Self-care, working on being our best selves, and actualising our dreams, is the new sexy. Malawian storyteller Upile Chisala, is all about that life—introspection, ‘gently reminding us of our ‘magic’ and ‘humanness,’ and healing. The double Oxford graduate is incredibly authentic and vulnerable in sharing her truth. Chisala pens affirming, empowering and encouraging pieces on joy, identity, spirituality, femininity, beauty, love and loss. Her words leap from the page (or screen), nudge you deep in the gut and linger in your soul.
A revised version of her first collection of poetry and prose soft magic (first published in 2015), was recently published under Andrews McMeel publishing. ‘This is one of the best things to ever happen to me. I feel so affirmed and so grateful.’ Her second collection Nectar, was published in 2017.
Having lived in the US and later in the UK, the woman behind the famous quote; ‘I’m dripping melanin with honey. I’m black without apology’—now calls Joburg, South Africa, home. We touch on self-care, identity, intellectual property, unlearning silence, purpose and much more.
What does self-care look like for Upile?
The older I get the less complicated self-care looks like for me. At this moment, self-care looks like rest. And I know rest is a luxury but whenever I can get a moment to chill out and just be, I take it. I come from a line of carers and worriers, women who cared so deeply for others that they forgot themselves along the way. I come from the anxious and the perpetually tired. This thing of having a metaphorically big heart can manifest itself as problems in your literal heart. I, Upile Chisala, first of her name, breaker of cycles, choose rest.
The UpileHive came out strong in your defence when rapper Grace Hamilton basically plagiarised your words— ‘I’m dripping melanin with honey. I’m black without apology.’ Did she (Grace Hamilton) ever reach out or credit you?
I love this ‘UpileHive’ thing, lol. The support I received about this was so incredible and I am forever grateful for people who stand in the corner of the smaller creatives. I think if our work is good enough to steal, it is definitely good enough to protect and I’d love to see more of us less-known creatives, do the work of taking people to court when they don’t respect our intellectual property. She never reached out to me but I know she saw everyone’s comments.
‘Untie the tongue. Ready your lungs. You are a soft creature but you will be heard.’ Nectar is dedicated to women who unlearned silence and the women who are still coming to terms with their voices. How did you unlearn silence and how does one come to terms with their voice?
I am this shy creature who unfortunately has decided to make a living by using words both on paper and out loud. I think I fall into the category of women who are still unlearning their silence honestly. But I know that my voice is necessary and every day I fight shyness with everything I have in every space I can.
What was the inspiration behind soft magic and Nectar as titles?
I wrote both poetry collections first and the titles came after. With soft magic, I wanted this book to be a breath of fresh air, a moment to contemplate the little instances of joy that make life so incredible at the end of the day; And soft magic is the best way I could describe those moments of goodness amidst all the messiness of life. Nectar was this unabashed journey to finding and using my voice. The woman of Nectar isn’t as soft or as put together but she’s loud and free and honest. Nectar is a sugary liquid that’s important in the process of pollination and in that spirit the book Nectar is important for growth.
You clearly have a thing for honey and a lot of your work mentions God, holiness and prayer. What does your spiritual life look like and how has it or does it influence the way you navigate life and your work?
Having been raised by praying women I understand grace and make note of it constantly. I am very certain of us all having a purpose and that truth has been instrumental in shaping how I see the world. I don’t believe in little existences, in people just being here to take up space and work, live and die as people before them. Writing for me is how I do my part in affirming God.
In Nectar you have a few soft reminders: ‘Important: Books about us. Films about us.’ What are some of your favourite books about us that have influenced or inspire you?
‘We Need New Names’ by NoViolet Bulawayo, ‘God Help the Child’ by Toni Morrison, ‘Bone’ by Yrsa Daley-Ward, ‘Collective Amnesia’ by Koleka Putuma and ‘Feeling and Ugly’ by Danai Mupotsa.
‘Some of it is poetry and most of it is falling apart.' How did you get over the initial fear of judgement in putting your truth (‘falling apart’) out there?
I used to be so afraid of talking about the ugly things. But I think at some point I realized we all just need to sit with some of these hard truths and if my work can get those though but necessary conversations started in black homes and African homes then I’m fine with that. Homes are getting heavier from the weight of all this trauma and I’d like to see less of us buried under it so I’m okay with saying the dirty words like ‘depression’ or ‘sex’ or ‘abuse’.
Would you say you have found your purpose/calling?
I think my purpose is simply reminding people of their humanness. Honestly, my work does more dragging than encouraging. And healing is what you do on your own when you are good and ready. At the end of the day, we all need a bit of tenderness as well a few reminders here and there to be more honest about when we are in the wrong.
The best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?
A fellow writer told me that I’ve already given my gift by simply sharing my work and that what I choose to do beyond that is entirely up to me. When people feel strongly about your work and relate to it on deeper level, they come to you with their heaviness. But I don’t have all the answers and I am not a healer, even though I’d love to mend every broken person I can’t.
The one thing you’ve been most afraid to write about?
I have a hard time writing about anything that has to do with my family but I do it. I carry so much love for each of them, and I don’t want them to find my words cruel.
What do you make of the poetry scene in SA compared to your experiences in the US and in the UK?
Being embraced by your kinfolk is always something worth celebrating. It feels good to have the opportunity to share my work on a wider basis, but simply being here and witnessing how deeply poets are appreciated on African soil is the dream. To see people who look like me thrive as creatives is refreshing and reaffirming. My experience as a poet here so far has been unmatched.
I saw a tweet where you mention some of your favourite African female musicians and mentioned Asa as one of them. Love her! Would you consider collaborating with a musician and has anyone ever approached you in this regard?
I am always open to giving people art in different ways so when a musician is good and ready to work with me, I’d so love that.
Please share your writing/creative process
I run a writing mentorship program called ‘Khala Series’ in Jozi, and recently hosted a succesful inaugural writer's retreat #SoftRetreat in Cape Town with renowned storyteller Koleka Putuma. I tell all my students to practice better and consistent writing habits. This message was mostly for myself because I struggle with routines and usually wait for the inspiration to come. But these days, I make a list of what I want to write about and I sit down in the morning and do it. It feels nice having a space at home in which I can.
Do you memorise your poetry?
Not all I, I think it’d make readings easier for me if I did. I was at Poetry Africa last year rummaging through my books and papers and all the other poets got on stage and simply recited all these long poems from memory.
Favourite blogs/bloggers and podcasts?
I love the Cheeky Natives! They embrace black writers. They are playing such an important role in our history. They are archiving and we are proudly listening.