Tag Archives: Calvinia

Review: Mongrel – Essays by William Dicey

Mongrel EssaysThere is nothing quite as satisfying as an excellent personal essay, and William Dicey’s Mongrel contains six gems of the genre. Dicey has been on my literary radar for a while now. In the past decade, whenever I found myself admiring a beautifully designed local book, Dicey’s name would often feature on the copyright page. His first book, Borderline (2004), a travel memoir about canoeing on the Orange River, is one of those titles readers remember fondly whenever mentioned, but apparently, it is out of print. Fortunately, I found a copy in our library. I have been meaning to read it for years, and Mongrel has finally made me realise that I need to succumb to the longing.

The essay collection opens with four epigraphs which already warn us that what lies ahead will not be as clear-cut as one might assume.

Allow me to quote a few snippets:

– “Fiction, nonfiction – the two are bleeding into each other all the time …” (Geoff Dyer).

– “The writer getting in the way of the story is the story, is the best story, is the only story” (David Shields).

And my favourite:

– “[T]he strays of literature have tended towards the ill-defined plot of the essay” (Hugh Walker).

The tone of the essays ranges from intimate through personal, playful, or analytical, to simply bizarre. The latter becomes immediately obvious when you consider the title of the first piece in the collection, “Miss Meat Festival”, and its first sentence: “Hannes Rheeder, I love you like a fish parcel.”

Dicey and his friend Justin are travelling north to the Hantam Meat Festival in Calvinia, an “annual celebration of mutton and lamb”…

Continue reading: LitNet

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Writers’ Other Lives

Books in Mafra
“We pay our writers to write,” my Norwegian friend Kristin said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and enlightened me about the Statens Kunstnerstipend, a “grant and guaranteed income programme with the objective to give creative and performing artists the opportunity to actively pursue their artistic career and to aid younger artists in establishing themselves as artists.” The programme offers diverse short and long-term grants as well as one-off bursaries for travel, study or material expenses for artists based in Norway. I was mostly fascinated by the “guaranteed income” support scheme: established artists can apply for this to provide them with the financial stability necessary for having “artistic enterprise as their primary form of occupation.” And the crux is that the recipients retain the right to this financial stability (paid monthly) until they reach retirement age.
Norwegians seem to take a much-quoted imperative to heart: “If you think culture is expensive, try ignorance!” The objective of their support programmes is to ensure that individual artists are able to contribute “to a diverse and creative wealth of art” in Norwegian society.

Listening to Kristin and reading about Statens Kunstnerstipend, I thought of the many writers I know in South Africa who struggle to make a living while pursuing their creative careers. For most, the situation is not desperate, but almost all pay their bills by other means than their creativity. I decided to approach a few of them to discuss the dynamics involved in being a writer and having an ordinary day job. Their valuable comments were often surprising and opened up many engaging ways of thinking about this topic.

We tend to think of creative people rushing home after long hours of suffering in their dreary jobs to lock themselves up in that special room of their own and devoting the rest of their waking hours to the Muse. What transpired from my interviewees is that, on the contrary, even though it is sometimes difficult to juggle their paid and creative work, they actually enjoy their money earning jobs just as much as they do their creative ones. Only the degrees vary.

Red InkAngela Makholwa is the author of the urban thriller Red Ink (2007) and the fresh-off-the-press chick-lit adventure The Thirtieth Candle. When she was fifteen, she decided “quite firmly” that one day she would publish a novel with “an authentically South African story”. Today, she is not quite sure anymore what that means, but she is definitely somebody who knows what she wants and how to get there. She runs Britespark Communications, a successful public relations and events management agency in Johannesburg, and feels fortunate to be “doing something that allows her creativity to flourish”.

Siphiwo Mahala is in a similar position. As Deputy Director for Books and Publishing at the Department of Arts and Culture, he works in his field, which gives him great satisfaction. He has always been passionate about reading and went on to study literature at university, finishing with an MA in African Literature at Wits. When he began publishing short stories, the overwhelming joy of “seeing his creative writing in print” inspired him to pursue this avenue further. He received the 2006 Ernst van Heerden Creative Writing Award for his first novel, When a Man Cries (2007), an incisive portrayal of township life in South Africa. He says that his day job is “essentially the best one that any literary enthusiast could do in the public service”. It includes the promotion of the culture of reading and writing and developing a sustainable book industry that encourages equitable development of all local languages: “The job itself is not too far from my personal ambitions hence it is so fulfilling.” Only drawback: “When a job is a passion it means that when something goes wrong it doesn’t end in the office, you take it home and your family falls victim of a situation they didn’t cause.”

