Spanning Zambia, Kenya, Canada, South Africa, United States and currently residing in Western Australia, Sisonke Msimang’s lived experience is worldly in every sense. A writer and storyteller, Sisonke makes work that is grounded in place. She explores ideas of belonging somewhere, and what this means to humanity and our own personal identities. Home isn’t a defined patch of earth. Home is where your roots began, where they have sprouted and where they have spread to.
There is no doubt that South Africa is a large part of Sisonke’s identity. She has lived through and alongside the trials and tribulations of the country. While she didn’t spend a huge amount of time there as a child, South Africa was, and is always, home. From Sisonke’s description of her transient life, there is a sense that home is wherever her community is. Parents, extended family, school friends, fellow students, co-workers, and now children, all form part of her sense of place. And along the way, each country and each community has helped form her life’s work. This life abroad has given Sisonke a unique perspective on issues that unite communities all over the world.
When I spoke with Sisonke, she was warm and vivacious. Before the interview officially began, our initial conversation flowed quickly and, within a minute, I felt my spine lengthen, to literally sit up in her presence. I remember glancing down at my prepared notes and placing them to the side, realising I probably wouldn’t need them. Sisonke and I connected over being educated, middle-class women who are also of colour. We spoke about education and class systems, privilege, racism and gender. Reflecting afterwards, I get the sense that Sisonke has an innate talent for identifying how she can relate with someone she has just met and spark conversation from these similarities. I haven’t included in this interview the three minutes we spent deliberating over whether to share a brownie, or if we were both hungry enough to have a whole one ourselves. Nor the part where I stopped to breastfeed my newborn child and the tape recorded eight minutes of our muffled discussion on motherhood and sleepless nights.
Sisonke is fascinating. She is intelligent, grounded, hilarious and present. But underlining all of this is that through stories, Sisonke opens us up a world of possibility, where empathy and understanding is the key that connects us all.
“Because we grew up in lots of different African countries, my sense of the world was influenced by the African women around me. Even in societies that aren’t matriarchal, African women are very outgoing, independent.”
I read your book and, I must confess, I was amazed by your mum. She seemed so independent, hard working and fascinating. Can you tell me what she was like?
She was a really remarkable woman. And it’s funny, since she died, all of these ways in which she [used] forethought and foresight have continued to manifest themselves.
So about six months after she died, a friend of hers got in touch with my sisters and I and she was like, “Girls, what’s happening with the money?” And we were like, “What money?” It turns out Mum had invested money into shares and we had dividends owing to us. Her shareholders—these were her friends—they said, “We’ve all met, and we realise you don’t know what’s going on. You need to get your paperwork together and we will help you figure it all out.” It’s an interesting and important lesson about how she lived her life.
She was very clear about women being independent, having money and she was always thinking about what would happen in the future. She always wanted us to be able to have our own. But this is just one example. She was an amazing woman. She is still very present. We tell jokes about her; people remind us all the time of her influence on their lives. She was remarkable.
Are you like her?
I hope so. I am like her in that I am very strategic. She was very smart. I don’t think I have got it together in the way that she did.
Do you think she would think that?
(laughs) Yeah! Our whole lives she had things organised. She ran a very tight ship. She had a strong moral core. I guess what I’m realising is that she had a game plan for her children. She knew where she wanted her family to go. She knew that she wanted independent daughters that were well educated and could stand on their own. That was her objective.
Your mum being a career woman, how did this influence your perception of women and their role in the world as you were growing up?
Because we grew up in lots of different African countries, my sense of the world was influenced by the African women around me. Even in societies that aren’t matriarchal, African women are very outgoing, independent. They don’t really need the men in a social sense. They have a sense of who they are, not in relation to men.
Growing up, there was a certain amount of strength and independence that was associated with women. A lot of the women in the exile community around me were literally freedom fighters so they had done military training. So my perspective of what a woman was, was very diverse.
“This is the thing I’ve realised: it’s that white people believe that black people have internalised self-hatred.”
In your memoir Always Another Country, you mention a moment at school in Canada when you received a racist remark and your dad went to the school and demanded an apology from not just the person who said it but also from everyone involved. This was a pivotal lesson, not just for you but for everyone at the school.
Yeah, this was huge for me. This is the thing I’ve realised: it’s that white people believe that black people have internalised self-hatred. So the example of this story helps them to understand that. Particularly if you are raised in a place where you are in the demographic majority, you have a very strong sense of yourself. So when somebody tries to abuse you, you immediately know that it’s their problem and not yours. What my father was doing was role modeling for me, that it was their problem and not mine.
I would never own that [racist remark]. It was just not even an option, that doesn’t penetrate. Even today, at an intellectual level, I completely understand why people are outraged when white people say terrible things, and I think it’s wrong, but it doesn’t hurt my feelings. Because it’s their problem. It has nothing to do with me. Why would I own that? So when this story happened at school, I was old enough to cry and be humiliated but also old enough to learn the lesson that it’s not me. So that’s why it was important that my father did that.
