Jy blaai in die argief vir 2010 Augustus.

#7 Terminating a text and identity writing – Tony Harding

Augustus 26, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

There is something I like about this quotation from Jerome S Bruner in Making Stories.

The construction of selfhood, it seems, cannot proceed without a capacity to narrate. Once we are equipped with that capacity, we can produce a selfhood that joins us with others, that permits us to hark back selectively to our past while shaping ourselves for the possibilities of an imagined future. We gain the self-told narratives that make and remake ourselves from the culture in which we live. However much we may rely on a functioning brain to achieve selfhood, we are virtually from the start expressions of the culture that nurtures us. And culture itself is dialectic, replete with alternative narratives about what self is or might be. The stories we tell to create ourselves reflect that dialectic.

I like the way it recognises that our identities are not fixed, but are fluid.

Of course, this is just a selected quotation, but I want to use it as a starting point to engage with the topic.

I used to think that the word termination, borrowed from my wife, a social worker-turned-banker/farmer, would help colleagues dealing with highly emotive land claims to disengage with communities after dealing with their cases.

Social workers learn to begin termination with their clients’ cases from their first engagement, mostly as a way of keeping boundaries between professional empathy and personal emotions.

These land claim cases stirred emotions and developed relationships which weren’t mentioned in the terms of the job. Each community narrative was so powerful that it brought pain and bonds that could not be disentangled from the personal. Boundaries collapsed.

It was in the nature of the job to bring these cases under the scrutiny of the law. This meant subjecting these narratives to carefully defined tests. The tests were, however, framed in terms completely different from the reference of the affected community.

In one sense, this involved moving between one world and another, between a world of property and a world of land, one world closed to the cosmos, the other open to it.

In another sense, it was an opportunity to engage with a more humane, immanent world. Termination was impossible without loss of something intangible, even one’s sense of being human. It would be a dispossession.

*

This sense of discomfort, of cognitive dissonance, made me want to write. I needed to find a way of resolving a tension inside myself. A number of events followed – many of which are described in my book Lekgowa – and I got to the point where I had to find closure.

I am not an author, even though I am a former journalist who likes to do a feature article now and again, sometimes a letter to the editor. I am not a literary type, even though I read extensively, broadly, especially in non-fiction. I just like to write.

It got to the point where I just had to write. My life stopped. It was an ancestral crisis.

I quit my job of nine years as a senior manager in government.

My learned response was to plan a book like a project. For many people, project management is a linear invasion of their lives, the death of creativity. A project offers a clear beginning with a clear end. I gave myself three months, maybe six, before starting a new venture.

I looked at my target market. I saw a demand for a particular kind of text. I saw that there were a number of brilliant texts in the market place dealing with identity. I also saw a gap in the market. So I started writing.

In my years of working with land claims, and before that with rural communities, I had accumulated a lot of material for reflection. I wanted to understand the experiences which had impacted on me so profoundly.

I encountered anger, rising from deep within my psyche. As I opened the text it took on a momentum of its own. The path went further into my unconscious mind than I had ever dared to go before. I was on an ancestral search and wanted to find my own link between the living and the dead, something that was integral to the world of people I had worked with for years.

This meant confronting a cultural taboo in my received world. It confronted every rational and religious view I had learnt as a child, later as a young adult – the irony of this did not escape me. My tentative exploration beyond “whiteness” had already caused conflict in my life, especially among family, with the painful loss of social bonds. I was angry about this.

*

I drew a difficult picture of my family, not only as a child entering an adult world, but as an adult reflecting purposively on these events, using a variety of intellectual tools. The process was the opposite of the linear mode of my thinking patterns, honed for the purposes of a job.

My first discovery was that I did not know who my ancestors were. I searched for family documents, for photographs and any indication of who came before me and what the forces were that shaped them – and me.

I brought a number of new insights into the histories of both my paternal and maternal ancestors. These insights made me aware of how much shame lurked just below the surface in the family narrative and drove me to investigate deeper and deeper. I began to understand why my world stopped. I was frozen with pain.

