Interview by Jennifer Emelife
In your short story, Farang, we see the young protagonist (and narrator) fall in love and become pregnant. She opts for abortion. I thought it was a peculiar tale because not many writers delve into such matters as they’re often regarded as sensitive. Do you find yourself constantly exploring issues as this? What’s the story behind Farang?
It’s interesting that abortion is not something we have explored to its full literary potential. It is a deeply human experience, one that is particular and personal to every person who has one, and I do believe that it is important that as human beings we read more about it and conceptualise terminating a pregnancy as something that is possible, and likely, for many people who have uteruses and are fertile and would not like to have a baby. Whether it is at that specific moment or at any time at all. The stigma and shame of abortion are obviously reason enough to not write about it; it is such a political, divisive issue, when really, I am of the opinion that it shouldn’t be. The right to choose what to do with one’s uterus is a human right. I wouldn’t say that I purposefully pursue sensitive issues, but the fact is that these are matters that are important to me, and I have never been good at skating the surface of anything, which I think reflects in my writing and especially, in my subject matter. Matters of sexuality, and gender, and reproduction, are very close to my heart. I am a mother, and I have been denied the choice, before, to choose what I would like to do with my own body, and that has left very deep wounds in me. I have a lot of psychic baggage for it. And writing is a means of exploring how to cope with this, and how to live with this pain, when there is no escaping the body, my body.
I began writing Farang when I was living in Bangkok. I was 25 years old, living alone for the first time in my life, in a gorgeous studio in the heart of Sathorn. But I was very, very depressed. I wasn’t not having fun. But I was mentally ill. And I needed help. One night, around 11pm, after a couple laps, I went upstairs, and began writing this story that I didn’t know was foreshadowing my own impending pregnancy. Within six months I was pregnant, but abortion is illegal and I continued my pregnancy, too afraid to seek an illegal one and too much in a state to come home to South Africa. I most probably would have continued my pregnancy anyway, but I wanted to make that decision myself, not for it to be made by a foreign state. I picked up this short story last year again, when I was 27, and wrote it to completion.
Wow. I’ve heard and seen how single men, unready to start a family in their relationships, opt for abortion more than their female partners. It’s interesting seeing your perspective because the narrator in your story doesn’t only choose it, but insists on taking full financial responsibility. Is that your way of emphasising on a woman’s full right over her body?
I’m so glad you’re asking this question, because nobody has, yet, about Farang, and it’s something I wanted to emphasise: I wanted to write a positive abortion story, if you will, where there is healing and acceptance and a strange, if also painful beauty, in deciding not to be a mother.
Many women choose termination. Even without pressure from partners or families. Abortion is in itself an ancient practice – and I know an equal number of women who have felt pressured by their partners to continue and terminate their pregnancies. But abortion is still so taboo that many people keep it a secret. I think it’s just that so many people are pro-life, yet strangely, not always pro-child, that not speaking about it can be a measure of self-preservation. You can never be too sure about someone’s political and social value systems until a controversial topic is brought up, and if you aren’t in a stable space yourself, it can be incredibly difficult to recover from any negativity that person may inflict on you.
I didn’t purposefully write the financial aspect into the story, but in retrospect, I’m glad that I did because despite her many shortcomings I admire this narrator for her independence and the ownership she takes over her own life. Maybe it was something I was personally searching for when I felt I had no autonomy myself. I’m not sure. But I do believe that it is important for us to see the many, multitudinous realities of women reflected in fiction. One of these realities is having plenty agency, is having independence, is choosing to delay or indefinitely postpone motherhood. And feeling good about it. I wish that I had read this story when I was younger. I wish I had seen how the ‘other’, unspoken alternative in this light. Often, abortion is cast as this terrifying, painful, dangerous thing, when really, and not to say it can’t be scary, or painful, were we to be more open about it, and respect the right to choose, we might understand it a little more. Bringing this into the open, and out from the underground grapevine that women have, you know, with our sisters and friends and aunts, all the hearsay, and depicting it as something that is neutral, a fact of life, was, perhaps, my end goal. I wanted my protagonist to feel what she needed to feel, and to integrate the experience into her own spiritual and conceptual frameworks, and not to pathologise her for her pain or lack thereof.
