Season 2 Episode 2 Naniso tswai
Evy: Hello, and welcome to Word Up podcast. I'm Evy.
Webster: And I'm Webster.
Evy: And today we are here with Naniso.
Naniso: Hey, how's is going?
Webster: Welcome to Amsterdam.
Naniso: God damn, it's raining again.
Webster: Yeah, it's raining a lot.
Naniso: Every time I come here.
Webster: Every time?
Naniso: Every time. I'm never coming back.
Evy: Coincidence? I don't think so.
Naniso: Maybe I'm bringing the rain.
Webster: How many times have you been here?
Naniso: I've been here, I think, six times.
Webster: Okay. That's quite a lot.
Naniso: Yeah. I don't know. I keep coming back. I don't know why. Something in Amsterdam. Maybe the rain.
Webster: You seem like a well-traveled man. Would I be correct in making that assumption?
Naniso: You know, I've seen my fair share of canals, so to speak.
Naniso: Has anybody ever said that? I feel like I just coined that term.
Webster: Yeah, you can put that on your grave, you know?
Naniso: All right. Okay.
Webster: It's all yours, if you want it.
Naniso: Oh, thanks! All right. Good to have something.
Webster: So, where are you based right now?
Naniso: I'm based in Berlin.
Webster: You're based in Berlin.
Naniso: Yeah, yeah.
Webster: And for our audience listening, who have never heard of you or don't know who you are, can you please tell us who you are and what's your story? How did you end up in Amsterdam?
Naniso: Oh, wow. How much time do you have?
Webster: I'll give you two minutes.
Naniso: Well, my name is Naniso. I'm originally from South Africa. I traveled quite a bit, growing up in England, France, Australia. And I kind of, somehow...well it's not "somehow." I went to Berlin, I think four years ago, for a two-week holiday, and I kind of end up staying. And Amsterdam is kind of my little retreat that I take now and again to see what the better side of Europe looks like.
Webster: That's pretty cool. Why were you moving around so much?
Naniso: Just my family. They ended up moving around, and I was a kid, so I followed, of course. And I kind of enjoyed it so much that even when I left home, I just had that same kind of habit to keep moving every two years. So Berlin is actually the longest I've ever lived anywhere in my entire life.
Webster: That's awesome.
Evy: And how long that's been?
Naniso: Four years, three months, and six days.
Webster: That's the longest you've ever lived somewhere in your life.
Webster: That's crazy!
Naniso: Yeah. One place. Yeah. So, I'm not sure why. I still don't speak a word of German, though.
Evy: Wow. And then I hear you're also hosting Berlin's Spoken Word?
Naniso: Yeah. So yeah, Berlin Spoken Word is one of the projects that I kind of started when I moved there. I was living in Paris, and I just...you know, Paris kind of got old for me, so I decided to go to Berlin for a two-weeks holiday, and then I couldn't find any Spoken Word events in English, and they were not competitive. And so, I kind of walked into a bar and decided I would try and start my own thing. And I'm actually amazed every week that people still come, and it's not just me in a basement with a microphone. Which would be fine! Don't get me started.
Webster: And how did you come to be doing Spoken Word? What was it about the medium that sort of got to you? That you wanted to bring that to Berlin?
Naniso: I think when I was younger, I always kind of wrote a little bit. And then I guess when I...in my mid-20s, writing became something else. It became less of a chore. It became something that I...kind of, as a release. It was cathartic. And I didn't actually know about Spoken Word or the medium, or Spoken Word. The idea that somebody would...or people would stand there or sit there and listen to you speak your own words was kind of strange to me. So when I came across it in a bar in Paris, I was like, "Wow! This is amazing! And I drink alcohol at the same time!" And so, from there, I kind of went to Berlin and started my own thing. And the rest is kind of history, so to speak.
Webster: And what were you writing before you...I guess you got to poetry?
Naniso: I was writing novels.
