How Upile Chisala became a voice for young, black women around the world
The poet talks about growing up in Malawi, her new poetry collection and why she can't stop crying
On my way to meet Upile Chisala, a young poet from Malawi, I quickly scroll through her Twitter feed. Among the many retweets of memes, pictures and jokes, one post, written by Chisala, catches my eye.
“I’m officially a crier again,” it reads. “Fun times.” It is not the openness that surprises me or the fact that Chisala likes to cry. What surprises me is that she ever wasn’t a crier. Chisala’s poetry is so raw, so thoroughly soaked in feeling, it is hard to imagine her bottling anything up.
“I kind of advocate crying and releasing all those emotions,” she tells me ahead of her appearance at the Sharjah International Book Fair. “But I was stuck myself. I don’t know if I was feeling as authentic as I could [feel]. And then eventually one day I was crying and now I cry about everything. Oh my gosh, I’m having a bad day: cry. That was so sad: cry.” Chisala lets out a warm laugh as she says this, which is a relief.
Her poems – short, impassioned declarations of love or howls of despair – capture all the complexities of growing up, falling in and out of love, and finding one’s place in the world.
Since she became a successful writer (“storyteller” is the word she prefers), Chisala has had to find ways to ease the pressure of speaking for so many young, black women around the world.
She is only 25, but Chisala has already written two acclaimed poetry collections. Soft Magic and Nectar are published by Andrews McMeel, the US publishing house that, in 2014, took a chance on Canadian poet Rupi Kaur, whose debut collection, Milk and Honey, became a number one New York Times bestseller. Chisala is keeping exceptional literary company. But this comes with its burdens.
“I don’t want to be accessible all the time,” she says. “I’m somebody who takes on a lot of emotions, so although I love hearing certain stories, sometimes I’m like, ‘That was too deep, that was too intimate, you shouldn’t have shared that with me.’ Because I’m going to think about it as well and I’m not a trained psychologist or therapist. I cannot help you with those problems but I also feel honoured that people want to share, so it’s [about] trying to create a balance.”
It is unsurprising that people reach out to Chisala. Her poems – short, impassioned declarations of love or howls of despair – capture all the complexities of growing up, falling in and out of love, and finding one’s place in the world. “Sometimes it feels like I dreamt you up, darling,” she writes in Soft Magic, “like I closed my eyes/ and created you.” Every moment of happiness is tempered with pain. “Loving someone who doesn’t love you back/ will always be thankless heart work.”
Read in isolation, Chisala’s words can seem more like aphorisms than fully-formed poems. Her collections deserve to be read in a single sitting, though, allowing a nuanced, fully-formed character to emerge. She writes unflinchingly about mental health, particularly in Nectar: “If the depression comes back/ tell it I won’t go/ even if it asks for me by name.” But it is her womanhood and the colour of her skin that most occupies Chisala’s poetry: “I am dripping melanin and honey/ I am black without apology.”
Born in 1994, Chisala was raised in Zomba in the south-east of Malawi. She began writing short stories when she was six and had progressed to poetry by the age of 13. When she was 15, Chisala spent the summer before going to college at home. She discovered on the internet a list of the 100 best books ever written. Having made her way through some of the books on this list, Chisala wrote her own stories, which she showed to her father.
You feel like everything around you is different. You are around people who don’t look like you. You are the foreign kid, the one who has to constantly explain and have all these questions asked about your identity
“He was like, ‘You’re not in any of these stories. People who look like you aren’t in any of these stories,’” she says. “But people who look like me were not on that list. I thought that [list] was the standard, that you have to write like these people. It was an important moment in my life. I stopped and said, ‘Why don’t I write about myself?’”
Chisala was still in her teens when she moved to the US to study Sociology with minors in Women's Studies and Law & Society at New Mexico State University (she very nearly became a lawyer). “I was really sad at the time,” she says. “You feel like everything around you is different. You are around people who don’t look like you. You are the foreign kid, the one who has to constantly explain and have all these questions asked about your identity. It was hard.”
Soft Magic, which she started writing during this time, was her response to feeling like an oddity. “I wanted to celebrate certain women’s identity,” she says. “Mostly blackness, which was always a thing people wanted to attack me for.”
Nectar is an even more personal collection, which explores Chisala’s depression and complex relationship with her parents. “I started having more honest conversations with my family,” she says. “I thought, if I’m going to be the best version of Upile, I’m going to have to drop some of these layers and tell the truth.”
How did her parents respond to these conversations? “It’s an ongoing process,” she says, laughing. “It’s new to them because of their generation […] But I mean, I’ll give them credit, they’re trying. I taught my father how to say ‘I love you’ back, things like that. He was raised with that African masculinity, it’s such a patriarchal place.
“If Nectar can start conversations in people’s homes, then I’m doing my part,” she continues. “Being from Malawi, you deny certain things. Depression is not an issue in your family, generational trauma is not an issue, your parents are completely unflawed humans, who are perfect and who are there to guide you and lead you.”
It is brave to prod around these areas but it is, as Chisala acknowledges, the job of the poet to make us feel uncomfortable. In that shared pain, solace is often found. “I was doing a poetry reading recently,” she says, “and I read the happy poems… quiet, silent. Okay, so I read all the sad poems. The audience responded: ‘Yes, I feel that deeply, I came here because I wanted you to show me your pain because I have pain, too.’ We love to share pain.”
This is true. But we mustn't forget about the person – the poet – allowing us to share. “It’s always an honour to hear those stories and people saying, ‘Upile, you changed my life,’" she says. "You think as an author that you’re doing this small thing, you think you’re sharing your work for yourself, mostly for yourself, and then there’s all this feedback."
She pauses, before adding: “I don’t know if I have space for other people’s emotions in my life while I’m dealing with my own emotional stuff."
Perhaps this is why Chisala’s third collection, A Fire Like You, published early next year, will see this ferociously talented young poet carefully altering her course. “I’m flawed. I love myself,” she says. “I’m growing and evolving. It’s about just standing in your truth."
And finding the time to cry, of course.
Soft Magic and Nectar by Upile Chisala are out now, published by Andrews McMeel
Upile Chisala speaks at the Sharjah International Book Fair on Wednesday, November 6 at 6pm. For more information, visit: sibf.com
Updated: November 5, 2019 05:27 PM