by michel’le donnelly
I don’t even know how to start with how excited I am to be able to share this chat with all you MOXIE readers! Perhaps I’m biased because I know Charmaine and think she is such a beautiful and intelligent soul but the effort and utter brilliance of her and Valerie’s words and concept which has manifested into black amara is just incredible and such a yaas for womxn of colour creatives! Whilst I couldn’t sit down with them face-to-face, being separated by two oceans and all, thanks to technology we were able to engage in a heartfelt discussion and I hope you enjoy reading it!
Michel’le: So tell me, how did black amara come about? What was the big idea, how did it happen?
Charmaine: So how black amara came about was uh, well Val and I have been friends for a few years and obviously we have shared interests and some of that includes our love of art and writing and for the duration of this friendship we’ve shared a lot of intimate forms of art and writing that each of us had produced. I personally had never shared any of my writing with anyone and a lot of people didn’t even know that I write but Val encouraged me to and at some point her and I began sharing our work through a virtual diary that her and I had started and so everything that we wrote was based on our own life experiences but also through the eyes of the people around us, through just observing people or connecting with people in various ways for various durations of time even if it was for a brief moment or for years, for example through friendships or relationships with family members and that basically is what black amara is about. It’s about sharing our life experiences and also the experiences of those around us and it is a diary, a collective diary, and it is just this journey into this paradise that we call black amara. And yeah, so from the virtual diary it eventually turned into a book (laughs).
Valerie: black amara was just a product I think, of sharing of emotions. I think we wanted a space for ourselves first, so we could be free. We both wrote but were quite shy about our writing and we started off with secret Instagram pages where we wrote a little bit and it grew from that. From the Instagram pages to the Google Doc and eventually we were like let’s just turn this into a book because surely other womxn are experiencing this and they need to hear it and we want to share and we want to be able to have a platform where we share different peoples life experiences and stories but from the view of a black, millennial African womxn.
C: I think it was just this ongoing process of sharing these experiences in a virtual diary over the space of almost two years and then eventually we met with publishers, which was also a very difficult process. (Sigh) Wow it is difficult for a, uhm, I must say black authors to find and receive the help of publishers, it was quite a difficult process but once we did, yeah, we went through the process of editing the book and Val is the amaaaazing book cover artist and yah, and then we went through the production which is printing and now after the launch, sales. So that would be the process we went through.
M: Yaas Val, I love the book cover! Also, I need to learn how to use Google Docs, I just always lose things in there! Now who is this book for? Was there a particular reader you had in mind when coming up with the idea and when writing?
C: The book is for every single body, uhm, but most importantly for our African sisters and brothers. So the reader that we had in mind, like I said, because it is this paradise of life experiences, as we wrote we didn’t necessarily have a reader in mind. We, as I said, didn’t even at some point know it would turn into a book so it’s about connecting on the level of human-being but more than anything else, giving the African female, millennial, a voice and a space within literature and so we’re very proud and loud about the fact that although it is a book written for everyone and it is about everyone uhm the voice that projects this black paradise is one of a black African female, contemporary womxn. I said female twice (laughs).
V: In terms of conceptualisation, we knew we wanted to speak about the deep stuff but in a very raw way. I think the language that we use and the fact that this was not meant to be like some complicated work of literature, it was supposed to be relatable, something that anyone could read and simply get the message and simply be able to be like, oh hey this is me. And we thought the best way to do that was through this form of journaling because it started off as a journal for us so we wanted to continue that as like, this is something sacred, something secret that you’re reading or sharing with your girlfriends, you know. In terms of whom the book is for – it’s for us. I think every artist first makes something for themselves, I think art is very subjective and it’s for the people around us that we know, our friends who are going through the same things we’re going through.
And just, the young, African womxn who kind of feels like she can’t express these things or she’s kind of in the middle, between culture and tradition and this modern, westernised, globalised environment, where do you fit in? Where do you fit in as someone who has been raised in a very western way, who has a great command of English but still has very strong links to her grandparents and the village and your traditional African culture, where is your middle ground there? So, I hope that makes sense.
