Monday, February 5, 2018

Life of a Poet ~ Khaya Ronkainen

We are so pleased to be visiting today with Khaya Ronkainen, who blogs at POETRY? WHY NOT? Khaya lives in Finland, a land I am eager to hear about, since Khaya is our first poet from this country. And she grew up in South Africa, a country dear to my heart. Between the beautiful landscapes and poetry, we are about to be hugely entertained and intrigued. Let's not waste another minute.

Sherry: Khaya, every poet has a story and, from looking around your blog, I suspect you have a most interesting one. Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?

Khaya: First, I’m honoured to be featured in this amazing site, and amongst its talented poets. Thank you so much, Sherry. I hope my answers will give enough glimpse into my world.

I was born in a small town, Umtata, in South Africa. It’s the same place where Nelson Mandela was born. That’s my only claim to fame!

Suburbs of Umtata, Eastern Cape, SA

Sherry: Wow, and what a claim to fame that is!

Khaya: During my childhood, and as the political landscape was changing, my mother had an opportunity to buy a smallholding farm from another small town, Engcobo. We then moved from city to the countryside. By countryside, I’m talking about the most remote rural area I’ve ever lived in.

Engcobo, Eastern Cape, SA

Then, in my teens, I came back to the city and joined the boarding school life, but continued to spend school holidays at home in the country.

I’ve also spent a great deal of my adult life in Johannesburg; the economic hub of the African continent. So, I’m both at home in the city and country.

 Johannesburg, Gauteng, SA

Sherry: What an amazing childhood! It sets me dreaming! When you look back, is there someone you feel was a big influence in helping you become the woman you are today? Who encouraged your dreams?

Khaya: Oh Sherry, the answer to this question is a book on its own. But to give a brief answer, without a doubt both my parents had a huge influence in helping me become the woman I am today.

In their own different ways, through love, sheer hard work and sacrifices, they instilled in me a strong sense of self. By this I mean, knowing one’s strengths, what it means to be brave, and willingness to take risks. They also made me realise that luck has nothing to do with it.

Sherry: They sound like most wonderful parents. They gave you roots and wings. South Africa has always claimed part of my heart – because of the wild animals, and also because of the spirit of the people of South Africa who, while some may not have much materially, seem to know a joy we in North America lack, for all of our excess. What do you carry of South Africa in your heart?

Khaya: I mentioned above the village in Engcobo as the most remote place I’ve ever lived in. What I didn’t mention is that it was also (and remains) one of the poorest villages in South Africa. Yet I’ve never experienced, from anywhere else, so much generosity and joy than I did there.

And so, in my heart I carry fond memories of my childhood. A smile from the sincere warmth with which people treat both members of the community and strangers. Stories found in our robust traditions and diverse cultural heritage.

Sherry: I have observed that generosity  in those who live close to the land, and who may have little other than the rich culture and kindness in their hearts. It seems more elusive among those whose values are material.

We are eager to know what your life is like now. I am so intrigued that you live in Finland, which I do not know much about. We are all ears!

Khaya: My life is the same yet different. What I mean is that I continue to enjoy the same things in life. What is different is the place, and the fact that now I have a husband to navigate life with.

City neighbourhood in autumn
Tampere, Pirkanmaa, Finland

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the continuous living between city and country lifestyle. My husband and I have the pleasure of living in the city due to work, but spend most holidays in the country.

Sherry: Wonderful photos! Beauty all around you, at all times. This is felicitous, for a poet. Smiles.

Countryside activities during summer

Khaya: My field of work is constantly changing. At present it’s in the education sector; a completely new experience for me to work in the public sector.

Sometimes I give talks around schools

Because I come from a business background; that is, I have climbed the corporate ladder working in Finance, Healthcare & IT sectors.

Sherry: How wonderful, to work with children. When did you make the life-changing move from South Africa to Finland, Khaya?  How did you feel, when you arrived there, and how did you manage to become acclimated?

Khaya: Officially, I moved from South Africa to Finland about ten years ago. But for a number of years, we lived abroad before my husband wanted to come back home, and here we are! So, in a way Finland chose me, that is, I fell in love with a Finn.

A leap from sunny South to freezing North has been the biggest adventure of my life, thus far. As a child, I used to read books about faraway places with snow and white Christmases but never, even in my wildest dreams, did I think I’d end up living that life. 

