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Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

Book Lounge launch interview with Ishara Maharaj

Ishara Maharaj’s debut novel, Namaste Life, tells the story of a pair of Hindu twins who leave their home in Durban to study in Grahamstown, only to encounter the kind of tragedy that makes parents want to keep their daughters close. The novel launched at the Book Lounge in Cape Town on 20 July 2016 with a discussion that tapped into the novel’s many facets, such as the dark themes of rape, victim-blaming, and the clash between contemporary life and religious belief. Ishara also shared her thoughts about portraying the Durban Hindu community, the role of Hindu mysticism, and the balance of tragedy and celebration that the story maintains. For those who missed the launch, she has written up her responses to the discussion questions.

Namaste Life Book Lounge launch

Image by Leanne Brady

Part of the novel is set in Durban, where you’re originally from, and the twins go to university at Grahamstown, where you studied. Can you tell us a bit about how those influences emerge in the novel?

One of the initial sparks for writing this novel was reading fiction by other local authors. Rayda Jacobs’ Confessions of a Gambler tackled deeply held beliefs within the Cape Muslim community and got me thinking about how very little has been written about the Durban Hindu community in modern-day terms. While the Hindu community remains strong in terms of its Indian roots, many young people like myself left Durban for better employment prospects, and our lives have changed. I wanted to write about those everyday struggles that young people from this community face, and to express that, as South Africans, we all experience similar struggles irrespective of our cultural or religious backgrounds.

Are you at all similar to your protagonists?

The twin girls in Namaste Life represent different aspects of my personality in some sense. Surya is the rebellious party girl; Anjani is gentle, studious and generally curious about the world. Both are confident in their own ways. Surya has the spontaneity most people wish they had, and Anjani grapples with her connection to the universe while living her life on this planet. I like to think of myself as spontaneous at times, but deeply curious about our subconscious and dreams, as well as the mysteries of the universe! Both Surya and Anjani display resilience and authenticity, two traits I certainly value in myself and in others.

Surya is the quintessential party girl: she’s obsessed with her appearance, wears lots of sexy clothing, has quite a reputation for partying and drinking, flirts with lots of guys, etc. Anjani, is the complete opposite: she’s studious, dresses modestly, has no interest in partying, and is quite devout. As a result it almost seems like Surya’s being set up for victim-blaming when she gets raped. She’s the ‘bad girl’ some people picture when they assume that women must somehow be asking for it. In fact, that’s the exact reaction her mother and grandmother have – they believe the rape is Surya’s fault because she was ‘misbehaving’ as usual. How does the novel tackle this issue? How would you like readers to approach it?

When I wrote these scenes in the novel, it was never my intention to set Surya up for victim-blaming. As we know, the notion that the way a woman dresses makes her more prone to be raped is a complete myth, and a ridiculous one at that, given the fact that all kinds of women are raped under varied circumstances. My intention for including a rape in this novel was to get readers to talk about the subject from a healing perspective i.e. what happens to women and their families after a rape? How do we heal? And if a rape occurred in our family circles, how would we deal with it? The reactions from Surya’s mother and grandmother are extremes to create emotional turmoil in readers’ minds. But if Namaste Life can be discussed among just one group of women in South Africa, I would be happy. More specifically, if our young girls in high schools can talk to their mothers and families about rape and sexual assault and how it affects our lives, my aim would have been achieved.

The dialogue captures the nuances of the Durban Indian dialect; if you’re familiar with it, you can really hear the voices as you read. Was it quite a challenge to capture that dialect on the page, or does writing it come naturally to you?

I think my years growing up in Durban has ingrained that dialect in my head, so I definitely heard it as I wrote, but my studies in linguistics and the mechanics of language really helped me to understand it in terms of social register and spelling. It gave me new appreciation for the slang as well. And there was no way to avoid using the dialect – it just makes for a more believable setting and more authentic characters.

In the Durban Hindu community, the women’s lives are characterised by intense scrutiny: the neighbours are always watching and gossiping. Initially there’s an element of humour to it, but after Surya is raped, her mother and grandmother’s reactions are defined, not only by their religious beliefs, but by their concerns about what the neighbours are going to say if they find out that Surya lost her virginity. Much of the tension in the story comes from this problem. Can you tell us about articulating that difficult mother–daughter relationship? Nirmala wants very much to protect her daughters, but her care ends up manifesting as cruelty.

This kind of scrutiny among women is not endemic to the Indian community. We have all heard the phrase ‘keeping up with the Jones’s’. In this case, it’s keeping up with the Harsinghs! Saving face in the community is a traditional facet that is particularly important for the older generations. It comes from a sense of pride in what has been achieved by families, and some women take it to the extreme when they show off about their husbands’ or children’s achievements. The twins’ mother Nirmala is proud of her family’s status within the community and she wants to uphold that at all costs – even to the point of being cruel to her own daughter. We see the complete insignificance of that community status in Surya and Anjani’s lives and belief systems and this produced the tension to stir the emotional pot between mother and daughters.