M: Yah, I get you and I think you both have every right to be loud and proud! So you’re both are from very different career paths, how did you meet and decide that putting together this book was what you both needed to do?
C: Yes, Val and I have very different career paths. She is an artist, a fashion designer, a graphic designer, more of within the creative side of things whereas I’m a clinical psychologist, a business-womxn and yah I think … well we met in Cape Town, um both her and I lived in Cape Town at some point in our lives and what made us close and what brought us together was … well as much as at face value it seems like we’re very different we are virtually the same person. In fact we call each other ‘twinsouls’ uhm and there a lot of things that we share like our love for art and although I am a clinical psychologist I am a huge lover of art.
I, from a very young age, have enjoyed painting and drawing and took art in school, I love dancing, I love … I’ve always been a writer from the moment I could write and these are things that Val loves too and above the career paths we chose, on a human-level, both her and I have a lot of commonalities and similarities and so it was very easy for us to put this book together because like I said, it started out as being a shared virtual diary.
V: We met at a friend’s birthday party, I believe Charmaine crashed it (laughs) and we kind of immediately connected. I personally found Charmaine to be real and she was not afraid of sharing and sharing her emotions and I think that’s very rare. I think a lot of people have all these walls up and I found it very easy to talk to her and I felt comfortable around her and I felt like she wasn’t pretending to be anything you know, she was just who she was. And so the book was basically a response to a very emotional time we were going through and writing was the therapy of it so it wasn’t completely deliberate like “oh, we’re writing a book” but it was kind of like “we’re sharing and this could eventually be a book”.
C: It was basically just two friends giving each other the space to express themselves and to express their observations and experiences but also their experiences of those they love and those they observe through writing and that is how black amara became what it is. And I think we pride, not just in our similarities but in our differences and I think that’s what makes our combination quite powerful, we pride in the fact that at the end of the day when you connect on a human-level, strength is experienced or produced through not just celebrating your similarities but your differences too and there are always ways to turn these differences into a harmony and into one very powerful voice, like a book (laughs). I don’t know if that makes sense …
M: It makes so much of sense! I think you’re both so lucky to have a great friendship that encourages such creativity and if ya’ll feel like changing ‘twinsouls’ into ‘tripletsouls’ just know that I am here and I want in! (Lol) who do you look to for inspiration?
V: Oh wow (laughs), I think inspiration is everywhere. Inspiration is from conversations; I think a lot of conversations inspire me personally, with different womxn, asking them questions. Inspiration from difficult moments, I think as an artist I try and find answers within my pain, within any struggle or challenges I face, uhm and I try finding the light in that. Also music in general, other art. Taking a walk. I think I like going into places or environments that make me uncomfortable and I ask “why are they making me uncomfortable?” so I guess that’s where inspiration comes from. (Laughs) Inspiration comes anything, anywhere.
C: I, ag … so many people, so many people. I am inspired by human beings. I mean I’m a clinical psychologist so I’ve always been fascinated by human beings and how similar and yet different we can be and how we think and behave in the most interesting ways and so what I am inspired by isn’t boxed into one thing. I wouldn’t just leave it at your writers or whatever else you might expect. I’m inspired by people who live and who do life in whatever way they choose to. I’m inspired by people who are brave enough to explore different avenues in life, like music, writing, dancing, acting, uhm producing, whatever else is possible on this planet … who are brave enough to do that and to explore it and dare to break rules within whatever discipline they choose to be in. So I am inspired by the likes of Maya Angelou, I think she is incredible in the sense that she could never be boxed as one person. She was a writer, at some point she was a musician, at some point she did acting, she even took pride in the fact that we was good at prostitution when she explored that and uhm, I relate to her on so many levels because I feel like I am the same kid of person.
You can’t box me, and I am very dynamic and explorative and I suppose that’s what, uh, that would be the creative part of me but I’m also very determined and hardworking and this is why as a clinical psychologist I am able to produce or be a part of a project that involves poetry and art and short stories and just a body of art that is black amara.
