Interview: Sibongakonke Mama talks about winning the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition for her play Ibuhlungu le ndawo– “old and now, like a wound that is not yours alone”

Johannesburg based creative, Sibongakonke Mama won the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition for her play Ibuhlungu le ndawo. The competition is managed by the National Arts Festival [NAF] and key to the competition is that the winning play is produced and staged by NAF. Ibuhlungu le ndawo will be staged at NAF 2023 in Makhanda. Mama talks about Ibuhlungu le ndawo -the first play that she has written. The time frame she reflects is “old and now, like a wound that is not yours alone.”

Pushing to learn what it means to write a play

This is your first foray into theatre? Incredible that you won this coveted award with your first play?

Sibongakonke Mama: It’s absolute insanity! Yintsomi (as I said to a relative) that I try for the first time to write a play and it wins such an important competition, especially considering that I tried to drop out of the competition twice. I’m still very dumbfounded but slowly this and, more importantly, what it says about my abilities as a writer, a storyteller, is settling in my body. Slowly, I am embodying that it is, in fact, not intsomi. Under torturous personal circumstances, I pushed myself to learn what it means to write a play and I kept learning; and then I pushed myself to write and keep writing to make the deadline, while demanding of myself all the excellence I could muster as a baby playwright, until I arrived at what felt like a finishing.

Professionally, this is significant validation as to my ability. Unlike with poetry, I’ve always thought my imagination sucks too much for me to be able to write a play, or novels and short stories. Personally, this is a beautiful answer to the single question that kept me writing in spite of my difficulties: even though the evidence overwhelmingly shows that trauma always wins; what is possible now, with this, what could things look like, if I push against trauma’s efforts to interrupt my life?

Theatre – simultaneously communal and individual

This is the first play that you have written, but I am assuming that you attend a lot of theatre and see theatre as a vital medium to tell stories?

Sibongakonke Mama: I’d like to attend a lot of theatre, I only attend as much theatre as my pocket and social anxieties will allow.

I love story so I try to expose myself to, and learn from, as many things that do/make/deal with story – plays, novels, music, poems, documentaries, iintsomi, art exhibitions, TV and film, short stories, dance, longform journalism. I don’t know as much as I’d like about neither one of these – I wish I had the kind of life that allows me to spend all my time just immersed in these art forms – they all have their wisdom and advantages where storytelling is concerned. My desire is to be aware of as many possible ways of approaching story, and to have the ability to go where a story needs me to go or to at least have the understanding to create conditions for someone else to take the story there.

To speak to theatre specifically, and as I’ve said elsewhere; I find the theatre vital for story and humans because – in its simultaneously communal and individual nature, as well as the many ways it can bend and the forms it can take – it can be a tender space to ask things that, in our daily lives, we’re often robbed of the vulnerability of asking. But it is the work that chose the theatre, I just followed. And as I’ve written this play and come to know its world, its people, its energies, I’ve come to understand that this work chose the theatre for its intimacy – that against-your-skinness of theatre that can be akin to music. A stage with people, their voices, set, props, and sound allows this immediately physical and differently-visceral human witness, interaction and sharing.

From page to stage with The Distell Playwrighting competition

The Distell National Playwright Competition leads to the play being staged at National Arts Festival – the largest arts festival on the African continent -a dynamic platform to tell stories. How does it work – from now – until NAF 2023- in taking the play from page to stage?

Sibongakonke Mama: I have no idea! I guess that’s the joy, fun, and thrill of this for me – I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, I’m a glutton for learning and knowledge, and boy am I going to learn! Thankfully, I’m no stranger to pain so I’m not scared of that part of all the learning – which I’m certain there’ll be a (un)healthy amount of.

I’m still going to meet with the National Arts Festival to discuss the upcoming months, but I’m looking forward to learning from all the professionals – directors, lighting designers and technicians, actors, sound designers, everyone. I’m looking forward to learning approaches to making quality story from the perspectives of all these people. I’m curious about the questions that are important to them when making story, and building my own understanding of those questions and their importance.

The politics of translation- messy power dynamics

#WhatsYourStory2022: Let’s look first at the story of your play and then circle to your story as a writer and artist. Ibuhlungu le ndawo is in isiXhosa and English. Is it possible to loosely translate the title into English?

Sibongakonke Mama: I have a… not-simple(?) relationship with translation.

Generally, be it in a community meeting or in the translation of books, I understand and appreciate the desire and necessity to translate in terms of reaching for the other and being reached for or received by the other. But at the same time, especially in this country, I have a political gripe with translation mostly because of who usually gets asked to translate themselves – I’m yet to ask for a translation in this conversation. My gripe with translation is also that, in and because of certain power dynamics, the request (expectation in other instances) for translation is often a demand for explanation as to why you and the things you make are (“different”) and the validity of you and those things.

