‘We have a right to determine how our histories are told’: An interview with poet Toni Stuart

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On Thursday 3 December the Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies (CCDS) and Centre for Feminist Research host a spoken word performance by Toni Stuart: poet, festival organiser and educator, recently named on the South African Mail & Guardian’s list of inspiring young South Africans.

Toni is also a Goldsmiths graduate, completing her MA Writer/Teacher with us this year as a 2014/2015 Chevening Scholar. We caught up with her to find out more about her work and Goldsmiths experience.

Toni was first introduced to Goldsmiths by friend and fellow poet Raymond Antrobus while he was studying for his MA Writer/Teacher here. Raymond was also taking part in our Spoken Word Educators Programme (SWEP), working with school children to develop their confidence, self expression, oral communication and literary skills.

Invited in to teach for the day at the school where Raymond was based, Toni got a taste for what being poet-in-residence was like and also learnt more about our MA – a course taught by the Departments of Educational Studies and English and Comparative Literature.

“It sounded like exactly what I wanted,” she says. “A course that allowed me to develop my creative writing and teaching practices simultaneously, with a specific focus on developing my own pedagogy and ‘poetry syllabus’. I don’t know of any other course like it in the world. And, the SWEP - started by Peter Kahn and now with Jacob Sam-La Rose as director - is the only one of its kind in the world as well.”

After her performance at Goldsmiths this December, Toni and her audience will be taking part in a discussion circle exploring the use of stories as medicine. As a 32-year old mixed heritage South African woman poet, she believes her work – and that of her generation – is to heal the wounds that they have inherited from their parents’ generation and from the past.

“Sometimes these wounds are apparent and we’re able to address them directly, other times they are unconsciously passed down through many generations,” she says. “My experience of working in the NGO sector in the past, and in the arts sector now, is that self-care is fundamental if we hope for our work to have a meaningful impact in our communities, and, that in order for our work to be sustainable we need to ensure we are taking care of ourselves first.

If we do not eat, our bodies have no fuel to function. In the same way, if we do not take care of our other needs - mentally, emotionally and physically, we cannot expect our creativity and thinking to thrive and have an impact.

“In a world of increasing speed, creating spaces where we can slow down, connect with ourselves and each other, are vital. This is what writing gives me - a space to listen to and connect with myself and to listen to and connect with other people. It is through true connection that we find healing.”

On studying at Goldsmiths

While studying at Goldsmiths, Toni found a home in our Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies, completing her MA dissertation under the supervision of the Centre’s director, Professor Joan Anim-Addo.

Her research and writing on South African mixed race identity didn’t immediately connect with the Centre’s focus on Caribbean literature, but the Centre turned out to be a perfect fit. It was a place where Toni “didn’t have to divorce my politics, my identity and the exploration of both of these, from my poetics”.

“When I submitted my dissertation proposal, Maura Dooley thought that Professor Joan Anim-Addo would be the best supervisor for the work I wanted to undertake. I wanted to explore and write about South African ‘mixed race’ identity (known in South Africa as ‘coloured’ - many generations of being mixed, with a wide and varied heritage, as opposed to first generation mixed race) and wanted to use Black British and Caribbean poetry and poets as my influences.”

Toni sought out Caribbean, South African and African-American literature for both her Goldsmiths dissertation and her new poetic writing, naming work by Kamau Brathwaite, Kelwyn Sole, M. NourbeSe Philips and American poet Tyehimba Jess’ acclaimed collection leadbelly (about blues legend Lead Belly) among her inspirations. Professor Anim-Addo’s ‘Imoinda or She Who Will Lose Her Name’ (2008) – the first libretto to be written by an African-Caribbean woman – was also a key influence.

"A creative and academic home"

“I am so thankful and blessed that Joan said yes to supervising this young writer she’d never heard of or taught. I found a creative and academic home in which all of the parts of me were acknowledged and valid, and where I was supported to wrestle with how these different parts all impacted upon and integrated with my creative and academic practice.

“The opportunity to work with Joan, to be guided by and learn from her, has had a profound impact on me. I have found a mentor and teacher, and most importantly an elder, who I hope to continue working with for many years to come.”

Currently based in London, Toni will be returning to South Africa early next year to continue her work as a poet, performer and educator. She’ll be expanding on her research into Krotoa-Eva - a Khoi woman who played a pivotal role in South African history in the 17th century - and expanding her show on the theme into a longer one-woman performance. Other projects include an interactive poetry installation, Here to Listen, and an all-female poetry band, whose debut performance will take place in London in December.

She also plans to continue working with the CCDS in whatever capacity is possible from a distance – “particularly around poetry in the diaspora, sharing skills and resources, and hopefully a few international exchanges at some point in the future”.

Toni describes the Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies as “vital”. She says that “it’s not just about Caribbean or diaspora literature. It’s about creating a space where students whose heritage is of the diaspora feel at home to explore this in their academic work, if they so desire.

“It’s about making the academic environment more accessible. It’s a space where the community and the academic space meet. In 2015, in our increasingly global, trans-national society, CCDS is an integral part of the university environment.

“The Centre’s existence and work allows students of colour to see that our heritage and lived experiences are also valid, that we have a right to be in the academic sphere, on our terms, determining how our histories are told, archived and mapped, and that we are not merely engaging with our histories and cultures as ‘the other’.”  


Join us on Thursday 3 December from 6pm for ‘Krotoa-Eva’s Suite: a performance by Toni Stuart’. Entry is free, open to all, and there’s no need to book.

Find out more about the MA Writer/Teacher and Centre for Caribbean and Diaspora Studies at Goldsmiths.

Visit tonistuart.com and tonistuart.tumblr.com for more information.

- With thanks to Professor Joan Anim-Addo for her help with this article -