Vanessa Chisakula

Vanessa Chisakula is a Zambian poet, who first discovered her writing wits after becoming a mother. She uses poetry as a tool to advocate for women’s rights and to address social issues like mental health. Vanessa believes in a world where art can bring a change by bridging divides and conveying the youth’s creative potential into movements, which can be a place where the marginalized can express themselves.

One of your poems, “Her Place”, is about being a mother and a woman, how did this role shape your voice and prompt you to start writing? 

Indeed, “Her Place” is a deeply personal poem that delves into the complexities of being a mother and a woman in our society. For me, writing has always been a means of self-expression and exploration. The experience of motherhood brought forth a myriad of emotions and challenges, which naturally found their way into my poetry.  The role of a mother is multifaceted: it brought about a heightened sense of empathy, sensitivity, and a deepest understanding of the human experience. Through the lens the motherhood, I began to reflect on societal norms, gender roles, and the inner struggles faced by women.

Writing became a sanctuary where I could navigate and articulate these emotions, allowing me to confront and ultimately ease the inner tensions that arose from the demands of motherhood and womanhood.

In the poem “Enemy within self” you say that the primary enemy of a woman is a woman herself, what brought you to understand that the real  devil is the woman “you see in the mirror” and “points at the tear in your shoes and not at the tear in your eye”?

“Enemy within self” explores the internal struggles and self-criticism that many women face, highlighting the pervasive influence of societal expectations and internalized misogyny. The realization that the primary enemy of a woman can be herself stems from personal introspection, observation, and collective experience.

As a woman, I have witnessed myself the destructive impact of self-doubt, comparison, and the relentless pursuit of unattainable standards imposed by society. The metaphorical “devil” residing within oneself symbolizes all internal beliefs and judgements that undermine self-worth. Society often reinforces unrealistic beauty standards and expectations, leading women to internalize those ideals.

The line “points at the tear in your shoes and not at the tear in your eye” illustrates the tendency to focus on superficial shortcomings than acknowledging deeper emotional wounds.

You are the cofounder of a great movement, Word Smash Poetry, which gives voice to many poets and has been involved in a programme against Gender-Based violence in Zambia. How did the idea of this movement emerge? How does gender violence affect your voice, the voices of other poets and the life of women in your home country?

Word Smash Poetry was born from a  desire to provide a platform for poets to address social issues authentically. Our involvement in programs against Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in Zambia reflects our commitment to social justice. Inspiring powerful narratives, GBV instills fear and self-doubt: it restricts freedom, perpetuating harmful norms and hindering the path towards gender equality.

You are part of the African Youth Partnership. Africa is the youngest continent on Earth and in your poem “Africana” you mention the great diversity of the continent and its rich culture: how does this influence your poetry and how can this be conveyed into a broader African youth movement to bring change through art?

In my poem “Africana” I celebrate the rich tapestry of African cultures, languages, and traditions, recognizing the beauty and complexity of our shared heritage. This diversity influences my poetry by infusing it with a kaleidoscope of perspectives and allows me to explore themes as identity and belonging, while shedding light on the challenges and injustices that persists in our societies.

In Africa these feelings can serve as a power catalyst for unity and solidarity. By embracing our differences, we can cultivate a more inclusive and equitable society.

To convey all this in the African Youth Movement, in my opinion it is essential to prioritize intersectionality, amplifying marginalized voices and addressing discrimination and oppression faced by different communities. This can be achieved through intercultural dialogue and initiatives that celebrate African heritage.

Leveraging the power of art, poetry, music, and other forms of creative expression can help bridge divides, inspire empathy and advocate for social justice and human rights. Poetry provides an opportunity to bear witness to injustices and challenge the status quo. Through evocative language, imagery and symbolism, poets can inspire critical thinking, offering a space for healing and empowerment and appealing to shared values and emotions like love, loss, resilience and hope.

In your poem “Africana” you point at someone who thinks that Africans are poor and hides behind a guilty benevolence. How do you think that this mindset can be changed worldwide, bringing people to see Africa’s potential rather than its flaws?

Changing the global perception of Africa requires challenging stereotypes and highlighting the continent’s vast potential, resilience and diversity. The mindset that Africans are inherently poor or helpless perpetuates harmful narratives that overlook Africa’s wealth of resources and innovation.

To tackle this way of thinking, education and awareness are the key: it is crucial to showcase Africa’s achievements and contributions to the global community in multiple fields, including technology and arts.

Additionally, promoting partnership and collaboration can facilitate mutual learning and exchange of knowledge and could also give the opportunity to unlock Africa’s full potential, Amplifying African voices and perspectives in global platforms and media can challenge existing narratives and empower Africans to tell their own stories.

According to UN data, Zambia is grappling with social inequality and with the AIDS pandemic. Such scenarios can seriously affect people’s mental health, which is something you sincerely care about and try to address in your poems. How do the difficulties your country faces shape your feelings?

Obviously, social inequality and the AIDS pandemis have profound implications for mental health and well-being here in Zambia. The pervasive impact of these challenges can be sensed in several ways, including increased stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. In particular, the AIDS pandemic not only poses significant health risks but also carries social stigma, with affected individuals facing ostracism, rejection and loss of social support.

As a poet and a member of the Zambian community, these difficulties deeply shape my feelings and outlook on life. They fuel a sense of empathy, solidarity and urgency to address systemic injustices and advocate for social change.

Interview by Chiara Ercolini e Antonella Sinopoli

Link to the interview in Italian


Read Africana

Read Her Place

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