Michelle McGrane interviews Arja Salafranca
Arja Salafranca was born in Spain in 1971, to a Spanish father and a South African mother. She has lived in South Africa since the age of five. In 1993 she received a BA degree in African Literature and Psychology from the University of the Witwatersrand. She has had fiction and poetry published in a number of local journals and anthologies. Her first poetry collection, A Life Stripped of Illusions, received the 1994 Sanlam Award for poetry, while a short story, "Couple on the Beach" was a winner of the same award in 1999 for short fiction. Her second collection of poetry, The Fire in Which We Burn, was published in 2000. Other examples of her short fiction can be found on www.donga.co.za, on M-web's literary site www.mweb/litnet.co.za, the anthologies In the Rapids (Kwela 2001) and in Post Traumatic, Botsotso 2003, among others. Arja has worked for various newspapers in Johannesburg and now edits the Sunday Life supplement in The Sunday Independent.
Okay, so when did you realise you had a gift for writing?
I started writing derivative Enid Blyton "novels" at the age of nine. She was a favourite author. At 10 I wrote a poem - a bleak, stark poem about some people having typhoid - and my mother and her friends and some teachers started raving about it. I went on to write others. By 11 I was showing a precocious talent for writing - a story of mine was read aloud to the class, I was praised, and I was good at English. I knew then that my talent was for writing and that I was going to be a writer.
When you're out somewhere and you think of a poem, do you stop and write ideas down or do you just catalogue them in your head?
If I remember to write things down, that's a bonus. I usually just catalogue them in my head and then come home and write the poem, or make notes.
Initially, do you type your work straight on to your computer or do you use pen and paper until you're happy with your draft?
I write all my poetry and my diaries using pen and paper. I then type the poetry on to PC and edit. All my short stories and journalism are written straight to PC and edited then.
Many writers and poets find they work best either early in the morning or late at night. Is there a certain time of day/night when you find you write your best?
Yes, at night. In fact, my body clock is totally unsuited to this early morning culture we practise in this country. I like to start writing at night, from 6 or 8, and continue until 1 in the morning. This wasn't so easy when I had to be at work at 9! For the past few years, though, I've had jobs where I haven't had to be at work at the crack of dawn, so that's handy for my writing life!
Do you write your poems from observing actual events, or do they come as inventions/contrivances?
Both. I write a lot of personal, confessional-type poetry - obviously these are derived from my personal experience. But I do also write from observation - I wrote a poem this past weekend on observance, driving a car, a beggar holding a cardboard sign, while behind me were a couple in a convertible, woman in a ball gown … the whole contrast between the have-nots and the have-too-muches. But I am also writing a series of "portrait" poems based on faces in photographs and paintings, so I suppose these are contrived to an extent. But I don't like using that word contrived - it makes it sound forced, false. I prefer to use the phrase creatively imagined, or something that sounds nicer.
I think there's a noticeable tension/personal insecurity in your earlier poems. Do you think age is a factor in becoming more at ease with oneself?
I do think so. I know when I turned 30 I certainly started focusing more on what I wanted out of life - publishing, buying a car, getting ahead at work etc. I think we become just slightly more aware and sometimes a little more self-accepting of ourselves as we get older. Hopefully we become more confident to varying degrees.
So what's the one kind of subject matter that you find you can't write enough of? And why?
Love, weight, relationships, and a man I was involved with at 23 who keeps popping up in my poetry and fiction, much as I try to excise him. Why? Because these are my obsessions, I suppose. I think relationships with other people - love, friendship, family etc - are the reason we are on earth. We're here to learn about one another and to get along with one another, so I don't stop writing about relationships. In my twenties it was all about love relationships; thankfully now I am moving on to others, writing about a mother and daughter, for instance. Weight - well I'm a true child of my times, worrying about and obsessed with my weight, like every other woman born in the last half of the twentieth century, I suppose. As for that man - it was a very hurtful, heartfelt relationship. I keep changing my mind about him, ten years later - but my emotions just disregard my intellectual knowledge entirely. Emotionally I am still attached, despite other relationships through the years.