Naniso: And I was kind of transitioning from novels to short stories when I discovered Spoken Word, and then this whole kind of different type of writing, this form of writing, this art of writing, writing to perform...and it became something...I stopped doing all the other kind of writing. And I'm not sure if...sometimes I struggle against that, because writing for performing is a whole different animal, and it almost...I sometimes feel that it's cheating, so to speak. Because your writing doesn't have to always be perfect. It can be whatever it is, and then you get on the stage, and you can kind of fill in those gaps with your own performance. So it just becomes...the words that you put down on the original page may not actually resemble the actual performed words.
Evy: And I remember, you also use props? We had to get you a basketball last time!
Naniso: I mean, I have been known occasionally to use props, but it's not really something I try to do. But sometimes it's...if I'm doing like a basketball piece, it helps to have a basketball.
Webster: Makes sense.
Evy: Yeah, right? It was very hard to get one…
Naniso: But it's always fun, you know? Sometimes, you know, how you can find new ways to shock your audience. You know, I've shaved my hair off once, just on stage.
Evy: On the stage?
Webster: What? That's wild.
Naniso: Yeah, I'm committed to the arts. But yeah, you know, you can do all kinds of things on stage. And sometimes you have to use props, but I mean, it's all about the performance and having that, and building the relationship with your audience, and conveying whatever message you want to convey.
Webster: And what message are you conveying? What do you talk about when you're on stage? Is there a theme, or is it kind of...?
Naniso: I mean, it always changes. I mean, I would say, and I think people who hear me or know me, you know, they know I'm...mostly all my stuff is political. You know, I always come from a political. That's my background. That's what I'm trained to do. That's my profession. So I'm always going to try and take that political angle in whatever it is, the issue that bothers me, that's tickling me that week, that I read in the news, I'm going to try and bring it to the stage. And which, kind of, you know, belays kind of like a deeper belief that I have that, you know, performance or art generally has a responsibility to be political, to a certain extent. Yeah.
Webster: And what sort of conversations do you get out of that? I guess, you know, in my experience, very limited, when I've gone to Spoken Word events, you get people...you know, sometimes you get people who are super funny, and when you walk up to them afterwards, it's like...you know, you come with them, you know, at a place of humor, and some people are super serious, so when you talk to them, you're kind of like, "Hey, man. They was deep, man." Do people come and start talking politics with you?
Naniso: Yeah. I mean, it's a range of things. I mean, it depends on the performance, the audience, the amount of alcohol everybody's drank, and I've drank. So it really depends. And I think that's also the beauty of Spoken Word, in the sense that it's like a catch-all for all these different types and modes of communication. Whereas if you go to a comedy night, it's comedy. And the artist's role is to make you laugh. Whereas Spoken Word, they're going to touch you in a whole range of different emotions.
But I do also find sometimes it's very confusing when you perform a piece, and then an audience member comes up and asks you a question...for example, I think I was performing a piece a couple of years ago, and this woman...the piece was about my son. And, you know, I think it was taking him to the playground...something like that. And this woman came up to me afterward, and she asked, "Oh, I have a son the same age as yours!" And I was like, "I don't have a son!" You know, it was a performance piece! Whatever I do onstage is not necessarily...you wouldn't go up to a writer and ask them, "Oh, I read your book. Bla bla bla bla." You know? And try to relate to them. You separate the art or the product of the art from the actual artist. But yet, because you're on stage, because you're physically there and naked in front of them, that the people assume that whatever you're doing is true. And I remember when I told her, "I don't have a kid," she felt so betrayed.
Webster: I felt betrayed just now, when you said you didn't have a kid. I was like, “Oh, what?”
Naniso: Oh, what? I can go back. Yeah, actually I do have a kid. But no, it's interesting, and I think that sometimes it's possible to play with the audience with those truths and also with those lies. And you have to be very careful about doing it. But I also think that an audience member sometimes has no right to ask you a question. You know? I don't mean that to be or to sound combative. I just think, I have stood on stage and given you something. You know? And asked for nothing in return. And you want a follow-up question? You know, to question me?
Naniso: I mean, if you want to engage in a conversation, maybe, but if it is to question me or say you disagree with me...but, you came to listen to me. All right? I didn't come to listen to you. You know? And I really don't mean it to be combative, because I also think that, you know, that we are there to create conversations, to empower people to speak, to not be silent. But yet, I think there should also be that protective curtain for the artist.
