Poetry: it inevitably relates to -- among others -- identity, history, culture, class, race, community, economics, politics, power, loss, health, desire, regret, language, form and genre disruption, love ... as well as the absences thereofs. The same may be said about Adoption.

Monday, April 11, 2011



I was given up for adoption in 1966 in South Africa. It was complicated because the apartheid policy was at its height and I'm biracial. Finally I was adopted at 9 months by one of the anthropologists* who had examined me. They wouldn't tell me that I was adopted till I was 20 years old.

Under apartheid people of colour were ruthlessly segregated.

While I'd previously written about adoption, I never wrote about being adopted in a literary language until 2005 when I was in a mentorship with a British poet who encouraged me to write about my experiences. Since then I have made two collections of poetry, made contributions to many other anthologies, written and performed two plays. I feel strange about being a writer and having this story. I wrestle with accepting the fact that part of why people read me is because of the life story, not some soul-searing, undeniable magical talent. :) I guess it's also about one's ego, which is not one's identity, but when you are writing about this painful material sometimes we lose sight of the boundary, not that it's a clear line like on a map but on the ground it does look different, the ego and the identity.

After being told the truth I spent the rest of my life getting used to this weird situation (among other things) with its duplicity and deceit and its good intentions and its jealousy and its ineffable love.

As part of my healing journey I have explored notions of identity through the lens of African traditional belief systems. Daily I confront all the separate selves created by the different acts of naming: the name my biological mother gave me, the subsequent name given by my adoptive mother, the names of my biological parents and grandparents and great-grandparents. This is my compass.

My full name is Tandy Jane Alcock Amamoo Phillippa Yaa de Villiers. But you can call me PhilYaa :)

Footnote *:
Curator's Note: I don't know why it took a few days for me to be struck by PhilYaa's use of the term "anthropologist." I thought she might have meant to say (medical) "doctor" as medical examinations are not unusual during adoption proceedings. To my follow-up query, she replied:
The examination was not a medical one but a racial one if there is such a thing. The mad science of apartheid needed anthropologists to decide what a person's race was. The pencil test was often invoked in cases where the race of the baby or child was not clear. Physical anthropology was considered to be more scientific because it dealt with empirical physical data and was considered therefore neutral,

In my case they couldn't decide definitively on my race and felt that because my mother was Australian, my father was likely to be an Aborigine. In this case, they could not allow me to be adopted in South Africa because the political dispensation of apartheid believed that culture was genetic and every culture had its special strengths and weaknesses. This could go on for ages but...



I can’t separate the two. I became a poet because there was no other vessel that could contain the intensity of that moon on the water loneliness and that crying at the beauty of the sunset gratitude for life itself. When I was told the truth I was unable to write for quite a few years. Then I tried to write plays and stories about it but the prose suffocated me and drove me into reams of self-justification which were convoluted and unreadable. I won a mentorship where I had to produce 6 poems every 6 weeks and under the guidance of my mentor John Lindley I found a number of poems about adoption lying around my mind in undiscovered drawers of experience. Poetry allowed me to enter the emotional context of what the adoption meant to me, and gave me words for that experience. I owe poetry my entire writing life: in fact, my life. The first part of my life was in silence with the occasional shout, scream or snippet from the radio. I am still reconstructing.



Warning: Adopting a Dragon can be Dangerous

Please adopt me.
I'm asking you to co-opt the
question-mark. Make it yours.

Please give me your name.
Take me from my wilderness, and tame
my howling frame, remove my parasites
and feed my starving shame.

I am just passing through your home.
My roaming spirit seeking shelter,
but be warned, Samaritan: I am never
your subject, I am always
my own.

I will learn to submit to your syllables
and laws: I will contrive to
defend your cause
for my survival. But be warned:
listen to the whispers of my rebellion
you may lock me in a frilly room
and make me write your story a hundred times but
one day,
one day
I will leave
to find my own.