Snowmobiling in Kuusamo, Finland

Sherry: Wow! When you say "snow", you really mean it! It looks so beautiful and, yes, very cold.

I understand Finland has very advanced social systems. What impresses you most about it?

Khaya: What impresses me is the accountability and transparency on how public funds and taxpayers’ money are used in creating a dignified and decent living for all. The accessibility of education, free and everyone’s right, regardless of background, impresses me the most.

Sherry: It impresses me as well. In North America, we are losing rights left and right at the moment. 

When did you first begin to write? Did it help you with the culture shock of finding yourself in a new place?

Khaya: Ah! The famous question…*laughs*. I can’t say for sure. As a child I preferred to write than to talk. This means I did a lot of letter writing, you know, more like the Dorothy Osborne kind of writing; long reports about rural life to my cousins and friends living in cities.

But it was when I moved to Finland that I actually started putting meaningful stories down. It was a way of dealing with culture shock, and so words became my friends.

Sherry: I love that: "words became my friends." They do give comfort. When did you branch into poetry?

Khaya: I don’t think I branched out into poetry, Sherry. I’ve always been in it, even before I attempted to write it. I’ve always been a lover and a reader of poetry with influences such as S.E.K. Mqhayi and Tiyo Soga (Xhosa poets/writers), to name just a few.

I even had a crush on John Keats himself, during my high school years…*laughs* when a boy trying to impress me recited Keats’ Endymion. I thought, wow! I want to do that. But then I went to study business and got swept away a bit, whilst I chased the bottom line.

So, I returned and pursued poetry seriously, when I got stuck in my novel writing; a project that is still pending. Luckily at the time, I was also doing studies in English Philology (as part of a career change), and the process of writing poetry sort of came naturally.

Sherry: I love that you branch out in all directions, exploring all life offers. What do you love about poetry? What makes it sing for you?

Khaya: I love how poetry pushes limits with language and form. Its ability to make us pause, be in the moment, and remind us that water is still wet. The process of birthing a poem; the whisper, the nudge, the build-up and the release that eventually leads me to write with urgency. That like any other art form, poetry doesn’t belong to the creator but to the people.

To quote one of my writer friends, Khutsie Kasale, “Poetry is something more sacred and authentic. It is a gift of words birthed through the artist that come straight from the hands of God.”

So, I love that poetry means different things to different people depending on where it finds them.  

Sherry: Such a good explanation! I read on your blog that you come from the Xhosa people, who have a strong tradition of oral storytelling. Do you think that is reflected in your poetry, that you are carrying on the tradition in your work? Do you remember a grandmother or someone in your family, who told great stories that caused you, as a little girl, to dream?

Khaya: I mentioned earlier on that I don’t think I branched out into poetry, I’ve always been in it. By this I mean, a Xhosa child, (or an African child for that matter), learns quite early in life who they are. That is, a knowledge of their origin, past history and culture because African cultures pride themselves on clan names.

So, a child learns about the notion of iziduko/izibongo through chanting of a multitude of family clan names; ancestors and heroes (living and dead) from the elders.

Chanting of clan praises is poetry itself; oral poetry that overlaps with a song. Thus, in my writing I’m always trying to emulate that rhythm and harmony.  
Sherry: I envy you that rich cultural heritage. I see it, too, among the First Nations people where I live - such an ancient, proud, traditional culture. 

Would you like to share three of your poems here, and tell us a bit about each one?

Khaya: Before I share, it’s important to point that my work often examines duality of an immigrant life; loss and gain. And the “I” doesn’t always mean the writer but the speaker.

Word Roots

Of origins I do not know
Theories varied and accepted
Making sense and no sense
Words are my friends.

Words that go forward
In prose and in books
Words that return
In verse and in song.

Of classical and medieval
Renaissance and modern
It's Twa, the forage and pastoral
Tshawe, the ancestral heroes I seek

Diminished words found
Not in history books
Accepted words whose
History is esteemed

It's Nongqawuse's words I thirst;
A prophecy from uQamata
Words older than writing
Dramatic and creative

Praise poems of no particular
Historical period. Folk tales
Of Tokoloshe terrifying
Children and adults alike.

Infidel words, beginnings
I do not know but whose
Oral tradition leaves me
Smitten in a trance
Speaking in tongues
Descending the Great Lakes
Borrowing from Khoi
To click a sound.

