Nadia Davids' creative voice can be found on film, in the theatre and between the pages of her novel, An Imperfect Blessing. SSDA caught up with her to find out what makes Nadia tick.
Tiah: Your novel, An Imperfect Blessing, is constructed with two main viewpoints along with being set both in 1986 and 1993. From a reader's angle, the story easily slides between the characters and time frames. But for you, how difficult was it to keep repositioning yourself in order to write from different perspectives both in character and history?
Nadia: It wasn’t at all difficult to inhabit the different characters and move between them, mostly because I have a deep affection for them both; they often made me laugh even when I found them infuriating. What was much harder was swapping between time periods. The sections in 1993-with the exception of Chris Hani’s assassination- were relatively light, focused on the domestic and the personal and there was something joyful in recreating the small window of exuberant optimism that engulfed the country that year. But the sections set in the 1980s were much more taxing: the military invasion of the primary school, Waleed and his friends witnessing a violent betrayal by witdoeke, the making of a child-soldier, the attack on St Athan’s Street mosque. Those were terrible times. The apartheid government was at the apex of its aggressive, ruthless narcissism; very little and very few were safe. I wanted to think about the beauty and morality of the struggle against that cruelty, that darkness. The more I researched and wrote and thought about that era, the more I realised that resistance is not immune to moral failure and that it’s an incredibly complex undertaking that can cast its own long shadow. I wanted to write about that complexity while still celebrating that courage and place art and love at the centre of that fight.
But significantly, I didn’t really think about those two periods as being discreet from one another: the sections in 1993 are wholly defined by what happens in the 1980s. That’s how history functions; it’s never really consigned to the past. Not in countries, not in families.
Tiah: How does race, feminism, Islam, Cape Town come together in your work?
Nadia: The themes of my life are the themes of my writing. For the last twenty years or so I’ve had a political and theoretical language with which to name these themes (post-colonialism, Islamophobia, Islamic Feminism, intersectionality, critical race theory etc) but I didn’t have that vocabulary growing up and those things were still a source of deep concern for me. When I was writing At Her Feet in 2002, my sister Leila was writing up her thesis on Muslim women’s narratives in Cape Town and we were having these long conversations about the local and the global, the productive, disruptive, cohesive and incohesive intersections between race, gender and class, how mediatised images of Muslim women had contracted post 9/11, how bizarre it was that feminist liberation vocabulary had been co-opted by Bush. I was worried about how I was going to draw all these things together in the play without it becoming a didactic bore… I didn’t want to loose sight-for a moment-of the political imperatives of the work, but I didn’t want to pen a manifesto either. Quanita Adams (the performer) had similar concerns. And then one day my sister offered me this quote, ‘Culture speaks itself through the individual story’-I can’t remember who said it but I’ve clung on to that. I believe one has to be very focused on the specifics of a small story in order to tell the currents and contours of a large one. This doesn’t mean I think that if you cloak yourself in cultural ‘authenticity’ you don’t have to write well. One always has to be wholly concerned with craft; it’s just as critical to be invested in the aesthetics of the work as it is to be versed in a social landscape. That’s what separates art from sociology.
Tiah: When I went to revisit your novel for this interview the book fell open on page 347 where I had bookmarked the quote: 'He didn't tell Rashaad that he hoped never to stop being angry, not because he wanted to live in a state of perpetual rage, but because the anger was a way of remembering.'
This quote hit me hard, today. As I type this, it is only two days after the violence committed at Charleston Church. It is only three days since Phillippa Yaa de Villiers posted her blog post 'Air you can breathe' which ends with:
After Franschhoek Hugh Masekela said to me “you’ve got too much anger. you need to do that tai chi, deal with it.” I don’t agree. Anger and outrage can energise action; if not expressed they can percolate into bitterness and decay. We have to be able to listen to each other’s anger and let the anger out. It needs to be understood on its own terms and deconstructed in the terms of intellectual equality in South Africa.
All of this led to me thinking about what motivates people to write. It is a common question, 'Why do you write?' One popular answer is that people do so in order to understand, to find empathy. But your quote, and Phillippa's, made me wonder about the roll of anger in writing. Doesn't seem to be a common topic. Yet, when I think back to my own work, anger is present and, in a manner, I have been letting it out in the form of stories.
Is this true for you? Does anger feed into why you write?
Nadia: I think Philippa’s piece is one of the most thoughtful reflections I’ve read around the debate so I’m glad you found a way to connect the two. Anger does fuel my writing, but in the same way that love, jealousy, humour or compassion does. Most people (I hope) have a constellation of emotions and experiences coursing through them at any given time. One can’t write without or outside of anger and I’m not sure that anyone concerned in a serious way with social justice would want to. Anger exists. It’s part of what makes us human. Anger-less characters are not believable. Neither are anger-less writers. There’s strange, widely-held and limiting belief that anger is negative and best eradicated. This is plainly false. Anger can be both diagnostic and productive: it can tell you when something is wrong and it can give you the energy and commitment to right that wrong. I’m interested in writing about power and politics in intimate and public spheres-I’m never not going to be angry at some level.
When Waleed talks about anger being a way of ‘remembering’ I think what he is saying is that he is not afraid of anger-his own or others’- and that remembering is not just about dates and memories… it’s about also feelings, about the emotional ecology of a particular time and place.
There are different forms of anger and (at a stretch) different forms of rage in my novel; public feelings that are directed not just towards apartheid but also private feelings that erupt in intimate spaces between people because of apartheid: difficulties that flow between an interracial couple, the limitations and possibilities of interracial friendship, the very particular anger prompted by the disappointment, helplessness and hopelessness that systemic oppression can manufacture, political differences between friends and family members. I don’t think there is anything more difficult than a conversation with someone you love when you have radically views on something that holds political importance…There is so much at stake in those battles.
But like Waleed, I believe the big question you should ask yourself is not why you are angry about injustice, but why you are not angry.
Tiah: What would you like to see change in the writing world?
Nadia: This is a great question and it’s prompted a longer piece that I’m working on. Briefly, my concerns are around how we read fiction at the nexus of race, craft and identity politics. There’s an important conversation that needs to happen (globally) around race, the racial imaginary and that way in which (mostly women) writers of colour continually have their ‘race’ invoked by readers as a means of entering the text and in a way that white writers rarely experience. Interestingly, this is something done by readers across the colour line. It’s so pervasive, so routine, that I can I can only think it’s an unconscious, ingrained reflex. I’m not completely sure why it happens but it’s probably got to do with just how profoundly whiteness is universalised in the global imaginary. I need to think it through more-the piece is still at an embryonic stage.
Tiah: Is there a joy in writing? If so, where do you find it?
Nadia: Writing is almost always a joyful experience for me. This doesn’t mean it’s not difficult-sometimes it’s excruciatingly tough but it’s always, always joyful.
On Nadia's Bedside Table
Molly Antopol: The UnAmericans
Ta-Nehisi Coates: Between the World and Me
Ali Smith: How to be both
Marilynne Robinson: When I was a child
Kamila Shamsie: A God in Every Stone
Nadia Davids is an award-winning South Africa writer who works across a range of forms: short-stories, plays, novels and screenplays. Her 2014 debut novel An Imperfect Blessing was long-listed for the South African Sunday Times Fiction Award and shortlisted for the UJ Prize and the Pan African Etisalat Prize for Literature.
Photos by John Gutierrez