Sola Osofisan interviews Abigail George, author of Africa, Where Art Thou?, Feeding the Beasts and Winter in Johannesburg. A poet, essayist, memoirist and short fiction writer, she has been published widely online and in print. Excerpts:
Your books are hard to find online. They’re not available on Amazon and other prominent book buyer destinations. Reviews are scarce too. Is this by design? Are they maybe available in brick and mortar bookshops?
Brick and mortar, I’m afraid (Fogarty’s Bookstore). And word of mouth. Mostly family and friends and the university library in my hometown. I feel now I should have made much more of an effort with the marketing and distribution side of Africa, Where Art Thou (I did get some lovely reviews for that book) and if you Google my name ‘Abigail George poems’ two or three will come up. I can send you some that I used for a flyer, a little pamphlet that the small publishing concern printed to showcase the release of the book… As a writer, I am only getting the hang of the marketing and distribution plan of a book now…I don’t want to be a writer who is known for using big words, for intelligent, elegant conversations between her characters. Depth, clarity, range and insight are important things for me. It’s not important at the end of the day how many books I have sold. I want people to read ‘is there an opinion here’, ‘an unpredictable energy’, and what does their perspective comprehend? Yes, I think I really want them to ask themselves that. Most importantly, now this is significant – they must ask themselves if it is relevant/irrelevant to them.
I have this suspicion that people – when they want to call themselves writers, when they have a manuscript – they think they’re going to change the world. It’s heroic but I feel it is also damaging at the same time because there are cruel and dangerous waters in this world as anyone knows who has been on the receiving end of rejection letters from editors and publishers.
I don’t want to be cool and for a long time I was experimenting with different voices in my writing. It took me a long time to realise I just had to be myself, comfortable with who I was. I don’t want to be popular. I don’t know how to be cool. Anyway. I don’t know how to be popular. Maybe I don’t really want to be understood either, or liked, or treated with suspicion. Maybe all I really want is an audience who will be kind.
If I have transformed one person, if I have made a change in one person’s life, then that is more than enough for me (I say that a lot because I’ve learned to accept my limitations now). Sometimes it feels as if I have lived many lifetimes. I have to eat too (of course I realise that but writing is more than bread of life to me, it is my soul, my life’s work and passion). Maybe it is by design. I didn’t plan on being a writer. Life worked out that way for me. Still I don’t feel restricted in any way. I wanted to be a filmmaker, make documentaries, films that had a social commentary and I still have those dreams, those goals but writing seems more or less more urgent and more giving, more forgiving.
You have been published extensively online. Do you worry about the ephemerality of online publishing? A website could blink out of existence overnight, taking with it the showcase of your works.
No, not really. ‘Can’t say that I have given it any serious thought. When I’m happy I write about human drama and when I’m unhappy I write human drama and perhaps loneliness. I write for the world. And if I find sanctuary in my writing then of course I want other people to find sanctuary in it too even if it is for a short space of time. Life is short.
You don’t like classifications. You consider yourself simply a writer, not just an African writer. But compartmentalising is something the world does because it is convenient and easy. What can a writer do to be seen the way she wants to be seen? Is it even up to her? Isn’t it an unwinnable struggle?
Live, laugh and find the humour in everything around you, in nature, in the environment, in the affection of children. You ask if it is up to me? Yes. I think I have a responsibility to be seen the way I want to be seen, but people see and believe what they want to. Like the camera that views life through a lens. What are we actually witnessing? Our own mortality or the essence of immortality? It’s what you call ‘an unwinnable struggle’ but I call it ‘my brain’s compass’. Everything has a navigational field, borders, and a personality.
You observed a few years ago that reading is dying in South Africa. Everyone goes to the movies now. As someone who has studied and worked in film and television, you would understand the attraction of the screen. Should you be the one uncomfortable with it?
