Author Zainab Priya Dala tells Medha Dutta that her writing is motivated by related experiences, where the beauty of words extends into the poetic and lyrical
Tell us about your book.
It is a novel that examines the struggles and losses of three women from very different times and places during and after the fight for a democratic South Africa. It personalises the anti-apartheid struggle from the point of view of Sylvie Pillay, a strong South African woman of Indian descent, who ultimately has to make choices between being a mother and being an activist. The result then takes us into the life of her daughter—architect Afroze Bhana.
It casts light on the conflicted relationships that Afroze grapples with.
The book brings to light the role played by women in the anti-apartheid movement. Why has it been largely overlooked?
The book unlocks sensitive issues such as sexism within the anti-apartheid bodies. I believe that whilst South Africa is attempting to move beyond the past, the issue of patriarchy and sexism is something people are not ready to unearth. We find it easier to talk about racism, but not sexism.
It also talks of family ties. How important are these ties in today’s times?
Family ties by blood are all we have been taught. But, like, in the book, sometimes family are also those that hold us through the times when we are almost ready to give up. In today’s current times, fear and uncertainty are forging a space where people are aggregating together, as if this is a safety mechanism to survive the world—using walls such as racism, classism, caste dynamics, religious divides to protect what is ours. Ties are important and safe, only when they don’t exclude others.
You have said that Winnie Mandela was a heartbroken woman. Why?
Because, she was. She said it often, and at her funeral, her daughter said it too. Winnie was heartbroken firstly because she lost a life with her beloved husband and children, but also she was deeply heartbroken about the way she was written into history, where her apparent flawed acts were dissected and used to exclude her from the struggle that she lost so much to. She was heartbroken, as most of us are, about the state of our country and a democracy that is flailing after such a long hard fight.
What motivates your writing?
I am motivated by the things I see and the people I meet. I am also motivated by untold stories, small beautiful stories that I find all around me in the unlikeliest of places that I wander around in. Conversations motivate my emotions, and I write from that place.
South Africa has evolved into a strong literary hub with a distinctive voice. Your views.
I am very encouraged by this. In the past, South Africans of colour had to silence their stories. History books and literature did not provide the platform for many wonderful writers, poets, and artists. But, South Africa has a rich culture of resistance literature that went on underground, as an act of defiance. Now, this art no longer has to be done in secrecy. My only criticism is that we seem to have gained freedom of expression but we are abusing it.
Are creative people—writers, artists, performers—easy to persecute?
It is not only creative people. Anyone who unearths truths and secrets will be persecuted by the fragile powers
that endeavour to keep the status quo. Be it trial by media, or simply being silenced using mechanisms such as bureaucracy and economics, it has now come down to how much will you risk to speak the truth?
Who would you like to bring back from the dead?
Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie