South African writer Abigail George talks to Karen Martin about staying true to herself as she negotiates her vocation as a writer, her patriotism as a South African, and her obligations as an African.
"Being a writer, a poet, an artist is not a choice. You are either called to it, like service or the ministry, or not. Choice only comes in when you begin to doubt your destiny."
Karen Martin: You've published very widely — in print in South Africa, and online from Finland to Nigeria. Do you have a preference for publishing in print or online? What are the benefits and limits of each?
Abigail George: The internet is global, so as a writer I am reaching a global audience that I wouldn't necessarily have access to otherwise. Publishing in the print media means I am reaching a smaller audience, a clique, an elite circle of other writers, editors, publishers and readers.
Online your phenomenal ten minutes of fame is doubled, tripled, multiplied, locked into a claustrophobic space, a Pandora's box. Online it doesn't take a village: online you can feed a famished village — famished for books, literacy, the English language and education. In print you can touch the words, caress the letters that came from you, that were birthed by you; you can curl up on the couch in the foetal position and read them any way you like.
I don't think it is important to have a preference: it is important to know who you are reaching, why you are in it, and how you are going to write something that is going to change someone's world in a matter of seconds.
Whether it is print or online, publishing is where you finally become you. The magic of seeing your work up there in the air is still the same. The tingling sensation behind your eyes and in your trembling hands is still the same. The butterflies in your stomach and the knot in your throat are still the same. In the end what you are left with is simple: your ego and your identity — and, if you are having one on that particular day, your identity crisis.
KM: What do you like about ITCH? Why do you choose to publish in ITCH?
AG: ITCH has high standards. Sometimes writers forget that when they are trying to get published. I sweated blood and tears for years trying to be published in ITCH. It has taken me five years to finally be able to say that this magazine and the magazine's editor liked my work enough to publish it.
Through ITCH I have learnt about expression and creativity. I see how other writers communicate, the inspiring seed and essence of their work, the telling aspirations from childhood that propelled them forward, and how they have harvested their creativity.
ITCH is driven by vision, ambition. It is an advocate for human rights, an activist. It provides a rich and diverse platform and a paradigm shift for voices and faces that would otherwise be invisible.
KM: ITCH describes itself as "South African rooted and internationally relevant". What does this mean to you in the context of the internet and other globalising forces? Where are you rooted? And where are you relevant?
AG: It is beginning to sound tired and clichéd to say, "I am an African", "I am a diamond in the rough", but those words still ring true with me. As an African writer I am rooted in the country of my birth, South Africa, as well as the continent, Africa, locked in the feverishly tight childhood embraces of my father and mother. I am rooted in the prejudice of war. I find it hard to forget those places of weeping, of bloodline curses that run from generation to generation.
It is hard for me to say where I am relevant. I must be relevant in the countries I have been published in, where editors have been so kind as to like my work enough to give it a platform. Because of this, I now see myself as a writer who has a voice and something important to say. People are listening to me. My opinions have become relevant only because someone has liked what I have to say.
KM: In your May 2010 article Going Home on Strange Highways, you say that you write as a representative of Africa. This is echoed in your introduction to your poetry collection Africa, Where Art Thou? Is representing Africa inevitable or a choice? You also call on other African writers to take up their responsibilities and be accountable to Africa. How does your definition of African intersect with race? What do you mean by accountable? Would you make this same call to writers in other contexts to represent where they come from?
AG: As an African, representing or misrepresenting Africa is inevitable, but it depends on the point of view or landscape or diaspora or gender or other perspective or angle that you are coming from.
Being an African is not determined by your race but by how you view the world around you. If you can only see the suffering of people in Africa, walk a mile in their shoes, soak up the secrets, the imprints of those who have lived entire lifetimes in poverty. Only a disconcerting, disconnected legacy has been left behind. To be aware of this one has to delve deep into the past of Africa, into Black Consciousness, and traverse the heady journey of Steve Biko, the journeys of African leaders like Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel, Chris Hani, Kwame Nkrumah, Ken Saro Wiwa. If you have never even heard these names, read up about them (ignorance is not bliss: where knowledge flourishes, self-esteem, self-worth flourishes), claim their histories as your own, because the way these men and women lived is largely responsible for the way we live now, in relative freedom.
Only when you shed tears for what has been lost in Africa, gained, lost again, and again regained, can you understand what the meaning of the word African is. Only when it touches you beautifully like a masterpiece, caresses your intellect, your imagination, your state of mind with care and subterfuge, will it follow you all of your days.
When my grandfather came back from fighting in the Second World War he got a coat and a bicycle. When I followed my father's and my grandfather's footsteps back into the past, little did I realise how much I had to be grateful for. There are so many stories to tell, so many have been lost: up in the air, buried with the storyteller, taken to his/her grave.