A tradition of Xhosa poetry
Whose metre measured not
In literary magazines, yet rhyme
Rings loud in Grahamstown

Words murmured teasing
With foreplay, words chanted
Exploding into a climax
Do scratch an itch

Spoken and sung
Barbaric and censored
Roots of word
I seek.

Khaya: This poem examines relationship with languages. It was inspired by a Poetry Festival held in my city, Tampere, in 2015. The theme was Syntyjä, Syviä, loosely translated as “root of words”.

Journeys I’ve Travelled

I’ve been to the north
I’ve been to the south
Journeys —
left me floating in between
(where both worlds depart)
and with no claim to either.
Suburbia no longer white
we sip tea and spend hours
discussing weather, whilst
the sun shines in black rural.
In song and dance we quench
— thirst vanquished.
I’ve been to the city
I’ve been to the country
Allow me the misguided view
with diluted memories, for
I build a world with these
smatterings of my life.

Khaya: I think this one is self-explanatory.


                    What would you have me say of you?
                    Ours is an obscure relationship
                    You led me believe I was your baby
A summer baby
                    Because down south, October simmers
                    Spring overlapping with summer.

                    What would you have me say of you?
                    As if immaterial, now you tell me I am
An autumn baby
                    Because up north, October teases
                    Skies weep fearful of winter.

Khaya: And the last is a poem excerpt from my upcoming chapbook that I’m hoping to release in spring 2018. I wrote it in celebration of the centenary of Finland’s Independence.

Sherry: Thank you for these, Khaya. You express yourself so well. I especially love the Xhosa words included in your poem. And we look forward to your book.

When you aren’t writing, what other activities do you enjoy?

Khaya: During my spare time, I can be found wandering in nature, hiking and backpacking, amongst other things, with my husband.

Hiking in Kilpisjärvi, Lapland

I’m also a hobbyist photographer, and more of my nature photographs can be found on Instagram.

Sherry: The landscape is so beautiful! We look forward to checking your photos out. Many of us are armchair travellers! Smiles. Is there anything you would like to say to Poets United?

Khaya: I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the amazing and welcoming poets at Poets United. People around here really take time to read each other’s work, inspire and support. What a wonderful community you are!

I found Poets United through my writer/blogger friends, whom I met at Prompt Nights hosted by Sanaa Rizvi at A Dash of Sunny.

Sherry: We are so happy that you found us. Thank you so much for this most interesting visit. We look forward to enjoying much more of your work, Khaya.

Wasn't this wonderfully interesting, my friends? Do come back and see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!


  1. A fascinating interview and what an amazing life so far! The move from one extreme of weather to another alone is quite an adventure, as Khaya has expressed so well in 'Journeys I have Travelled'. I love all the poems, especially 'Word Roots'; having studied linguistics, words and their origins interest me, and I love the line 'Words are my friends'.

    1. So happy to hear we have something in common; the love of words and their origins. Thank you Kim for reading.

  2. So interesting to come across a poet from the north with such an interesting background... Love your writing, and I do love how you are one step in Finland and one in South Africa...

    I can almost imagine that we will meet sometimes when out hiking in the North...

    1. Ah yes, I notice you are a neighbour. Probably, we'll meet or have passed each other already on a hiking trail. Thank you for reading!

  3. I was so excited to bring this feature to you - our first Finland poet! Smiles. Thank you, Khaya, for allowing us to get to know you better. We look forward to enjoying much more of your poetry. So happy you found Poets United.

    1. Many thanks to you too Sherry, I'm honoured to be featured. Much appreciated.

      I've just realised there's so much difference in our time zones. I'm off to bed already, but I'll be back tomorrow to continue the conversation with other poets. Thank you.

  4. Thanks so much Sherry for another wonderful and vibrant interview. :)
    And thank you Khaya for sharing so much of you. It's really exciting to have the chance to learn about someone's "back stories" - to see how and why, and how it's all unfolding in the "now." What a full and rich life you've had and continue to enjoy - and it's truly amazing how you can dip into your experiences and create with such immediacy and authenticity - offering us a chance to walk by your side, exploring your culture, your history, your roots, as well as your new avenues. It's a fascinating point of view.

    1. Thank you for walking by my side, and your encouraging comment. And yes I agree, creative writing does benefit from our life experiences.

