Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Q&A with Maggie Messitt

Maggie Messitt is the author of The Rainy Season: Three Lives in the New South Africa. She lived in South Africa from 2003 to 2011. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Creative Nonfiction and Essay Daily. She is a scholar-in-residence at Elizabethtown College's Bowers Writers House and an Ohio University John Cady Doctoral Fellow.

Q: In your book, you focus on three people. How do their lives exemplify post-apartheid South Africa?

A: Collectively, Regina, Thoko, Dankie and the community in which they live offer readers a way inside rural South Africa 10 years after the nation’s first democratic elections. 

Unlike most narratives (in literature, television, and film) set inside urban townships or colonialesque farms, The Rainy Season brings you inside a former apartheid-era homeland and the lives of three generations, three individuals tackling life in the Rainbow Nation a decade after apartheid, illustrating the hopes, dreams, and expectations (realistic and utopian) that came with this transition.

Q: How difficult was it to immerse yourself in the life of the village?

A: As a storyteller, immersion is a form of reportage that allows a community or character to reveal story, as opposed to me starting with pre-conceived ideas and seeking stories to fit inside an already established framework. And, because of this, it means just hanging out, spending time, listening, and letting people get used to you being around.

Having called South Africa home for more than two years at that point, reporting and writing from inside the village of Acornhoek (where Rooibok is located), it was much easier than if I’d parachuted into the community as a complete outsider. Let’s say, I was a partial outsider. 

But, let’s face it, immersion of any kind requires delicate and slow starts; it requires building trust; it requires being open about what you’re doing and seeking permission from the key players; and it requires genuine curiosity overlapped with good intention. 

Most importantly, in order to write what eventually became The Rainy Season, it required me to find a few people who were willing to let me inside their lives—and not in a small way—for a long time. I spent six months laying the foundation necessary for me to hang out in this way.

I think and write about immersion (from ethics to process) a lot. If you’re curious and want to learn more, you can find a recent craft essay of mine in the Summer 2015 issue of Creative Nonfiction

Q: What has happened to the village in the years since the time you’re writing about in the book?

A: Well, the Epilogue actually gives you taste of how the community has changed and the lives you follow inside The Rainy Season, but, on a very basic level, it has grown and prosperity (in a small way) is showing its face. 

That said, this could mean a family living in tin shacks in 2005 may now have a small cement block, two-room home (constructed by the family), or someone has upgraded from mud-packed buildings to brick buildings. It’s all relative. 

If anyone wants to take an aerial peek at the evolution, you can do so via Google maps—it’s kind of amazing—flipping through the years, watching more homes pop up and seeing the main street of Acornhoek get a few new buildings, but mostly fixing old buildings.

But what feels most important to say is that the stories of rural South Africa are still as universal today as they were 10 years ago—the time in which the book is set. 

It is filled with concerns and stories that American readers should also see in the world around them: poverty and the extreme gap between the rich and the poor, unemployment, the right to basic resources and a good education, the divide between the rural and urban experience, protesting against one's government, the rights and desire for a simple and safe life, and a racism that sits inside a country's bones. These are universal storylines that will likely continue for a long time.

Q: What has the response been among the people you know in South Africa to your book?

A: Having called South Africa home for eight years, there are so many people to think about when it comes to feedback on my book. Most importantly, however, I was eager to get copies of The Rainy Season into the hands of Regina, Thoko, Dankie, and others throughout Acornhoek. 

Given the postal problems—after a long postal strike and a continued backlog of parcels needing delivery—I was nervous they’d never make their way, so a friend visiting the U.S. brought them back to South Africa’s Lowveld for me and delivered them—a courier directly to Rooibok!   

For the most part, people have been excited seeing the maps of their community and reading the now decade-old stories of their lives. Regina’s granddaughter was six years old then, and now is a beautiful 16-year-old girl! Before the books arrived, she was messaging me via WhatsApp asking questions about her cameos on the page. 

Sure, I know it is difficult for some to replay difficult times in their lives as they read a book, but, overall, the response has been really positive and filled with joy that their lives and their voices have found a way to reach people far from Rooibok. 

They knew from the start that this was a journey to share their story, the good and the bad, the simple and the complex. And the women of Mapusha feel like the largest group of mothers beaming with pride.

And, well, I am sure they thought the day would never come—it has been a decade!

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have several books in draft form or partially started—a frustrating state—but in 2013, there was a story that required me to put everything else to the side. I have heard people say this book chose me, but that wasn’t an experience I’d had up until then. 

I’m currently working on a hybrid of investigation and memoir (far outside my comfort zone), the story of my aunt—an actress, writer, and visual artist who went missing in 2009.  After her case went cold and the world seemed to move forward, I couldn’t in some ways.

But, instead of focusing on her absence, I was drawn to understand her story and the intersections of our lives. I wanted to learn from her and to do so, I found myself travelling the country, using her letters as my compass, knocking on strangers' doors to see inside the homes in which she once lived, finding friends who were critical to (or passers through) her life at different junctures, and tracking down her art or the spaces in which she created. 

She took me to Washington, Oregon, New York, Virginia, Illinois, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Hawaii—in and out of small arts communities across America and often, back again, to Greenwich Village, N.Y.—and through her life on and off the grid. I became a collector of artifact and quotidian details. And, ultimately, I am exploring the idea of home and family, mental health and the arts, and one’s desire to connect and feel connected.

This is ongoing and has had so many unexpected twists and turns, including my aunt’s very cold case turning warm. As I enter the new academic year, I’ve been blessed with a service-free John Cady Graduate Fellowship at Ohio University (where I am finishing my Ph.D. in Creative Nonfiction) and a Scholar-in-Residence position at Bowers Writers House at Elizabethtown College (PA). Both afford me the time to focus on writing this very personal and complex book. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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