Tjawangwa (TJ) Dema has been on this words road awhile. My first encounter with her poetry was back in 2005, when she was a mentee on the British Council Crossing Borders programme. Today she mentors poets.
The Careless Seamstress is published as the winner of the Sillerman Prize for Poetry 2018.
The collection contains forty-six poems. There are poems that bear witness to women’s lives; poems that examine faith and belief.
Her poems unpick Setswana sayings and tradition, they draw from Greek mythology, Setswana traditional stories.
The poems are as varied in their content as they are in form. In one word, it is erudite.
The first poem in the collection The Elegy of a Half-Done Quilt opens with a question: Sisters, do you remember that painting of you with camellias in your hair?
The one Papa painted then set alight on the patio to provoke our mother? The dexterous mother is constantly spinning.
An image that forms, is of a woman her sewing machine trundling, sewing, bringing to life the Setswana saying mosadi tshwene o jewa mabogo—a woman’s beauty lies in her hands.
We are taken through birth and death, and the ceremonies of joy and pain that take place in between: a baby’s christening, a graduation, a wedding.
The poem ends with the mother’s admonishment: ‘say sorry to your sister/It’s what you say to someone you love’.
In this poem, the father is barely visible, he does not do much, yet his daughters wish for his life—not their mother’s lot: ‘all we wanted was to be downstairs like our daddy’.
In Apoptosis, women are: collecting dry cow dung to fashion mud bricks/glad to do it when the men were gone doing god knows what.
In Women Like You: women like you hold the sharp end of the knife. Dema takes apart the seams of a SeTswana saying that would sew shut a woman’s lips, cause her to swallow words she would rather speak.
Self-Portrait with a Missing Tongue begins with Monna ga a botswe kwa a tswang teng.
One does not have to speak Setswana to appreciate the themes she explores: the trepidation of a just-married woman as she sits with other women who knows more about marriage than she does.
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.
As we are taken back to their girlhood years and taken through the rites of passage, we are left to wonder how different life would have been, had they been born boys.
Discrimination is confronted in The Other. This poem is an indictment of our society. In it, the words used to cleave through our humanity, separating us from them.
In the combi the girl who likes mirrors says she is a Motswana not Botswanian and next time the reporter better get it right.
I have been taking classes to learn these other words so when she says Masarwa a, I wonder whether she sees herself. Perhaps she is Janus the two faced who looks both forward and backward at the same time.
But I fear it is much simpler than that. Most people cannot feel a hurt that does not look like them, even if it belongs to them.
A poem like Domboshaba starts off in Botswana but it travels beyond the country’s borders by referring to the brutality of the transatlantic slave trade.
The total disregard for lives that has taken place through the ages is referenced.
The title pays homage to the history of the Bakalanga.
Imagine you come from this
Familiar everyday of corn and air
Your dead hurled overboard
Of leaving in peace.
That Dema reads widely, imbibes from many sources is evident in the way she uses words.
To create Vesta, she exploits her facility with the English language, she references Roman mythology, then she adds Setswana flavour.
Father used to place mother
in a three legged pot
all day she would stew
The foreword of the collection is written by Professor Kwame Dawes who states that the wait has been worth it.
And yes, reading this collection is like being given a beautifully stitched garment to wear, but it needs to be tried on several times, before one can say, yes, it fits just right.
Throughout the collections, there are carefully placed clues in the imagery, in the metaphors that one must search for.
Who knows whether one actually finds them…It matters not.
The Careless Seamstress is collection that I will return to again. And again. I am growing into it.
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