I’m going to be a writer

Writers Dominique  Botha and Carol-Ann Davids were two of the 'new' authors on the panel. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa
Writers Dominique Botha (left) and Carol-Ann Davids (right) were two of the ‘new’ authors on the panel. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

“I know I’m going to be a writer one day. I don’t think it in my brain but I know it in my heart,” I have not been able to look back since I read this Chris Van Wyk quote three years ago. It provided me with the resolve to do exactly what I’m doing in my life right now.

This past weekend a colleague and I went to the 2013 Mail & Guardian Literary Festival, to bask in the presence of some of South Africa’s literary giants.

The Market Theatre was the historically apt venue picked to host the festival. Couches in the middle of a black stage in the main theatre providing the speakers with their literal platform.

We sat in one session after another, furiously typing out tweets, scribbling notes and snapping photos. Between all of this we had to process what was being discussed on the various panels.  All of which were interesting and engaging in their own ways.

One recurring statement made by writers like Nadine  Gordimer and Craig Higginson, was that writing is a calling of sorts. One doesn’t write because they want to but because they have to. Craig  went on to say that it simply isn’t worth the pain and effort otherwise.

I want to be like them

I was lucky to sit in on a panel discussion with a theme of ‘fact and fiction’ luckier still to listen to the first panel of women only, all of whom are first time published authors.

Carol-Ann davids and Claire Robertson sign copies of their books for fans. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa
Carol-Ann Davids (left) and Claire Robertson (right) sign copies of their books for fans. Photo: Pheladi Sethusa

I have ambitions of being in their shoes one day. I’m doing journalism in a mission to be on the right side of history and because I really do enjoy writing. I want to be a journalist because I imagined at some point when I am too old or too tired of being on the field, I would magically turn into a writer. Well not magically but all that training will come in handy.

Anyway long story short, becoming a writer is the end goal.

So this panel discussion provided enough information for me to be inspired to keep on keeping on where this dream is concerned.

Journalism and writing

Claire Robertson provided some insight on how she managed to use her experience as a journalist  to help her write her book, The Spiral House.

She said that she tried to avoid writing about her personal life, because in journalism reporting on oneself just isn’t done.  “I’m not brave enough to write too intimately about my life,” confessed Claire. Clearly I have no such inhibitions, one browse on my tumblr blog is evidence of this.

However, she did insert herself in the places were she deemed it necessary because it was unavoidable. Her background helped her to write much faster than some of the other women on the panel, in this moment she was thankful for the demanding deadlines.

Fact versus fiction

A little fact, mixed with some fiction or do you have to one or the other. Author, Dominique Botha said the truth is incredibly hard and can never really be 100% in that regard. This makes for a problematic relationship between memoir and fiction she added.

“To retrieve memory is the first act of fiction,” she said. Botha added that memory relies on the act of imagination, in an effort to illustrate that memory is compromised and can’t be considered as 100% accurate.

Carol-Ann Davids, author of The Blacks of Cape Town said that one needs a little bit of both (fact and fiction) to tell a story.

Storytelling

The women on the panel emphasised that what they were doing was telling stories. Claire went as far as to say being a good writer is not enough, one has to be a good storyteller to write something of substance.

Maren Bodenstein , said that by way of storytelling and using details you can get a little closer to the ‘truth’ Dominique said was illusory. She said that this was the magic of, “dealing with the theory of literature”.

When asked by chair, Craig how they all managed to write such mature and deep books on their first try, the women unanimously agreed that they got to that point through enduring a lot of rejection and humiliation. “After chipping away at yourself you have no option but to write from your gut,” added Dominique.

The discussion then opened up to the floor in which time questions about getting published and being mothers were asked. Basically it difficult, it’s difficult to get published – to get someone to believe in your story. On being a mother while writing her first book, Carol-Ann said it was challenging but not impossible.

I learnt a thing or two about the journey I am yet to travel and was encouraged to press on.

Johannesburg: The migrant city that is anti-migrants

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Gallery by Mfuneko Toyana

The Market Theatre’s main stage was the platform where six diverse minds gathered to discuss migration, a topic central to all of their individual work.

The last day and the last panel discussion of the Mail & Guardian Literary Festival helped to make audience members and authors alike reflect on the movement of people in and out of cities and countries.

The poor accommodating the poor

Wandile Zwane from the City of Johannesburg’s Migrant Helpdesk, used an interesting anecdote from a conversation he had had with a woman, illustrating a point made earlier about migration being a situation where the poor are accommodating the poor.

