On personal essays

 

IMG-20160507-WA0006

I’m a fiction writer. I prefer to clothe my deepest thoughts and concerns by inventing a character and giving him/her my views and problems. Cowardly I know, but I cringe at people who can write about their innermost being, even if it makes them look bad. I cringe on their behalf, but also on my own. I would never wash my thoughts in public, I think, while admiring their honesty and foolhardiness.

But then I start thinking, what would it take for me to do that?  Wash my thoughts in public, that is.

I’m a private person, schooled on the idea ‘we don’t talk about that.’ I remember when I was about fifteen asking my grandmother about the sound in her hip when she walks. Every step would be accompanied by a loud click. In my young mind I had visions of her removing her underwear to show me the affected hip. Did it have a dent, what on earth caused that noise? It never affected her walk though, just accompanied it like drum sticks conjured up by her body. Click-clack-click.

Needless to say she told my mother and I got a hiding. I learned you don’t talk about grandmother’s click. I also acquired the reputation for being too curious, a bad thing. A child like that could stumble on family secrets.

I need the protection of anonymity. Then you’ll get the most honest feelings and deepest insights I can muster. But talk to me one on one, ask me to speak in front of a crowd, and I go dumb. That is why we are writers, I suppose. We can put on a coat of many colours and try to wow with our words.

But there’s always the possibility of growth: growing side-ways because of too many puddings, and growing intellectually and emotionally. I tried both. I joined this workshop on ‘what is a mind’. For the first time in my existence my brain actually grew painful with thinking.

People don’t tell you that, that thinking can be painful. That is why all those clever people start becoming weird. Their brains ache and they have to do something wack to find relief. (I’m trying to think if I know any clever people who are weird and I don’t. Eish. A personal essay is supposed to have facts so scratch that.)

While flirting with the idea of writing a ‘personal essay’ (just the name gives me the shivers) I stumbled on the quote: ‘At some point, all writers should attempt this form. It is at once a challenge of your talent but also a bearing of soul that is much more difficult to get right than novels or scripts or poems. I would challenge any writer to try it at least once.’ (http://litreactor.com/columns/up-close-and-personal-a-personality-expose-of-the-personal-essay)

Uh-huh. Now who can resist such a challenge? This woman, Taylor Houston – oh dear it may very well be a man – this man or woman, issues a direct challenge and I’m stepping up to the plate, or is it stepping off, because I’m out of my depth here.

People (this is me on my soap box) generally interpret themselves. Their honesty may therefore display who they think they are. And isn’t that fiction too? Everyone has a face that they present to the world. I haven’t discovered mine yet, so as soon as I know I’ll jump in and write my inner ear.

Welcoming the muse

fairy-1964203_1280In writing a poem I usually know what I want to say and how to say it, before I start. This involves thinking, planning, editing. During the past week, however, I had a different experience.

I started writing a poem to present at our monthly poetry group, Jozi House of Poetry, with the theme ‘new beginnings’. Pressure to produce something made me sit down to work. I wrote the first line, stolen from a random list in my diary, ‘God, mythology, creed’. I chewed the back of my pen, then another line popped into my head. Dutifully I wrote it down.

This happened for the entire poem, not being conscious of direction or theme, just writing what came to me, regardless.

After the last line I had no idea what the poem was about. But on reading it, I liked it.  It turned out to be one of my better poems.

That made me think that creative control isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. We are so steeped in writing advice and technique that it can stifle the process. Sometimes you just have to let go and welcome the muse.

How do you write poetry? What is your process? I would love to hear from you.

Book launch April 2017

 

20170103_105211

Wow, what a good start to the new year. The proof copy of my book arrived this morning and it is looking good. I’m looking forward to the launch in South Africa in April.

In the meantime I have to make a list of everything I want to do. First should be building the characters and story of my next novel. I’ve done some research (enough to get started) and will continue researching and writing with the goal to finish the first draft by September.