When a Man CriesInspired by their day jobs, Angela and Siphiwo find that they can well manage the two spheres in their lives, creativity and work. However, sacrifices have to be made, as Siphiwo notes, and one has to accord creativity the time and space it deserves. Only then can you also “expect your potential reader to skip their favourite soap opera, miss hot gossip, and let the pots burn while reading your book,” he says.
Would they give up their jobs to write fulltime if they could make a living out of it? An emphatic yes in both cases in spite of the aforesaid. For Angela writing is “an esoteric experience” and she “envies those who can afford to do it fulltime”. Siphiwo considers writing his “first love”, but he is too realistic about making money out of it: “For as long as the culture of reading remains as low as it is currently in the country, we are not likely to have more than 10% of our writers writing for a living.” He might not write for a living, but he insists he “lives for writing.” Financial support from the government for writers would be welcomed by both, although Angela feels that it could make her feel obliged to write “about issues of enormous political or social impact”, while Siphiwo believes that any such support could truly work only with “a national writers’ association firmly in place.”

In their considerations, both authors allude directly and indirectly to an aspect of state-sponsored support for artists about which Sven Eick, author of the socio-critical novel Apetown (2007), feels strongly: “I am firmly behind the notion that artists should challenge society rather than attempt to have society endorse their work.” He also believes “that the tax-paying public should have the right to choose whether or not they want to support writers, i.e. by buying their books, and that it’s not the government’s business to fund writers on their behalf.” Sven highlights the corruptive aspect of making money with creativity: “If writing novels were to become my only source of income, then inevitably I’d begin writing novels to make money, and that would represent a corruption of the creative process for me. I think a 50/50 balance would be about right.” By which he means that he’d also “always want to do something other than writing.”

ApetownSven was working on cruise lines when he realised that he was destined to become a writer. He wrote regular updates of his experiences which attracted “a small, but dedicated following.” He knew then that he should invest more “energy” into writing. Today, he earns his living as a copywriter for a network of sports websites: “I find many aspects of the sports I cover interesting. Sport is really about narratives, and despite being somewhat saturated by the amount of sport I cover I still find these narratives interesting and engaging.” He wants to continue with a similar but more creative line of work in the future: “I’m interested in the business aspect of the internet, how to keep content free and informative whilst still generating revenue using non-intrusive and targeted advertising. However, I’d obviously prefer to write more creative content than the grunt work that occupies a lot of my time.” And even though he would not accept financial help from the government as a writer, he wouldn’t mind making money out of books, so that he could continue to write at leisure. “I guess this is any writer’s dream,” he says. “I just don’t want to become a book-a-year Wilbur Smith type.” He also suggests that “instead of governments paying writers it might be useful to fund initiatives like the Boekehuis in Calvinia, or other low-cost writers’ retreats where we could go away to write at no expense.”

Other writers would endorse state-funded grants, but like Sven, they cannot imagine giving up their other occupations in order to write fulltime. Multitalented, with degrees in drama, journalism, and creative writing, Willemien Brümmer always knew that she wanted to be “An Artist”, but it took her a long time to find her individual path. She published her debut short-story collection, Die dag toe ek my hare losgemaak het (The Day I Let My Hair Down) in 2008. She actually writes for a living, writing feature articles for By, the Saturday supplement of Die Burger, Beeld and Volksblad. Almost stumbling into journalism by accident, Willemien felt in the beginning that it was not creative enough; “it felt like stealing,” she remembers, and the wrongly perceived lack of creativity made her ashamed to call herself a “journalist”. She realised how inseparable journalism and creativity were only fairly recently. A few years ago, while completing her MA in Creative Writing, she wrote profiles of people “in the news” for Die Burger’s weekly column Oop Kaarte and recognised how similar the methods for writing articles and writing short stories were. The only difference is that “reality is often far more interesting than anything I can come up with,” she admits.

Die daagThis dimension of her work is decisive. She draws inspiration for her fiction from the stories she encounters in real life: “In my next book, fiction and journalism come together closely.” Still, writing fiction feels like “chocolates after dinner”, like “spoiling yourself,” says the Calvinist in her. As a perfectionist, Willemien invests a lot of time in each journalistic article, and despite having a lot of freedom in what she writes about, she sometimes feels torn between having to write about yet another subject and wanting to engross herself in the one she is currently working on. “It’s simply not enough to have only one week to write about somebody like Sindiwe Magona,” she laments about a recent assignment. “Nor is it easy to distance oneself from a story one is working on for a couple of months. It’s like falling in love; turning away can be a painful experience which also poses a lot of ethical questions. It’s not a natural situation; one has to become calculatedly distant and that’s not the kind of person I really am.” In this respect, Willemien would not hesitate to accept a grant to support her writing, journalistic and fictional: “It would allow me to concentrate, work in-depth, on both. In an ideal world I would write a book about each subject.”

Similarly, in an ideal world, the talents of Helen Moffett would not go to waste. “I wear many hats,” she writes on her blog. It would take an entire walk-in cupboard to display all, or at least some, of them: academic, copyeditor, mentor, teacher, cricket expert, and most recently the co-author of Bob Woolmer’s Art and Science of Cricket (2008) and author of the sensual poetry collection Strange Fruit (2009). With four academic degrees and thirty years of experience, Helen does not have a regular income because her health dictates that she work as a freelancer. Academic editing for clients all over the world pays the bulk of her bills. There is also fiction editing, manuscript assessment, training (writing workshops for academics and NGOs), copywriting, ghost-writing, and occasionally a life-saving royalty cheque courtesy of one of her prescribed academic titles.

As for Willemien, creative writing feels to Helen like “sitting down to pudding”. She has her notebook always at hand, because “poetry happens anytime”, and she has enough notes for stories, novels non-fiction to keep her busy for the rest of her life, if she could only afford to give up her bill-paying activities, especially academic editing. “If I have any kind of break, I write like mad,” she says with a dreamy smile on her face, “and I eagerly accept commissions for fiction. This means I get a deadline and the piece must be finish on time, allowing the work equal value and importance. It always feels like a holiday.”

Strange FruitHaving constantly to worry about making a living, diminishes Helen’s potential as an academic as well as a creative fiction and non-fiction writer. She says an unambiguous yes to any grants for writers, however modest. Many wonderful opportunities slip by her because she cannot afford to invest her energies in them. In the last seven years, she has been trying to write a book on gender violence, a crucial topic in contemporary South Africa, and one that Helen is an expert on. “It’s tough to write; I’m only able to make any progress when I get a bit of funding for the project, but I still have some way to go.” Asked what she would do if she didn’t have to worry about the end of the month, she says she would write and devote more time to teaching: “I love teaching, but there is so little pay in it. Yet, I feel that it is my moral responsibility to transfer my skills. I just can’t lock up all that education and experience I’ve been fortunate to acquire over the years; not being able to pass it on is terrifying, but I have very little choice.” Even so, she insists on teaching a few courses a year, however poorly paid.

Drinking from a Dragon's WellIn comparison, Alex Smith fully intends to “make a living out of creative writing”, but she also wants to continue working in other areas as long as they do not sap her creativity. At present, she is a tutor for a novel writing course and a bookseller at Exclusive Books. “Working with books keeps me grounded. I’m a story addict and seeing the dozens of new titles arriving every day is heartening, but it also doesn’t allow for any illusions of grandness about writing. I feel writers and booksellers are readers’ servants.” Alex’s grandfather was a dedicated book collector, travelling to London to buy everything from antique tomes to rare first editions. She grew up surrounded by books and being around them makes her “immeasurably happy.” She has authored two herself, the novel Algeria’s Way (2007) and the travel memoir Drinking from the Dragon’s Well (2008). A third, Four Drunk Beauties, will be published next year. Talented and prolific, with a Creative Writing MA under her belt, Alex wouldn’t say no to financial support for creativity, but doesn’t feel anybody owes her anything. Having studied business science, for some years Alex earned a good salary as a successful creative and marketing director of a textile company. “But I always wanted to be a storyteller,” she stresses. “The way things are now, I’m free to write, and the price is debt, but it is my choice to be in this position. My heart’s desire is to explore real and imagined places, and play with turning those into stories.” Knowing her literary output and determination, one cannot help but feel assured that she will succeed at what she does with such unmistakable passion.

One author who has managed to write himself out of dire poverty is the inspirational Zanozuko Mzamo, or Zyd, as many know him. He is the author of a motivational book called A Year of Staying Positive (2007). Zyd grew up in Johannesburg, went into exile in the 1970s, studied economics in Zambia and Bulgaria, and returned to South Africa in the early 1990s to work in commerce. He was deeply unhappy with what he was doing, struggled to keep working, and eventually ended up broke and homeless. It was devastating, but the experience set him out on a journey of “soul-searching and gift finding”. He asked himself, “Who am I? What am I here for?”

A Year of Staying PositiveTo find answers, he visited libraries, fell in love with self-help literature, and discovered writing as a way of encouraging people. In 2005, he applied for a job at the community newspaper City Vision and even without pay persisted in publishing a weekly motivational column that garnered him a lot of recognition. He received so much positive feedback from his readers that with the help of Colleen Higgs and the Centre of the Book, he decided to self-publish 52 of his articles in book form. “A couple of publishers turned me down, but I wouldn’t be deterred, not even by the initial scepticism about the book in my community.”

His persistence and initiative were recognised by Carl Wesselink of the Kuyasa CDM Project (developing energy efficient housing in Khayelitsha). Carl Wesselink saw that Zyd’s book could inspire people and offered to buy two thousand copies of it to distribute in Kuyasa as well as to pay Zyd’s salary for a year. Today, Zyd coaches people in personal development and self-improvement in Kuyasa. He considers reading an indispensable ingredient of both. His latest initiative is the Teach a Child to Read Campaign, and he has two more books on the way. He finds the idea of state-funded support for his writing intriguing, but is scared that it would make him lazy: “I like challenges,” he points out. “When I was about to drown, I found my calling,” he says, relaxed and confident. “I hope to sell a million copies of my books.” His mere presence inspires. It’s easy to believe that he will make it.

All seven authors I spoke to seem to have found the right niches for their many talents. Financial support for their creativity wouldn’t drastically change their lifestyles, just utilise their talents in more efficient and rewarding ways. They all seem to have discovered what Zyd writes in one of his essays: “Life is what you make it.”

Sources:
http://www.kunstnerstipend.no/english/

First published in WORDSETC 6 (September 2009).

First steps

Invisible Others is making her first steps in the world. These are some of the questions I have been asked about the novel during the launch last Tuesday (interviewed by S.A. Partridge) and during the Woordfees event (interviewed by Ingrid Winterbach) on Thursday. A rough reconstruction of my replies follows.

How does it feel to hold the novel in your hands?
It still doesn’t feel real. I think it will take a few weeks to sink in, to properly realise that something that has lived on in my head for so many years is finally out there, contained in an object that has turned out to be so beautiful. I am grateful for all people involved in the production process of the physical book, especially Hanli Deysel and Danél Hanekom, whose ideas, designs, guidance and the willingness to cooperate were exceptional. It isn’t a given that an author is included in the decision-making pertaining to this part of a book publication.

How did the novel begin?
As a short story, and with a single image. For a long time I’d thought of myself a short story writer, but I was curious whether I could write in the longer form. To test myself, I went to a writer’s retreat in Calvinia and began writing my first novel there. In the course of my stay in Calvinia I realised that I could do it, but the story I was writing (a more typical first novel about growing up) was too autobiographical, too close to the bone, and I was not prepared to share it with an audience, at least not yet. So the manuscript ended up in my drawer. I then picked up an unfinished short story I was working on at the time. It began escalating into something longer and eventually resulted in Invisible Others. But it all started with an image of a woman and a man having a picnic in a park I knew in Paris. That scene is still in the novel. I knew that they were somehow trying to reach out to one another, but it was not easy for them to connect. The novel became an exploration of the reasons behind this difficulty.

Will there be another novel, or are you returning to the short form?
I am working on a YA novel, and I have a half-finished speculative fiction novel waiting on the backburner. But I love short stories and will continue writing them. I am intrigued by the challenge of the short story, of having to make every word and gesture count. Sometimes I feel that everything I write is about gestures, tiny imperceptible things like a glance or a twitch of a finger can change the course of a story. Capturing these moments in fiction fascinates me.

