Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, born at Hillbrow in Johannesburg, is an award-winning South African writer and performance artist. The daughter of an Australian mother and a Ghanaian father, she was given up for adoption at nine months of age, although she was not told of it by her adoptive parents, a white family in apartheid South Africa, until she was 20 years old. She has commented that the negotiation of her situation has informed much of her writing. De Villiers studied journalism at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, and obtained a degree in Dramatic Art and Scriptwriting from the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. She is also a graduate of the Lecoq International School of Theatre in Paris, France, where she studied mime and theatre. Returning to South Africa in 1998, she worked as an actor for two years, before Bell’s palsy forced her to consider an alternative career in writing. Over the next eight years she wrote scripts for South African television, and collaborated with Pule Hlatshwayo and Charlotte Lesche to create Score, a three-hour mini series for Swedish Broadcasting. In 2005, she won a mentorship with English poet John Lindley through the British Council’s distance learning scheme ‘Crossing Borders.’

In 2006, Centre for the Book published her first volume of poetry, Taller than Buildings, described by True Love Magazine as “an extraordinary debut collection of poetry, that is provocative and original, mirroring the transitions of self and country.” Her second collection, The Everyday Wife, was launched at the Harare International Festival of the Arts in 2010. Her writing has been widely published in journals and anthologies, and De Villiers is a renowned reader of her work, performing internationally. She has toured her autobiographical one-woman show, Original Skin, in South Africa and abroad, which centres on her confusion about her identity at a young age. She has also written plays, including Where the Children Live (2005), and is editor of No Serenity Here (2010), an anthology of African Poetry published in China. Among her many awards are the 2009 National Arts Festival Writing Beyond the Fringe Prize, and a 2011 South African Literary Award. In 2014, De Villiers was the Commonwealth Poet, performing at Westminster Abbey in the presence of 2000 representatives of the Commonwealth and the royal family. She currently lectures in Creative Writing at Wits University in Johannesburg.

De Villiers’ readings emphasise the concern which orientates much of her work: an elusive ‘between-ness’ that evades easy categorisation, and which is engaged with by her poetry to undermine simplistic cultural perceptions. Her delivery heightens her work’s swift, mercurial qualities, incorporating many seemingly contradictory elements – her poems adopt and shrug off a traditional, almost demure, English enunciation for African inflections, and are at once humorous and determined, reasoning and frustrated, thoughtful and musical, fast-moving and long-lasting. Her imaginative reach is perhaps best exemplified in her poem ‘The River’, in which her voice hurries the listener through a strange, apocalyptic vision of a weeping city, before being “carried into the night, where our dreams grew taller than buildings.”

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers’s favourite Poetry Sayings:

Creates the situation,
And, the situation,
Creates imagination.

It may, of course
Be the other way round
Columbus was discovered
By what he found – James Baldwin

‘Poetry helps us imagine one another’s lives. It gives us intimate insights into someone else’s experience. To be able to have that kind of insight in thirty seconds or three minutes is a very precious kind of transmission. It’s not cluttered with a lot of extraneous, explanatory matter or the kind of chatter that comes so easily on the news these days. We’re surrounded by talk and language and reporting and stories of a certain kind, the “breaking news” kind, but I think we hunger for another kind of story, the story that helps us just feel connected with one another, be with one another. A slower kind of empathy. I think we hunger for that now more than ever.’ – Naomi Shihab Nye

This recording was made for The Poetry Archive on 6 March 2014 at Soundhouse and was produced by Anne Rosenfeld.

Poems by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

The river - Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
Don’t mention the war - Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
Tissue paper - Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
Courage – it takes more - Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
Phillippa Yaa de Villiers in the Poetry Store

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Books by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers



National Arts Festival/de Buren Writing Beyond the Fringe Prize

Prize website

South African Literary Award

Prize website

Overseas Scholarship for studies in Creative Writing at Lancaster University

Prize website

Featured in the Archive