On a crisp November afternoon, Are We Europe sat with Kopano Tiyana Maroga on a busy café terrace. Maroga’s debut poetry collection, Jesus Thesis and Other Critical Fabulations, lay on the table alongside hot drinks billowing steam. The performer and artist is also a cultural worker and does house dramaturgy at the Viernulvier arts centre in Ghent. Basking in the winter sun, they spoke at length about the power of language, poetics and queer Christianity.
I want to start with the poet behind the poems. What is important to know about who you are as a person?
I’m queer, very queer. A big capital “F” Faggot, that’s very important to me. Geolocally, I really relate to being a South African. My mother’s Xhosa and my father’s Sotho. I identify more with my Xhosa cultural heritage. Being South African is such an amorphous concept—especially in a post-colonial time. The political environment I grew up in was the nation state construction of South Africa, and not the indigenous territory of Southern Africa.
I don’t necessarily feel culturally connected to Mozambique, Namibia, or Botswana. There’s a lot of similarity between these cultures but how much we know about one another is minimal. There are a lot of economic connections which makes trade really easy between the countries of Southern Africa—and yet, culturally, there’s little permeability. Through poetry, I’ve actually been able to access a real panAfricanism that I lacked in South Africa because it’s so socially segregated.
As a poet, you’re in the art of language-bending. Language holds power. In the collection, you write:
“In the languages of my mother’s and
father’s tongues there is no pronoun for
he or she
How does language regulate how you look at yourself and society?
I often consider myself to have been raised domestically Black and socially white because of the social constructions of South Africa. I’m part of this generation of “born-frees” that were born post-1994 in a quote-unquote democratic South Africa, and we were the first generation that was going to previously only white schools and integrating on that level.
There’s something very inherent to South African-ness that happens on the level of language. We spoke Xhosa, Sesotho, or other indigenous African languages at home and then went to English-speaking schools and got detention for speaking Xhosa on the playground because the teachers think that we’re gossiping about them. They tell you that you’re here to learn English and Afrikaans, because those are the languages of instruction.
So, I was growing up in an environment where when I was outside of the house, the main language of engagement was English. I was making friends in English, applying for jobs in English and writing my schoolwork in English. And then only in domestic, platonic environments would I be Xhosa-speaking, Sesotho-speaking. The language that I think in and that I dream in is English. It’s so dominant. I feel a sense of ownership of the language of English—it’s part of who I am.
Has your relationship to language changed since leaving South Africa?
In a place like Belgium, there’s a lot more fluidity in moving through language. Brussels—being the capital of Europe—is surrounded by so many languages.
It’s telling of what the relationship to culture and “otherness” is. There’s almost more of an engagement with the “other” in Europe than I’ve experienced in South Africa. I meet a lot more people, or white people specifically, that are actively trying to learn Arabic, trying to learn the languages of engagement on the ground. More so than I know of white people in South Africa learning Xhosa or Sesotho. It’s such a confrontation between a region that has been constructed for the purposes of colonial expansion—South Africa—versus a colonial centre like Belgium. Even though, in South Africa, 92% of the people are people of colour. And yet we are so minoritised.
Does art help you to react to and interact with the world around you? Do you need poetry?
I’m not paying my rent with poetry, right? So this is not where the need comes from. Poetry and poetics—because I also work with dance and theatre––are the most accessible techniques of trying to understand the world and to engage with the concurrent complexities of what it means to be a human right now.
When I was in university, I studied social anthropology. It’s an amazing resource for trying to understand people. It has a lot more room for narrative methodologies and it necessitates subjectivity and positioning. We were taught to always—in whatever we were writing—position ourselves on an entity level: class, race, gender, all the things that we felt were relevant to what we’re speaking to. But even anthropology has those limits. At a certain moment, whatever argument you are putting together is scrutinised: is the argument sound? What I appreciate about art and about poetry is that it allows for a hyper subjectivity. You can just make statements. You can just make declarations.
You can be bold.
You can be very bold. For me, it’s a divinity practice. You’re trying to scry the human experience. Writing Jesus Thesis and Other Critical Fabulations was a great example of this because it was all about scrying my own lived history for some kind of understanding of what I am.
I’m Black, South African, queer, Xhosa, Sotho, middle-class. All of these categories can give a topography of the self. But you cannot divine from that information alone. You have to enter into the poetics of the self. What is the flora and the fauna like? What is the air quality? What are the subterranean mycelial networks? Poetry is a need to situate myself, to understand myself, and it’s a safe place to think unthinkable thoughts.
Your poetry collection features Christian myths referenced and retold. What led to this remaking of religion?
Jesus Thesis and Other Critical Fabulations came out of my master’s at the University of Cape Town in Theatre and Performance, live art, interdisciplinary and public art in 2018 and 2019. We were doing research through performative techniques and practices. Doing before thinking, let’s say. Certain images were coming up a lot for me that harkened to mythology in the broader sense. I would think “Wow, this makes me think of the Venus de Milo”. Then I started to, in this very referential way, look to Venus as related to Aphrodite, Aphrodite as related to Isis, Isis as related to Ishtar and Inanna. Who are they? How is it that they have these different names and different associations depending on space and place and time?
And yet a perpetual existence.
A perpetual existence in continuously morphing forms. I was looking at religions and mythologies that I don’t come from and I inevitably ended up in the comparative mythology discourse that looks at Christianity as a by-product of much more ancient religions and mythologies. My access point was that I’m a continuum. I’m part of these mythologies and religions by virtue of being raised Christian. I started to look at how, with the ascendance of the Abrahamic religion, patriarchal figures supplanted matriarchal or much more diversely represented mythologies and religions. I also think that’s a byproduct of monotheism. So, for me, there was a queerness in the way that transferring from one place to another literally changes who you are.