I’m against the images of sexual violence, brutality, and negativity that are portrayed in the media today. It makes me feel more than uncomfortable. There’s no integrity in it. Where’s the justice, the freedom, and the substance? All that vulnerability for show, abuse, and trauma glamorised and displayed for entertainment and there’s no humanity in that. It makes me feel contempt for government on one level, for cinemagoers, lovers of the art form but I think it all starts with your roots. ‘Doesn’t matter where you come from, but you must know what is right and is wrong with humanity, in human nature. It starts with the family and the values you were raised with. I wish people would read more. I wish I didn’t have to say that it is out of my hands. Every artist has their own vision and they have to stay true to it. We’re living in the future, advancing everyday, habits and the environment we’re living in are changing so rapidly I can’t keep up.
Any book lover knows no ground is as fertile as the imagination when it comes to the interpretation of text on a page. So, as someone who understands both the cinema and writing worlds, is there a way a writer can write to make her work as arresting – if not more so – as the cinematic experience that’s throttling the reading experience in South Africa?
Be truthful, humility is useful. Don’t listen to what other people say about your work. Rainer Maria Rilke didn’t. Don’t share everything in the beginning because people will hurt you whether they have it within themselves or not. Don’t take it personally, because that’s life. Deal with it like an adult not a child and move on, move forward. Have a short memory for painful things, for the drama. Don’t try and read too much of the psychology of human behaviour in the situation.
Do you ever finish writing a short story, a poem? Do the works emerge finished from within you, or are you constantly tinkering with them until there is a trail of copies everywhere?
Yes, yes I do. I don’t like tinkering too much. Censoring the words, the manuscript, and the short story. Sometimes I do go to the haiku and tinker with them, but editing is not my strong suit. Maybe it is laziness. Some people would call it that. I don’t really know why I don’t feel this cyclical urge to edit. I feel it intrinsically, in my bones, my mind’s eye, my intellect, that mental faculty. Everywhere in my room lies a trail leading everywhere. My books, newspapers, pages and magazines, my father’s books, my mother’s books and when I finish anything it surrounds me in boxes, in files (I hoard everything) but I am becoming better at de-cluttering my space. Sometimes I finish something and I don’t go back it. I can’t and something in me doesn’t want to either.
When you said in an interview that writing helps you interact and communicate with other people, how does this happen exactly? Through your ideas expressed on paper or by way of giving you a foot in the doorway to a room full of conversations?
I would have to say both.
I love that, ‘giving you a foot in the doorway to a room full of conversations’. I don’t like having my picture taken. There’s a sense that in writing you are giving something of the eternal away, the immortal way, the unseen, and the private me. There’s something inside in me that tells me that most of the human population sees only what they want to see (maybe I’ve said this before). But I’ve seen a lot of personal relationships up close and personal and most of them have been shallow. What I saw of the television world and the film school I went to is partly to blame for that I think because that part of my life is burned on my brain. It’s left a wreck and a blueprint.
Family seems to mean a lot to you. Do you think your relationship with your Mom was any different from the love-hate kind many of us Africans had/ve as children with our parents?
Family is everything to me. They mean everything to me. My father and my brother are my anchors in this world.
Winter in Johannesburg’ reads like it must have been a difficult book for you to write. Was it one you just had to push out of your system?
In retrospect some aspects of it was. It was a war, an internal struggle, and a winter guest but then ask yourself how do you deal with conflict, spirituality, God, your loyalties to faith and I guess writers must get it out of their system in one way or another.
You obviously love words. Do you ever struggle with finding the right words, the appropriate imagery to express that moment in your fiction, that song in your poetry?
Yes, I do love words. I have a lot, a lot of respect for them. Thank you for saying that (your first four words of the question). Sometimes I do. But my dad bought me a Thesaurus when I was little. It is well thumbed and has lost both the front and back cover. I have three dictionaries, and in our home we were always surrounded by books so we all, my siblings and I were always reading to our heart’s content (even inappropriate subject matter for children).
Some poets seem to possess eidetic recalls. They can recite pretty much every poem that they’ve ever written at the drop of a pin. Are you like that? Can you recite your poems from memory?
