Where do we find your book?
African Books Collective ships around the globe
And outside of RSA...
Where do we find your book?
African Books Collective ships around the globe
And outside of RSA...
On the 3rd of September I, and three other authors, were invited to be speakers at an SPCA fund raiser. Yes, four introverts were slated to be the entertainment. Yes, I was to speak about a time that I’ve now left to history. During the run up to the event, my mind was blank. I couldn’t think of anything I hadn’t already said, to say. Then one morning, in the shower (where all good ideas emerge), I began to think of all the things I wanted my children to someday know about This Day.* So that’s what I did, letter by letter.
3 September 2015
Today I was asked to give a little talk on why I wrote a book. Instead I’m reading letters I’ve written for you, to read someday, but not today. I’m not ready for you to hear these words, even if I’m speaking them to others. Because I’m not sure you’re ready to understand. Or maybe you are and it’s me that isn’t ready. Either way, you can wait.
As much as I tell people I wrote the book for me, I also wrote it for you. Don’t bother to search for your names in the dedication. They’re not there. I couldn’t forget that my first published book, about an unexpected pregnancy, became an actual experience after I landed an agent.
So then there was you, my son. The first child. Who arrived without invite after a hideous year of good-bye. Good-bye due to old age. Good-bye due to suicide. They kept coming, even after your birth. Such as the day I held the finger of your eight-month-old playmate. A cold, they said. But by the next day he was dead.
Then there were the almost good byes. Near misses. One from depression. Then two. Then you, my second child, my daughter, whose faulty umbilical cord should have killed you during birth. But it didn’t.
Nevertheless, forgive my superstitions. There was no way I was putting your names on a book that opens with a mother writing a letter in the sand to her dead son.
I wrote a book about living life in a world that is far from fair. How not everything in life can be cured or fixed, nonetheless, we must learn to live in that space. Because when times got hard I began to reflect on the women I most admired, including my grandmother. That the single attribute that all these women shared was that they tried. No matter what life tossed at them, even if it killed them, they tried to keep going. This was despite, I am sure, going through periods where they weren’t sure what they were living for.
Remember, my children, life isn’t a contest. All I ask is, you try.
You don’t remember me as I knew me up to the age of thirty-three. I was strong, sporty, never used prams, instead I carried both of you in slings. I even managed to teach basketball classes with one of you on my back. All of which happened before the time you began to store your memories, for now and the future nows.
The me you know, and will remember, is a mother who can’t always use a knife. Who isn’t supposed to lift heavy things. Who sometimes can’t drive a measly 55ks. She spends a lot of time on the computer. She is always sore. Sometimes she can dance, other days not. She’s supposed to exercise a lot, but also rest-rest-rest, take daily medication, wear funny tape and braces, all of which change depending on the day. But at least we now know I’ll be okay. It doesn’t kill you. That’s something, at least.
There is a rumoured poem by Charles Bukowski containing the line Find what you love and let it kill you. James Rhodes, a pianist, wrote an article of the same name for The Guardian. In it, he discusses rediscovering his love for the piano, even though the endless repetition from practising can be hard. Boring. Means dropping other activities he liked all for the one thing he loved to do more than any other.
The world is an interesting place. There is so much to do and explore. But sometimes you are forced to make choices. Sometimes you can’t do it all. James chose the piano. I picked the book. A book I wasn’t sure I would physically be able to finish. Things were still unknown during that time. So on the first day of writing I wrote the beginning and the end. Then, in a way, I could say it was done.
This is called hedging your bets.
I wrote a book about how your spouse, your partner, can never be your everything. That society often expects too much from lay people – our friends and families – when it comes to dealing with hardship and poor health, including depression. That it is wrong to believe that your spouse has some magic ability to fix or support all that life tosses your way. They have their own demons to battle. Society will try to isolate you, in grief, in hardship, in illness. But often the answer is outside of your relationship. Even then, the answers might not be a fix. They may only be how to make do.
Making do is better than nothing at all.
I wrote a sad book where people still laugh and make jokes. Because that’s what real life is like. You can be hurting, things can go terribly wrong, yet still find something inside that moment, funny. Even during a funeral. Don’t apologise for this.
People used to tell me, after I had you, to treasure every moment. The truth is, parenting is hard. Children sometimes behave terribly. Not every moment is wonderful. And that is exactly how life works, too. The key is, no matter how awful life has become, is to be able to laugh. I read in an article by Glennon Melton, ‘Don’t Carpe Diem,’ that rather than to feel regret for not always being happy, to simply be satisfied with Kairos. Kairos, the Greeks called this the time of the gods, those moments that take you out of the everyday, full of chores and responsibility, the hardship and the pains. Life is not easy. But you’re okay, so long as you can still see these moments, that raise us up from the rubbish, as Kairos. If you ever reach a point where you can longer can see these times, when the laughter is totally absent, please, get help.