It’s interesting to compare Nirmala and the grandmother, Nanima, to the twins’ father, Ashok. He’s unfailingly kind and supportive, which makes his character so much more likeable, but it’s worth noting that, as a man in this community, he doesn’t have to worry about the neighbours and the gossip. In fact he only talks about it in relation to how it affects his wife’s health. Would you say he’s the better parent, or does he just have the freedom to be more loving?

I wouldn’t say he’s a better parent, but he certainly has a different parenting style. It goes back to the way mothers are with their sons and the special bonds between fathers and their daughters. In the Indian community, mothers tend to be harder on their daughters to prepare them for the world outside their childhood homes. But fathers want to shield their daughters at all costs and so they tend to be more loving. Ashok represents a slightly different take in this case, as he allows his daughters to go away to Grahamstown for university. This isn’t usually an option in more traditional Indian homes where sons are typically given more freedom than daughters.

Ashok’s a wealthy, successful businessman, but he’s also quite inept as an adult; his wife and mother-in-law do all the work of looking after him at home. There’s a funny scene where he’s packing for a trip, but he and Nirmala aren’t talking to each other, so he can’t ask her where his underwear is kept and has to look through all the drawers until he finds it. Is that typical of the gender dynamics in the community? 

Surprisingly, it is the case within the Indian community and it goes back to the way mothers traditionally raise their sons and daughters. Sons are taken care of to the point where some of them have never cleared the table or washed a plate in their youth. They get married and their wives – those daughters raised to care for the men-folk – take over from their mothers as caregivers rather than partners. Of course, this has changed over the years with modern family dynamic and more women having full-time careers, but I personally know of men in my own generation who have their wives packing and even buying their clothes!

The Hindu gods Ganesh and Parvati are in the background watching the whole story play out and tweaking things here and there, helping the characters out with symbolic dreams. Can you tell us a bit more about the role of Hinduism and the gods in the story?

I did not want the novel to be too preachy, but I wanted readers to get a feel for some Hindu concepts, particularly the connection to dreams as well as the concepts of karma and the cyclical nature of life. I have personally been fascinated by dreams, the subconscious and the connection to higher powers that dreams provide. For example, there is a certain time on the Hindu calendar dedicated to the worship of ancestors, and many Hindus find themselves dreaming of loved ones who have passed on, even without them knowing that it is the time for ancestral remembrance. I also really do feel that life is cyclical in nature – we simply cannot appreciate the good things and good times in our lives without going through some struggles. We also have the power to influence our futures by the actions we take in this time. Karma is not all set in stone! Hinduism and all its mysticism is an inherent part of the Hindu community so I had to refer to it in Namaste Life for a more authentic read. Dreams and the connection to ancestors are part of other cultures in South Africa as well, so this is a great point of conversation between different cultures.

Although the story deals with rape, victim-blaming and religion, it also has a light side with a Bollywood-style romance for Anjani. Why did you choose to juxtapose those two plots?

I suppose I felt that this novel needed to balance out with a great romance. Life is seasonal and we can never suffer forever. Anjani is seen as the supportive sister throughout the novel, but she needed to have her own story. Her romance with Himal and the wedding isn’t actually all Bollywood! Hindu weddings in South Africa do have ceremonies that span three days (I think it can span five days in India!). And the traditional Indian dress is bright with amazing fabrics and costume jewellery, so if you ever attend a wedding in Durban or Joburg, you may feel that you are in a Bollywood movie, but the dress and the celebrations are very much standard practice!

Interview by book blogger and editor Lauren Smith.

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An interview with Anne Woodborne

Anne Woodborne

Anne Woodborne’s debut novel, The Cry of the Hangkaka, tells the story of Karin, a young child who is uprooted from her home in South Africa when her mother, Irene, packs up their things to escape the shame of divorce. Irene is so desperate to start afresh that she marries the drunken, tyrannical Jack and follows him, first to Scotland, then to Nigeria, forcing Karin to live a lonely life where books and her imagination offer the only escape from solitude and the loathsome Jack.

We asked Anne to share her thoughts on writing colonial Nigeria using a child narrator.

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Like Karin, you spent part of your childhood in Scotland and Nigeria; is The Cry of the Hangkaka partly autobiographical? Can you give some examples of what you chose to fictionalise and why?

