I am delighted to be chatting to Dawn Promislow for this issue of WordCity. It’s an exciting time for Dawn with her novel, Wan, coming out this month. Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer states, “Wan is a masterpiece. This beautiful, painterly, sublime, and sonically exquisite novel by Dawn Promislow is a work of utter genius.” And having got my hands on an advance copy of the novel, I would absolutely endorse this review!
Dawn, thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me during this busy period. First of all, that classic question: How did you get started as a writer and when did you “come out” as a writer and state that that was your vocation?
Your phrase “come out” is useful in this context, as in my case it did take a long time, and for me there was always an aspect of secrecy to the act of writing. I always understood that taking up a pen and writing was an act of great power, and possibly, subversion.
I grew up in an authoritarian society (apartheid South Africa) where creativity, even individuality, was not prized. You couldn’t speak your mind; and I didn’t speak my mind. I read books, though. Many books. I understood the power of writing and of books.
I must have been afraid at some level for many years to write, so I didn’t write—not at all. I had two children, I lived in Canada. But all the stories about my childhood in South Africa must have been standing like ghosts behind me, insisting on being told, and at some point I simply started writing them. Perhaps my children were older, and I had more time. I wrote in long-hand, in a spiral-bound notebook.
I wrote what became a manuscript of 25,000 words; I wrote quite quickly. This was in 2008. Then I enrolled in a program at Toronto’s Humber School for Writers to work on the manuscript, and under the mentorship of Olive Senior I expanded and deepened it, and developed the confidence to recognize what I had done. I had written a collection of short stories. (The collection was published in 2010 by Mawenzi House.)
I was a writer.
That’s so interesting Dawn. I’m always struck by how long it takes writers to actually recognize and value the power of their own words. I was wondering, how do you manage to tread the line between autobiography and fiction in your work? How much does your own lived experience inform your work?
I try to distance myself personally from what I write. I find it overwhelming and revealing, to expose myself in that way. I seldom write non-fiction and memoir, therefore!
I am interested, instead, in transforming my lived experience into something new, which is what fiction does. I guess you could say I am most interested in the invention that is fiction. Paradoxically, that invention—the imagined world—reflects and deepens our understanding of the real world. That is the great paradox of fiction, and its meaning and power reside there, in that paradox.
My novel Wan depicts the real world of apartheid South Africa, which is my lived experience, but it is—most importantly—a fictional tale. The characters are fictional, and what happens to them is fictional. If the novel succeeds as a work, however, I hope it sheds some light on that real time and place, reveals how it was—and even reveals new things about it.
I am also interested in beauty alone as a value, the beauty of a work of art, of a novel. So my lived experience is, to me, the material from which I try to make a thing of beauty, that exists on its own, completely outside of and separate from myself and my experience of the world.
Having said all that, I think lived experience informs every aspect of a writer’s work. Every moment of life, of what has been seen, heard, felt, and experienced, is material to the writer. But what is made of the material, and how, is random and unpredictable. In my case, certainly.
Wan feels so well contextualized in terms of lived experience so that all makes perfect sense. Thank you for that really thought-provoking answer. So, what is your writing method? Are you disciplined? How do you tackle the blank page? And what is your favourite way of having down-time from writing?
I am undisciplined, I think! Most of the time I don’t have a routine. I spend what could be years just thinking about a writing project, perhaps some part of me is avoiding it. And I think the avoidance is part of the process. The fear of revelation is part of the process, I believe.
I seem to work around a project, perhaps writing something else, a short story or a poem, or doing other things. And then after a long time of visualising, and more thinking around it, and gathering other bits and pieces in a fairly random way, I sit down and write. The writing often comes very quickly at that point because it seems my unconscious has solved many of the puzzles and problems during all that ‘marinating’ time. So I think that time is an important factor in the creative process. I believe in an organic process of waiting, and observing, and gathering, before putting pen to paper.
When I sat down finally to write Wan, I wrote the first draft over a period of weeks, starting at 6 o’clock every morning, three or four hours of writing, and two hours of reading over or editing in the afternoons. Every day. During editing and revising in general I follow a similar routine, for many months. It’s intense and I become upset if my routine is interrupted during that time. So that is discipline, I suppose!
As for down-time from writing: I like walking, I walk a lot, and perhaps motion is conducive to creativity, or to thought. Most of the things I like to do are solitary (reading, walking, looking at paintings in art galleries), and I think that solitude particularly is conducive to creativity. So I find it necessary to spend a great deal of time alone!
What advice would you give other writers starting out? What advice do you wish you’d be given at the start of your writing career?
Before I did the program at Humber, I had not studied creative writing, or known any writers. Working with a mentor helped me develop confidence, and exposed me to a more analytical and nuts-and-bolts, or craft-based, approach to writing. And writing is so solitary an occupation, so support from other writers or teachers is important. I would recommend a mentor, or a mentorship program, therefore!
Overall, though, I would say that reading makes a writer. Read, read, read. You can never read enough.
I’m really glad you said that Dawn! For me reading is absolutely key to becoming a better writer so that’s a piece of advice that really resonates with me.
Do you think moving to Toronto changed you as a writer and if so, in what way? Are there things you can’t imagine writing unless you are in Canada/South Africa? Wan had such a strong sense of place and I wonder whether that strength of setting came about because you were one step removed from it after moving to Canada? Sometimes it’s hard to “see” and process the place you are in.
I definitely think so. Wan was written some fifty years after the lived experience that inspired it! I think that is very much part of its being. It seems to have taken me many years (decades!) to have processed apartheid South Africa. And I am still processing it. It holds great power over me, the memory of it. And perhaps some of that power and intensity, and also pain, is evident in the work.
I would have been a very different writer if I had not left South Africa. Migration itself is a defining life experience, and so it is a different novel I would have written had I not left South Africa. Perhaps another way of putting it: I would have been a different person had I not left South Africa.
Dawn, you are one of those polymath writers who always fill me with awe in that you write in all genres. Do you think you have a consistent voice whether you are writing a poem or a novel. or do you inhabit a different writing persona and voice for each genre? I noticed in Wan your skillful use of repetition which gives such a rhythmic feel to the prose . It feels very poetic and also a way of showing memory and its unreliability. Wan also felt very tightly and economically written, with every word earning its place, which often seems to be how poets and short story writers approach their work. What are your thoughts on the pros and cons of writing in all genres?
In general I respond to things in a poetic or short-story way. For example, visual imagery is key for me. My writing projects usually start with a visual image, a compelling image that I can’t forget. I spend a lot of time looking at paintings—visual art—and I am compelled or entranced or intrigued by the captured moment that is a painting. I started writing short stories because I love how a short story can capture a moment so succinctly, almost a “single effect” as Edgar Allan Poe described it. When I started to write this novel I had trouble ‘expanding’ the imagery, and the story, in the way that a novel requires.
In the last few years, before I wrote Wan, I became very interested in writing poetry. I read a lot of poetry, I published some poems. I thought I would continue writing poetry. But then I felt it needed so much from me, I had so much more to learn from other poets and poetry, there were so many theoretical concerns in the poetry as well, that I balked. I learned a great deal from that period, about poetic means. But then I started writing Wan, which I think is what I had wanted to do from the beginning. To write this story set in the South Africa of my childhood. So I set myself to that—and the result is here!
In general, I like brevity rather than profusion, and understatement rather than elaboration. I have been quite influenced by Japanese aesthetics, some favourite novels of mine are Japanese (translated into English). Those of Yasunari Kawabata, for example. His Snow Country has been a significant influence on my work.
As for voice, it’s hard for me to say. Wan is a novel narrated in the first person, by the character Jacqueline. My intent was that the voice be Jacqueline’s voice, not my voice. I was quite anxious that the voice not be my voice. The way Jacqueline expresses herself, including in the style of rhythm and circularity you mention, is meant to be an expression of her character, of who she is. But if it is Jacqueline’s voice, a voice I created for this character, where does my own artistic ‘voice’ fit in? This is one of the wonders and mysteries of fiction: where, and who, is the artist behind the characters? I have to say I don’t really know! I will have to write another novel that doesn’t have Jacqueline in it, to find out.
Yes, that old conundrum of the writer/narrator/character and where it all begins and ends!
Finally, how important is it for you as a writer to remain politically engaged with your topics, and how do you manage to do this without preaching to your readers, so that you come at uncomfortable truths in ways the reader can absorb and process effectively?
I don’t think of it in a theoretical way. I have no wish to proselytize or be ‘moral,’ in spite of the fact that moral issues in the world and in history concern me deeply. I try to write the best fiction I can, by which I mean, I try to create a fictional world that holds together: setting, time, characters, and story. I believe that if I do that, moral concerns will reveal themselves, but perhaps in a particularly compelling way, or in a new way. That is what the best fiction does, I think.
Wan is set in apartheid South Africa, and I tried to render that time and place as truthfully as I could, also as vividly, in a way that readers could visualise and even feel. The senses are very important in a novel: to feel the world of the work, to hear its sounds. But the world of apartheid South Africa (like all worlds!) has an intrinsic moral framework. No work could be set in that time and place without being infused with the moral catastrophe that it was. So, yes, Wan is engaged with politics and more, with moral dimensions and moral dilemmas. Most certainly, too, anguish underpins the novel, the anguish of a confrontation with the moral destitution that defined South Africa at that time.
Dawn, thank you so much for taking time out to talk about your work. I wish you every success with Wan and hope it gets the accolades it deserves. What’s next for you, I wonder?
Thank you Sue for your time here, for inviting me into this wonderful and interesting conversation, and for your good wishes!
For what’s next: I am hoping I won’t take so long to write another novel! My goal is to shorten the ‘marinating’ time that I spend on a project, and to arrive at the sitting-down-and-writing part sooner. Which is another way of saying that I hope to be more disciplined!
Best wishes to you too Sue, in your poet’s work, and in your work for this exciting journal!
Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and has lived in Toronto since 1987. Her collection Jewels and Other Stories (Mawenzi House, 2010) was critically acclaimed, long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and named one of the eight best debuts of 2011 by The Globe and Mail. Dawn has published short stories, poems, and essays, in literary journals in Canada, the US, and the UK, where they have been short-listed for awards.
Wan is her first novel. It has received stellar advance reviews, and will be out on May 1st.
Sue Burge is a poet and freelance creative writing and film studies lecturer based in North Norfolk in the UK. She worked for over twenty years at the University of East Anglia in Norwich teaching English, cultural studies, film and creative writing and was an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing with the Open University. Sue is an experienced workshop leader and has facilitated sessions all over the world, working with a wide range of people – international students, academics, retired professionals from all walks of life, recovering addicts, teenagers and refugees. She has travelled extensively for work and pleasure and spent 2016 blogging as The Peripatetic Poet. She now blogs as Poet by the Sea. In 2016 Sue received an Arts Council (UK) grant which enabled her to write a body of poetry in response to the cinematic and literary legacy of Paris. This became her debut chapbook, Lumière, published in 2018 by Hedgehog Poetry Press. Her first full collection, In the Kingdom of Shadows, was published in the same year by Live Canon. Sue’s poems have appeared in a wide range of publications including The North, Mslexia, Magma, French Literary Review, Under the Radar, Strix, Tears in the Fence, The Interpreter’s House, The Ekphrastic Review, Lighthouse and Poetry News. She has featured in themed anthologies with poems on science fiction, modern Gothic, illness, Britishness, endangered birds, WWI and the current pandemic. Her latest chapbook, The Saltwater Diaries, was published this Autumn (2020) by Hedgehog Poetry Press and her second collection Confetti Dancers came out in April 2021 with Live Canon. More information at www.sueburge.uk
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