Of course I would make this same call to writers not just from other contexts but also from other countries. You are not a citizen of the world first; you are a patriot to your country first.
Being a writer, a poet, an artist is not a choice. You are either called to it, like service or the ministry, or not. Writing is not a distraction. It has a purpose, an untold meaning in the throes of its beginnings. Choice only comes in when you begin to doubt your destiny.
I am only accountable to the people I am writing for and the God I worship.
KM: I found your poem Newborn, in ITCH e.06, personal, intimate, and universal. How does work like this represent Africa? In Madams, in ITCH e.05, I was fascinated by the blurriness of race in what is classically a tightly racially defined scenario. Your name does not identify you as African, so I read the narrating I as a white girl. Is this the I you were writing from?
AG: I was writing Madams from the consciousness of someone who found racism abhorrent and evil. I didn't want to box the character in with race. I hoped to use the war of nerves, the wisdom and aloofness of a moody teenager, surprise to open old wounds of history, colonial masters. I wanted to capture the essence of that awkward journey's destination. Racism and taunts numbed me as a child. Coming to grips with it, growing older, witnessing my father, my brother, my mother on the receiving end of it is still hurtful and humiliating. It is something, that humiliation: it stays with you forever. It damns you.
There are common threads in Madams that occur and run amok, wild in my own life. Writers, the Everyman, write what they know and write by self-conscious choice or leave behind subconscious markers and the traits of their personality. Racism has cradled me from birth to adulthood. It is a timeless dance in Africa not unlike leaves against blades of grass.
KM: For you, storytelling is a way of connecting and communicating. Who do you want to connect and communicate with? How do you measure whether you've succeeded? Do you need to hear from your readers?
AG: I want to connect and communicate with a global audience. I want what I write to have a universal message. I want, I crave, what my readers want, crave and are needful of. Whether it is finding inner peace in turbulent times, finding out what lies in the struggle of the dispossessed, the songbird and his/her freedom song, or loving and needing a precious moment of introspection, or speaking of women as goddesses, children as laudable citizens of the world. Most of all, I want to illuminate the private emotions behind sickness, disease, loveliness, love, death, paradise, heaven, hell.
It's hard to measure if you've succeeded if you've just been widely published online. One. People can comment on your work online. Two. Their comments can be favourable or three, negative. Four. The astonishing proof that you are worthy of being called an author is when a person who comments says they cannot wait for your book to come out. Five. If you have been published you can join SA PEN, which has affiliates all over the world. It gives you a wonderful feeling when you find that email waiting for you that says you've been accepted to join SA PEN. It's like sitting on top of the world.
It is good to hear from your readers. It keeps you on your toes. You no longer feel quite so alone in the world, not so alien or isolated or bereft just thinking about the challenge of change that is upon us, upon you, in the make-believe planet that is only shared by you and the blank computer screen.
KM: You've received two grants from the National Arts Council. Do you feel that the South African state supports the arts? What was your response to the Minister of Arts and Culture's reaction to the Innovative Women exhibition, funded by the department, earlier this year. The minister is quoted as saying "Our mandate is to promote social cohesion and nation building. I left the exhibition because it … was immoral, offensive and going against nation-building." One of the exhibiting artists is quoted as saying "It is worrisome to artists that everything we do is going to be censored. … There is no room for us in South Africa, so we are having to relocate overseas, where our work is recognised and appreciated because sadly it is not in South Africa." Do you agree with this?
AG: It is the state's responsibility to support the arts. Artists should be able to find and be given a space in which to create, construct, deconstruct at will, but they should also be mindful of the audience viewing the work. For any artist in South Africa it feels as if they are bursting out of their skin like the ripe, red seeds of a pomegranate when they receive any exposure for their work. Artists want to give expression and meaning to their innermost emotions. However, these must not in any way affect the norms and values of the broader society. We will have no society left if there are no boundaries.
I was conflicted about the Innovative Women exhibition. Every day so many people are persecuted in this country and they are usually in a minority group. I saw what the artist was trying to say from the heart, but I also saw something that was trying to be shocking, crazy-beautiful and provocative. The group of artists could have looked for alternatives. Art is important, but it is also important to realise how easily it can be lost in translation. The artists in the Innovative Women exhibition got what they wanted. Publicity. It just didn't come with a high approval rating. It came at a higher price than was expected.
This is what I know. Artists in any craft, writers and poets have to be true to themselves no matter how against them the world is. They have to believe in themselves when no one else does, and sometimes it doesn't lead to win-win situations. They have to be loyal to what is guiding them whatever they believe in, be it God, philosophy, existentialism. I believe it. I live it. When everything is against us, telling us this is wrong, it doesn't fit, it's not right, we must believe what our heart is telling us.