Ayiba’s Seyiram Torkonoo interviewed Maya Wegerif, a South African poet and TV presenter currently studying Gender Studies at Mount Holyoke College. Seyiram talks with Maya about her identity, writing process, and future aspirations.
Seyiram: Tell us a little bit about your childhood. Where you grew up, what kind of stuff you did and how fun your childhood was.
Maya: [Laughs] Wow. It was very interesting because, of course, I am mixed race. My dad is white and my mum is black and we lived in Shirley for quite a few years. Racially, it was very interesting because half of the people thought I was albino. Most of the people were black and my dad was one of very few white people that some people had ever seen. It was very interesting. I had great childhood memories from Shirley.
Seyiram: What is your favorite childhood memory?
Maya: I have so many! One that comes to mind is for preschool. I started at this English preschool in the town that was nearby. We had this Halloween thing and, of course, my family knew nothing about that. [laughs] We had to bring masks and candle holders and my mum went and got these two tiny pumpkins and she was going to carve them into some kind of mask for me. And that failed completely! So we ended up having to draw a mask on paper and cut the little holes for eyes. [laughter] It was scary but mostly because it was nothing. It wasn’t a scary monster. It was just not anything. The kids laughed at me because they had fancy costumes and I had this paper on my face.
Seyiram: When and how did you discover your talent for writing?
Maya: I have very bad memory, which might be the reason why I have to write so much to remember what is happening. So the first time I think I was aware was, I was writing something, which is funny because I do not remember what I was writing. Apparently I was writing this poem and my mum found it in my diary. She read it and submitted it to this poetry competition and it was published and I was eleven years old. So since then, I guess that I am kind of a poet.
Seyiram: When did you get introduced to spoken word?
Maya: For some reason, spoken word came naturally. It wasn’t something I thought about. It kind of seemed like the natural step and maybe that was because I watched a bit of performance poetry. My parents were into cultural events and watched poetry and so it was a natural thing. I always thought that if I write well, then I would share it.
Seyiram: Was that at an early age?
Maya: It started off with parents just making me read in front of their friends. I remember that at school I organized a few poetry events. Then I was asked to read at a lot of various events. At the same time, I was writing and having some of my work published in some anthology of poems. However, there were works that I wrote and never shared out loud and there was a distinction between works I could share and ones that will stay with me.
Seyiram: I think it is interesting that your parents are your biggest fans.
Maya: Yes, they are. My parents are the best and the funny thing is that they named me after Maya Angelou.
Seyiram: Is there a big spoken word scene in South Africa?
Maya: It is actually quite impressive. Compared to the States, there are not as many platforms but it is quite big. We used to go to some poetry readings and open mics and stuff. It will still be very difficult to make money off spoken word. It is nice because there is a very South African style about poetry. I don’t want to generalize it and say that all poets had this style but there is a certain feel of ‘South-African-ness’ to it.
Seyiram: What was your first poem and how did you come up with it?
Maya: So, I guess it was the one that my mother ended up finding. It was a poem called ‘Life’ which you have to ask yourself what an eleven year-old knows about that topic. How did I come up with it? I have no idea.
Seyiram: Can you remember any lines?
Maya: I know one of the lines was ‘Life is hard.’ It was just so embarrassing. [laughs] I looked at it later and I think it was called ‘Trials and Tribulations.’ [laughter]
Seyiram: Who or what inspires you?
Maya: I am inspired a lot by my own reaction to things. So a lot of my poetry turns out to be my own reflections and sometimes I will have feelings and thoughts about things and I will write because I want to work them out for myself. Sometimes, they don’t turn out very poetically but I have been inspired a lot by my own overflow of emotions, feelings, thoughts, and opinions. In terms of people who make me want to get up and do stuff, I watch a lot of TED. It is always inspiring seeing entrepreneurs work through these processes and come up with products and stuff. That always inspires me. It reminds me of how an idea can start from a very small place. I love success stories! I think they inspire me a lot.
Seyiram: What is your process when you write? Do you decide you are going to write a poem about something or does it just come to you?
Maya: Sometimes it just comes. I went through a phase where I was obsessed with wordplay. I was just discovering how much I could abuse the English language. So I got to a place where my poems used to come from concepts. So I would say I am going to describe life in South Africa as a game of monopoly and then develop the idea from there. That was very useful and I will definitely give that tip for free. Just thinking about an overall concept first hash helped me so much in coming up with is that I will look at my diary, which will give me introspective pieces. So looking at my diary and the thoughts I have written in there and turning it into poetry has been a great source for me. Also, when people start asking you to speak for certain events, a lot of the time you have to write material for that and that is very difficult for me. It is difficult to make material on a topic that I was not engaged in. I mean, it can work and sometimes you need to be forced into writing.
