ZAINUB PRIYA DALA is a psychologist and a writer with a certificate in Creative writing from University of Cape Town. Her short fiction has been long-listed for the Orange Prize and she has been the runner-up in several short story competitions, including the Woman & Home Short Story Contest (1999, 2012), Elle Short Story Contest (2012), the SA Writers’ College Short Fiction Contest (2013), and the Witness True Stories of KwaZulu-Natal competition. ZP Dala’s debut novel, What About Meera, earned her a place in in the 2015 Goodreads Sunday Times list of Top Novelists to look out for in 2015. The novel was also longlisted for both the 2015 Etisalat Prize and the 2016 Sunday Times Barry Ronge Fiction Prize.

In this interview, ZP Dala speaks on the recurring themes in African literature, the influence of religion on our stories, and what writing means to her. —Kenechi Uzor for Saraba Magazine

SARABA: African contemporary literature has been accused of too many “sins,” the latest being that African novels seem to always be about an unhappy immigrant. What’s your take on that? Is the criticism valid? Does it even matter? Would it be of any relevance in conversations on African literature?

ZP DALA: I think that African stories stem from within deep historical frameworks, and the reality is that these frameworks almost always do contain the themes of colonialism, racism and the social ills that stem from this. The “unhappy immigrant” narrative is sometimes relevant because it is a lens that focuses attention on the larger themes of the politics that create these social realities. Whilst we, as Africans, cannot get away from our damaged and deplorable past, we can begin to tell other stories. In that light, I do take this criticism as being valid. Somehow we must find a way out of only telling those tales, of becoming almost caricatures of the ugly products that have shaped our destinies. There is a very wide room within our continent to stop telling the stories of unhappiness, because when we present these stories to the world, what we are saying is that we have nothing else to say other than this. There is much richness and life to be told about deeper stories in Africa, that extend beyond this one theme. I would personally love to see African writers experiment with different genres such as fantasy, horror and even romance.

SARABA: Exactly a year ago, at a literary festival in Durban, you professed your admiration for the writing style of Salman Rushdie, and for that, you were physically attacked and allegedly coerced into a mental hospital. What did you take from that experience, and would it colour your future writings in any way?

ZPD: I have not changed my views in that I greatly admire Salman Rushdie’s writing style and this is a personal literary admiration of the beauty of words above content. And that is exactly one of the things I take from this—the fact that lyrical, poetic and wonderfully crafted words are a construct that transcends the story. I think I was very naïve in thinking that people have evolved from the days of persecuting writers for their craft. I learned very hard lessons during that time.

The most poignant being that it is very easy for people who do not know you to cast judgment about you. But, my writing has not changed at all. I still tackle subjects of a sensitive nature head on and always will. I suppose the experience matured me in many ways.

SARABA: Religion has been linked to much in our world, from terrorism to female subjugation. Regarding art, is there any positive influence religion can wield? Can religion be made to champion artistic expressions?

ZPD: When you look at all the world’s religions at bare bones level, they bring to us the most beautiful stories. They add something mystical to our thoughts by telling of the lives of the great prophets, the great saints and apostles. Of course, religions speak language to people. People talk to God, they pray in poetry, they pray with song, they colour their lives with the art of iconography and look to beatific symbols in their darkest hours. Is that not artistic expression? There is nothing sterile, clinical or remote about all the world’s religions. Each one is rich with the relationship between people and their God. The practices and rituals that people reach out for in the name of religion is beauty in itself. Any religious act is an act of emotion. And emotion expressed is art in its most authentic form. Perhaps this is the one thread that unites all of us.

SARABA: Congratulations again for What About Meera making it to the Etisalat Prize longlist. How has reception for the book been so far?

ZPD: Thank you. I was very pleased to be included in this list of amazing authors. What About Meera has been performing well enough in keeping with books published in the South African market. It has not been published by my publisher on an international scale beyond Africa and remains largely unrecognized. But I have received sporadic reviews from many readers and critics across the board, both in Africa and abroad who have greatly enjoyed it and appreciate its literary style and social relevance.

SARABA: Why do you write, why is writing important to you?

ZPD: There is never a time when I am not writing. And when I am physically not writing I am phrasing sentences in my head. I am always casting lenses onto situations and reflecting on them in my own personal journals. This process is my healing, my attempts to make sense of the world and there is where its importance to me lies. I always want to understand things, to break them down into their bare components and then watch how I fit into this world.

SARABA: What were your intentions for What About Meera, and how well do you think you achieved them?

ZPD: When I wrote What About Meera I wanted to use the narrative of the Indian woman in an African country, displaced from her closed society, trying to find out where she fits into the world. I also deeply wanted to tell a story that very few people know exists. There are stereotypes that abound about Indian girls and Indian families. But underneath all that glossy Bollywood-style pastiche lays reality. And this reality is most often pushed and shoved away into dark cupboards. I wanted Meera to somehow champion the cause for a South African woman of Indian descent who gives hope to the young girls out there who are different, and who do not fit the mould.

SARABA: Are there parts of What About Meera you wish you could change?

ZPD: The book was criticized as being too harsh, sometimes too jarring and dark. I intended it to be that way. I did not want insipid or shades of grey. I would change the ending. Many people felt like they were just left in an empty space when the book ended, and in this I learned that as a writer you have a very special responsibility to your reader. You may make them dive into murky waters, but at the end it is always good to lay them down gently afterwards. No, a happy ending with Meera running off with a handsome prince Charming would never have been the ending, but maybe I should have brought Meera home into a brighter, more comfortable space. Other than that, I would not change a thing.

SARABA: Do you have any writing habits?

ZPD: I actually don’t have the luxury of indulging myself in any rituals that spur on my writing. In the middle of the chaos of two little children, a frustratingly boring day job, and cooking supper, I write. My laptop is always open at the kitchen table, and I suppose cooking seems to push the writing. Of course logistically this is a rather difficult and often messy ritual. In between chopping and stirring I rush to the laptop and bang out the thoughts that come to me. I am a terrible insomniac so late at night when I am finally alone, I go back and edit what I have put down.

SARABA: In your writing, in terms of content versus style, are you more driven to one or the other? Are you among the writers who pay painstaking attention to every word and agonize over sentences in their work? Do you lean more to a work’s essence or story than to the style and techniques employed?

ZPD: My writing is very story-centered but I don’t obsess about planning and chronology. I don’t follow the formulaic three-act structure rigidly. I weave around narratives, points of view, and timelines often. But the essential story is the strong thread that keeps it all together. I cannot work in a clinical manner or use techniques and templates which I know many writers do. I also cannot write “on-trend” which seems to be very popular (and profitable) for writers now. I tell myself the story in one line, and then spend many long hours turning that one line into a book. Of course my writing style is present throughout, and I can only write in that way.

SARABA: Who are your favourite authors, and what contemporary authors are you presently reading?

ZPD: I am enamoured with the Russian and Spanish writers. Tolstoy, Chekov, Gogol are the classics. I also love the literary genius of Carmen Martin Gaite whose work is translated from Spanish into English and the translation works beautifully. The magical realism masters such as Don de Lillo, Carlos Fuentes, and to a limited extent Zadie Smith are also my favourites.

Currently I am reading a book suggested to me by my agent and it is beautifully written – Euphoria by Lily King. I also am reading Chigozie Obioma’s The Fisherman, and Winnie Mandela’s autobiography of her imprisonment in solitary confinement called 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69. Mostly I am reading some non-fiction articles as research for my current manuscript.

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