Phillippa Yaa de Villiers: This Is Me


Greetings dear reader.

I assume that if you are reading this blog you are part of the Word n Sound family and also interested in reading, writing and appreciating poetry. Let me tell you a bit about me and why I want to write this blog, and how I see us going forward.

I am nearly fifty years old, a poet and writer, and recently a lecturer at Wits University. I fell in love with poetry at a very young age through reading Alice in Wonderland, Edward Lear and other poetry which is humorous with lots of word-play. Like other South African children I learnt nursery rhymes, rude songs and clapping games; at home I heard Khosi FM, Springbok Radio and Likwalakwala FM, my mother spoke German and English to me, my father was fluent in isiZulu, I grew up in a music of voices. English is my home language but I want my English to be porous and inviting and I see English as equal to every other language, not better. Having said that my understanding of other languages is quite bad – I can limp in French and Afrikaans, for isiZulu and seSotho I need crutches and loads of patience.

I was given up for adoption at three days and was adopted by a white family during the apartheid years. So I was white at the time of 76 and only really started being black when my father told me I was adopted ‘round about 1985. I come to writing out of silences, shame and isolation. I came to my identity at the same time as the country was exploding – as my first editor, Heather Robertson said in the foreword of my first book, Taller than Buildings: “She was just beginning a personal journey of discovery which in a way mirrored our country’s trajectory into its new constitutional skin. She had grown up as an anomaly in our divided past, a mixed race child adopted by a white family. She later found and met her birth parents: a white Australian mother and a Ghanaian man who is a naturalised Australian. Meeting them helped her to find her unique voice in the cacophony of competing vested interests that contemporary South Africa has become.”

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers reading from her collection of poetry: Taller Than Building
Although my years are many, I am still discovering my identity – I think that we are all like that. I have one son – sixteen years old – who deflates my ego regularly.

Workwise I have been a journalist, a production assistant on movies, a TV scriptwriter, a children’s entertainer at Baragwanath and the Jo’burg Gen, a mime teacher at the Market Theatre Laboratory, a member of the Theatresports company, a street performer, a mime artist, a waitress, a company manager and translator for Robyn Orlin, a phone sex consultant (very briefly), an artist’s model, a journalist, a builder’s assistant (also very briefly), an illegal puppeteer on the public transport in Paris, and a cleaning lady.

I was trained as a journalist, at theatre school in Paris and in the School of Hard Knocks. While I was writing for TV I was also writing poetry, and poetry has opened the way for me to tell stories and be myself and profit from life! While I was writing for Soul City, Thetha Msawawa, Takalani Sesame, SABC Education, etc I was writing little poems at the same time as watching my baby start walking, talking and becoming himself. Becoming kancane kancane independent. Becoming strong enough to hear what people are telling me.

I used to attend poetry sessions all over Jo’burg until I found Jozi House of Poetry and they welcomed me and affirmed me – I have never left. Myesha Jenkins has been my longest influence, as well as Makhosazana Xaba and Keorapetse Kgositsile. At various times Napo Masheane, Lebo Mashile, Vangi Gantsho, and my mentors John Lindley and Brian McCabe and Kwame Dawes.

In 1985 I attended Matthew Goniwe’s funeral which was a political awakening for me. Although I had long discovered the anti-apartheid struggle, this was an emotional connection with the struggle and all that it brings to us as humans. And it’s not over yet. As an adult I have continued to build connections (since that seems to be the gift of being an adoptee) and so, through my brother Leonard Gentle of Ilrig, I continue to participate in imagining and discussing alternatives to the unequal and exploitative economic order that we now have. And I want to be a free Afrikan and so I also spend loads of time at the Afrikan Freedom Station.

In this blog I want to talk about poetry and politics and identity and nature and music and influences and all that comes with the gift of expression – making us human. But a one-way conversation is kinda boring. I’d love to know what you think….

phillippa-yaa-de-villiersPhillippa Yaa de Villiers:
Facebook: /pydevilliers

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers (born 17 February 1966)[1] is an award-winning South African writer and performance artist who performs her work nationally and internationally. She is noted for her poetry, which has been published in collections and in many magazines and anthologies, as well as for her autobiographical one-woman show, Original Skin, which centres on her confusion about her identity at a young age, as the bi-racial daughter of an Australian mother and a Ghanaian father who was adopted and raised by a white family in apartheid South Africa.[2] She has written: “I became Phillippa Yaa when I found my biological father, who told me that if he had been there when I was born, the first name I’d have been given would be a day name like all Ghanaian babies, and all Thursday girls are Yaa, Yawo, or Yaya. So by changing my name I intended to inscribe a feeling of belonging and also one of pride on my African side. After growing up black in white South Africa, internalising so many negative ‘truths’ of what black people are like, I needed to reclaim my humanity and myself from the toxic dance of objectification.”[3] As Tishani Doshi observes in the New Indian Express: “Much of her work is concerned with race, sexuality, class and gender within the South African context.”[4]


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