And then she fights guilt till the end of the story, but never really giving into it. Like the story itself, the protagonist is fluid: simply living through life as she finds it in different places. As a writer, how much of your experiences would you say is translated into arts and how much of your writing becomes you? How do you write about pain and guilt and trauma without falling into them? And if you do, how do you get out? I’m interested in the psychology of writing.
Well I think Becky (the narrator) had this sense that she was ‘supposed’ to feel guilty. She was numb, sure, and don’t get me wrong: there is no part of me that wishes abortion on anyone. But I think she also felt that her true feelings were buried quite deeply in her. She had a set of feelings – internal, and external – what she supposed to feel – and I think this is what can be very confusing for people: you don’t feel like you’re allowed to feel relieved, or happy, or at peace about having had an abortion. But your feelings are your own and nobody has the right to tell you what to feel about your own body, or what you do with it.
I would say there are quite close parallels between my life, my experiences, and my writing. Sometimes I think of it as a thin skin between my fictional world, the written world, and my actual one, but neither feels more real than the other, because I think I get quite into character when I write, so I never really feel far from what I have written. I’ve always been quite an open book: I don’t like hiding anything, and that makes me quite intense to deal with, sometimes, and it translates into work that is shaped by and mirrors some of my own experiences. So I wouldn’t say that my writing becomes me, because usually it is fed by my life first. Although there have been strange instances where what I have written finds itself being written into the actual fabric of my life, and comes true, so to speak.
Like starting off the writing of Farang and falling pregnant within six months of writing it.
Yeah, and that can be a little eerie, at times. But it’s useful, in a way, because sometimes by the time something has happened to me, I have already explored it in my fiction, and having that story, or poem, to reference, makes the whole thing a little less lonely.
Some stories are easier to write than others. Depends how close the story is to me. But writing some traumas can be very unsettling. How do I get out? I keep writing it until there’s some sort of resolution reached, whether that’s in the writing or in my mind. I think it’s important to mention that I feel very powerful when I am writing, in a way that I don’t feel in ‘real’ life, because I dictate who goes where and what happens when. It’s my domain. So while there may be difficult things to deal with, I feel in control, and I have agency and that makes it entirely more satisfying and gratifying.
I agree with you in the ways writing can make one powerful. I’ve also seen your posts on Facebook about your Catholic faith and it makes me wonder how you combine these religious beliefs with your writing. Do you sometimes feel restrained or rebellious?
Look, I like to say that I’m Catholic, but not Catholic-Catholic, if you know what I mean. I was raised a Roman Catholic, by my mother, but in the way that many South African Catholics of Irish descent are. And by that I mean the faith doesn’t dictate lifestyle as it might if we were fundamentalist Christians, or perhaps American Catholics. I grew up in a liberal household, often my family and extended family were friends with our priests, who were usually very left-leaning, and most times, Irish; we drank wine with them, we discussed and argued about our faith and our perspectives on everything from film to sex. We were never discouraged from pursuing other avenues of belief: we went to Shul, to Hindu temple, to other Christian churches. I was raised to always question and critique my faith and our church. And I’m painfully aware of this not being every Catholic’s experience. So I feel distant from the Catholic church at large, the institution, and its dogma. I’m a pro-choice queer Catholic who believes in reincarnation, divorce, same-sex marriage and that women should be encouraged to pursue the priesthood. I can meet God in the sea and in writing and in mass.
