This story was written by Aurora, Music Editor at Afros in Tha City. Aurora is a musician, producer and DJ with a background in photojournalism and music journalism.
Sue-Shane Tsomondo is a poet, writer, educator and the creator of Sue's Stokvel, a multidisciplinary platform that is creating space for Black and African storytelling. In academia, Tsomondo studied International Relations focusing on Sub-Saharan African institutions in governance at the University of Calgary. After adding a minor in English to her course load, she realized her deepest passion was for writing and literature and it has grown into a well-rounded artistic practice that she is using to uplift her communities. "I'm a writer first, and then everything else sort of came after,” says Tsomondo. “I started my English Minor because I enjoyed writing, and I wanted to become a better writer, so it kind of just came naturally from there. I was learning how to write regardless — just being in university with essays and whatnot — but I wanted to learn how to write creatively, learn how to tell compelling stories rather than just create an academic paper." After completing her minor in English, the fact that so much of the work she was studying was written predominantly by white men became a focal point for Sue-Shane. "There are a number of courses on Shakespeare, but none about literature outside of that white realm that everybody is already aware of,” she says. “There was one called The Global Literatures class that attempted to cover everywhere else — African, Asian, South American literature all lumped into one. I remember taking one class that I really enjoyed, but the only focus on Black theorists was what they had to say about post-colonialism, which I feel like is too often what is focused on. Studies around Black literature are usually confined to what happened to us, rather than just investigating the human condition and our experiences as human beings. A Black artist can never just be seen as an artist, they always have to be seen as a ‘Black artist’. So that really began to shape a lot of the work that I do now." It became clear to Sue-Shane that a lot of the works she enjoyed reading in her own time — written by Black and other historically oppressed theorists — were not being celebrated in the academic institution she was dedicating so much of her time to. After working in EDI for the University of Calgary (U of C) Wellness Services and attempting to bring diversity and change into the framework of that organization, it became obvious that many EDI initiatives are functionally performative.
After her contract with the U of C ended, while looking for her next job, Sue-Shane decided that she wanted to do something different, and this was the birth of Sue's Stokvel, a platform for Black artists which quickly grew to develop a partnership with Shelf Life Books. "Sue's Stovkel started as a book club, but because I hate running book clubs, I decided to start writing reviews and recommendations and it just grew from there,” Tsomondo explains. “The partnership with Shelf Life, collaborating on weekly lists and such, grew quite a following and connected me to a lot of other artists, so I think there are a lot of people that know me through that project, although a lot of what I do is unrelated to Sue's Stokvel." A stokvel, by definition, is an invitation-only club with origins in South Africa. Stokvels function as credit unions, usually with twelve or more members that each contribute a fixed amount on a regular basis.
During the Black Lives Matters protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, Sue-Shane saw an increase in demand for anti-racism resources and reading materials. "A lot of people were looking for what to read to get better informed,” she says. “So I got a bit of a following because of that, as well as donations. Previously, all of the funds I had were coming from my own pocket, so with the donations, I was able to create a website, buy more books, props for African folklore storytelling, and just more resources to create a platform."
During the summer months, Tsomondo teaches at youth creative writing camps and is a teaching alumni at Alberta-based camps, YouthWrite and Wordsworth. She has also written for Arts Commons, The Bows YYC, and has been a writer in residence at The Esker Foundation, along with several invitations to perform her poetry live. "I've performed my poetry, and some people call me a spoken word artist, but I'm a poet,” says Tsomondo. “Sometimes I perform my prose, but to me that is a lot different than spoken word. I think with spoken word, it's about the performance. For me, I'm not thinking about performing when I'm writing, so that's always secondary for me, the performance element. My work is primarily literary." Besides her work as a writer and community builder, Sue-Shane has her hand in many collaborative projects. "In 2021, I started working again in research in the faculty of social work at the U of C,” she says. “I really enjoyed that aspect. I feel like my artistic practice has grown to become multidisciplinary, and in some ways, it's academic in the way that it's multidisciplinary. I'm trying to understand the history of things, and I like doing research. I guess 2021 was the year I started to really put myself out there in terms of the arts, since last year was my first year teaching as well as my first writing residency at The Esker Foundation." Most recently, Sue-Shane has been working for Mountain Standard Time Performative Art Society (M:ST), a small artist-run centre that operates as a co-directorship, experimenting with shared leadership models for everyone involved. "M:ST has been taking up most of my time and Sue's Stokvel has recently taken a back seat, but I'm also in the process of figuring out the direction that it will continue,” says Tsomondo. “Ultimately, everything that I have been doing has been about connection more than anything –– making connections and meeting people, sometimes, just sitting down for a coffee with somebody. And then suddenly, there's a collaboration in the making." Despite the rich myriad of ways that she might be defined in her creative practice, Sue-Shane Tsomondo continues paving a unique path for Black creatives in Calgary, both inspiring other artists as well as giving them a platform and uniquely curated space to express themselves. Learn more about Sue-Shane's work here and follow her on Instagram to keep up to date with Sue's Stokvel here.