Sibongile Tasila Phiri is a versatile and multi-talented writer currently making waves in the Botswana writing landscape. She has a kind of stream of consciousness conversation with me on her love of poetry, the influence of Stanislavsky, and her future plans in Peace Building and Conflict Resolution.
Gaamangwe: Sibongile you are an all-around amazing writer. How did your love for writing start and expand?
Sibongile: I dunno, I always loved English and Creative Writing when I was in Primary School. And then it developed into a love for Poetry in maybe somewhere around the 4th or 5th grade. From there I started writing a lot of poetry, but it was really more for myself and then in 2007 I think I was part of a programme called Power in The Voice (PIV). This is a British Council Initiative that works with youth in different schools mainly in the Southern African Region and in the UK. It encourages vocal expression through forms of performing arts. The group I was in comprised of Emma Wareus, Nature Inger, Valerie Ferguson and Diana Shiripinda AKA Mutsa- although Mutsa could no longer continue with the group- we were part of the winning team in Botswana and got to perform in an International Festival along with the winners from the respective countries…From then, both my writing and performance poetry began to grow.
Amazing. Which theme (s) do you gravitate towards in your writing?
I tend to gravitate towards everyday topical issues i.e. abuse, adultery, sexuality, alcoholism, love, hate etc. mainly societal ills and uncomfortable things that people are normally afraid to talk about openly. I love probing my audience and myself and then there are times I just love being fun and flirty. So it’s pretty much a mix and mesh of topics. However, if a gun was put to my head and you asked me to just get specific on what exactly I gravitate towards I’d definitely say darker issues…
Why do you think you gravitate towards darker issues? What is it about societal ills that inspire you to highlight them in your writing work?
I don’t know. I guess I’ve always really felt things. I feel deeply. A lot of people might be shocked by this because I tend to sometimes come off as very indifferent and hard at times, but I am a very sensitive person with a giant imagination, so I absorb what I hear, what I experience, what others experience and I pretty much expand it in my head and create from there. Darker issues because they stain more, they have a greater impact I think, that’s why the news exists, not report good news… I had a conversation with my man friend and he said to me that in the badness lies the flavor!! …something to that effect. LOL! But I think that’s why bad things are harder to get over, good things are easily forgotten. This is not to say I am a sad person or dark and emo, but it’s what I observe and what moves me. I guess that why.
I can understand that. There is so much that can be learnt in the darkness. Still on the topic of darkness and emotions, what is your most vulnerable work yet?
Oh dear… uhm two works come to mind…in 2011/12 I was going through a lot at home and I wrote this poem, of which now has gone missing but I remember crying while writing it. Around the same time I joined an artist collective called “Inside/Out: Tshedisa Artists and Residents and I got to perform it. It was my first performance with the group and it ended in me taking my clothes off to represent a cleansing of myself. I’m very self-conscious of my body and the poem alone was a personal matter to me, so combining the two made me super vulnerable, but it was a very therapeutic process.
And then!!! Sometime last year under the same collective, I wrote a piece called “Unseen Shenanigans” and I performed it. I was a prostitute, it was very vulgar and twisted but I did get to smoke with the character, which was fun!!! But after that performance I felt very exposed and threw on a hoodie and run away soon after the performance.
Wow. That’s amazing. Quite inspiring. I absolutely love performers who are unapologetic about their experiences and emotions. Those who cross the boundaries of what we call “morality”. Now that’s what I call art. I am interested in knowing your creative process? From the moment of conceptualization to performance.
Alright, well I don’t think I have one particular set format of how I do things. Sometimes, I can have one image of a particular theme in my mind, or read something i.e. a quote or see a picture and create from there, but this is mainly pertaining to my plays. I also strongly believe in a style of theater called Workshop Theater, where performances are workshoped, regardless of whether I may have a skeleton of how I want the overall piece to turn out. I find it very rewarding when I get to incorporate the talents of the team I’m working with, there are so many more perspectives and so much more color that you get from collaborating…and then in terms of my poetry , it mainly starts with conversations I have with myself, I ramble to myself, sometimes words of stupidity, yes, but sometimes sense and I write from there…Not as much as before, it comes in tiny spurts of inspiration a lot less than before, but yeah…Sometimes I can write a full on poem in a matter of minutes, other times I take days and just go over it and write short paragraphs that I jumble and re-organize over time. Sometimes it’s from conversations or from watching people. I mainly use my life as my well; I draw constantly from it I guess.
Amazing. The best inspiration for everything is usually life experience. Let’s talk about your plays. How has been your experience with theater?
Well I was in my first big play in 2006 called Annie directed by Stuart White and from there I was hooked. I’d always loved performing and but it was always one of them “hobbies” you know… but I remember saying once to my older brother (Sunga) when I was working on Annie that I could do this forever, it’s the one thing I haven’t really gotten bored of yet…So I found performance here and there, open mics here and there. And then I got to even study it and be part of the first ever Bachelor of Fine Arts (in Theater Arts) in Botswana, graduating from University of Botswana this year. University of Botswana is where I found my directing and play writing skills developed. In 2011, I directed, wrote and acted in my first play under the name Entrepreneurial and cultural Pride (ECP) Expo: Afro-Cultural Expression Night. The ECP Expo, was organised and founded by Thandi Phiri (my sister) and first held at Maitisong.
And from there I have directed and written 3 plays of my own. My latest work “A purposeless Life” was performed and held at Thapong Visual Arts Centre, here in Gaborone. And that was a final year school project.
Wow. Just Wow. I am such a lover of theater, so this takes me back. Tell me more about your latest play. The premise and what you hoped the audience will get from it?