A great example of this is a friend of mine from Mozambique who came to study in Cape Town. She has a white Portuguese mother and a Black Mozambican father. In Mozambique she’s considered to be white, because she has a white mother. She comes to South Africa and because she looks like a Black person, she’s treated like a Black person. There is a line between Mozambique and South Africa. It’s not the other side of the world but she has a completely different social experience depending on where she is.
For me, that’s Aphrodite, that’s Isis, that’s Ishtar. This figure that moves a border and is related to completely differently but remains the same thing that it has always been. Because of that, I wanted to humble the place that Christianity has taken in my life and also in the world. You would almost think that Christianity is the only religion that ever existed. It pays no credence to how much it has appropriated from other religions and cultures, as all religions and cultures do.
Particularly as an export of colonialism.
Absolutely, and in its exportation, there’s strange things like Jesus’ birthday at Christmas being a reinterpreted Pagan holiday, Saturnalia. There’s no acknowledgement of that. It was important for me to know more about what has taken up so much space in my life. How do I work with this figure of Jesus, who I find to be this very queer, compelling, and radical figure? The way that I was born into Christianity was through the idea that the purpose of Christianity is to become Christ-like. It’s all about you in relation to the world around you. It’s not about who is or is not Christian and it’s not about conversion—those things are neither here nor there. I believe that Christ was interested in the potential of transformation.
I wanted to also point to the way in which the figure of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a descendant of these great goddesses. And in the Christian story she is re-interpreted as a vehicle for the real God to emerge from. That fucked me up. [Laughs]
In the collection, you contribute your own theory as to what Jesus was up to between the ages of 12 and 29. Could you tell me more about how this poem came to be?
That poem was inspired by techniques from Audre Lorde and Saidiya Hartman. Lorde is a super important Black feminist from America who coined the term “biomythography”, which is a neologism of biography and mythology. So, mythologising one’s biography.
Hartman created a technique called critical fabulation, which engages with historical archives, like the shipping logs of slave ships and the diaries of shipping captains. And where there are gaps in these narratives, fabulating fiction offers an alternative reading of that history—one that does not deviate from what we do know to be facts. The ship came from here, it arrived here. We know these things happened while that ship was at sea, but in between that there are spaces to propose certain happenings, inner dialogues and to create characters.
We only have access to certain types of narratives, the ones that were able to be recorded.
It’s absurd that, alongside the very tangible facts of history, only one reading of those facts is presented as the dominant narrative. Hartman is interested in how to read agency into the lives of enslaved people and also of Black Americans living in post-enslavement America. She’s interested in pushing back against the dominant narrative of non-agency and proposing that even in those conditions people were living, loving, making choices, and surviving in the ways that people have always done.
It’s the same with Audre Lorde and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name—the biomythography that she wrote. Essentially, she looks at her ancestry and how the word zami in Carriacou means “a woman who loves other women”. So, zami could be considered a lesbian, but could also be considered platonic-romantic. It’s a lot more open.
To what love can be?
To what love can be, between women. Audre Lorde, as a lesbian herself, was really interested in how to imagine her sexuality as some kind of ancestral inheritance. That she comes from zami, that she comes from an ancestry of women loving women. What a beautiful and different way to think of sexuality than the one we inherit from the west.
So, because there are no verifiable historical documents to say what ya boy Jesus was up to between the ages of 12 and 29 , I thought it would be interesting to literally insert my biography and see what that does to the narrative. And it doesn’t deviate from who it is that Jesus ended up becoming. That was quite beautiful to me because it makes being Christ-like possible again. Everyone’s biography can fit into that little gap and that person still became the saviour of humanity. That is the queerness for me in the life of Jesus. It’s not necessarily the fact that he was hanging out with 12 other unmarried men… That’s a different conversation.
How does queerness translate into religious practice?
My philosophical understanding of the mechanisms of prayer, petition and confession is that these are techniques of acknowledging that you are an agent in world-making, not a subject. You are co-creating the world and in that way you are God. That’s why for me, Christianity is not something that happens in the head, it’s something that happens in the world.
It must be lived.
It must be lived, it must be done, it must be expressed. I don’t know if you’ve ever sung a hymn in a church full of people, but what that does to the air and to your feeling of connectivity and love is felt. It’s real. To me, there is a radical political potential and it’s necessarily queer because what it proposes is something that is completely non-normative today. Our society has evolved to completely move away from collectivity, away from accountability, away from interdependence, away from love.
Christianity proposes that you are a superorganism of divinity and that we need to find how to work together. That’s the church that I grew up with. You tithe and they tell you specifically where the money is going: the roof broke down and we need to repair it, this family has experienced a loss and the money will go to them so they can tide over for the next months… That is Christianity and divinity to me. A radical collaboration.
How does writing about religion and religious community intersect with the queer experience today?
The queer communities that I’m a part of are one-for-one with the experiences that I’ve had in church. Whenever there’s a queer gathering, everyone knows the techniques. We’ll cook together, or there’s a holding of hands while we ask each other how we are and about our lives. People share if there’s anything happening at work, if it’s an unsafe environment, and then this person knows someone who works in the diversity office, or that person knows a lawyer. That’s church to me!
A support structure?
Absolutely, but it’s also an understanding of how my life can’t work without you. It’s not because I’m a good samaritan, but rather that you’re necessary to my life and so I need to invest in order for you to be well because you need to be well. What I was trying to do with Jesus Thesis and Other Critical Fabulations was lift up what is already there. Indicating that, as queer people, we’ve been at the forefront of churching for the longest time.
It’s the practice of world-building together. The radical potential of queerness is this ability to dream a future in the present.