Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

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Phillippa Yaa de Villiers
Born (1966-02-17) 17 February 1966 (age 55)
NationalitySouth African
EducationRhodes University;
University of the Witwatersrand;
Lecoq International School of Theatre;
Lancaster University
OccupationPoet, performance artist

Phillippa Yaa de Villiers (born 17 February 1966)[1] is a South African writer and performance artist who performs her work nationally and internationally. She is noted for her poetry, which has been published in collections and in many magazines and anthologies, as well as for her autobiographical one-woman show, Original Skin, which centres on her confusion about her identity at a young age, as the bi-racial daughter of an Australian mother and a Ghanaian father who was adopted and raised by a white family in apartheid South Africa.[2] She has written: "I became Phillippa Yaa when I found my biological father, who told me that if he had been there when I was born, the first name I'd have been given would be a day name like all Ghanaian babies, and all Thursday girls are Yaa, Yawo, or Yaya. So by changing my name I intended to inscribe a feeling of belonging and also one of pride on my African side. After growing up black in white South Africa, internalising so many negative 'truths' of what black people are like, I needed to reclaim my humanity and myself from the toxic dance of objectification."[3] She has also said: "Because I wasn't told that I was adopted until I was twenty, I lacked a vocabulary to describe who I am and where I come from, so performing and writing became ways to make myself up."[4] As Tishani Doshi observes in the New Indian Express: "Much of her work is concerned with race, sexuality, class and gender within the South African context."[5]


Adoption and childhood years[edit]

De Villiers was born at Hillbrow in Johannesburg, South Africa,[6] where she spent the first months of her life in The Princess Alice Home, a facility for adopted babies. Half-Australian and half-Ghanaian,[5] she was adopted at nine months of age, although not told of it by her white adoptive parents until she was 20 years old.[7] She has written about the impact of these experiences:

"I started writing poetry when I was a child, my first published poem was when I was 11. I was brought up in a home that loved poetry and literature, especially the English language. But it was only when I was older that I realised that writing is so much more than words playing on a page. Writing contains the writer, their concerns, their social context and their history. My own history became a block to my creativity as I started to explore my identity as a black woman adopted by a white family in apartheid South Africa. I felt like the colonised and the coloniser were fighting each other inside my brain. Writing continued to be important to me but I was convinced that it was simply a therapeutic process, of no value to anyone else.

Although their relationship was tempestuous and marked by long separations, de Villiers credits her adoptive mother Hertha Lilly Amalia nee Graf, an eminent physical anthropologist,[8] with the love of poetry as well as believing in her talent as a performer. The story of their relationship, and a broader exposition of Yaa's complex racial identity, appears in Darwin's Hunch,[9] Christa Kuljian's expansive exploration of race and science.

As a mixed-race African and adoptee I feel, paradoxically, oppressed and completely free....My adult life has been largely devoted to healing this rift. The freedom of my paradoxical position, is in fact that I don't have the constraints of a traditional role and I have access to the world."[10]

Further education and early career[edit]

She studied for a journalism degree at Rhodes University, Grahamstown,[11][12] and also obtained an Honours degree in Dramatic Art and Scriptwriting from the University of the Witwatersrand.[11] She is a graduate of the Lecoq International School of Theatre in Paris, France, where she studied mime and theatre.[13][14] She then spent some time living in Los Angeles[1] before returning to South Africa in 1998 to settle in Johannesburg.[6] She worked as an actor for two years, performing in Theatre for Africa's award-winning productions of Kwamanzi, Horn of Sorrow and Elephant of Africa, "and then Bell's palsy sent her towards writing as an alternative career. She continued to participate in street theatre, performed regularly with Theatresports at the Market Theatre Laboratory for ten years and went to school to learn scriptwriting".[7]

Over the next eight years she wrote television scripts,[7] for shows including Backstage, Tsha Tsha, Thetha Msawawa, Takalani Sesame and Soul City among others,[14][15] and she collaborated with Pule Hlatshwayo and Swedish writer Charlotte Lesche to create Score, a three-hour miniseries for Swedish Broadcasting and SABC.[14][16] In 2005, de Villiers won a mentorship with English poet John Lindley through the British Council/Lancaster University's distance learning scheme "Crossing Borders".[7][17] She wrote a two-hander play called Where the Children Live, which was runner-up for the best writer award and won the audience appreciation award at the national Pansa Festival of Contemporary Theatre Readings in 2005.[18]


