In north-western Zambia, tribes have an initiation ritual for young boys called kumukunda. During the ritual, the boys live apart from the community and are taught skills that will help them in life. Chingonyi was born in Zambia but moved to the UK when he was six. This book is Chingonyi’s substitute for kumukunda. It packs so much in just 50 pages: what it means to grow up black in the UK, identity, racism, music, love and death. And it’s powerful stuff.
In “Self-Portrait as a Garage Emcee”, Chingonyi writes affectionately of making mixed tapes as a boy, sneaking off with cassettes he hoped his mother wouldn’t miss. (Remember how big mixed tapes were before digital music and playlists came along?). He finds an unmarked TDK cassette and slips it in the player, only to hear his father’s voice asking him how old he was “in the slight twang of a lost tongue”.
Music is the magic that transports him, as it has done so many others, giving him a space that is his own, away from the store detectives that stalk him, away from the “the look of disgust / on the face of a boy too young to understand / why he hates but only that he must”. After a cricket match, a boy in the locker room asks him why “I’d stand here, when I could be there, with my kind”.
The poems follow Chingonyi as he goes to university and RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art). Auditioning for roles, he gets tired of playing “lean dark men who may have guns”. He moves to his own place and “learns to walk in a grown man’s shoes”. But his mother falls ill and eventually dies.
On a grey ward, two months in to size elevens,
she speaks in my mother tongue, bids me trace
the steps of music, but the discord of two
languages keeps me from the truth I won’t hear.
She’s dying but I won’t call her dead, can’t let mum
become a body, a stone, an empty hospital bed.
He writes about Africa and colonialism. In “Kung’anda”, he contests the one-dimensional portrait of Africa in the media: the “broken man, holding / a dying child with flies around its mouth: / a story that didn’t tally with my mother’s / of childhood smiles on granddad’s farm / or the laughing dance across the hot soil / to the ice-cream stand”.
Chingonyi’s writing conveys strong, powerful emotions in brief snapshots. There is no hyperbole here or wordy sentences. For example, in “How to Cry”, which is my personal favourite:
I’m going to fold, as an overloaded trestle folds,
in the middle of Romsford Market and bawl
the way my small niece bawls for her mother
when she leaves the room. In spite
of our assurances, the little one knows
that those who leave might never come back.
I’m tired of this strength. Let me be bereft,
watching the white limousine as it drives away.
Get this book. You won’t regret it.