Abigail George asks questions of the continent she loves. Her collection is peopled with the impoverished and marginalised: 'vacant grown-ups, beggars, orphans and vagrants'. It includes tributes to jazz pianist Moses Molelekwa, photographers Ken Oosterbroek and Kevin Carter and to anti-apartheid activist, Dulcie September. George's voice is one of conscience and compassion.
MICHELLE MCGRANE, author of Fireflies and Blazing Stars, Hybrid and A Suitable Girl, South Africa
Abigail George’s poetry etches the intricacies of the homestead with expert hands; she effortlessly merges the mundane with the modern, and captures the lowest of depths and the highest of peaks in everything life and South Africa. Her ink flows through the stench of trenches, just as it captures the crisp air of the breathtaking landscapes of her homeland. As a unique chronicler of the past and present, George is a voice that will erupt through the rock solid density of both pre and post apartheid South Africa.
UNOMA AZUAH, Poetry Editor: Sentinelnigeria.org
It is said that being a poet is to live twice as intensely as an ordinary person; it's like having four eyes, four ears, and four hands. Abigail lives through her poetry and her poems are alive because of her. She shares her visions of beauty and her poems are refined through her understanding of pain. Poetry, Judson Jerome says is “at best a lonely activity—not only writing it, but all the requirements of learning to write it: studying reading poetry of the past, analysing techniques, and staying aware of contemporary literary currents” From her “lonely activity” Abigail shares with us her wonderful poems, resonating with passion and compassion, beauty and ugliness hope and despair. These are all the things poets should be talking about and she manages to write about these with such eloquence and truthfulness. Abigail you are a poet!
MICHAEL BARRY, Head of Dept, Dept of Arts & Culture, Nelson Mandela Metropole University, South Africa
A penetrating view of the psyche of the post-apartheid millennium youth. It is not about apartheid: it is about the selfishness and individualism of the rich. It is not about gender issues: it is about the pain, loss and survival of a numbed youth whom suicide personified overwhelms, yet they paradoxically still feel invincible. The seasons speak to the fragile, fleeting nature of the relationships of the youth; their rootlessness; authority that they view as unstable and adults as vacant; a seemingly unattainable purity that they seek; while uttering a clarion call to “see me, know me’. Penetrating…profound…intense…grave…
DORELLE ISAACS, educationalist, South Africa
Whether she is an outsider looking inside, like in the poem on the Rwanda genocide, or an insider telling the outside, like in the first two poems, Abigail George writes with the sensitivity that touches all who devour her poetry. Her sense of history is quite acute and interesting. History inspires; it is beautiful and ugly at the same time, and it’s always amazing how writers, poets and artists who turn to history tend to produce work with depth. In her debut anthology, Abigail George is no exception. She inspires.
KHANYILE MLOTSHWA, writer and journalist, Sunday News Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
In this collection of small and large framed poetry are portraits capable of lingering for a long time.
AHMED MAIWADA, poet, literary critic, Nigeria
And now to the interview.
Tell us about your publishing journey, from idea to holding the book in your hands?
Ideas begin with the pure, golden light, the sun of inspiration, distilled instructions, a war of nerves that sets your mind on frayed edges at first, but as your clarity of vision clears and you settle down in front of your ancient computer (whose monitor you know you need to replace), a computer made up of spare parts and then you’re in panic mode. Will this, can this ever be a roaring success? And being a successful writer means doing radio, television, print interviews but that’s not what I see when I see the imprint of the book in the near future. My journey started with the loud game within a well of loneliness, way past midnight I am already half-dreaming, in a dark depression that pulled the wool over my eyes, my wolf in sheep’s clothing that carried me through the night telling me I had to finish this page before I finally succumbed to sleep.
I didn’t hold the book that long in my hands. It was passed on from one family member to the next. They gushed, they were in awe, they said, ‘well done, congratulations’ and ‘we’re proud of you’ but I was just relieved that it was all over and thinking of how am I going to sell it, market it and distribute it. Now the real work was beginning. Honestly, I felt a bit lost. Abigail, where art thou? I felt displaced. My job was done and it would now fall into other hands where I would have no control over it. It also left me feeling a bit insecure. Writers always want to know, ‘Was the effort, the hard work I put into the book, good enough?’
Any other books in the works? Goals for future projects?
I am busy writing up my memoirs, From Hell to Eternity (a book which I am writing with my father who is also a writer), a second poetry anthology, Wash Away my Sins and a collection of short stories simply called, Winter in Johannesburg. Those are just working titles; that are works-in-progress. I come from a family of writers and poets; whose creative efforts on the whole are mostly unpublished except for my father. My sister paints a little but that is just a hobby of hers in her down time from her hectic and highly stressful job over weekends. My dream is to run workshops for young writers who come from disadvantaged and marginalised backgrounds and to have a retreat where other writers from all over Africa can come and write and work and live among other writers and poets, even if it is for a short while, here in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.
Tell us your most rewarding experience since being published.
There’s peace of mind and then there’s no peace of mind when I think any writer has completed a book. The battle that you have been locked in for months or years is now over. That is the first kind of peace. The second comes with the publicity for the book, doing countless interviews, being asked to talk about your book, address audiences hoping for high exposure for what you have written.