No, I’m not anything like that. Besides, some of them are way too long. I could when I was little but now it seems lost. Lost on me, that total recall when I learned everything parrot-fashion. When I did speech and drama, elocution lessons and everything seemed to be orchestrated in a linear alignment in my brain. Besides sometimes I feel as if I have so much information in my brain. Sometimes it’s difficult to write it all down. Sometimes I forget.
I believe you’ve had some drama experience. Do you read your poems publicly? Do you enjoy doing that?
I have some stage experience but prefer working behind the scenes now. I can’t believe now I was that fearless, brave, that precocious, all-systems-go when I was a child. I’ve left childhood behind me now, fairytales, school plays and rehearsals… It seems as if it turned out to be a rehearsal for this moment in time.
From your experience, is poetry appreciation still alive and well?
Unfortunately, you know I don’t think that poetry appreciation is still alive and well at all. I think that there is a part of the population that is in mourning for this; teachers, poets, children, and writers. This generation is missing out on so much. But I think that poetry will make a come back so long as there are people, guardians in a way, like the poetry editors of magazines. I hope and pray that people like that will keep it alive and, of course, universities, institutions of higher learning.
Which musicians speak to the poet in you? What kind of music do you listen to currently?
I love music in the same way as I love all books, literature, other poets, other writers and I never get tired or bored with exploring new voices, new sounds (for example music that is classical or meditative). I get excited when I hear someone new. Their enthusiasm inspires me, their words especially if they are contemporary composers, singer-songwriters, and musicians.
How did you learn to write? Do you think writing can be taught?
These are two very difficult questions. I have to think very long and hard about these questions. I’m thinking will my answers be elegant or arrogant. I don’t want to be perceived as being arrogant. I guess nobody wants people to see them as arrogant.
I read a lot. I encourage people who want to write to read a lot and to study, observe human behaviour. Read what interests and fascinates you, your imagination, because that’s what I did. Someone told me not to read what I didn’t like and I followed that person’s advice. Sometimes I do read things that I don’t like but it does something to me physically and mentally. It stops me in my tracks of what I was writing about and I want to write like the writer I just read writes. Mentally I think it has a conversation with my subconsciousness and I’d rather just be a writer who has a purified stream-of-consciousness writing.
Writing can’t be taught. You have to sit for a long time (years) with yourself. You have to be by yourself, alone, let loneliness become your companion, accept it as a part of life, have long periods of being completely still and composed, almost as if you’re meditating but not praying out loud and then, listen.
You have drawn inspiration from writers like Bessie Head, Nadine Gordimer… Can you talk to us from experience about writers influencing writers?
They inspire me as women, as creative-thinkers, doers, leaders, activists first. They didn’t really inspire me in some ways, I think in the way that you think (I don’t know if that’s true. You must tell me.). It is more of a romance. A biochemical romance with their words in the hemisphere of my brain. I just felt, still feel that I have expectations riding on me, that I have a lot to live up to because they have set the bar very high, very high for female writers, South African female writers. I can’t write like them. I have to be an individual poet, an individual writer, and me. People must see me and that’s hard for me to understand. Why can’t my work be enough for them, why do they need to see me, the private, very insecure, and vulnerable me. Sometimes I feel so lost in this world. Everything else, people seem to have a brighter, more imaginative aura than I do.
Writers will always influence writers. It goes without saying. But why, why, why? I would rather say people influence people. So many people have inspired me. I’ve discovered that writers have other jobs too and sometimes they leave writing like I do and do something else for the better part of the day. They wait and write and draw inspiration from a sleeping harmonic house and some of them are mothers, fathers, they’re ministers, and they’re nurturers. Some of them are poets, professors, fantastic business-minded people, even scientists and entrepeneurs. So for me Bessie Head was a wife and mother and journalist first and in another dimension, another element, adopted, abandoned, neglected and favoured before I saw her as the writer of Maru.
I’m sure you’ve heard this multiple times. I think you will make a wonderful novelist. Are you planning to write a novel someday?