Seyiram: What is the best poem you have ever written?
Maya: I have favorites over periods of time. I think one of my favorite pieces is a poem I wrote called ‘Waterfalls and Volcanoes.’ It is not very popular. I would say my most loved poem is my poem ‘Why you talk so white’ which gave me a lot of unexpected publicity. But personally, my favorite poem is ‘Waterfalls and Volcanoes.’ A lot of people have built me as a person who writes poems that are politically motivated. I am a very politically motivated person so a lot of my poetry comes out like that but a lot of it isn’t. A lot of it is also me trying to do my own thing and I end up appreciating those poems more because they end up helping me.
Seyiram: How do you connect with home? How do you stay in touch with home when you are here?
Maya: That is very interesting especially when you are abroad temporarily. You can’t establish yourself fully here because you know that it is temporary and I have every desire and intention to go back home as soon as I am done with my degree. Social media plays a huge role in connecting me to what is happening back home. I am trying my best to get in touch with myself here.
Seyiram: How do you keep your strong South African identity here?
Maya: I have been suffering. Lately, I have been conscious of how my ‘T’ sounds. [laughter] They have been fading into the American ‘D’ sound which is so disturbing, but at the same time forcing myself to pronounce those ‘T’s will create another accent which is not legit. I have to accept that there is no ‘me’ that has already been formulated. That me being here is also in that process of formulating myself, so I must not try to block anything out. I have to accept that this is part of my experience and try and draw that into my work and into myself.
Seyiram: How did you get involved with Channel O?
Maya: That was cool. They were looking for representatives in different countries and I was in Tanzania at that time and I was taking some time off from school so that was brilliant timing. The manager of Channel O Africa, Leslie Kasumba, was in Tanzania at that time. I met her and she urged me to go for the audition and basically to be the Tanzanian representative there. I went and they liked me surprisingly because I was not prepared. In my mind, I thought there was no way that I will be the Tanzanian representative if I was South-African but what ended up happening was that they sent me to South Africa to work at their main office there for about four months. It was great. Through that experience, I got to meet a lot of African musicians and I had to learn a lot about African music just to work there. The best for me as a poet was that I got to script a lot of their social outreach programs like their Outreach campaign for the famine that was going on in East Africa at the time. I scripted a poem for that and had several African artistes perform that which was so much fun to do. They also let me script and put together the World’s AIDS campaign which was so much fun to do. That was a nice opportunity.
Seyiram: Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?
Maya: Wow. Where do I see myself? Wow. In South Africa, I think. That is just because I want to be in a place that I can’t get deported. I want to go back to South Africa and start my own project there. See myself there, networking and starting something up.
Seyiram: What do you think the future of African art is?
Maya: Well, there is a global problem for art, which is that it is not very lucrative or that it is very lucrative for few. With African art, I think that because already the context in which it exists is with even less resources, there is a deeper problem. So what you have essentially is that parents will discourage their children, which is quite understandable if it is not going to be lucrative. The challenge is that art is not very lucrative. Another challenge is the imperialism or soft imperialism that Africa has to deal with. The trick will be in not returning to something that was a hundred years ago, but incorporating the history that we’ve had and incorporating the fact that we have suffered many layers of oppression. This should shape our art. For the art to be as honest and progressive and helpful as possible, it is going to need to take that into account and not try to ignore the colonial history of it. In terms of the future, African artists need to incorporate contemporary ideas, what it means to be an African now is not the same as what it meant to be an African fifty years ago and I think that needs to come out. I think that is starting to happen. There is great photography, and other forms of art and I must congratulate it. In terms of my own challenges, being an African writer, means being a writer and writing in English. That is tough. Is it about carving space in what is essentially a western world or it is about trying to define ourselves, but in another person’s language? It really is mind-blowing and I think exploring that could lead to some good art and hopefully cause a change in development.
Seyiram: Why are you proudly South African?
Maya: I am proudly South African because that is the country where I was born and raised. It is the country who made me who I am in many respects. I am proudly South African because I love South African people. Most of the people I would say I know and love are chilling in that country right now. I have seen South Africans do some amazing things. It is one of the youngest democracies in the world, and I have seen people do some amazing, amazing things that make me so proud. There is so much to be done, but I am proud of that, too. I am proud that I can go back and be part of this change. I lived quite a few years in Tanzania and so I mostly know about South Africa and Tanzania, but I want my work to influence Africa as a whole. I think there have been a lot of interesting collaborations. I see myself first as African, then as South African.