Michelle McGrane interviews Nadine Botha
"Language is predetermined to fail at expressing your interior ... and the poem is a mediation of this knowledge."
Nadine Botha: was born in 1979, grew up all over South Africa, although mostly in the Free State, and now lives in Johannesburg. She holds an Honours degree in Theory of Art from Rhodes University. Her poetry has been published in New Coin, donga, Botsotso, Writing from Here, Aerial, Southern Rain Poetry and Sweet, and on LitNet. In 2003 she participated in the Crossing Borders festival in The Hague. Her self-published chapbook, Compared to not eating tuna or chocolate, is soon to be followed by Ants moving the house millimetres, published by Deep South. During the day she works at the Mail & Guardian as entertainment listings editor.
Michelle McGrane: Nadine, you grew up in a Free State town. Did you live on a farm? What was childhood like for you?
Nadine Botha: I didn't grow up in the Free State from nought. Before age nine I lived in Pietermaritzburg, Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Pretoria and Germiston. My childhood is vague with a few memories that stand out like freeze-frames in a movie montage. When I was nine we planned to move to Cape Town and stopped off at the family farm in the Eastern Free State - which we had been visiting fortnightly for the past few years and of which I had exhausted the childhood pleasures. I was very upset when my parents decided to stay there.
How has being part of a small town community affected your outlook on life?
I don't know how it has affected my life because I was never part of it. On my first day at an Afrikaans first-language school in Standard 2 I was immediately ostracised for being English. I remember being labelled as "voor op die wa" for calling adults by their first names instead of "tannie" and "oom" and using "jy" instead of "u". I didn't know any better. The only thing I was allowed to do on the playground during pouse was swing the skipping rope. Later my family's political orientations alienated me even further.
Can you remember being aware of apartheid and segregation as a child?
Definitely. My mother was very politically active and while we were still in Germiston I was sent to a private school to be taught in a racially integrated environment. It was perhaps not an acute understanding; I mean I had no experience of anything else. But during Grade 2 a friend of mine stayed with us for about a month to avoid the riots in Soweto. The reality only struck home when I started attending the public school in the Free State. Photos of my old friends were sneered at and people wouldn't sit next to me because they thought they'd get Aids, seeing that my mother taught at the township school - I kid you not. My nicknames were mostly "rooinek" and "kafferboetie". Already ostracised, I saw no point in buckling to their jeers and loudly defended my mother, my political views (at the humble age of 10), and my friends. I remember also being regarded askance for swimming in the public pool which had recently been opened to everyone but which, as a result, had lost most of its white patrons.
Was it a cultural desert? What did you do for teenage kicks?
Yes, it was. Although when I hit high school, I'm sure you can understand why I moved to a boarding school in Pretoria. But this didn't really lighten the isolation. We were allowed outside of the school ground three times a term, apart from the weekends we went home. So I read for kicks.
I remember mostly being bored stiff by the poetry I read at school. If you could change the English syllabus, can you name five poets you would include and why?
I only got over despising poetry in my early twenties - and not because I stumbled upon a redeeming poet, but because I started writing poetry myself. I suddenly realised that it wasn't a structural mind game / minefield, but an exercise in how language is predetermined to fail at expressing your interior, and the poem as a mediation. Now I can even tolerate some of the boring poets from school. I know it sounds very theoretical and would certainly in that formulation alienate even more pupils from poetry, but I don't think it's the poets you teach, as much as the way that you teach it. And I would prescribe teaching it by first getting people to write it. Pupils should get in touch with the language of their own interior before they can be expected to find anyone else's interesting. As for five poets, I have no idea. I'm not sure the poets I like would pass the school censoring system.
Tell me your favourite memory of life in Grahamstown.
Only one!? Ummm … Okay, this one may not be the coolest, most raucous, most life-changing or most significant, but it's the image that pops into my head every time someone says "Grahamstown". Our digs's front door and back door were perfectly aligned. One afternoon, latish, I opened the front door and could see through the whole house into the garden. The sky was turning pink with the sunset. Strangely, we also had a banana tree and this was drooping one frond across the framed sunset, like a tropical island postcard. Below, on a carpet they had dragged out over our overgrown knee-high lawn, sat two of my friends, each with a quart of Black Label in hand, playing chess.
And your degree? What did you enjoy studying most?
Art Theory. There was so much more room to play and be subjective with your interpretations and theories. Even the essay format could be turned on itself. Maybe I just had a good lecturer. I found that my English and Philosophy courses still prescribed a "right" or a "wrong" answer.
