Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Review of The Thin Line and interview with Arja Salafranca by Janet van Eeden

Arja Salafranca has written an eclectic collection of short stories which dwell on the intimate nature of human relationships. The frail strand of connections, the thin line, as Salafranca calls it, between human beings is examined by her searingly honest exploration of human motivations. Whether characters are aware of their own agendas or not, the author delves into their psyche with relentless perspicacity...Read more here

Thursday, May 13, 2010

From recycling to royalty,London has me rather foxed

Last week I was shopping for food at 10 at night. With only one teller available at Tesco, and two self-service machines available, I nervously approached them and did what I had seen others do ahead of me.

Scanning my own groceries – who would have thought! I did have a minor moment of, “Now what?” when I got to the vegetables and fruit – after all they have no barcodes – but there was a friendly, if rather harassed employee, on hand to help me.

I packed my groceries into the hemp-like bag my cousin had provided me with and made my way home in the dark.

Lager louts crowded the narrow streets of Richmond, slouching in low slung jeans, women with bare arms tottered in heels; music blared from a pub and I wrapped my coat firmly around me.

I came home to Johannesburg: rubbish piled high outside my complex, potholes which I instinctively avoided, and the talk on the radio was all about the power outages affecting the city of Johannesburg. This came as winter had arrived with a vengeance, freezing temperatures and unseasonable rain.

I was exhausted and couldn’t understand why.

After all, they do speak English in London, and having watched British TV and movies, read novels set in that country you generally think you’re au fait with the norms and customs in that culture. But as a friend pointed out soon after my arrival, “No wonder you’re tired, London’s another world entirely.”

And it is. This was my third visit – and each time I spend time there I feel as if I am only peering through a tiny window, barely scratching at the surface of this vast city.

Each visit means a reacquaintance with the Underground, of course, it’s all a bit of a maze at first with west-bound and east-bound trains causing a small headache until it’s the last day and suddenly you know what you’re doing and you’re racing along like the Londoners, crystal sure of your direction and in just as much of a hurry to get there as everyone else.

And yet, it’s deceptive, this feeling, as though you know your way around or that you know the city. Take the language. They may speak English, you may speak English, but the way you talk is sometimes cause for amusement.

My Swedish cousin made her home there six years ago and is fully bilingual; bilingual enough to comment that both I, and other South Africans she has met, seem to talk a sort of antique version of the language.

We’re not just talking about stoves versus cookers here either. And although I never quite said the words “blooming marvellous” she almost expected me to come up those quaint words. In any case, when I used the word “foxed” all at the dinner table burst out in embarrassed laughter. Never quite got that.

I was foxed in other ways too. While we South Africans know all about recycling – for most of us it’s a rather academic understanding, sadly – but in the UK they have it down pat.

Getting my head around four places to put the rubbish – from paper to tin to vegetable and other organic-like matter to a plain old dustbin – was another learning curve.

I more or less got it right, but even so a banana peel sometimes landed up being flung in the wrong bin. I assuaged my shame by buying not only free-range eggs but also made sure they were organic. See, some things do rub off.

There were other out-of-this-world experiences, of course. Rowing on the River Thames, enjoying those long golden dusks, and finding the greens and the banks of the river filled to bursting with Brits catching the first rays of the season’s sun. They seemed to exhale happiness as they sat basking there.

And then, queuing, yes, queuing politely at the bar for drinks.

I had always thought the British sense of fair play and politeness was somewhat exaggerated, but no, it lives on, although I did feel a little restless and a desire to be pushy as politeness meant a wait of 10 or so minutes just to be served.

And then, on my last day, the sky as blue as a cliche, we went to Windsor Castle. Planes roared over every few minutes – the cloud of ash had at last dissipated and I realised how noisy the skies of London could be. Windsor Castle has been inhabited since the 11th century.We walked among history, marvelled, yes, marvelled at China plates displayed behind glass and Queen Mary’s massive room-sized doll’s house.

And then, leaving, we noticed groups of expectant people, smiles hovering around their faces, massed behind a rope, waiting. Prince Charles was leaving the castle – a small part of it is open to the public, otherwise today’s Royal Family still lives there now and again. I caught a glimpse of a grey head as he ducked into the interior of the car, enough of a glimpse to say that I had hobnobbed with royalty.

Indeed, another world.

