The Vermont Studio Center residency for writers and artists

For the past two weeks I’ve been at the Vermont Studio Center residency in Johnson, Vermont. I’m here with about fifteen other writers and some thirty artists who are all just taking the time to dedicate some work to the artistic practice of their choice. How cool? And I still have almost two weeks left!

It has been an incredible experience so far with opportunities to write, read, learn from other writers, listen to poetry, and observe some of the art that the artists are working on. While I’m here I’m working on a new novel as well as the edits for a second novel, but I’ve also managed to get some poetry and non-fiction writing happening. It is a great environment to focus in, helped tremendously by the provision of my own office, comfortable room, and three delicious meals a day. I keep getting the feeling that I’m at some amazing creative camp.

I have experienced my first snow storm with about half a metre of snow in two days. On the sunny days I have also spent a huge amount of time walking around Johnson on some of the river walks and up into the suburban mountains behind the town. Vermont is the state that is most covered in trees, and the views around Johnson are extremely scenic.

After four years at a desk job with limited creativity it is quite overwhelming to be given the space to create, and to write what I want to write. I hope you all get to take that opportunity some time in your life.

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Help me write in France!

I have always wanted to be a writer.

I could share pictures with you of my school reports that say things like ‘Jenny is very creative (read, a little strange) and writes very well’ but nobody needs to see those nerdy things. I remember learning to read with my mum at around four years old and thinking – wow, when someone writes a book they allow you to go into a new world at any time you want to, all by yourself! How cool is that! It’s like time travel, but for free.

In junior school my best friend Roxane and I used to have reading sleep-over parties where we’d read Sweet Valley, and some way more serious books I promise, and enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company. At high school I discovered great women writers and was amazed at their fearless and important stories.

In 2012 I left my job and decided to take myself seriously as a writer. I used all my savings, moved back to Cape Town, and I started a Masters in Creative Writing at UCT. Two years later I had my first draft of my first novel. Two years after that, it came out in print with Penguin SA. Ta da! The Peculiars (p.s get it here).

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It got great reviews and I was (and still am) so proud to have finished it and put it out into the world.

Then I went back to work, thinking that I could keep writing in the evenings and mornings (when I was energetic enough). I did, but it was really hard. After a tough year in 2016 I spent the December holidays doing some thinking about the life I want to live. There are so many quotes about being a writer, but the one that resonates with me most strongly is from Gloria Steinem, who says:

Writing is the only thing I do that when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.

I mean, look how happy I look.

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Me with my book and the amazing cupcakes my sister’s boyfriend made.

So, at the end of last year I started applying like a maniac for writers residencies, retreats, jobs, competitions and all sorts of activities.
And with some luck and some incredible support from other writers, I put in an application to the Camac Art Centre and I got in! I’ll be going to France for June and July 2017 to write my third novel. Think crazy politicians, magical creatures, radical activists, and more.

It’s a dream come true, but it’s … well … an expensive dream. That’s where you come in! I’ve paid the 520 Euro deposit (gulp) but I could use a few extra euros to help me get there.

You can donate here. 

Thanks so much for reading and supporting me!

Exciting news – I’m heading to France!

Last week I learned some really exciting news!

 

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Camac! (Pic from their website)

I’ll be heading to France for June and July this year to write at the Camac Art Centre. For two whole months I’ll be in an isolated village (only 250 people!) working on my third novel. I feel so grateful to be awarded the opportunity, and I can’t wait to meet those that I’ll be sharing the space with.

 

It’s in the Champagne region, and it means I get to miss Cape Town winter. Hooray! Expect instagrams of me both working hard and exploring.

Thanks to Paige Nick and Helen Moffett who so kindly wrote me references for the residency. Your support is so greatly appreciated.

 

The Peculiars reviewed in the Sunday Times

How exciting!

It’s always great to read the reviews and see what it is that each person takes from The Peculiars. Last week Jennifer Platt, who helped me launch The Peculiars in Johannesburg wrote a super review of the book for the Sunday Times.

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Four stars! What a great way to end the weekend. Get your copy here and add your own review at the Takealot site.

