Thursday, October 7, 2010

Book #28: Like Jewels and Stones

“The words, hard and bright, are like jewels within her. But they’re also like stones.” -Dawn Promislow, Jewels and Other Stories

I met Dawn Promislow about a year ago in a program called Diaspora Dialogues. It fosters the creation of diasporic literature by pairing established writers with emerging writers of various multicultural backgrounds. Dawn and I were both “emerging writers” and we gravitated to each other at a poetry reading. We started chatting about this and that – our favourite writers’ use of dialect, the colonial tragedies of places we know (I used to live in Trinidad and Dawn grew up in South Africa), among other lighter topics of conversation, like “following” Virginia Woolf in our heads…..

Last week, I was delighted to attend the book launch at Type Books for Dawn’s first book, Jewels and Other Stories. It’s a beautiful weaving together of such a variety of stories, all set in South Africa: a doctor takes an unexpected risk to draw his black servant’s son into the family; a young white girl tries to give her nanny the contents of her piggy bank, not realizing the wedge she’ll drive into the family; a receptionist and drug dealer’s love affair gone awry yields a strange kind of insight about love and chance. These are just a few of the vivid characters you meet in the fourteen stories, which flew by so quickly, too quickly. Now I feel I must go back and read them again.

The resistance movement gathering momentum in the 70s forms the backdrop of many of the stories, although the stories always remain focused on the characters themselves – ordinary people’s desires, fears, hopes. I felt they were all people whom I already knew in some way from my own life, and “Isn’t that the way we would react?” I kept thinking to myself, if we were caught up in violent upheaval and change.

I was struck by what Dawn said by way of introducing her book at the book launch; she said that some years ago she had wanted to write about South Africa, but felt ambivalent and paralyzed because so much had already been written. So she said that she decided simply to “create voices” and see where they would take her, and at the end, she’d found no answers. No answers at all. I thought about what she’d said and it dawned on me that this is the very thing about literature: it doesn’t need to deliver grand answers, it doesn’t need to judge. Indeed, my favourite stories have a kind of openness that teases the mind by providing a slice of life that, the more you think about it, contains a world that glimmers beyond the present. Gestures to more to come.

Btw, since completing Jewels, Dawn has a written a very beautiful, evocative story published in the online journal MTLS.  You can read her story here.

Photo from: here


Naomi said...

Dawn's stories sound intriguing. I visited South Africa about 1995-96. There were so many contrasts, beauty and violence. One of the conference titles was "Real Men Don't Rape!"

Leslie Shimotakahara said...

Quite the trip! I have never visited South Africa, but would like to.... I've been fascinated ever since I read Olive Schreiner's THE STORY OF AN AFRICAN FARM back in grad school....


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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.