I am inspired by Beyonce, I’m inspired by Chimimanda, uhm, I’m inspired by Winnie Madikizela Mandela, who again was not just a politician, I think was so much more. I am just inspired by human beings who are, who can be described as geniuses by what they do and love, I am inspired by everyday people like my mother and my father and many of my friends who I believe are incredible human beings who have and will make a significant impact in this world. I’m inspired by Steve Biko, Martin Luther King Jr, aah the list goes on. I love Rihanna, joh, good luck with summarising all of that. It’s difficult for me to choose one person I think, before I mentioned names that would be the answer. I’m inspired by people who live life, unapologetically. And in a way that they choose to, and that makes and keeps them happy.
M: (Laughs) It’s a bit of a tricky question because you can list so many people but ultimately it’s the values and credence that they share that inspires us right? So it’s like, do I name a bunch of people or do I list the characteristics of those who inspire me, which I think you’ve done a great job of doing both, thank you! What are some of your favourite writings from womxn of colour?
V: Ooh, wow. Koleka Putuma, she had a piece where the basic message was religion and having a white Jesus on your wall and that really stuck with me. We have the Diaspora writers such as Warsan Shire and of course Nayyirah Waheed are favourites, and then we have Rupi Kaur which both Charmaine and I love so ja I think most of their work resonates with me personally.
C: I would definitely put Maya Angelou there, oh my goodness, I think she is incredibly talented in her writing. Her writing is effortless and it is… she colours pages in a way that only someone who is gifted in writing is able to do and if I could, I’ve always said, If I could write even in a way, in an ounce of a way that she has, I would be happy. I love the fact that she, again something that I relate to, she’s able to delve into poetry and into short stories and your novels but also just engage about current affairs and I guess the happenings of the time when she was alive and even write within the context of academia which is something that I enjoy too. I plan on doing my PhD as well and so I don’t just like writing within the context of your poetry or short stories.
Like the book itself is not even boxed under one category and that says a lot about the kind of writer that I am and I wrote my MA dissertation was on the psychosocial perceptions of skin bleaching amongst black South African women and even through writing that, that for me was a very, I mean very challenging experience, but also something I enjoyed. And that’s within the academic context so ja, I love her mind.
I love Chimimanda’s writing as well. I think she expresses the African narrative in an incredible way as well and I love that she has put Africa in the fore of the world of literature. I love bell hooks who is also American, she is more of a feminist but I love the way that she writes with such honesty and wit. One of my favourite books of hers is All About Love and it is very, just, earnest and again, unapologetically in how she stands firm in being a womxn within the context of writing and in literature. I am definitely inspired by all types of writers both male and female uhm your Chinua Achebe, really love his writing. Tupac! I don’t know how I almost forgot. I’ve always viewed Tupac as a poet before a musician and a lyricist. Amazing writing and again, a genius in his own right.
M: What was the most challenging part of putting this project together?
V: I guess, because it was like an art project basically and I think the admin was the hardest part, the most challenging part. And of course we’re two writers putting our ideas together so it took us a while to kind of put the chapters together and everything but usurpingly enough we were on the same page for almost everything like coming up with the chapter divisions and yeah, I guess the most challenging part for me, personally, was the admin side and maybe dealing with the publishers. Finding a publisher, marketing, just putting ourselves out there and telling people, “Hey we wrote a book, wanna read it?” I think that has been challenging, it’s nerve wrecking and there’s always this idea of, “oh my gosh what will people think, of me, of the book?” There’s that pressure.
M: I can imagine and so what were the lessons learnt?