After some breakthroughs I finally found the kind of details of my maternal ancestors that genealogists dream about. On my paternal side I have yet to make progress beyond illegitimacy with the rural nobility of my apparent ancestral motherland.

As I engaged with these characters in my growing text, they became familiar figures to me. I lived among them. They became part of my dreams. Once forgotten, they were alive again.

My ancestors taught me things about myself I had never known. I learnt that when you separate the dead from the living, you disconnect yourself from things that you need to know about yourself. You learn that the shame that you bear for your ancestors is not part of their world, and that your ancestors want redemption for the living.

My emotions flowed. I had found new bonds, even though I had lost others.

I had been dispossessed, and I had returned.

I began to understand why I found my engagement with land claimants so draining. It was a narrative that I was unready to face.

*

I have not found closure in writing the book; in fact, I found that closure was an illusion. The book taught me to accept the openness of the world.

I completed Lekgowa in six months. It was a hard decision to close the text. I needed to face the reality that publication means signing off on a final printer’s proof of a book. This took me months.

My project management voice stepped in. Close it! There is other stuff to be done. A new venture needs to be brought into being – just like the book.

Every time someone comments on the text of the book, I open the pages again and look for the things they found that had not revealed themselves to me. There are so many narratives in the text that will still have their time to speak. My conversation with the text continues, and with my ancestors. I have made the dead speak again.

I am ready to move ahead with my life.

#6 Writing what you know – Michiel Heyns

Augustus 18, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

Henry James wrote, in The Art of Fiction, (1884):

I remember an English novelist, a woman of genius, telling me that she was much commended for the impression she had managed to give in one of her tales of the nature and way of life of the French Protestant youth. She had been asked where she learned so much about this recondite being, she had been congratulated on her peculiar opportunities. These opportunities consisted in her having once, in Paris, as she ascended a staircase, passed an open door where, in the household of a pasteur, some of the young Protestants were seated at table round a finished meal. The glimpse made a picture; it lasted only a moment, but that moment was experience. … The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it – this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town and in the most differing stages of education. … Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, “Write from experience, and experience only”, I should feel that this was rather a tantalizing monition were I not careful immediately to add, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”

This elegantly weighty pronouncement still seems relevant today to the question of “writing what you know”. James’s point is that “knowing” (he calls it “experience”) can take many forms, not all of them direct; that the knowing that relies on the “the power to guess the unseen from the seen” may be as valuable to the novelist as experience of a more immediate kind.

That power, “the condition of feeling life in general … completely”, has much in common with the empathy that both Tiah Beautement and Mike Rands cite as the novelist’s way of spanning the gap between nation and nation, between race and race, between person and person – and between species and species, JM Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello would add, though she calls it “imaginative sympathy”.

It follows from this that yes, there is no reason why novelists should not write about countries other than their own, any more than about historical periods other than their own. I have written four novels, two of them set in more or less contemporary South Africa, two of them set in early twentieth-century England. I probably “know” the two settings in different ways, the one through direct experience, the other through reading, but I wouldn’t say that I know the one better than the other. There is even a sense in which I may feel, whether rightly or not, that I know the foreign country better than my own: my own country is in flux, puzzling, not-yet-resolved; England of 1910, though complex, has been chronicled and documented, inscribed and described. Indeed, the challenge in historical writing is to bring back to a semblance of unruly life the packaged world of the past, whereas the challenge in writing about your own time and place is to find pattern and structure in the swirling chaos of contemporary events.

But it is probably a mistake to talk about these novels as if they formed two disparate groups, one South African, one English. Even my most “South African” novel is informed on every page, in every sentence, in every comma and every semicolon (especially every semicolon!) by those classic English novels that I, like Janet van Eeden, cut my teeth on; the rhythms and cadences, the organic structure of those novels stealthily inhabit my writing, as potently as their overt thematic concerns.

