Monday, December 1, 2008

Keeping the secrets

Keeping the secrets, keeping the past alive, making sure none of it is lost in the years and moments that follow. I suppose it’s one way of explaining why I keep a journal. But it doesn’t explain it all.

I have over thirty volumes of journals. They range from fat, black official notebooks bought in London, to thin, ordinary volumes covered in pretty paper to make them look special, to files, to folders, to really fancy books with marbleised paper, leather bindings and resplendent covers.

I started keeping a diary over nineteen years ago. It was January 1983 and I was eleven. I can’t say I was inspired by anyone. I simply had an itch to start keeping a journal, an itch I ignored until I read Anne Frank’s Diary. That started me off. I couldn’t wait anymore. A friend of my mother’s had given me a special book to copy my poetry into, and into that corduroy red book went the first entries in large, round childish handwriting.

They are not remarkable. They talk about school, crushes on Princess Diana, then a 21 year-old mother of William, about weight obsessions, my embarrassment over my developing breasts, (they were already the biggest of the girls in my standard) and what food I ate; they were about school trips, an impending journey to San Francisco, and they contain some examples of my earliest prose.

They became deeper, more meaningful and serious as that year went on. I seemed to have returned from that trip to the US older, more searching, having grown up in an important and very real sense.

After that my writing grew smaller and more cramped as I tried to “grow” up, not realising I didn’t need to make the writing small to show my increasing maturity. The topics deepened then too: they turned to crushes on other girls, to philosophy and to what I was beginning to formulate as my own beliefs in life and why we were here. They contained arguments with my divorced mother, and they spoke about my desires to become a singer, a pilot, an actress, a writer, an astronaut and other childish dreams.

‘I’ll become an opera singer,’ I told my best friend, ‘and when I’m fifty I’ll turn to writing.’ She thought it was a good idea. None of us questioned whether I could actually turn my voice to opera. (I can’t, I no longer even like the stuff. But then my ambition in this regard came from the enormous crush I had on Maria Callas.)

They were the vessels into which I poured loneliness, dreams, hopes, fears, emerging puberty, the faint twinklings of adulthood.

And they changed as I grew. The books got bigger and prettier in size, the writing more fluid, the themes bigger. Reincarnation, Buddhism, conversations and arguments, my dying belief in religions. I grew up. I became a teenager. I got pimples and big breasts, I entered high school, I told my teachers I believed in the Masters and I didn’t believe in death. Everyone thought I was strange. A new-born Christian tried to show me the error of my ways. The Jewish religious teacher kicked me out of Jewish religious classes. But I stuck to my guns, I believed what I believed.

The teenage years were not that happy. I spent my time dreaming, writing journals, hoping that one day soon our emigration papers from America would come through, and we’d be gone, away from this hot, horrible country with its limited opportunities. When that didn’t happen I took to trying to materialise money out of the air. (That didn’t work either.)

Political awareness came early. Having been born in Spain, and having lived in Israel from the ages of three to five, I came to South Africa with a fresh eye. The first time I saw a black person was in Jerusalem. I was amazed. That night my mother made chocolate cake and I smeared chocolate icing over my face to prove that I too could be black.

I wrote about the black maids who worked in our houses, in the homes of my friends, of the inequities. I followed the events in South Africa keenly, from the Rubicon speech to the State of Emergency (Did this mean I wouldn’t have to go to school – unfortunately not), to the plunging rand and the violence that was bursting out in the townships.

It’s all there in the dairies. But it’s hard to extract the raw essence of all the people I was then. To go back into the dairy pulls me right back into those worlds, those times of my childhood, my teenagehood. Till I pull my head out of them and wonder where I am. Because I’m not here in the present, and I’m not there either. The veil of memories serves as a sharp, thankful reminder that I’m an adult. The adult I longed to be so long ago.

But there’s power in diaries too. The power to draw you back, sure, but also the power of making you remember things you’d rather forget, or the things you forgot simply because there was so much going on in your mind at any particular time. And there’s the power of knowing your younger selves exist, in neatly stacked volumes, in a variety of inks and colour papers, and it’s harder to ignore your dreams when they’re there, imploring you to go out and reach them.

My diaries have also taught me to write. At first they were self-conscious musings. Later on, at around twelve, I read Anais Nin’s journals, and found her exploring other people psyches in them, and then turning them into characters. I didn’t think the people I knew were that interesting, but I tried anyway. I attempted turning my twelve-year-old friends into exotic myths. It didn’t work, but I did learn something about characterisation, gestures, people turned into fictional elements.

I learned to write dialogue as I recorded arguments, religious disagreements with my grandfather and conversations with my friends. I learned where to put the pauses, how to make it dramatic, what to leave out. Of course I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was learning to become the writer I’d decided to be at eleven.

University. Reading quantities of African and South African literature, and learning that I could express myself through the land and the people I knew and saw around me. The choices were open, and realising that my own attempts at fiction were freed. I too began to write about South Africa, instead of mysterious overseas countries and surrealistic landscapes.

To starting work, and learning how to deal with that part of my life. I was now the adult I’d longed to be, although I didn’t feel it at twenty-two. I felt it only later, much later, when I’d gone through some more growing up, through love affairs, a disastrous job, the revolution of losing confidence in my own talents. And on to the writing successes that were beginning to come at such a young age, the poetry and short stories being published to winning the Sanlam Award, to becoming the journalist I’d decided to be, simply because I could write.

The diary was there throughout it all. I never stopped except for a period of three months, when I thought I should try to do without it. What did I do instead? I kept a writing journal, proving to myself that I couldn’t not keep a journal. There was no choice. I had this compulsion that others didn’t, that other people seemed to admire, yet not understand. No matter how busy my life, I always took time out for writing my journal, for catching up, recording it. Even reliving life, perhaps.

It’s a compulsion that goes on toady, and it’s a compulsion I just can’t explain. I finished a volume the other day, and I’m diaryless at the moment. I feel stateless. I can’t wait to begin the new one, to start on those fresh, clean pages, ride across them with my old-fashioned fountain pen and bottle of smooth blue ink. Everything else I do is written on computer, but not my diaries. I go back centuries when using the books and the special pen.

Nearly twenty years. Almost like a relationship. Do I feel such an attachment to the past that I cannot let go? That I keep diaries to recapture it, to feel again what it was like to live through all the years? Perhaps.

But perhaps it’s also more a need based in the present, oddly enough. I need to be here, now, recording the conversations recently had, noting the ideas tossed around in a room one night, for instance. It’s a need to reduce time to an essence, to a collection of words, days, months.

And the need to write. The need that propels my short stories and my poems propels the non-fiction side too. It’s arbitrary, it’s unexplainable. It’s simply there.

(Published in Fidelities, August 2003)

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