Malika Ndlovu was born Lueen Conning in 1971, the first and only daughter to a loving, politically conscious mother and a caring religious father – both storytellers of different sorts, with different approaches to life and being in South Africa. Her mother particularly, shaped her early consciousness of the inequalities and atrocities of the South African apartheid regime. This consciousness followed her through her adolescent years, and the surfacing of her artistic talents. Though she has worked as an actress and a playwright, in this conversation with Kolade Arogundade, she speaks mostly about her history, religious perspective, poetry, and the healing power of creativity.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Let us start this conversation by briefly exploring your background, your Zuluness, Swedishness, your Scottishness, Durbanness and of course your Capetowness and Africanness…and the work that you do.
Malika: Thank you, I will start one step further back by honoring my mother. I think on many levels literally, that’s when my story begins, but my mother is one of a few mothers that I know from the generation that she was, who when I interviewed for a play that I was doing around the so-called coloured identity that I was dumped with and adopted, she said that ‘what is this notion of been ashamed of what this means?’ I consider myself to be one of the richest women because of this mix, because of this rich ancestry, and at stage she obviously didn’t even know half of what it is that compiles to that ancestry because not a lot of our history was captured or taught, and there was and still exists a whole degree of shame around it. But I think it’s that spirit of defiance and of saying ‘I have the right to define myself in any way that I like and you are not going to tell me who I am, I will tell you who I am’.
So that’s kind of the context in which I got into adolescence which I think prior to that was merely a cocoon, where I had no idea of what insanity I was been born into in 1971.
I had no idea that the parameters of the community that I grew up in would have been set for me. I did begin to understand pre-adolescence that there were this other people, there was another that was seemingly more privileged, seemingly had more access, seemed to own most of the shops, we seems to scurry away from them when were in town walking on the pavement, we seemed to not be allowed…but only when I started to…because even beyond reading, because I was old enough to read but the concept of really understanding…’WHITES ONLY’ on this bench or in this park is something I think as a child didn’t really translate, and it still seemed like a distant something.
I started out just typically growing up as part of community shows and concerts as a dancer, a little bit of an actress. I was always writing, always journaling.
That came like breathing to me. I only recognised the impact that the pen was having when I started to write in high school and teachers will said ‘this is really something you need to pursue in your life’
Sam Umukoro Interview: I get the sense that the so-called colored people had a better deal than the so-called black people under apartheid. I mean there was ‘othering’ going on there. If you can say what’s your business with those people…why do you care about them?
Malika: No that was absolutely true. So most definitely there was an obvious, devious divide and conquer strategy that was being projected by apartheid, to separate the so – called Bantu from the colored from the Indian and the white person in apartheid, and I felt and saw that literally by the designation of schools we went to, or buses we went on, the divide between a street that will separate where the Indian people are, colored people are. One street literally, a strip of tar between us but a very clear boundary culturally in terms of gang warfare.
It happens all over the world, this is ghetto mentality in its classic form everywhere in the world but the ludicrousness of it. I wrote a poem for a beautiful musician name George Mari, a trumpeter and a composer and his family were quite major activists.
In this poem I talk about George and my history being separated by this thin line of concrete and tar, across which children were born and the questions around their ancestry which should have been looking over shoulders, as in where do we come from, was about attacking, disproving the infidelity or the betrayals around.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Let’s talk about your work. I read somewhere that you were a born poet. Let’s talk about your work as a poet and as a writer, your coming of age, if there is really anything like that. Are you really a born poet? Is there anything like that?
Malika: Sure. I think you can be a born artist. To be a born poet is quite a specific breed. I love the notion, yes I mean I think that my way of seeing the world is infused with poetry. I do think everything is poetry, that’s why I think my job will never be short of labor. There will never be any shortage of inspiration to write poetry, and I said to you earlier that I took my writing so for granted it was like breathing.
When I grew up I was writing letters to God, I was writing stories about experiences I was learning. I was writing, journaling to myself to make sense of the schism in my inner world and my outer world and I was worried that I was mad.
I could express these voices through writing. Also it was a private space in which I didn’t have to show any one how crazy I was because… and then daring around adolescence to begin to sing these songs, or show these poems and discover ‘okay! they don’t think I am crazy’, people are actually relating to what I am saying, or been compelled to ask questions. There was for example, I think my earliest poem was published when I was nine years old within the school journal, it was about our teeth. I had a terror of the dentist, which I inherited from my mother; she was a drama queen of note. She will scream and moan. And we will be sitting and thinking ‘Oh no I’m next!!!!’ so I just inherited fear around the dentist and I wrote this poem and my teacher made me stand on the desk and read it when it was published, so I was both embarrassed by that platform I was given but I was also so proud to see my stuff in print. I mean that was a magical process that I had an idea, an experience, I spoke and it was out there in the world.