C: Lessons that I learnt, firstly was that I know nothing at all (laughs). Lessons I learnt is that you should own your truth and you should not be afraid to express your truth, regardless of what that may be. Lessons learnt is that, there is a place for us African womxn in literature, uhm, however it is a place that we need to fight for, especially at the stage in the process where books need to be sold. Your big guns like your big bookstores, it’s very difficult for new African writers to penetrate through the gatekeepers of your big guns, I call them your big guns and uhm, we have found it particularly difficult too. However, we have made it our mission and our goal to penetrate through those walls and for us to find and rightfully sit in our space within the context of literature. Because there is room for us, we all have voices and very unique voices and very unique stories that need to be shared with the world.
Uhm, I learnt that my story is valid and there are many Black womxn out there who can relate and for the longest of times I was afraid of sharing my writing without even realising that my experiences were so similar to many other people like me and more than anything else it is so important especially for the young, African female who is still growing up and still in the process of putting their identity together, to have this validation and the knowledge that there are people like her out there and that her experiences are valid and that they are beautiful and they deserve to be expressed and shared in the world. I learnt that the writing process is not linear, especially because it’s a process that involves sharing some of the most intimate parts of yourself, that it’s not a process that can be rushed or that can be forced and that you just let things be and I think that’s one of the main reasons why this book took two and a half years to materialise or to become what it is today because it was a process that was never formalised or rushed or experienced in a linear way.
We kind of just let things be and each time a poem, for example, or shirt story was produced it was carefully uhm saved and it was only after we had a body of work that we were able to the categorise them into the different chapters. So it was a very open-ended and not easy process that required honesty and bravery and ja, I think that’s what I learnt.
V: Some of the lessons I have learnt is that writing is a process and I think it is very difficult to put yourself out there, it’s very difficult to be vulnerable but people need that. At our book launch I was very surprised with the response and at how hungry young, Black people are for very honest pieces of writing and very honest experiences of life. So that was encouraging to hear. Also, I’m very lucky to have someone like Charmaine in my life; I think this process would’ve been a lot more difficult if we were dealing with different people. Charmaine and I are very different but in a complimentary way so I think I’ve also learnt a lot about her, a lot about how she functions. A lot about how we function, not only as friends but in a more professional capacity.
M: Yah, I 100% understand where you’re coming from Charmaine when you say you were afraid of sharing your writing. I think there are so many womxn, especially womxn of colour out there, including myself who have these incredible experiences all written down but because of things like imposter syndrome or just not seeing people that look like us getting there, we hold ourselves back which is why it’s so inspiring to see what you both have put together! Do ya’ll have a favourite poem or story from the book?
V: From Charmaine, one of my favourite pieces that she’s written is titled Familiarity, I think it’s a very … well, all her writing is very honest and raw but that one stands out for me as one of her most vulnerable pieces and one that is easy to relate to. And All women are crazy which is also I think something everyone should read, especially something a man should read before they go calling a girl crazy again.
C: Joh, uhm wait let me think (laughs). I have so many favourites, oh my goodness I think I’ll try pick one or two from each chapter. (Opens book) so ‘On Being’ chapter one of my favourite writings would be the 20 Year Old Silky Cloth, which is a short story about, I know almost every womxn of colour went through this when they were younger and I didn’t realise how shared this experience is until I shared this story with so many womxn who said: “oh my goodness we can relate”. But it’s about, you know when we were younger and we would play dress up, what we would sometimes do is take a cloth and put it over our heads and kind of turn it into our imaginary hair. And it was always hair that resembled European hair and how we thought that was the standard of beauty and what we should aspire to be and so that’s what the short story is about and it just ends with how I view myself and how my ideas of beauty evolved to a point where at the end of the story I walk out of my house smiling at the fact that I find pride in my afro as apposed to a silky cloth, like I did when I was a little girl.
Uhm, Val also wrote an amazing poem titled Privileged Woman Child, wow it’s difficult to explain but it just speaks about a woman who is viewed as privileged by her African womxn peers as well. So, a girl who is perceived as rich, or more advantaged than her peers, and how even within that, so to speak privilege, there are hardships and yah there are difficulties I mean, those who feel less privileged don’t necessarily think they would. Uhm. On Being a Woman, I have a little diary entry titled Boyfriends don’t get husband privileges, and I kind of speak through the eyes of a woman who speaks about where she places herself in romantic relationships and who she places herself in a position that society has taught her to, and that her mother has taught her to and that is one that is reserved and one where she holds back a lot of herself, like her sensual self, or even her nurturing self, all in the name of waiting to get a wedding ring on her finger.
