August 31, 1983
I am changing. I have been changing since I first began a diary eight months ago. Even before then I was changing. I have just been too childish and young to notice. And now I am growing up. Suddenly I'm finding out all about myself. Never before have I tried to figure myself out. I've always covered my emotions and feelings by thinking of other things. There is still more to come. More for me to discover. I search myself. I want to discover more. Thinking is just thinking. As I write I discover.
I was eleven when I wrote this, with my twelfth birthday two months away. I was just coming to the realisation that by writing, by keeping a diary, I was starting on a journey of self-exploration.
The diary, begun eight months before, had been a red corduroy-covered notebook given to me as a Christmas present by a friend of my mother's. I had recently started writing poetry, and the friend said I should start writing all that poetry down in a book to keep for years to come.
But the impulse was too strong. I had read Anne Frank's diary and had been attracted to the idea of keeping a record of my life. I may not have been living in hiding through a world war; instead I was a South African schoolgirl, an only child, growing up in Johannesburg's northern suburbs, with a single divorced mother.
These facts were entered into the diary, along with the fact that we were due to visit family in America, that I had a crush on a prefect, that I became best friends with someone in my class and we pledged allegiance to each other by saying we were bosom buddies. I was also desperately worried about my weight, attempting diets all the time, despite being repeatedly told I didn't need to diet, and despite the photograph I have in that diary of a slim me in a bathing costume. Some themes were to be repeated time and time again in the diaries.
I now have thirty-four volumes of my diary, kept in small, A5 books, larger notebooks, a glamorous leather-covered book (a rare find), a big thick lever arch file, thick hard-covered books bought overseas, and notebooks covered in pretty paper. I've often tried to stop keeping journals, annoyed with myself for doing so. Time spent writing in a dairy could be spent writing fiction, for example. And what's the point of writing all these volumes of words addressed only to me? Isn't there something self-defeating about keeping a diary? Either that, or, in fact, the diarist is keeping a diary intending it for publication at a later stage. And if that's the case, how honest is the diary? Anything that's written for an audience already starts out in an edited form: before you've written your first word, you've decided what you're going to put in, what you're going to leave out. Once you reach that stage, the diary is no longer a private document, meant to hold your truest or darkest or most ugly thoughts. It becomes a showcase instead: of the kind of person you think you'd like to be, the kind of person you are attempting to be, or the kind of person you think others would like.
It's a battle I have had with myself for some time, most noticeably in my insecure, self-conscious teens. I was trying out a variety of careers, from actress to writer to artist. They all involved the tantalising prospect of fame, as so many young dreams do. And if I was going to be famous, it naturally followed that people would want to read about the young Arja, the Arja who was not yet famous and was still struggling to decide what name to use. And so, for a time, the diary became distorted. I imagined other eyes reading it, judging the person I had been. It was hard to write freely like this, imagining this future fame.
Yet the habit continued, for it was a habit. Once I'd started, like an addict, I could not stop. Early on, I enjoyed the fact that I could turn back the pages of my diary, and in so doing, turn back the pages of the past. I also learned, early on, that memory distorts. An event is so often remembered differently from the way it was experienced; time changes memory, and this is never more obvious than when you have a black and white record of a time before to remind you that you have edited the past, much as you have edited the present while writing about it.
As each successive year saw the diary volumes building up, and I became a teenager, I also got into the habit of looking back, of looking at my younger selves and sneering. "I could write better than that!" I thought as I thumbed through the large, childish handwriting of my eleven-year-old self. And of course at twelve, fifteen whatever ages I attained, I could write better. But like a typical teenager, I allowed no room for sympathy for the past, instead just an embarrassed shudder as I rifled through the person I had been.
Looking back now, dipping into diary entries now and then to verify a fact, or to raid something for a piece of writing, I am so pleased that I kept diaries, notebooks of the past. Because without them so much would be lost - memory not only distorts, but it also fades and grows fuzzy around the edges. A six-week holiday becomes compressed into a few snapshots in a photo album, or a few images that you carry in your head, sparse, isolated images that link together to form an impression of that holiday. It's only in looking back - in my own case, in reading about a particular journey - that I realise how much is forgotten. How much you leave out as you accrete the memories.