I’ve been reading up on what other writers have achieved in 2016 and their plans for this year. One writer said that she published five books last year. Five! I’m envious but at the same time I know that I won’t be able to do that. I need to think and read while I’m writing, a slow process.

I also want to look for an illustrator for my children’s book.

Next will be a workshop with Lydia Yuknavitch in May. I’m excited and scared. She is such a great writer and putting myself in the company of great writers awakens my chronic insecurity.

This year I want to submit more to literary magazines and competitions. Hopefully I can draw up a schedule and write new content. Yuknavitch’s workshop should produce good stories (I hope).

What are your plans for 2017?

 

 

 

Your tool box

All of us use our minds to write. Have you ever wondered what it is, this mind that we employ with such abandon in our stories?

I recently did a six-week MOOC course on ‘What is a mind’ by Prof Mark Solms from the University of Cape Town on FutureLearn. It was the most thought-provoking exercise I had ever done. It not only interrogated the question, what is a mind, but what it is for, and provided insight into depression and mental disorders.

Although it was an extremely difficult topic, merging neuroscience and psychoanalysis (neuropsychoanalysis) to answer the question, what is a mind, the professor made it accessible to the students, ranging from neuroscientists, philosophers, psychologists, general practitioners, to ordinary people like me.

What I came away with was the newfound knowledge that the mind has four ‘defining properties’: subjectivity, consciousness, intentionality and agency. Each of these is situated in a specific area of the brain.

That locates the mind firmly in the body. Without these structures in the brain, the mind ceases to exist. Prof Solms cited brain injury. If that part is damaged, you disappear into a coma. And those who emerge from a coma, when asked what it was like, said it felt like nothing. They were not there and suddenly they were.

However, this is disputed by others in the field, making it not only a challenging subject but also one riven with disagreements and counter arguments.

An interesting idea for me was that we share seven basic emotions with mammals, fear, anger, panic, seeking, lust, care and play. It made me look at animals in a different way.

My mother used to tell this story about a snake that chased her big brother. They grew up in the Free State and the chase took place in terrain where the grass was shoulder high. Every few metres the snake would lift its head out of the grass to look for its quarry.

Fortunately, his half-brother was with him and he warned, “It’s there!”, pointing to the right and my uncle would swerve to the left. Again a warning, “The snake is there!” which prompted a move to the other side. Aside from scaring the hell out of me, this story made me wonder about the determination of the snake. Now I’m thinking that he had probably activated its rage!

An excerpt: ‘The defining feature of the basic emotions is that they are inborn responses to situations of universal biological significance. They are, in a sense, inherited memories of how to respond in such situations, crucial for survival and reproductive success. Those of our ancestors who did not possess the genetic sequences that pre-programme these responses therefore tended not to survive and reproduce — which is why we do not resemble them. Take FEAR, for example, one of the seven basic emotions. If we had to learn what happens when we walk off cliffs, that would be the only thing that we ever learnt. Instead we are born with an instinctual aversion to heights, and several other such things (which reappear in most of the well-known phobias, which are over-sensitivities of this system). Rats, for this reason, freeze when exposed to a single cat hair, even on the first day of life. The FEAR system, though, like all basic emotion systems, is also open to learning. That is how things that evolution had no knowledge of, like electric sockets, come to be associated with fear.’

This course enriched my understanding of my place in the world, as well as driving home the importance of feelings as an indication of how well a person is doing in the world – which I will use in future when creating my characters.

For more information please visit the website

https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/what-is-a-mind/4/register

‘Imagine ourselves into being’

dscn0919This slogan of the first Abantu literary festival ignited my imagination into thinking, what would that entail? Here we can take a leaf out of recent events in America. Concerned about Donald Trump becoming president, most literary magazines set a challenge to their writers – write, explore the implications.

An example, PenSA currently has on its website a competition by Junot Diaz to write dystopian fiction. Lydia Yuknavitch, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Toni Morrison, Lance Olsen, and Rebecca Solnit, are all dealing with the political landscape in interviews, on social media and in their writing.