And if you fear my origins
and your imperial decree
will not release me
I will declare
a war of liberation
and perhaps you will think I’m ungrateful,
and I’ll do it anyway.

I will stage a coup.
I will hold you hostage
in your palace and
turn your guards against you.
I will light a fuse and then
leap out of my sweet
little-girl borrowed bedroom window,
wearing a garland of ammunition
and an AK.

I land on an abandoned station
with a faded name I can’t read,
with rusted rails carrying ghost passengers
to an unknown destination,
with benches, termite eaten to filigree;
a fake snakeskin suitcase on the platform:
bulging with
a creature
trying to settle,
this I know
is my

I lay down my gun and bullets.
From here I’ll end the revolution
rebuild my state
revise the constitution
devise new institutions.

But then
the suitcase
open at my feet,
blister my combat boots,
and I stand, scared, wringing my hands,
saying sorry, sorry, sorry, I didn’t know
I promise you I didn’t know
that I was a dragon,
trying to pass as
a human.

The imperial palace
smokes up the horizon
unable to reply: somehow
I am satisfied:
now that I know where everything is.
now that I now what I look like.
now I know why I was
always on fire.

Repeat after me

Life is a language lesson: we try to discover our names.
The adopted child invents her history: the only way to become is first to be.
We create a shape that then starts to fall apart.
I am a brown land, an incontinent continent, secreting pearly musk and ribald rivers of blood.
What I am called is not who I am: a name is a fence around a field of nodding concepts, rich wildflowers, some of which sting and others smell like heaven. I am more than all of this: I laze under fluffy clouds, drinking deep sips of the sky. Whirlwinds and floods toss my hair and irretrievably alter my features. I have not charted all my latitudes yet. Many systems exist on me, subsist on the spinning energies: forests of language, biospheres of sense and sensibility, people lost and people discovered. Artefacts are buried in me: once I unearthed a decaying trunk filled with illegible scrolls that disintegrated as soon as they came to light, their origin a mystery, leaving me guessing again. I am excavating my frozen tongue, my intimate civilization. As I discover it, it starts to die; in the ruins, inscrutable roots. As I write I dissemble, make my self, unmake my self:

a mussel spurts ink
ancient walls collapse into
the infinite sea



Phillippa Yaa de Villiers – (1966- )
Studied journalism with the hidden desire to be an actor, she took herself to the Jacques Lecoq School in Paris. She worked as an actor for two years and then Bell’s Palsy sent her towards writing as an alternative career. She continued to participate in street theatre and went to school to learn scriptwriting. She worked in scriptwriting for TV for eight years and in 2005, won a mentorship with English poet John Lindley through the British Council/Lancaster University’s distance learning scheme “Crossing Borders.” She wrote Where the children live (a two-hander play) which was the runner up to the best writer award and won the audience award at the National Festival of Play Readings. before publishing her first collection of poetry Taller than buildings (2006), which was followed by Original Skin (2008), a one-woman play based on her life story. She contributed to the anthology of South African birth stories, Just Keep Breathing, published by Jacana with her story “A thousand births” (2008) and won the Writing Beyond the Fringe/de Buren competition with her short story “The day that Jesus dropped the ball” (2009). In 2010 she released her second collection, The everyday wife and co-edited an anthology of African poetry translated into Mandarin. She was editor of the South African contribution to A megaphone, a journal initiated and edited by Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young out of Mills College. Her work is in anthologies and journals from Poui to Edinburgh Review, and the online journals The Canopic Jar, Shine and Incwadi. She is working on a very long memoir/poem which has been optioned by a documentary film producer and performing poetry and engaging with other transracial adoptees in South Africa.



Hannelie said...

your language is crystal clear Phillippa and your emotion expressed with seething beauty

Keleni said...

P hillippa,thank you so much for sharing.I FEEL LIKE I WAS SITTING WITH YOU AND LISTEMING TO YOU WHILE YOU WERE NARRATING YOUR STORY. It is a moving one but I'm glad yo know you