Sunday, 16 September 2012

Cultural writing and inspiration: Pangea blog tour

Pangea is writing 'for all worlds', with 25 authors across 13 countries, giving a rich flavour of what's influencing and inspiring today's short story writers. I asked two Pangea authors, one with links to South Africa (Liesl Jobson) and the other to India (Fehmida Zakeer), how important their roots were in their writing. Did they feel they'd have written differently – or about another subject – if they'd been born or were rasied or lived elsewhere?

Fehmida: I was thrilled when my story was chosen by Rebecca and Indira for the anthology especially because when I was writing it I never thought it would appeal to readers who are not familiar with the cultural background of the story.  It was a pleasant surprise when fellow members of the short story group appreciated it and an even more surprise when it was chosen. The story though set in India, is set in a small geographical area where practices differ greatly from the mainstream, so I was doubtful whether the finer details would strike a chord, but happily I was wrong. My cultural roots makeup the background for this story ― so yes, I think I would have written this story just as it is at some point even if I were living somewhere else.

I’d like to ask Liesl: though set in a different culture, in your story Boston Brown Bread, the mother's restraint and the barely contained impatience of the father was disturbingly familiar - it seemed as though some things are part of the global culture. The mother's dignity comes through in her calm replies, so too her helplessness. I loved your sensitive handling of the topic, the setting of the story, the slow and measured build up, the explosion waiting at each you plan the course of your stories beforehand or start out with an idea and see where it takes you?

Liesl: As the flattened vowels of my accent and the vloekwoorde (cuss words) that fly from my mouth affect the inflection and define the recognisability of my voice, so the manner of my observations of my place in the world informs my tales. As my pale skin that burns and turns to freckles inherited from my French Hugenot, German and Scottish ancestors is integral to how I appear visually in the world, so my interpretations of my country's dark history, and my reflections on the contemporary post-Apartheid culture are integral to the body of my writing.

In a sense one might rather ask, "How can they not be?" The primary goal of my writing is to know where I am – in my mind or out of my body – rather than to locate me in a city or continent. I want to know the precise location of my connections, the orientation of my relationships, the direction of my politics and the evolution of my religion. The journey into text is where I find my compass.

In writing about a child observing his parents’ marriage crack under pressure, I came to view the symbolic fissures that threaten the surface of my being. In writing about a middle aged woman learning to row that a bigger metaphor emerges about how I find my own balance. The stories I've written often show a whole lot to me about where I was at the time of writing that I didn't necessarily see at the time. My mother finds my old stories and says, Look! Here! Was the writing on the wall?

Writing is inevitably a way of homecoming at the most elemental level, a return to the core Self of the parts that split off in the daily business of living and get lost. My narratives are never planned. They always arrive, surprising me. The characters that appear are usually some aspect of myself, entirely symbolic, of course, but that is the medium of narrative.

This thumbnail definition of writing comes to you fresh from a recent visit to my psychotherapist, which is a rather expensive form of storytelling. Psychotherapy is a great way to become a writer, but it is frightfully slow. Probably there are faster ways of telling good stories but I haven't found them.

I’d like to ask Fehmida if she too sees writing as a kind of homecoming?

Fehmida: Exactly, writing forces me to look at things that bother me, forces me to look at things from a fresh angle. In writing about the bride looking through bits of fabric, I was trying to make sense of the bits and pieces that make up life, how circumstances change and how we adapt or are forced to adapt. It was also about dull and bright colours, fast colours that run, earthy ones that stay same...though in the final version this part is not immediately apparent.

My narratives start off as loops inside my head, and only the most persistent ones come down, the characters that refuse to go away until I write about most of the time I’m familiar with my characters, I have lived with them for some days or weeks, I know their little quirks and fears...once everything is put down, there is a sense of relief, the nag-nag in my head disappears and I feel free.

Thank you both for sharing your thoughts about writing and where it takes you. Readers can explore a world of stories in Pangea, and your two stories are perfect examples of that.


Fehmida Zakeer lives in the southern city of Chennai in India where she works sometimes as a freelance journalist and other times as an Instructional Designer. Her articles have been published in various Indian and International publications including Azizah, Herbs for Health, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes and Gardens, Prevention, and Child. Her stories and poems have been published in various online journals. You can read an in-depth interview with her, here.
South African writer and photographer, Liesl Jobson, is the author of 100 Papers, a collection of prose poems and flash fiction, and View from an Escalator, a volume of poetry. She won the 2006 Ernst van Heerden Award for Creative Writing for her collection, 100 Papers, was shortlisted in 2010 for the Sean O'Faolain Short Story Competition for On the Night South Africa is Effectively Eliminated from the World Cup, the Thomas Pringle Short Story Award for Help, and the PEN/Studzinski Short Story Competition for It Isn't Pretty. She edits Poetry International South Africa, and is a senior correspondent for Books LIVE. Liesl shares her book news, here.
You can buy the Pangea anthology, here

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