A line that has really stuck with me in your book is “families are nothing without the stories they tell”…
Really? I said that? That sounds great!
Yes! And it made me think: that’s all we are. We create stories and pass them on.
Yeah, that’s all we are and we become closer to one another through the telling of stories. So if you think about something that happens to you, for me I think, “I can’t wait to tell my sisters this.” Then, suddenly the story becomes something else. It becomes a shared experience; something to laugh at or commiserate around. The emotions swirl around the story.
Stories grow, then are shared between another two people and then passed on again. You mentioned in one of your TED Talks that “stories are an important but insufficient step towards social justice” and also that “telling stories is an illusion of solidarity”. How do you tell the uncomfortable, gritty stories when there is also a tendency for storytellers to entertain and please the audience? How can you provoke change?
Well, stories are insufficient because they are something, but they are not enough. So I don’t think that whether a story is happy or gritty makes any difference on whether someone is going to take an action. I think someone is going to take an action because they’re predisposed to taking action, because they care about the world. There is no direct line between telling stories and someone taking action. This helps storytellers to not feel the burden of people’s expectations and it also helps us to not have big egos. My story is just the story I’m going to tell and people may or may not do something with it.
Secondly, with stories I’m always looking for the insight. And the insight can be in a funny story just as much as it can be in a gritty story. So I’m always trying to come at things sideways. I often use humour. I would never name a talk ‘A talk about racism’ because, you know, who’s not going to watch it?
“In the past, I have referred to myself as a writer and activist and I realised recently that I’m not an activist; I’m a writer.”
When did you start to realise that this was the way your career was going to head?
I feel like I’m doing it because it presented itself and it’s a fantastic thing to be doing now. The older I get, the more I realise how often I shift tack. I realised recently how people want to impose their narrative on you. People have an idea of who you are. And it’s tempting and easy to be like, “Yeah, I’m that thing you think I am.” It’s kind of instinct, and being agreeable because you’re a woman, partly also because you can be seduced by certain labels. And I’m not here for that!
In the past, I have referred to myself as a writer and activist and I realised recently that I’m not an activist; I’m a writer. I used to be an activist. I’m not anymore. So it’s not honest. It’s not a true description of me. Activists are people who organise, who spend their days doing policy work and advocacy, who go to parliament, who are on the streets. I’m not that person. I write. It’s also important because of the politics in that—in the politics of what people think I’m going to be.
What do you mean by this?
When I talk about my class position, when I talk about the fact that I’m middle-class—that I can come to Australia, that I have a book in bookstores and this is who I am—there is nothing surprising to me about the fact that I’m doing this. That’s not a boast; it’s a fact. Because I have a toolkit of class privilege and cultural capital that translates anywhere that I go. That’s what my mum’s legacy was to me. That’s what my parents worked hard for. That doesn’t make me special; it just makes me like a lot of white people. So when I say that, people find it surprising. And that’s good. Because I’m not your narrative. I’m just who I am.
I’m neither an angry black person nor am I this black person who is going to roll over. I’m what you don’t expect me to be. As is every black person you encounter, actually. So I’m here for destroying the presumptions.
I refuse to be defined by racism. And things have happened, of course, because I’m black in Australia. It’s not like nothing happened. It’s annoying. I’ll challenge it or I won’t, depending on the incident, but it doesn’t own me or exhaust me. It’s not like it’s happening every day or even every six months. Yes there are microaggressions but I have the cushioning to create a life for myself, to select who I want to be around, working at the Centre for Stories. In many ways I am incredibly lucky, but to call it only luck would be to deny the fact I’m able to make choices. I’m all about agency.
Personally, this interview is turning into a lesson for me—on writing and what it means to be an activist!
What I hope is that my writing means something. I care about social justice deeply. That’s why I have done all these things that I’ve done. But when I’m writing, I’m not writing to be an activist; I’m writing to be the best writer to my ability. And I really hope that someone takes that and does something with it in the real world.
I would be devastated if I felt that nothing I’d ever written had translated to anything real in the world. That would be horrendous to me. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m doing what I’m doing and not having a big ego about doing other things that I’m not doing. Nor do I want to have the burden of expectation of doing other things.
You have said before that “storytelling is intellectual work”. Can you elaborate on this a little further?
Storytelling is such a known trait of third-world cultures that those of us from other places are known that we’ve got an oral history. Because of that, it can be looked down upon as something that is not intellectual. It is referred to more as ‘roots’ or ‘organic’. People can be anthropologising about it. I say that it’s ‘intellectual work’ because we are people who think—all of us from everywhere in the world. If you’re human, you’re a thinker.
You tell stories as a way to think through the questions that matter, in your community in your culture, in the world.