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How to Forget and How to Remember: A Review of ‘Collective Amnesia’ by Koleka Putuma

Koleka Putuma’s debut poetry collection, Collective Amnesia, explores life’s trials for queer black womxn in South Africa. Putuma will be speaking about her work and queer identity on a panel entitled ‘Stepping Into Our Own’ on Saturday the 6th of July as part of the 2019 Africa Writes literature festival. Alongside Putuma will be Okechukwu Nzelu, Olumide Popoola, Chelle O.T and the chair, Siana Bangura. Tickets are available: here.

At the centre of Putuma’s poetic endeavour is the concept of cultural memory and unlearning. Putuma investigates the limitations imposed on us by various institutions and frees her identity by unravelling these harmful social norms. The title, ‘Collective Amnesia’, is hence ambiguous; is Putuma condemning collective amnesia by suggesting that there is something we have forgotten? In other words, have we lost the ability to recognise and acknowledge our true selves in and amidst all the confusion caused by religious and education systems which bear a heavy colonialist influence? Or is Putuma instead advocating collective amnesia, encouraging her readers to conveniently forget all the blurry regulations we have learned from these institutions so that we can locate a true sense of self?

Photo by: @vitalwritersblog.

She groups her poems into three different sections, each named after a different aspect of memory: ‘Inherited Memory’, ‘Buried Memory’ and ‘Postmemory’. In ‘Inherited Memory’, we deal with the creation of trauma as Putuma begins to grapple with her identity. Here we face issues regarding poverty, violence, love and worship. More specifically, Putuma investigates how her religion is buried in patriarchal and colonialist ideals, and also asks what happens when love becomes as regimented as the faith that was forced upon her. In ‘Buried Memory’, we confront an overwhelming sense of grief, an outpouring of emotion that feels like a release – a necessary stepping stone in the process of self-discovery. In ‘Postmemory’ we become more metaphysical, asking how to commemorate or memorialise — how to best represent the memory of trauma. In particularly, Putuma is concerned with the representation of black womxn, suggesting that they lack any humane treatment in writing:

Black men and white womxn always write about black womxn as if we are already dead.

Overall, this scorching piece delves into the social fabric of memory, asking us to weave into our minds new traditions, new practices and, ultimately, new ways of healing.

As Putuma writes:

And maybe unlearning should be a place And all the womxn in your family should gather there more often Until unlearning is a tradition you can pass on to your children

Africa Writes 2019 Programme Brochure

Africa Writes 2019 Programme Brochure

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