A Note from the Lady with a Succession Plan …
In 2010, I decided it was time. It was time to be a writer.
I had always wanted to be a published author. From the age of 8, I was making my own mini-books. I would read excerpts from these books to my sisters and run my plots ideas past them. Then, something happened along the line, I gave up my study of English Literature and talked myself out of further pursuing French and German Literature. I decided to study International Development and Law. By 2010, I stood, miserable, at a quarter-life crossroad.
I knew that if I did not, at the very least, make a good and solid effort to pursue this dream, I would regret it for the rest of my life. Of course, as soon as I admitted this personal truth to myself there was no turning back. I desperately wanted to turn back. Especially as all of the usual fears came flooding in. You know those fears that hound any person right at the start of their adventure? Those same fears that had driven me away from the Arts and into a more stable academic discipline the first time I set out for university. They seem like valid fears. Fears around income. Fears around social status. Fears around social acceptance.
The biggest fear, however, arose around the question of whether I – “little old me” – could actually write the kind of stuff people
genuinely want to read…
What do I think about those fears now, in 2013?
Well, on occassion – especially before an event or a performance – I do think about those fears.
I know, now, that fears never go away. They just hang about waiting to pounce. I have learned to walk through hallways clanging with the footfalls of my own projected fears. So, yes, I do subscribe to the philosophy that one must always ’feel the fear and do it anyway’.
The “doing it anyway” part has been so rewarding.
In this action-filled journey, I have learned to trust. I have learned to love. I have learned compassion. I have embraced failure as the best teacher. I have seen how my passion for words and women can lead me to the right place for me. I have learned about a wealth that is beyond material. I have learned that material wealth also has its place. Yet, I am wealthy in ways I could never have imagined if I stayed in a material wealth and status-driven state. I am wealthy because I write, tell stories and perform stories that matter to me with a group of women who inspire me. We teach each other and we learn from each other. We share in each others success. We share in each others mis-takes. It is a collaborative space. It is a loving space. It is a wholesome space.
In the process, I have created a social enterprise called “Stillwaters Storytelling Collective”. That responsibility has been a rather pleasant albeit unexpected surprise. I know the time will come to hand over the reigns of organising … some days I cannot wait for it. Yet, it has been a wonderful journey so I’d like to share with you a few of my favourite memories in a journey where I have – yes, I know accept that I have – become a ‘leader’ (a collaborative leader who follows, listens and leads). More importantly, in this journey, I have found myself to be a writer. I hear my voice more clearly now because I stand in the harmonic echo that reverbates strong and powerful through the ages, with the shades and nuances of all the collective and individual and beautifully diverse voices of African women and women, more generally. I hope one day, you can become a leader of this collective and have your own incredible experience …
Shortly before I was to graduate as a student of ‘The Law’, I spent one day tucked in bed, far away from the cruel world of black letter law. It was the examination period. I was reading (… fiction … by African American women … of course). I loved nothing better than hanging out with the collected biographies of Maya Angelou and the collected work of Alice Walker. Yet, that particular hang-out session left me feeling exceptionally buzzed and inspired.
You see, I had come across a liberating “secret”. Well, it was news to me. You see, one of these writers, one of my “sheroes”, had started writing without prior experience. She had learned how to write by joining the Harlem Writers Guild. Such groups were set up by African Americans who were specifically keen to develop and promote writing by African Americans who wrote about the African American experience. Suddenly, I understood what my Honours thesis in International Development had prepared me for. Right then, on that afternoon, I decided it was time for Melbourne to have our own version of the HWG, right here.
So, in January 2011, Stillwaters Storytelling Collective was born.
These beautiful women of African-descent strutting their stuff as cover girls for the Big West Festival are the founding members of Stillwaters. They formed the first black African women’s storytelling group, which they named, “Ndizvo”. In their commonly shared mother-tongue, chiShona, “Ndizvo” means “That’s it!“.
Ndizvo co-wrote and performed their first play for The Big West Festival. The play is called “Arrived”. It was named after a series of individual works commissioned by the festival to be performed in the “Africa Celebration Tent” in October 2011. Sosina Wogahyu conceived the idea of celebrating our diverse African cultures.
Arrived (by Ndizvo) is a composite of song, dance, short story and poetry. The group took inspiration from Ntozake Shange‘s play “For Coloured Girls”. Ndizvo could not have done it without the guidance of an Indigenous Elder of the Boonwurrung language group, Aunty Carolyn Briggs.
