Interview: Sudanese/Australian Playwright Afeif Ismail

Playwright and Poet Afeif Ismail was born in Sudan and currently lives and writes in Australia.  WLPG co-editors Deirdre Kelly Lavrakas and Kim Peter Kovac were fortunate to be able to have an extended conversation with him in Washington, DC, and we are grateful that he was able to find the time to answer some questions for the WLPG community.

WLPG: Was there something in particular that motivated you to start writing for young audiences?

AFEIF: I grew up beside my grandmother in a poor family and we didn’t have a T.V then. But my wealth is my grandmother’s precious tales. My Grandmother would tell me stories, performing them as if she was her own one-woman theatre: she was the designer, actor, director – everything. The pulse of her stories still beats in my mind and memory. I used to fly with her tales all the time, reincarnated as one of her characters. I traced step by step all the mazes and roads and rough paths, whistling with legendary animals. I sailed seas and oceans, fought with pirates, rambled in the depths of the Nile, in its everlasting kingdom, full of exciting lives. What an extraordinary woman with an exciting imagination! I would like to recreate this amazing imaginary world for young people everywhere through my plays.

WLPG: Is there a production, playwright, or theatre company that has been influential on your work?

AFEIF: The oral African story-telling tradition was the first big influence on my writing. As an African, but one who speaks Arabic, I leant a lot from the Arabic theatre, especially the great Syrian writer, Saadallah Wannous. One of the heroes of my life is Bertolt Brecht.

My grandmother was an expert in story-telling. She had inherited an oral African tradition that was kept by the book of the wind, the pages of the waves, the lines exhaled as breeze in the trees, each letter dictated by the moon to the yawning star, as he spread his light over all the worlds.

Saadallah Wannous was instrumental in re-interpreting traditional Arabic tales and myths for contemporary audiences which he used to try to help solve social and political problems in the Arabic world.

Brecht experiments with Western theatre meant that it became more accessible all kinds of people. I can see the similarities between Brecht’s theatre and the African tradition in story-telling and performance – both bring people together as active participants in theatre, and so he is a natural inspiration for me as well.

WLPG: Why is it important to write for children and young people?

AFEIF: I believe the real wealth in our society is our children. They are our assets for the future. To help create a new generation with a great vision for the future, I write theatre that I hope will enrich their lives. Through their wonderful imaginations children can explore the many viewpoints presented in a play and so have more choice in how they can see the world. I want to encourage them to have fun and to think at the same time.

WLPG: What is your typical writing process?

I am a planner, then I write the synopsis first. To plan is part of the oral tradition, to work out story, character, conflict, location etc. and this all happens in my head. Then I write the synopsis and afterwards begin on the play script. As I write a let the characters lead me to their destination or fate and this can sometimes take me away from the original synopsis. But I don’t mind, because I never enforce my thoughts onto my characters. I write in my first language which is Arabic. As I’m in Australia this needs to be transcreated into English. I collaborate with a multi-talented and productive artist, Vivienne Glance, in an on-going transcreation workshop. Transcreation is an artistic reworking of a literal translation that aims to maintain the beauty and vibrancy of the original work. During transcreation we pay close attention to the cultural, linguistic and artistic nuances in the writing, to honour the original atmosphere and environment created by the work.

WLPG: Is there any real difference between writing for young audiences and writing for adult audiences?

AFEIF: There is no big difference except you need to pay more attention to the details when you write for a young audience. You need to engage with self-criticism to ensure that the writing is accessible to younger minds with their own particular views of the world. Elements such as the language used, the humour, the imaginary world, must all be appropriate to young people but also excite and open up their imaginations. It is important to build a bridge of engagement, a dialogue between the audience and the work, that will gain their attention, their love of the characters, so they can trust from me the beginning that they will safely be led through the story. I see myself as a magician who has something so rare, that even kings want it, but I want to give it to the young people in the audience.

WLPG: Is there something about Sudanese writing for children and young people that is notable?

AFEIF: Sudanese theatre is a festive event with its own rituals. There is one main plot and lots of relevant supporting stories that branch off this. It is theatre for the community – for everyone. Most Sudanese playwrights, when they write a play for young people, he or she is writing for everyone from 3 to 90 years old. It is theatre fro the young and for the young at heart.

WLPG: What question would you like to ask your fellow playwrights making plays for young audiences?

AFEIF: As a professional creator who has a clear vision of their own for their work, is the process of play development for a new work fair to the writer?

WLPG: Please click on 'post a comment' below to respond to Afeif's question.  For his biography, click here.