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.
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.
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.
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.