Centre for Stories

Vuma Phiri

"I see writing as a way to honour my lineage and ancestors, and my community here today. Ancestrally, I am from a lineage of orators...I also really love the unique position I'm in as a Diaspora Zambian in this country."

Heartlines explores what it means to write – from the heart and soul – and where that writing takes us. Every writers’ journey is different, so we invite you to take a moment to read, pause and reflect on what it means to shape stories for the page.Vuma Phiri has always found herself engaging with the stories around her as a form of entertainment, learning and to gain empathy. Her life began in storytelling, from the origin of her name, to living with parents who collect novels to add to their bookshelves at home. Migrating to Australia at the age of seven, Vuma has always felt disconnected to the stories from her home country, Zambia, and from the African continent overall. Vuma created her Instagram book account, @diaspora_reader, in 2019, to share reviews and recommendations for books she has read. In deciding she wants to read more from African authors, Vuma is hoping to bring other avid readers alongside her, so we can learn and share the works of Africa’s finest writers. Get to know more about Vuma below.A portrait of Vuma Phiri standing in front of a white wall and smiling.

Anika Donnison: What is your most surprising hobby?

Vuma Phiri: I’m so bad at picking a hobby and sticking to it. This question influenced me to book a session for the next hobby I want to try – it’s going to be learning how to roller skate. My parents grew up in the 1970s disco era, so they shake their head in confusion when I take pieces from their era and add it to my wardrobe. So, seeing me wear knee high Adidas socks under a pair of skates will definitely make them sick of me.

AD: Why do you write?

VP: I see writing as a way to honour my lineage and ancestors, and my community here today. Ancestrally, I am from a lineage of orators. I have a poem I am in the process of writing and editing that maps how storytelling has been around me before I learnt how to read. One simple example is the origin of all of my family members’ names which have the most poignant and unexpected stories attached to them.

I was, briefly, raised by grandparents who provided a bit of history for almost everything they told us, and parents who filled our house with literature, and their own personal lectures and anecdotes. It’s been a natural progression for me to delve into other African and African diaspora writers, and then emerge as one myself.

I also really love the unique position I’m in as a diaspora Zambian in this country. The identity is still so new, and the perspectives are only just commencing. There is so much to add to the narrative of African writers who call this land their second home and I love the opportunity to be one of many to come.

AD: What is a book that changed your life?

VP: I’m so indecisive, I feel like every book I read has changed my life, so it evolves depending on my age and place in life. There have been so many gems throughout my life, but Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde has played such a significant role in the direction of my year. It is also the book that inspired me to take my writing more seriously and ask myself honestly what I needed to do to curate the life I want. The book’s introduction by Reni Eddo-Lodge describes Lorde’s essays to be a conversation with her, and that is beyond accurate. Everything she writes is so personal and scathing, and the most poignant reflection anyone’s ever held up to my face. She shattered my whole heart on the plane ride I was reading it on.

She has an essay within it titled “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” that I believe everyone should read.

A portrait of Vuma Phiri standing in front of a metal fence. She is looking at the camera.

AD: What inspired you to join the program?

VP: I’ve spent a lot of my life absorbing the work of others and drafting small thoughts of my own that I was too scared to share. The program appeared on my Instagram feed around a time when I told myself that there is nothing satisfying about me retreating into the safety-net of my insecurities. Toni Morrison always taught that “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I have had so much fun reading and reviewing the work of others, I desire to explore the joy of creating new words and worlds of my own.

More so, the idea of having a mentor meant I didn’t have to navigate how to make this possible on my own. A lot of the literary giants I admire wrote in community, trusting their friends to provide second eyes to their work.

AD: What are the unexpected things that have come up in the early stages of your mentorship and how have you navigated it?

VP: I have been surprised by how much I attempt to grade my own work. The perfectionist in me expects myself to be a certain type of writer that I’m starting to recognise does not exist. I still have “perfectionist conditioning” to overcome, probably the result of 12 or more years of grade systems and individualist workspaces.