I hope that one day a woman priest will bless the Eucharist and that I will see my family and friends marry who they want in whichever institution they choose and be free to love and worship whichever God is theirs in whichever style they want, holding their partner’s hand, whether they are men or women or genderqueer. Does this make me feel restrained or rebellious? No. Because the church has never defined my relationship with God, and I was never raised to believe it should. I do, admittedly, carry a lot of Catholic guilt (so typical) and I didn’t feel entirely comfortable being an unmarried pregnant woman in my church. And I am constantly furious about how little the institution has done to protect children, and women, and the ways it fails its LGBTQI parishioners. But I don’t see this as affecting my faith – because how I have been taught to worship – in prayer, in reading, song, ritual, may have been gifted to me by the church, and my mother raising me in it, but I feel these things transcend the church, and are about God, and not the religion. Perhaps I haven’t quite explored the damage the church might have done to me.
But in terms of writing – I now try to avoid referencing Catholicism and painting Catholic symbolism into my work, although I have often used it in the past. And I’m speaking for myself here, and for no other writer who might do so, but, I find that it’s far too easy to use Catholic imagery and symbolism because it’s just so damn evocative. The Catholic ‘aesthetic’ and iconography is incredibly rich; it’s thousands of years old and while it’s great to draw from, ultimately, it can be a lazy way of writing because you’ve got this ready-made structure, essentially, that’s proven to be effective, that has a billion followers, and is already something that appeals to people and sustains faith in someone that we really haven’t seen with our own two eyes. And tapping into this, and using it in my writing seems for me to defeat the purpose of trying to create anything new, or outside my own realms of thought, or possibility. It’s also drawing someone into a world that I have my own problems with, and I don’t know if I can justify using the metaphors or structures of it, it sort of creates secondary devotees, in a way, even if it’s temporary. Being a feminist, I am trying to shift the way I write structures of belief and rituals away from its patriarchal definitions, to a woman-centred, or woman-led kind of devotion, in much the same way that writers like Sandra Cisneros, and Carmen Maria Machado have done.
I do believe, like you, that it is important to question things. But I wonder if there are answers to everything? I think it was Paulo Coelho who said that he tried to find good questions, but not (good) answers.
Well, look, I don’t of course think there are definite answers for everything. There are many questions that remain unanswered, and I think that’s wonderful. It’s exciting really, because those so-called absences make space for myth and superstition and for all sorts of structures and systems to manifest. I mean that’s why we have religion, right? We created our own myths, our own rationale for how on earth we came to be conscious beings on this planet. People are born with questions and perhaps when we die we find every answer we spent our lives searching for, but I think that’s part of living, and being human. I certainly think it’s natural to want reasons for why things are the way we are. Why the world operates how it does, why there is evil, and good, or if there is no such thing, really, and only experience. So I would say maybe the key to an exciting, fruitful, intense life is one that is spent looking for answers, but remaining mindful that not all of it will be found.
This might be a bit personal and it’s okay if you wish not to respond, but are you’re happy now that you’re a mother, that you had your baby regardless?
As I answer, I must be mindful of time, of the fact that one day my son will be grown and might read things I have written and said to people, and I will want him to understand, in these moments, that I am my own person, that I am a human being, who is fallible, and flawed, who had a very young, lively, busy life before he was born. I would hope that he would look for context, so that he could see that my feelings, like anybody else’s, are justified. I am my own person, as well as his mother. And I would hope that I am always mindful of his one day reading me, and to my responsibility as his protector, and rock, and safe space, before I speak. So, in answering your question, I must ask you, and I suppose, society, a question: why is it important that I’m happy? Motherhood is so complex and varied and difficult and rewarding, it is everything, a big soup of things, and happiness is just one very small sliver of the experience. Was I happy when I found out I was pregnant, no? Did it change very quickly? No. Are there still moments when I look back in longing at my past, at my childless self and my childless life? Yes. Do I wish I had fewer responsibilities and more time to be a young, stupid, twenty-something-year-old? Absolutely. And it isn’t that I don’t love my son. He makes me immeasurably happy. But our society has massive expectations for mothers. We are never praised for anything but absolute selflessness. Being raised Catholic, we venerated Mary, passive, docile, loving mother of God. That is the icon of motherhood I was grown with. And that’s not to say that there aren’t many mothers who have shown me other ways of mothering, but ultimately, we expect mothers to be everything, and we crucify them when they fall short. Am I happy that my son is in my life? Yes. But am I happy that he came into my life unplanned, when I felt too young and unprepared? No.
