Frantz Fanon once wrote, “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.” Megan Ross explores this idea in "Farang". In the story, Becky broaches Thai culture and an interracial relationship while she attempts to straddle the roles of both insider and outsider. Through vivid imagery, Megan Ross drenches the reader in a foreign landscape; the panic, pleasure and sorrow held in new experiences. We spoke to her about creating "Farang".
Migrations is available in all good bookstores in South Africa. They will be happy to order it for you if they don't have it on the shelves yet. It will be published in the US and UK in September, and will be available as an eBook in all African territories on 1st April.
Was “Farang” a story you had in your back pocket or was it inspired by the unveiling of the theme? How did the tale come about and come together for you?
MEGAN: I actually began writing "Farang", or a version of it, three years ago. Most of the stories in the collection I am currently writing, "Farang" included, found their genesis in this beautiful studio I had in a high-rise in Bangkok. I had been living there for six months, and at the time I was lonely, homesick, but also enthralled with my new life – and my new status, as an outsider. The whole world felt very available to me; Bangkok is the kind of city that makes one feel small, in the best way, and the story was partly inspired by this awe I had, for my new home, and also, for the world, which I suddenly felt could be mine in a way I had never experienced before. This magic is immediate, and it never leaves you. "Farang", however, which at that point I thought might grow into a novel, reached a dead end, as some stories are wont to do. It was not until after I returned to South Africa, with new insight into my home, and myself, that I picked it up again.
Like my protagonist, I also fell pregnant in Thailand. The written word, and this story in particular, became a conduit for some of that pain I felt when having no bodily autonomy or reproductive agency. Possibly, it was a way of working through what happened, perhaps exploring my options in a way I was never able to do when I fell pregnant. But in another sense, it was also a means of exploring whiteness, my own and that of my fellow expatriate teachers in Thailand, particularly the South Africans, and how cultural norms and notions of race and culture morphed and shifted when outside of this country, and away from home.
One of the story’s themes seems to be contact. Limited contact because of distance, physical contact and surmounting the barriers of language to achieve closeness. Could you speak more about this in relation to the story?
MEGAN: The body is essentially our point of contact with the world. Women’s bodies in particular are sites of political and private battles, where scars of unwanted contact are etched into the psyche. In Thailand I was initially struck by the little physical contact that couples have in public. Physical affection is limited; at first this shocked me. It was an interesting time: noticing the intersections of cultures, the idea of contested spaces, degrees of acceptable contact between two people.
The couple’s bodies meet to form the site of contact between each other; a means of communicating what can’t be spoken. They are both writing and being written upon. There is also the protagonist’s racial and cultural inheritance as a white South African woman which informs this relationship. In South Africa, an interracial relationship would have historic, possibly violent connotations, but in Thailand, she feels that there is a freedom from South Africa’s apartheid legacy; she feels removed from the context of her family, where a relationship with an Asian or black man might have been frowned upon. And, being white, she has the privilege of moving into a new country and not being "othered", not to the degree that she then goes on to "other" even her own boyfriend, a Thai man, on whose body is written an entirely different set of societal and cultural codes.
"Farang" was also a means of exploring notions of the spirit, and of flesh, and cultural ideas about each. For Becky, the spiritual world is consigned to (usually Christian) houses of worship. But in Bangkok, Becky really confronts the western notions of her spiritual inheritance: what it means to believe in tree spirits in the avenues, to believe in ghosts really inhabiting the little spirit houses beside each home, how to accept that in Thailand, public spiritual rituals and religious monuments are as common and acceptable as Starbucks. In this city that so effortlessly blends spirituality and capitalism, religion and daily life, in a way that she is not used to - in a way that upsets her ideas about spirituality being something ordered, that one can just file away after church or shul. She must conceptualise a new way of seeing human beings, of people, of love! and how she views the point of contact between soul and body.
Later on, she is forced to confront this head-on, but until then, she begins to see her body, at least some aspects of it, as a tool. Between her boyfriend and herself, there is nothing except what they can physically build; theirs is a love created in the spaces language leaves, in pauses, in silence, and slowly, an understanding develops that supersedes what might have been created with words. Perhaps these gaps in communication are where spirits enter; perhaps the relationship that arises is more true?
Why do you write and in particular what attracts you to the short story form?