In 2006, the Centre for the Book published her first volume of poetry, Taller Than Buildings,[19] which was described as "an extraordinary debut collection of poetry, that is provocative and original, mirroring the transitions of self and country."[20] Her second collection, The Everyday Wife, was launched at the Harare International Festival of the Arts in April 2010.[21] According to Tolu Ogunlesi's review for Wasafiri magazine, "Yaa de Villiers' silence-smashing poems (in this manner reminiscent of Carol Ann Duffy's The World's Wife) are sensitive, unafraid to be erotic, sometimes tragic, and always irreverent".[22] Her third collection, ice cream headache in my bone, appeared in September 2017,[23] and in reviewing it Kelwyn Sole said: "The collection is dotted like gemstones with poems of delight at the world, even as she never loses sight of the post-industrial reality of degenerating modernity in which we live...".[24]

Her poetry and prose are widely published in local and international journals and anthologies, including The Edinburgh Review, Poui, A Hudson View, Crossing Borders 3,[10] We Are... (ed. Natalia Molebatsi; Penguin, 2008), Just Keep Breathing (eds Rosamund Haden and Sandra Dodson; Jacana, 2008), New Writing from Africa (ed. J. M. Coetzee; Johnson & King James, 2009), Home Away (ed. Louis Paul Greenberg; Zebra Press, 2010), Poems for Haiti (ed. Amitabh Mitra; Poets Printery 2010), Letter to South Africa (Umuzi, 2011),[21][25] Let Me Tell You a Story (2016),[26][27] and New Daughters of Africa (edited by Margaret Busby, 2019).[28][29]


She has toured her autobiographical one-woman show, Original Skin,[30] in South Africa – including at the Market Theatre (Johannesburg) and the Grahamstown Festival[18]) – and abroad, and has performed her work from Cuba to Cape Town, Berlin to Harare, as well as in her home town, Johannesburg.[15][19]

She appeared at the Jozi Spoken Word Festival in 2006, and was invited by National Poet Laureate of South Africa Keorapetse Kgositsile to join James Matthews, Lebo Mashile and Khanyi Magubane representing South Africa at the 12th International Poetry Festival in Havana, Cuba.[14]

In 2007, de Villiers appeared at the Word Power International Festival of Black Literature in London, England, and Poetry Africa,[16] and in April 2008 at the "Together for Solidarity" conference in Sweden.[31]

In 2009 she was writer-in-residence at Passa Porta's Villa Vollezele in Belgium.[32] Also in 2009 she was part of the Beyond Words UK tour[33] that also featured South African poets Keorapetse Kgositsile, Don Mattera, Lesego Rampolokeng and Lebo Mashile (presented by Apples and Snakes in association with Sustained Theatre, funded by the British Council South Africa, Arts Council England and the South African government).[34][35][36][37]

In her capacity as 2014 Commonwealth Poet, she performed at Homerton College, Cambridge University, on 8 March 2014, together with fellow South African poet Isobel Dixon, as part of the Pedagogy, Language, Arts & Culture in Education (PLACE) Group Seminars series, co-hosted with the Centre for Commonwealth Education and funded by the Commonwealth Education Trust.[38]

On 8 December 2014, she gave a performance in Leiden, Netherlands, at the ASC (African Studies Centre) Annual Public Event.[39][40]

In April 2015, she read her work in Accra, Ghana, as a guest of the Writers Project of Ghana and the local Goethe Institute.[41][42][43]

In 2017 she was invited to Namibia, where she read poetry and delivered a creative writing workshop at the Goethe Institut.[44] At the Johannesburg Goethe Institut, she facilitated discussions and participated in panels with Tania Haberland and Xabiso Vili.[45]

Other activities[edit]

In September 2016, she joined the editorial board of the African Poetry Book Fund (APBF), an organization that promotes and advances the development and publication of the poetic arts of Africa, alongside Kwame Dawes, Chris Abani, Gabeba Baderoon, Bernardine Evaristo, Aracelis Girmay, John Keene and Matthew Shenoda.[46] In 2017 she was commissioned to guest edit a special edition of esteemed poetry journal, The Atlanta Review, focused on South African woman poets.[47]

Awards and honours[edit]

Among her many awards are the National Arts Festival/de Buren Writing Beyond the Fringe Prize 2009,[11][48] and in 2011 a South African Literary Award.[49] She is the recipient of the 2012 Overseas Scholarship for studies in Creative Writing at Lancaster University.[50]