Yes and no, and I don’t know, and I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and tomorrow I’ll start on it and I am planning on writing a novel (I have had ‘feet in a cement bucket’ for years about this). I have always told myself that I have been waiting for an auspicious moment, a perfect moment in time to start but why not now, right?
Do you think it is fair that novelists get more attention than short story writers?
I don’t think it is fair but people are people. They will go for what is popular, what everybody else is reading. Crafting a short story is also time-consuming. It takes a lot of energy and enthusiasm but they are different genres and should be respected as such. Both are different, and I love both with a passion.
I understand you have had your own battle with depression. How has it soaked into your writing? Did you figure out how to use and manipulate it to your benefit?
I might just go over-your-head, or in your face, or just matter of fact in depth with this with you. (I hope that is okay.) Depression is a painful subject for me to talk about. It’s grave, it’s relevant, and it’s more open for discussion/debate in recent times. It’s the sickness of our time. It isn’t really. I mean that’s the way I see it and look at it.
Yes, of course it has soaked into my writing. I see you have done your homework on me…It is something very difficult for me to talk about. Depression, addiction, substance abuse, alcoholism is in my gene pool on both sides of the family. I write about it sometimes and aspects appear of it in my work. I’m becoming very emotional just talking about it. People make mistakes and you have to learn to forgive them. I don’t want to say it is therapy for me to discuss my personal life. Opening it up for the world to see, but sometimes it helps me put things in perspective, makes the world a bit more authentic, makes me feel special, unique, more connected to other people and as if I am not so alone in the universe anymore.
Most male writers, for example William Styron, Ernest Hemingway, Dambudzo Marechera or maybe I should say the exceptional ones, the ones who were extraordinarily gifted, in their own way self-medicated their (clinical) depression with alcohol. I don’t have that in me. I have my work, I have writing and that is enough for me. If you do research into them, their background, their childhood, their adult lives, it was always there like the bogeyman in the closet, the monster under the bed. I look at the writer Jean Rhys’s (see her autobiography Smile Please) life and I see it as eventful but she was always also caught up in the world and there were also catastrophic decisions that she left behind her, in the choices she made in love and life. I’m not standing in judgement of the decisions they made with their lives but this is just to say what I ‘witnessed’ in reading about them.
When writers or any human being really feels pain, their first instinct, the most natural feeling in the world is to shy away from it. They internalise it. I mean at least I do, but I imagine there must also be a casting off of the wound in an intimate, primal, clinical way but there must also be a manifestation of it in the physical.
Some days…I feel as if I don’t want to have anything to do with the world. People are either cute, their behaviour is cute or they’re boring, or stupid, blissfully going about their business ignorant of world hunger, and issues that impact society at large but are ignored. Or they’re mindful of what they possess, be it wealth, beauty, arrogance, the ego or fierce intelligence. They have this innate knowledge of the physical strength they can bully others with, the spontaneity of that thread. And then there are others who are disconnected from reality, how much these people want to be disconnected from tragedy too and illness, the physically handicapped, the crutch of ill health, its pallor. It makes me feel tired and weary and it’s all a game but of course I know its not.
Other days I have this sense of urgency, incompleteness, then the vigour of youth, the energy, curious inventiveness of a child-like imagination and I often think to myself that maybe this is the loneliness of the long distance writer. I’ve lived in harmonic pursuit of something-everything authentic for my whole life. It’s been a tireless escape, exhaustive on one hand and yet I’ve made progress. I can also be miserable company and when I write I want to be left alone.
You’re a poet and short story writer. What other creative medium are you likely to explore next?
I want to explore the creative mediums of haiku, becoming a screenwriter, writing plays, novels and becoming a producer. I always want to push the envelope. I think other people should too and I encourage them to do that. Most of the time there’s so much negative energy around us.
What’s your writing space like? Where does it all happen? Do you have any creative ritual that helps you do what you do so prolifically?
