Rahla Xenopolous is a seasoned author and Short Story Day Africa board member. In her typical, straight-talking style, she looks back on her memoir, the close connection she's had with her characters and gave us a teaser about her latest grand writing project.
Rahla, I don't think I ever told you, but reading Tribe is what pushed me to go back to yoga. I figured if it could keep Jude (somewhat) grounded, then there was hope for me. I'm sure you felt a connection to all your characters, but it seems Jude is special. True?
RAHLA: Oh, I hope the yoga gods are happy about that. I had a psychiatrist who used to say all his patients must do gardening, meditation, yoga and take their pills. So the yoga is good.
When I started writing Tribe I didn’t really connect with the characters. My writing teacher said, “You wouldn’t take them home to meet your parents,” so I threw away the first draft and looked at them, through a different quill. One with more compassion perhaps. I didn’t always like them, their lives are so alien to my own, but I respect their struggle and friendship and most of all devotion.
Jude definitely resonated for me. I’ve never experienced addiction but have always deeply felt the despair addicts must experience. And of course Jude suffers from depression. He reminded me of a James Taylor, or a Leonard Cohen song, a character like a thin veil of silk that one can never save because you can’t actually hold them, they slip out of your grasp. And yet, we fall so in love with those people. I think none of them are bad people but he is especially kind; I appreciate kindness in people.
Your first book is being re-released: A Memoir of Love and Madness: Living with Bipolar Disorder. I know you don't like being called "brave" for writing it. Please explain to our readers why the label of "brave" is problematic.
RAHLA: I felt compelled to tell the truth and so I told it. If there’s one small demand life can make of us, it’s that we live with kindness and truth. So, I have learnt that in the world as it currently is, where mental health is concerned honesty is, for some people, in fact a luxury. That’s ludicrous, but the reality is that in some environments, if you say, “I have bipolar disorder” you could get fired from your job, your boyfriend might dump you and society in general might shun you. I am in a happy marriage and don’t have a job. I had a pen and paper and felt strongly that someone had to just say, “This is how it actually is, I’m not crazy I just have bipolar disorder.” I am not saying it was easy to do but it was impossible not to do.
It’s braver perhaps to be the person pretending to be something they’re not. The person compelled to act ‘healthy’ when they’re in a crippling depression. That’s a reeeeally brave person. Me, I wrote my story and people have been very kind in their reception. If it has helped people to better understand what it is like to live with mental health problems then I give thanks. Maybe then it will be easier for people to talk about their problems and be understood, helped and understood. Ignorance is the greatest enemy of illness. This is the one thing we know for certainty; if we learnt one thing with with HIV it is that ignorance is the enemy.
You have a fourth book on the horizon (congratulations). What can you tell us about it at this point?
RAHLA: It’s totally, totally different to anything I would usually write or read for that matter. It’s based, very loosely on a Kabbalistic legend. And it’s about a brother and sister who travel through time trying to fulfil her destiny, which is to become the messiah. It starts with the Queen of Sheba, then goes through 10th century Ethiopia, 16th century India, the 17th century pirate waters of the Caribbean, pre-Holocaust Vienna, Johannesburg 1976, and finally, ends in a futuristic Ethiopia… A looooot of fun research, and rather epic to write. Taking longer than I’d anticipated but it’s exciting.
Writers often debate the The Muse. Some say it is a myth, some say they couldn't write without it. Thoughts?
RAHLA: I do believe there are ‘ghosts’ who insist on being written, and if you don’t write them they will haunt your pen forever. The character of Bubbles haunted me and drove me to write her story. Fortunately she was generous and stayed in my heart throughout the writing, making it a lovely book to write. If I’d neglected Bubbles I really think I’d have a murdered blonde popping up in every sentence of every book I write. They have to be written and put away. You know? I always say, unwritten characters go feral inside your head, you just got to write those fuckers out.
But then, also, maybe if you show up, every day at the page there is a muse who comes to guide your hand. I can’t say if that’s the guide of God or the guide of habit. But there is something to be said for consistency.
You serve on the Short Story Day Africa board. Thank you! What propelled you towards volunteering your support for project?
RAHLA: I LOVE to see people writing. I ended up writing because someone schlepped me along to a writing workshop she was going to. I was so absolutely sure that I couldn’t write but I went along because my friend didn’t want to go alone. I discovered that I loved writing. I have run writing workshops and it’s often the people who have never ‘written before’ whose writing dazzles the most. We are conditioned to think that you can only write if you have been to university and learnt to spell, which saddens me because there are probably so many great writers out there whose stories we will never read.
So, Short Story Day Africa speaks to that calling in my heart. It is organized and run by a bunch of magnificent, brilliant people, and it makes it possible for people from all over Africa to write a story, and to get their story read. Some people who expect to be published and some people who don’t. That’s a miracle.
On Rahla's Bedside Table
I’ve gone back to Mr. [Salman] Rushdie, the way he effortlessly sweeps through those masterpieces is inspiring while I’m slaving on this epic tomb. I find I read what’s applicable to what I’m writing. When I wrote Bubbles it was all those crime noir books, now it’s Midnight’s Children. Which is a joy.
Rahla Xenopoulos is the author of A Memoir of Love and Madness and the novel Bubbles. Many of her short stories have been published in magazines and in Women Flashing, Twist and Just Keep Breathing. She lives in Cape Town. Her latest novel Tribe was released to critical acclaim.
Interview by Tiah Beautement a.k.a. @ms_tiahmarie