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A society full of surprising gestures of love as well as deep suspicion and ignorance ...

Jean Meiring in conversation with writer Shaun Levin

JM: First, before we talk about where it all started, tell us about your novella Seven Sweet Things, to be published next month by Bluechrome Publishing, and which bears on its cover the specification, if you will, “a novella with recipes”. This is your first novella? Why the recipes? The two central characters are South African, right?

Shaun LevinSL: Why the recipes? Well, baking cakes and cookies was the only way I could keep my beloved coming back for more. Or, at least, that’s what I thought. Although the story is a fictionalised version of a relationship, the emotional content of the book is true; I wanted to write about the joy of falling and being in love, and I wanted to share my love, too, of some sweet things I’d been baking for years. To share with the world, that is — ‘cause that’s what writing’s all about — the sweet things I’d shared with my beloved.

The two men are South African — though in real life they weren’t — because in a way their relationship is an act of nostalgia for a kinder landscape, a warmer landscape, and I think — though I haven’t thought about this before — that the story is also an echo of relationships I had while growing up in Port Elizabeth. At school there were always boys I was close to and, although they loved me, they couldn’t love me in the way I wanted to be loved; as in, an emotional intimacy with kissing and cock-sucking. I also had (have?) this sense of gratitude, I think, when beautiful men want to be close to me. It makes me feel bigger.

JM: It’s often noxious and unhelpful to label writers. Do you find the label “gay writer”, which seems to be hung around your neck a lot, a problem?

SL: I’m gay and I’m a writer. What else would one call me? I think people who call themselves “a writer who just happens to be gay” are as dangerous as those guys who call themselves straight-acting. What the fuck’s that all about?!

JM: Indeed, where did it all start? Shaun Levin, I mean.

SL: St Joseph’s Hospital, PE, 15 December, 1963.

JM: And your writing? When did you decide, “I want to become a writer”? When did you say to yourself, “Well, I suppose now I have become a writer”? Or are these decisions made and realisations come upon subtly and subconsciously?

SL: I’ve always loved writing — it’s one of the few things that approval or disapproval hasn’t kept me from doing. Or even the anxiety that I’m not good enough. I suppose it’s a bit like sex. I think I decided to become a writer while reading Ann Charters’ biography of Jack Kerouac during high school in Israel, soon after we left South Africa. I wanted that kind of existence: to be driven by writing and completely submerged in it. That’s not exactly how I live, but I still have that fantasy. The sense of arrival came when I published my first story — it was like, now I can be a writer in the world, not just in my bedroom. Obviously, though, this becoming a writer is a process and these images are just ways of sign-posting the journey. I might have decided to become a writer in high school in PE when Peter Dixon and I used to write poems and refuse to sing Die Stem at assembly. That’s an image I like, too.

JM: How does your South African childhood influence you as a person and as a writer? Do you consider yourself South African? Even after twenty-five years of separation? Are you, like Antony Sher, almost fixated upon the land of your birth, or is South Africa no more than a distant memory for you?

SL: I think the main influences of growing up in South Africa are that I know what it’s like to live close to the sea, to always be close to water. I know what it’s like to grow up in a deeply fucked-up society — but that I know from living in Israel as well — and I know what it’s like to grow up in a society that is rich, bursting with differences, and by that I mean, a society full of surprising gestures of love as well as deep suspicion and ignorance. That is perfect material to work with. It’s an extreme case of what happens anyway in relationships — there are always two relationships going on when you’re with someone: the one you have in your head, and the connection you have with him or her which manifests, say, in the things you do together and say to each other.

I still experience South Africa as a land I was banished from, and which I am hesitant to go back to. There was a time — about four or five years ago — when I was physically ill, a kind of physical depression, when my whole body yearned for something; maybe I didn’t even know it was a yearning. And then one day I discovered the South African shop in London, the one under the Arches, across the way from Heaven, and I found Peppermint Crisps and I felt so relieved. It was like I needed some kind of symbol from home to hold on to, more than I needed to go back home. Once I realised I was homesick and that homesickness is really a physical condition, it felt easier to be in London. I stopped looking for a home. I guess you don’t have to live at home to feel you have one.