  5. What a delight this interview is Sherry and Khaya. How I love your cultural roots coming out in your poetry and the humour of turning the year around that I have down too by moving from Britain to Australia over 50 years ago! How lucky you are to have a heritage of poetry and stories being passed down through you which you can use to expand your own writing. But what you didn't tell us was if you missed the warmth of South Africa now you are in such a cold country now.

    1. I'm so glad you can relate with "the humour of turning the year around". It can be a disorientating experience, at first but we gain the joy of having eight seasons in a year!

      Oh yes, most definitely, I miss the African sun. Nordic winters can be brutal. Thanks for reading, Robin.

  6. Khaya,we are happy you found us too. Sherry, another fascinating interview.. Khaya, I love your story AND your poetry.

  7. A pleasure to meet you, Khaya.
    Thanks Sherry...

  8. Another fantastic interview. Thank you so much for keeping our community of poets connected, Sherry.

    What a diverse and vibrant life you have lived, Khaya. You have followed so many fascinating paths. You much have so many lovely and incredible memories - and that is such a gift, especially for a poet. I love the poetry you have shared here. Best wishes with your Chapbook, Khaya.

    Great job on this, Poets.

    1. Isn't Sherry wonderful, indeed, with keeping the community connected! Thank you, Wendy. Much appreciate.

  9. Really enjoyed your story Khaya along with the beautiful poems and photos. Your early life reminds me of my own. I also happened to have some African moments when we lived in Zambia & I had a number of friends from SA too. May your life remain as rich and varied as it has always been. Best wishes with your Chapbook. A most fascinating interview Sherry & Khaya.

    1. Oh, Sumana! You made my heart smile with such memories, and good wishes. I appreciate, thank you.

  10. Thank you Sherry for introducing me to Khaya....I too am so glad you found us Khaya...and welcome! I really enjoyed the interview and love your journey. Finland sounds wonderful. I particularly enjoyed the poetry you chose to share. And your description of poetry really spoke to my heart....

    'I love how poetry pushes limits with language and form. Its ability to make us pause, be in the moment, and remind us that water is still wet. The process of birthing a poem; the whisper, the nudge, the build-up and the release that eventually leads me to write with urgency. '

    I look forward to reading much more of your poetry....

    1. Thank you so much Donna for your warm welcome. I'm happy too to have found this lovely and supportive community.

  11. What a wonderful, joyful interview, Sherry. And Khaya, your life has had so much variety and beauty in it. I wish you the best of luck on your chapbook, and look forward to reading more of your lovely words.

    1. I'm super pleased that you enjoyed my chat with Sherry. She knows how to ask the right questions! Thank you, Sara. Much appreciated!

  12. So happy you enjoyed this feature and meeting this talented poet, my friends. I knew you would! Khaya, thank you once again for saying yes!

    1. I can't thank you enough, Sherry. "Yes" is such a short word yet the value of the word leads to more opportunities, and meeting like-minded people. Thank you!

  13. What a truly fascinating interview! Thanks, Sherry and Khaya. Khaya, you seem to me full of excitement at al aspects of life – and I love it! I have been enjoying your presence here at PU, and now will be doing so more than ever.

    1. I'm so pleased to hear that you've been enjoying my presence here, Rosemary. It means a lot to me. Thank you for your reading.

      Btw, I immensely enjoy reading your columns "Thought-provokers" and "I wish I'd written this" even though I don't often comment. I'm always looking forward to reading them. Thank you!

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  15. Khaya this is brilliant, I really got to learn a lot about you. Also love the Xhosa outfit you wore in one of the pics, I do not know why I assumed you were Zulu, because maybe we talked about the KZN at some point. However the lack of research on the interviewer's side is showing and it greatly unsettles me, South Africa is a country in Africa and Africa is not a country full of impoverished but happy grateful people, its a continent full of many countries and diverse people. I would not be shocked if Sherry asked me to speak African or something to you, does she even know our languages are diverse that you and I do not even speak the same language. You can't be saying Africa is a country in 2018 especially after Trump's comments, in an interview with an African no less. The fact that she goes on to perpetuate this belief (that Africa is a country) throughout the article leaves me speechless. Why couldn't she just focus on South Africa since you are from there, South Africa is such a huge, beautiful and diverse country that she could have not lacked any material for the interview. Or even asking more about the places you lived in prior to Finland just for her own education. I am sorry that this sounds negative but the "Africans" are so tired of such laziness from the so called "people of the first world." I believe that Sherry can do so much better, in fact in the future she should do better.