I feel that to translate “ibuhlungu le ndawo” into English would be to explain it – at the very least, it would take no less than six iterations of the English translation of “ibuhlungu le ndawo” to capture the volume and quality of what is said and what is meant by that single phrase. I think indigenous languages (and people) have been explained enough to English-only speakers in South African art. My centre is me, the story, my context. My responsibility is to the story and how it comes. I wonder how much time a German theatre maker spends thinking about how an isiXhosa speaker from Centane will follow a German play that s/he is staging in Germany.

For as long as this play is being staged in South Africa; if ever I consider translating anything in this play, I will be looking to seTswana or xiTsonga or any of the languages spoken by South Africa’s indigenous people. When the play gets the chance to leave South Africa, I might think about Wolof speakers or Spanish speakers or English-only speakers, I don’t know. There’s more than enough English in the content of the piece and, as you’ve pointed out, there’s also a lot of other language that conveys the story that a non-isiXhosa speaker will understand like body, sound, quiet. I think we can let the title live in isiXhosa peace. Those who are desperate for a translation can consult their nearest isiXhosa speaker, and enjoy the conversation.

The simple answer to your question is andifuni. But I decided to have a conversation with you about my choice only because right now this is something I want to express, and I believe you are genuinely interested in my thinking here and I believe that you are listening to me and hearing me. Another time, I might leave it at andifuni. My having said all of this proves my point about this country’s (and the world’s) messy power dynamics. Here I am, an isiXhosa-speaker, having written a play in isiXhosa and English that has been deemed good enough to be staged at South Africa’s National Arts Festival, and my decision not to translate the title of the play to English can be a whole political conversation (that is also provoked by you raising the matter of international audiences who will have come to South Africa to see art).

Searching of the ideas of home and belonging

Narrative: I see that the play “weaves oral tradition, grief, cultural and family history through storytelling, children’s games, and ritual.” It is “set in the fictional village of uMzimkhulu, “where three sisters return home to play as a way of remembering and mending familial fences after the loss of a parent…” Can you expand on this, please?

Sibongakonke Mama: The play is a searching of the ideas of home and belonging and what happens when these ideas come up against (questions of) selfhood and what home really is (or isn’t). A woman’s home is interrupted, and/or disrupted, and she has to navigate protecting the home or protecting herself – the two aren’t (always) necessarily mutually inclusive.

Play, quiet, poetry, oral tradition, body, music/song

Magical realism: At the awards, it was cited that you expose “the characters’ building, dismantling and reassembling the playhouse over and over again” and the “human capacity to reboot” and that you “have created a “spectacular world where the threesome recalls the spirit of their mother who has transitioned to the ancestral realm.” It is a “Poetic and movement meditation on “dis-ease, disease and alienation”. It sounds like you use magical realism to evoke the ancestral realm and to grapple with loss – on many levels?

Sibongakonke Mama: I see how one would get a sense of magical realism at play in the work – and maybe it can be said that there’s a little bit of that. But for the most part, and to my knowledge, I’m not employing magical realism –  unless magical realism and madness are the same, or siblings, or cousins.

At work is madness, play, quiet, poetry, oral tradition, body, music/song to grapple with dis-ease, alienation, grief, family/home (history) and self. There’s no overt artistic attempt and/or device to evoke, per se, the ancestral realm. I don’t think it needs overt evoking/evocation. Because of who the characters are, because of where they are, because of the things they are dealing with, the ancestral realm is there – it’s always been there.

Play – release and conversation

Playhouse: Is there the physical assembling of a playhouse in the play or is this metaphorical? I ask because the image of ‘playhouse’ evokes for me a sense of play and playfulness and that is a release from grief and loss?

Sibongakonke Mama: The assembling, disassembling, and reassembling of the playhouse is literal, which obviously also makes it metaphorical. As I’ve just said, play is one of the devices used in the work – and it’s used quite generously. So you’re correct to get a sense of play as release and conversation with self, with the other, and with dis-ease, alienation, grief, family/home (history).

Influences – quiet, oral tradition, the body, play and even the village life

Reading about your play, Zakes Mda comes to mind and his use of magical realism in novels like Ways of Dying. Has he been an influence in your shift to playwriting?

Sibongakonke Mama: No, Zakes Mda hasn’t been an influence in my shift. The strongest influence in this regard is what I said earlier on about what this work wanted. Arriving with or through oral tradition, body, quiet and play the work really hungered for that against-your-skinness of the theatre that I mentioned. Against-your-skinness is the way of quiet, oral tradition, the body, play and even the village life of amaXhosa as I know it. The theatre practitioners I know have an influence on me are Pumelela Nqelenga, Monageng Motshabi, Nomcebisi Moyikwa, Matjamela Motloung, Chuma Sopotela, Zanele Siko to name a few. I’m also (trying to be) in conversation with writers, some of whom are Mthunzikazi Mbungwana, Cecilia Vicuña and Toni Morrison. 

Creative writing

Shifting away from the play for a moment, what was your thesis on for your MA in creative writing, from Rhodes?

Sibongakonke Mama: My MA thesis is a collection of poems titled a sea is brewing.

