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YOUTH FEATURE: Meet accomplished Congolese-born poet Sarah Lubala

As part of our YOUTH FEATURE series, meet Sarah Lubala.

Sarah Lubala is a Congolese-born poet. Her family fled the DRC two decades ago.

She was recently nominated for the 2018 Gerald Kraak Award, which was launched in 2016 to honour the legacy of the anti-apartheid activist Gerald Kraak. Her poems, 6 errant thoughts on being a refugee, Portrait of a girl at a border wall, and Notes on black death and elegy were commended by the judges for being “taut, lyrical, devastating meditations on forced migration and gender-based violence.”

Her work has been published in Brittle Paper, The Missing Slate, Apogee Journal, Birdsthumb, and Prufrock, as well as The Gerald Kraak Anthology As You Like It, Botsoso’s 2018 Poetry from Public and Private Places and the African Collective’s Best New African Poets 2018 Anthology.

Sarah has an MSc in Gender, Development and Globalisation from the London School of Economics and is a development worker in Johannesburg. She is currently working on the manuscript for her first poetry collection, which is slated for publication by Botsotso early next year.

Did that perception change because of the recognition that your work has recently received?

Yes, that’s helped a great deal. But I think part of it has been valuing the work more. I have a greater respect for writing as a craft. I started thinking about all the writers I admire, people like Safia Elhillo and Ocean Voung who are young writers, but their youth or ‘inexperience’ have not minimised their talent. I started thinking perhaps my youth and inexperience didn’t mean I wasn’t a good writer.

Who are your favourite African writers?

Yvonne Vera, Akwaeke Emezi, Warsan Shire, and I would be remiss if I didn’t include Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston - though they are African-American but I think African fiction can include Pan African writing.

Definitely. I think that's why Africana (of Africa and its diasporas) it such a useful term.

Yes, I think of African fiction as it relates to experiences of ‘Africaness’ across African diasporas.

Speaking of diasporas, your writing is embedded with themes (and questions) of belonging, immigration, and identity. Can you share why that it is?

I think the best writing is honest, and for that to be one must write from the truest place inside oneself. For me, that place emerges from my experiences as a refugee, an immigrant, a Black woman, and a person who belongs here, there, everywhere and nowhere. I’m deeply invested in stories from the margins because that’s where I exist. Me and so many others. Those are the stories I want to hear.

You were born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. When did you leave there? What was happening in the DRC at the time?

I left when I was two years old. At the time - around 1994 - there was increasing political unrest as political factions tried to overthrow the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. There was mass looting in the capital city, the military had taken control of several institutions and there was the general raping and pillaging that follows this sort of civil unrest.

You then spent some time in various other countries before settling in South Africa. Can you tell me what that was like?

I lived in the Ivory Coast before moving to South Africa, and then lived between South Africa, Holland and China for a few years. It was equally wonderful and disconcerting. I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to travel so extensively and to have experienced different cultures but growing up in so many different places can be confusing and lonely. You’re always ‘the new kid’, or ‘the black kid’ or ‘the foreign kid’. You’re always an outsider. You have an accent in every language and you can’t point to a place and say, ‘That’s where I belong, that’s where I’m welcome.’

Is that what led you to your MSc in Gender, Development and Globalisation?

Absolutely. I had all these feelings about being a Black female immigrant, but I didn’t have the terms to explain those feelings. I wanted to understand those feelings better, to see how my experience ‘played out’ at the macro level. How it operated in terms of globalisation and gendered patterns of migration and I wanted to know how I could actively be involved in unpacking this experience for myself and others. I will always be a refugee, even with South African citizenship. I wanted to know what that meant and how that influences the way I, and others like me, move through the world.

Is your poetry a part of that work, for you?

Definitely. It’s the most intimate part of that work. The most personal.

And simultaneously, by sharing a story from the margins it is possible that others will see themselves in your work. Potentially, people whose stories are not usually told. That is my hope, though it feels like a very lofty hope. But I’d be deeply humbled if my work resonates with even one person.

I think we can safely assume, with your recent accolades, it definitely has! Lastly, what do you do for self-care?

I read poetry, I drink copious amounts of tea, I use inordinate amounts of coconut oil and I eat as much plantain as I can get my hands on. I also watch a lot of Key and Peele videos on YouTube.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

I think it’s important I thank all the writers who have inspired me. I won’t name them, but I’m aware that poetry is the least popular form of literature and it has been my saving grace. I’m indebted to all writers who dedicate themselves to this craft.

Sarah's poem What To Say To The Immigration Officer When He Asks You Where You Are From, won the International Poetry Competition Castello Di Duino XIV Edition.

The competition runs as part of the project Poetry and Solidarity: Language of Peoples which has been described by the UNESCO Italian National Committee as “the most important international poetry competition among those which address young poets…because thousands of people from over 90 countries have entered since 2000 – creating a network of young poets and specifically young people engaged with the notion that language is a medium for interpersonal, intergenerational and intercultural understanding.”

This year the theme was home – and specifically the idea that “languages, and poetry too, are sometimes sanctuary for the soul.”

Take a look at some of Sarah’s work here:

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