The Cry of the Hangkaka is partly autobiographical; that is faction – part fact, part fiction. I chose to fictionalise all the characters because memory is often faulty and always subjective. It was also to give me the scope to extend and embellish the characters and to distance myself when writing about the sensitive issues of domestic violence and abuse. It was necessary to invent characters and situations in the narrative to fill the voids where a young child might not have understood the implications of what she was witnessing. For example, I used the fictional character of Adia to explain a real incident where Amos physically attacks Jack later in the book; an altercation Karin finds confusing. The account of Jack’s drunken arrival at the school’s nativity play was invented to show his conflicted character – his addiction to alcohol and his urge to humiliate and shame Karin and Irene. The alcoholic’s illogical and inexplicable behaviour can only be surmised by the reader. Although much of my book is fiction, I think I stuck closely to the emotional truth.

The Cry of the Hangkaka The story is set in colonial Nigeria, although seen from the perspective of the mostly Scottish expats, who stick to their private and social spaces. What were your goals when crafting the world of the novel?

My goal was to recreate the era just after World War 2 and capture the feeling of new beginnings and fresh hope after the horror of war. It’s a new beginning for Irene as well. At a time when displaced people are desperately trying to return home, she is just as desperate to leave home to escape her bad memories and bitterness. She takes herself and Karin to the northern hemisphere to marry a man she hardly knows, to live in a country depleted by war. It’s a risky venture and one wonders why she chooses to travel so far to escape her past. The theme of displaced people continues with the Scottish expats living in isolation on the Jos Plateau amongst the various indigenous tribes. The contrast between the cultures of the Scottish expats and the Hausa/Fulani tribes could not have been greater. I enjoyed the challenge of recreating the mores of the 1940s and 1950s in a tropical setting.

During her time in Nigeria, Karin reads a book about a Viking named Siward, and his lover, Frida. The Cry of the Hangkaka includes many extracts from this book, which comes to play a significant role in Karin’s life. Why did you choose a Viking tale and what is it about this story that makes it so meaningful to Karin?

It’s purely by accident that Karin is drawn to the Viking saga in the second-hand bookshop in Perth. Perhaps it’s the pocket-sized edition and the gold lettering. Once she starts reading the book on the voyage to Lagos, she is drawn in by the bold character of Siward and the magical, fantastical world of ancient adventure he represents – a world that becomes an escape from her often unpleasant reality. Later at school, she learns more about ancient civilisations in the book From Ur toRome by Kathleen Gadd and Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill. Like all solitary children, Karin needs an imaginary friend but she uses the book character of Siward to be her imaginary protector. She hopes to assimilate his bravery and fearlessness into her own oppressed, fearful self. One can perhaps go so far as to say that on a subconscious level, he becomes a quasi-father-figure. Rather than tell the reader what Karin reads in the Saga, I chose to show what it was like for her to enter that fantasy world and thus wrote the extracts to insert into the narrative. I enjoyed the opportunity to write in another voice.

What are the challenges and pleasures of writing a child narrator for an adults’ story?

After a few false starts, I realised the book had to be written from a child’s perspective. I wanted to give the child who had been silenced and neglected a voice so she could be heard. The challenge was to put myself in the body of a five-year old child, see the world through her eyes, and tell the story with her limited vocabulary. For instance, when she visits her Ouma to say goodbye and the old lady draws in her breath for an angry outburst, I used ‘nose holes’ instead of nostrils. As Karin grows, so does her vocabulary. Her speech becomes more sophisticated as she becomes more observant. I had to be careful not to drift off into an adult’s voice. I used a lot of adult conversation (overheard by Karin) to keep the narrative flowing. Viewing the world through a child’s eyes recalls a kind of freshness when life offers new sights and sounds (e.g. Karin’s first hearing of the Luton Girls’ Choir and her encounter with death, whom she turns into an image) and her childish naiveté gives rise to an innocent humour.

Karin has an aversion to lies and secrets but the adults in her life force them upon her. Paradoxically she uses a ‘badgirl’ persona to express honesty, if only to herself. Would you say this kind of contradiction exemplifies the relationship between children and adults? How does Karin cope with the difficulties of living as child among adults?

The need for lies and secrecy evolves out of Irene’s obsessive desire for respectability; she fears being the object of gossip and moral condemnation. Karin finds this especially burdensome after Pammy’s mother impresses upon her the importance of being truthful (one of the book’s facts). Karin has to be circumspect about what she tells her friends about her family; she’s aware that her family has shameful secrets. This make her feel like an outsider. Karin’s badgirl voice is her way of keeping true to herself and also the first sign of rebellion. She can never speak her truth in her home because there would be unpleasant repercussions. Irene needs her to be tidy, respectful and compliant.

Faced with such restrictions, Karin has no choice but to go underground. Most children keep secrets about themselves from their parents; it’s a way of growing up and achieving independence. A section in J.M. Coetzee’s autobiography Boyhood springs to mind, where he says he had to hide everything he ever loved from his mother, burrowed deep in a hole like a trapdoor spider. In Karin’s case it’s her imagination that enables her to escape into fantasy from Jack’s tyranny and her mother’s strictures; in J.M.Coetzee’s case it was his love of everything Russian.