When I visited America two years ago, I was so surprised when my aunt suggested clothes shopping on a Sunday, as well as a ballet performance. On a Sunday! In South Africa cinemas, theatres and all shops except bookshops are closed. Perhaps the Dutch Reformed Church is hoping that since there is no entertainment on Sundays South Africans will attend church? In San Francisco on a Sunday the town is alive and buzzing. There are people in the streets. In Johannesburg town is empty. In centres such as Eastgate and Sandton, it is dead and dull and very quiet. Families stroll along the passages, peering into shop windows, browsing in bookstores, the afternoon ending in coffee and cake at a restaurant.
I was thirteen then, going on fourteen, when I recalled the fact that you could go shopping in the US on a Sunday while in South Africa the Dutch Reformed Church still held sway. Coming across this passage in my journal I had to smile. I hadn't forgotten, not really, that you couldn't go to movies on a Sunday when I was a teenager. But I hadn't recalled it either. Reading the passage made me remember how quiet shopping centres were in Johannesburg on Sundays. It was as I described it: the browsing at bookshops, the mindless window-shopping, the days ending in refreshments. How hard to remember when today shopping centres on Sundays are almost as busy as on Saturdays, and you can go to movies, or buy clothes or go grocery shopping. About the only thing you still can't do, of course, is buy alcohol in a supermarket. Indeed, some things don't change. But not much, it seems.
So the diary keeps the past alive, but only if you keep on reading the journals. It's an impossible task, though. The writing varies from large and round and childish to cramped, tiny letters that you can barely see to read. I had that kind of writing when I was twelve and thirteen, discovering philosophy and atheism, while trying simultaneously to hide myself away because I suddenly found myself friendless at school. As the writing shrank, so my self-esteem plummeted. Some facts are not only spelled out, but obvious from the very appearance of the writing in all those notebooks. As the friends came, so the writing grew larger and more confident again, and then it assumed curlicues and elaborate slants as I tried on postures and personas.
But even when you succeed in reading all the variations of a single handwriting, you do risk nausea in a sea of solipsism. The diary is a hymn to the idea of I, I, I, and sooner or later you must come up to breathe, to swim away from the past, from the self-enclosed bubble world of a journal. You can only go dipping into it, now and again, perhaps seeking an answer to a question about the past, or out of curiosity. There are always new things to discover and you are always surprised. What you discover when you keep a journal is that you change irrevocably as you grow up and age, and yet, perversely, you remain the same. If language fascinated you as a teenager, it still does as an adult; if you obsessed about your weight growing up, you carry on obsessing as you mature. But whereas before you were quick to lose your temper and lose friends, you have learned to temper that impulsive streak; you have learned about friendships and control, you learn various tricks along the way.
Who is she? She is my mother. Yes, but who is she? There she goes, striding across the street in a blue satin-like skirt and a white blouse, she seems taller because she is wearing high heels. Yes, but who is she? She is in her forties, she has black hair, she has large hazel eyes. That is my mother - but I do not know her. A stranger strides across the street, the car is murky hot, the sun is blazing and billions of people around the world are heaving their chests to breathe in out, in out. I have lived with my mother for fourteen years and yet I do not know what happens in her head. I don't know. I don't know her. I don't know anybody. I know of you and you and you.
I wasn't writing dates down in my diary at that time, simply months. I was copying the formula of the published diaries of writer Anais Nin at this point. There are no dates in her diaries, simply months or seasons to indicate the passing of time. I envied the list of famous names that Nin wrote about and knew. I longed to write portraits of famous people, but instead knew only my mother, my friends and my grandparents. So I wrote about them, while trying to figure out how we were all connected. As I grew older, I realised that you will know the people you are intimate with: family, lovers, although there will always be surprises, unexpected revelations, sometimes trivial, sometimes more far-reaching. At fourteen, poised between adolescence and hoping to be an adult soon, I could only stare across the chasm that divided me from that seemingly magical adult world, and try and make sense of what I was discovering.
In 1989 the adult world was coming closer.
September 3, 1989
Last week a girl of fifteen who used to attend Northview High School brought her baby to school. She fell pregnant at fourteen, was obviously expelled and had her baby at the end of June. She was dressed in black, smoking; the baby was in a grey pram. She had sparse black hair, and eyes closed against the sun and onlookers. We matrics were shocked and disgusted. "She's fifteen and she's breastfeeding!" one girl kept enunciating in disbelief. Candice said in horror, "I feel that if I've been able to keep out of sexual problems like that, all through high school, and we're two years older than her, why couldn't she?"