I wrote a book where women talk to each other, and not always about men or children. These women have ideas, impulses and random thoughts about a variety of topics. Because that is what women do. I was tired of books that didn’t show this.
When I began the book, they didn’t actually know what was wrong with me. There I was, thirty-three, losing the ability to use my hands and everything hurt. Experts kept making suggestions, but things only got worse. At that time, we didn’t understand that Hypermobility Syndrome paired with something like Fibromyalgia, if left untreated, can create havoc on the autonomic nervous response, mimicking other chronic disorders that are very scary.
During this time of fear, I was losing all that I used to do: surfing, knitting, cooking, piano, gardening. My hands were working less and less. And nothing I’d written up to that point was good enough. I wanted to say, at least once, that I’d written something beautiful, even if it was a bit sad. To leave it for you. So I decided I would. Even if though it hurt. Even if nobody published it. At least I could print a few copies to show you, my children, that there was a me that could do things before I no longer could.
That’s why it is a short book.
I wasn’t sure I had much time.
I really wanted to make sure it was done.
Then things turned out better than I thought. Not great. But okay. And during this, somebody agreed to publish my little manuscript.
There are more than two copies around. Honest.
While it is trendy to claim that everything can be solved with positivity, this isn’t actually true. Sometimes, no matter which way you turn a situation around, it still stinks. It’s still awful. You still wish it didn’t happen. It’s okay to vent. To cry. To say you’re angry and upset. But in the end, you need to keep going. But keep going doesn’t always mean try harder. It sometimes means try different.
While writing the book the doctors discovered that I was okay. Well, not really. There is no cure for HMS, a chronic degenerative condition, or Fibromyalgia. But neither condition is as bad as some they were testing for. You can live a long life with both. And that while that life will never be easy, most people’s lives are not. As Marian Keyes put it, ‘I’ve realised I’m not special.’ Everyone lives with challenges, some are visible, others are not.
However, I may have passed it on to you. Actually, we already know one of you has it. But you have your own choices. We know more about how to live with it. Your experience might not be so bad. In fact, right now, you both seem to be living well. Active, but not too much. Even so, should it start to snowball – the doctors still don’t know why it does for some and not for others – at least we now know what to do. For me, it means proper meds, tape, exercises and braces. For you? We shall see. Science is still exploring.
Now that I know I can still write, this book is hopefully not the last. I’m working on another. I still have to write slowly, but not as slow as before. I’m stronger. I don’t require as much rest.
Yet, I’m still trying to write for you. And me. But this time, it is two stories: the one that I planned and another that consists of the main character you demanded. This book is a massive mess.
You see, writing This Day was the most physically taxing thing I ever wrote. But the voice of the main character was easy. I walked with her. Understood her. Could hear her, clearly.
This mess is physically easier, but the voices are loud and keep talking over each other. It is the most complicated storyline I’ve ever tried to create. Even so, if that book is ever published, I’ll dedicate it to you.
Originally posted on my Books Live Blog
- Her soul folded and nestled in a hard shell that formed in her breast. In her mind, she erased her predator from life, sending lightning to suck out all his life force, leaving him as a dried-up lifeless scarecrow in the fields. -
- Mvelo had not known that graveyards were busiest in the dead of the night. -
- Nokuzola could not afford running shoes and, like the other Zola, she loved to feel the ground with her feet. She developed a relationship with the grass, or the soil, or the tarmac wherever she was competing. Her feet communicated with the ground. -
- Newshounds were right on cue with cameras, notepads and the same tired questions for the mother in pain. 'How do you feel about your son dying in a burning shack?'-
- The problem for him was that he was a man being supported by a woman. For the first time in his life he felt the fears of women who had to depend on men. He began to understand why women would do anything to keep their men. -
- Addison had lived much of her adult life faintly convinced that a large segment of the reading public and the entire new industry would be really happy if she died in some bizarre and puzzling way. -
- Even at six Addison had known that she was pretending to be more childlike than she was...Her mother wished her to be thinking of fairies and dewdrops, but she was already the knives-and-curses type. You can tell me anything, her mother used to say, and then respond to anything she was told with disappointment or alarm. So Addison was compelled into a life of deceit and charade, which is what always happens whenever honesty if forced upon someone. -
- In telling the story to Rima and Tilda, her point was a different one. Sometimes something happens to you, she said, and there's no way to be the person you were before. You won't ever be that person again; that person's gone. There's a little freedom in every loss, no matter how unwelcome and unhappy that freedom may be. -
- As was often the case with his columns, Rima preferred the unedited version. She didn't much like the man in the column, with his peaceful, grateful death. She didn't like how he didn't say a word about the loss of his young wife, is only son, but claimed instead to have lived a lucky life. Or at least compared with most. -
- You think I'm real just because I'm sitting across from you. -
- Rejection's not easy. But you reject words, whole pages, long impossible stories, and it feels good once it's done. It's no different rejecting pictures, a picture's right to hang on a wall...We need distance, it's essential...You simply have to feel it...Let them catch their breath and look again because they can't help it. Make them think, make them mad, even...'
