Writing against the odds

2015-03-29 15:00

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ZP Dala chats to Binwe Adebayo about her new novel, her work and the aftermath of her attack

Zainub Dala’s new novel, What About Meera, was meant to be launched at last week’s Time of the Writer Festival in Durban, but the launch was postponed after Dala was brutally attacked after she said she admired Salman Rushdie’s writing style.

Tell us a bit about What About Meera. Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?

What About Meera is an epic journey written in a stream of consciousness style. It tells the tale of a young woman, Meera, who is born and grows up on a sugar cane farm in a small township called Tongaat in KwaZulu-Natal.

A harrowing arranged marriage, emotional and physical abuse and a frowned-upon divorce find Meera fleeing to Dublin, Ireland, to work at a school for autistic children, where she hopes to find peace.

But her psyche is damaged and fuelled by alcohol and painful childhood secrets, which pushes her into a doomed affair with the father of one of the autistic boys she works with. Where Meera hoped for love, she gets terrible rejection, and she commits a horrifying act.

What is your writing process like? Do you have a regimented schedule or is the programme more open than that?

I have two small children who occupy most of my day. I am at my most creative (and free to write) in the early hours of the morning. So 3am will find me with coffee in hand, chipping away at my stories.

There are small but definite elements of you in the Meera character. What was it like to write elements of biography into a fictional story?

The elements of ‘me’ that surface are merely my observations of the many people I meet and talk to, whose everyday stories fascinate me.

Meera and I are very different in many ways. I am, I would hope, a great deal more extroverted than the shy Meera.

For me, the greatest part of the autobiographical element came through in the vivid descriptions of the farm I grew up on, and the hospitals and schools in which I spent a large part of my time. I indulged myself completely in reminiscence of that beautiful sugar cane farm.

What do you think the key issues of the book are?

I wanted to open up a dialogue about divorce in a community like the one Meera belongs to. Breaking the stereotype that divorce is taboo and a divorcee cannot lead a happy, productive life was my key message.

I engaged in various other issues not often talked about in the community, such as the admiration for fair skin and the almost blind adoration for any type of religious ‘swami’ who may surface.

I recognised that there is such hunger for religious direction, and doctrine is so closely guarded and considered only for the elite few, that many people find themselves lost and unable to ask questions about their faith.

What important messages would you like the reader to take away from the book?

First and very importantly, I want people – women – to know their true worth. I want anyone who reads this book to run the gauntlet of painful difficult worlds with me, but to emerge on the other side, like Meera did, with the slivers of light that take us through our daily lives. There is great value in finding the beauty in the mundane, and the almost nebulous pictures of joy in the worst moments.

Who do you write for? The reader, yourself, or perhaps someone or something else?

I write for all of the above. There are days when I indulge myself completely and write only for myself, just to unpack my thoughts. But when I write, the reader is foremost in my mind. I attempt to answer questions such as ‘will my reader understand what I am trying to weave together on this page?’ and ‘will my reader take home my message?’

As for the ‘something else’, yes, I must be candid?...?I write so that knowledge about little-known hamlets and almost invisible people who walk among us are seen, and their stories told.

What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing the novel?

I learnt that writing a book is a hard process. One sees a book on a shelf with a great cover and never really knows what intense work went into putting it together. My editor, Jenefer Shute, was my lighthouse in this storm, as were Beth Lindop and Fourie Botha at Umuzi.

How are you feeling after the assault?

I am healing physically and am lucky to have good medical professionals assisting me. Emotionally, I realise it will take time and I am allowing myself this space.

I am not angry at my attackers. I am saddened that they would resort to such methods after the mere mention of my admiration for Mr Rushdie’s writing style. I am vehement in my stance against physical violence towards anyone, not just women.

What do you think such a deplorable incident says about the place of writers in our society?

I think our responsibility as writers has now grown. We have to put on other hats now. In these times, we can no longer be satisfied with writing in dark rooms. Now we, and all artists, have become activists. Our words must now reach the highest places in the land.

We must not be naive in thinking our writing is merely that. Our writing is now, as it was in the days of apartheid, a powerful tool. And we must use the tool.

Do you think this assault will affect your writing life in any way?

I would be foolishly blind to say this incident will have no bearing on my writing at all. When we write, we write from context. I want to leave the incident in the past. I think it will in no way deter me from my life’s purpose as a writer and reader.