Sometimes I burn incense (it is not in any way a religious thing). It just has this Zen-calming effect on me. Mostly when I write at night I put on the radio to my favourite station and listen to the people who work night shift who send out dedications of songs to their family and friends. Who are riding on the road from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg and trying to keep the sleep out of their eyes. Sometimes I listen to audio books, inspirational audio books, and read some poetry to get me in the mood, sharpen my mood, my skills.
I write at a desk in my bedroom surrounded by childhood things that I can reach and trace with my fingertips. And then there are my books that I’ve collected over the years and loved and reread over and over again, well thumbed. I mean everything in this room has been crucial to my development. The phase I’m in right now, well I love audio books. I read inspirational books. I pray in this space too and I read my bible. I’m into the prophets. I drink water when I write so I guess you could call that a creative ritual. I always have it on my desk, and pencils that I hardly ever write but keep just because I keep notebooks and need something to write with. My Black Croxley notebooks, oh, I go to them all the time. You can see by the way that I answer your questions that I have lots of stories. Sometimes I eat at my desk. Once I spilled tea on my keyboard, and I couldn’t write for days. I felt miserable. I need to write something everyday even when I’m at my worst. Sometimes its just lines, sentences but I always go back to them and they’re always useful for something. I love drinking herbal teas. My sister introduced me to that.
I write in a noiseless environment, when children are laughing and playing outside my house in the street, late at night when the house is asleep, when I get up in the morning but I must write something. I always am, scribbling away, making notes on a serviette, when the words come.
How does South Africa and the baggage of history the country is trying to shake off affect you and your work?
It’s ‘soaked’, to use your words, the most into my work, I believe, and will continue to do so for the rest of my life and the legacy of my life work, which I see as a living testimony, my contribution to African literature. I must speak openly. I must speak honestly because I feel you have given me a platform to do that here and I choose my words carefully because I don’t want to offend anyone who may see themselves differently. The problem I have is that my race doesn’t seem to be distinguished from all the other races on the face of this planet. It seems as if whole nations want to erase us. In America I am either African-American or Coloured. In South Africa the word native was used for a long, long time. The word Coloured does not exist anymore but there was an institution once during apartheid that was called Coloured Affairs. I don’t feel empowered or uplifted in any way. I feel I have had to do that myself, build those bridges. I am laughed at, I am bullied, talked about in whispers, I am cajoled, my voice is mocked but still I say I am Coloured and my parents are Coloured. In South Africa I am Black. I am invisible. I am unseen. I am not raised up in anyway. I am erased, wiped out. My generation is lost. They have wasted their youth. They have wasted all their time on substance abuse, criminal activity, addiction and I mean for them, their lives has literally gone up in smoke in front of my eyes and their eyes. Men who have been raised by their grandmothers, deserted by their fathers, abandoned in some ways by single mothers who had to hold down more than one job. I have witnessed this in childhood, adolescence and now as an adult for more than forever. It’s absurd that we are still having lost generations with all the advancements we have made in science, information, indigenous knowledge systems, even African writers in literature and education. Our healthcare will and is becoming more and more formidable. What a waste! There are so many stories to be told. It’s as if the Coloured community is being divided into the elite, the middle class and the untouchables, the ones who live in poverty. We are vanishing from the pages of the history books. Whole communities are vanishing in front of my very own eyes. Who will the women and men be who will tell our stories? And on that note for now I’ll stop there. Africa has been exploited for so long. Singing that self-fulfilling prophecy of suffering is over for us. We must learn from the past. History can teach us many things. In the past everything written about Africa has had the impulse of a neurotic stimulus but we have also seen the decline of the empire of the colonial masters in our mind’s eye.
Maybe that’s the trouble with me. I don’t believe in luck. I believe in hard work. And I think that for the most part that is why our democracy has survived because Black Consciousness, our African Renaissance, our Rainbow Nation has survived the Secret War, exploitation, xenophobia, through hard work, tenacity, the skin of our teeth. We are all survivors. Everyday we survive. We are all learning from each other and it has become an effortless evolution.