 

Read Women Write 2014/15: Book 25: Lauren Liebenberg: The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam

Lauren Liebenberg, Peanut Butter and Jam, fiction. Zimbabwe, South Africa
The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam

Having a sister is one of the best elements of my life. We used to fight a lot growing up, about almost everything (even who got to eat out of which particular bowl at breakfast). She is now one of my best friends and I love spending time with her. The thought of growing up together delights me.

The Voluptuous Delights of Peanut Butter and Jam is a story set in the late 1970s about two sisters Nyree and Cia O’Callohan who live on a remote farm in east Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). We learn of their farm, the workers on it, the war, and their parents relationship through Nyree’s eyes and as with We Need New Names and Gemsquash Tokoloshe this vantage point allows us to see and hear so much more than we could through the eyes of an adult protagonist. It also shapes the importance of certain elements – the war happening at that time is only relevant in so much as it affects their parents or the workers on the farm. More important is the relationship between the two sisters, and the way in which they experience the world together as a magical and mysterious place.

A more significant source of tension in their lives is the arrival of Ronin, their orphaned cousin, who is the product of a traumatic home background as well as the challenges of being an outcast at school. Added to this is their Grandfather’s dislike of the boy for reasons we only later discover, a dislike which spills over into their every interaction and which even at their young age, Nyree and Cia know goes too far. This exclusion of Ronin in many areas of his life creates a menace within him which causes chaos in the lives of the whole O’Callohan family at a time when the broader world around them also turns chaotic.

The book is gripping and requires that the reader explore their own sense of forgiveness and ideas such as social conditioning, trauma and healing. I found it very painful to read at some points, having to bite back tears on the train. It is powerfully moving because the bond that Liebenberg creates between the sisters feels so real and powerful. You want to protect all of the characters from the cruelty of the world, but the world within the book carries on beyond your control, much like the world outside of it.

Perhaps it is this that has stayed with me the most after the book. There isn’t much that we can control in this life except ourselves. The world will take the people we love from us, and it may never replace them. It may send someone into your life that you don’t expect, and that person, who didn’t exist in your mind before the moment of their arrival, can come to consume your every thought either for good or for bad. We never know what goes on in the lives of others and I think this means we have a responsibility to tread lightly, to act with kindness, to give people the benefit of the doubt. This can be painful at times because not all people are good people. Some may choose to hurt us, and others may enter our lives to heal.

This was Liebenberg’s first book and it certainly is an incredible debut.

Read Women Write 2014/15: Book 23: C.A. Davids: The Blacks of Cape Town

The Blacks of Cape Town, women, fiction, South Africa
The Blacks of Cape Town

Every family has things they’d rather people not know, or at least, not people outside the family. Whether your family is large or small, it’s likely that someone in it has a secret (I mean who hasn’t watched Bold and the Beautiful?), or something that they’d simply rather not tell anyone. The thing is though, it’s really hard to escape people who are related to you. They tend to hang around, alive or dead, their presence and impact continuously felt.

The Blacks of Cape Town follows the story of Zara Black, a historian who has travelled overseas to escape a family history that has been hidden from her until the very recent past. She’s an interesting character – fascinated with the past yet fleeing from the present of her own. The plot follows her telling of the story of her family as it catches up to her, thousands of kilometres away from South Africa in the USA. It explores the themes of betrayal, of family, of kinship and identity amongst migrants or foreigners, and of family.

The most interesting part I found about the story was the idea of memory. Of course, our memories are all subjective. We may remember someone as an idyllic and wonderful part of our history, but what if that person was merciless and cruel to someone else. Does that really change who they were for us? Are we able to understand people as anything other than our experience of them?

I often say that I don’t like to make decisions about people based on the opinion of others, which can sometimes feel extremely naive. After all, if the majority of people tell you that a person is a manipulative and conniving person, what is the point in giving them a chance? But, on the other hand, I also feel like people are often shaped by others expectations and opinions of them, so isn’t it worth trying to allow them to be better? Not in a Disney romance type of way, but in a real effort to allow people to occupy a space as a better and good person? Isn’t it better to be disappointed when you’ve given someone a chance than hard-hearted from the start?