The woman talked about the hierarchy that existed when it came to where one slept in her house. As a young child one was in the main bedroom, the older one got you would move to the dining room and the kitchen to make space for the younger ones. Eventually one would land up in the outside room and from there move on to their own house with a spouse.

Unfortunately her marriage had not worked out so she had to move back to the outside room with her kids, but because there was an immigrant living in that room she had to go back to the kitchen. The story points to one explanation of the animosity that exists around migration in South Africa.

Migration

Chinua Achebe’s book ‘There was a Country’ was the theme around which the conversation around which migration had to bend itself.

The panel consisted of writers who had threaded together stories and books, all zooming in on migration and themes central to resettlement. The panel discussion was largely based on the different writers’ works and their experiences of bridging political and personal narratives in their storytelling.

A young writer making waves in the literary world, NoViolet Bulawayo, said emergent personal narratives are based on political events, and that it was not possible to separate the two in one’s writing.

While the works of the six on stage were central to the discussion, engagement with audience members opened up the dialogue and brought up issues that were left out in the initial conversation.

Photographer and self-proclaimed book lover, Victor Dlamini (@victordlamini) made a poignant point from the floor, which steered the conversation to a meaningful point. He commented on people who are migrants themselves taking issue with people who migrate. He used Johannesburg as an example, saying most people who are in this city are not even from this city. “Johannesburg is a migrant city,” he added.

Panelist and writer, Achmat Dangor responded by saying that he agreed with Dlamini and pinned negative attitudes around migration on mechanisms of ‘othering’. He added that people migrate to places with a gravitational pull because of new ideas in that specific place. This is always the case with ‘big cities’, the activity and promise of economic emancipation lure people in, be it across borders or provincial lines.

Caroline Wanjiku Kihato, author of The Bookseller of Kibera, added to Dangor’s response, saying that human beings had a tendency of finding one another’s differences and using them to oppress one another.

Another audience member asked why was it that only Africans were considered immigrants. He did not understand why the Chinese and Europeans who come to this country were not treated with the same hostility that “our brothers” were.

In response Kwanele Sosibo (@KwaneleSosibo), journalist at the Mail & Guardian, simply said “we do it to ourselves”. He went on to narrate an anecdote about how people in an Eastern Cape community believe in measuring people according to certain pedigrees. Mining house recruiters divided them up according to body size, using pedigree determine who’d make best workers, exemplary of systematic ‘othering’.

Writing Invisibility

The Writing Invisibility e-book was launched. Some of the writers on the panel were contributors in the book which was a project done in collaboration with the Wits African Centre for Migration & Society.

The book is available for free download here.

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Not Yet Uhuru

There’s a popular saying that I have seen Thandiswa Mazwai tweet quite often, which says “Until we are all free, none of us are free.”

Today, April 27 is Freedom Day in South Africa.

I woke up to the sounds of the President’s voice, as he addressed people at a Freedom day event in Pretoria earlier. I heard him speak about the evil we managed to triumph over, I found myself nodding when he mentioned that this freedom we have, came at a price.

He spoke about the great strides that have been made since 1994 in housing and with the general provision of basic amenities. The ruling party has actually done a lot to try to improve the lives of the majority. Obviously a lot more could be done and hopefully will be done if we can “deal” with corruption and inequality and racism and and and.

Anyway, I suppose what made me open my laptop was the fact that we hear these things all the time. Which is why at some point I stopped listening and opted to read yesterday’s paper instead. Yes things are changing, a lot has changed. We do have a lot to be grateful and thankful for but we still have a long way to go. A very long way.

For the past two days in my Journalism class, we have had a guest speaker, Kevin Davies from the Mail & Guardian come school us on Financial Journalism. We had very interesting debates with about the state of our economy. Yesterday in particular we spoke about some of the challenges we are facing and tried to brainstorm solutions.

My answer to his question on a solution, was a Pan-African one, which seemed impossible for our speaker to comprehend. I was glad that my classmates however, agreed with me (for the most part). What struck me about the conversation that was going on, was that we too had all these ideas but no solid ways of implementing them. Much like some our leaders today.

To test our optimism about the country’s future, Mr Davies drew a ‘level-of-optimism-scale’ to see where we lay on it. Most of us were on a very high 7, saying that we do have high hopes for the future based on the amount of potential in the country. Then he went on to say that this scale is based on a ten year period, at which point our optimism waned.

Making one thing very clear (to me at least), we are nowhere near where we need or even want to be. Especially when it comes to economic equality. Something that was also mentioned in the President’s address earlier today.

I can’t help but think of Agent Smith’s words in the Matrix Reloaded every time this day rolls around. He said: “We’re not here because we are free. We’re here because we are not free.”