Here at Bookclub-in-a-Box we talk a lot about the novels that have an impact on us — but this week, we’d like to suggest you try something a little different; a little more concise. Meet Dawn Promislow, a short story writer who grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa, and studied English and French literature at the University of Cape Town. Although she spent some time living in London, England, she has been living in Toronto, Canada, since 1987. Her first collection, Jewels and Other Stories, was published last year by TSAR Publications, and she will be reading from her collection on Tuesday, March 22 at Prana Coffee (2130A Queen St. E.).
We spoke with Dawn about her influences, her inspiration, and the differences between short stories and other forms of writing. Here’s part one of a two-part interview; come back this Wednesday for more from Dawn.
Dawn Promislow: I think that time and place informs and indeed is this book. Of course I am interested in other times, other places, but in this book I have gone back to my earliest and perhaps deepest concerns, and written them into life. At least, I hope that’s what I’ve done. Apartheid South Africa is thankfully gone, but I felt compelled to go back and examine it, bring it back for myself and, ultimately, put that examination of it onto a page.
Has living in England and Canada changed or nuanced your writing?
I think this would have been a very different book had I not left South Africa and lived in other countries. The book is informed very much by that, by that voluntary exile. So thematically, certainly, emigration, exile, and dislocation are implicit in many of the stories and indeed are embodied in some way in the meaning of the book.
If your question is a stylistic or linguistic one, I would have to say it’s very difficult to say what stylistic or linguistic influences make a writer. I think a writer absorbs all the influences around him/her, her own experiences in the world, all that input. And then she goes back to the drawing board, and starts again.
For me, finding my own voice as a writer involved, if anything, stripping away influences – influences both literary/linguistic and thematic. I was educated in a colonial system, where England and English (as in British) literature was the holy grail. It was quite a struggle, and a long journey actually, to strip myself of this orientation, an orientation that was internalized. Of course I have absorbed other literary influences — European, American, and African. But the forging of my own voice was something I had to do myself.
Were there any marked events in your life that coincided with your writing short stories for the first time?
Short stories were always my first and preferred reading. If I imagined writing anything it would always have been short stories first. I think the precipitation at the particular point in my life to write this collection was connected to the long time I have been away from South Africa. I was preoccupied for a long time with making a new life in Canada, then with having and raising children, and South Africa was a painful subject that I had put away. I have felt myself to be freer in recent years to go back and explore that time and place. The creative process seems to have needed this distance of time and place, that’s the only way I can explain it.
Are there any personal revelations which stand out that occurred in the process of writing the collection Jewels?
Yes, I discovered a great deal as I wrote. And perhaps that is why one writes, to find answers to questions and puzzles one has. I didn’t find answers though, perhaps I only found more puzzles! Which means I feel compelled to continue writing.
But if you want me to answer specifically what revelations I had, perhaps I can say that it is indeed the complexity that was a revelation. Situations that I thought were simple, the more I searched, revealed themselves to be ever more complex. Of course the job of a writer is to bring back some clarity from his/her explorations, and, paradoxically, I hope I have done that. It is the paradox of complexity within simplicity, and the clarity or simplicity that, paradoxically, resides in complexity, that I hope I found and brought back to the page.
Who are other short story authors (or other writers) of inspiration and influence to your writing?
Nadine Gordimer is a master short story writer (as well as a novelist), and the first one I read, starting in my teens. James Joyce’s Dubliners is a short story collection which I have read many times, and I also frequently re-read Chekhov’s short stories. These are short story writers in an essentially realist tradition. (James Joyce’s novels came later for him, and of course go into the post-modern; his short stories were different.) I like John Cheever very much (crossing into North America now). Gabriel Garcia Marquez has some wonderful short stories. Kate Chopin (going back in time to the 19th century); Katherine Mansfield. Zora Neale Hurston I recently discovered. Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty (writers of the American South, a terrain that feels both physically and morally familiar to me, as a South African).
Perhaps the eclecticism and range of this list shows how malleable the form is, in that over the last two centuries, writers all over the world, in different voices and in different styles, have found the short form a perfect and flexible vehicle for their narratives.
Name five books or writers that you feel should be on a reader’s MUST read list:
This is an impossible question! I think the classics are always there, and always waiting, I feel, for re-reading, re-interpretation, so I find I most frequently go back to the past in my reading. Newer short story writers I particularly admire include Jhumpa Lahiri (her collection Interpreter of Maladies) and David Bezmozgis. The South African Damon Galgut has written some short stories I particularly admire, as has another South African, Zoe Wicomb.