Thankfully, I overcome this with a mentor who has been such a brilliant friend to write alongside. It seems so obvious now, but having someone emphasise patience while you create permits me and my poems to exist in freedom. From the moment we first met, my mentor, Eunice Andrada, has reiterated that – “the poem is never finished”. There is always room to revisit anything, because it is mine. Unlike anything I have produced or delivered for institutions, the ambit of completeness is up to me. Now, I get to trust my own intuition over my creations. It’s a small amount of freedom I reclaim for myself.

AD: What challenges and rewards have you faced through creatively collaborating online?

VP: I don’t think having a mentor online has been as difficult as some would find it. There’s so much freedom in using technology to meet that a lot of the difficulties of matching each other’s availabilities and locations are alleviated by a simple Google Meets link. It would be great for us to be in the same city to actually meet in person, eventually.

The rewards have been the opportunity to meet and work with such a remarkable young woman poet who I probably wouldn’t have met if not for Centre for Stories connecting us through this. The benefits have definitely outweighed the challenges.

AD: You said in your application that you wanted to work on your poetry collection, similar to Brown Girl Blooming by Jacqueline Woodson. How has that developed so far in the mentorship?

VP: Brown Girl Blooming has remained with me for so long since reading it because Woodson reminded me of the importance of writing down the family story.

Looking towards her work has allowed me to coax stories out of my parents and revisit the limited time I spent with my grandparents when they were still alive. This type of project is so much bigger than can be completed in under a year, but I know engaging in this program will definitely shape it into whatever it should look like for my story, and that of my kin. Perhaps a few of the poems influenced by this will appear in the final creation I am working on for this program.

AD: How has having another person working on your piece shape your own style so far?

VP: My mentor is such an encourager, she never fails to affirm my voice in my work, and I haven’t felt pressured to change the styles that work with my words. She has, however, provided new ways to shape my writing in terms of being unafraid to explore a poem in proses I’ve never considered. A lot of writing formats can be terribly complex and daunting to attempt which does provide for a frustrating writing experience. With a mentor who has such an experienced hand in teaching, it’s more enjoyable than I have given it credit for and has at least allowed me to get out of my writing comfort zone. They are a million drafts of sonnets that probably won’t see the light of day until there’s more fluidity in what they sound like. At least I can say there were genuine attempts made.

A portrait of Vuma Phiri standing in front of a bright lime green wall. She is looking away from the camera.

AD: What is the best writing advice you could give or that you have received?

VP: Octavia Butler said it best when she pursued her own dreams on this basis:

“You got to make your own worlds. You got to write yourself in. Whether you were a part of the greater society or not, you got to write yourself in. So, I got to write myself in”.

Butler did exactly this, and is today one of the most renowned science fiction writers to exist. Regardless of whether an accolade of that standard is my destiny, I am captivated by a resolution to exclusion starting with my own pen. At the end of the day, black writers, especially black (cis and trans) women, cannot and will never write too much. The myriad of experiences we have shapes our creativity. I hope the ones living in this country continue to write ourselves in every and any genre our imagination sees us in.

AD: Who is your dream collaborator?

VP: If we’re dreaming? It’s Solange Knowles. She’s an artist and writer in a league of her own and such a vibrant creator. She has inspired me in more ways than I could mention. If I ever collaborated with the woman who changes the game as dynamically as she does? I would probably never recover.

AD: What are you working on in the program?

VP: I am working on a collection of poetry. The theme of which is molding constantly. I’m excited about these pieces shaping an overall story that speak to each other, to myself and whoever my audience will be. I’m most excited about every poem that narrates my memories of grandmother because my most honest writing starts with wishing she was still here, today.

A portrait of Vuma Phiri standing in front of a metal fence. She is looking at the camera and smiling.

Vuma Phiri runs the Instagram book account @diaspora_reader and is co-founder of AfroHeritage Book Club, hosted here at Centre for Stories.

Anika Donnison studied Professional Writing and Publishing at Curtin University. She has appeared in GROK and COZE. She currently works as a Social Media Coordinator for Pegasus Professional Accounting.

Writing Change, Writing Inclusion is Centre for Stories’ signature writing program for 2021 to 2023. Generously funded by The Ian Potter Foundation, Australia Council for the Arts and Centre for Stories Founders Circle, this writing program features mentoring, hot desk, and publication opportunities for emerging writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and/or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.