Literary Sisters: Author Interview with Zodwa Nyoni

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Literary Sisters has – so far – been fairly fiction-centric in its focus.  So it’s high time to feature a poet on the blog.  It’s my great pleasure to include an interview with the very talented Zodwa Nyoni, a Zimbabwean-born performance poet and playwright.

I’ve shared a stage with Zodwa, and can attest that she’s an electifying performer.  She has appeared alongside national and international poets such as Jackie Kay, E.G Bailey and Ugochi Nwaogwugwu; competing at the Brave New Voices International Youth Poetry Slam (New York City, USA 2006) representing the UK and auditioning for HBO’s Def poetry Jam USA.  She won a one-year poets residency at BBC radio Leeds’ ‘New Black Programme’(Nov 06-Nov07).  Her theatrical work has been featured at the Ilkley Festival and her debut play, ’The Povo Die Till Freedom Come’ is currently on tour from November- December 2010 with Freedom Studios as part of their Street Voices 3 program.

Zodwa is a busy woman.  There are several chances to experience Zodwa’s performance and spoken word events in the Leeds area in April.  So scroll down and read the interview; check out her responses on her creative processes and note the dates in your diary.  You won’t regret it!

You have lots of strings to your professional bow – you’re a poet, playwright and performer and you also teach.  How do you manage to juggle these different activities?

I juggle it all because I enjoy being immersed within the arts.I started off as a poet, then theatre actor and now I’m a playwright. I enjoy developing new skills within the arts.

Plus I have my trusty monthly calendar which shows me where I need to be and when, which makes everything a lot easier to manage.

Where do you like to write best?

At my desk at home. The desk faces a chalkboard, that I painted  (it is the same length and height of the wall). I scribble all the ideas, characters and research related to the work that I’m writing at the time. I also stick post it notes everywhere.

How does your Zimbabwean heritage impact on your work?

I migrated between England and Zimbabwe from a young age so I have been influenced by both societies. I remember when I was younger and living in Leeds, at primary school children would ask us, my sisters and I  whether we had lions and elephants in our back garden. We were made aware of our differences from everyone else. When my family returned to Zimbabwe we were pointed out as the ‘English girls’. Migration and its effects left me feeling displaced in both Zimbabwe and England.

My work exists in the space between these two places. I will pull from Zimbabwe, the family history and traditions and mix them with my experiences from England to create stories that reflect who I am.

Who is your most significant influence (literary or otherwise)?

My GSCE English teacher’s lessons were like theatre. I was never bored in English that year. He, himself was a character and he’d act out every book or poem that we studied.He was a compelling storyteller. He was the initial spark of influence, and because of him I started searching for more storytellers.  I found them in my family, amongst friends, in my community, on library shelves, television, radio, theatre and film.

I came across the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jhumpa Lahiri, Inua Ellams, Warsan Shire,Ntozake Shange, Charlie Brooker, Jimmy McGovern, Zora Neale Hurst, Athol Fugard, John Kani, Steven Moffat, Neil Cross, Sharon Olds, Mark Strand, John Agard, Imitiaz Dharker,Brian Chikwava, Niyi Osundare, Chinua Achebe, Virginia Phiri and Tsitsi Dangarembga; just to name a few. These poets, novelists and screenwriters told stories that have stayed with me.

I liked being told a story. I like storytellers who can marvel with their use of language.I think it’s a beautiful skill to have, and because of such people I keep working at my own stories.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?  And the worst?

The best and worst thing about being a writer is that sometimes (mostly with the best intentions) someone will be telling you an anecdote or secret as a friend, sister or daughter and a part of you is thinking, oh that would be great if my character did that or said that.

Even in everyday conversations you start thinking about how you can feed what you’ve heard or seen into your next story.You just can’t turn it off because there are stories everywhere.If you catch the last sentence of a stranger’s conversation your imagination builds worlds around what you’ve heard. You wonder who are they? What have they done? Where are they coming from? Where are they going? What secrets do they hold?