I feel that in South Africa we can do more. In order to move forward you need to know where you come from. That place, where we come from, our history, has not been interrogated enough. The deep pain in the black communities hasn’t been addressed as much as it should be.

There is the belief that you should show the enemy strength by hiding how he has broken you. That is commendable. But then it means that that pain is buried so deep that it’s only expression can be anger (and violence).

I don’t pretend to know how to do it. We have a wonderful sense of humour in South Africa. After every calamity, such as the Gupta saga, there are memes to make fun of it. Maybe this is one way to address it? If you look carefully at Trevor Noah’s humour, it is based on not fitting in. Humour can be used in various ways to address serious topics.

In our communities there is knowledge about the recent past of the ANC and the struggle but not about our history since Jan van Riebeeck arrived at the Cape. The history we learnt at school, at least during my generation, history with a purpose, cannot be trusted.

The goal was to present the Afrikaner as a hero. Think of the story of Rageltjie De Beer freezing to death, protecting her brother (because that is what we women are supposed to do); Paul Kruger killing a lion with his bare hands, and our own Paul Revere story about someone on his horse riding through difficulty to warn of the approaching enemy.

Because it was purpose driven, it left out certain things or presented them as mild. Like slavery. That beautiful picture of the attractive Van Riebeeck looking like a star is misleading. As soon as he set foot on the continent he petitioned the Dutch East India Company (VOC) for slaves.

We have to reclaim that history. Unlike in the American South where the north arranged for people to record the experiences of the slaves, we have nothing. Only Katie Jacobs who was interviewed in her nineties and told a story about being set free but the madam said how can you leave, the children need you. And like a good servant she stayed for another four years. (It would be interesting to know how the madam compensated her for that).

The true face of slavery was hidden and because it was hidden many of the apartheid laws sprouted from it, like carrying a pass. The slaves had to have a letter from their employer when they were out and about.

This hidden history has severely affected the brown people. All I know about the Khoena, which form a large part of my ancestry, is that they wore animal skins and rubbed themselves with animal fat. And, appropriately, everyone in my class said ‘ewe’.

As writers we know that the way you present information is to create a certain effect, a certain response. The presentation of the Khoena in our history books was to evoke shame (and contempt?) and it did. We know nothing about them inventing the original braai, about making shoes from animal skin, about their contribution, together with the slaves, to the creation of the Afrikaans language, about their religion based on Heitse Eibib.

The most potent weapon of war is the mind of the oppressed. Steve Biko. How has your mind been oppressed? We should interrogate the processes. Slowly, carefully, thoroughly. Analyse, think. Do you know what ‘total onslaught’ during apartheid really meant? I also don’t, so we have to learn – read and learn.

Highs and lows of 2016

I have Christmas snow falling across my computer screen (a feature of WordPress) and I’m feeling slightly queasy. It has been an eventful year.

I almost died, published my debut collection of short stories, Eye of a Needle, made the longlist of the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award, and had three poems accepted for the Atlanta Review, among others.

This is also the year in which we entered a new phase in our political landscape. Clashes between black protesters and white rugby supporters in the Orange Free State. Angry public responses to racist tweets or Facebook entries. ‘Fees must fall’ protests at universities. The spat about the rules for black hair at a school in Pretoria. The ruling party, the African National Congress, losing significant support in the local elections.

Sometimes I fear for my country. I worry that we’re losing the goodwill between the races built since 1994: friendships across colour lines, interracial marriages – a normalization of a fractured society.

At the same time I understand that the reconciliation drive after the advent of our democracy left largely intact the economic ownership in white hands, the judiciary, unequal land distribution, ownership of the media, and the unprecedented growth in private armies in the security sector.

Their role in reconstruction not being specified, whites didn’t really know what to do with the gift of reconciliation. Their contribution was therefore confined to exhortations to forgive, forget and move on. This has angered black people. The poet, Maakomele Manaka, puts it succinctly, before moving on there should be an ‘interrogation of the chains our limbs have  familiarized themselves with.’

