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Matthew Mokoena

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The Shedding Of Society’s Original Skin

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I have no idea as to why/how the Anglo Saxons came to naming it “the day of the English god, Woden/ (Wodan, was the head god in English heathenism)” and I have no inclination of finding out (sounds… dark”,) This same day, the day we cluelessly refer to as Wednesday, I found myself hastily trekking through traffic as a mad man rushing to confront his madness at Worlds End. Worlds End because my chauffeur shares my madness and perhaps even surpasses it by merit (he is a taxi driver) in his chariot of fire. I, however, unlike the Saxons; find it not robbery to brand this issues “Spoken Mind’s” name up top the golden list with the great literary gods themselves.

There shall be no shoving or pointing fingers amongst the gods that I have planted in my cabinet. No canvassing, ‘electioning’, ‘showering’ or campaigning by these cadres of the written and spoken word. They shall sit abreast each other with dignified aplomb; Dr. Mattera and Keorapetse’s wise eyes smiling at my new recruits as if to say, “This Way, I Salute You… Through my Azanian Love Song.”  And in this loud silence they shall hold to the positions I have appointed them. I seek no permission to put them there; the only thing I seek from them is that the works they produce continue to imbue our poetree’s into blossoming. In fact, today I am here (Newtown; Sophiatown… again,) to water the tree with the belief that it will bring forth the fruits that will speak of its origin. “I said to the almond tree: “Speak to me of God” and the almond tree blossomed.”-Nikos Kazantzakis. With that said, ladies and gentlemen, my TREE… Phillippa Yaa de Villiers.


Born 17 February 1966; Jhb RSA
Current Hometown Johannesburg
Relationship status”, Divorced
Poets Keorapetse Kgositsile, Khosi Xaba, Imtiaz Dharker, Pablo Neruda, Chris Abani, Audre Lorde and Tiphanie Yanique

Musicians Coltrane, Davis, African music, Chiwoniso, Salif Keita, Manu Dibangu, King Sunny Ade, Sally Nyolo, Geoffrey Oryema, Brenda, Black Eyed Peas and K’naan.
Verse/Quote Jackie Kay:  “a poem is a little moment of belief.”
Books and authors The Bread of those Early Years – Heinrich Boll

Ways of Dying – Zakes Mda

My Year of Meat – Joyce Ozeki

the adoption papers Jackie Kay – I’m obsessed with her short stories and I’ll read anything by her

Nervous Conditions – Tsitsi Dangarengba

How To Escape from a Leper Colony – Tiphanie Yanique (currently reading)

Phillippa was brought up in Halfway House near Johannesburg; she studied in Grahamstown and Paris and lived in Los Angeles before returning to settle in Johannesburg. She makes her living by working in theatre, teaching and writing for stage & television.

“Her poetry ranges from the personal to the satirical. She manages to explore the serious and the sensual, the private and political in ways that inspire hope. Her insightful and moving poems, like all the best writing, remind us that our well being depends on how honestly we give voice to our past, present and possible futures. ”

From Phillippa’s site: http://www.phillippayaadevilliers.org/


I arrive at Sophiatown (maybe I should just say, HOME) with just under 5 minutes to spare. Khaya (Mental page), Tebogo (of the band Travellin Blak) and Karabo (Editor of consciousness.co.za) had been waiting for me after wrapping up their interview with Young Nations. Small talk is expensive around these guys seeing that they WILL be made-men in a few years, so I cherish a few minutes with them before Phillippa arrives.

I introduce them before kicking them out to leave Phillippa, Khaya and I in the strange yet loyal company of my HOMES servants. And immediately, the tree is ready to bare its soul before it can bear its fruits; with jazz music in the background and Mandela (‘s picture) above her sparing her on. We begin… somewhere in the middle.

Matt: As someone who goes out or does her work, which is a representation of SA, do you feel that the SA community gives back to Phillippa what she gives to SA?

Phillippa: (long pause) I’ve never thought about that before. When I go and perform overseas I feel I’m an example of a certain kind of South African… Representation for me is more in the line of politics, you choose people to represent you, you vote for them, so in a way their persona takes on the character of the community. Whereas when I represent SA it’s as a means of showing people what happens there (where I’m performing.)

