Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

Lessons in Writing, Lessons in Husbandry

Academic journal article Journal for Islamic Studies

Lessons in Writing, Lessons in Husbandry

Article excerpt

As an undergraduate, I was introduced to the writings of Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou. Walker, in particular, inspired my imagination and made me want to read fiction by black women in South Africa, who I presumed were writing about my experiences as a black, Muslim woman. So, filled with youthful enthusiasm, I flew up the university library steps to enquire about such local writers, primarily women of Indian descent. The librarian handed me a few stapled pages, a list of book titles and authors, saying that if such writers existed, it would be easy enough to find them since they should all have names like Pillay or Naidoo. I was incredulous. This was one of those moments where you wake up in the middle of the night with just the right cutting retort, since, at the time, you can hardly think, let alone say anything. I slunk away.

Perhaps the beginnings for my first book became lodged in my mind that day, although it would take several years before I could acknowledge, even to myself, that I was writing a novel. I did not feel competent enough to write anything; growing up in apartheid South Africa, I simply thought writing as an occupation was pursued only by white people. Even when I found the book-shaped gap I was searching for filled by Zoë Wicomb's You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town, I couldn't imagine that becoming a writer was an option for me. This was two decades ago. My novel Not a Fairy Tale (Umuzi) was published in 2010.

In producing this novel with such a lack of self-confidence, I wrote mostly in my head, scraps of phrases, fragments of ideas, crumbs of dreams. I could see nothing tangible enough in my efforts which could be considered "real" writing, certainly nothing that could manifest itself into a book that other people might want to read and definitely nothing I could speak about to my friends.

Then I met Anne Schuster, a local author and writing tutor. Under her guidance, I began piecing together my word-leftovers. It is largely thanks to her encouragement and support that I completed Not a Fairytale, the story of two Muslim sisters in Cape Town, living lives of several fractured fairytales.

But of course "finishing" a book and sending it off to a publisher are two vastly different things. I could not, nor would I, let go of the manuscript for all the usual reasons - fear of rejection, fear of acceptance, fear of it being described as drivel, fear of being told it wasn't half-bad, fear someone I knew would read it, fear someone I knew wouldn't read it, fear it would be published, fear I'd have to discuss the book with strange people, fear I'd have to call myself a writer and end up agonising over articles like this one.

So I did nothing. As I'm not much of a cleaner, the manuscript, along with glorious sketches drawn by my talented niece, lay abandoned on a burdened bookshelf and grew heavy with dust. And there it lived for a year - maybe two. I really don't remember exactly how long, only that the neighbour's cat often took naps on it, adding a fine layer of flea dirt to the yellowing pages.

I was finally prodded into action when I saw an advertisement for the launch of a new novel written by a high school boy. I marvelled at what I considered his audacity and knew I'd have to attend the launch. I listened in awe as his guest speaker, a TV reporter, popular for her brand of impudence and journalistic skill, discussed the various trials and tribulations of the writing and publishing process that the young author had endured. Then I stopped paying attention to everything but the mocking voice of my bitchy inner critic in my head, who told me I was absurd to hold on to my manuscript as though its continued existence necessitated that I keep it forever grubby and half-hidden on a bookshelf. At that moment it seemed obvious that my inaction was smothering a part of who I was. So that night I went home, found the manuscript, wiped off the filth and re-read it. Then, after I'd made a few alterations I sent it off to those courageous South African publishers who accept unsolicited emailed manuscripts and waited. …

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