How are you currently earning a living?
When I feel good about my job I say I'm Listings Editor at the Mail & Guardian. It's true, that's my title, and I'm in charge of the entertainment listings. When I feel crap I say I write the TV listings, which is also true.
In her book What Do Women Want?, Erica Jong wrote, "Impossible obsession fuels literature. Many writers are obsessed with obsession." What is your obsession?
Myself and maybe the lack of one all-encompassing obsession outside of myself.
Okay, what inspires you to write and what would you say influences your writing the most?
Nothing specific inspires me. Most times I don't even know what I'm going to write or write about until after the big purge. There is absolutely no control over the process. Mostly there's a type of white noise that rises up in my head - I can even hear it. Apparently, biologically speaking, I'm hearing blood rushing in my ears. Which means there's blood rushing to my head. Maybe it's me blushing? I don't know, I've never written in front of a mirror.
When and where do you find the time to write?
Round my mind, and up my ears! I have written a lot less since becoming a career girl; I think that's stress levels. But germination in my compost heap works on its own seasonal clock.
Does the Muse sometimes come in male guise?
Often. My mind is very hinged on the existential other and the body-political gaze. People say I can't honestly feel in such intellectual terms, but that's how I understand it.
Poet Medbh McGuckian said in an essay about writing poetry: "My best poems emerge all at once like a full-term child; poems I labour over and doctor up remain at the handicapped stage, like a person not fully equipped for life, missing a gene." Do you find the same holds true for you?
To a degree. Everything that needs to be said is said in one fell swoop. And if not, the poem remains only a pondering. But after the verbal squat comes an editing process that gives it structure and punctuation. This can take up to three scans before I give up if it still doesn't work.
Are you conscious of writing for the reader or do you write primarily for yourself?
Poetry-wise, myself. Fiction-wise, I often feel like I'm writing a letter to someone. It is not always clear to who, probably someone related to the character or story but not in it. I also find myself writing to authors.
Do you feel that one of your functions as a writer is to bring across certain messages?
When I talk like this about writing, yes. But when I'm writing there is no concern for any protocol or requirements. And anyway, I think the word in your question should be responsibility. My function as a writer is to write. Writing has a message whether it's a Barthian text or a narrative, and whether it's the author or the reader who brings it to the words.
French writer Michel Houellebecq said in Rester Vivant (To Stay Alive), "The truth is scandalous. But without it, nothing has any worth. An honest and naïve vision of the world is already a masterpiece … As you approach the truth, your solitude will increase." Do you agree?
I don't think there is a truth but yes, I do agree that the personal specific - as Goethe apparently says - drives drama while the generalised constructs the tragic arc. He also says that everyone is his or her own best philosopher. And surely as you approach your metaphysical truth, you will be isolated from the publicly predicated ideas.
Most poets know what it feels like to have work criticised in a destructive manner. It's easy to denigrate someone's work when you're not the one out there exposing yourself to the world. How do you deal with negative comments?
I've been criticised for not being understandable and being depersonalised. The latter is a compliment in my eyes. The former, I shrug - every artist gets that. What I find worse is the silent ambivalence that is more predominant than either.
In 2003 you were invited to participate in the Crossing Borders Word Festival in The Hague. Tell me a little about the experience.
It was really exciting to go and a great honour to spend time with the other writers - Ivan Vladislavic, Phaswane Mpe, Sello Duiker, Stacy Hardy and Lesego Rampolokeng. However, I felt excruciatingly lonely - like in Lost in Translation - in the blah town of The Hague for most of the day before the evening's festivities started. The highlight for me was that a good friend of mine living in Europe came to spend the last few days with me.
Would you say South African writers tend to work more in isolation than writers in other countries do?
I have absolutely no idea. But writing, ultimately no matter your geographic restraint, is a solitary task.
Do you belong to a writers group? Are there fellow poets you feel comfortable sharing "work-in-progress" with?
I used to in Grahamstown, and I miss that open, creative space that we shared. But I haven't found anyone in Johannesburg to pass the toilet paper bong between. I do, however, have a few poets and friends who always get to see my stuff first - digital, baby.
Do you think there's a need for greater networking amongst poets on a national level?
I don't know - what would it entail and for what purpose? A lot of poets I've met are horrible people and can bore me to tears. People I wouldn't pass a minute with by choice. Others are awe-inspiring and some are my closest friends. Should there be more networking amongst people on a national level? "Poet" isn't a secret club or Kurt Vonnegut-type social family, as in "Ag, you know those poet types, they all get along." Sounds like you're talking about monkeys in a cage.