Khaya: Was your book, Taller than Buildings self-published?

Phillippa: Taller than Buildings was published with a grant from the Centre for the Book (the unit of the National Library of South Africa. Its mission is to promote a South African culture of reading, writing and publishing in all local languages, and easy access to books for all South Africans.) The new book, The Everyday Wife, was published by Modjaji Books (http://modjaji.book.co.za/about/) It’s owned by a young… ok not young, she’s about my age or a bit older… and I’m not young, even though I behave like a kid (laughs all round.) Her name is Colleen Higgs and she used to work for the Centre for the Book. She’s someone who’s always believed in my writing. Because I’m just such an outsider people used to be like .Ja but what community are you from, who do you represent” It’s like in our language you know, like that’s what you have to do, come from somewhere, come with people. The people I grew up with don’t speak to me…

Matt: I was actually getting to that. Where does Phillippa come from and where is she going? Both as an artist and your background in general.

Phillippa: I’m a refugee from white suburbia in the 70’s. I was adopted by a white family. I grew up on condition that I did not show my blackness. So as soon as I got old enough I went to University and I got politicized. The 80’s was a really interesting time in S.African history and so I left home at that time and never went back… I just feel like our sense of reality of what SA is… I actually wrote about that in my play Original Skin which is a sought of semi autobiographical play… Where I grew up black people were invisible, you just found that your bed was made, your clothes were hanging up in your cupboard and it was like they didn’t have lives… and I discovered that I was invisible too in that process. This is why I got so emotionally involved when SA became “free.” I felt like “that’s me, I can be who I am” you know. I went and I found my biological parents; my father is from Ghana (mother is from Australia.) I started exploring my African side, I went to see sangoma’s you know, I explored… I just see myself as a citizen of this country, a citizen of this continent.  I changed my name, taking my Ghanaian day name…

At this point, Khaya remembers an interview he had heard on Metro Talk where the same issues of identity came into play. He describes how because her paternal grandfather was from Malawi and so her surname is rather not “so normal” in SA, when she says her surname people get surprised and ask “what are you?” who was this?

Khaya: A lot of times belonging comes into the picture, have you found that?

Phillippa: Yes I have, all the time. People don’t know where to put me. As an artist it gets quite difficult as well. For example, you have to write a business plan when you apply for the Centre for the Book grant, and then they ask, “So who’s your audience?” and I said everybody, I speak to human beings. I don’t really see the difference between black people and white people. I don’t want to have that clutter. That’s from the past. I worked very hard to get rid of that, it’s a challenge but it’s also a great role. I feel lucky because in any kind of community in SA I don’t belong, but I can engage.

Matt: I’m sure you know people from different spheres of the color line, multicultural/multilingual people who share the same views as yours, do you find that they’ve moved past viewing each other as black/white and see each other as people?

Phillippa: My child is white (though I’m sure our technical society is thinking, no, he’s colored. Ed) but I can’t look at him and say “you’re white,” he’s my child, he came out of me… you know. He looks at me and I’m mommy… The thing that’s hard is society, we come from a very wounded country and people are scared. They want to know, “What are you? Where must I put you? What must I feed you? What will you do to me…?” They are terrified.

Khaya adds, “Communication, by far, is the biggest breaker of stereotypes than anything else… You think you know a person, because of their skin color… and because of a common factor that you share, i.e. sports, literature etc… it makes you say, ‘but wait a minute, he likes these things, so he’s human after all.’ So it’s once you see the relation of things that you realize there’s more to us than what our skins say.”

Relaying a story to us about the 1st time she spoke her mind at a ladies gathering organized by a young black and very ambitious woman living in Sandton, Phillippa says, “…all these women were white and this lady invited me as a poet to read my work to them… we had a discussion about identity and I said to this (white) women, “In my ideal world, I want a person like you to be able to look at that lady who’s selling Ndebele beadwork in front of the Market Theatre and say ‘We’re the same.’ And she said, ‘that’s ridiculous, what are you talking about. My husband earns millions of rand’s; I go to Europe every year and I’ve got NOTHING in common with that woman.’ I said to her, ‘but you are a woman, you’ve had children, you’ve probably lost/found somebody…’”

Matt: Please tell us how it was/is writing for television?

