We all have stories to share but only a few of our stories are worth publishing as entire novels. I got the chance to speak to Cape Town based poet and writer, Mario d'Offizi about his book. He started writing his first novel shortly after a visit to the Congo in 2006 to document stories about South African soldiers serving as peacekeepers with the United Nations.
Shortly after his return, he began to write about his experiences - these narratives rekindled memories, which he developed into the controversial novel, Bless Me Father. "The pastors and orphans I had encountered there and in Zambia took me back to my own past, and so the DRC narrative evolved into an autobiography," he says.
d'Offizi has lived an eventful life since his childhood, growing up in a broken home full of uncertainty and violence, he ended up in Boys Town - where his life took a turning point. In this part of the story we meet Father Reginald Orsmond. A man described by the Catholic Church having the "...ability to touch the hearts and purses of other people with his enthusiasm, led to the establishment of the great institution that we know today."
d'Offizi depicts the painful experience of being sexually violated by a Catholic priest, growing up in a dysfunctional home while exploring his own sexual identity. "He would give you a drink, put hands in your lap and tell you certain urges were not evil..." Mario writes in the book. The book was obviously not the best publicity for Boys Town. After reading the book, I wondered how Mario managed to document such a painful story so lightly and articulately with occasional comic relief.
"After writing certain painful parts, I would stop writing for a couple of days. At times I just wanted to shelve the book completely. My publisher encouraged me to finish and set a deadline which forced me to finish the book in the short time I did."
An autobiography is an i-story from which everyone (or just the targeted audience) can learn lessons. There are things to identify with and readers won't feel alone with their thoughts and experiences. One message that stood out in the book for me was:Deflect/Reflect. "Deflect the negatives and the shit that comes your way. Deflect them with strength and purpose. Don't counter-punch. Life is not a martial art. Reflect the love you hold within."
The book took him only a month to complete. His exceptional memory resonates throughout the book, his first draft was well received by his family members, friends and strong backing from his editor, Andrew Miller, encouraged him to finish the book in the short time he did.
I asked Mario a few more questions about what i-nspires him, his i-nfluences, i-nteractions and more on his i-dentity.
Q: How do you go about your creative processes, especially in articulating something painful while trying to entertain, educate and inform?
A: I don't think about the process. I just put it down. I 'visualise' and the words flow like brush strokes. Somehow, once I start writing, it just seems to come together.
Q: As a writer, what are your thoughts on the fact that reading is becoming less popular - people spending less money on books, downloading books and choosing audio books over printed books, etc.?
A: I think it is pretty sad. Although audio books have great value - and at least people can still 'hear' the words and stories.
Q: Did writing the book help you to face demons? Did it strengthen or weaken relations with people mentioned in it?
A: Yes, writing the book helped me face certain demons and was cathartic in a sense. Apart from the church, which was obviously very pissed off with my revelations, I had no problems. Many people backed me and even thanked me for having the courage to bring certain issues to light.
Q: As a writer, where would you like to see South African Literature heading - in terms of the stories we tell?
A: There is so much good South African writing out there; happily writers are letting go of the dreadful past (to an extent) and writing about more contemporary issues. There is lots of good fiction - and humour!
Q: Who's had the greatest influence in your life?
A: Socrates - I discovered him as a teenager. He was a simple man who, I believe, rarely penned his philosophies; and taught informally, in public places, without ever charging a 'mina' (Greek currency of his time; about a cent.) From a literary point of view I loved the great South African writer Herman Charles Bosman and John Steinbeck (especially his novella, Tortilla Flats).
Q: How have interactions with the outside world been since writing your book?
A: Nothing has changed really. A great moment was in Namibia, last year. After breakfast one morning, in a little B&B in Windhoek, a young lady - Kanya Ndaki - deputy Editor of the United Nations HIV/AIDS News Service, approached me and asked if I was the Mario who wrote the book Bless Me Father. I was surprised. She said she had recognized me from an appearance on SABC International when I was interviewed in 2009. She complimented me on 'an exceptional read'. It was amazing and I walked on clouds for a while.
Q: How have you dealt with the complexities of self identity and ego after publishing your story? A: Throughout my life I have suffered from a lack of self-esteem and confidence. Having had my first book published on merit (I would NEVER self-publish!) gave me a little boost. Believe it or not, I don't have much of an ego.
Q: How would you describe yourself in a word?
Q: What does 'i' mean to you?
A: WE! Links:
Podcast with an Adventurous Writer, Mario
Banana Crates and Wire Mesh
Mario on Facebook