Webster: Yeah, you can see that with a lot of comedians. Dave Chappelle recently did his Netflix special, and you know, people go crazy afterwards, as they always do, and start questioning his beliefs. And the issue there is that, you know, he's an artist. He goes on stage, he expresses what he wants to express. And you as an audience member, you take it, maybe you like it, maybe you don't, maybe you hate him afterwards. But there is definitely a line that people tend to cross after the performance to say, you know, "Let's cancel this guy." Or, "I don't agree with what he's saying. He shouldn't be allowed to go on stage." Do you think that's a conversation that needs to be had more with performers and audiences? Like, how do you balance that?
Naniso: I mean, everybody finds their own balance, you know. And I think the artist has to find the reason why they perform, or they partake in their own art. So I said at the beginning that I wrote novels. So I wrote three novels. I've never published them. I finished them. I spent years working on them. And they're on my laptop, and they will never see the light of day, because simply I wrote them for myself. And I have no interest in the scrutiny and the observation...for me it was a cathartic experience of actually that process of writing and finishing something that was important. Once it was finished I'm done with it. So that was the reason I wrote those. But why perform? It changes each week, you know? And I wouldn't like to speak for other artists, but for myself, the amount of clapping or boos that I receive from an audience doesn't interest me, because I step to the stage with a specific reason, a specific intent, and your pleasure has nothing to do with it. And once again, I don't mean to sound combative, but I think that there is...you know, as an artist, you have to be, you know, defensive at times, and careful and protective of what you do, and communicate that to the audience. Like, "Hey, I just gave you my heart and soul. You gave me a clap."
Evy: It's very boundary-oriented approach.
Naniso: Yeah! Which is one of the things I've been exploring the last year and a half, is how to break down that boundary. So for example, performing in Amsterdam on Friday nights, and what we're going to be doing is not performing from a stage, not performing from behind a mic, but actually performing within the audience, so you become one of the audience and there isn't that separation between you and the audience, and you're sharing something, you're creating something together. It's not you performing for them. It's us performing together. And I think that's very important, in all forms of art, to try and, you know, break down those walls, so to speak.
Evy: But you still don't want audience to have opinion?
Naniso: Well I never said they can't have an opinion. Of course, they can have an opinion! I just mentioned that coming up to me straight after a performance and telling me your opinion may not necessarily be the wisest thing to do.
Evy: Fair enough. So where do you draw your inspiration from?
Naniso: Well, I say that with a glass of white wine in my hand. I don't know. I mean, it depends. As I said, I'm very political. I spend...you know, it's not to show up, I spend three hours every day religiously reading the news. And from there I gather a lot of thoughts and then figure out where I position myself on the issues. And then, you know, you sit down and the blank page starts to...words come to you, and an idea, and it just keeps flowing. So I wouldn't say I find my inspiration from anywhere in particular, but the process and the joy of working out where I fit in this world.
Evy: So, belonging.
Naniso: Belonging, or not belonging, and just the infinitely complex puzzle that is us and society in this really crazy world we live in.
Evy: Yeah, and how people try to find the ways to entertain themselves.
Naniso: Yeah. No, it's…being in Amsterdam, speaking of which. So, yeah.
Evy: How do you entertain yourself? Besides the news, I mean.
Naniso: On a podcast every day? No, I mean, I play a lot of basketball. That's one of my refuges. You know? Where I go to get lost. And I write, obviously, perform, travel. And actually, to be honest with you, I love...when I'm not on stage, engaging in conversation. I will talk to anybody for hours on the street. I don't mind. I'd rather you...like, somebody who is not like me, who is very different from me, let's talk some more. Let's even grab a beer, you know? I would sit with a Trump supporter for hours, just to find out what the fuck.
Webster: Makes sense. And given that you've traveled around so much, I'm curious about how you view the world, from what perspective. Because you've lived in South Africa, and the U.K., and now you're living in Berlin. Are you looking at global politics - your talk about politics earlier - or is it, you know, from a certain perspective?