Are you optimistic, generally, about the state of the rainbow nation?
How do you reconcile your responsibility of being part of a family - a daughter - with your responsibility to your truth as a writer? Is your family supportive of your writing career?
It's seen as a minor hobby. My father is quite encouraging at times and my mother gets squeamish about my subject matter.
There aren't many women in South Africa who have used words like clitoris in their poetry. Do you think South African women are generally inhibited by self-censorship, that they're reluctant to write about their sexuality?
Well, if there aren't many that do, then I suppose they're generally inhibited by self-censorship. On the other hand, if I cast my mind across the younger writers, they seem quite comfortable with it. In the older writers I think it's what my mother always says: "Some things are best left for the imagination, otherwise what would be left of it?" I can't buy that. I believe that beliefs, attitudes, opinions become stronger with interrogation and questioning. It comes back to your quote about truth being scandalous, but nothing being worthwhile without it. But on the topic of sex in South African literature in general, I think we've long been concerned with the public political for its sheer prevalence. Anything deviating from this topic is seen as absolute indulgence. But after the public space has been righted, it's each person's personal journey that's going to heal a nation into future growth. This is the truth of our own solitude and self-worth.
"Good Girls" and "Good Feminists" wear their acquired gender roles well. They're well integrated into the social system. Is there a place for the strong, sexualised female in South African culture?
Absolutely. In fact, I'm constantly thrilled with the uniquely South African sexuality portrayed by many celebs. It's very underplayed, and yet potent. Take for instance Mafikozolo or Thandiswa Mazwai, who could be going to church in their performance garb, but their little hip-humping dances are utterly sexual and provocative. American sexuality is often about how much flesh you show. In South Africa it's become a knowledge that "I am a sexual being" that undresses the body in the mind's eye.
Is there such a thing as "safe" sex?
I presume you mean more than the HIV/Aids campaign of using condoms and sticking to partners in relationships based on fidelity? In this sense one could say it is safe if you follow the rules, but certainly not foolproof. On a more psychological or emotional level, of course you're always putting yourself on the line. That's part of the thrill - but the fallout from the thrill is not always what one hoped for or expected. The safest sex is when you are in touch with what you want from it. This is not easy, as desires for intimacy, relationships, love, power, thrills, babies, sex appeal … often masquerade as horniness.
Who is your favourite (fine) artist? And why?
Tough question. I have an honours in Theory of Art and in my mind a lot of artists really succeed at their entirely sound artistic projects. Some have said that is a really weak answer - how can I justify an intellectual passion without having an object of love? But it is the very mode of communication that fascinates me and many artists arb around in my head chatting to one another. It would be hard to single out between people like Warhol, Duchamp, Rothko, Pollock, Dali, Lucien Freud or Kentridge, to name a few that come to mind immediately. Currently I'm having an affair with Shiele.
What movies and music do you enjoy?
Mostly art and foreign movies. And an eclectic range of music suited to the time and mood - kwaito in the car, electronica in the bath and everywhere else, jazz late at night, IDM when I'm down.
How do you define yourself spiritually?
A determinist atheist with phenomenological leanings.
Going back to books, what book has made the most difference to your life and why?
Come on, these superlatives are killing me. When I read Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it realigned my reading patterns from teen to adult - I wanted more. Henry Miller's Nexus turned this into an obsession. Anais Nin's The Model made me realise I had a sex drive. Erica Jong's How to Save Your Own Life cheered me up. I slept with Raymond Carver's complete poems in my arms for five nights. But these aren't even my favourite books. Sophie's World made me study philosophy and I hated the book.
How can we get hold of a copy of your book?
You can mail me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Deep South Publishing is bringing out your second collection of poetry, Ants moving the house millimetres. Can you tell me a little about the collection?
It's a collection of about 60 poems, with some crossover with Compared to not eating chocolate or tuna. It's been a long time coming and I'm quite relieved to finally get it out. It's a book by Nadine Botha, and she is Nadine Botha in it - there are no big surprises.
Where will it be distributed and when can we expect to see it on the shelves?
Deep South usually distributes at Exclusive Books and a couple of other independent bookshops. It will be launched at the Grahamstown Festival, followed by a launch in Cape Town on July 18 and then in Johannesburg on August 1.
LitNet: 26 May 2005
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