The road ends, but the journey continues...

October Poet (part two)

Khaya Ronkainen

Khaya Ronkainen is a South African-Finnish writer. Her work is largely inspired by nature but often examines the duality of an immigrant life. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Seasons Defined and From the Depth of Darkness, published through her imprint. Some of her work has been anthologized as well as featured in various publications. She is currently at work on her third poetry collection about all things pandemic and political. To learn more or connect with her, visit her blog at www.khayaronkainen.fi


Our (he)art to (he)art conversational interview continues, touching on the power of the written word and language as a bridge…please join us.

LBL: In reading your bio I am reminded that English is far from being your first language and yet it appears to be your language of choice for the written word. Why is that?

KHAYA: The answer is long and complex but I’ll keep it short. English is the main language, in every sphere of my life. I had no choice as history and politics of the day made sure that English and Afrikaans were the languages. So, like most South Africans, I’m multilingual. And even though for Black South Africans, English is officially classified as a second language, many of us have a native-like proficiency. Because we were (and continue to be) exposed to English from a very early age.

While I speak my mother tongue Xhosa fluently, I cannot write it with the same fluency I write English, especially now as I haven’t lived in South Africa for many years. By this I mean, I have to move slow and be diligent when writing or reading long Xhosa texts.

Finnish is another dominant language in my daily communication. Nonetheless, at home (in Finland) we speak English, except with a few relatives who don’t speak the language.

I view all these languages I speak as a set of keys to open doors that allow me entry into different worlds.

 LBL: Born into the Xhosa community of South Africa, your first language is Xhosa. I assume Xhosa is more of a spoken language so poetry, prose, stories are conveyed more along the lines of a spoken tradition? In light of that, what drew you to the written word? Expressing yourself in this manner?

KHAYA: First, I need to clarify, Xhosa is one of the South African official languages. It’s a standard language that is written, read and spoken. That is, it’s not dialect rather it has several dialects. I can think of seven Xhosa dialects off the top of my head. But you are correct about the oral tradition; the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next through stories, prose, poetry, songs, painting, etc.

I come from a tradition of oral storytelling, which means I grew up around stories. Retelling of Xhosa tales, was a pastime that lit our household with excitement in the evenings.

Anyway, what drew me to the written word? First, I’m an introvert with some elements of extroversion. I simply prefer to write rather than talk. So, letter writing was the art form I was drawn to first. At the time, though, I didn’t know or do it as an art but a pastime to share my thoughts. Second, I find power of the written word unmatched.

“Some of the important parts of life are not visible in pictures: ideas, insights, logic, reason, mathematics, intelligence. These can’t be drawn, photographed or pictured. They have to be conveyed in words…and can only be understood by those who have acquired the superpower of reading.”

Kevin Kelly

LBL: In what other languages do you write? And do you find it difficult creating poetry in languages and in context of a culture/society not native to your personal experiences/knowledge? 

KHAYA: I once mentioned on Instagram that one of the things I’m embarrassed about is that I can’t even write a poem in my mother tongue. Because I’m gradually losing my Xhosa vocabulary. A shift (or even death of a language in some cases) is the downside of being a multilingual. But the upside? I view all these languages I speak as a set of keys to open doors that allow me entry into different worlds.

As for difficulty in creating poetry in languages not native to me, I can’t say because I write mainly in English. As for difficulty in creating poetry in context of a culture/society not native to me, my poetry (even though largely inspired by nature) is influenced by cultures and societies I live in as well as diverse personal experiences/knowledge. So, the difficulty might be making art itself, but not due to a lack of perspective or material.

Dr. Solorio reading Khaya's chapbook

LBL: I asked you to sign a copy of your From the Depths of Darkness I’m giving to my middle daughter as a gift. The phrase you used in the inscription “For what is language but a bridge!” reflects on your own passion for building bridges with your own mastery of several languages. You seem to be driven by a deep desire to communicate, connect and enable community among people from all walks of life and cultures.

