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Interview with Rahla Xenopoulos
Are writers born or made? I ask because you are hosting writing festivals… if I’m correct?
Perhaps both, I think people are born with an inherent love for the magic of words, the possible transportation and adventure of words. That love manifests in many ways, one of them being writing. Then comes the hard work, it’s on the unforgiving page that a writer is made or not. (Sadly I’m not organised enough to host festivals but I do host workshops.)
How did you get started with writing yourself?
At the age of 36 I was taken by a friend to a workshop run by the incomparable Anne Schuster, it was at the Centre of The Book in Cape Town. Something about the chemistry in that room, the women sitting in it and Anne’s gentle brilliance, coerced words out of me. I knew within five minutes I had something that needed writing.
How did the idea come about that you could teach others to write?
I was a teacher for many years. I taught street children and drama and even nursery school. For about 11 years I’ve worked in programs where I get to go into underprivileged areas and spend afternoons giving writing workshops, that’s one of the most rewarding things life has given me. In terms of running actual workshops, I knew for a long time that I needed to do it, because I knew that if I hadn’t been taken to Anne’s workshop I would never have started writing, so it felt like, something I could give back as a specific thanks. Of course as it turns out the workshops are not my gift to others, they are, unfailingly one of life’s great joys. I love being in a room full of people writing, and watching the writers develop their craft, what a gift.
Do you have pieces of writing from your schooldays that pointed towards a career in writing?
Jees, my schooldays didn’t point towards a career in anything. I really didn’t do well at school and until I met Anne Schuster I believed that because I was such an academic failure something as lofty as writing was out of the question. I’ve learned that to write you really need truth, truth, bravery and a big heart. Also, of course there’s the hard work and being able to deal with rejection. Oh wait, I always did drama, and I suppose acting you get into roles, into other people’s heads, which is a lot of what you do in writing. But no, I didn’t write.
If you come from a generation that penned love letters, do you consider yours to have been particularly well-written?
Gosh, don’t you often wish we still did that? Wrote and delivered letters by hand. My mother writes exquisite cards and letters, I wish I could publish all of her correspondence over the last 48 years.
Do you read your own published work?
No! Definitely not. That would be too hard. Once it’s written and edited it’s out of me. I keep copies obviously but only look inside them when I’m giving readings at launches, interviews and festivals. That’s fine because it almost feels like someone else’s work, like I’m just reading it aloud.
It is almost clichéd that writing is cathartic – it heals something inside. Do you write for the same reasons, what are yours?
Writing can be cathartic but I don’t believe we can expect readers, who are giving up precious time and money to be our therapists. I write to give a voice to the voiceless, I write because I believe in the power of words, because I am entirely unemployable and because perhaps, if I keep trying, one day before I die I will write a sentence that is good. I write to tell myself I’m not stupid, I write to tell others I’m not stupid. I write out of boredom and into panic. I write because I have no choice.
Is there a book you wish you’d have written yourself?
It is a list of books, I think that list is one of the many things that propel me to keep writing, there are so many, The Little Prince, The Famished Road, The Great Gatsby, Cloud Atlas, Here I am… it is endless.
If you were to write a biography, who would be the subject – Ruth first, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, who?
I love excavating characters, so the more famous people aren’t really interesting to me. It was a great honour to write the story of the murder victim Bubbles Schroder, because no one had told HER story. One of the characters I’m writing is based on Queen Gudit, a black, Jewish, warrior queen who briefly reigned in Ethiopia during the tenth century. She’s fun. Lot of research, hard work but fun.
Do you re-read books?
Yes, yes, yes. A book not worth reading twice is not worth reading once. Every time I start a new book I read one of my favourite classics, one that applies to the new one. I’m a voracious reader and I’ve always read good books, if you read trash you will write trash.
Would books count as your worst extravagance?
I’ve just always been surrounded by books. Seriously though, every time I go through the cash register at the supermarket I want to be sick, the fortune we spend on groceries is an extravagance. Books are a necessity.
Have you ever nicked a book from a library or store?
Never. But I live in terror of libraries. The book I’m writing at the moment draws on a lot of Jewish themes so everyone told me to use the Gittlin, (Jewish) library. It’s a marvelous library and had everything I needed but of course I just couldn’t get myself together to return the books, not for months. A regular library would have sent the police after me, but the Jewish Library, they called my mother, and Oh my God, did she give me blazes, it was so tribal, so terrifying. I can’t get involved with libraries.
Bookshops close down – at least some in the Exclusive Books chain. Is this a bad thing?
Ah, d’you remember when Tinkerbell said, “every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies a fairy die.?” I think every time a bookstore closes a part of humanity dies. It breaks my heart, books and art are our greatest gift to one another.
Will the kindle replace the book as we’ve known it – in its paper form?
In the beginning I was convinced that it would, but now I’m not so sure. Reading is such a visceral experience. We love the smell and feel of paper. Personally, I don’t care if people read on electronic or paper, so long as we’re reading. Only thing is, I’m a very judjemental person, and I judge people by their art and books, I worry, if people’s books aren’t on their walls, what do I have to judge them by? Besides Facebook.
Do you have a favourite book among those you have written?
Not really. I’m grateful that my first book, the memoir, seems to have served a purpose in terms of creating awareness around mental health. Otherwise, I’m just grateful that they got published.
What is your favorite book quotation?
Jees, you have the best questions and also the most difficult to answer, there are so many.
Maybe the Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
In South Africa, 5 000 copies are said to be a good sales figure. Should we be buying more as a reading public?
We have so much healing to be done. So much learning about one another, books are a safe space to do that. More then most nations in fact, we need to be reading.
Do the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Recreation do enough for the book industry, to engender the culture of reading, among other things?
I’m not entirely sure what it is they do? I think unfortunately the onus is on us to do that. There are fantastic NGO’s one can get involved in. We can teach our children to share their books and to read to others less privileged than themselves. One of my sisters moved to New Zealand and became a brilliant writer, the government truly enabled her craft. It doesn’t seem our government are doing that, we have to do it for one another.
Who are the shining lights of novel writing in the country at this juncture?
Right now South African literature is a shining light. It might be all the workshops, the support of phenomenal publishers and also, the encouragement of other writers but we are producing a lot brilliant writing. Damon Galgut, Fred Khumalo, Fred Strydom, Marlene Van Niekerk, K.Sello Duiker, Sindiwe Magona, Deon Meyer, Paige Nick, Henrietta Rose-Innes, Ivan Vladislavic, Maire Fischer. I cannot shorten this list, I’ve left so many out. Everything published by Umuzi is magnificent. During workshops every month I am blown away by people who have sometimes not been published. We’re just producing magnificent writing.
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