I’m fascinated by the process of constructing stories. You take what you’ve seen or heard, break it down and build it back up again.I’m constantly watching and listening because I’m adding to my memory bank of characters, traits, scenarios, secrets and possibilities.

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Can you tell us a bit about performance and what it means to you?  What do you most enjoy about it?  Do you have any rituals that help you gear up to perform?

Performance is play and transformation. When I began performing it was through using the body as a vehicle, accompanied by text and rehearsal. When given a performance space I enjoy seeing what those three combined can produce. I like the relationship between the performance, the space and an audience. I’m drawn to the visual medium of performance.

However, as I’m always trying to evolve within my writing I began to explore isolating different tools such as the voice. Words and rehearsal can produce a performance hence why I’m learning to write plays for radio.

When I’m gearing up for a performance, rehearsal is my ritual. I like to know what I’ll be doing on stage.I don’t like hold pieces of paper in my hand especially when I’m performing poetry.So I try my best to rehearse and memorise as much as I can.

Name your favourite time-off activity….

I shop for shoes. You can never, ever, ever have too many shoes.

What are you working on just now?

I am part a new group called, SPEAK WOMAN SPEAK( SWS). SPEAK WOMAN SPEAK is a collective made up of three diaspora artists, Leah Francis, Carmen Martorell and myself. Our work is influenced by our African-Caribbean, Spanish and Zimbabwean cultural heritage. Our ethos as a collective is to tell life stories led by the woman’s experience through the generations.  We celebrate the woman’s spirit of perseverance.SPEAK WOMAN SPEAK draws on our skills in acting, performance poetry and theatre making.

The group will be premiering their work as part of Friday Firsts at Yorkshire Dance.  Friday Firsts was launched to showcase new and Independent work.  Each evening has its own distinct theme, and will often be the first chance to see performances by the most promising artists.

On the 5th April Friday First is presented by Sustained Theatre Artists Yorkshire (STAY). The night aims to connect BAME artists with diverse audiences.

Following this will be Transform Festival 2013 at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I was commissioned by the West Yorkshire Playhouse to join two other playwrights to write a play titled, The Market. The commission began last year December and will culminate in performances in the Leeds Kirkgate Market from the 16th -20th April 2013. This will be performed by a company of professional and community actors. The story is about Leeds, its people and connections with the market.’s-on/2013/transform-my-leeds-my-city/

In the same week I will be performing at The Orangery in Wakefield.The event was original scheduled in March, however was postponed due to bad weather conditions.

On the 18th April, Is There Anyone Out There? will be an evening of original spoken word. I am one of four performers, including Third Angel’s Alexander Kelly  that will be performing that night.

You’re quoted as saying: ‘If I didn’t write, I’d be a different version of me. I prefer this version, so I write.  If you hadn’t got into writing, what do you think you might be doing instead?

I would be a Psychologist, either Clinical or Forensic. I studied Psychology at A Level and it still intrigues me. People are interesting and studying their mental functions and behaviours would have been the other route I would have taken.

There is in fact an element of psychology when creating characters that audiences can connect with. So I guess I’ve found a way to weave it in.

Where would you like to be in five years’ time?  And in ten years?

In five years time I’d like to add television to all the things I’m juggling.

And in ten years time I’d like to be thinking that I have more than enough passion for writing to keep going for another 50years.

If you had one piece of advice to give to your fifteen year old self, what would it be?

You don’t know whats coming your way. God is the master of ‘and then suddenly’ , so you be brave when it happens.

A year from now you’ll fall in love with the English language. A year after that you’ll write you first poem and that will take you to your first writing workshop.A month after joining the group you’ll find yourself in New York City at the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe representing the UK at an international youth poetry festival. And then suddenly who you thought you were going to be has changed.

Be brave as a writer and as a person because this will lead you to some amazing opportunities.


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