In 2014 she was chosen as Commonwealth poet, and was commissioned by the Commonwealth Education Trust to write a poem in celebration of Commonwealth Day.[51] She performed her poem, entitled "Courage — it takes more", at Westminster Abbey on 10 March as part of the Commonwealth Celebrations, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the royal family, as well as senior politicians, high commissioners and Commonwealth dignitaries.[52][53][54][55]

She teaches in the Creative Writing department at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.[56]

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Taller Than Buildings (Cape Town: Centre for the Book, 2006, ISBN 978-0-620-37409-5)[57]
  • with Keorapetse Kgositsile, Don Mattera and Lebo Mashile, Beyond Words: South African Poetics (an Apples & Snakes project; flipped eye, 2009, ISBN 978-1905233304)[58]
  • The Everyday Wife; foreword by Margaret Busby[59] (Cape Town: Modjaji Books, 2010, ISBN 978-1-920397-05-0)[60]
  • Editor (with Kaiyu Xiao and Isabelle Ferrin-Aguirre), No Serenity Here – an anthology of African Poetry (Beijing: New World Publishers, 2010, ISBN 978-7-5012-3895-8).
  • ice cream headache in my bone (Cape Town: Modjaji Books, 2017, ISBN 978-1-928215-32-5[61]

As contributor[edit]

  • "Staying Safe", Konch Magazine, Special Issue, The Virus: Volume II, 2020.[62]
  • Marike Beyers (ed.), The Only Magic We Know: Selected Modjaji Poems 2004 to 2019, 2020.[63]
  • "Research That Is Real and Utopian: Indigenous Knowledge as a Resource to Revitalise High School Poetry" (with Louis Botha and Robert Maungedzo), Education As Change, 23 December 2020.[64]