This polarization is visible. When you read the comments section on any online forum such as newspapers, there is a war of words between black and white, marked by a promise of a day of reckoning coming from the radical and the ultra-conservative.

Yet, being an optimist, I still hope that we can negotiate this difficult terrain and emerge victorious on the other side. We’ve done it once, so why not again?

 

Eye of a needle: Review by Jo-Ann Bekker

 

COVER SMALL

Like many of the best story tellers, Connie Fick is funny.

There are stories in Eye of a Needle And Other Stories that unfold like a Herman Charles Bosman stoep yarn. In “Belinda”, the Oom Schalk-like narrator tells the tale of a small town beauty who tamed a no-good layabout.

Some stories derive their humour from Fick’s keen observations: “Her buttocks jiggle as she sweeps, they juggle as she walks. Up, down, up, down. Other women’s may sway sideways, but hers goes up and down, singing a rhythmic song; one for you and one for me.” (“Flying Ants”)

Others from her pitch-perfect dialogue and demotic speech: “She didn’t even greet me properly. If you ask me she’s one of those people who show teeth, but in their hearts they say, ‘Mog jy vrek’.” (“Eye of a Needle”)

But Fick’s humour is mixed with pathos and the bitter bite of social commentary. After reading the forty stories in this collection you will look twice at the silent woman at a family gathering; at the old couple celebrating their fiftieth wedding anniversary; at the respectable man at a function with his daughter on his arm.

“It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than it is for an older female to get respect,” one of Fick’s narrators remarks.

I was in Fick’s Masters in Creative Writing class at Rhodes University, and Eye of a Needle includes tales which explore or subvert a variety of genres including flash fiction, micro fiction, romance fiction, surrealism and science fiction. Fick is a scriptwriter for Takelane Sesame and includes an engaging story for children in Eye of a Needle.

Many of my favourite stories in this collection are absorbing narratives – often about marriages – which begin conventionally and then unravel into something else. Her prose is sparse and controlled, without being jerky or self-conscious. “One day she awoke and he was inside her body and her mind, filling eighty percent with his presence, edging her out. The weight of him changed her posture.” (Knit One)

 

Fick also experiments successfully with punctuation – omitting full stops in one story – and form. In a powerful piece of flash fiction, she uses a grocery list to hint at the fall out of marital infidelity (“The List”). In “Last Will” an ailing mother’s list of funeral instructions paints a nuanced, often humorous, portrait of a family matriarch.

In “Flying Ants” Fick deftly interweaves an encyclopaedia’s dry description of termites with the thoughts of a woman who – while watching the Big Brother reality programme – considers how her daughter has usurped her place in her husband’s affections.

In “Care Plan” Fick adopts the language from a nursing process guide to describe how to care for a man: “His care would be implemented at least twice in 24 hours, according to the plan. Continuity of care during their time together and in preparation for a long marriage was therefore assured. It would be documented in the relationship’s record. A professional care giver, she was selfless, nurturing, and prioritised others, abandoning self-care, managing the effects of an abused childhood through medication.”

 

Fick is a trained nurse and her inclusion of medical detail and nursing procedure makes stories like “DD goes to hospital” particularly rich and enjoyable.

 

Without self-pity or strident political grandstanding, Fick’s collection offers devastating insights into the complexities of human relationships during apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa – and the burden borne by women. They are stories that will make you laugh and and leave you stunned.

 

My reading list

My how the time has flown. Some of the items on my list influenced my writing more than others. I feel that I’ve grown as a writer by choosing books to feed my imagination, and then reading them with attention.

I intend to go through the same process again in January and look forward to seeing where that will take me!.