An excerpt from Dala’s novel

What About Meera by ZP Dala


172 pages

R171 at kalahari.com

He sat on a wooden chair in the garden underneath the 100-year-old thorn tree. His daughter sat quietly breathing near him. The crickets began to sing love songs, the swallows that flew north for the winter now revelled in the December dusk and came home like obedient children to roost in their muddy homes.

Not so far away, in the shacks, fires burnt and their wood smoke brought a fragrance to the night. The dew had not even begun to fall yet.

He looked with a side glance at the wild-haired child he had fathered. She seemed lost in the world around her. As always, she sat with one foot dangling off the stool and one tucked underneath her. His limber, tiny-boned girl. The daughter he knew nothing about, knew not how to talk to. He knew only that his heart would always betray him in her tiny presence. The little place-shape she took in the big wide world.

‘The swallows came back, Papa,’ she commented, breaking the silence. He breathed out loud and wondered why this child was lingering around him tonight.

‘Yes, they have come home,’ he replied and continued into his favourite time of day. When day gives herself to night.

‘The old lady who lives in the shacks was selling roasted mealies today, Papa,’ she said, speaking to him again.

‘Hmmm,’ he grunted, not knowing what else to say. Again, he wondered why the child was seeking out his presence with mundanities. The air around her asked her father a million uncomfortable questions. But she insisted on small talk. Any talk.

‘I wonder why we don’t see fireflies any more, Papa,’ she said again, whimsically. And he recalled a day when she was five years old, as gangly as she was now, and he had taught her to catch fireflies at night and put them into empty pickle jars so they would glow. He remembered with vividness how seriously she’d set about it, chasing fireflies, how her high cheekbones would rise to the heavens in her smile when she trapped one. And how she would watch the trapped insect for only a moment before opening the lid and giving it permission to go home to its ‘mummy and daddy’.

He felt assaulted by her quiet presence near him. He felt a bitter pill at the back of his throat.

Her bright yellow dress and traditional billowing pants irritated him, angered him, saddened him. A child. Barely a child still.

In two days’ time, he would give her away to another man. Perhaps a man who could explain softly to her why we don’t see fireflies any more. Perhaps a man who would explain nothing to her at all. He hated himself. For giving her away. For wanting never to give her away.

But she had to go. It was her time. She had bought time by a year after she finished school. She had done well at school, well enough to get into a college.

Inside his heart he wanted her to be a teacher. But rules are rules. And he was the beloved of the Holy Man, who told him that she must go.

Young, fresh, freshly pinched and fondled, not even 19 years old. With a sharp mind, a kind, soft heart, and a beauty that only a father could see. She must go.

She shifted her legs, dropping the folded one to dangle in the dust, and folding the dusty one beneath her warm body. A ripple of sand dunes from a desert breeze swayed through his heart. A ripple of self-hatred gripped his insides.

He did what he always did best when he was deeply emotional. He turned on her. His daughter. His child.

‘Meera! Go inside! Now! What’s this? Young girls with open hair sitting under trees at night just a few days before your wedding day? India Swami would be furious if he saw you. Go! Just go from here – ’

‘But Papa …’

Meera knew all too well what India Swami’s fury would bring her. She shuddered. Her father took the shudder for a chill in the air, or an ill-omened wind that blew over her.

‘Meera!’ he said gruffly. ‘Get from here. Go inside with the ladies and help to clean the rice, and also … tie your hair, and also, put on some shoes, and also learn to sit like a proper lady and also … Go from here. Now.’

She looked first at her dusty bare feet as she stood up. She looked hurt. She lingered still. And then, with those eyes that he loved and dreaded equally, she looked straight into his. A million questions were asked. A million secrets were told. If only. If only Papa I could tell you. If only Papa you would believe me.

But he turned his face away. Too quickly. Too sharply. And he heard her bare feet go padding away from a perfect moment he would never be given again.

He leant onto the hard back of the wooden Globe chair and pulled out a cigarette. And a firefly flew benignly past his nose.

On the sweltering, stinking day he handed her over to her new husband, he cried. Behind a pillar where no one could see him. He never saw the way she turned around in all her bridal itchy fake-golden finery, looking for him as the bridal Mercedes-Benz drove away. All he saw was the mistake he had made.

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