facilitate communal mourning through poetry. At her recent book launches and music show Thandiwe gave a moment for people in the audience to share their experiences with grief and it quickly became evident that we know how to be happy and we know how to suppress sadness; we are yet to learn how to feel loss and embrace mourning.

To grieve is to embark on an enduring journey to make peace with all that has been lost. Living with grief is knowing when to run to shore and offerings like those of Thandiwe’s are the shore. Here, you can meet your grief and it will not swallow you whole. Given the gravity of this work it was only fitting to tap into the mind and heart of this conduit; and so below is an account of the conversation I had with this rising poet who is also a facilitator of mourning and a steward of healing.

Captured by Michael Blacks

Thandiwe, you are doing something that is rather unconventional in that you are making public spaces intimate and safe for people to come face to face with their grief. What inspired you to take up grief as a field of study so to speak?

It all boils down to my own experiences with grief. When I was younger I encounter grief but in small amounts. Then all of a sudden between years 2019 and 2022 I lost a lot of people I held dear and it happened all so fast. I was literally attending a funeral every other month and these were people I had real relationships with, including uBhuti, uMakhulu and my aunt. It took these experiences for me to really tap into grief as a subject matter. The poetry became a means for me to process my emotions and that lead to the unraveling of other griefs and losses until a whole collection was written.

Okay so you then write the poems as a release, what then says to you it’s time to create spaces for other people to grieve?

Thinking about it now, I feel like I was guided. The shows are curated for conversation and community. Initally I wanted to find out how other people felt about grief, especially in our black societies. I wanted to know how we handled grief beyond the after tears? At funerals we are tasked with so many things that there is no time to process the loss and then one day you have a breakdown and no one can understand it. We behave like grief doesn’t affect us but it does and the spaces I create are there to allow people to grieve so that they can get to the other side.

We sometimes miscarry things that are meant to stay inside of us.

Thandiwe Nqanda

In the poem uMakhulu you speak about your grandmother and the bond you shared, you even detail the the things she taught you. What stings though from the poem is the last stanza where you say she taught you everything except how to live without her. How has living without uMakhulu been for you?

It’s difficult. Even though I am now able to process my grief and open up about my feelings, living without uMakhulu has been and is difficult. There are so many things I miss about her. I learnt unconditional love from her. We even shared a bed because she would want to be next to me and I would want to be next to her. Learning to navigate adulthood without her has been difficult. I know she would have celebrated my small wins just as much as my big wins and she would be very proud of the person I am today.

We may break on the road, but we will still grow.
We will still heal.
Still love.
Still breathe.
Thandiwe Nqanda

What have you learnt about grief?

I have learnt that grief is both difficult and demanding. I have noticed that grief has a tendency of not knocking but rather barging in and breaking doors. I have also learnt that grieving requires initiative in dealing with it. And when you take that initiative to give grief an audience and grieve, you are likely to see other things that aren’t grief related. You are likely to see the love. You are likely to see yourself healing; all because you took the initiative to deal with the grief by processing and dealing with it. My way of dealing with grief was going to go to therapy and learning to lean on the people that said they’re there for me. It was deciding to be vulnerable so that I could tap into what grief was inviting me to, hence the chapters Healing and Love in the poetry collection. I feel that when given a chance the very loss we suffer invites us to the other side of grief where there is healing and love.

In the poem about your aunt you apologize to her for not having been able to save her and this is something I think many people struggle with, the scenario mapping of how things could have been different even though you know it was never in your control. Now that you have processed that grief, how do you think you have honored your her memory through your healing?

I think by being more vocal about my feelings. I’m courageous about voicing my emotions no matter they are. I don’t harbour things. Beyond that and more closely to my aunt is by giving her daughter the experience of having a mom by just being there for her. I think she sees herself in me and it warms my heart to see her happy.

May the struggles you face not be the only thing you know.

May grace find you,

May your hands be filled full of your greatest desires,

May you always remember that you matter.

Thandiwe Nqanda

Captured by Michael Blacks

You have two pieces which you performed so beautifully, one being an ode to women and the other an ode to men which was quite interesting because you don’t often hear the praises of men being sung. Why was it important for you to express your admiration to both parties?

It’s not a woman’s world only nor is it a man’s world only and these poems seek to encourage both parties in the work they do. I think it’s important to encourage women and to encourage men to keep on keeping on and reassure them that they are seen because I feel we never get to hear the men’s side of the story. We are not eager to listen but we are so expectant of them to show up. We are expectant of them to be present, to be our protectors, to be our providers but we never give them the space to express how they really feel.

It’s not fair to turn a blind eye to the men who are trying to be there, who are showing up, who are challenged because there is so much expected of them. How then do we teach our boys to be better men in society if we don’t encourage their fathers and their mentors? How do we expect them to grow up to become the men we want them to be if we’re not allowing them the space to be? Where do men go to express themselves? Where do they go to offload the burdens of everyday life? We also have to open up that space to allow men to be vulnerable and free to express themselves. Who are they crying to? If we are not nurturing, guiding and encouraging them – how do we expect miracles to happen? There’s so much to be done but through that poem I just wanted to say to the men who are doing the absolute most – we see you and we appreciate you.

Your band enveloped your words so beautifully I was ready to buy the record and I’m sure others felt the same. How did you find and decide on the music that would accompany your delivery?

Oh wow that’s one of the most interesting questions I’ve ever been asked and a question I wish I was asked more often because you won’t believe the answer (laughs). Back in high school and varsity I would be going about my business and a melody would just appear in my mind and I would quickly record it on my phone or laptop depending on where I was at the time. This continued for years actually and each time a melody came to mind I would record it and leave it at that. It was only when I went back to these recorded voice notes that I realised they could be something. Then one day I was jamming in Dobsonville with Siyabonga Moubeleni and he inspired me to translate my voice noted melodies into workable music, which we started doing. Fastforward to 2021 when I would have my first musical show, Siya came down to Cape Town and helped me put the music together for the show. He was the first musician I worked with and having worked with him has helped me to understand how the music can compliment my poetry. Since then, I choose melodies from this bank of mine depending on the poems I will be performing and the feeling I want the audience to experience. I have tons of melodies and hopefully one day I will record an audio version of my poetry collection with these melodies.

Grieve, That’s How You Survive – tell us everything about this play you’re debuting at this year’s NAF!

Grace Storm and I write a lot about grief and that’s how we started talking and supporting each other, and I must she has been such a lovely sister in the poetry space. Initially we had a different production in mind that we were working on but then she just came through one day and said she’d entered this play for the NAF which I thought was really cool. The play has been workshopped and scripted from our poetry collections which are Time to Mourn by me as well as Love and Other Stuff by Grace. So in a nutshell, Grieve, That Is How You Survive is a two-woman play and we’re going to go through the different elements of life pairing them with the different stages of life.

We are going to do a lot of revisiting. We’re going to share the memories we have of the people we’ve lost. There’s also a lot of prompt work in the play and you will see the elements come in with each stage of life and experience of loss. There’s a lot to see and feel through this play. We’re going to show how grief actually exists from the moment you say hello or open up your heart to something because we struggle with the concept that everything is temporary and although we should make the most out of it, we should also learn to how to grieve for it when it’s gone so we can walk into the next stage of life. The play will allow the audience to come face to face with their own grief and even gain perspective on other losses they may not have given any thought to. It’s going to be a special one because everyone will at the very least relate to at one part of the play.