Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Dawn Promislow

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On Writing, with Dawn Promislow

Dawn Promislow talks to Open Book about growing up in South Africa, her favourite short story writers and her soon-to-be launched first book, Jewels and Other Stories (Tsar Publications).

Join Dawn for the launch of Jewels and Other Stories on Tuesday, Sept 28th, from 7-9 p.m. at Type Books (883 Queen St. West). See our Events Page for details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Jewels and Other Stories.

Dawn Promislow:

It’s a collection of short stories set in apartheid-era South Africa. I lived in that time and place, and I wanted to bring it to life. I wanted to recreate that time, to explore it, its many mysteries. Because despite the passage of time and everything we know, and the prevailing narratives of reconciliation that have come with the new South Africa, there remain the effects of that tragic history and the puzzle of how it came to be, and of how it was experienced. And I don’t think that story will ever be finished. So I have told stories, in this collection, about all sorts of characters, from a wide range of perspectives, in a wide range of voices. What interested me above all is the nuance in all that, the shades of individual response to that time of political repression. I have characters in all kinds of settings, both urban and rural, white and black characters, old and young, more educated people, and less educated ones. How was it, actually, to live in that time and place? And I hope the stories give some inkling of that life, of how it actually was.

OB:

What was your first publication?

DP:

I had had a couple of non-fiction pieces published before, but my first short story was published by Maple Tree Literary Supplement in December of 2008. I was particularly happy because they published what may be my own favourite among my stories (although I don’t really favour any, they are my children after all!). It is a story that is very close to my heart, and it appears in this collection (Jewels and other Stories). Perhaps you will also like that story: it's called “The Letter.”

OB:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

DP:

I don’t really have one. I write by hand in pen in spiral-bound (letter-size, 9x11 inch) notebooks. And I can do that anywhere. Most of the important work on a story is done that way. (Apart from the incubating of the story, which happens anywhere, and can take years!) Only when a story is substantially formed do I go to my computer and type it. After that is the very satisfying work of refining, refining, refining, until I have it emerge, complete and pristine. I hope pristine! That part is rather magical, seeing it finally on a page, in type, separate from myself.

OB:

How did growing up in South Africa help with writing this book?

DP:

I could never and would never have written this book if I had not grown up in South Africa. It is very personal in that sense. Although the book is fiction, I have drawn on an intimate sense of place, of the places of my childhood, the people I saw around me, and the world that was around me. It is what I know best, that world, so I wrote about what I know best. I also feel very deeply about that place, about the land itself, about its history, of which I was part, and that has informed everything I have written.

OB:

What Canadian authors do you admire? Why?

DP:

I love short stories, I love the short story form, so I particularly admire accomplished practitioners of that form. I read any short stories I can, new collections that come out, new writers. But established ones too: Alice Munro of course. I am a great admirer of the short stories of Olive Senior, I love her evocation of the world of Jamaica and the voices of the people, she uses the Creole language in her narrators’ voices, incredibly vivid and filled with life. I like MG Vassanji, some of his short stories especially. I seem most often to be drawn to Canadian writers who have come from somewhere else, as I have done. The themes of exile, the outsider, home, race, displacement, dislocation, the colonial world and what it did to people, interest me a great deal. I thought David Chariandy’s novel Soucouyant was wonderful – heartbreaking - this story of a woman’s multiple displacements, of dispossession, the theme of loss of home, her experience of the bone-chilling racism of 1960s Toronto, all that. It’s a wonderfully rich and important book.

OB:

What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

DP:

The only advice I can give is to follow your own vision, your own voice, and not be dissuaded from it! It is the freedom of the individual’s unique mind and imagination that is the crucial thing in finding one’s own voice as a writer, and this is not as simple a matter as it sounds. There are all kinds of censors at work on one’s thoughts and imagination¬—one is mostly unaware of them. It takes courage, actually. Courage would help! And never giving up, because there will be many rejections. Just keep on, like a dog with a bone.

OB:

Do you have any upcoming projects in mind?

DP:

I have been circling around ideas and scenarios for a novel, and, well, I need courage to take up my pen and plunge in. It will be set in South Africa.


Dawn Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg. She left South Africa with her family in 1977 and lived in London, England, before returning to study English and French literature at the University of Cape Town. She has lived in Toronto since 1987, where she works in magazine journalism. Jewels and Other Stories is her first collection. For more information, please visit the Tsar Publications website.


Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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