How does an academic background inform your writing?
I am aware of trends, patterns, some theory which is a good and a bad thing. As a writer, I would like to build on existing developments, but not be trapped by them. Having a very individual and specific migratory background, and yet being thoroughly shaped by my knowledge of local literature, I believe I can contribute something different to the scene. At the same time, very often being aware of what is happening can be limiting and discouraging.

Carolina's park

Carolina’s park

You write about Paris with a clear sense of place. Do you know it well?
I wrote about a deeply personal side of Paris – the spaces I know and love in the city, like the Polish Bookshop or some of the restaurants and parks mentioned in the novel. But I don’t want to claim that I know Paris well. It is a city which constantly eludes me no matter how eager I am to grasp it.
I was also very much aware of the fact that Paris is one of the most written about places on the planet, and that I did not want to compete with such a significant body of work. Trying to do justice to the setting, I concentrated on a few familiar, intimate spaces. I worked from memory, but also took photographs, drew little maps, made many notes, and used Google Maps for verification. But there was a moment where imagination took over and the descriptions in the novel do not always correspond 1:1 with reality. Also, I discovered that during the time it took me to write the book some places I used as settings had changed: a restaurant I mentioned disappeared completely; the bookshop changed its layout and expanded. In that sense, the Paris of the novel is at times a purely imagined space.

Both Cara and Konrad find refuge in Paris – why Paris as a runaway place?
For Cara, the reason why she chooses Paris becomes obvious as the novel progresses. For Konrad, it is a place that is essential to his research. From the first, Paris was always part of the story. The story chose it. On the one hand, I persisted with the setting because I liked the idea of it being an unusual place for a contemporary English-speaking South African to emigrate to. It used to be much more obvious for Afrikaans speakers to travel to Paris in the 50s, 60s and beyond. A whole generation of Afrikaans writers were shaped by their Parisian encounters. On the other hand, I did not want to write another novel about an exiled South African returning to the country of their birth. Cara and Konrad do not emigrate because of socio-political or historical circumstances, but for purely personal reasons. I wanted to write about a different migratory experience which reflects a different aspect of the reality of our globalised world – one where people migrate and choose to stay or even move on, but do not return to their country of origin. In that sense, I wanted the novel to defy expectations.

What about other research?
My characters know a lot more than I do about art, history, typesetting or geography. They have different passions and fears from mine. I wanted to make things which originated in my head come to life for others. I had to read up enough on all these subjects in order to make them believable.

And national identity?
There are two ways in which I wanted to engage with issues of identity in the novel: as an everyday experience without necessarily political or historical connotations; and an academic pursuit where these connotations matter strongly, but are nearly entirely confined to the research Konrad does, they do not spill over into his own lived experience. But on the whole, I wanted to remain on a rather superficial level while handling these issues by concentrating on the nostalgia for one’s country of origin in daily life which manifests itself in preferences for certain food, music, art, reading, drinks, proverbs, or customs. It was important for me to show that despite these obvious and natural longings, like so many people in today’s world, Konrad and Cara can make a home for themselves away from the places of their birth.

In the novel, you come across as an authority on art. What is the role of visual art in your life?
To be honest, I know very little about visual art apart from my own responses to some artists’ work. I have a deep love for beauty and objects. There is something about the timelessness and reliability of an object which fascinates me. I surround myself with objects which have meaning for me, some of these are art pieces – hardly ever of any general value, but always of enormous personal value to me. One of the reasons I fell head over heels in love with The Book of Happenstance (by Ingrid Winterbach) is the portrayal of the relationship the main character has with her collection of shells. It is one of the most, if not the most, accurate description of what I often feel for objects which matter to me, and what their loss means to me.
I am a huge fan of Siri Hustvedt’s work as a novelist and as an observer. Her books on art and looking at art are inspiring and moving. The theory is just as important as the response, and the clarity of her presentation of both is astounding.

Which artists, if any, inspired the art in Invisible Others?
These might seem like completely incompatible influences, but for Lucas’s work I thought of Francis Bacon, Egon Schiele and Tamara de Lempicka; for Dagmar’s work I thought of William Kentridge and Renée le Roux. But no specific real image inspired any of the imagined paintings which appear in the novel. It was more like the combined mood of these oeuvres that I tried to capture in the art featured in Invisible Others.

