‘I experienced the atrocious apartheid system first hand’
Her debut novel, What About Meera, won the inaugural Minara Aziz Hassim Literary Prize in South Africa and was longlisted for both the Etisalat Prize for Fiction (the most prestigious literary prize for African fiction) and the Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize (South Africa’s largest literary award). Her short stories were awarded second prize in the Witness True Stories of KwaZulu Natal. In 2017, she received an honorary fellowship in writing at the International Writers Program at the University of Iowa.
Meet Zainab Priya Dala, a freelance writer and psychologist, who has lived and worked in Dublin and now lives in Durban, South Africa. She has now been shortlisted for the Clara Johnson Award for Women’s Literature for The Architecture of Loss (Rs 399) , published by Speaking Tiger. A quick e-mail chat with the author…
Your reactions on being shortlisted for the award…
I am happy to be shortlisted for this inaugural award because it celebrates excellence in women’s literature which I am passionate about. The other four nominees are great American writers and I am the only foreigner nominated which makes me proud. I didn’t know I was even nominated for it until I received news of the shortlist and it is a great accolade even to be a finalist for the award.
Hoping to win it…
I hope I do. I have received positive feedback from my American readers but, again, the other nominees have very strong, powerful books so the competition is tight.
The Architecture of Loss highlights anti-apartheid struggle. Where, when and how did you experience it?
I am a South Africa woman of Indian descent. I am fourth generation Indian. My ancestors arrived from India as indentured labourers in the late 1800s. I grew up in the time of when apartheid was at its height in South Africa, Nelson Mandela was in jail, Winnie Mandela was fiercely campaigning worldwide to draw attention to the plight of non-white South Africans. I experienced the atrocious apartheid system first hand. We were allowed to visit segregated areas, live in ‘Indian’ townships, we were not allowed to use Whites Only public parks, washrooms, train compartments, beaches and shops. I was in my early 20s when apartheid was abolished and Nelson Mandela walked free. This was a formative moment in my life. From being constantly having racism enter my life to the day when race did not matter was one of the most amazing feelings. I also experienced the strong and united activism that united people of colour to end apartheid. I was lucky to have been in my adult years during the formative years of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Mandela and our Comrades for Freedom.
Why is Afroze in The Architecture of Loss not accepted by mother despite staying away from her for decades?
I see Sylvie, Afroze’s mother, as a woman who has lived with a lifetime of guilt. She has been a tough warrior, a doctor and placed in impossibly difficult circumstances in her professional life but somehow she feels inadequate as a mother. Sylvie pushes Afroze away because she knows that she has little time left with her child and in a way, does not want to draw her close and then leave her again. She suffers a great deal because of the choices she made and feels she doesn’t even deserve the eventual love of her child. But in a dichotomous manner, this is all she deeply desires.
A few years back, you were assaulted and nearly killed for expressing admiration for Salman Rushdie and even admitted to a mental hospital. Your take and reactions to this unfortunate incident.
It was a terrible time in my life where I had admired Salman Rushdie’s writing style of magical realism. This was misconstrued as me admiring his writing content and him in general. This resulted in my assault by some ignorant people. The result is that I suffered immense PTSD and needed medical and psychiatric attention, and my admittance to the hospital was a means to gain some rest and privacy during that time because the media were constantly hounding me. Unfortunately, I did not receive the best care or privacy and discharged myself from hospital. Many years have passed and I have healed now, both physically and psychologically and I continue with my writing.
Does being a psychologist help you understand and write better?
I am fortunate that I am qualified and worked in both physiotherapy and counselling. I think both these professions have honed my skills in observation of people, their reactions, body language and their subtle nuances that add to writing believable and well-rounded characters. I believe a character drives a story and in my training we have been taught to do meticulous note-taking on patients we see. That coupled with a long held habit of diary writing has helped me write richer stories with strong characters.
Take us through your life till now…
Both my parents are retired educators and I was brought up on a farm called Tongaat. Incidentally, in September, I am launching a book published by Speaking Tiger, which is essay/ memoir about growing up as a South African Indian woman, and looking at a contemporary South Africa, the one that Gandhi never saw but probably would have added so much to had he been alive today. The truth is that post-apartheid, South Africa has seen some dark times and after the passing of our leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Ahmed Kathrada, the nation needed so much guidance. In my book of essays, I look at my own life as a microcosm of this angst and attempts at reconciliation.
The first time you felt the urge to express yourself through writing…
My dad, being an English teacher, always read to us as children. I was six when I wrote my first story which was published in newspapers. It was then that I saw how writing can reach so many people, and since then, I have always been writing. My dad has saved almost every single one of my stories and self-made books from childhood, and he gifted them to me when I published my first novel.
My earliest literary love was Roald Dahl whose imagination I found fascinating. I later began to enjoy books my father recommended to me which includes the classics such as the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. I went on to be influenced by magical realists with Murakami and Fuentes being my favourites.
Who has been the most inspirational person in your life and why?
Both my parents. My dad for his encouragement in educating myself and my siblings, and my mom who always told me to dream big and give it all I have. They believed in me when I often didn’t believe in myself and although they also suffered under the apartheid system, they always were positive about education and the future of all children.
What/ who has influenced you and what were the motivations behind writing?
My earliest literary love was Roald Dahl whose imagination I found fascinating. I later began to enjoy books my father recommended to me which includes the classics such as the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. I went on to be influenced by magical realists with Murakami and Fuentes being my favourites. I also enjoy the style of writers such as Vikram Seth and Manto. My influences have been so varied so I can’t pick just one. My motivation to write is to simply tell a good story that will both enlighten and entertain, and perhaps leave someone thinking deeply for a while.
These days, the market is deluged with authors of all ages. How easy or difficult is it to achieve success amid so much competition?
I think it is important not to think about it as competition or race. I know that even if none of my work was ever published, I would still write because for me, the pleasure is felt in telling a story that has been living inside me. I am not very good at social media and marketing, perhaps I am old fashioned in thinking that a story will find its own way in the world. I doubt the age of a writer has anything to do with a beautifully crafted story.
Ever struggled with a writer’s block?
Most definitely. I’m struggling with it now. When I have a block in writing fiction, I play around with non-fiction. If I have a block with narrative, I write a poetry or a snippet of a play. In that way, I am always writing something, even if it is just the grocery list.
Plans for future…
I am looking forward to completing my third novel which is on its first draft now. I also want to explore creative non-fiction as a genre in the style of memoir.