Naniso: I think that we are unavoidably egocentric and human in that respect, in the sense that I see the world from my perspective, you know, and I'm going to see it from a black, South African's perspective, living amongst white people in Europe. And I say that, but it's something that I struggle with. I'm not saying it's perfect, it's just that something that for is inescapable. You know? That is the prism, the lens through which I see every interaction that I have, not just with myself, but with others. And I see between others. So that's how I see the world.
And from that, obviously, we try to, and I personally try to - often fail - try to, you know, be as empathetic as possible, try to understand why other people feel like that. And therefore, that's why I like those conversations, because I'm just curious. You know? I always have this thing when I meet new people, and if I ask them, you know, more questions than they ask me, in the sense like, a lot more questions...if I ask them 10 questions and they ask me one, I'm probably not going to be interested in that person. You know? Because I can tell they're not interested in me, and that kind of...no, it doesn't upset me, but it upsets my notion of this person being somebody I want to be friends with, because that means they're not curious about the world. You know? Yeah, so I hope that I never meet somebody who asks more questions than I ask them.
Webster: I think we're doing that today, so...
Naniso: Yeah! So, yeah. I like you guys.
Evy: And I'm very curious about what poem you have prepared for us.
Webster: Yeah, me too.
Naniso: The graveyard of my soul is littered by countless zombie corpses of loves lost.
These lonely herds of bodies and vague memories stumble about the fields of my heart,
Abandoned by time, but nurtured by and perverted by cocaine neglect.
The eldest of them, a 6th-Grade teenage kiss without tongue that we both innocently stole in playground's corner.
Her name was Amondine, and damn, she was something to be seen.
And boy, I was like a virgin black bean, all kinds of keen.
This other zombie memory, her name was Nicola Bitters, and she was intellectually nimble,
The opposite of simple, with perfect dimples, to say nothing of her nipples.
Her father was a minister, and me, oh my, my thoughts were pure sinister.
Time flies as I reminisce with a tearful eye for all those loves gone awry.
Murdered by impatience, a youthful heart's vocation,
I mourn the loss of lust and innocent elation.
This one time - this one time - as I sought to bury once and for all
All of those lost, mummified memories of flirtations, I tried,
But I accidentally ended up burying myself.
A self, that despite my most earnest efforts, I have never been able to find again.
You see, when you bury yourself, you should never expect to exhume that same heart.
Death is death, and that boy who loved Amondine, well, he is dead and gone.
Evy: Thank you for sharing. Intense.
Webster: I liked it. It reminded me of all my countless childhood crushes that never came to fruition.
Evy: Maybe for the better.
Webster: Yeah, maybe for the better. I didn't know what I was doing.
Evy: Do we ever? No, no.
Webster: No, no. Not at all. Tell us about your poem. How long ago did you write this one?
Naniso: I wrote it just, I think, last month actually. Yeah, it's just a new one, and it was for an event about love. And to be honest with you, for me, love is not love. For me, it evokes memories...not memories, but the death of innocence. I have a morbid take on love very often, and for me it's about loves lost and these mummified remains that stroll around our minds and our hearts and memories in the past, and we're kind of dragged and anchored back there. And yet we try to go forward, you know, go forward, but yet we just...still carrying these dead corpses behind us.
Webster: That's tough.
Naniso: Yeah. Yeah. I normally don't bring that up on a first date. I normally wait until the second or third...
Webster: "So, how many corpses do you have?" But, also I'd say pretty true. You know, you think back to your first love or your first crush and the one that broke your heart, and you know, even as adults, not matter how many experiences you've gone through, they're the ones that you still carry. That's what shapes you. For me at least. I don't know about you guys.
Evy: I have no heart.
Naniso: But I mean, it may sound ominous, what I'm saying, but for me it's actually...I don't see it so negatively because there's a duality to it. There's a reason you keep dragging them along with you, because it was so amazing, such that you've never been able to forget it, you know? This kiss with Amondine, I was like...God, I must have been like, I would say 8 or 9?
Naniso: And I still remember that! And there was no tongue!
Webster: Geez. Blow your mind.