That transition and transformation of how it could fly without me, and would live longer than me so definitely something that even as a child, I clamped onto, and I loved the fact that when I read other people’s work, I will see a name and I won’t have an idea of how old that person was, or what color they were.
Sometimes even whether they were a man or a woman, I found that so liberating. That people will not see my name on a page and think she is black, she’s coloured, she’s from South Africa, she’s only 16. They will read a name and they will want to know what else I have written as opposed to defining or confining my identity.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What was yours growing up?
Malika: Lueen! Conning was my surname, which possibly came from the German surname Kunin.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You’ve come a long a way with a name like Lueen.
Malika: Also with Malika, it’s quite a magical journey because even the assumption that when I became Muslim (I practiced Islam for seven years), I had a very profound experience of this religion that helped me address a lot of my own prejudices and specifically around feminism issues, a lot of ignorance around the idea of freedom as a woman under Islam, within Islam, instead of under, and I practiced between 2000-2007.
It just turned out that my brothers had coincidentally or by destiny, had become Muslims as well. Earl becomes Isha, Shane becomes Saheed, Lueen becomes Malika, and they had a very different experience of Islam, quite militant, went to live in Iran, studied at Qom university, both fluent in Farsi and Arabic, were teachers of this religion.
I had a very Sufi poetic experience in the middle of Holland, (laughing) and they were most surprised by that revolution.
The name Malika had already come to me in a series of dreams actually, where I recognised this woman that doesn’t look like me at all. In fact she looks indian, dark skinned, very long hair and I was always meeting her in my dreams at a particular encounter that was a life changing one. I knew her name was Malika and I knew she was me.
Years later I have this call to Islam and in Japan at a gathering of world’s religions for children, and I have a badge on my chest saying ‘Observer’ because I refused to be associated with any particular religion at the time. So I go there as an observer, I come out fully with my tag ‘Islam’.
It is a magical story for me because Lueen, if you spell it on page…here is really an apartheid joke, so we were just black kids, they don’t give a damn about misspelling your name, so the name was given for my grandmother is spelt L.O.U.E.E.N, which possibly has a connection to a French name. They messed it up at the registration office and it was L.U.E.E.N. Years later I become Malika which means Queen in Arabic and Swahili, if you change the first letter, Malaika is angel.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You find African Americans embracing Islam in protest against Western racism but always I wonder they do not just embrace their African roots. Why did you choose Islam or did Islam choose you?
Malika: I think it is because it’s such an epic subject, we could talk for hours about this and I do think it is closer to what you just said, that I do feel that it chooses you.
I think also that there is a distinction between the Nation of Islam, which is a political movement in a political context, and I do think that there are movements that echo that political and politicized application of the religion all over the world and that was not my experience, it was very much the fact that I was the child born amongst religious diversity and always as an artist, a seeker, someone who wanted to understand the inner world versus these outer projections that are consistently given to me.
And also I couldn’t deny the unanswered questions, the ordering that I heard coming through in Christianity, I know that Islam has projected the same, but I think it is to do with understanding how religions were been used for particular agendas by a whole range of people and continues to be the case, it is the source and all kinds of things. Not the religion itself but the application of it and the same with the feminism issue within Islam, the oppression of woman in the name of Islam.
I have had first had experience of that, within my brothers and how they may have treated their wives, that was traumatic for me because I couldn’t understand how on one level we understood each other fully at the heart of this religion and the application of it in our lives, was actually something that got my brother and I not talking for 8 years.
SamUmukoro Interview: Really?
Sam Umukoro Interview: So tell me why you did stop being a Muslim?
Malika: Any religious commitment is a very personal process and like I said I felt like it chose me, that’s why even all my brother’s prior efforts to convert me were unsuccessful, and they out of the evangelical way were bashing me. They had given up on me by the time I had this experience and came full circle to taking Islam on or it choosing me.
It’s a profound experience in the sense that I say that I practiced within those years, and I’m saying practice because I don’t commune or go to the mosque, I don’t read the Quran and pray in that particular way but to say I’m not Muslim, that’s taking you into another territory.
Sam Umukoro Interview: So how were you a Muslim?