Thanks, Megan, for baring yourself in this way. I think it was courageous of you to have borne your child and even more courageous to see you answer so honestly.
I also think that it’s important that we make space for mothers to talk about how they really feel about motherhood. Often we quash women who admit to feelings of resentment, or unhappiness, and that’s so unfair. We should be able to be honest about such a profound, radical, life-changing experience. And about what we are expected to give up in turn for motherhood. The more honest mothers are, the easier it becomes for other mothers to express themselves, and for younger people to consciously decide whether or not they want kids, knowing that it isn’t always easy.
I do agree with you. Having written a number of short stories, what are your thoughts on the short story form and how do you decide the length of your stories?
Honestly, most of the time the word limit has been to the constraints of a competition or anthology. Many times I have wanted to leave a story alone or expand on it but I couldn’t because of a word count. Which is okay. Limits can be great in that they teach you to stretch yourself in other ways, and be more creative. Some short stories just find themselves being short-short, others are a little longer. At the moment I’m having an issue with stopping the writing, I’m writing all my short stories into these really long, almost-novella efforts, and I get annoyed because I wish I could nip them in the bud. I absolutely love short stories. I’m going to lie if I tell you which wonderful writer said this, but I remember reading that the form is very accessible for women, especially women who have children and can only write in short bursts. My short story collection, which is constantly unravelling into something else, was written in concentrated bursts – an hour here, ten minutes there, sometimes, when I was lucky, two or three hours – when my son was a baby and I wrote around my job and when he slept. So I appreciate that one can contain an entire universe in something that is not a novel. I love reading short stories and writing them is so much fun.
You also write poetry and I’d like to know which comes more easily to you, prose or poetry? And how do you decide that an idea you have will be better communicated in lines than prose and vice versa?
It depends on my mood and what I feel like writing. Sometimes I wake up and know it’s going to be a day of poetry. Or vice versa. Or sometimes I write between genres all day, back and forth back and forth. And both genres really influence the form and potential of the other, which is fun and exciting, especially when poetry creeps into short fiction, which always makes the writing a little more lyrical. I’m quite bad in that I have several word documents open at once, so to be honest, sometimes I am writing one idea across many formats and I choose whatever works or, I write it in many ways and keep them all.
You won the Brittle Paper Award for Fiction recently. I’m curious to find out if the award, alongside others in the past, put you under any sort of pressure to do better. What’s the feeling of winning for you like?
I like pressure. I don’t think there’s any external pressure on me that is more intense than the pressure I put on myself. So, in that sense, awards and short lists are incentive for me, and motivation. Awards and shortlists have all come at a great time because I have been writing intensely for three years and I am pushing myself a lot. So they are an acknowledgement and a validation that feels very good, and I’m grateful that there are these prizes and I disagree with people who say they don’t matter. Try applying for a residency or submitting to a literary journal with no big names behind you. Sure it happens, but awards help. They open doors. Especially when you’re time poor and without a lot of resources. Winning Brittle Paper was the most incredible feeling: I was in the New York Public Library with one of my best friends, Eve, and her French boyfriend, and I got this Whatsapp from Efemia Chela to say I’d won. I couldn’t believe it. Against Binyavanga Wainaina? Namwali Serpell? And my friends Tj Benson and Sibongile Fisher? I ran with it.
Yet some people argue that young writers do not need mentors or workshops more than they need to focus on reading and writing more, even with organisations like Writivism and Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) catering to emerging writers in Africa through their mentoring and workshop programs.