Naniso: Yeah. I mean, it wasn't like, the perfect kiss, but it was. And that's why she's still with me. I tried to get rid of her, but she's still with me, and that's a testament to the...to her lips. Sorry.
Webster: To the kiss.
Naniso: To her lips.
Webster: To first...first times.
Naniso: We all remember our first time.
Evy: So, yeah. But it's more like you always romanticize the past, because it's nicer to remember them that way, right? And then it's much more romantic than, I don't know, like, dirty socks and dating routine.
Naniso: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think we all have some relationship with nostalgia, you know? This idea of living in the past whilst, you know, moving towards the future, whilst living in a listless presence. Nostalgia is there, constantly, and we're just trying to wrap our hearts around it. But it just always escapes us, I feel.
Evy: Do you think nostalgia and melancholy...?
Naniso: No, because for me melancholy is purely for the past, whereas nostalgia...you can have a nostalgia for a future, for an unlived future or for unrealized future.
Webster: Are you nostalgic about anything in the future?
Naniso: So, as a South African, I am constantly suffering from nostalgia, the nostalgia of the past, you know, and something simple in the past, when, you know, there was a signpost that said, "You can't swim here," as a black person. Whereas now, you still can't swim there, but there's no signpost. So things are not simple as they were. But yet I'm also nostalgic for the future that was promised to us, that unrealized future, because now...we made that promise years ago, and now we've arrived to that future, and it's still not there. And I'm nostalgic for that person who dreamt of that future.
So I have these, you know, simultaneous nostalgias that co-exist and that are multilayered, and that bump up against one another, grinding sometimes, and it's such a complicated world to negotiate and to understand. And I'm glad I'm, you know, an artist so I get to actually, you know, work on that constantly.
Webster: I get that.
Naniso: Yeah. That was the political scientist of me coming out.
Webster: No, it's good. I was curious about the psychology of growing up in a country, let's call it "ex country" - I'm from Zimbabwe - so I grew up in Zimbabwe. It was, you know, rose petals and sunshine when I was a kid.
Naniso: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Webster: And then now, it's just, you know, the total opposite. And for me, it's something that I think about quite often. I think I feel helpless, you know, for the people that are still at home, who hoped for a better future, and they're clearly not getting it. I'm just wondering, you know, how you grapple with that as an artist, whether it's about, you know, violence, or is it a phobia, or anything like that, that might be happening in your former home?
Naniso: It's actually funny you mention that. There was this woman on the news, this Zimbabwe woman, and she was speaking about how Mugabe's going to be buried in Zimbabwe, and how they just returned his body, I think, this morning, and they're trying to, you know, bury him. And how Zimbabwe is so torn between this guy that's, once upon a time, liberator and great man, to this, you know, terrible dictator, and how they're torn between...they're tearing this man, or his image, apart, but yet they're also tearing their own realities apart. And it's fascinating watching the tensions.
For myself, I find that the solutions are in finding...are in being clear. Being clear about what I am thinking and why I am thinking it. And what I'm feeling and why I'm feeling that. What are the energizers? What are the pistons that are fueling those feelings and perspectives? And when you kind of start to strip things bare, like, "Okay, you know, Mandela was great. Why was he great? What did he do? Why was that great?" And to constantly, you know...just tearing away and just trying to think why. Chisel away at the reasons exactly why and the preciseness of it. And once you get there, you find some kind of...well, I'm still chiseling away, but you find some kind of peace and you know, kind of, I would say, tranquility. Which is what I'm still hoping for, but that is why I chiseled away.
Webster: Do you find peace in realizing what was to be inevitable? When you do, you know, peel back the layers and see what sort of happened? Let's say at a stage, and how events turned out? That's the way I see it, anyway. I don't mean to put that on you.
Naniso: No, no, no, no, no. Tell me more about that. What do you mean exactly?
Webster: Well, you know, if you look at Zimbabwe's history, and actually quite a lot of African countries' history and where they've ended up now, and you see the events that unfolded, and you say, "Okay, well this happened, and as a result of this, this group came up, and as a result of that this happened, bla bla bla." And you realize, "Okay, well this...I don't know how else that could have happened. It almost seems like it was going to happen this way."
