An interview with the poet Khaya Ronkainen[ life from South Africa to Finland]

adventure cold cross country skiing dawn

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I understand Finland has very advanced social systems. What impresses you most about it?

Khaya: What impresses me is the accountability and transparency on how public funds and taxpayers’ money are used in creating a dignified and decent living for all. The accessibility of education, free and everyone’s right, regardless of background, impresses me the most.

Sherry: It impresses me as well. In North America, we are losing rights left and right at the moment.

When did you first begin to write? Did it help you with the culture shock of finding yourself in a new place?

Khaya: Ah! The famous question…*laughs*. I can’t say for sure. As a child I preferred to write than to talk. This means I did a lot of letter writing, you know, more like the Dorothy Osborne kind of writing; long reports about rural life to my cousins and friends living in cities.

But it was when I moved to Finland that I actually started putting meaningful stories down. It was a way of dealing with culture shock, and so words became my friends.

Sherry: I love that: “words became my friends.” They do give comfort. When did you branch into poetry?

Khaya: I don’t think I branched out into poetry, Sherry. I’ve always been in it, even before I attempted to write it. I’ve always been a lover and a reader of poetry with influences such as S.E.K. Mqhayi and Tiyo Soga (Xhosa poets/writers), to name just a few.

I even had a crush on John Keats himself, during my high school years…*laughs* when a boy trying to impress me recited Keats’ Endymion. I thought, wow! I want to do that. But then I went to study business and got swept away a bit, whilst I chased the bottom line.

So, I returned and pursued poetry seriously, when I got stuck in my novel writing; a project that is still pending. Luckily at the time, I was also doing studies in English Philology (as part of a career change), and the process of writing poetry sort of came naturally.

Sherry: I love that you branch out in all directions, exploring all life offers. What do you love about poetry? What makes it sing for you?

Khaya: I love how poetry pushes limits with language and form. Its ability to make us pause, be in the moment, and remind us that water is still wet. The process of birthing a poem; the whisper, the nudge, the build-up and the release that eventually leads me to write with urgency. That like any other art form, poetry doesn’t belong to the creator but to the people.

To quote one of my writer friends, Khutsie Kasale, “Poetry is something more sacred and authentic. It is a gift of words birthed through the artist that come straight from the hands of God.”

So, I love that poetry means different things to different people depending on where it finds them.

Sherry: Such a good explanation! I read on your blog that you come from the Xhosa people, who have a strong tradition of oral storytelling. Do you think that is reflected in your poetry, that you are carrying on the tradition in your work? Do you remember a grandmother or someone in your family, who told great stories that caused you, as a little girl, to dream?

Khaya: I mentioned earlier on that I don’t think I branched out into poetry, I’ve always been in it. By this I mean, a Xhosa child, (or an African child for that matter), learns quite early in life who they are. That is, a knowledge of their origin, past history and culture because African cultures pride themselves on clan names.

So, a child learns about the notion of iziduko/izibongo through chanting of a multitude of family clan names; ancestors and heroes (living and dead) from the elders.

Chanting of clan praises is poetry itself; oral poetry that overlaps with a song. Thus, in my writing I’m always trying to emulate that rhythm and harmony.

Sherry: I envy you that rich cultural heritage. I see it, too, among the First Nations people where I live – such an ancient, proud, traditional culture.

Would you like to share three of your poems here, and tell us a bit about each one?

Khaya: Before I share, it’s important to point that my work often examines duality of an immigrant life; loss and gain. And the “I” doesn’t always mean the writer but the speaker.

Word Roots

Of origins I do not know

Theories varied and accepted

Making sense and no sense

Words are my friends.

Words that go forward

In prose and in books

Words that return

In verse and in song.

Of classical and medieval

Renaissance and modern

It’s Twa, the forage and pastoral

Tshawe, the ancestral heroes I seek

Diminished words found

Not in history books

Accepted words whose

History is esteemed

It’s Nongqawuse‘s words I thirst;

A prophecy from uQamata

Words older than writing

Dramatic and creative

Praise poems of no particular

Historical period. Folk tales

Of Tokoloshe terrifying

Children and adults alike.

Infidel words, beginnings

I do not know but whose

Oral tradition leaves me

Smitten in a trance

Speaking in tongues

Descending the Great Lakes

Borrowing from Khoi

To click a sound.

A tradition of Xhosa poetry

Whose metre measured not

In literary magazines, yet rhyme

Rings loud in Grahamstown

Words murmured teasing

With foreplay, words chanted

Exploding into a climax

Do scratch an itch

Spoken and sung

Barbaric and censored

Roots of word

I seek.

Khaya: This poem examines relationship with languages. It was inspired by a Poetry Festival held in my city, Tampere, in 2015. The theme was Syntyjä, Syviä, loosely translated as “root of words”.

Journeys I’ve Travelled

I’ve been to the north
I’ve been to the south

Journeys —
left me floating in between
(where both worlds depart)
and with no claim to either.

Suburbia no longer white
we sip tea and spend hours
discussing weather, whilst
the sun shines in black rural.
In song and dance we quench
— thirst vanquished.

I’ve been to the city
I’ve been to the country

Allow me the misguided view
with diluted memories, for
I build a world with these
smatterings of my life.

Khaya: I think this one is self-explanatory.


                    What would you have me say of you?

                    Ours is an obscure relationship

                    You led me believe I was your baby

A summer baby―

                    Because down south, October simmers

                    Spring overlapping with summer.

                    What would you have me say of you?

                    As if immaterial, now you tell me I am

An autumn baby―

                    Because up north, October teases

                    Skies weep fearful of winter.

Khaya: And the last is a poem excerpt from my upcoming chapbook that I’m hoping to release in spring 2018. I wrote it in celebration of the centenary of Finland’s Independence.

Sherry: Thank you for these, Khaya. You express yourself so well. I especially love the Xhosa words included in your poem. And we look forward to your book.

When you aren’t writing, what other activities do you enjoy?

Khaya: During my spare time, I can be found wandering in nature, hiking and backpacking, amongst other things, with my husband.


About Katherine

I like art, poetry,history, literature,cooking,doing nothing to music.And conversation
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