Well I think that’s a little unfair. While I wholeheartedly agree that the best way to grow as a writer is to read and write, workshops can help to expose new writers to different literary landscapes, offer a chance to network and provide helpful critique and direction that may not otherwise be available to them, especially for writers who are not based in city centres with thriving literary communities, bookshops and regular literary events. It is thanks to organisations like Writivism and Short Story Day Africa (SSDA) that I have made friends and colleagues across the continent and been exposed to literary styles and approaches that would otherwise not have been available to me. The city I live in does not have any decent book stores and almost zero literary events: two years ago, SSDA and Writivism offered me lifelines in the form of their annual competitions, their online mentoring and their social media content. It is thanks to these organisations and, in the case of SSDA, their founder, Rachel Zadok, who is my mentor and now, close friend, that there are people reading my work, following myprogress and supporting me along the way.
Are their writers or books that have helped shape the writer that you are?
Oh, so many. Toni Morrison and Alice Walker (especially Walker’s By the Light of My Father’s Smile, which is pure, and lyrical, and effortless, and sex-positive, and Beloved and Sula by Morrison). Margaret Atwood has had a huge influence on me, especially Cats Eye and Surfacing. Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros is another one of my bibles. Monica Furlong’s YA Wild Child series really influenced me as a kid and I love the way Furlong was able to frame pagan beliefs in way that speaks to children. Hot Milk by Deborah Levy. I’m going to adjust this question so that I can include individual poems and short stories, if you don’t mind; for instance, Taiye Selasi ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls’, and ‘Naming’ by Umar Turaki, ‘The Line of Beauty’, by Mapule Mohulatsi, as well as ‘On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous’ by Ocean Vuong. These are all works that I have read only recently but they have challenged the way I perceive the form and flow of short fiction and poetry.
I also enjoyed reading Salesi’s The Sex Lives of African Girls, even though I thought it should have become a novella on its own. Ha ha. You announced on Facebook that you just finished writing your book. What should we expect?
Milk Fever is a collection of poetry that explores my experience of young, unplanned motherhood and postpartum depression, sexuality and womanhood. It’s pretty raw, and honest. I really wanted to grapple with this paradox at the heart of my own motherhood, which is this love for my child, and this deep want to do good by him, but the sheer boredom, and misery that I have experienced under the thumb of this institution we like to call motherhood. It’s unrelenting, demanding, and requires complete self-sacrifice, and I’ve suffered because I’ve tried to fight it. There’s a lot in my collection about freedom, and mercurial motherhood, and psychic baggage. I wrestled with ghosts to write these poems. I’m excited, and admittedly, terrified, to see how Milk Fever is received.
Megan Ross is a writer, poet and journalist from the Eastern Cape in South Africa. She is the 2016 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award winner. Her short story, “Farang,” won the 2017 Brittle Paper Award for Fiction and was second runner-up for the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Award. She has been shortlisted for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship and longlisted for the Writivism Prize. Her writing has been featured in New Contrast, New Coin, The Kalahari Review, Praxis Magazine, Aerodrome, Itch, and Prufrock. She has also written for the Mail and Guardian, Fairlady, Glamour, GQ and O, the Oprah Magazine. In her writing, she likes to explore ideas of place and space, which has been informed both by growing up in a small surfing and fishing town, as well as her travels. Her first book, a collection of poetry called Milk Fever, is forthcoming in 2018 from uHlanga.
Jennifer Chinenye Emelife was born in Northern Nigeria, Sokoto state. She studied Literature in English in Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto. She lives in Lagos where she writes, when she isn’t teaching Literacy to kids. She is also rounding up a Post Graduate studies in Education. She believes that the African literary sphere suffers because no one covers its stories. Lead correspondent at Praxis Magazine for Arts and Literature, she has written reportages and interviewed writers, publishers and other literary experts. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop and in 2016, she was selected as one of the participants for Writivism Creative Nonfiction Workshop held in Accra, Ghana.
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