Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Kumukanda by Kayo Chingonyi

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

I love listening to poetry in performance, but I am not always good at reading it on the page. Too often, inside my head, the poet’s voice turns into a meaningless sing-song. Fortunately for me, the voice in Kayo Chingonyi’s Kumukanda was strong enough to override even my cloth ear.

Chinogonyi was born in Zambia in 1987 and came to the UK in 1993. The title of this debut volume of poetry, Kumukanda, refers to the initiation rites that young boys of the Luvale, Chokwe, Luchazi and Mbunda people in north western Zambia must pass through to be considered a man.

“Tata’s people would think me unfinished – a child who never sloughed off the childish estate to cross the river boys of our tribe must cross in order to die and come back grown.”

As the author says, ‘This book approximates such rites of passage in the absence of my original culture.’

The book begins with poems about growing up in south London and a ‘white flight’ town outside London, about his relationship with music and rap and how that helped forge his identity. But Chingonyi moves on from that. In poems such as The ‘N’ word, Casting and Callbacks, he addresses casual racism. In Legerdemain and How To Build Cathedrals, he confronts colonialism and in Kung’anda (home) the Western eye view of Africa reduced to the image of a dying child.

The Nod, Loch Long by Ardarten, Argyll and In Defence of Darkness are love poems of breathtaking tenderness and sensuality. In Curfew, he glimpses the rebellious young woman who is now is Auntie.

A whole group of poems, including the title poem, Kumukanda, address the loss at a young age of both his mother and his father. There is humour here as in the description of his father, “him stood, sequoia among lesser trees, looking good in denim.” And heartbreak, as when he writes of his terminally ill mother, “She’s dying but I won’t call her dead, can’t let mum become a body, a stone, an empty hospital bed.”

Chingonyi said, in an interview with the ICA Bulletin in 2016, that one of his aims in writing is to “chip away at the motion that whiteness is the normative unmediated position from which all other subjectivities deviate.” Which makes him a perfect fit for the Jhalak Prize shortlist.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Lemn Sissay, Tendai Huchu, Malika Booker

Avoid If You Dislike: Poems that combine lyrical beauty with razor-sharp political commentary

Perfect Accompaniment: Mussels and dry white wine

Genre: Poetry

Available on Amazon

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