In the On Being Black chapter, Val wrote an entry titled, Song for the soiled skin, I love it. It’s just literally a song she wrote for our African sisters and it’s a song of praise and a song that will hopefully remind us of how beautiful we are. She speaks of everything to do with our body and everything that our body is, our ancestors and how amazing that is and just how we are warriors and goddesses and teachers and ja, I really enjoy that one.
Please note there are a ton of amazing entries in the book, so everyone go out and buy a copy now so you can understand exactly what Charmaine is talking about. I wish I could write them all down here!
M: What has the reception been like? I stalked some instaposts and the launch looked like it went so well!
C: The reception has been great! It has been amazing and nothing like we expected. Joh, ja, when I think about it I get emotional because like I said, I don’t know what fooled me into believing that people would not relate to my stories and to my writing in general, because it’s not just based on my stories. It is a very, very intimate and personal journey and it’s been incredible to see how people are open to this process and to engaging. It’s been amazing just observing the conversations that have begin around the topics that are explored in the book, death, love, sex, on being Black, on being a womxn, on being the other and I just hope that the ball continues rolling and it just snowballs into what we intended to be which is just a safe and an intimate space for anyone, but especially the Black female.
V: Yeah, the reception was better than we expected. We have very supportive friends and family and it was really strange kind of getting emails and Instagram DMs from people you don’t know saying like “hey, this looks great how can I get a copy?” So that has been great.
M: Well I definitely think it’s only going to get bigger and bigger from here for sure, more DMs to come! So what are the next steps for you two, for the book? Where can readers get our hands on a copy?
C: Next steps include launches. Our next launch will be in Tanzania (where Val is from) hopefully next month, or early May and we also intend on launching in Cape Town and hopefully very soon we’ll emerge into, or evolve into eBooks, where it will definitely be more accessible to everyone. We’re excited about the launches and hopefully touring at some point and just getting the book out there, not just in Africa but around the world. Readers can get the book at the David Krut Bookstore that is in Johannesburg or they can email us at Blackamarabook@gmail.com.
V: Ja, I think getting it onto online platforms so that more people are able to get it because people from Malawi, from the States, from Canada have been asking how they can get the book so we really need to find a way to put it out there.
M: Oh mah gahd that all sounds so exciting!! You are both slaying right now, is there anything you’d like say to young, womxn of colour who want to create the next black amara or who are too scared to share their writings?
C: It is possible. I think us people of colour, because we’ve been so exposed to, in my opinion, a lot more European produced and written literature, a lot more than we needed to (laughs) and we’ve been exposed to that and it appears to be more accessible to us, I think led us to believe that it’s a far-fetched thing and it’s not a thing for us and it’s almost impossible for us to do. It is not true; it is absolutely possible, so if you want to write or if you are a writer, write! Write with the knowledge that it is possible for you to produce a book and with that, be honest. Be honest in what you express, your story is valid.
V: Fear is not a good enough reason to not do something. I think if you’re afraid of doing something because of peoples reactions that is an even bigger reason to do it because it shows that that thing has not been done yet and you’re not the only person who is feeling this way. And I think it’s very encouraging to know that life is complicated and daunting at times but then you realise that you have people around you who can relate to that and we don’t talk about it as much so I think your personal experience is valid, your truth is valid and your truth, even if it’s one person. If you can resonate with one person, that is enough. And you should never do something for popularity or for fame; I think if you do something with heart, with sincerity, it will always be successful.
It is so encouraging to see two womxn of colour making waves and taking a their rightful place in the storytelling world. Our stories are valid and they need to be heard. On a side note, I am so serious about becoming a ‘twinsoul’ so if anyone is looking, lemme know!