Koleka Putuma, Collective Amnesia – A Review

Title:                     Collective Amnesia
Author:                Koleka Putuma
Publisher:            uHlanga (2017)
Pages:                   111
Reviewer:            Tumelo Motaung
Rating:                  5/5


Home, for me has always been shaky ground, a volcano waiting to explode. I’m never been home for more than four months at a time; and this has come to define my relationship with my mother, who has come to protect her heart from my madness by keeping silent for however long I am away, only responding to the occasional message which has come to mean that I miss her, also that life away is a little tougher on that day.

I cleaned out my cupboards on a recent visit home. Four months had passed since I had left, only four months after I had arrived from leaving. Almost like a storm passing through, leaving everyone to wonder why I had run, this time. Nothing, apart from my sister filling the spaces I had left unoccupied with shoes, was out of place. It felt like they had expected me to come back any day and resume where we had left off.

I wanted to make space for the baby, who would arrive any moment from then, so I cleaned my cupboards of all the clothing I would not again wear and sent them out to those who would. As I carelessly packed the old away and carefully packed the new in their place, I thought to the last argument I had with my mother. It was about the new pair of shoes she had given me. I had left it and five other pairs at my last apartment and did not return to collect them because he still lived there. It was a TV set, or something else, always something, before that.


When your mother asks
Where you left the things she gave you
You will want to say, I am unlearning them
But unlearning is not a real place or destination
So you will choose to say your don’t know and apologise out of habit
You will realise you lost some stuff between loving and leaving your lovers
You will realise your lovers gave you their mothers’ stuff, too
And that maybe unlearning should be a place
And all the womxn in your family should gather there more often
Until unlearning is a tradition you can pass on to your children


I was, for a long time, afraid of reading my copy of Collective Amnesia. Afraid of what it would make me feel, afraid it would uncover all the pain I had labored so long to bury, remove – by the layer – all the masks I’ve worn underneath my smile. I kept it on top of my book pile for months, in my backpack for weeks, only to read it the week before we were to convene again for book club, on a morning I did not want to get out of bed, and so my son and I lazed and ate noodles. Him with games, me with my book.

I read it, with a red pen in hand, from cover to cover, underlining all the parts that poked. I read it, with my back holding shut the door to my own emotions; pushing, as they pushed back, refusing to be held in. Running through the text, I read, only stopping on page 64 to ask myself whether I was “fine.” Only then did I open the door, slowing my pace, letting the tears flow, realizing just how much I missed my mother.

mother teach your daughter
that a grief
that sets itself loose
in the middle of a busy highway
is not madness


I have tried much, hard, not to turn into a Koleka Putuma groupie, and it has not worked very well. I’ve watched and reflected on her poem, Water, a number of times; watched her read On Black Solidarity, Memoirs of a slave & queer person, and Online more than once, and each of those time I’ve wanted to scream. I’ve wanted my silences to speak, to shout, to sing, anything; but they remained within, vibrating to the beat of my heart, gentle enough that I may not forget.

Unlike the other books I’ve finished reading and neatly stacked or boxed away, I’ve kept Collective Amnesia at the top of my book pile, always near for all those moments when I need to remember that these phone calls I keep taking, all the trips I keep making at the break of dawn, are just another way in which I am committing suicide and letting someone else write the note. I keep her book near me to remind myself that it is alright to bleed, just not to bleed out.


We hosted two book club sessions on the 22nd and 23rd of July paying homage to the anthology. Koleka had asked if we could record the session, and I had agreed without thinking twice. Both days went by and no recording was made, we instead sat through some of the longest, most reflective sessions we’ve hosted. The absence of a recording of any sort had kept the atmosphere, book club is a safe space for all of us to open our monstrous hearts and gently feed off of each other’s pain without ever minding the blood that kept splattering from our trying so hard to keep in the tears. There are joyful moments too, just not on this weekend.

1. the same hands that build you a pedestal
are also capable of building a cross to crucify you.
2. people can be parasites, too.

I do not want to just add to the mountains of praises that Koleka and Collective Amnesia have received over the last couple of months. I would like the reader of this review to understand that the anthology is not only relevant, but necessary; to the time in which we live, to the trauma we carry on our backs, the silences we are born into and keep passing on. I bought a notebook four months ago, in the first week after I left home. After over a year of not being able to speak, this is what I wrote:

“I want to write, I want to write something, anything. I want to fill pages with thoughts and feelings. This is after all why I bought this notebook and pen. I don’t want to keep anything inside anymore. Not any longer. I think that maybe, just maybe, all the things that I have kept inside have come to choke me, that they are eating up at me from parts I cannot see. While I smile, all the while concealing the heart that bleeds, I am dying. So I will write. I will put it all down. I’m not sure how, I’m not sure where to start from, but I know I want to write.”

The next thing I wrote down was a farewell note to Johannesburg. I wrote that on a day I went to see my mother. I wanted to tell her that I could not read her silences, that they made me nervous, that I kept making my own mind up about stuff, and that’s why I ran. I wanted to let her know that I now understood that keeping quiet was her way of running. I would bring her a copy of the book instead and hoped she would read between the lines, and perhaps one day we would talk to each other.

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