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

A beautiful novel. Anna is beautiful, intelligent and goes after what she wants. She pays dearly because even though a man having an affair is tolerated by the nobility of Russia in the late 1800 and early 1900s, a woman doing the same is despised. Anna is married to an older man, the pragmatic, cold Karenin, when she meets her lover, the potential suitor of her brother’s wife’s sister. This is a brilliant portrayal of the complex relationships between men and women, the push and pull, their power struggle if you will; and how isolation and shunning can warp the personality. Of interest to me was the nepotism of old Russia, especially when compared with the current status quo in South Africa; and the class structure of the peasants and the nobility. Tolstoy also incorporates discussion on pertinent issues of the time.

The master bedroom, Tessa Hadley

This is apparently domestic fiction. It’s the first time I come across this term. Domestic for whom? Women? My reason for choosing this novel is that it is written in a contemporary, fragmentary way. Kate Flynn (40+) returns home after an academic career to take care of her ailing mother. She doesn’t treat her mother well. Later she has an affair with an old friend’s husband, a doctor, and his 17-year-old son. One of the pivotal events in the novel sees her cowering in her bedroom unable to say no to the insistent advances of the teenager. Really? I can see I’m going to be challenged in reading this novel.

The restless supermarket, Ivan Vladislavic

Set in Hillbrow in the 1990s this post-modern novel deals with two old men trying to cope with the changes around them. Their regular meeting place is about to close. Once a bustling, cosmopolitan town in their youth; Hillbrow has changed into a decaying run-down area with an influx of new immigrants, mostly from Africa. The narrator is a retired proof reader who regularly intersperses his narration with discussions about language and grammar. At this stage, having just started the novel, I’m not sure about the purpose of this device. Hopefully this will become clear by the end of the novel.  A comment on the Goodreads website was that the grammar Nazis would love it.

The family of Pascal Duarte, Camilo Jose Cela

A serial killer goes on the rampage and kills his mother, a pimp, a horse and a dog. That is a lot of killing. And for animal lovers the murder of a horse and dog will upset. The story is apparently told through various narrators. I have not read the book yet but I am curious to see who these narrators are. The novel explores the concept that violence is the only way to solve a problem, something the Italian mafia swears by. Published in 1942 it must have caused quite a stir because it was banned. It tells the story of Pascal, an outsider trying to find his place in society.

Blood and guts in high school, Cathy Acker

A harrowing account of ten-year-old Janey Smith who has an incestuous ‘relationship’ with her father and is sent to school because her father wants to pursue a woman he has just met. Told from Janey’s viewpoint her life reads like a horror story: sleeping with daddy and his friend, contracting a STD, two abortions, drug addiction, joining a gang and being sold into prostitution. On top of this she contracts breast cancer. Just to see how such difficult subject matter is handled from the view of a child should be enough reward. I follow stories on human trafficking so this one should be a good read. Furthermore it is written in the collage technique which I would like to examine.

In corner B, Es’kia Mphahlele

This collection of short stories trace Mphahlele’s journey as an exile, especially in Nigeria. It is worth reading just for the Nigerian-English dialogue that jumps off the page to grab your attention. Mphahlele has a very fine ear for dialogue and for focussing on the amusing things people say. In one of the stories at a funeral in South Africa the people collect money to drown their ‘sorry’. He is a fearless writer in that he describes the foibles of his own people and others with equal gusto. His description of Nigerian women striding out at dawn on their way to the market, swinging their hips, with one hand steadying a load on their heads and the other hand holding a baby is an image that has stayed with me. It speaks of endurance and toughness.

A good man is hard to find, Flannery O’Connor

The title story about an elderly woman who meets a murderer and tries to talk him out of murdering her family but fails sparked my interest. She tells the murderer he is a good man but eventually he kills her as well. At the end the murderer says that she was someone who needed to be murdered every day. O’Connor is an Irish writer whose stories I’d like to examine in detail. She is a brilliant story teller and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the stories.