And so in that sense, it kind of seems like inevitable that it was going to be this...and there's really nothing that you could do about it except for try and change the future and not the past. Because I think for a lot of people that I know, they stick in the past. "Oh, you know, it used to be this. It used to be this." You know? "Zimbabwe used to be this. South Africa used to be that." But, fail to see what it could be in the future. I don't know. I'm just...I'm playing with words here.
Naniso: No, no. I mean, I definitely think that it comes from understanding and chiseling away, but I also will not lie. I sometimes...when you strip things away and you see what...those cycles that happen again and again, sometimes that just tears me apart. I get furious. Like, for example, the recent, or the current unrest in South Africa against the xenophobic attacks from black South Africans towards other Africans who are in South Africa, I can't but help but keep shouting out loud, like, "You should know better! South Africans, you who have been the victim of so much oppression by people who were different, you should know better than not to treat people like that."
And if we're talking about cycles, and just seeing how that happens again, and it's almost irresistible currents of time. You're just watching it, and you can't do anything. But that is when I try to remind myself that you can actually do something. You know? You can not maybe do something on a macro, on a grand scale, but you could try to affect and impact the community around you. Which is why I'm really...you know, we talked a bit at the beginning that I run Berlin Spoken Word, but Berlin Spoken Word has been a vessel through which I can start a lot of other...or launch a lot of other community-based projects that are at the meeting point between art and politics. And where you make those small, little changes in your community.
And if you can do that, at the very least you can feel better about yourself. At the most, you can actually change things in your community. And that is...you know, I find it amazing. I don't speak a word of German, but yet I can actually impact my community. I think that's all you can hope to do. If you're not a Mandela, if you're not a Tutu, if you're not an Obama or somebody, just do what you can in your small community, you know? And from that, maybe something else will grow, but that will actually be enough, you know, to keep those dark thoughts of the cycles and the demonic cycles from TV watching them, and you as an observer. So that's why I advise my son.
Evy: The art of small steps?
Naniso: Yes. Is that your new novel?
Evy: No, but it's...do you think there are more advices you could give for people who don't know how to learn from the past? Or don't want to learn from the past?
Naniso: In order for me to give advice would mean that I have learned those lessons myself, and I'm not going to sit here and say I'm always perfect, but I'm still struggling. You know, I spoke of Amondine, I spoke of, you know, how I still harbor, you know, anger and frustration at my past, and I try not to repeat them. You know, if I did have a son, I would just say, you know, "A day at a time. A moment at a time. Action at a time. And think, deconstruct exactly what you're doing and why you're doing it, and what you'll do next time. And if you keep thinking of those things over and over again, you know, then, well, you'll be a better person."
Evy: So like, be more aware, and bringing that awareness to every day.
Naniso: Yeah! Yeah. Just do it every day.
Evy: Good mantra.
Webster: Hey man, thank you very much for speaking to us today.
Naniso: My pleasure.
Webster: And for our audience listening, where can they find your work and your writing and everything that you're doing online?
Naniso: You can't find my writing online, but you can find me and my projects that I do in Berlin, and we are currently trying to spread our network as far as possible. So, as you know, I'm in Amsterdam today, I was in Switzerland a couple weeks ago, I was in France a couple weeks ago, I was in Italy a couple weeks ago. I'm going to Romania in a couple of months. So yeah, I'm just trying to see as much as I can, and just trying to build as big a network as I can. So, Facebook is the answer to your question.
Evy: We'll link your Facebook then in the podcast notes?
Naniso: Yeah. Just, anybody who wants to join on this journey, just come along.
Evy: Thanks so much.
Webster: Thank you very much. And for our audience listening, if you want to listen to future episodes, you can go to www.worduppodcast.com, where you'll find our social media, past episodes, and information about our current and past guests. Thank you!
Evy: Thank you. Welcome...no. No, no, no...I'm sorry! It's not live, you know? He's going to edit it out.
Naniso: Right. Okay. How do you mess that up, though?
Webster: Yeah. This should be part of the podcast.
Naniso: The outtakes should be the podcast.
Transcript by Janice Erlbaum