5 Themes Explored In Koleka Putuma’s ‘Hullo Bu-Bye KoKo Come In’
It’s 2015 in Cape Town. Two student journalists enamoured with Koleka Putuma are on a 45-minute bus ride to TEDxStellebosch, where a young Koleka is billed to perform in front of a predominantly White audience. Weeks ahead of the event, she’d consulted friends and acquaintances about potentially pulling out. But thankfully, her brevity reigned supreme. Her powerful stage presence, coupled with her refusal to make her audience comfortable about particularly uncomfortable subject matter, left a palpable awkwardness on the walls of the hall where the TEDXStellebosch was hosted. The claps were few and far in between, and the laughters…well, they could be counted on one hand. “She recited her poetry candidly, all while making her all-White audience uneasy. You could tell they were offended,” recalls my colleague Sabelo Mkhabela.
Here’s the thing about Koleka Putuma…She is unapologetic and for some, unnervingly so! It’s the ease with which Putuma confronts the contentious that translates so earnestly in her work. It’s her brutal honesty that allows her words to dance on every page, and essentially give language to experiences that are often ineffable.
The South African poet, writer and theatre producer recently published her second poetry collection Hullo Bu-Bye KoKo Come In. This follows her debut Collective Amnesia which had unprecedented success in South Africa and internationally. The poetry collection which was published in 2017, had an enviable nine print runs over the past four years and was translated into various languages including Spanish, Danish and German. Collective Amnesia delved into the challenges facing the queer community, homophobia, womanhood and generational trauma with standout titles including No Easter Sunday for Queers and Coming Home.
Hullo Bu-Bye KoKo Come In, however, promises to dig even deeper than its predecessor with Putuma imploring the reader to introspect deeply about the lived experiences of people who may not look like them. Published by Putuma’s creative company Manyano Media, the book is cleverly divided into four chapters: Hullo, Bu-Bye, KoKo and Come In. The endnotes, titled Kanti Wen’unumber Bani, are an ode to all the women who have contributed in some way to this work.
Here are just five themes which are prominent in Putuma’s latest offering.
Putuma explores the complexities that come with womanhood, more especially Black womanhood. As with Collective Amnesia, femicide is an important theme probed with Putuma poignantly writing, “South African men maim and murder you…” and “Every three hours, one of us does not make it…” Putuma also explores the resilience and steadfastness of Black women who “cannot play nice or get on/quietly” and are often chastised and punished as a result. Legendary musician Brenda Fassie and political stalwart Winnie Madikizela-Mandela are two prominent figures whose complex lives are painted earnestly across the pages.
The erasure of Black women is a theme woven through the pages of Hullo Bu-Bye KoKo Come In, from beginning to end. Putuma begins by interrogating how the work of Black women writers, feminists and scholars has been whitewashed and credited to white women. “The draft begins with a citation written by a Black woman, credited to a feminist white woman.” She goes on to call into remembrance the fierce South African women who contributed to the liberation of the country from Apartheid through sacrifice and commitment to the struggle. Putuma also speaks to the erasure of artists and performers who have died penniless despite illustrious careers — a conversation reignited recently following the untimely death of veteran actress Shaleen Surtie Richards.
Pain and loss, and the resultant grief, again find their place in Putuma’s latest work. There is grief in a mother who has lost her daughter at the hands of femicide. “Compensates her grief with scholarships and policies that have been defunded before they are even drafted,” she writes. There is generational grief that women carry, according to Putuma, which is not far removed from that of their great grandmothers and can be “measured in things they tip-toe around.” And finally, the grief of a widow who is accused of having bewitched her husband by her in-laws and forced to bear it in the name of tradition.
Putuma explores the complexity of Chrisitianity and the realm of ancestors and healing. “Healers who hold onto one illness while letting go of another / who trade healing for faith or religion or both,” she writes as she evaluates the ancient nature of these spiritual practices. God, faith and redemption are topics which find themselves at the centre, with Putuma describing in one poem, waiting for a loved one to “return from the land of milk and honey” following a massacre. Just as she did in No Easter Sunday for Queers, Putuma manages to weave the many contradictions of religion into a story that conveys the beauty in the lives of those often ostracised by religion itself.
Never one to shy away from speaking about mental illness and related subjects such as self-harm and suicide, Putuma highlights mental health in a way that is both earnest and direct. She explores depression, describing how it feels to have to carry another human being who can no longer carry themselves mentally and emotionally. In a strikingly honest admission, she writes, “I am tired / please learn how to resuscitate yourself.” In the poem titled “A Habit Mistaken For Saviour” she goes on to add, quite soberly, “I want to learn how not to bury myself at someone else’s funeral.”
You can purchase a copy of Hullo Bu-Bye KoKo Come In at CNA stores around South Africa or at www.kolekaputuma.com/shop.