Q&A with ‘artivist’ Kelly-Eve Koopman
Nal’ibali Column 3 Term 4 (Published in The Sowetan: 21/10/2019)
Activist, artist, storyteller, educator. It is hard to choose just one description for you. Do you find having interest and experience in so many fields to be a creative gift or a challenge?
I enjoy juggling so many different things because I'm really invested in so many things. I think it’s a gift, but I'd really like to be able to hone in and focus more, and learn that I don't always need to be busy to be worthy.
When did you first start confidently calling yourself a writer?
Only after writing my first book. Although I'd written before on many different projects and across disciplines, I somehow only feel like I've earned the title now. Of course, if one is constantly in the process of writing, then one is a writer, but yeah.
Congratulations on your latest book, Because I Couldn't Kill You, published this year with Jacana's MF Books. Can you tell us a little about it?
Thank you. It's basically a work of creative non-fiction and, without sounding pretentious, a hybrid of memoir and personal essays. It's a personal outpouring of lived experience, which, of course, intersects with wider political or cultural themes, because the personal is always political.
A memoir collection must have been a deeply personal and sometimes difficult journey, not just for you, but also for those close to you. What was the process like?
Yes. It’s a risky, dangerous and vulnerable process. I’ve laid bare certain intimacies about myself and those closest to me. There are ways I could have been more responsible. There are ways that it is very messy. A lot of the themes in the book are around the experience of what it's like not to talk about trauma, or not to have the language or capacity to talk about it. The book was a process of finding a language that could hold my experiences in all their problematic, messy, sore and triumphant ways, and then offer that to the world.
What advice would you give to young people who would like to find a platform to tell their own stories?
Firstly, your story is valuable. I mean this especially to young woman and young woman of colour. I came up against those questions a lot. Like why is this chronicling of a pretty average middle-class coloured life important? Who cares? But it is valid, it does deserve space. Secondly, you might need to work very hard and very long and very unglamorously in terms of putting in the hours and going through the slog of getting your story out there. At first I thought writing was going to be a beautiful, glamorous process of self-expression. I imagined myself gloriously wired up on lattes, enjoying the indulgence of being an author. Creating and, especially, telling your own story can be joyous and brilliant and liberating, but it is not glamorous and it is not easy. I want to encourage young artists of colour to allow their artistic voices and unique styles to grow and flourish.
What core ideas are you most passionate about spreading through your work?
I am committed to justice, I am committed to healing. I think this can mean different things in different spaces. I'm attracted to the idea of being an “artivist” and I think and hope my work allows access into dialogues around equity, justice and, very importantly, healing. Or at least I aspire to be a conduit for these kinds of conversations.
You're very involved in feminist projects, whether about LGBTQI+ visibility or sexual health. Why does SA need more of these kinds of conversations, despite our liberal constitution?
I think the gender-based violence crisis we face is very clear. It's all linked: gender inequality, a lack of conversation and education around gender and sex and sexuality, a desperate lack for spaces for healing trauma. I don't have the answers. I don't know if any of us do. But I am committed to doing the work, as I think most South African women are. I want to be in community with people who are committed, and I am constantly in awe of South African women.
Mentors are important in any industry, but particularly in creative ones where people often make themselves very vulnerable through their art. Do you have stories about people who have mentored you?
I think, like many people, I've been shy and hesitant about asking for advice and guidance, but I suppose here's an opportunity to ask for it. I would love mentorship, I would love to be engaged in the process of learning from someone older and wiser, who can inspire and challenge me. Anyone want to be my mentor? I'm actually serious.
What can we all do, no matter our different abilities or opportunities, to explore and spread South African stories that matter?
I think we need to combat erasure around the complexities and violences of our history. The erasure of women, particularly black women, from our struggle and resistance movements is something we need to challenge. There are a lot of South African storytellers, activists and artists facilitating the space for these important critical dialogues.
Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org.