The Firefighter

South African performer, writer and social activist, Xabiso Vili is slamming out explosive poetry on his tour of India

Written by Dipanita Nath | Published: May 19, 2017 2:21:16 am
South African performer, writer and social activist, Xabiso Vili.  Photo by Jagjeet Singh

Xabiso Vili’s poetry isn’t pretty because the world is not, and there are wounds on his skin and fire in his mind just like yours. He’s just saying that our stories exist and, though things are not going to get better soon, you are not alone. I have been on a pilgrimage to a kingdom made of your scars … met your ghosts here / those who died crossing the chasm of your soul. / They have built a palace to attend to your breaking heart / on top of a mountain of your sorrow, he says in Kingdom of Scars, a poem he presents in a collection, titled Black Boi Be, that is a part of “Tales From Two Countries”, a live theatre concert by performers from India, US and South Africa. “Tales From Two Countries”, presented by Performers Consortium, opened in Delhi on Monday and Imphal, Bangalore and Mumbai are on the itinerary.

Vili (pictured) is the final performer of the evening and comes on to a stage on which a single table carries a chocolate cake stabbed with a number of plastic knives like a birthday party gone off-kilter. He begins with a poem called Scars that reminisces the time he was with his mother, her friend who had a newborn son, and the shack caught fire. He had nightmares for the longest time as a number of lives were lost. Scars is his way to allow the audience into his space and origin story. The next poem is Fat Boy Be, in which fat boy never could eat his own skin / but he ate everything. It is one of the recent poems he has been writing, in which he is delving into deeply personal matters. “I used to be a fat kid. Though I lost weight, it left psychological marks that the poem examines,” says Vili.

The marginalised in his writings are tortured souls he discovered in his journeys into himself and found they could be anyone who has been baptised by fire or burnt by it. “I always say that I don’t write for the marginalised because I don’t want to take their stories without permission. I write from a personal point of view in the hope that my story will resonate universally,” he says.

An awkward child, Vili began writing as a way of externalising his internal conversations. His regular conversations are conducted to a beat and tempo of resistance, something that is often pointed out. He doesn’t know the cause or how his voice formed around words as he wrote poems and acquired their cadence.

Vili was born in South Africa three years after democracy came to the country, amid movements to break down the segregations created during apartheid. He has been performing since he was 17 and now, at 26, has been Word N Sound poet, Pretoria Spoken Sessions Slam League Champion and the Speak Out Loud Youth Poetry Competition Champion, among others. Poetry took him to the US last year and London the year before.

He has been in India for three weeks and in Delhi, where cases of assault on Africans are on the rise, he confronted an unfortunate symmetry with certain sections of South Africa. “A lot of South Africans are xenophobic and it is a shame that Indians would be like them. There are also the stares I encounter, some are inquisitive and others are curious and then there are hostile stares that are chilling and makes you ask why people of colour should do this to other people of colour,” he says.

Vili ends his performance by lighting candles on the smashed cake, not only as a salute but also a challenge to fire, which has been a recurrent theme in his life. Once, he accidentally burnt the family home to the ground and the only pictures he has of his childhood are charred. His poem Boy on Fire asserts his belief in the line Nothing burns here / or everything does. “Even though I have gone through fire, I am here, I am alive. If the fire had to take me, it would have. We are all still here as well as we can,” he says. The candles and colourful knives on the birthday cake are part of a re-birthing process that says, “Welcome back.”

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