By using her imagination to escape interior worlds. Karin finds a coping mechanism to deal with difficult caretakers.

Jack is a vicious, opaque character. Why does he loathe children?

Jack is aloof, arrogant and deeply uncomfortable around children as well as society in general. He finds it difficult to interact with people. This may have stemmed from his own troubled relationship with his father.

Jack may fear his own vulnerability, which he sees reflected in Karin. He is also possessive of Irene, and does not want the child to intrude on their privacy. He resents having the child of another man under his roof. His prolonged abuse of alcohol brings about personality changes and entrenches his negativity. Long-term alcohol abuse causes frontal lobe syndrome, and the frontal lobes are the seat for judgement, empathy and caring.

Jack is a composite character; I drew on a few sources to create him, the main one being the real-life Jack himself.

Are you working on any new writing projects?

I am working on the third draft of my second novel. Its progress has been patchy because life keeps getting in the way and I have just had another downsizing move.

The protagonist in my second novel, whose working title is ‘Torn’, is coasting along in a fairly stable relationship and has a number of children when her life suddenly does a 180-degree turn; nothing is as it was and it is frightening and terrible. How she survives and how her children are affected is the theme of the book. It could also be seen as the portrait of a toxic narcissistic character.

I am still trying to get the right voice, an authentic one.

Thank you for your time Anne!

Interview by Lauren Smith

The Cry of the Hangkaka

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Interview: Ameera Patel

Outside the LinesAmeera Patel is an award-winning playwright, poet and actor, well-known for her role as Dr Chetty in the TV series Generations. Her debut novel, Outside the Lines, has just been launched by Modjaji, so we asked her to share some of her thoughts on using colour, multiple characters and different creative pursuits to craft a tangled family drama.

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Outside the Lines features characters of different ages, racial groups, social classes and cultures. These disparities impair their relationships with each other, cause them to clash, and determine the outcomes of their stories. What inspired this multifaceted drama?

For me, Johannesburg, like many other big cities, is filled with multiple narratives that are continuous and overlapping. I wanted the novel to explore some of the different voices that speak to the city. When I started to write the novel, I had many more characters in mind but, as in life, only the strongest survived. The idea of sitting inside multiple characters, as an actress, also felt like a treat too delicious to pass up.

Ameera PatelYou’re an actress, a playwright and a poet; what have those creative pursuits brought to the novel? I noticed, for example, that the epigraphs form poems about the main characters …

I like to think that all my creative pursuits lead back to a common thread of storytelling. Each of the forms that I work within undoubtedly helped to feed the novel, as all of our pasts affect our present and future. As an actor, I enjoy putting myself into other people’s shoes and trying to feel their textures and possible journeys. I think that this allowed me to be fluid in the writing process, allowing characters to shift away from my initial intended structure and into new and often more interesting situations. The epigraphs are definitely little poetic clues into each character and their chapters. And I think that with writing in general, the more you do the better you become. Writing plays and television has helped me to better understand dialogue, while poetry helps with the unpacking of distilled moments.

As the title suggests, colour is a theme, and Runyararo, who starts the story as a painter, tells us that ‘Colour speaks of character, colour is imperative.’ This is certainly true in terms of skin colour: racial identity affects all the major characters. How else is colour imperative to them?

Colour is also probably most significant to Runyararo and Flora. They both see the world in bright colours. Flora’s chapters often detail her clothing choice, which is picked up on in Runyararo’s chapters where he notices her. I used this to show their compatibility. In opposition to them, there is Cathleen. She is often shown as drained in colour, with colour being a life source that she lacks.

The title and the cover art both suggest the idea of ‘painting’ or ‘colouring outside the lines’ but for me this is more about the characters shifting away from their stereotypes and spilling over the mould than colour in a literal sense.

The story shows parents – or parental figures – and their children struggling to find their way around each other. Where do they all go so wrong?

I think the biggest issue with the parents in the novel is that they don’t know their children and don’t seem to make an effort to know them either. There are different types of parents shown in the novel, from Frank who is Cathleen’s relatively absent father, to Farhana’s Uncle, who has more of a dictatorial style, to Flora who mothers her own son Zilindile quite differently to the way she mothers Cathleen and James. None of the situations provide a space where the children are empowered to speak freely and be heard.

The plot is driven by failure: the characters fail to communicate with each other, deal with their problems, make the lives they want for themselves or be the people they want to be. Nevertheless, it’s an easy, engaging read. As an author, what’s your approach for dealing with heavy issues in such a disarming way?

I think that I’m lucky in that I have quite a dark sense of humour, which I use to cut through some of the heaviness. Multiple characters also meant that I could move swiftly from a weighted moment to one of lightness in a matter of pages.

Thank you for your time Ameera!

Interview by Lauren Smith

Outside the Lines

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