Do you think women poets are finally coming into their own in South Africa?
I think so. Certainly there are more women poets in the forefront, more collections by women, more poetry published by them in journals. But this is also true for other literary disciplines - especially in terms of novels. The market is exploding with novels by women. It's wonderful.
Tell me about the poets who have inspired you.
In the past I was inspired by a lot of South African poets, simply because they were writing about South Africa, not about overseas. They made South Africa real and they made it acceptable to turn this country into fiction and poetry. After that I became interested in Anne Sexton's poetry and I became interested in Sylvia Plath's life and some of her poetry. I don't read much poetry; I pick up odd bits in anthologies and such. Lately I've enjoyed Helen Dunmore's poetry. I came to her poetry via her interesting novels.
In terms of your poetry writing, what are you working on at the moment?
I'm not working on anything at the moment. I just let the poetry and the ideas come. As far as short stories go, I'm working on a short story about a woman with polio and her daughter, as well as a story about an eight-year-old's sexual discovery.
Do you feel pressure to produce your next poetry collection? Is there a new book in the pipeline?
No, no pressure on the poetry front. As a short story writer, though, I feel tremendous pressure to produce a novel - I have been told that they are more sellable than short fiction. But I don't want to write a novel for that reason alone; I want to write it because something in me has to express what can only be expressed in a novel. I do have enough poems for another collection, but there are no immediate plans to bring that out.
You're editor of the Sunday Life supplement in The Sunday Independent. What makes your job as editor fun?
Getting the product together, when all the elements come together. When the cover is eye-catching and the stories are interesting and the design element is top notch and the pics are beautiful.
And what part of your job do you most look forward to?
I can't say Fridays because I might get fired or something! Seriously, I do look forward to Monday mornings in this job. Putting together Sunday Life is always a challenge and I look forward to receiving stories I have commissioned. I also really enjoy meeting freelance writers, and of course I love the occasional writing I do for the mag as well.
There's not enough time for my own writing - but that's my own fault. I really should learn to manage my time a bit better. I'm also am not overly fond of proofreading, especially the TV pages. And I don't always like being a dragon about deadlines with writers, but it's an essential part of the job.
What was your dream job when you were twelve?
Believe it or not, being an editor! Really. I loved Fair Lady (we had only a few English women's magazines at the time) and I wanted to be editor of a magazine.
Andrei Tarkhovski once said, "The loss of childhood is the beginning of poetry." Did you have a happy childhood?
No, not really. It'll sound melodramatic to go into it here, but no. And there were a lot of reasons for that.
And what were the teenage years like for you?
Again, it's not something I really want to go into. They were frustrating, they were very often unhappy. I couldn't wait to be a grown-up.
I believe you've kept a diary for many years. Tell me a little about why you started to keep a diary and how old you were when you started your first one.
I started keeping a dairy at 11. My mother's friend gave me a red corduroy-covered notebook to write my poems in, but the desire to keep a diary was too strong - I put both my poem and my first diary in that little red book. I also read Anne Frank's diary, which I loved; she was also an inspiration. But the desire was there before I read her book.
When you were younger, did you ever want to be famous?
Oh yes yes yes! In addition to being a writer I wanted to be an actress. I'd walk home from school practising my speech at the Oscars! Then I read a bio of Maria Callas and wanted to be an opera singer. I didn't have the voice for it, or the musical talent, but no matter. I wanted to be fabulously famous and be recognised in the street. Now, of course, I don't want that anymore, I think it would be horrible. But being well-known, respected and rich from my writing would be wonderful.
What are your thoughts on marriage?
For a long, long time, till quite recently, I was against it for myself. I just didn't see the need for it. Living together was fine. But now I hear other people my age referring to "my husband" and I think, yes, it might be nice to have one, to solidify a relationship through the bonds of marriage. I also love the whole white dress thing, although changing my name certainly wouldn't be part of the deal. At the moment there's no one whom I'd like to call my husband, but the future's the great unknown, isn't it?