  1. ^ a b Phillippa Yaa de Villiers biography at Lyrikline.
  2. ^ "Profiles – 8 South African Women Writers", African Writing Online, December/January 2008.
  3. ^ "Thoughts behind Indegenius: concept for the 29th", Pulse, 8 November 2014.
  4. ^ MarLa Sink Druzgal, "Around the World with the Poetry of Phillippa Yaa de Villiers", Traveling Marla.
  5. ^ a b Tishani Doshi, "Poetry Beyond the Edge of Time", The New Indian Express, 4 October 2014.
  6. ^ a b "About Phillippa Yaa de Villiers", The Poetry Archive.
  7. ^ a b c d "Poets on Adoption", 11 April 2011.
  8. ^ "A Woman in Science | Center for the Advanced Study of Human Paleobiology | the George Washington University".
  9. ^ Darwin's Hunch: Science, Race and the Search for Human Origins.
  10. ^ a b Crossing Borders", Issue 3, 2006.
  11. ^ a b c Biographical note, Jozi Book Fair 2009.
  12. ^ Phillippa Yaa de Villiers page at Passa Porta, International House of Literature in Brussels.
  13. ^ Biography at Badilisha Poetry.
  14. ^ a b c d Biography at Centre for Creative Arts (CCA), University of Kwazulu-Natal.
  15. ^ a b "Phillippa Yaa de Villiers", Joburg, my City, our Future.
  16. ^ a b "Three Poems by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers – Phillippa Yaa de Villiers shares...", The Shine Journal – The Light Left Behind.
  17. ^ "Crossing Borders: New Writing from Africa", British Council.
  18. ^ a b Phillippa Yaa de Villiers @ Books LIVE.
  19. ^ a b Phillippa Yaa de Villiers page at African Books Collective.
  20. ^ Melinda Ferguson, writing in True Love Magazine, quoted in biographical note at CCA, University of Kwazulu-Natal.
  21. ^ a b Phillippa Yaa de Villiers’s The Everyday Wife, Peony Moon.
  22. ^ Tolu Ogunlesi, "The Everyday Wife, by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers", Christmas List 2012, Wasafiri – International Contemporary Writing.
  23. ^ "ice-cream headache in my bone by Phillippa Yaa De Villiers", PEN South Africa, 11 September 2017.
  24. ^ Kelwyn Cole, "Abstract | review of ice cream headache in my bone in New Coin Poetry, Volume 54, Number 1, June 2018, pp. 71–81.
  25. ^ Publications and scripts produced, deScribe.
  26. ^ Suzanne Conboy-Hill, "Let Me Tell You a Story: short fiction and poems with their own soundtracks" (Lulu, 2016, ISBN 9781326639624), at BookWorks.
  27. ^ "Rapture by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers". Dr Suzanne Conboy-Hill – finding fiction, 3 September 2016.
  28. ^ "Discussion of 'New Daughters of Africa' on June 4", Sunday Times Live, 30 May 2019.
  29. ^ "'New Daughters of Africa' launches in Johannesburg, South Africa", James Murua's Literature Blog, 12 August 2019.
  30. ^ "Phillippa Yaa De Villiers performs Original Skin – a true story about a mixed-race baby adopted by a white family under apartheid." YouTube.
  31. ^ "Modern Solidarity - What did we learn from Southern Africa’s liberation?" Popular Movements’ Meeting, 11–12 April 2008 – Sigtuna Folk high school. Reports from the meeting.
  32. ^ Authors, RadioBooks.
  33. ^ "Keorapetse Kgositsile, Lebo Mashile, Don Mattera and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers to Tour the UK", Books Live, 26 October 2009.
  34. ^ "Beyond Words: New South African Poetry" Archived 18 December 2014 at the Wayback Machine, Sustained Theatre.
  35. ^ "Beyond Words - Overview", Apples & Snakes.
  36. ^ "SA’s top poets to perform in London",, 2 November 2009.
  37. ^ "Vibrancy & Urgency - New South African Poetry" Archived 18 December 2014 at the Wayback Machine, Sustained Theatre.
  38. ^ "A Poetry Performance with Isobel Dixon and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers", University of Cambridge,
  39. ^ "Performance by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers (South Africa) big success", African Studies Centre, Leiden.
  40. ^ "Pictures of the ASC Annual Public Event 2014", ASC Leiden website.
  41. ^ "Writer for April: Phillippa Yaa de Villiers", Writers Project of Ghana.
  42. ^ "Nana Malone and Phillippa Yaa de Villiers Will Read in Accra this Week", Kinna Reads, 26 April 2015.
  43. ^ "South African Poet Phillippa Ya de Villiers Reads on the Ghana Voices Series", Creative Writing Ghana, 28 April 2015.
  44. ^ "Poetry Veranstaltungen beim Goethe-Institut", Windhoek Express, 29 June 2017.
  45. ^ Mila, "Literary Crossroads: Phillippa Yaa de Villiers, Tania Haberland, Xabiso Vili (10 October)", Books Live, Sunday Times, 19 September 2017.
  46. ^ "African Poetry Book Fund Welcomes Two Additions to the Editorial Board", African Poetry Book Fund, 14 September 2016.
  47. ^ Atlanta Review.
  48. ^ "Phillippa Yaa de Villiers Wins the NAF 'Writing Beyond the Fringe' Competition", Books Live, 11 March 2009.
  49. ^ "The 2011 South African Literary Award (SALA) Winners". Books Live, 15 November 2011.
  50. ^ "Phillippa Yaa de Villiers", Sanaa Africa.
  51. ^ "Phillippa Yaa de Villiers Chosen as This Year’s Commonwealth Poet", Books Live, 10 March 2014.
  52. ^ "Commonwealth Observance Day Poem for 2014", ZAPP (Southern African Poetry Project), Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.
  53. ^ "British royalty to sample SA magic", Sunday World, 5 March 2014.
  54. ^ "An audience with the Queen", University of the Witwatersrand, 11 March 2014.
  55. ^ "South Africa: Poet Performs for British Royalty",, via AllAfrica, 12 March 2014.
  56. ^ "MA in Creative Writing — University of the Witwatersrand". Master Studies.
  57. ^ Moira Richards, "Taller Than Buildings by Phillippa Yaa de Villiers" (review), 17 August 2008.
  58. ^ "Beyond Words: South African Poetics" at Amazon.
  59. ^ "Phillippa Yaa de Villiers’ new book, The Everyday Wife is a treat", Books Live, 16 March 2010.
  60. ^ "The Everyday Wife" at Modjaji Books.
  61. ^ "ice-cream headache in my bone" at Modjaji Books.
  62. ^ "Staying Safe", by Yaa de Villiers Amamoo.
  63. ^ Susanna Sacks, "'A Thousand Tentative Tendrils': Review of The Only Magic We Know: Selected Modjaji Poems 2004 to 2019", Africa In Words, 5 June 2020.
  64. ^ Botha, Louis, Phillippa Yaa De Villiers, and Robert Maungedzo, "Research That Is Real and Utopian: Indigenous Knowledge as a Resource to Revitalise High School Poetry", Education As Change, Vol. 24 (2020).

External links[edit]