- They never asked, "Were you able to work today?" Maybe they had, twenty or thirty years earlier, but they'd gradually learned not to. There are empty spaces that must be respected - those often long periods when a person can't see the pictures or find the words and needs to be left alone. -
- I can help it. Don't you understand; there isn't time any more. It's all I do, just observe, observe to distraction, pictures that don't mean shit until I draw them and redraw them. I've had enough for one life, my only life! -
- ...it couldn't go on like this, these short stories that were never finished and just went on and on getting rewritten and discarded and picked up again, all those words that got changed and changed and I can't remember how they were yesterday and what's happened to them today! -
- She began to anticipate a solitude of her own, peaceful and full of possibility. She felt something close to exhilaration, of a kind that people can permit themselves when they are blessed with love. -
- I might get me some kind of better grade of beer before I go. A guy I was talking to said something about Belgian beer...So the truth was he was dying...Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was. -
- Mercy heavens! she cried. Mercy! She cupped water onto her face and chest. Lord! I'm an old woman and I've never been naked outdoors before. Look at me. -
- She was marked and known. It was how you paid for love. But over time that was lost too. She became part of the history of the town, like wallpaper in the old houses - the ageing lonely isolated woman, the unmarried schoolteacher living out her days among other people's children, a woman who'd had a brief moment of excitement and romance a long time ago...-
- So they prayed again, but it didn't change anything. -
- I think he's a good man, one man said who hadn't spoken yet. I can see that. That's not in question. He's someone with a vision of how it could be.
Not here though. -
- In school she had been able to learn reams of stuff off by heart, and to thorw it down on paper...In collage, they expected you to use your mind. Did she even have a mind...To discover that, actually, what you'd had all this time, been praised for all this time - what had got you off the hook all this time - was not, after all, intelligence, but a shallow robotic skill. -
- She was still not quite able to believe that this happened, but it did. You said something, sounding confident as you said it, keeping your voice level, and people nodded, and people agreed with you, and people looked at you as a person who apparently knew their stuff. That was it. -
- Then they were home and he was himself again. Or his public self, or his social self; Catherine was beginning to have trouble remembering all of his selves. -
- 'He certainly struck lucky with his timing,' Julia said drily, eyeing the photograph in the front of them. 'Any other week of the year, this stuff would look exactly like the forced, stretching pedanticism it is. But the jammy bastard's opening night turns out to be the night of the peace talks deadline, and so here we find ourselves, bang in the middle of the most blazingly relevant cultural phenomenon of the year.' -
- Was a reality something you arrived at, or something you made?
Or something you just forced onto things? -
- Certain people in life - and not even always ones who deserve it - can just unlock all your doors, somehow. Even if you change the locks or hide the keys. -
- I wanted to be the kind of person that people gave nicknames to. -
- I'd come here for nature. I'd come here to be transformed. And yet for that whole first day of hiking, I listened to celebrity gossip, tales of intra-sorority injustice, and diet tips. -
- All morning, the kids had been talking about "next year," and making plans to come back and do it over again, in a way that made me saddest of all. Because I knew that they wouldn't. A year is an eternity, and they'd never come back. Life would get in the way. -
- What can I say? When your eighty-three-year-old grandmother wants to paint your portrait, you let her. -
- It really is a strange situation to find oneself in - that of attending your own funeral. -
- It was not explicitly thought that my language was inferior to English, but there was a general feeling that mastery of the English language was the preserve of the truly privileged, and we had to show it off as best as we could. -
- To call my mother overbearing would be a simple way of saying that the English language has failed her by not having a stronger word to really define her. -
- Loneliness is a strange thing to bring up with anyone. If you are lonely, yet you are surrounded by people they think that you are saying that they somehow cannot provide you what you really need.-
- The strangest thing about nightmares is that once you explain them to someone else they never sound quite as scary as they were when you had them. -
- To be surrounded by languages you don't understand. Of how it must, in some ways, be like being deaf. The deaf children he knew, whose parents sometimes came to see him, became remote, cut off, even inside their own families. Silent islands. -
- 'Is it true,' says the child Abass, voice juddering as he bounces on the car's back seat, 'that the number of stars in the sky is infinity? -
- Most of the people who write those things never leave their hotel rooms, they're too afraid. And wouldn't know the difference between a Mendeman and a Fulaman. But still they write the same story over and over. It's easier that way. And who is there to contradict them? -
- After the lovemaking, she'd pulled away, withdrawing her body from him. Suddenly no longer inside her, he experienced the sensation as a shock. An abandonment. -
- People think war is the worst this country has ever seen: they have no idea what peace is like. The courage it takes simply to endure. -
- 'This is their reality. And who is going to come and give the people who live here therapy to cope with this?" asks Attila and waves a hand at the view. 'You call it a disorder, my friend. We call it life.'
