The beautiful mind of Myesha Jenkins
I am always uncomfortable with artistic comparisons. Those awkward moments when we compare Jonathan Franzen to John Updike or measure the quality of Bela Tarr’s films with those of Lars Von trier. Which is why I am always self conscious when I do it. This is why I was slightly cringing in my seat when I read a critic compare Myesha Jenkins to Maya Angelou. Something about it just raised alarm in my mind, a kind of alarm that I am yet to fully get a grasp of. But upon meeting her there was one thing that is ever present about Jenkins’ demeanor. She is a tour de force of sexuality. The kind of self assurance that can easily be passed of by many as overt or even arrogant. Born in the United States and having moved to South Africa in 1993 after many years of being an anti-apartheid activist, Jenkins is very much of an outsider. She is one of the kind of people that fall in between the cracks of our less than credible society. So when I sat her down I asked why she choose to move here and how she has managed to reinforce her own personal identity, a kind of identity that has seen her become amongst the strongest feminist voices in contemporary South Africa.
“I had lived as an anti-apartheid activist in the US and then when I came down here, because I had been working in development. I knew a lot of activist and had worked with many of them, but when I can here seemingly it was only Chris Hani that knew me” she says. “it was not really a culture shock but I think moving here helped me look at myself because here I was part of a nation that was redefining itself and I am always sad that we don’t do that anymore. We don’t explore and revisit and redefine who we are”
Speaking about how she became a writer Jenkins acknowledges that it was largely a creative accident. She had begun engaging with a lot of writers vicariously and as a means to keep herself entertained. As she told me about those early writing days Jenkins quickly pulled out her first collection of poems and read the first poem she ever wrote. Potently named Am I a writer? Fluidly she lets the words roll of from the tongue, with a kind of tenderness that surely is still the same as the first time she wrote the piece.
But Jenkins’ writing is not only one that deals with individual identity. Through her words she tackles multiple complexities that are embedded in the psyche of our society. Not the least of which is wide scale trauma, a subject she deals with in a frank in irreverent manner. A manner that can only be mastered by an “outsider” who is “inside”. “you know as a black person moving here, it was in many ways no different than being in the states. I knew how to act. I know when I should cross the road when I see strange people making their ways towards me” she says. “And I think that is part of coping mechanisms that we develop. This widespread national trauma, and this tradition of fear is something that we are yet to deal with as a nation”
And through her work Jenkins is finding that there are ways to deal with it. Having been one of the founding members of the Feelah sister collective along with equally renowned poets Ntsiki Mazwai, Lebo Mashile and Napo Masheane, Jenkins is part of a small collective of literary voices that feeding the hunger of South African poetry lovers whilst still managing to teach and be involved in activism at the same time.
Speaking about the importance of new and emerging feminist voices locally, Jenkins highlighted that women had the most critical and role to play in South Africa and that there is an urgent need for them to claim their place amongst the male counterparts. “I see women being marginalized everyday and it always bothers me that their stories are not being told and when they are being told they are not being told by them. They are told by men” she says. “And it’s not just something that happens in rural communities. You could be at a poetry session in the heart of Joburg and all the men will perform and give each other props and then right at the end they will say ‘hey Thando do you wanna say something’ and so it’s like women are still being pushed back and I thinks it’s very important o create more platforms that women can take ownership of”
In a bid to create those platforms Jenkins shows no sign of slowing down. Avidly collaborating with other writers and activist. Amongst her latest projects is a CD that is scheduled for release later this year as well as a collection of erotic poetry which she is editing in conjunction with Natalia Molebatsi. “I am working on a few things” she says. “And I am trying to introduce a more jazzy and musical feel to my poetry. Last year I was part of a show called Body of words and we are hoping to take that on the road. So there are a lot of interesting and wonderful things that are happening”
Jenkins’ latest collection of Poetry entitled Dreams of flight was launched at Poetry Africa.