(Published in The Sunday Independent, May 2, 2010)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Creative non-fiction: a new approach to journalism

Writer Chuck Palahniuk is off to interview movie star Juliette Lewis. Afterwards he’s going to write a profile of the actress called ‘In her own words’. A bold promise is implied in that title, but in his piece Palahniuk more than lives up to that promise:

“One time,” Juliette Lewis says, “I wanted to get to know someone better by writing down questions to him…”
She says, “The questions are more telling about me than anything I could write in a diary.”
She’s holding a handwritten list she’s just found and reads:“Did you ever stab someone or cut them intentionally with a sharp object?”
She reads: “Do you like asparagus?”
She reads: “Do you have a middle name?”
“Do cats frustrate you as pets, or do you admire their independence?”
Over the past twenty-four hours, she’s talked about her family, her father (Geoffrey Lewis), her career, the Scientology thing, getting married and writing songs. The songs are important because after years of being scripted, these are her words now.

Whenever people ask me what creative non-fiction, or creative journalism is, I point them to this essay. In 10 pages Palahniuk gets under the skin of Lewis, and whether or not you’re interested in the actress, and I wasn’t and am not, you keep on reading. There’s an immediacy to this piece achieved by the use of present tense throughout. Palahniuk talks to Lewis’s mother, follows her as she grinds coffee beans, and is there when the VCR breaks down. Throughout Palahniuk sprinkles the narrative with Lewis’s handwritten notes: “What’s the first image you have of the female body?” and “Do you look more like your father or your mother?” and “Did you ever fall in love with an animal in a way where you wished you could talk like human friends?”

Lewis is right: these questions reveal as much about her own preoccupations, concerns and interests as they would about anyone else. Palahniuk is playing interviewer, but so is Lewis. And you get a picture of this woman who is living in a rented house in Hollywood Hills, stark modern and yet filled with antique furniture. Juliette Lewis is alive in this piece – Palahniuk gained an unusual access to her life, an access that is rarely granted to most journalists. But he’s used it well: he hasn’t written a standard profile – he glosses over the “Scientology thing” as though it doesn’t matter, and only later driving past the Scientology Centre does he describe why she is into the religion. A regular, magazine or newspaper profile would have, I believe, leaped right into the Scientology thing, that’s the sensational part, “our readers would be interested in that aspect,” you can hear an editor saying. Imagine the coverline on a glossy mag: “Lewis says Scientology keeps her sane.” Would you want to buy it?

And yet, narrative journalism, creative non-fiction, call it what you will – it has a lot of names – is about much more than sensationalism. It’s about getting to the heart of a matter, or a person; it’s about using fiction techniques to tell a non-fiction story, it’s about making a piece of writing sing and spark, it’s about using words in a way that few writers of non-fiction dare to. In part that’s because it’s not expected of them. In South Africa, particularly, we have such a limited, unadventurous sense of journalism and reportage that creative non-fiction feels like a breath of fresh air. In the US you can subscribe to a journal called Creative Non-fiction, where all these techniques are used to astounding effect.

In an anthology called In Fact: The Best of Creative Non-fiction, I read ‘Finder’s Keepers: The Story of Joey Coyle’ by Mark Bowden. In 30 pages of writing the pace doesn’t flag once. You could be reading a gripping crime story. This excellent piece reads like fiction because Bowden uses direct speech, lively description, and rounded character observation. See for yourself.Here’s an extract:

Day One
Coming down made Joey Coyle feel desperate and confused. When he was high the drugfilled his chest and head with gusts of power so great he could barely breathe or think fast enough. This was how Joey spent his nights. When he slept it was during the day.

You don’t get more immediate than that. You’re inside Joey’s head now, 28-year-old Joey, working on the docks in Philadelphia in 1981 and still living in his mom’s house. The story is about Joey and two friends who find $1.2 million that had fallen out of a truck. They try to get away with keeping the money, even though they were spotted taking it. The story follows Joey’s increasing unease and obsession with trying to find a safe place to stash the money. Writer Bowden is right there, we’re there, in Philadelphia with the cops cruising the streets, looking for the make of car Joey and friends were driving, watching as Joey hides the money in first one place then another. In the notes which follow this piece, Bowden writes: “Scenes, dialogue, characters, plot, foreshadowing, metaphor, interior monologue … you name it, I use every technique I’ve ever read and admired.”

