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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English > Malika Ndlovu on her memoir Invisible Earthquake: a Woman’s Journal through Stillbirth – In Conversation with Janet van Eeden

Malika Ndlovu on her memoir Invisible Earthquake: a Woman’s Journal through Stillbirth – In Conversation with Janet van Eeden

Janet van Eeden - 2009-07-01

Title: Invisible Earthquake: a Woman's Journal through Stillbirth
Author: Malika Ndlovu
Publisher: Modjaji Books
ISBN: 9780980272932
Publication date: February 2009
Pages: 88

Click here to order your copy of Invisible Earthquake from Kalahari.net.

Thank you Malika, for this very beautiful and personal description of what it is like to give birth to a stillborn baby. I found it deeply moving and evocative of grief in all its guises. What was it that made you decide to write about the very personal experience of losing a baby?

I wrote for my own sanity and emotional release initially. It was a way of capturing every detail of these dramatic and traumatic changes, as if I were taking mental photographs so that I would never forget. Writing is my work, but has always been a therapeutic outlet for me, and with the overwhelming tide of emotions and turbulence that grief causes in one's life I needed a safe place to ease the internal pressure. I needed a way to continue a day by day sense of connection and conversation with my daughter.

My journal was that place, free from censorship or scrutiny. Writing about her and expressing my mourning over her was also my way of channelling the love that I would have shown in other ways had she lived to be in my arms.

Later, as I searched local bookshops and the internet for other mothers' experiences of grappling with this specific, mostly silenced kind of loss, I realised how few books from a mother's perspective were out there. I imagined the possible comfort my offering could give to another like me, somewhere else in the country or across the globe.

Eventually, after three years of healing through this documenting of my path, I felt ready to share it with an editor I trusted, to see if and how my daughter and my story could find their place in the world. It was a ritual of closure (the first of many) to begin to create this book as a gift to others who've been there, and also as a tribute to Iman Bongiwe, my still born daughter.

Please tell me more about your work, Malika. I know you are a prolific poet as well as a playwright. Could you tell me what your greatest achievements are so far? And how has the loss of your daughter affected your work in other areas?

It's not easy blowing my own trumpet on my "greatest hits" so far. I love my work as an artist and arts project manager. More and more I am able to choose to do only work that inspires and grows me in some way.

As far as my daughter's impact is concerned, I would definitely say this book, catalysed by her, is the one I am most proud of. I wanted to make a beautiful tribute to her, and making the book was another way of making sense of my life after her death. She has led me to new levels of courage and compassion for others, and the affirming feedback I have received about the impact the book has had on others is healing and deeply rewarding for me.

Without being a schooled or consciously politicised feminist, I have predominantly written about women's experiences. I write about what I know and where I'm coming from, hopefully using the personal to resonate with universal human experience.

Writing and speaking about stillbirth is something I doubt I would have done, had it not happened to me. My speaking out on this hidden subject has already broken the silence of many women around me, even ones I've met only in cyberspace. I keep learning and healing through these encounters.

Was this your first pregnancy? Most people don't give cognisance to the fact that a pregnant woman feels bereft at having even an early miscarriage. I almost lost my daughter about three months into my pregnancy and I was distraught at the thought of losing her. I went to hospital for a week to avert the disaster, but I was deeply distressed as I'd already fallen in love with my baby-to-be.) Please could you tell LitNet readers (for the sake of those who haven't yet read your book) how early you bonded with the baby in your womb and how this impacted on the deep sense of loss when you realised her heart had stopped beating.

Any woman who has fallen pregnant and then miscarried, terminated, had a stillbirth or even carried a healthy child to full term can tell you that the sense of connection with another being in your body is there from the moment your pregnancy is confirmed. No matter what medical and external opinions may diminish this fact to terms like a "viable or non-viable foetus", maternal instincts are rooted in us and they come into play right from the start, even if it means making difficult choices like deciding to end a pregnancy. The sense of loss when that door to new life and all its possibilities closes is heartbreaking and must be acknowledged no matter how long or short the pregnancy lasted.

I remember that I knew I was pregnant the day before my 31st birthday. I took two tests just to be sure. I already had a ten-year-old and a twenty-month-old son at the time. I felt overwhelmed at the thought of another child so soon, but after the initial shock I returned to my true belief that each child is a gift and no matter how bad the timing seems, none is an accident. In my book I describe those first months of carrying her in my womb.

