Vibrant, witty literary prowess

2012-05-09 00:00

ONE character from Shaida Kazie Ali’s first novel, Not a Fairytale, gets a mention in her second, Lessons in Husbandry (reviewed below).

“My son, who is 13, told me to bring Zuhra back, so she gets a brief appearance. He also told me he would have enjoyed Not a Fairy­tale more if I hadn’t written it.”

When Ali told him she would probably say the word vagina at least three times at the Cape Town launch of Lessons in Husbandry , he told her to signal when it was coming by touching her ear, so that he could leave the room.

This must be an adolescent’s dread of a conspicuous parent — even if they are conspicuous because of success. Most critics and readers are delighted with Ali’s writing. She has said in interviews that writing can be “self-flagellation”, and that she has a “dysfunctional relationship” with the process.

However, she does admit that when she had finished the first draft of Lessons in Husbandry , she was delighted with it. “But then, later, in the editing process, I hated every word.” It’s hard to imagine why.

Ali says she always wanted to write, but never felt that she was any good. “I think that comes from being a prolific reader,” she says. As a child, she tried to write Famous Five kind of stories.

But it was only when she began to work from home, setting up material for a distance learning organisation, that she found she had more time and began to try in earnest. She joined a writing class with Cape Town-based writer and teacher Anne Schuster.

“I heard her speak at UCT’s Summer School, and joined a group of women writers she used to run. It wasn’t an academic course, but it was very nurturing, very helpful.” It was Schuster nudging at her that got her to finish her first book, she says. And going to the launch of a book by a 16-year-old. “I thought that if a 16-year-old can do it, then so can I.”

Malak is persuaded to join a writing course in Lessons in Husbandry, and Ali admits that she drew on her own experience there, though she was very careful not to write about anyone who had been on the course with her. She says her ideal reader, the person she has in mind when she is writing, is her sister, who is a professional gardener in Fort Lauderdale in the United States. “She’s vibrant, tall and glamorous, with an infectious laugh, and I know that if she likes it, other people will,” she says.

Lessons in Husbandry , while not anti-religious, certainly has a dig at conformist and patriarchal religions, and bigots. One character, Precious, veers between spells of being a devout Muslim and enjoying himself with his life-size, mail-order sex doll, who he calls Jalebi.

“She’s my favourite character,” laughs Ali. “She says so much about Western society, and about women and how they treat themselves — and all without saying a word. And at the end, she gets a job.” I agree not to give anything away by explaining that remark — read the book to understand.

I tell Ali that I found Lessons in Husbandry a romantic book, though not in any way in the Barbara Cartland or Mills & Boon sense. Ali agrees. “It’s another kind of fairytale. It is Malak whose life stops when her sister disappears. She lives in the shadow of the disappearance, lives a half life. When she falls in love, it wakes her up.” It is romantic in the best possible way.

Ali’s favourite local writers are poet Gabeba Baderoon, who is also a good friend, Philippa Yaa de Villiers, Henrietta Rose-Innes and short-story author Mary Watson. “But it’s tough to make a living here by writing,” she says. Maybe so, but if Ali continues to write as she is doing at the moment, you feel she has a better chance than most.

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