There are all sorts of narrative journalism, you can just as easily describe a Jewish divorce ceremony as the process of being shunned by your community or describe a misdiagnosis of cancer. These are all personal essays also found in this anthology and all take a different approach to telling their stories. Yet each is gripping. We’re not talking static essays here, such as the type most of us remember being forced to write at school, the type many of us run away from reading. “Essays are boring” seems to be the implicit assumption, and yes, they can be and sometimes are. But that’s only because the writer hasn’t gone to enough trouble, hasn’t taken delight in the language, hasn’t played with the process of writing and has simply stated facts in old boring ways. It doesn’t have to be like that.

The writers here know it, US novelist Barbara Kingsolver knows it, South African writer Don Pinnock knows it.

In her 1995 book High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never Kingsolver weaves the personal with more wide-ranging subjects. She uses humour and colloquial language to talk about some serious stuff; you never feel you have to wade through this because it’s really worthy and you really should be reading something other than all those escapist novels. She has a child (she’s since had another), and this child peppers many of her essays. “Civil Disobedience at Breakfast” begins with a description of their lives together:

I have a child who was born with the gift of focus, inclined to excel at whatever she earnestly pursues. Soon after her second birthday she turned to the earnest pursuit of languor, and shot straight through to the ranks to world-class dawdler. I thought it would be my death.

Like any working stiff of a mother keeping the family presentable and solvent, I lived in a flat-out rush. My daughter lived on Zen time. These doctrines cannot find peace under one roof.

But this isn’t a personal essay about life with a daughter on Zen time; it’s more wide- ranging than that. This is an essay about raising children, about giving them independence (or not), about reliving your own childhood as a parent, about the effect of parents’ behaviour on their own children, about the pull between wanting to be creative and having to watch another theatrical performance where the monster is tied up with Day-Glo shoelaces and pantyhose.

Kingsolver writes about nature, the Dewey decimal system, about divorce in a personal sense as well as a more abstract one travelling, and living in another country, the Spanish islands, the Canary Islands.

How’s this for the opening of a travel piece from ‘Somebody’s Baby’:

As I walked out of the street entrance to my newly rented apartment, a guy in maroon high-tops and a skateboard haircut approached me, making kissing noises and saying, “Hi gorgeous”. Three weeks earlier I would have assess the degree of malice and made ready to run or tell him to bug off, depending. But, now, instead, I smiled, and so did my four-year-old daughter, because after dozens of similar encounters I understood he didn’t mean me but her.
This was not the United States.

And then there’s Don Pinnock, associate editor at Getaway magazine, which means he gets to go lots of places and send back emails saying he’s in Paris this week, or wherever. It also means he gets to meet a lot of interesting people, to write columns on travel and the natural world, and makes even earthworms sounds interesting. Or bats. Bats? Yes bats. No fan of them myself, although that’s my own prejudice and ignorance, I kept on reading about them and other subjects I wouldn’t even have given a second thought to in essay after essay in Natural Selections and Love Letters to Africa.

In “Notes from Heaven” Pinnock finds himself in the Umfolozi wilderness:

The ripple of frogs counterpoints a night so still the ants seem to be walking on tiptoes. High overhead, tamboti and knobthorn trees are catching stars and a comet or two in their interlaced branches. … It feels good to be down on the naked skin of Africa in the small hours. I’m on night watch, probing the perimeter with a torch somehow less bright than my imagination, peering for predators and unwelcome ungulates: wishing them absent; hoping they’re there…

This is not common garden-variety travel writing. This is not the type of unadventurous story that recounts a trip from day one, arrival, to day 10, departure, and a sun sinks into the horizon type of story. Pinnock not so much pushes the boundaries as creates new ways of saying things, of making seemingly dry facts palatable, interesting and fascinating. From camels to dams to mediations on global warming, you’re with him all the way, urged on by his humour and his chatty tone.

The writers I have included here have created their own styles of writing. Each has a distinct voice, one that urges you with its creativity and uniqueness. And this is the type of writing that should be gracing our newspapers and magazines. It’s writing that lives beyond that day’s or that month’s deadline, it’s writing that makes you want to read while opening a window on the world.

Some books to look up:
Non-Fiction: True Stories by Chuck Palahniuk
Natural Selections: The African Wanderings of a Bemused Naturalist, Love Letters to Africa and African Journeys by Don Pinnock
In Fact: The Best of Creative Non-fiction Edited by Lee Gutkind
High Tide in Tucson: Essays from Now or Never by Barbara Kingsolver
Small Wonder: Essays
The Best American Essay series, published annually by Houghton Mifflin Company
The White Album by Joan Didion
Holidays in Hell by PJ O’Rourke

(First published as Dye Hard Press Newsletter 10)