Phillippa: I loved writing for television. It was something I needed to do because I needed money. After my baby was born, his dad and I were both artists and were really struggling. I’ve always found it easy to write so I thought,”ok, let me try this.” What I loved about writing for TV is that it gave me an opportunity to engage with the stories/narratives of different communities in SA, it made me feel like I was part of the society. With Soul City, Thetha Msawawa, Takalane Sesame, those types of Edutainment shows, they do lots of research. You sit with people and you listen to their story and it becomes your story. They’re giving you the story and saying, “Please, tell my story for me.” It’s a wonderful privilege to have 10yrs of working like that. Writing for TV is also very pressurized and competitive because there’s a lot of money involved. So if you want to get in there you have to work extra hard and in the beginning I really didn’t make money, I could barely survive. I had to have 3 jobs at the same time so I could actually pay. I felt like it was an apprenticeship, because I actually wanted to get the craft, wanted to have it firmly in my being. I only stopped because I had more writing opportunities as a poet… TV writing is more of a career path whereas writing is more of a calling. It’s something in you and makes unbelievable demands on you and you’ll do it, because if you’ve got the calling. You wont go like,”Oh no, it’s too much, let me rather get a job at the bank.” No you won’t, you won’t be able to do that because the writing will be like (clapping her hands)”LET ME IN.”

Whilst speaking of egos and the containment of them she says with an unbelievable openness, “My sangoma has really helped me to understand it a lot. She was talking about the different persona’s that we have in all of us and that the process of becoming a sangoma is learning all the people that made you and that make you. I’m not going to Twasa or anything, but it’s a very useful process to kinda go through. I have a victim inside of me because I had hectic things that happened to me as a child… and she’s 6/7 and she’s very powerful, she wrote Taller than Buildings (most of it.) She was that voice… if that voice doesn’t get what it wants it takes over. It takes over when I can’t communicate with people as adults and I get very shy and I also get naughty… and I self sabotage (laughs all round), things like that… And she said (the sangoma),”don’t try to control it, ask it what it wants and think and meditate and allow it to have space to express itself through you because you need it, you need all of you, all of your people (that are a part of you.)

Matt: Do you think you grew up lonely?

Phillippa: It is lonely… I mean, we live as we dream… Alone…. And when we die we’ll be alone, you know… I think it’s one of those human dilemmas that we have to face our whole lives.

Matt: The National Arts Festivals Writing beyond the Fringe initiative, can you please tell us about that?

Phillippa: That was just the most amazing thing, Ismail Mohamed, thank goodness for black people in high places who do their jobs… and I love that man, he’s so generous, he’s a writer and a director himself and he just makes opportunities for other people…  In television, I’ve worked with people who can’t believe that I can write (because I’m black.) One Head Writer said to the producer, “She’s a better writer than I am,” and he was blown away. (You see her not answering the question ne, because she was praising other artists, including the likes of the writer/poet and strong black woman, Makhosazana Xaba.)

Before she finally responds to this, we talk about people “seeking affirmation,” (Facebook became a big talking point for this.) We speak about the importance of growing, maintaining and supporting the art community. Because in all truth, the moment artists start monetarily supporting other artists, whether painter, writer, performer, actor/actress etc. we will stop attaching the word “struggling” to the word “artist” and witness a change in the way others ultimately perceive the arts.

The only Artist a struggling artist will support is him/herself. She shares with us when she started sharing her work. It was at the Jozi House of Poetry where she met Myesha (Jenkins), she read her poetry and they were like, “come, come… do more…” and they took her in. “It (writing) allowed me to explore different things that have kinda formed me. Like psychology, reading, experience… when you write you see something being exposed.” She uses her not knowing she was adopted as an example to express her sense of reality at that time. How “words didn’t come easily at the beginning, words that were real, that were grounded in reality. I had so many fantasies, I was a fantasy myself. I was like a dream to myself. I was one name for 10months then I was another name…  Words become so important, they have a weight. And in exploring poetry with this community of women that are so full of compassion, of care and honesty… they demand honesty… Napo Masheane said to me, ‘This story started way before you…’ the more they asked me, the more I remembered, the more my story became mine.”