If you could have a signed copy of any novel what would it be and why?
Catcher in the Rye (for Holden Caulfield; the protagonist of the moving story, its dialogue and a brother who sells out to hollow, phoney-baloney Hollywood), A Moveable Feast (Hemingway at his best), I Write What I like (the shame of apartheid omnipresent and painted in words by a brilliant man, a genius, Biko), Maru (I’m in love with love and connecting with people through my own writing, that is why I love this book so much), Ariel (simply magical), Before I Forget (a book that feels like winter about the art of war and the inner workings of human relationships), To Kill a Mockingbird (you will want to read this book not once, or twice but a few times), Once in a House on Fire (a tragic story about domestic violence but very, very good. I would have liked to read more from this writer. She won the Somerset Maugham award for this book.)
What's the craziest writing idea you've had?
Everything I’ve ever written so far.
What's the best writing advice anyone has ever given you?
Put away for your first draft for a few weeks, a few months or a few years and then go back to the manuscript, edit it, throw away phrases, words, sentences; everything that doesn’t seem to fit like a square peg in a round hole, omit. Look at it through brand new eyes and then start all over again. It will lead to frustration, boredom will set in and it is torture but it must be done. That’s how you connect writer’s block to finding your voice; your inner voice.
How do you react to a bad review?
I make tea in a pot and I sit down with my father, my sounding board and we talk. I make Chai tea that my sister brought with her from India on holiday, green tea, Rooibos, Five Roses; whatever’s in the cupboard. I put on my walking shoes. I cook for my family. I lounge on the sofa, with the dog or the cat on my lap and watch too much television. I send out more emails. More work that is bound to face rejection or that will be accepted. Success spelled out for me makes me feel smaller and smaller. I’m already living in the world of a minority. It cuts my ego down to size, truly makes me feel humility in a headspace that I can’t banish or escape from.
Rejection hurts. There’s no going around that. That’s the truth. You have to face it head on, bravely and as swiftly as the negative comes, you have to realise so eventually, inevitably does the positive. You have to be quick on your feet because rejection can knock you to the ground. You’ve just been picked apart. I have kept all my rejection letters. Sometimes in despair I have been known to rip them to shreds and say mockingly to the universe, whoever is listening out there, ‘What the hell do they know? They don’t know the difference between bad writing and good writing anyway.’ Rejection becomes part of a writer’s psyche, a thing that you mourn from your gut but not for long. If you took pictures of yourself and studied the preeminent details in them, when you received the news, ‘This is not right for us but keep us in mind. We’d like to read some more of your work in the future’, you’d see your face fall, wide-eyed, blinking back tears. You’re still you, intact and the ideas, a feast of them are still there. All you have to do is to pull up a chair to the banquet table. They may not be perfect in the first draft form, second or third but you’ll soon find that once you get going on a soulful spurt, sparks will fly from your intellect.
I have a love/hate, organic relationship with rejection. It challenges me to be a better writer. I become wiser, continually evolving, words dance across the page as I imagine them, planning them beautifully inherently. It helps me to have books around me that inspire me to grow daily as a poet and a writer. Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Book of Hours, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, journals and magazines I’ve been published in helps to give me a compliant focus on whatever I’m working on, my diaries, poetry books, books on creative writing, my black notebooks that I’ve had for years since my youth and of course, a good dictionary and a thesaurus. You can face anything, anything when you’re surrounded by good books by writers who have certainly faced rejection at some point in their lives just as you’ve had.
Which authors have influenced you most and how?
(I have included authors and poets. I know there will be some I forget to mention.)
J.D. Salinger, Ernest Hemingway, Bessie Head (I fell head over heels in love at 16 with Maru), Ingrid Jonker, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, William Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Anne Frank’s diary, Radclyffe Hall and Andre Brink. The books I grew up reading as a child encouraged this commitment within me that just showed up and graced me with its prescence to be a writer-to-be. I would love to be able to just shout out the names of writers from Africa but I can’t.
And here is where my ignorance of African writers shows up. I did not grow up reading any. I was not exposed to them in high school. They were never part of the curriculum. That is a travesty; a tragedy. Ignorance is not bliss. It is just an accumulation of black holes, voids, infinite stupidity that so many people whether they write or don’t are in frank denial of. It’s not enough to read the African writers and poets who win important international literary awards, fellowships and who live in exile, abroad. We must, must read our own writers on this continent, encourage them, have workshops, train them, publish, publish and publish them. If we don’t, who will?
There is no such thing as a writer producing bad writing only a writer writing badly because he/she doesn’t have enough ‘juice’ flowing through their veins, enough life experience to cover up the wasteland of language lost in translation which seems pedantic, filled with jargon or language that just seems empty of vitality and a celebration of hope, a heartland or the human spirit. But this generation, their voices, sombre, bursting with an avalanche of glee, their energy like flowers flooding fields, gives me hope. We’ve climbed mountains before in the history of this continent. Why must we wait for what challenges us the most to stop, halt or come to an abrupt end? What challenges us makes us grow and inspires us. Without memory, without ladders of years, without history, we are nothing and we can inspire nothing.