Okay, “A purposeless Life” was originally a play I wrote for a play writing course I took at University of Botswana, and I literally forgot about it once I wrote it. It was really me pulling stuff out of my ass and trying to finish the course. Once I wrote it, I forgot about it. And then, a classmate of mine who was taking a directing course was advised by the lecturer to direct my play for the course, so she asked me about it. I was unsure about having someone direct my play, and whether they would do it justice but thankfully before I could even decline, she told me that it was actually okay ad she’d found something else. So that was when I decide to go back to it and read it and I realized “Hey, this is a frigging good play! Dammit!” So I decided to use it for the final project, I was apprehensive about it, because I didn’t quite know how work that was mine would be received. Sure I’d directed plays but they had very little dialogue which for me made it easier and they were more workshopped than something I’d written from start to end, with dialogue…
But anyways, I did go ahead with it. So the play, follows Claire who is a down in her luck woman, she is a recovering alcoholic and we find her at a point where she had just been fired from her job, and she is now considering just throwing in the towel and just becoming an alcoholic again. At this point her demons come back to haunt her, the main one being- Luci, who is personified and tempts her to just go ahead and drink. At this point, the play goes through a flashback of Claire’s life and how she came to where she is, we see how the death of her younger sister and her mother blaming her, led her into a life of destruction. She also gets pregnant and decides to abort the baby. However, through all of these experiences although bad, she learns that she is not that person, and demons are just demons, they are liars and they do not dictate your life, even though we let them at times. But she overcomes her demons and decided that there is purpose to her life.
There are conversations that she has with different people during the play that question life, and purpose and the different things that we struggle with in our day to day lives, they are tiny gems of wisdom that are presented in the most unlikely situations that she draws from and realizes that life has a way of teaching you, no matter how bad. And I think that is the ultimate premise of the play- that we have so much shit that may have happened to us, but it’s all for a greater purpose and if we can learn from that we are better for it.
However during the process of the play, the team added quite a bit of their own flair and moments that added to the final product and changed it a bit, which was really cool. There were moments where we even had to add certain scenes that came out during our improvisation time during rehearsals and two characters got to write poems that were added to the final script…It is to date, my best work. Also, it was performed in a professional staging manner, were the audience don’t just sit and watch the play but the audience move from room to room, following the action as it takes place, and sometimes can even be part of the scene…it was fun, experimental and very rewarding. I loved the idea of the audience being active and being very much part of the play, they could smell the actors; they could even touch them, sometimes the actors would have to push through the audience members. I even remember one character- Claire- played by TJ Moyo telling an audience member to move, which got a nice reaction from the audience. I’m strong believer in audiences being probed and provoked and engaged and sometimes even made uncomfortable, within reason of course.
Wow! Just wow. I love that. Just amazing. How I would love to see your plays Sibongile. It sounds quite different from what I have seen before. Which writer (s) has influenced you in your thinking and writing?
I must admit I’m not much of a reader; I am what a friend of mine once called an academic reader. But in terms of character development for my plays, I draw a lot from my reading of Stanislavsky and then in terms of play structure I like Bretch’s work in terms of breaking the 4th wall, where you break away from the conventional style of theater where there is an audience sort of looking in on people’s lives, instead the audience are and can be involved in the action sometimes…But in terms of my poetry. I have been greatly influenced by URSULA RUCKER, an American poet whose work I absolutely adore, I have a little groupie girl crush on her work, her voice and her!!!
But in my life I have been inspired a lot by my work with Inside/Out and also a local artist director called Moratiwa Molema, her work involves a lot of mixed media i.e. Film, Movement, Dance, Song and a little dialogue. I have had the opportunity to work with her and for her and it added a lot to my aesthetic as a director, writer and a performer… Also, there is this book I read and It is the first book for grown-ups that I have ever read in my adult life, from beginning to end, purely for pleasure. It’s by Eckhart Tolle called “A New Earth: Awakening You Life’s Purpose”. This book, to date, has informed a lot of my thinking and I used a lot of what I read in “A Purposeless Life”.
I can relate to what you said about Eckhart Tolle. He is a master at assisting one with radical change of thinking and perception. Where will Sibongile be ten years from now? With regards to your writing aspirations.
Okay, I’m applying to do my Masters. At various institutions, one based here and a few overseas. Right now, thanks to my scholarship applications. I do have a 5 year plan post masters that is. Following the completion of my masters, I aim to go back to Zambia and work, gaining as much experience and just basically forming a foundation there with a couple of NGO’S and/or Private sectors mainly in the fields of Peace Building and Conflict Resolution with elements of Diversity and Transformational Management. Then after two years of that (maximum) I would like to go out into Africa and work in post-conflict countries still doing peace building and conflict resolutions. After a maximum of five years of working for “the man” I would like to start up my very own company (note, not an organization, as those are non-profit) in Zambia, working with performing artists and having after school performing arts programmes, the performances will be mainly experimental and workshopped in nature, dealing with societal issues i.e. Applied Drama/ community Theater. The company however, will have a social channel, providing pro-bono services to mainly women and youth, dealing with gender issues, peace building and conflict resolution. My aim is to add to the socio-economic status in Zambia.
Amazing. Just amazing. Sibongile, I wish you nothing but manifestation of your plans. This was an amazing conversation. Thank you. Do you have any last words?
Thank you so much. I think what you are doing is a great and brave thing. May your wishes and dreams come true also, if they are so willed. I will you ALL the best in your life. And “last words”. Those are for the dying.
Sibongile Tasila Phiri