Dawn Garisch lives in Cape Town and has had five novels and a collection of poetry published. Three of her novels have been published in the UK. In 2010 her novel Trespass was short-listed for the Commonwealth Prize in Africa, and in 2011 her poem Miracle, from her debut collection Difficult Gifts (Modjaji Books) won the EU Sol Plaatjie Poetry Award. A nonfiction work, Eloquent Body, will be published by Modjaji in March. Her work has appeared in literary journals such as New Coin, New Contrast, Carapace and Green Dragon. She runs workshops on writing and creative method, and is a practising medical doctor.
DH: How did you come to writing? Has your profession as a medical doctor influenced on your writing at all?
DG:I have always had an affinity for books and writing – I demanded to be taught to read at a very early age and wrote my first poem at seven. Left to my own devices, I might have become a librarian, but life had other plans for me. My family decided I would do medicine, and I fell in with their ideas. The split I have felt between my calling as a writer, my training as a scientist and my interest in psychology has provided a tension in my life which I have attempted to resolve on the page in my forthcoming nonfiction book Eloquent Body.
A doctor is in a privileged position of having access to intimate details of people’s lives. This has deepened my understanding of human frailties and strengths. In the consulting room I have also been able to observe the patterns we set up for ourselves, and how we often do not act in our own best interests.
Medicine has enabled me to work part-time, and to keep the space open to write.
You are known mainly as a fiction writer. How do you see the relationship between fiction and your poetry, particularly with regards to your approach to the two genres? I am thinking of how Lawrence Durrell said something to the effect that novels are like lorries, but poetry is like an arrow.
I like that! I experience poetry as an instant download, which I then have to work out further on the page, whereas a novel is like finding the end of a thread and following it on down. Both forms ultimately contain the pleasure and the difficulty of trying to solve a problem that lives simultaneously inside myself, out in the world, and on the page; each offering I bring into being is a part-answer to the puzzle of who I am and what the world is about.
What writers have influenced you – fiction as well as poetry?
So many: Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf, Patrick White, Ted Hughes, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood’s poetry, Joan Metelerkamp, Salman Rushdie, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Sharon Olds, Tristan Tzara, Marion Milner, Ivan Vladislavic, Mxolisi Nyezwa - to name a few who changed the way I thought about writing. Who opened doors in my head and my heart. Who gave me permission to experiment.
In your poetry collection Difficult Gifts, there are recurrent images of searching, of journey, of opening and discovery, as well as intimacy.
I write out of disturbances that arrive in my body. Sometimes the disturbance is unbearably beautiful, or it arrives out of enormous difficulty. Writers who have affected or influenced me have written as honestly as possible from an intimate space; they have helped me respect my body as an antenna or radar, and offered a chink through which I could view what is happening beneath consensus or veneer.
If I take a step back and try to see what I have been doing on the page when writing poetry over the years, primarily it has been a medium through which I try to find out what I am feeling and thinking – a discharge of tension which sometimes speaks to other people, and then finds its way into print. I think that underneath many of my poems is a conversation I constantly have with the creative process itself – The Edge, Great Fish, The Proper Use Of Flowers, Making Fire, Difficult Gifts – these and others are about what they purport to be, but also about the urge and search for connection with the creative force itself. I see desire, sex, libido, love and creativity on the same continuum – the trajectory that must look elsewhere for completion, the driving spirit behind life itself.
Your poem Miracle, from the collection, won the 2011 EU Sol Plaatje Poetry Award. What is your feeling about literary awards in SA? Do we have enough or too many? Should we have more genre-specific awards?
I feel split about poetry awards. On the one hand it was wonderful to have that acknowledgement, and I am immensely grateful to the European Union for their vision of encouraging diversity of cultural expression by supporting the least valued and possibly most ubiquitous art form: poetry. On the other hand, it did feel uncomfortable to be awarded ‘best poem’. Best collection of poetry is more understandable, and easier to judge, I imagine.
Awards do create a bit of a stir, and they hopefully encourage people to support local writers. We have much more talent in South Africa than people realise. My first drafts of Eloquent Body contained quite a number of quotes and extracts of poems from writers abroad. When we applied for permission, many publishers wanted prohibitive royalties. So I again turned to local poets, and spent weeks reading, trying to find suitable replacements that complemented the text. Although I do regularly read local work, I was astonished by how much truly stunning poetry had escaped my attention. And the local poets were only too willing to let me quote their work in the spirit of collegiality.
What are your thoughts about publishing in SA? A few years ago, when the Kindle first came out, there was a feeling that e-readers would not take off in SA. Now sales are rising...
If e-publishing allows writers to flourish, that is great. Personally, I still like the feel and smell of a real book, and to have tangible old friends sitting on a shelf near me in my study. And as someone pointed out, you cannot lend out a downloaded Kindle book. It is attached to the gizmo. Another said, when all books are virtual, how will we decorate our walls?
Publishing in SA took off after 1994, but now in the recession, I have the impression that it is slowing down again. Both impetuses are perhaps a good thing – initially broadening what South Africans write about and what kind of work was published, and now tightening up, making authors work harder to improve what they are doing.
What do you feel are the main challenges facing writers in SA?
There is much interesting writing coming out of SA; the question is how to get noticed in the great overwhelming sea of mega-publishing. I have the notion that most readers do not hone in on literature – or any other art form – as a way of finding out what artists are reporting back on. Readers buy newspapers regularly to see what journalists are saying about the day-to-day state of the world; they need to understand that artists are reporting back on the Zeitgeist – the themes and spirit of our times. If readers took art in all its forms as seriously as they take the newspapers, they would, to my mind, be better informed. In addition, our writers and artists would attain the recognition they deserve.
What about you busy writing at the moment?
I am putting the final touches to Eloquent Body, and catching the odd poem when it falls. I have started two novels, both of which intrigue me. One is a reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the biological age, and the other is an exploration of love in all its guises. In both, I am eager to find out what is going to happen next. One of them will have to wait for a year or so in the bottom drawer...