JM: You started teaching writing in 1992. How did the transition from writer to pedagogue happen? You also conduct workshops which could, I suppose, be called a form of counselling (for instance, you work with men who are HIV-positive): how does this role fit in with your life as a writer?

SL: Any gesture of creation is a therapeutic act: it lifts us out of ourselves and is an antidote to feeling small and lonely. I mean, look at God — he couldn’t stand the chaos any longer so he had to create something, and then he had to show it to someone, so he created this guy, and so on. I think when you teach writing you have to be aware of that, you have to know that when people start to write, their world begins to shift. They get in touch with their chaos and you have to contain that and suggest ways of turning that rich material into something crafted.

I suppose I found this out through being aware of my own process as a writer, recording that chaos in my journals, and noticing how I’d find my way out of it each time. And so, when I needed a job, needed money for food, I decided to do what I loved, and set up spaces where people could write together. I don’t talk a lot in my workshops; I don’t interest myself that much, and I also think people come to workshops to write, not to hear what the facilitator has to say — and if they do, then they’re just looking for excuses not to write.

JM: You bear the title “Writer-in-Residence” at Gay’s the Word Bookshop at Russell Square in London. What does this entail?

SL: So far, what I’ve done is set up a series of readings called Seven Sundays at Seven which ran for, well, seven Sundays last year and where a lot of the leading gay writers in the country — Michael Arditti, Jake Arnot, William Corlett — came to read, along with new writers. We filled the bookshop every evening; it was great fun. I think the next thing I’ll do is just sit and write in the bookshop and talk to the customers and steal their stories.

JM: Later this year you will be visiting South Africa for the first time in 25 years. What has kept you away so long? Was there not a strong pull, especially when South Africa became the toast of the so-called civilised world, and indeed of the international gay community, after 1994?

SL: When we left Port Elizabeth I was almost 15. We left and we were never going back. That was the message. And, I think, in order to cope with that finality I blocked out the past, tried to erase PE from my memory. I learnt Hebrew very quickly and became an Israeli. I even changed my name for a few years before returning to Shaun. I would tell people I’m not going back to South Africa until the apartheid regime is overthrown, but the real reason was that I couldn’t handle being of two places at the same time. So I chose Israel. And then eight years ago, for various reasons, I left Israel. Over the past years in London I’ve grown closer to my past; I identify as South African, and as a writer, say, I have no connection to Israeli writing. Although I spent more than 15 years in Israel, I see myself as being fed by the landscape and the people and the sounds of South Africa. So I guess — thrilled and terrified — I’m ready to go back to the source.

JM: During the Gay Men Writing course which I attended, you demonstrated that you still have a good grasp of Afrikaans. Have you ever explored Afrikaans literature? Is it something which interests you?

SL: My relationship with Afrikaans is my relationship with my grampa; he spoke to us in Afrikaans quite a bit. He was a rugby-playing, springbok-hunting kind of guy. A mythical figure amongst the Levins. He was our only true alcoholic! Whenever I speak Afrikaans — and I could never really conduct a conversation in it — or when I hear it spoken, I feel, well, a sense of safety and comfort. I wish I was fluent and really able to swim in the language. I’d love to read more Afrikaans literature in translation — I’m embarrassed to say that Bosman is about the only writer I know a bit about.

JM: What are you working on now? What are your next projects?

SL: I’m working on a novel called Our Summer of Evenings. It’s about a man who goes back to Israel after living in London for 14 years, to witness his father’s dying. It’s a love story. It’s fiction. And it’s going to take a while. My main focus now, though, is getting Seven Sweet Things into the bookshops, and to sell thousands of copies. Oh, and I’ve also just edited a booklet of stories by HIV-positive gay men, so if anyone wants a copy they can get in touch with me through my website:

JM: Thank you very much for your time, Shaun. This has been a most interesting conversation. Best wishes for the launch of your novella, and for the work on your novel.

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