The Big West Festival takes place on the land of the Boonwurrung Language group, which is made up of several groups of indigenous peoples who speak/spoke Boonwurrung. So, we asked Aunty Carolyn Briggs if she would co-write the play with us and have a role in it. The content of the play arose from an intercultural conversation about the shared wisdom in Yalikut Willarn (a Boonwurrung Language group peoples) and Shona conceptions of land, belonging, identity and land as mother.
The themes of our play included identity and belonging. We developed this theme by offering our own call and response remix of the ‘Welcome to Country’ speech that is now so common in Australia (without the ritual request to enter country, which we then inserted). We also received feedback and guidance from Mahony and Dionne (on loan to us from Big West Festival) who provided that crucial directorial eye for the staging of the piece.
Ndizvo wrote a theatre piece that fitted the contemporary experience of African migrant women in Australia. Women who have entered a context where the word “black” already has meanings in the context of the historical relationship between settlers and the original owners of this land. Women who genuinely want to know and honour the stories of the ancestors of this land. Women who know that, as per our customs in Africa, out of respect we must always first request entry into the country before we can expect to be welcomed into this land. Once welcomed, we can freely let our voices be heard and tell our stories. Although Ndizvo disbanded in 2012, Stillwaters relationship with Aunty Carolyn continues … and she continues to appear in some of our performances.
If I can just take you back to the beginning of our journey, to the middle of 2011. In June, Stillwaters Storytelling Collective debuted at the Emerging Writers Festival. This was an exciting time for us. At this time, Ndizvo had not yet formed as a sub-group within the collective. We were a mixed bag of women of all backgrounds, all wanting to support the emergence of African Women’s writing in Australia. The Emerging Writers Festival was the perfect place to start. The Festival fully supported our vision and we were commissioned to write a piece for the opening night..
For that performance, four members of the collective co-wrote a choreo-poem (choreographed poem) called “The First Word” (Tinashe, Tariro, Sista Zai and Maxine). We spent many days in rehearsal under the steady advice and guidance of established writer and seasoned performance poet, Maxine Beneba Clarke.
At that time, both Maxine and Tinashe had babies under 1 year old. So, the babies would also came along to writers workshops and rehearsals. It was a fun but yet challenging time, juggling writing, meetings, rehearsals and the demands of young babies … oh, and university studies too. Yet, we all came together and supported one another.
Tariro Mavondo co-wrote “The First Word” and gave us stellar tips on how to stage it as a performance. Sadly, she could not make it to the Emerging Writers Festival performance. She had a showcase on that same night at the Victorian College of the Arts, where she was studying drama and acting. So, Maxine – who was already an established performer – very generously stepped in to boost our numbers on the stage. In fact, Maxine’s mother came in from Sydney to look after the baby that night and Tinashe’s partner came with their son to watch her debut. It was and felt like a real family affair.
In June, we also appeared at Federation Square’s Light in Winter Festival and we have continued to perform at this festival. For the June 2012 Light In Winter Festival, we were joined by Latifa Elm, poet. Latifa makes the most amazing zines and notebooks … when she is not busy teaching young children. Tariro, Latifa and myself (Sista Zai) co-wrote and performed a performance poetry piece about the Hijab and African hair. We worked with a community of young Muslim women who had a lot to say. Their words were included in the zine we produced for the performance and for the girls. We then incorporated parts of that performance on Hijab with aspects of Arrived and newer fresh elements to make a remix that we presented over a week of performances at La Mama Courthouse Theatre as part of Platform Theatre’s July 2012 programming. Here are all our smiling faces who were involved … how the collective has grown …Back Row (l-r) Rochelle D’silva (poet), Rachel Shields (song woman), Tariro Mavondo (actor and dancer), Jack Thompson (poet), Aunty Carolyn Briggs (elder of the Boonwurrung Language Group and Yalikut Willam peoples of southeastern Victoria).
Front Row (l-r) Sista Zai (storyteller), Jacinta Percy (singer), Liza Freddi (dancer), Latifa Elm (Poet).
Photographer: Jess D’Cruze
At Stillwaters Storytelling Collective we not only develop and promote storytelling by African-descended women living in Australia. We also overstand the power of story to authentically connect people from diverse cultural backgrounds. The power of storytelling lays in the way synergy helps us to innovate as a collective and create new cultural expressions. Our process fundamentally reveals that any barrier to mutual respect, functional conflict and creative co-existence is illusory.
And that … is Stillwaters Storytelling Collective … in a story! You can support this social enterprise by sending your friends an email with a link to our website, or you can subscribe to our email list, become a Facebook Fan, come to our events, buy our merchandise and, if you want to, join in the fun by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org.