I chanted and sang with her on stage, played music with shakers and words. I soaked with her in bubble baths,

smiled alone in the dark with my palms resting on either side of my naked belly, like two ever-eager ears straining

for a hint to kick-start our midnight conversations. I felt her take over my body, creating that familiar feeling of

unbalance as my back arched to compensate for a larger belly, forcing me into larger waistlines and super-comfy

shoes, clicking my bones in and out of place, pinching a nerve here and there, making me jump or sit upright in pain or fright.

To have gone through all the physical changes for over seven months, the mental adjustments, the planning and expectation, buying or inheriting of baby clothes, especially for a girl after two sons, our immediate and extended family and friends' joyful anticipation, and then have to face the brutal fact of no movement, no heartbeat, left me reeling in shock. For a while my brain kept returning to what signs may have come before. I couldn't believe how this was possible. The facts just didn't make sense. It was New Year's Day 2003 when it happened. It felt like I'd left my body and was witnessing someone else's life story unfold, in those first twenty four hours of knowing the truth. I refused to accept that this was happening to me, that there was nothing I could do to change what was already over. I still had to deliver her, go through various unsuccessful attempts to induce labour, and finally she was stillborn two days later, eventually, with a single push.

Your other children had to carry on without you for a while when you mourned. Please tell readers what it was that made you check back into the real world after your daughter's death. Also, how have your other children learnt to cope with your mourning?

I hibernated as much as possible in the first few weeks, my husband often acting as the filter to the outside world, always checking whether I was up to taking a call or a visit, to run some errand or a trip to a park or the sea. But on the home front my sons needed their routine to be maintained as much as possible since Mom was clearly "not quite herself". Doing basic household chores, preparing their meals and things for school was a welcome distraction, drawing me directly into the present and tricking my brain into thinking about something else for a few hours.

When I reached a point of feeling suicidal nearly three months later, I got a fright and set up a few sessions with a psychologist and grief counsellor. I had tried to stay connected to my life, all that was good in it, but the sorrow I felt was like sinking sand and made me feel alien to what used to feel familiar and comforting. These "ventilation sessions" with an objective outsider really helped me gain some perspective on the changes I was going through and affirmed that these were natural, common responses to deep loss and assured me I wasn't going insane!

Four months later I fell pregnant with my son Kwezi Michio and that was yet another topsy-turvy moment. But it was essentially my biggest tug back to life. I had someone else's wellbeing directly dependent on my state of physical and mental health. I was surrounded by the fears of those around me who were anxious that this would lead to the same end as the previous pregnancy. I consciously asserted my positivity that this baby would be well, that he was not her, that each child and pregnancy is unique, and even though a large part of me did not feel ready to be pregnant again, the day that I knew for sure, I felt my whole body saying: "Yes! This is meant to be!"

My youngest son was two years old at the time and he had the most adorable ways of comforting me with extra hugs and kisses, or showing me new things he discovered his body could do. Over time he has created wonderful ways of explaining what happened to his "angel sister" and shared his own thoughts on what happens when we die. Some of these comments I've integrated into my book.

My then preteen son had a very different reaction, understandably. Initially he was very angry, felt this was unfair and couldn't accept any explanation for what had caused the complications. Mostly he didn't want to speak about his feelings for fear of being overwhelmed by them. Still he managed to be so supportive of me, doing extra chores, wanting to spend more time at home to make sure I was okay. I kept assuring them both that I love them, that it was okay to be sad, that it wouldn't always hurt so much and that I was going to feel better with time, so they didn't need to worry. I believe that if I'd pretended to be happy or move on quickly it would have led to confusion later when my mask inevitably fell off.

Still, I fell apart on a regular basis, even with all this love and care surrounding me, and I tried imagine how other women managed to cope without such support. How many simply suppressed or postponed their grieving, leading to greater complications in their bodies and lives? This is one of the primary reasons why I decided to publish my journal of this experience, in the hope that it would speak to some of those women and possibly encourage them to heal by naming their pain and claiming their right to grieve.

You mentioned in a recent email that your mother finally had the courage to read your book. Please could you tell me more about her reaction to your loss?

My mother and I have a close relationship. I am her only daughter and because she had me when she was young, once I passed adolescence our relationship grew to be more of a sisterhood too. She was devastated by this loss and felt powerless to ease my pain. She is a nurse and loves making others feel better, so she felt particularly helpless in the situation. She seemed angry with God.

