Written by: Tiisetso Tlelima
“I have always wanted to tell through my art, stories that have not been told. I always want to breathe life into someone else’s words. This is what makes me wake up in the morning: the passion to step into others’ shoes as a reader, to wear their jacket as a playwright, to put on their hat as a director and to embrace their lives as a performer. I am a storyteller by nature.” These are the words of acclaimed poet, writer, performer and director, Napo Masheane. Listening to her say this, one cannot envision her as the ‘quiet, dark, short, shy, chubby and unpopular girl’ she says she was in high school. Napo Masheane is anything but quiet. She is a loud, strong-willed woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind and has an unmistakable presence onstage. Arts Review caught up with this astounding poet to speak about her play Fat Black Women Sing, being seen as the modern-day Saartjie Baartman, the importance of using African languages to express yourself as an artist, and more.
Tell us about your childhood. Where did you grow up? What kind of child were you?
“I was born in Soweto, but grew up in Qwaqwa. I am a first of three kids. My father was a teacher and my mother worked for the town council. I am a product of Bantu Education…well, until high school when I moved back to Johannesburg and I went to a private school. When I was young I was a dark, short, shy and chubby girl with a big bum. I was not popular until Matric when I became the head girl. I always wanted to be the first black Ninja girl in the whole world! I was a quiet child, but inside I was always the loudest.”
What were you reading or listening to at the time?
“I was exposed to African literature at a very young age. By 12 or 13 I was already reading Things Fall Apart by Chenue Achebe. My father, a visual artist and teacher, always brought books home. I also read a lot of Sotho novels that my Mom would recommend. In terms of music, I listened to jazz and Sotho musicians that I heard from Radio Sesotho, and people like Steve Kekana and Mpharanyane (who I am still a fan of).”
When did you start writing poems?
“The first poem I remember writing was in 1996 when my father passed away. I had cried so much that I ran out of tears so I took out a pen and paper and wrote “In The Midst Of His Thoughts” dedicated to my father. I felt death had robbed me of him and he left without saying goodbye.”
What are your poems about?
“They talk from a voice of a black South African, whether they represent black women issues, my Sotho culture or the beauty of its language. I use my work to re-write the lies of our history. I celebrate our scars and joys. I heal wounded hearts. I appreciate sisterhood, spirituality, my ancestors and the God whom I wear her face every day.”
What inspires your writing whether its poetry or writing a script?
“I listen to people and to life… I read all the time…. I see things not as they are… I question things, people, nature, God, religion and I get to my own head and THINK… and process… sometimes I laugh at my own mind set then I start to put down ideas.”
What do you want people to take away from your work?
“A sense of humanity… of wholeness or belonging to something that is light, powerful and beautiful… I want to give people back to themselves because in that I can find pieces of me when I am not myself.”
Your recent play Fat Black Women Sing shows how black women – thin or fat – are ridiculed in society. Is this something that you have experienced?
“Any woman has an experience with her body. There is something that is sitting on every woman’s body that they have issues with and it has a name… if with me it’s my bum…with someone else it’s the nose, legs, breasts, tummy, curves, hair. Its there and every morning the mirror teaches us to make peace with it while the world judges us based on it. It’s always you are too short, too fat, too skinny, too this and that… it’s a fact.”
What message did you hope to spread through this play?
“That there isn’t one definition of beauty. Beauty like love comes in all shapes and sizes and forms. When we appreciate each other for our diversity only then can we start to deal with things that make us unique and beautiful.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I once heard you speak about how when you went to London, people looked at you like a modern-day Saartjie Baartman. Do you experience the same thing here in South Africa?
“I was in Germany not London. It’s the same all over the world; people always want to find something that is different from them to feel superior. Honestly some people feel they have a right to take residence in your body and to call it names, laugh at it and ridicule what God has created in perfection. I deal with that here at home… even yesterday some old man found words to comment about my body in the middle of a meeting inside a boardroom, with 10 people listening.”
Your poetry often fuses English and Sesotho. How important do you think it is for artists to use ‘vernac’ to express themselves?
“Before anything I am Napo Masheane a Mosotho girl raised by Basotho so I carry within me the Sotho language wherever I go. My tongue represents its customs and rituals. What brings me peace is knowing that I can use my artform to preserve my mother’s tongue and document its existence for my son. But also it’s a conscious choice I take in defining my voice as an artist. What makes me stand out is playing with both languages as if they are one. English allows me to reach a bigger audience around the world while Sesotho celebrates who I am in that world.
How many languages do you speak?
“Sotho, English, Zulu, Tswana, Pedi and a bit of Xhosa here and there. I understand Afrikaans very well, but have my reservations with it. Other African languages also fascinate me so now and again you will find a word from another culture in my work.”
You’re a writer, director, producer and a poet. Sjoe! That’s a lot of things. How do you manage?
“Our industry is tricky and sometimes it’s hard to find work, resources and funds. I figured it out that I couldn’t be one thing. And the fact that I don’t want to fit into a box I had to spread myself and do as much as I can. But the truth is that there aren’t enough black women in each department in the industry, except acting, so I told myself that if I don’t get hired as an actress I will stage manage or be a lighting technician. If they don’t book me as a poet, I will write a script and direct it. If they don’t give me funds, I will produce my own work and create my own audience. In this industry your bread can’t come from one bakery.”
What do you still want to accomplish in life?
“I only want to tell more, write more, speak more and use every channel, avenue, stage, space, door and platform that God presents in front of me. I want to travel the world, tap every microphone and BE the call I am.
Napo Masheane is currently working on a new theatre script titled: Who Took My Afro-Comb. Watch this space!