MEGAN: It is less a case of why I write, and what would happen if I didn’t. When I do not write I am irritable, moody, and over time I become depressed. There are simply too many voices in my head, too many characters that want writing, and too many stories that come to me on a daily basis. I’ve always thought of writing as an emotional medium, a form of channeling, and through that lens I am able to make sense of a lot of the crazy shit that enters my head.
Short stories have always felt like a natural form, for me. I suppose I never had the confidence, until now, to write a novel, and the short story, (not to undermine its brevity or form), has felt like an achievable step, in some way. I also love reading the form: I will choose a collection of short stories over a novel any day. There is such beauty in creating a new universe in under 10 000 words.
Since Migrations is this year’s theme, do you have any interesting migrations that you’ve undertaken yourself? Has your own travel had any effect on your writing?
MEGAN: I was 23 when I first travelled abroad, a backpacking stint in Europe, and from then on, I was hooked. My riskiest adventure was probably travelling to India with my partner, and then, after a month, leaving alone for Thailand with very little money and absolutely no prospect of a job. Three months later, after hustling day in and day out, I found myself absolutely broke, hungover, and homeless in Bangkok’s Khao San Road. I spent two weeks selling my belongings for dishes of fried rice and nights in a sweltering, aircon-less hostel room. I tried to get to Cambodia, failed, and returned to Bangkok. It worked out in the end and was the start of me taking my writing career seriously.
I think the interesting thing about travel writing, or the way travel impacts writing, is that despite the writing being about place, it invariably always becomes about the self. One turns inwards, because a new place must invariably make you investigate your own notions of home, belonging and identity. And being a white woman, I think it’s important that I look at my own sphere, at myself, because there is that tendency to move into new spaces and exoticise or "other" people.
Travel has had a profound impact on my writing, probably because in my work I focus quite a bit on place, and world-building, and because I didn’t travel much as a child, I am trying to do so as much as I possibly can now I’m grown up and pay for my own plane tickets. I love not knowing where I’ll be the following day, and would happily live like that forever if I wasn’t a mom. The sense of transience appeals to me, of being cast adrift, as do the moods and emotions and experiences that being on the road invoke. I have written short stories that have changed dramatically simply due to my travelling or moving while writing them.
What can we expect from you writing-wise in the future?
MEGAN: I am currently writing my first novel, and should soon be done with the first draft (if my toddler takes enough daytime naps!). I have almost finished my final short story manuscript, a collection called The Bangkok Swimming Club, and a collection of poetry, too. I’m also writing for several exciting programmes that are changing the sexual health and reproductive landscape for girls and young women in South Africa, and are creating platforms for young women to emerge as leaders from the community level all the way up to government.
On Megan’s Bedside Table
MEGAN: Next to my bed is a teetering pile of books that my son destroys every morning. I read a bit from one or any of these books every day, between work and breastfeeding and putting my child to sleep.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski
The Matisse Stories by A.S. Byatt
Tess by Tracey Farren (GO WATCH TESS THE FILM EVERYBODY!)
Collected Poems of Alice Walker
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
the new Granta
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
Also, I’m re-rereading Hot Milk by Deborah Levy who is my latest obsession, and, every evening I am instructed by my insistent toddler to read and reread The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle.
Megan Ross is a writer, journalist and mother from Gonubie, in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. She has worked as a features writer for publications like GLAMOUR and in a freelance capacity for GQ, BooksLIVE and O, the Oprah Magazine.
Her first short story was published in The Bed Book of Short Stories in 2008. Since then her fiction has featured in Aerodrome Journal, Prufrock, Poetry Pacific and Itch. Her short stories have been selected for several anthologies, including the Short.Sharp.Stories anthology, Incredible Journey, as well as the 2016 Short Story Day Africa anthology, Water, for which her story, "Traces", was shortlisted. Megan has been twice-nominated for the PEN International New Voices Award and shortlisted for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship. In 2016 she travelled to Reykjavik as the first-ever Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award winner, and her story, "Farang", won second-runner up in the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Award. She will be speaking at the Festival of the Writer in Durban in March.
In her writing, she likes to explore ideas of place and space, which has been informed both by growing up in a small surfing and fishing town, as well as her travels. Megan is most herself when she is in the Indian Ocean, which, alongside travelling and life with a toddler, is her most enduring source of inspiration.
Interview by Efemia Chela a.k.a. @efemia.chela