And this is surely true of the majority of writers writing in English: willy-nilly they appropriate, even while transforming it, the rich sediment of a form that predates their contribution by some centuries. To put it differently, the fact that a book is a novel may be more pertinent than its country of origin.

Jorge Luis Borges has argued that “the idea that a literature must define itself in terms of its national traits is a relatively new concept; also new and arbitrary is the idea that writers must seek themes from their own countries”. I suppose the historical accuracy of this depends on what we take relatively new to mean, but, as coming from Borges, it does claim a certain authority. He goes on to say, even more airily and contentiously: “What is our Argentine tradition? I believe we can answer this question easily and that there is no problem here. I believe our tradition is all of Western culture …”

Extreme as this may seem, it’s a salutary reminder that in terms of its formal characteristics, and indeed many of its thematic concerns, the novel has a certain history which forms an unacknowledged component of even the most “African” of novels.

There is thus something arbitrary in the form of apartheid still prevalent in many bookshops: separate (but unequal) shelves for “Fiction” and for “African fiction”. (Thus my novel about the English suffragettes ends up in the “African” shelf, where readers looking for African fiction will not buy it and readers looking for non-African fiction will not find it.) The assumption seems to be that readers are so set in their patterns that they want to read only either non-African or African fiction and don’t want to be distracted in their single-minded pursuit of their own particular enthusiasm. I don’t think this is true; but if it is, it is certainly a tendency to be discouraged rather than catered to. Readers, like writers, are surely enriched by an awareness of the contemporary African novel as forming part of and contributing to a tradition older and larger than itself. The novelist, by being “one of the people on whom nothing is lost”, takes his or her place in this tradition while extending it in new directions.

#5 The year of his birth – Kobus Moolman

Augustus 10, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

He was born under the sign of the Ram.
He was born in the Chinese year of the Dragon. (But unlike most other dragons, he could not fly.)
It was the year after JFK.
It was the year before Ingrid Jonker’s Rook en Oker.
It was the year Martin Luther King became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
It was the year of the Rivonia Treason Trial.
The year that saw Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu and other senior leaders of the ANC receive life sentences in a cold Johannesburg courtroom. A lifetime in prison, barely a few months after he had entered his own life.
And entered it backwards.
Not even feet first.
But arse first. Apparently. The bloody umbilical cord tight around his neck. Like a noose. With only a minute to spare.
The noose that the Rivonia trialists escaped.
The noose that hanged Gwynnes Owen Evans and Peter Anthony Allen that year, the last two people ever to be executed in the United Kingdom.
It was Easter Sunday.
It was a Leap Year.
In the old, red-brick Grey’s Hospital, on the corner of Prince Alfred and Commercial Road.
And only then did they notice it.
The doctor and the nurses.
A small lump of tissue and nerves at the base of his spine.
A small unexplained lump the size of a ping-pong ball.
What to make of it, no one knew.
It was suggested that perhaps it was the leftover of an unformed twin. A mutation of cells that never became anything.
No one really knew. So they left it. Just like that.
And it grew.
From a ping-pong into a tennis ball, before that first year was up.
It was the year of Strangelove.
It was the year of Goldfinger.
Of the first Beatles album to be released in the United States.

Can’t buy me love
Money can’t buy me love
Can’t buy me love …

And then his parents noticed that his right leg was twisted.
Like a woven rope, like a noose. Twisted and floppy as a rope.
And that, although he was a dragon, he had no magic, no spells to keep that rope taut and straight in the air.
Standing all by itself, and climbing. Into the breathless air.
And suddenly everyone knew.
It was clear.
It had a name; that small, growing lump of tissue and nerves and accident at the base of his spine actually had a name:

Senorella and the Glass Huarache!
(The name of the last Looney Tune cartoon produced by the Warner Bros Cartoon Division in the year that he was born.)