KHAYA: Thanks once again Laura for supporting my work. I thought a lot about what drives my deep desire to communicate and connect. I think it’s due to a number of things, such as my personality, values, worldview and so on. Or maybe it’s just a gift. And if that’s the case, then I’m grateful for it.  What I know is that I value authentic relationships with others.

However, I’m also passionate about words. I’m always interested in how they form a language, which we in turn use or respond to. How words can change within a language as we decide who to invite in or keep out. Hence, I see language as a bridge. It’s a tool we all have at our disposal and we, individually, can decide what to do with it.


to be continued…commenters will be automatically entered into a drawing for a free autographed copy of From the Depths of Darkness…winner will be announced at the end of the third and final part of this interview.

39 Comments

  1. Annika Perry

    Wow! A powerful continued interview and I’m moved by your thoughts of language as a bridge … so true but not often appreciated! I’m also multilingual and love languages overall – there is nothing quite like a discussion in the actual language of the country. In the UK languages have always been side-lined, now more than ever and it is a shame on the country, I feel.

    • laura bruno lilly

      Languages reveal nuances of a culture’s outlook on life – shading individual personalities, adding depth in our relationships….but you already knew that!
      🙂

    • Khaya Ronkainen

      Laura has put is so well. Languages do add depth in our relationships. And as you suggest Annika, there is nothing quite like a discussion with someone in their own language. I often see a smile light up on their faces, when it was unexpected. I also wonder Annika, as a multilingual, how of your Swedish is affected since your life is the UK? I always love to hear how others deal with a loss of native language. Anyway, thanks once again for reading.

      • Annika Perry

        Khaya, I was going to mention my Swedish but thought my comment became overlong! We arrived in the UK when I was six years old and the school told my mother in strict terms to no longer talk Swedish to my brother and I – immerse us just in English. Of course she promptly ignored them – as if moving to another country wasn’t unsettling enough! I am totally fluent in Swedish but my written Swedish is a bit rough; I can manage but not good enough for business work etc. I dream in Swedish, English and German … and a few words of Portuguese creep in as I’m trying to learn this language!😀

        • Khaya Ronkainen

          There’s no such thing as a long comment. 🙂 But yes I see the similarities regarding our respective native languages. And kudos to your mother for not paying attention to that school. There’s so much to be said about that kind of attitude. Learning a new language should be fun like you’re probably doing with Portuguese. Enjoy! 😀

  2. Lavinia Ross

    I am enjoying reading your continuing interview with Khaya. “I view all these languages I speak as a set of keys to open doors that allow me entry into different worlds.” That one sentence alone says so much! She is a master of words.

    • laura bruno lilly

      She is indeed…

    • Khaya Ronkainen

      I’m humbled and grateful for your kind words.

      • Lavinia Ross

        They are words I truly mean. You are a master of words. And I still am in awe of that sentence and all those doors that are open to you.

  3. zippyquilts

    Amazing! I can’t imagine being fluent in 3 languages, or writing poetry in even one of them!

    • laura bruno lilly

      My head would be in a whirl, that’s for sure. I’m bilingual (English and Italian) but that’s only 2!

  4. marissthequilter

    A spellbinding post. Thank you Laura and Khaya.

  5. I enjoyed reading this discussion and it made my think of my good friend in Denmark who is multilingual and writes better in English than I do as an alleged native speaker. As Americans we are so underwhelming uni-lingual while other parts of the world it is common to be bilingual if not multilingual. I feel like we are kind of lazy when it comes to languages. And then when Americans travel they expect everyone to speak English. When I’ve traveled outside of the US I always try to learn at least a couple phrases to greet and thank people in the country I am visiting, etc.

    • laura bruno lilly

      “Kind of lazy” and a whole lotta “Kind of self-centered”!
      Just sayin’…

    • Khaya Ronkainen

      I hear you! I also think it’s because English is widely spoken. It’s a global language, in a way, and one can survive with alone…until you move to where it’s not an official language. Where even social relations, let alone dreams of having a career, depend on speaking the local language. 🙂 But I appreciate your willingness to learn other languages.