I loved the way that Davids wove the present and the past because I think for many of us that is how we live. The things we’ve done and the people who have influenced us, whether they are family or not, whether they are in our lives currently or not, still feel very much alive. This is a book that explores that tenuous link, or rather tenuous separation, with style and strength.

Davids is a writer and editor, from South Africa. The Blacks of Cape Town was published by Modjaji books and is available for purchase here.

Read Women Write 2014/15: Book 20: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela: 491 Days.

Winnie Mandela, prison, journal

Ever since reading Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull in 2012 I have had a strange fascination with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. As an aside,Country of My Skull touched me very deeply. I recall sitting at my desk one afternoon, head literally on the book, and sobbing because of its powerful depiction of the TRC hearings. I am not yet brave enough to read it again, and so won’t be reviewing it for this project. But if you would like to learn about this process then I highly recommend it.

Growing up, Madikizela-Mandela was someone whose narrative was overshadowed, for me, by Nelson Mandela’s and so it was only much later in life that I began to read about her, and the important role she had to play in South Africa’s history. Thanks to the patriarchy for that.

Apology is something I have been fascinated with since I took a course on violence at Rhodes in 2006. The idea that you can harm someone, and then use a few words or gestures to show them that you in some way take back what you have done seemed to me to be inherently problematic. Perhaps I am just unforgiving, or perhaps I know from personal experience that the connections between apology and forgiveness are more tenuous than we often allow them to be. From this instability of connection emerges the option of forgiveness without apology or apology that doesn’t quite achieve forgiveness. It was in this framework that I began to engage with Madikizela-Mandela for the first time.

In Country of My Skull I learned about Madikizela-Mandela’s contribution to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and her implication in the abduction and murder of children. I became obsessed with her time at the TRC, watched all of the footage on youtube, and spent a great deal of time mulling over the issue. I must be honest and say that my heart hardened in some way to a woman who could not allow a mother the chance to grieve properly.

In 2013, I went to watch Long Walk to Freedom. I had only read the first part of the book, but obviously knew the story, and was interested to see the depiction of my country’s history. This movie shook my hardened heart.

Of course, I do not support violence in any form and it is well documented that the Mandela United Football Club was involved in extreme violence. But, she was there, holding it together, at the front lines, and she didn’t have the option of thinking about peace. But, the movie meant I considered for the first time how frustrating it must have been for Madikizela-Mandela to have been left to hold the fort at home, to have been whipped away at night without any idea where your children would end up, imprisoned in solitary confinement, and then to have an estranged husband emerge after such a long time and be expected to give up control of things to him, or to change the way things had been done.

As a feminist, this expectation that he would automatically know best really pissed me off. I felt such rage for her at what must have felt like a betrayal, to have been doing what she thought best and to be chastised for it. I began to rethink my treatment of her.

And so, with this background I bought 491 Days, from a bookseller on Church Street, with the intention of giving her some mental airplay. The book details her time in solitary confinement through history, letters, and a foreword and afterword.I was surprised to find that in the prologue of the text Madikizela-Mandela expresses doubts about the current political administration. Yet again this was a reminder to me that history has deprived me of a fair assessment of Madikizela-Mandela, and what we need is more books written about women involved in the struggle, and in other elements of South Africa’s formation.

Two things in particular stuck out for me from 491 Days.

First, that what Madikizela-Mandela and her fellow inmates had to endure was undeniably torture. To be deprived of food, sanitation, medication, and communication is cruel and inhumane. I have no idea what happened to her jailors, but I did not feel forgiving towards them reading this book. I do not feel forgiving towards them now.

Second, and linked to the first point, when you are deprived of communication and correspondence in a climate that is as uncertain and duplicitous as apartheid South Africa was, this must do something to profoundly affect the way you are able to trust. To live a life of constant suspicion and mistrust must be incredibly tiring and painful. To send out letter after letter and be unsure whether it has been received, or a reply has been sent, must be harrowing. To be deprived of hearing from your loved ones is cruel.

It brought home to me how important it is to communicate, to ensure that we are reaching the people we care about. That to be a person who is able to trust, and to have never had that trust come under fire, is an extremely privileged person to be.