Time frame – old and now, like a wound that is not yours alone

Time frame: Back to the play. Is the play set now – 2022/3? Does it reference South Africa now – or could it be anytime? The country is in a state of unease – as is the whole world – so wondering about the time frame of your play and if it references us now or of it is a timeless evocation of a return and re-assembling by the sisters of their history, after the loss of their mom?

Sibongakonke Mama: The time frame of the play is old and now, like a wound that is not yours alone even though it may be your body that it has colonised. It follows, then, that as to how the play speaks to South Africa, it speaks to an old necessary dis-ease that has been humming, that is also now.

Themes, and questions, of home and belonging

Loss, returning- genesis of the play: Was this play inspired or sparked by a loss that you went through personally or sparked by someone you know or read about? And home – you were born in Gcuwa, Eastern Cape. Gcuwa (Butterworth in the old South African lingo) has a complex history – in terms of everything– including land, identity, White colonisation and devastation of heritage and people. Is your village in your play, referencing where you grew up?

Sibongakonke Mama: The play is inspired by the themes, and questions, of home and belonging that seemed to be emphasised throughout last year (and continue to be) in the literature, music, people I interacted with and, of course, in my life. While the village in the play shares a name with an actual place in the KZN, the village is totally fictional. What it references in a very general way is my experience of isiXhosa village life. The life of the village in the play lives in its name – Mzimkhulu – to speak to the vastness and ubiquity of the haunting of home. My village doesn’t haunt me, yet.

Home is memory

You live in Joburg. Do you return ‘home’ regularly or rather where do you consider home?

Sibongakonke Mama: I’m still learning what and where my home is.

I’m learning that my home is me, it’s quiet, it’s writing, it’s (jazz) music, it’s my generosity of spirit and love. I’m learning that home can be people, though very few. Alejandra Pizarnik wrote that her only country is her memory and, though countries aren’t necessarily homes, I erroneously read that as “home is memory”. I believe that. So, in one way or another, I’m always home and returning home; but also not quite because I’m still searching, learning. It’s probably better to say that the place(s) I’m always at is/are the border(s) between home(s). Maybe the border(s) are/is my real home(s).

In some ways, and largely because of my belief that home is memory, Gcuwa (and Centane) are also home. In many ways they aren’t. I go to Gcuwa and Centane as often as time and money allow.

Love for the written word

What is your story: You are a journalist with an MA in creative writing from Rhodes University and an honours in investigative journalism from the University of the Witwatersrand. Please tell us about your journey from Gcuwa to the big happening city of Jozi and here you are as the 2022 Distell Playwriting winner. Did you grow up in a creatively inclined family?

Sibongakonke Mama: In addition to playing outside, as a kid I kept myself busy with reading and writing. My parents got me books before I could read properly, they also got me a chalkboard through which I taught invisible pupils, and in various parts of my home there were A5 books they got me filled with my scribblings. In this way, my parents instilled my love for the written word. Besides this, I can’t possibly tell you where it comes from. I don’t know that my family is creatively-inclined, certainly not my parents, though there’s a significant amount of musically-inclined people on my mother’s side. So it’s possible that further down the lineage mine was a creatively-inclined family. A friend recently told me about a writer (poetry too!) with the same surname as me who was seemingly published from the 1950s until the late 90s. I still have to ask my father if the man is related to us.

I wrote for myself throughout my school life, with immense encouragement in high school from my then-isiXhosa teacher and now-friend, Xolani Mavela. At the end of high school one of my English teachers, Morag Venter, advised that I study journalism at Rhodes University. So I did. I worked as journalist in Cape Town and Joburg, but journalism didn’t care for the kind of writing that I was reaching for. A collaboration between CoVid and my ancestors made me finally take heed of that, and I left journalism and took the first step towards taking myself seriously a writer by applying to study towards an MA in Creative Writing. It was only while doing the MA that I realised I’m a good enough writer to do the things I wanted to do all along. And it was the kind of material I was exposed to, mostly by Stacy Hardy, that made me believe that I could try my hand at playwriting. 

Winning the Distell Award- laughing in dis/belief

The 1st post Covid NAF went virtual in 2020 because of the pandemic and again in 2021, it was shut down at the last minute. The 2022 NAF went live on the day that the mask mandate and seating requirements were lifted in South Africa. The 2023 NAF is ‘normal’ again and that is wonderful, with international visitors coming again and your play will be there, on stage?

Sibongakonke Mama: Little first-time-playwright-and-maker, me, at the National Arts Festival with her first play? That’s part of what keeps me laughing in dis/belief! It’s a huge honour for my writing to be taken seriously enough by the judges of the Distell National Playwright Competition as to deem it worthy of showing at the National Arts Festival. I hope next year’s festival is a meaningful time for everyone. Everyone.

We are only talking because of the people, in this world and other worlds, who hold me. They have my eternal gratitude. Maz’enethole. And thank you to you for such a considered conversation.

Distell National Playwright Competition

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Award winning: Sibongakonke Mama, speaking at the awards event for the 2022 Distell National Playwright Competition. Mama’s play Ibuhlungu le ndawo will be staged at the 2023 National Arts Festival, Makhanda.

✳Images of Sibongakonke Mama- supplied. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: