Chameleons, Singapore and Short Stories

By Kerstin Hall

Okay, so they have really good snacks this time.

NELM has upped their game since my previous visit. I have sampled the buffet, acquired a glass of something delicious and am situated in my usual spot on the left in the front of the venue. The interview is scheduled to start at six.

I hope Melissa de Villiers will sit on the right chair. It would make photography a lot easier.

Seating

Mmm… mini meat pie.

There don’t seem to be very many students here. Though this does clash with the overalls decorating bonanza happening all over campus at the moment. The Great Field Party is tomorrow and I suppose a book launch is widely considered to be less exciting than painting purple handprints on the seat of someone else’s pants. (And subsequently labeling the hand print. Marking one’s territory, you know?)

Anyway, Anthea Garman is conducting the interview. Leah was at the snacks table a while ago and I saw an ex-English lecturer lurking somewhere near the back. Aside from that, there aren’t any familiar faces. Sarah is running late.

On the other hand, everyone else here appears to know one another. Maybe they are just very sociable.

That is a bold choice of jacket. Oh so lime green.

There are plenty of copies of The Chameleon House up for sale. A slender volume, blue cover, published by Modjaji. Anthea loaned me her volume, so I have already read much of the short story anthology. It’s good.

Ah, Sarah has arrived. Well done, Sarah. You set up that video recorder. We are a-go!

Anthea begins.

How did you come to writing?

Melissa is relaxed, she lounges on her chair.  Unfortunately, the wrong chair. I have an excellent angle on Anthea, but I’m only going to get profile shots of the actual author. She has an exam pad full of notes on her lap, so I imagine Anthea has already gone through the questions with her in advance.

Seating 2

“Well, I think I came to writing with the sense that there are so many things I can never express. As a child, I was afraid of everything, really, painfully so. I had the sense that that I never really fit in anywhere. Having spoken to a lot of writers, I think that’s something… a lot of them feel that way. Writing was an escape for me.”

She has an interesting accent. England has sharpened her vowels, I think. Or perhaps it was Singapore; she has lived there too. It is a lovely voice, though it does not carry like Anthea’s. A gentle voice.

“I came to writing for publication very late, in my forties. I had my first child at the age of forty. That’s when my writing suddenly made sense to me.”

I’ve got a friend who can’t write unless she wears a particular pair of pants. What helps you to write?

“Ag, it’s such a torment. I hate doing it while I’m doing it. But when you’re not doing it, it’s even worse. I think you just have to do a little bit every day. I’m a painfully slow writer. For me it’s about not really knowing what you are doing or having a clear strategy, but letting good luck play its part.”

I wish ‘luck’ would help me to write like her.

So many of your stories evoke the smells and the atmosphere and the feelings of being in the Eastern Cape. How do you manage to reconnect with this setting while living in Singapore?

“To answer that, I think I need to talk about the concept of home. I love the Eastern Cape, but I think getting out of the South Africa allowed me to see it with greater detachment. I lived in London for a long time and I’m now living in South East Asia. The thing is, I feel at home in all those places, but I don’t belong. So going home, finding home, those are preoccupations. You can use memory and imagination, through writing, to construct a home.”

“The Eastern Cape has a very powerful hold on my imagination. A lot important scene setting parts of my life happened here. Even though I’ve been away for a very long time.”

The audience is invited to ask questions. Anthea is giving me a look that suggests failure to raise my hand will bring dishonor to the Journ department.

“Um…” I sound so intelligent. “Do you have any intention to write longer fiction or are you married to short stories?”

Melissa smiles. “No, now that I’m feeling rather happy this is done, I am intending to write a novel.”

Ooh.

Another audience member makes the rather contentious statement that Melissa’s work is not reminiscent of the Eastern Cape in its atmosphere. I am inclined to disagree, though I probably have not lived here long enough to have a valuable opinion. It felt very Eastern Cape-y to me, though perhaps it showed the province in a way that some people would rather forget. The stories are frequently set before the advent of true democracy. Reminders of the past might make the largely white audience a bit uncomfortable.

Onto lighter matters.

A woman asks how Melissa knows when a story is finished.

“The poet called Da Vinci said, ‘a work is never finished, only abandoned’. Some of these stories had up to 70 drafts. The reason I stopped was just that I got sick of them. Now, I could quite happily redraft this book.”

Clearly a perfectionist. I think the stories are lovely, Melissa. Please don’t change them.

The Chameleon House is available in major retailers and online here and here. It was listed on BooksLive as one of the major local works to look out for in 2015.

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