But the name of the lump at the base of his spine was far simpler.
In Latin, spina bifida. Or split spine.
According to the website of the US National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke:
“Spina Bifida is a neural tube defect (a disorder involving incomplete development of the brain, spinal cord, and/or their protective coverings) caused by the failure of the foetus’ spine to close properly during the early months of pregnancy. Infants born with the disorder frequently have an open lesion on their spine where damage to the nerves and spinal cord has occurred. Although the spinal opening can be operated on shortly after birth and surgically closed, the nerve damage is usually permanent, resulting in varying degrees of paralysis of the lower limbs.”  
And that is why this Chinese dragon cannot fly.
Why it gets by on its strong right arm instead. Like a conjurer. And its calloused right hand. Like a ferryman.
Why it has taken to hoarding all manner of gaudy words in its dismal cave, away from the prying eyes of crusaders and heroes in clanking armour; and weaving from these bright baubles such spells that it might almost believe itself airborne and light.
Light as deception.
It was the year after JFK.
It was the year before Rook en Oker.
It was the year the Soviet author Vasily Grossman died, in poverty and isolation, and in deep despair that his great lifework, his masterpiece, Life and Fate, confiscated twenty years earlier by the KGB, would never see the light of day.
It was the year 1964.

#4 Writing my children’s country – Tiah Marie Beautement

Augustus 6, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

“Write what you know.”

I tried that once. I took my undergraduate thesis, written at UCT, then listened to the advice.

“Do you think the majority of your readers will be women?” 

“Yes.”

“Then your main character must be female. Do you think the majority of your audience will be Americans, like you?”

“Yes.”

“Then even if your story is set in South Africa your main character must be from the United States.”

Thus, I wrote my first book believing I was writing a book primarily for American women. Adult American women, like me. But due to some random (good!) events my book was published in South Africa. Bit by bit it appears that this country, the country of my husband’s birth and education, the country of my children’s upbringing, has become the home of my work. 

Even so, moving to South Africa in August 2008 was a harsh shock of reality with all the instructions seemingly written in Afrikaans, a language I could not (and mostly still cannot) speak. Weighed down by two small children, I attempted to navigate the bureaucratic muck and build my family a home. Husband’s job may have come equipped with an HR department and employee handbook, but nobody gave the American spouse a manual for international parenting. Which school? Can anyone recommend a doctor? A dentist? What on earth is a BCG? What do you mean the house doesn’t have a phone jack? And why does my bank always want to speak to my husband when talking to me?

Two years later, I have reached an uneasy peace with my new home and am genuinely happy to be here. But still I wonder, as I sit tippy-tapping away at my keyboard. Am I overstepping my bounds? Do you, South African readers, feel spied on? Will I hit a nerve one day? Will there be a demand to mind your own business? How far is an author allowed to write outside of her own upbringing, gender and cultural norm? Does the colour of my skin, my passport, or at times my gender, disqualify me to tell these stories? Is my perception skewed? Are people sick of hearing voices from the West?

Write what you know.

I cannot claim to understand it all. South Africa is a country with eleven official languages and an even greater wealth of cultural diversity. But I have been listening as I breathe your nation’s air, buy your nation’s books, scan your newspapers, teach your children, and raise two of your country’s citizens. The longer I live here, the more it seems that South Africa is a country full of people that may “know thyself”, but are strangers to their fellow citizens. Yes, I am an outsider, but perhaps in this nation, feeling outside while living in may actually be the norm.   

South Africa and the United States – the two countries’ differences may be wide, but the list is surprisingly short. Our countries’ woes of the past echo each other’s mistakes. We share similar triumphs. Our landscapes may at times vary, but more often than not share eerily similar challenges and personalities. I come from a country that tried to rip itself into two, and remains divided into fifty ferociously loyal states, each boasting its own laws and regulations. The United States is just that – a nation of states standing side by side, but lacking much in the way of commonality.

Perhaps, then, the key to writing in South Africa may not be writing what one knows, but learning to write with empathy in areas of the less familiar. Or at the very least, make sure as writers we surround ourselves with good editors who can assist in painting a more accurate portrait of South Africa’s varied realities. For writing is akin to a conversation: in the end, the writer speaks, but first the writer must listen.