UCT alumnus wins PEN SA Student Writing Prize

05 July 2016 | Story by Newsroom
UCT humanities alumnus Koleka Putuma, who recently won the PEN SA Student Writing Prize 2016.
UCT humanities alumnus Koleka Putuma, who recently won the PEN SA Student Writing Prize 2016.

When PEN SA encouraged young writers to submit pieces on the recent #FeesMustFall movement and student protests, Koleka Putuma entered her controversial poem 'Water'. The piece is written as a memory of growing up black, and the context of the sea in black history.

22-year-old Putuma, who describes herself as a theatre director, writer and performance poet, is making waves in the arts industry.

She created her first play in primary school and knew from that moment that she wanted to pursue drama. She continued with drama as a subject through high school and directed plays in her church.

“I wrote and directed my first play in Grade 9, which was around the same time I discovered that I could write poems,” says Putuma. “From there I went on to cultivate a love for the spoken and written word.”

When matric came, she knew she wanted to continue with theatre, directing, writing plays and performing. She applied at UCT for theatre because it was said to be one of the best theatre schools in South Africa.

“UCT was the only place I applied for theatre. I applied at Rhodes for journalism and was rejected. Luckily I was accepted at UCT, which was my only other option,” she says. “I was also fortunate to have parents who were very open to the idea.”

While completing her BA in theatre and performance, she was based on Hiddingh campus.

“UCT in general is a difficult experience for black kids. Fond memories are ones you create outside of the institution or create despite all the absurdity you have to deal with while chasing your dreams,” says Putuma. “It was a tough and an undermined degree.”

Young pioneer

Putuma uses her love for the spoken word to give back to the community by running dialogue and writing workshops.

“I run a spoken word workshop every other Saturday, alongside other dope poets and with a group of young poets called CYPHER,” she says.

The programme is aimed at developing young voices and writers from different areas in Cape Town.

Putuma has also spent time doing a directing residency with Magnet Theatre, a physical theatre company where she produced children's plays.

“I was asked if I would be interested in creating three new plays for young audiences under the age of seven, and at the time I did not know what theatre for young audiences looked like, so I said yes out of curiosity,” she says.

She says the residency was one of the most rewarding and important experiences of her life. 

Eyes on the prize

Putuma was crowned South Africa's first national slam poetry champion in 2014, and has been named one of Africa's top ten poets by Badilisha Poetry X-Change. The Sunday Times has also named her one of the young pioneers who took South Africa by storm in 2015.

She was nominated for the Rosalie van der Gucht Prize for best new directors at the annual Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards last year. She has also headlined at TEDx, SLiPnet's InZync poetry sessions and Word N Sound.

Although she has won many awards over the years, it took about four years before people started appreciating her work.

“I started doing open mics and all that other jazz in my first year, and by third year I was gigging and receiving some sort of notice. By fourth year I was beginning to establish a place and name for my work,” says Putuma.

As a young black female she finds navigating the industry challenging.

“No one wants to know about your triumphs or joys as a black female creative. I find that disheartening,” says Putuma. 

Putuma plans to seize the opportunities the PEN SA experience may bring.

“The experience has been great. It comes with random Facebook invites and Twitter followers, but more than that some interesting collaborations and potential publishing deals,” she says.

The winning poem

She wrote 'Water' at the same time #RhodesMustFall happened and #LUISTER was released.

“I felt it was necessary to share it, especially in the wake of student movements making a statement in the country, and also in the wake of the Penny Sparrows of our country exposing themselves,” says Putuma. 

Soon after, she performed the poem at the TEDx Stellenbosch event, which was around the time of #LUISTER, and it wasn't received very well because of its content.

“In short, I wrote the poem called 'Water' which was deemed 'controversial'. The poem is a memory poem about growing up black. It is about black history in the context of the sea,” she says. 

Putuma says her poetry addresses “Blackness. Being black and female. Being black and female and raised as a Christian.” 

Her work has been showcased in Scotland, Germany and around the US. She is currently a resident poet and the creative director of the collective Lingua Franca and co-founder of theatre company The Papercut Collective.

“I have no idea about the future. But I do know that I document and update about current projects on my social media pages,” says Putuma. 

Watch Koleka Putuma perform 'Water':

Story Chido Mbambe. Photo Michael Hammond.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.