Because she lived in another city she flew to be with me throughout the delivery process and stayed for about two weeks after. It was hard for her to leave and for me to let her go back to work and to her life far away from me. She called or smsed me almost everyday, and when I didn't feel like talking she got updates from my husband or friends.

Each time she visited it was like she was checking my temperature, my moods, my behaviour, asking probing questions about how I was coping. No matter how many times I had told her on the phone that it was getting more bearable with time, she had to see and hear it for herself face to face. When I posted her the first draft of the manuscript she read it and cried a lot. It helped her understand and recognise my progress. But that was over three years ago.

When the book was finally edited and published three months ago, I waited to give her a copy face to face again. She did not read it for at least two weeks, carrying it up and down with her until, as she said, it burned a hole in her bag. She read it from cover to cover while on night duty at the old age home where she works. I know this has begun another layer of healing and closure for us both.

How did your husband cope? Did he feel the loss as keenly as you did? What was his way of coping with the loss of a child he hadn't had growing inside his body as you did without having the luxury of releasing his pain through words?

I don't believe you can measure or compare suffering, but of course fathers are one significant step removed from pregnancy and related womb losses. My husband instinctively understood this and definitely put my feelings before his own, even when I encouraged him to make space for himself to express his feelings. But while words are my medium they aren't always his.

I think another big difference between us is that prior to this point in his life, he had lost a baby sister, an uncle and three of his four grandparents who helped raise him. On the other hand, our daughter's death was my first experience of intimate loss, and it couldn't have been more intimate. I have also learned from books and counsellors about different ways we as individuals cope with the "succession of losses" in our lives. While it still breaks your heart each time, we also deal with the collective impact of previous losses. Coping strategies you've relied on before can kick in or fail to work when another tragedy strikes.

This made a lot of sense to me in needing to respect our different ways of dealing with our loss. He wouldn't always want or need to express his feelings in the ways I needed to. He has grieved in his own ways over time and we have relied on open communication about our shared loss, so that we can lean on each other whenever it is needed.

Malika Lueen Ndlovu is a Durban-born poet, playwright, performer, arts project manager and mother of three, with a wide range of experience in the arts and arts management arenas. She has published two of her own poetry anthologies, Born in Africa But and Womb to World: A Labour of Love, besides her work being featured in several local and international publications. She is dedicated to creating indigenous multimedia works in line with her personal motto, "healing through creativity". Malika is a founder member of the Cape Town-based women writers' collective WEAVE and co-editor of their multigenre anthology WEAVE's Ink @ Boiling Point: A selection of 21st Century Black Women's writing from the Southern Tip of Africa. In 2004 Malika joined The Mothertongue Project, a women performing artists, writers and visual artists collective, scripting for their highly successful Grahamstown Festival 2004 production Uhambo!: Pieces of a Dream. She has also initiated the And The Word Was Woman Ensemble of 14 local performance poets, bringing together established Cape Town writers and fresh writing talents. Malika was a featured poet at the Poetry Africa 2005 International Festival hosted by the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban. In August 2006 she returned to her hometown by invitation of The Playhouse Company to restage her play A Coloured Place, written in 1996, in celebration of the 10th Anniversary SA Women's Arts Festival. In September Malika performed extracts of Words Pave the Way, an autobiographical journey through her poetry, at the Darling Festival Trust's 2006 Voorkamer Festival. In March 2007, as part of the Cape Town Festival, Malika, in collaboration with well-known singer-songwriters Tina Schouw and Ernestine Deane, restaged their highly successful production Womantide, showcasing their original poetry, songs and music. For Human Rights Day 21st March 2007, Malika conceived and facilitated Wordwise: A Celebration of World Poetry Day - inspired by this 1999 UNESCO global initiative and hosted at Iziko Museum's Slave Lodge - which in collaboration with the Cape Town City Council launched its annual calendar of events on Heritage Day 24 September 2008 and in May 2009 culminated in a three-day international poetry Festival that took place in central Cape Town venues. Malika's new solo poetry anthology, Truth is both Spirit and Flesh, launched in November 2008, also includes a selection of South African tribute poems entitled Let's Not Wait To Praise You When You're Dead. Most recently her poetic memoir Invisible Earthquake: a Woman's Journal through Stillbirth was published by Modjaji Books in March 2009, marking the beginning of her awareness-raising campaign on this underexposed aspect of many women's experience across the globe. Malika's latest play, Sister Breyani, had its world premiere at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees 2009 before a run at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town in May.

Photo of Malika by KAYO FUSEJIMA , proudlyme.media