Invisible Others is a timeless story where technology takes a backseat – was this a conscious decision?
Very much so. It also reflects my own life and attitude towards social media, media in general, and the internet. I love the opportunities technology and media offer, but I have also become very cautious in using them. The internet provides us with enormous advantages; it can enrich our lives, but it can also be a dangerous tool with a sting. The exposure to media nearly destroys Cara’s life. She consciously tries to hide from it all. Konrad is weary of the pitfalls of the internet and yet can’t resist its temptations. To his credit, instead of speculating, he tries to keep an open mind and find out what he needs to know from the only person who can tell him the truth about what happened.

Why the attraction of love triangles and dysfunctional relationships?
When we are honest with ourselves, most of us will have to admit that there are many things – essential things – in our relationships with others which we cannot articulate – such as our fears, desires or passions. I have always been fascinated by this inability to communicate between people, and personally, I have worked all my life in my relationships to conquer it. But often instead of communicating, we end up falling into triangular relationships – not necessarily with other people, a hobby or work can be such an escapist third party – to satisfy what cannot be brought to light in the relationships which truly matter to us. We are mostly suckers for suffering. We need to suffer to feel alive. There aren’t many people out there who are happy without drama, who can appreciate the simple, good things in life.

Do invisible others doom relationships before they even happen?
They do. For better or worse, we carry around the memories and ghosts of people who have shaped and influenced our lives and very often we are either unaware of their presence or not courageous enough to admit to it or face it. These invisible others can interfere with our present relationships if we allow them to haunt us. Finding a way to see and understand these spaces and figures makes relationships possible, or not, if we fail. This is where fiction comes in for me: writing is often an attempt at trying to penetrate those spaces.

What drives Cara into the affair?
A powerful attraction. She falls for the wrong man and persists in the relationship. It seems to me that we often stay in relationships because we believe that we have already sacrificed so much for them, we simply have to make them work, even if the only sensible thing to do is to cut one’s losses and walk away.

Why should the reader identify with her?
I hope readers will travel a journey with Cara similar to my own. When she appeared to me in that picnic image in the park, she started off as a puzzle, a mystery, one I did not particularly warm to, but one who intrigued me. I wanted to understand her, to see what made her tick, and almost inevitably I started caring for her in the attempt. Cara defied me. She showed me that sometimes people do terrible things not because they are terrible people, but because they can’t help themselves. One can appreciate or forgive a lot as long as one understands the reasons. This is part of what Siri Hustvedt refers to as “a call for empathy” and the reason why I chose the passage from one of her essays which explains this phrase for the epigraph of Invisible Others.

The ending of the novel was puzzling – can you comment?
The ending somehow surprised me as well. It has everything to do with the fact of how Cara took over her own story, how she did not allow me to leave her entirely in the lurch (as I was keen to in the beginning). It is an open ending. It is wonderful for me to see how some of my readers are beginning to interpret it. Deep in my heart I can feel what happened to Cara, but I still want readers to decide for themselves.

In the novel, Cara turns to reading for solace or guidance. What would you like readers to take away from this novel?
I suppose a bit of both, but mainly solace – I don’t feel that I have the right to guide anybody. But if readers find a moment of truth or revelations in the novel which penetrates their own invisible others and inspires them to explore, communicate, understand these spaces, the magic of fiction would have happened, and that would be more than I would dare to hope for.

You are married to one of the most important contemporary South African writers with an overwhelming oeuvre to his name. Isn’t it a bit intimidating?
Not at all. In the beginning, when I started getting to know André I was a bit scared of his creative process. I know that for many it can be a process of solitude and exclusion and I did not know how I would fit into, or around, it. But then I discovered how open to sharing André was, how generous and supportive, and I relaxed completely. Our studies are at the opposite ends of a passage in our house. There is a lot of communicating going on between them, and invitations to tea.
André’s body of work is enormous, and I am its greatest fan. It doesn’t intimidate me because I have no intentions of competing with it – that would be ridiculous. My writing is very different, the stories I want to tell are my own. I am grateful for all of André’s support and expertise, but I also know that it works both ways. I offer the same to him. There is no room for intimidation in our personal and literary relationship.