September 29, 1989
During June and July voters in Johannesburg received a card from the municipality on which they were asked to vote on the question of open amenities. This includes buses, parks and swimming pools. The majority voted no to swimming pools, but yes to parks and buses. Two days ago all of Johannesburg's amenities were opened to every race, including swimming pools. TV footage showed blacks, Coloureds and Indians jumping into pools. Johannesburg has led the way in the Transvaal. It eventually happened, as we knew it would, but how barbarian that citizens weren't allowed into parks, pools and buses because they weren't white! It's a sign of petty apartheid crumbling, a good sign, as long as it leads to major apartheid's destruction.
Again, disbelief. A teenager expelled for falling pregnant. You'd wonder if that had really happened if you hadn't had the written evidence in front of you. And reading about the vote on open amenities seems quaint. Yes, you had forgotten all about it; if asked you would have assumed that petty apartheid had died earlier than that. You can barely recall a time when pools were lily white. But then, the separation seemed so natural. You lived in white areas, went to a white school: you weren't going to see people of other races wanting to use the pool in your white area, because they simply didn't live there. You had forgotten, and there's another reminder of the past, details that didn't survive your personal history except as notes in a book you rarely look at any more.
And then there was university, and the ANC was unbanned, Mandela came out of prison. Codesa talks took place, there was the massacre in Boipatong. These things are remembered, times were changing, and so the memories are vivid. There was the business of choosing a career - journalism - and discovering the writer's voice in you that produced the short story you wrote at eighteen that was published a few years later. You were discovering who you were; you started a career, you fell in love.
November 29, 1998
Twenty-three suddenly seems so young. Was dipping into one of 1995's volumes of the journal, and it just seems so incredibly young. Barely three years away from turning twenty - what did it feel like to be twenty-three? It felt old at the time, so grown-up. Yet now, at twenty-seven, that year seems so young, so long ago. Instead of being three years away from being twenty, I'm three years away from being thirty. Mind-blowing.
By now, at twenty-seven you were living on your own. You had a rented townhouse, a job at a major newspaper, you had loved and lost, and were hoping to love again. You were living in a different society from the one you had left in the '80s; to the one in which you had started work in 1994, the year you, too, voted in the country's elections.
Some things still remained the same: you still kept a journal, you still wrote fiction, you still worried about your weight. But now, instead of being proud to be part of the much-lauded new South Africa, you wanted to leave. You wanted to be a fulltime writer, but couldn't see that happening here. You had taken a job as a sub-editor on a major newspaper because you needed the experience to find work in the UK. As you furnished your townhouse with white couches and a dining-room table you were wanting to leave, go overseas. But you were scared of going alone, of leaving everything you knew, even though you were longing to go, be away, leave what you saw as the narrow confines of Africa, be part of somewhere else. So you met a man who also wanted to go overseas. The dream came together.
4 Lowick Road, Harrow, London, January 2002
I go out into a wintry landscape. Frost covers the grass, the trees, the shed and the bench in the garden. It looks like snow; it looks so northern. The streets are icy; the pavements are icy. I crunch along, trying to avoid the ice patches. The cars in the street still have ice on them at one in the afternoon, and there are messages written in the ice. It melts slowly; then it's night again, and the ice reforms.
The street is silent as I cross over, not a car in sight. Despite this we walk to town, to the stations to catch buses and trains, to walk home with parcels bulging. It is still a safe society. There are ATMs built into the walls on the outside of banks, and I use them as freely as everyone else. There are no double security doors at the entrance and no security guards at the ready. Not as there is in Johannesburg. And this is what we're going back to, what we're choosing to go back to. It all seems so unreal.
You came back; you returned to the country you had been wanting to leave since visiting America at eleven. You were thirty now, unbearably ancient to that younger self; yet the fact that you had reached that age seemed unbelievable to the thirty-year-old self you had become. That's another consequence of keeping diaries. When all the past selves are there, preserved in ink, you can always return, always remember in a disassociated way what it was like to be other ages. The childish handwriting, the naÔve thoughts, the desires expressed by the teenager you were, are all still there. You cannot run away from your younger self when they are there, preserved, reachable, yet it takes an effort to reach through, open the books, wade through the self-obsession and the repetition that is a part of any diary.
So, you write to remember, and as you write, you tend to forget as life swallows
you up in the present.
Works by the author:
jars among trees: prose and poetry