Malika: well it is my understanding that Muslem and Muslim, Muslem is believer and Muslim is the extension of that in practice, I feel that the awakening into Islam is something… it would be arrogant of me to say I have been through all of that and I have understood it’s not for me and I closed the book on it and I am out there.
Same thing with Christianity for that matter, with any religion, it is the more you go into understanding it than more you realize the more little you know, so it is a lifelong pursuit and I could not walk away from been a Muslim and say I am not Muslim because of A B C or D, I had an awaken to this religion, that I think has led me further through into a form of Buddhism that I now have practiced for a while but its more to do with the continuity of a spiritual journey than about saying I am done with that, so often people will say are you still Muslim and I wouldn’t say no.
Sam Umukoro Interview: What are you now?
Malika: I am Malika (laughing)
Sam Umukoro Interview: I wanted to say, because I heard Buddhism in part of this and the first thing that came to me was religious adultery or sluttery?
Malika: Okay, right now you are going to get a poem, it’s called Instruments and it is about been human is been an instrument for light and for change and all kinds of things. I should be able to sing in there but let’s see…
‘ohhhhhhhh oh ohhh ohhhhh ohhhhhhhhhhh ohhhhh oohhhhhhh ohhhhh ohhhhh ohhhhh .!!!!
we are light beings, human yet light beings
some slumbering, some awakening to the truth of who were are
Indestructible stars, housed only for a while in these temples of flesh
once our memories are refreshed we can see that this body
that this life is simply a veil, a vision, a temporary reality that we are more.
that we hold perfection within, somehow just beyond our imagining.
we are light beings, portals of love, makers of peace, creators of beauty. ‘
we are healers, we are believers inherently rediscovering our way homeward,
inward, out of earth time, we are free as our natural state.
where love is the only way. we are born to bring light, to honor the blessing of each life.
Honor the blessing of this moment. of your life
ohhhhhh ohh ohhhhhh ohhh ohhhhhhhh ohhh ohhhhhhhh ohhhh ohhh.!!!!!!!
Sam Umukoro Interview: (clapping) thank you!
Malika: That’s the summary of it actually.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You have made your point, (laughing). You have talked about the healing power of words in poetry, tell us about you are in this traumatized country, and we are living through trauma in this country of the things that are happening in the past and the things that are happening now. How effective has your work being that sense of healing? A friend of mine was telling me about how Hitler got converted into doing what he did by seeing a play and somebody says that a 60 second advert can sell you a bar soap, 60 minute soap opera can sell you a life style?
Malika: Very powerful, so in terms of talking about the healing power of poetry, I think it applies to art in general, I think that creativity is maxim, I think it also something that is inherent to everyone that as human beings we are living works of art, we are sculpture that is evolving from the wound and growing scars and been shaped by life and being molded in our posture to become the bodies that we are, we are constant, our skins changes all the time, we are an ever evolving sculpture.
I think that your lungs and your heart and the sound of the river of blood in your body is music, I think that the flow of thoughts in your head is… technology comes from there.
I think that we are credible evolving works of arts. And then there is spirit, and which is something without these five senses, beyond these five senses is also who we are and in terms of the applied arts, using arts for healing, for education, for consciousness, for transformation, I think again that is rooted for me in the experience of the application of it, because I only sub-sequentially learnt that you can study drama therapy or the fact that a poetry therapy institute exists for twenty years in another country. In the last ten years has definitely been a consolidation of that understanding that was already happening in my work, for example I recognised in my earliest poems asking questions about the domestic worker in our house, why mother allows the woman to call her madam, to imagining where she goes home to, to the iced cold fire at cross roads.
Sam Umukoro Interview: You are probably the most successful poet I know and I know many poets.
Malika: When you say successful, what do you mean because I am not rolling in the dough?
Sam Umukoro Interview: I wanted to ask you if that success has translated into material wealth?
Malika: Not yet my brother but that’s really do with the game, the mental projection. I have grown in my profound benevolence of money, I have got money just enough to keep doing what I am doing and hence I have earned enough to keep doing what I am doing.
It is no longer enough, and I also recognise that I have subconsciously bought into a global myth that an artist must suffer to make art and true artists will always be poor, if you believe it, you will see it.
I don’t believe it anymore because I think that the level of accessibility that artists, people who call themselves artists, are putting trash into the world and getting a lot of money for it, which amplifies what they do and they can travel all over the world to do it, I want the same freedom of movement, ability to assist where I can, to amplify what I am doing and you need that kind of oil to do it. So now I am okay with that oil, I just need to bless it as you say so.
Sam Umukoro Interview: Thank you.
Malika: Thank you for this opportunity.