    1. While other readers would normally be grateful for others opinions, education is the tool to correct any errors not criticism. These interviews are subject to review by the subject and any obvious error would normally be corrected in the hective interactive correspondence prior to publication. When reading it earlier I clearly understood African to mean South African (with me slipping in South) automatically. I am sure if Khaya wishes it the corrections can be made.

    2. Hi Khutsie! Thank you for reading and your input on the African and South African matter. I regret that it left a bad taste in your mouth.

      In defense of the interviewer, this is a simple and genuine typing error. The interviewer is well-versed, and fully aware that I'm from South Africa.

      If any blame, you could put it on me for not picking up the error. Considering that I earn some of my living proofreading other people's writing, it just goes to show nothing can be absolutely free from imperfections.

    3. My sincere apologies to both Khaya and to you, Khutsie. I do know, of course, that South Africa is a beautiful and vibrant country. And that not all Africans live rurally. In fact, I have an adopted family in Kenya, who have taken me to their hearts, who lived rurally and whose son through sheer force of will put himself through school and is now a member of the Legislative Assembly, helping many others. So the connection I made was with how far those who DO live rurally can climb. Any error or offense given was unintended and fully mine. I do apologize. Also, I am sorry not to have responded sooner. I only this morning saw this comment. Peace to you.

    4. Thanks Sherry, I appreciate that, kenya is also like a second home for me have lots of friends and community in Nairobi. I really did enjoy your article but we just need to be sensitive about these issues, because so many of us are awakening from the pain of the injustices of the past even the injustices we still face. @Khaya, I completely understand such things can happen

    5. Thank you Khutsie for pointing out the error, Sherry for rectifying it, and Robin for your support!

    6. Yes, i recognize that many injustices have happened and continue to happen, and this was a good instruction to me that, with the best of intentions, i commit them myself.

  16. I have now made the corrections in the article. When I sent Khaya her questions, I did not know which part of Africa she was from. My negligence was in not catching that I had originally written Africa and needed to go back and substitute South Africa. Lesson learned. Thankfully, we never stop learning. Smiles.

  17. I enjoyed so much "Word Roots" and thank you Khya for sharing your very interesting worlds of South Africa and Finland

    Thanks Sherry for another Up Close poet friend

    much love...

  18. Hi Gillena! So glad you enjoyed that poem, I wrote it with such passion at the time. :-) Much love...

  19. I'm 3 days late to your feature, Sherry and Khaya. Apologies. I've felt refreshed by your voice, Khaya, and this interview confirms your unique approach to life and art (poetry). I visited your friend's link and will visit the photography. I'm interested in seeing the contrasts through your eyes. I particularly love this: "Chanting of clan praises is poetry itself; oral poetry that overlaps with a song." and how you speak of your soul alive in words. That is truly the root, isn't it? And in the Summer/Autumn poem, I love the personifications and actions of nature in all its parts. I am delighted to be able to read more of your work here with us. Thank you both and welcome Khaya!

    1. You forgot to mention all the verbal images and haiku at the instagram site. I couldn't comment there because I don't have an account, but I find your work exceedingly beautiful!

    2. Dear Susan! It makes me super happy to hear that you find my voice refreshing, and approach unique. It can be difficult at times to write from the heart and stay in one's own lane, more especially here in the blogosphere. Because "we are writing for the machine", isn't it?

      I appreciate you taking time to read, and also checking out my Instagram page. Thank you for your kind comments and welcome!

  20. Dear Khaya, I love your thoughts on the nature of generosity, on how a close relationship with the land affects people, on how you use all of it to feed your poetry.

    Sherry, thanks for letting us know Khaya a bit better.

  21. So nice to get to know you more Khaya! I loved this interview! I love that picture of you on your blog!! And, the snow scene is amazing! Wow! I really loved reading about where you came from and how you are enjoying Finland! Big Hugs and Keep Being You!

    1. Thank you dear Stacy for taking time to read and your kind comment. Yeah, I thought it'd be good to share a bit about myself with my blog community. Glad you enjoyed this interview. Big Hugs!!

      btw, I'll be writing to you soon. :-)


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