Phillippa: For me, because the situation was that for 20yrs I was white… and so I grew up in swimming pools, ballet lessons, like full on 100% white. Then suddenly it was like,”oh… you know why they threw you off the bus…? And remember the time you got kicked out of the movies…?” and only then it made sense. There were so many things that weren’t spoken about. I think everyone is doing this discovery ALL day long all the time. Our stories live inside of us. I want people to remember what they’ve got (inside of them.)

Back to the Writers Fringe Initiative, ya, I know… writers… LONG WINDED… THE LOT OF THEM**,

Phillippa: He (Ismail Mohamed) got money from a Belgian writing organization called Beschrijf (www.beschrijf.be/) (it’s a foundation for writing.)  They had funds they wanted to utilize, so they worked with him. They made it available as a prize for a short story. There were 3 stories that won and mine (the 4th) was the overall winner (Won for her story, “The day Jesus dropped the ball and other stories.”) I also got an opportunity to go and live in a writers retreat for a month in rural Belgium.

Poem by Phillippa


Old couple on a Havana stoep:

between the two of them

no more the lightning-charged

current of hungry flesh seeking

heat, his torpedo desire aimed at

her, willing target, him, joyful quarry

in the snare of her thighs;

no more the electricity of expectation.

The children of their whispered desire

are tongues of history, shared struggles

for lucidity, cleared-eyed young life

sown into the furrow of humanity;

they have created four languages

to populate the world dictionary of love.

Even if the mind forgets,

the skin remembers. The organs

keep a record of their guests,

the womb carries photographs of all

her soul’s passengers, this man the

sun of his every day, this woman his

earth, his hope, his rest.

These days they sit together,

this man, this woman

who have spent so many words

on one another,

that now,

they are paupers

in their rich


This poem is in Phillippa’s latest offering “The Everyday Wife.”Also, the book Home Away edited by Louis Paul Greenberg and published by Zebra Press contains an essay by me called Harvesting the Waves.

She also shares with us her memories of a trip to Havanna, Cuba; with the likes of James Matthews, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Siphiwo Mahala, Khanyi (Magubane) and Lebo Mashile. She speaks highly of Ntate Kgositsile. “Keorapetse is a walking encyclopedia. It’s a privilege… I love going away with him. Because every single time, I learn.” She says, “Cuba is the only country where I’ve ever felt like no one says ‘where do you come from? ‘Are you supposed to be here?’ Everyone is so miscegenated… and in Cuba EVERYONE READS.”

Matt: Do you have any performances lined up after the “Body of Words” show? (14-16 May 2010)

Phillippa: I might be doing something at the Festival (Grahamstown), but I’m not sure as yet. The play Original Skin is going to the Theatre on the Square (Sandton) from 9-21 August.

“If you think Grahamstown is great you should also check out HIFA (Harare International Festival of the Arts), so far, the best Arts Festival experience I have ever  had” she says.

I was also asked to compile an anthology of African poetry which is to be translated into Chinese. It’s an initiative by a private person for The Shanghai Biennale which is going to be in October. So I had to gather the poets/poems as soon as possible, so we spoke directly to the poets and not the publishers. We’ve got really great poets who are willing to be on the anthology.

If you have not read Taller than Buildings, if you have not seen her play, Original Skin, I encourage you to find her new book “The Everyday Wife.” As we speak, I’m in the middle of my ‘personally autographed’ copy. If you’re looking for something to imbue you, this book offers ablutions for the spirit and soul. From the 1st poem, Lasso, all the way to… well, I’m still on the 1st part of the 4 part book; you’ll be engulfed by her ability to bring words to life. In her own words from Stolen Rivers, a poem for Chiwoniso Maraire,”If only love could purchase bread, Africans would not be hungry.” Now, let’s see how high the price ceiling of your love is.

Other Publications featuring Phillippa’s work:

We Are (Penguin, 2009) edited by Natalia Molebatsi
>>> New Writing from Africa (Johnson and King James 2009) selected by JM
>>> Coetzee
>>> and edited by Robin Malan
>>> Just Keep Breathing (Jacana 2008) edited by Rosamund Haden and Sandra
>>> Dodson
>>> Home Away (Zebra Press, 2010) edited by Louis Paul Greenberg

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