The house next door to Africa, Denis Hirson

A very short book (98 pages) this is a memoir written in short paragraphs. Poetic in form and image these paragraphs create an impressionistic vision of the author’s life and history. It is therefore no surprise to learn that the author is a poet. The book traces his great-grandparents’ journey from Eastern Europe to Palestine (the promised land) and from there down to South Africa. It describes the conflict of Europe meeting Africa in the story of his grandmother, not of sound mind, always looking for her handbag in which she has valuable cheques (worthless paper) because she believes it has been stolen by the household help.

This year you write your novel, Walter Mosely

Advice about writing is always welcome. I’m also hoping it will be prophetic and this year, indeed, I will be writing my novel. Inspiration to keep going is crucial.

The gospel according to Jesus Christ, Jose Saramago

Saramago is a brave writer to attempt a re-telling or alternate history to the life of Jesus Christ. It intrigues me, especially since it was written recently (1991) in the climate of a surging growth of fundamentalist Christianity in America and elsewhere. (South Africa has not been excluded). And to have a character, a devil named Pastor; well that is dark humour at its best. How his version deviates from the bible should be an eye-opener. Besides the obvious clash with organised religion, especially the Roman Catholic Church, and the born-again movement, this novel from a writer who received the Nobel Prize for Literature (1995) is a must-read, at least for me.

Woman in dunes, Kōbō Abé

A Japanese writer, Abé has been compared to Franz Kafka. It would be interesting to explore his work to see their similarities as well as their differences. The themes in his novel about a widow, employed to dig sand for her village, living in a house being swallowed up by the sand, should be a good place to start. Abé writes in different genres: poetry, novels, short stories, plays and essays. He also wrote the screenplay for the film. Comparing the novel to the screenplay would provide insight into what he deemed important to satisfy the demands of the film industry.

To hell with Cronje, Ingrid Winterbach

Translated from Afrikaans this is a historical novel about English colonial expansion and the Anglo-Boer war. Two soldier-scientists, Reitz and Ben, take a shell-shocked mate, Abram, home. On their way they do scientific research, carefully notating the natural phenomena they come across. I intend reading both the English and Afrikaans version which won the Hertzog Prize. My reason for choosing this novel is because I want to write a historical novel and it is imperative to see what other South African writers are doing and how they deal with our past. It should also be informative to see what the writer does with such an emotional topic, whether the novel will reinforce known stereotypes or provide a new angle.

A walk in the night, Alex la Guma

I have not read any stories from this writer that I can remember. My investigation revealed that the stories are socio-political, dealing with ordinary people’s lives in apartheid South Africa.

Some of her friends that year, Maxine Chernoff

Chernoff is a poet, novelist and short story writer. From Chicago she writes her stories in a humorous way. She is a new author whose stories I have never read but I am attracted by her versatility as a writer.

The collected stories of Lydia Davis

Davis has written six collections of short stories and has won the Man Booker Prize. She’s another author whose work I’m not familiar with. Her stories are known for their brevity (some stories are no longer than one page), conciseness and humour.

Pablo Neruda, The Poetry of Pablo Neruda (new addition)

I selected the poetry of Neruda because in my other life I would like to be a poet.

Shirley, goodness and mercy, Chris van Wyk

This novel caused quite a stir when it was released a few years ago prompting comparisons to Angela’s Ashes. I have not read it yet.

Who’s afraid of Kathy Acker (DVD)

The title is reminiscent of Who’s afraid of Virginia Wolf so I want to see what this is all about.

 

 

On writing

I love writing short stories, and plan to publish another collection from stories I’ve written over the years.

But first I have to write a historical novel that begs my attention. I’ve done some of the research and look forward to writing it. At the same time I’m nervous, it will be the first time I venture into historical fiction.

It’s a story that needs to be told. I’ll give you a hint: a novel that was labelled ‘the great South African novel’ was about it.

My plan is to just dive in. I have no idea where the story is going, or how to get there. I hope this will be revealed in the process of writing.

I’ve had experience where something just happens to help a story along. Serendipity, I think it’s called. Well, I’m calling on the gods of serendipity to visit me and guide me in writing this novel.