“Each person has a praise poem unique to their family and each praise poem traces back generation after generation” explained Elinor Sisulu. Elinor is turned towards me and the audience of inspired students of her life writing workshop. “This is Lemn Sissay, a poet and a writer form England and he’s come to share some of his life story”. Today the act of life-writing (writing ones personal story) is a political one.
Elinor’s family are part of the life story of South Africa. Her book (left) sells throughout the world. Without her father there would be no new South Africa. . Only last night I watched a poet at the first National Poetry Slam of South Africa proclaim that if we remember Mandela we must remember his mentor Walter Sisulu. Elinor is on The Board of Grahamstown Festival – the largest theatre festival in Southern Africa – and she’s requested my impromptu visit to this isiXhosa peoples life-writing workshop which was instigated by her. Also here are poet Helen Moffat plus writer and academic Sindiwe Magona. And so I unfold my story through their second language (English) and fold it into their first language Xhosa. “I had no praise poem” I tell them. I compare the praise poem to Philip Pullman’s Daemons in his Northern Lights trilogy. I have no daemon”. I share how I found my story, unearthed its secrets, shed light on the shame and found revelation. It is a triumphant tale of darkness and light. It is a story that has resonnace here in south africa. As I finish a powerful man stands from his desk and walks towards me. It seems he is shouting but he is not. He is proudly and triumphantly orating his praise poem to me. “Here is my family” he is saying in booming isiXhosi. “Here is who WE are”. It is a way of wrapping me in warmth with words. It is a means of welcome.
Picture Top: Rhodes university botanic garden with students from life writing workshop Middle: Elinor’s book Bottom: Elinor (on rihgt) Sindiwe (in middle) and me.