Addicted to the feeling of feelings: Interview with Thabani Tshuma

What does your name mean?

Thabani means “be happy”.

What makes you happy?

Connecting with people. I enjoy consuming art in all its forms. Art is one of the most connective things in which we can participate.

What made you leave Zimbabwe and come to Melbourne? Is Melbourne home now or is there more to your journey?

I left to study in the US and South Africa and finally Melbourne because I have family here. I just thought it would be beaches and people in swimsuits all day but had a rude awakening!

There is so much more to the journey. The project I’m working on now is about the sense of identity displacement. Even in Zimbabwe, I was not culturally accepted because I went to a lot of “white” schools. I’m still searching for a sense of belonging.

Do you know what this place looks like?

No, that’s why it’s so hard to find. But it’s not about the finding, it’s about the journey towards finding. In fact, I’m content to continuously search and not find it because it’s in the search that the most meaningful interactions are to be found.

You’re a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow. What that does mean to you?

It is a great opportunity. Connecting to other writers and becoming a part of the literary world – that is the most valuable aspect. The biggest growth for me is the discipline – working on one full body of work thematically linked, where the content needs coherent narrative. I’m usually very sporadic and volatile in writing, so it’s been an interesting challenge to get into the frame of mind where I’m still authentically expressing myself but it’s a controlled expressing. Not writing to the feeling, but bringing the feeling and writing to it.

You’re part of the Slamalamadingong National Poetry Slam Team. How do you feel and what are you expecting at the event?

A lot of poetry! It’s great to see people working together – that is the best part. The most fun is the group pieces, and also the most difficult because everyone has their own unique style. Individually we all have our limitations, but together we cover each other’s weaknesses and it ends up being really powerful pieces because we’re taking the best of everyone.

When did you realise loved writing?

When I realised I was good at it – getting awards in primary school. I was a very imaginative kid, always making up stories in my head. In my first creative writing class I realised this is a thing that people do! It can be way of expressing yourself and people can relate and enjoy. I struggled and still do struggle to express myself verbally and it was an easier way to express the ideas that I felt I couldn’t talk about or verbalise.

Ah! Like your winning Slam piece “Put it in Writing”?

Yes! That literally came out as a result of asking why do I do this?

Do you feel you’re better in your personal life because of writing?

It’s multi faceted. Yes because I’m able to process my feelings, which subsequently allows me to better relate to people. But at the same time, it almost makes it necessary because that’s how I process things. So if I’m not writing, then what happens?

Where do you get your inspiration from?

From emotions, feelings, experiences. I feel like I almost have a sense of responsibility to express, because I spent so long not expressing and I know a lot of people don’t express. Just by sharing my vulnerability I can show someone else, you’re not alone. That is so important.

Why didn’t you express yourself for so long?

I didn’t express because of addiction to various substances. Inherently with most addictions it’s about escapism, discontent with the reality that you’re faced with. So you either just relentlessly pursue pleasure, avoid pain or end up numbing everything. I stopped writing for all the time I was using, about 9 years. When I was using I couldn’t connect to my emotions which were blocked off and that’s where the writing comes from. I started writing again in rehab. All the blocked emotions all came rushing in and suddenly I had a lot to write about.

What did you learn from that rehab writing?

So much about myself. It was less poetic, more journaling. It was an in-depth study into me. Why do I do the things I do? What are my motivations? Everyone should do the work. Although it’s not actually necessary to do this level of work to function in society, it’s the idea of a fulfilling life, like Plato says “an unexamined life is not worth living”. You can live, you can be happy and experience everything without doing the work, but you can have so much more if you do the work. That’s why I’m grateful for the addiction because if I hadn’t gone to this extreme, I wouldn’t have done the work.

How did you get out of it?

Going to rehab. For me it was family intervention, but life intervenes, someone intervenes, and it’s so necessary.

Like your piece “Tongue Tied” about going to rehab?

Yes, that is exactly what it was about.

How do you feel now?

Very good. Life is still challenging. Life doesn’t necessarily change – the fundamentals don’t change. The way you process things change and your perspective changes. I’m now better able to process everything that happens.

Is there any advice you would give to someone in that space?

Ask for help. And know that you’re not alone. People feel like they’re the only one going through things and it goes back to not being able to express yourself because you think people won’t understand. But so many people go through it and they will understand.

What would you like to write about, that you haven’t written about yet?

I know the answer to this! I want to get into more mystical and ethereal, like what Manisha Anjali does. There’s a lot of realism in my work. Even if I’m using metaphors, it’s all grounded in reality. I want to break out of that mould and venture into the fantastical, mystical, and really have a go at playing with it.

What do you hope people get from your work?

I primarily hope that at least one person can relate – that is super important. And entertainment. I want people to enjoy it and like it. I also want people to not like it. It’s important to create controversy and create that space for conversation. We can challenge the ideas. This has been a problem for me – there has been no bad feedback. So I don’t know where to go next because no one is challenging it.

What can we expect from you in the near future?

A book of poetry to finish this year and I really want to experience the world of publishing. I also want to write fiction, but the story hasn’t found me yet. I’m waiting for the story so I know what to write. Poetry is bringing me closer to that story – unpacking emotions and better understanding of what I want to express and helping me find my voice.

You can see Thabani at MSW’s Fresh Voices on Wednesday July 17th and at the National Poetry Slam Australia on Thursday, July 25th.