We wanted to listen to poetry. We arrived at the venue, a restaurant, over an hour early. There were no customers. The [white] owner / manager was behind the bar. He didn’t say hello. Then again, I guess we didn’t look like much. I was in jeans, flats, cotton jersey and a scarf my mother had knitted. The [white] writer with me is between jobs, and doesn’t dress to impress. But a waitress came forward: ‘We’re not serving food. There is an event tonight.’ We explained we’d come for the event. Were there any seats unreserved? The waitress smiled. Said there was. Told us we could have coffee while we waited. She sat us. We ordered coffee.
[White] Owner / manager didn’t say a word.
This was only my second year at FLF. Last year I’d been brought in as a last-minute replacement for another writer. I’d stayed at the Travel Lodge, cheap, clean and cheerful, which my stipend from the fest basically covered. I met wonderful people, my panel was with two writers I admired, and I had a lot of fun. This year, however, I was at FLF only for work purposes and not on the programme. Sill at the Travel Lodge, work was covering it, and the place remained clean and cheerful.
But FLF wasn’t as much fun. Some of it had to do with work. There had been a comedy of errors – not of our doing – that we’d had to scramble to fix. But there was something else in the air I couldn’t quite place. [White] writer next to me, who I had driven to the fest, had also noticed. Night before he’d been frisked. He had been walking along the streets of Franschhoek. Ran into a group of youths who’d come together after the news that BB King had died. The gathering morphed into a soccer game. This, apparently, warranted police investigation. The most dangerous thing they uncovered during the pat downs was a melted chocolate ball. ‘What the fuck is this?’
The venue was starting to fill up. A [white] woman – fancy scarf, expensive jersey, jewels so gaudy that if she swam with them on she’d have drowned – approached us. ‘This is my table,’ she squeaked.
‘We were told this table wasn’t reserved.’
She kept squeaking. Loudly. That she’d handed over her credit card. That we must move. The waitress came over. She calmed the woman down. She assured us we were fine at our table. Then she directed the woman to the table next to ours, ‘That’s the table you reserved.’
Not a word of apology as she and her party sat down. They were quickly given menus. Offered food.
We were offered more coffee.
We ordered more coffee.
People kept coming in. More tables sat. More menus dispatched. [White] owner / manager greeting many. Standing room was gone. Now there were people standing outside the restaurant, peering through the glass.
At last the poetry night began. First the [white] organiser of the event gave a welcome and summary of what was to come. Then the introduction of the first poet. A [white] woman stood up and read a few poems. They were cute. The sort that make you think, ‘Oh, bless.’
Next poet was introduced: Phillippa Yaa de Villiers. From the first line, she had me. Thus, I didn’t see him approach. It wasn’t until the [white] owner / manager was in my face that I realised there was a problem. He was loudly demanding we leave. He was saying the table was reserved. I glanced over at the bar. Philippa was still performing her first poem. But a [white] wealthy-looking couple was indeed standing at the bar.
We told the man that we had asked, repeatedly, if the table was unreserved, and we’d been assured we were fine. The man went on a rant – loudly – about his staff. He blamed them. Despite having been there the whole time, he claimed to have no knowledge of our presence, or why we were there.
Phillippa was still performing. It was embarrassing, such a scene. I told the man we would leave, but not until the poet was done. ‘It would be rude to get up during her set.’ He looked startled. Glanced back at Phillippa, as if he’d forgotten the poet was there.
The following evening I would attend an award ceremony. I’d RSVP’d, but was informed I wasn’t on the guest list. An admin mistake, perhaps. My publishers got me in. During the event I met a lot of wonderful people. Discussed interesting possibilities for work. But at one point I found myself awkwardly jammed against a wall, hemmed in by the crowd, while a prominent male author conversed with my left breast. Or maybe he was simply shy, found it hard to make eye contact. Regardless, it was a relief when the crowd shifted and I could break free.
It is now over a month since FLF, yet people continue to ask me about how the weekend went. I think of the festival. I think of the literary debates. ‘Interesting times,’ I say.
This post originally featured on Books Live