      • It seems more respectful las a visitor to at least try to speak (or slaughter a language like I did with Danish when I spent part of a summer in Denmark, ha!) the local language 🙂

  6. cedar51

    Khaya – on a comment at my blog you felt that my mixed media art was complex – I now look at this part of the interview and I see just as much complexity in your art form. Even though you appear to say that English is the forefront of your writings, I think you have used all the cultures you have “lived in/through” in your lifetime…therefore your writing speaks of many complex models…
    And although English is my only language, I struggle with it, especially the grammar AND that is because my early learning at school was often disrupted through illness and the sheer fact that my parents were rather old by the time I was in school…AND I prefer in a way to use my creativity to help me, much of the time it just evolves…and I let viewers work out a meaning for them.

    • laura bruno lilly

      Catherine, your insights are ‘spot-on’.
      🙂

    • Khaya Ronkainen

      Lol, Catherine! But yes you are correct, I do use all my lived experiences, knowledge, cultures and all. I guess my art form might seem complex but accessing these worlds has become a natural part of my life.

      And I think it’s a wonderful way how you use the language, through your creativity and let your artwork meet viewers where they are.

  7. Cheryl, Gulf Coast Poet

    Laura and Khaya. Great interview! I very much admire people who are multilingual. <3

  8. Janis @ RetirementallyChallenged.com

    Somehow I missed part one of this series (but now have gone back to read it). I just finished reading Born a Crime by Trevor Noah and remember being amazed at how many languages he spoke (including, I think, Xhosa). He, too, talked about the bridges being able to speak multiple languages can span. Thank you for introducing us to such a gifted poet.

    • laura bruno lilly

      We need those bridges now more than ever IMHO!

    • Khaya Ronkainen

      Thank you so much for reading Janis, and for even taking time to catch up on part one. Much appreciated.

      Yes, as far as I know Trevor speaks Xhosa; his mom is Xhosa. Btw, Born a Crime is one of the great books to read by anyone, who would like to understand the makeup of South African population.

  9. Andy

    I love both analogies of keys and bridges.
    Thinking of oral traditions, of course the very first storytellers belonged to this. Even though we don’t know for sure because nobody wrote about them (🤔😂)But that was how the first stories were handed down. I think I blogged some years ago asking about the very first story . . .

    But anyway, Khaya’s insights made me think of how I create poetry-always the written word. I’ve never recited or read my work in public. I feel much more comfortable and satisfied leaving them on the page.

    • laura bruno lilly

      There is this strange line of division when it comes to poets who enjoy speaking their work in public and those who are of the mind, it is to be read quietly to oneself…

      • Andy

        Yes, a man I know sent me some work of his daughter’s. On reading it I knew straight away that she was a performance poet, it had that rhythm to it.

  10. Laura

    “For what is language but a bridge!” Love this quote and the Kevin Kelly quote. They say a lot! 🙂

    • laura bruno lilly

      Khaya’s quote is a keeper (and easily remembered by myself, too!).
      As for the other quote? Silly me, I had to look up who exactly Kevin Kelly is – true confession, eh? And then kapow, turns out he’s quite an interesting guy and prolific in his myriad of endeavors.

  11. L. Marie

    Oh my word. Another great section of this interview! The discussion of language makes me want to brush up on Spanish. I took it in high school and college. When I tried to learn Mandarin, for some reason my brain kept spouting Spanish words. Khaya, does that happen to you when you’re speaking a language but words of another language keep intruding?

    • laura bruno lilly

      L.Marie: I think learning Mandarin would really mess with my brain! Kudos for attempting it! Thanks for following along with this interchange of ideas.

    • Khaya Ronkainen

      It happens ALL the time, in casual conversation. 😀

  12. piecefulwendy

    I’m thoroughly enjoying these posts. They give me things to ponder, such as the downside/upside of being multilingual. Interesting!

    • laura bruno lilly

      Happy to give you something to ponder – different things to think on while stitching!

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