Shafinaaz Hassim: ‘The plan is to keep doing what I love…’

What are your 5 favourite novels?

I would rather say these are five of my favourite novels…

  • The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk
  • For the Mercy of Water, Karen Jayes
  • Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • White Oleander, Janet Fitch
  • The Pearl That Broke Its shell, Nadia Hashemi

Which 3 authors do you consider to have influenced you the most? How did each influence your work?

At the outset, my poetry, my understanding of spiritual life and my writing is deeply influenced by the works of Persian poet, Jelalludin Rumi. I’ve read various English translations of his work, studied biographical accounts and felt the inspiration move my intention to write and produce.

I’ve found that I’m drawn again and again to the works and subjects of Orhan Pamuk. His writing style engages readers, his characters are most compelling and his method of and passion for writing by way of sitting down for hours everyday to create, appeal to me as a writer and artist, and as a social scientist.

While there are many feminist writers and novelists who I am deeply inspired, by, I would be amiss not to mention bell hooks, Moroccan sociologist, Fatima Mernissi, and Simone de Beauvoir as largely influential in my formulations, my theoretical writings. As a trained sociologist, my first work looks at the objectification of women in traditional settings, whereby women are deemed the object of clan or family honour, thus their lives are regulated. My fiction works depict some of these themes, social commentary that then allows readers to reflect and debate these issues. My hope is not to present prescriptive solutions but to challenge through a fluid shift in thinking.

What plans do you have for your literary career over the next 3-5 years? What are you working on? What do you hope to publish? Which artists/authors/publishers/editors do you hope to work with?

I’m working on a new novel, and once again it closely links with the research I am undertaking. My novel on domestic violence, SoPhia, was well received and was then used by local universities both as instruction text as well as for performance theatre with social work students, and then for public audience at the South Africa State Theatre. I’m confident that future writing will have an audience and engage critical discussions on various social issues that we encounter. So the plan is to keep doing what I love to so, and that is, writing, creating platforms for other writers to present their work and then to generate conversations.

Are you involved with any literary organisations in Africa or outside of Africa? How do you see the work of these organisation as contributing to your vision and career, as well as to broader cultural production in Africa?

I have the pleasure of having partnered with the African Narratives literary foundation based in Johannesburg. The board has been brainstorming new ways of reaching readers, newer models of publishing and distribution, setting up libraries and also getting more books into libraries not just in SA but throughout Africa.

Please could you tell readers about your most recent artistic project, what it involved, and what you learned from it?

Aside from writing and having great reception for my novel, I’ve been able to set up a platform to publish a new writer. A political journalist for the Mail and Guardian, Qaanitah Hunter, started a fiction blog about two years ago called ‘Diary of a Guji Girl’. The blog went viral and we then edited the content and produced a novel which launched early this year to great success. It taught me that people are willing to read new works as long as the content is relevant and thought provoking, entertaining and accessible.

How do you hope/anticipate that the Hay Festival and the Africa39 project will help advance your career? What impact has it had thus far? What specific things would you like to see Hay Festival do for writers?

It would be great to see the Africa39 team presented on more platforms especially here in South Africa. I think that we have a window of opportunity to generate discussions on and around the extensive range of issues that we explore in the collection, from the nature of crafting stories to the actual content, themes and characters therein.

I don’t know that this might enhance our careers as much as allow for more direct engagement with readers who will then purchase and read the stories.

Perhaps the blog can them hold a competition for readers to add commentary on favoured stories or rewrite the ending, etc. I think that we could also target university libraries to hold these conversations and readings. I’ve been invited in the past by some campuses to present my work, students have performed plays based on my work. I believe this is why we write, so that the initial story takes on a life of it’s own, holds new hands in meaning and expression.

What are the main challenges you see facing artists, writers, and literary culture in your country and region? How are you ameliorating these difficulties? What specific things would you like to see done in order to address these challenges?

Distribution of books remains a challenge, but access and affordability is by far the biggest obstacle to books being bought and read in South Africa. If we must create a reading culture, then the print material must be affordable. We cannot pretend that the art of story is new to our continent. We transfer knowledge and identity through telling our stories, and will continue to. But the governments should remove tax and subsidise local print, and make a concerted effort to ensure that local material is available in every library.

Also, the corporate method of putting new publications into major bookstores cannot be the only sustainable method to distribute books. We need to encourage a thriving informal distribution that gets books in the hands of the greatest number of potential readers. If demand increases, and we can sustain large print runs, costs will be brought down.

Have you read the work of any of the other Africa39? Which works have you enjoyed (Please write a few words on the aspects of the works you enjoyed)? Which Africa39 authors would you like to work with (and on what kinds of projects)?

I’ve read a number of the stories in the collection, and found they were incredibly provocative, compelling reads. They collectively present our diverse flavors of the continent, but also that we are not a monolithic entity as Africans, distinct and yet not removed from the workings of the world. I’d love to work with and have in the past been on panel with Jackee Batanda, Zukiswa Wanner and Shadreck Chikoti who had invited me to speak to his StoryClub in Malawi. I would be open to the idea of running multiple workshops and hosting and partaking in discussions with fellow Africa39 authors throughout SA. I’ve been to a number of literary festivals this year where the Africa39 would have appealed to audiences and yet was not presented there. Perhaps we could collaborate on this list for next year.

What festivals/workshops/residencies have you attended recently? What was your role? What did you take away from the experiences you had there?

I spoke at the Indie Book Fair arranged by African Narratives in March this year, and found it a fantastic new platform for looking at new models of encouraging reading and storytelling, publishing in SA. I spoke about my work from nonfiction publishing of my feminist courses to poetry and fiction that challenges the status quo and demands debate and new ways of thinking.

I also convened on a panel on women in publishing and what that might mean for the changing narratives of publishing both locally on the continent and globally.

I attended the South Africa Book Fair in Johannesburg this year, having spoken on the platform in previous years in Cape Town. I found that traditional models of making books accessible to readers are faltering, publishers are printing less and less and there is a need for reinvention as per new demands. The indie presses are doing bigger volumes, more keen on trying new approaches.

In partnership with the Jozi Book Fair in Sept 2015, I will be speaking on a few panels concerning gender and work, issues of sexuality and also on the topic of blogging new content for online and print and publishing and writing as a woman.

Are there any authors whom you mentor, whose work you’d like to mention or talk about?

Through my publishing labels, Wordflute Press and Emerald Press, I have had the pleasure of publishing a few new writers to success, including marketing guru Vusi Jiyana and political writer and blogger, Qaanitah Hunter. I hope to be able to collaborate with more inspired and inspiring writers in the future.

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