I'm interested in what you see for yourself in the next five years …
Speaking of which - I can only say what I hope will happen. That I carry on writing, that my first collection of short stories is published, that I carry on advancing in my career or win tens of millions ... That I carry on learning about myself, improving myself, through whatever means. In five years' time I'll be 38. Who knows! Maybe I'll be married. Maybe I'll be working overseas.
No. I'd love to see what I would produce, but no I have no desire for children. And never have had.
How do you define yourself as a woman?
I don't consciously "define" myself as a woman. Obviously I am a woman, but I haven't often encountered discrimination, except in one newspaper I worked for. I wear make-up, try to look good … these things define me as a woman, but these are also superficialities. Women who don't wear make-up are also women. I suppose I don't really define myself in terms of my gender - but I am also acutely aware of the discrimination that women still face in our society as well as in other cultures.
Who are the women you admire?
I admire women, and men, who have made something of themselves, who have followed their dreams. I admire Hillary Rodham Clinton. She's tough, intelligent and ambitious and hasn't let her husband's infidelities get in the way of her political aims. I admire Gloria Steinem's activism and her excellent journalism. I admire ordinary women we haven't ever heard of who are making a quiet difference in the lives of people around them - whether through helping Aids orphans or cancer sufferers or other artists, for instance.
So what do you think is the best age?
I can't be clichéd and say the current age, I suppose. Years ago I went away with that man I was involved with when I was 23 and his family of varying ages. We spoke about this topic then. His aunt said her mid-thirties were the best time for her. So who's to say? I don't think I've had my best age yet, it's still to come. Probably the best age is when you're achieving the most in terms of what you want to do.
Do you ever find yourself worrying about ageing?
Yes, I've worried about it since I was twenty. Now I wonder what I was on about. I get concerned about the physical aspects of age. No one really wants baggy eyes and deep wrinkles, for instance. Thankfully plastic surgery is becoming safer and more accessible and I am all for it if it makes you feel better about yourself. I worry about not achieving everything I want to do. But I also believe that the positive side of ageing lies in a greater acceptance of yourself that was mentioned earlier.
Arja, when a person makes a mistake and says, "I need a second chance", Do you give them a second chance?
Unfortunately! And fortunately. I'm very forgiving, too forgiving, but then one day I snap, someone steps over that boundary and that's it - they're out of my life.
Let's talk about books. Which five books have made a difference to your life and why?
I love Lorrie Moore's short stories - they're quirky, different and unusual. She is a real master at the art. So I'll name her first collection, Self-Help. She's taught me to look differently at stories and how to write them. Then there's Nadine Gordimer's first book of short stories, Soft Voice of the Serpent. It's a beautiful book of delicate short stories, which opened up another world of writing to me back in the early 1990s. I also have to mention Doris Lessing. I won't single out anything in particular because I've learned from and enjoyed both her novels and short fiction. There are other books and other writers who've moved, inspired or taught me things through their writing, but these are the three that spring immediately to mind.
The movies Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, are also unforgettable. Filmed ten years apart, they explore the tensions of time, the idea of soul mates. They are what I call "intelligent" movies, movies in which there's much debate and intellectual talk as well as underlying physical tension and play.
Now tell me about your passion. What moves you, what inspires you, what brings you the greatest joy?
Writing, loving, really good company, good books, scintillating conversation. The small things in life really, but not always so easy to come by. And when travelling is good, it is really good. But I often have a terrible time when I travel, so this is not part of the list most of the time!
What truly frightens you?
Being alone, as in having no friends. I love my own company and crave my solitude. But being lonely - even when you have friends - is another kettle of fish. When you don't have a true, deep connection with other people, that's depressing and frightening. I get frightened by the thought of global warming and where that's leading us, but there's not a ton of stuff I can do about that.
Do you like to shop and do you follow trends religiously?
I love to shop. The only thing that stops me is my finite finances! I don't follow trends religiously, but I do keep an eye on what's hot. I love book-buying, getting linen, buying things for my house, and clothes, sometimes. I find that's a bit of a stressful experience, clothes-shopping - those changing room mirrors leave a lot to be desired.
How do you de-stress?
De-stress? Huh? What's that? Mostly by reading, I suppose, and thinking that I really should be using my time to write. Watching limited TV - I mostly record things that I want to watch - going to movies, seeing friends and sometimes just staring into space.
Do you have any regrets?
Yes and no. In some ways I wish I hadn't chucked up a good career and job in 2001 to emigrate to England. It took time to get back to where I wanted to be. But then again I'm also glad that I went and discovered I didn't want to live in England … it had been a bug in my system for years - to live in England and be a writer. Very naive. I studied psychology at university and I sometimes wish I had carried on with that. Taking it to graduate level. I always wonder whether I could have been a psychologist. That's a bit of a regret, not much. And I wish I had been more focused and ambitious in my twenties. I would have earned more money and perhaps bought a place to live in sooner than I did.
Are you one of those people who, after you learn a lesson, you say to yourself, "I won't let this happen again?" Or does the lesson come back wearing a different pair of pants?
Yes, the lessons keep on repeating like indigestion. I do learn from some of them, and try to avoid further incidents or what have you, but the others keep hitting me on the head. I suppose you just have to be aware of them and to try to relearn your behaviour or react in different ways to people or situations, for instance.
How do you define yourself spiritually?
I don't follow any organised religion. I wasn't brought up in any religion, which I consider very fortunate. My mother comes from a Jewish background, but I didn't grow up following that religion; my father is Catholic, but I haven't seen him since I was five. I don't believe in religion, but I have beliefs that form part of some religions. I do believe in reincarnation, but I'm not a Buddhist for instance. I'm also a great believer in the thoughts and ideas as expressed in Baird T Spalding's six-volume series, Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East, first published at the end of the 19th century. Basically these beliefs situate humans as masters of their own fate; God is within, not without, and death and old age are diseases, not necessary or inevitable. I tend not to talk about this too much - invariably I am misunderstood, invariably I have to "argue" my beliefs, and I'm not interested in doing that. A spiritual belief is a very personal thing, you shouldn't have to try and prove it. And I'm not interested in proving my beliefs - if you don't believe in reincarnation for instance, that's fine with me, I don't see a need to convince you.
What's one thing that people misunderstand about you, Arja?
Well, aside from my spiritual beliefs, who knows? I think a lot of people see me as a walkover, someone who will crumble at a push. A colleague once described me as having a "spine of steel" when I had a difficult time at work. I thought she was being very complimentary, but I didn't see it. I think people assume I am this way or that way. I can be very strong, but people don't always realise that. Similarly, some things affect me terribly; an unkind word that someone else might brush off will affect me terribly.
What wisdom has your mother imparted to you that you'll carry for the rest of your life?
To follow your dreams, to believe in those dreams, not to rely on a man for all your material needs, to make your own money, to follow your own path.
Tell me three things you'd like to do before you die.
Become well known through publishing my books; and to have time to write would be wonderful. And to travel a bit more - revisit Paris for instance, as well as see more of Europe. And to have enough money to take care of those who are close to me.
And what is your dream for yourself?
To be a full-time writer, to be financially self-sufficient through my writing. To love deeply and be loved like that in return.
Do you have a life philosophy?
I wouldn't say it's a life philosophy. I believe in being kind and gentle to other people, I don't believe in being unnecessarily nasty or cruel. I believe in helping animals, which have no voice - whether that's through giving money to animal shelters or campaigning for animal rights, or even just giving a home to a stray animal. I believe in being honest and true to yourself, no matter how long it takes you to get to that place.
Your first poetry collection, A Life Stripped of Illusions, is sold out. How can we get hold of a copy of your second collection, The fire in which we burn?
A Life Stripped of Illusions was not sold out, but was never adequately distributed. It was published by Sanlam, together with Tatamkhulu Afrika's Turning Points volume, without our permission, and he insisted that it be destroyed. As a result only a few copies are around. I have only two. The Fire in which we Burn, however, is sold out. For a poetry collection it's been phenomenally successful, but an under the radar success. I have some left, publisher Gary Cummiskey has some, and there are a few still left in bookshops, but they're becoming rare.
Arja, thank you.
LitNet: 09 February 2005
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