Q&A with Poet and Writer Arja Salafranca

29 Apr 2015
Arja Salafranca

Arja Salafranca is the editor of the Life Supplement of The Sunday Independent and is an award-winning poet and writer of fiction.

Arja’s debut poetry collection A life stripped of illusions won the 1994 Sanlam Award for poetry and was followed by The fire in which we burn (Dye Hard Press). Her poetry was also included in Isis X (Botsotso).

In 1999 Arja’s short story “Couple on the Beach” won the 1999 Sanlam award for short fiction and in 2010 The Thin Line, her debut collection of short stories, was published by Modjaji Books. It was long-listed for the Wole Soyinka Award in 2012. Arja co-edited Glass Jar Among Trees with poet Alan Finlay (Jacana Media), an anthology of prose and poetry, and edited The Edge of Things: South African Short Fiction (Dye Hard Press).

Arja’s third collection of poetry, Beyond Touch (Modjaji Books and Dye Hard Press), will be out in May 2015.

Favourite South African novel / poem?

I don’t have a particular favourite South African poem or novel and that does change with every new book read – but I do enjoy novels by South African novelists such as Damon Galgut and Ingrid Winterbach, for instance. I’m looking very forward to reading Craig Higginson’s just published The Dream House, and Finuala Dowling’s The Fetch.

What are you working on at the moment?

Getting the final proofs of Beyond Touch has taken some energy – that last stint before publication always does, doesn’t it! I’m working on some poetry, have some short story ideas knocking around that I want to get down. I’m also going to be taking another look and edit at a series of novellas I wrote while doing my MA in Creative Writing at Wits.

Favourite part of the writing and publishing process?

Definitely the actual writing – some of the rest can be nerve-wracking, checking proofs and hoping you haven’t missed some awful error or spelling mistake!

I also enjoy seeing the work from afar, seeing the shape and pattern of what you have written after you’ve had some distance from it. I also enjoy talking about the work, reflecting on, looking back and seeing what others see in your writing and how they interpret it – and sometimes very differently from what you had in mind when writing.

Any characters (yours or another writer’s) that have stuck with you?

I think the witty, wry voice of the characters in Lorrie Moore’s short stories have always stayed with me – I first read her in my twenties. At the end of last year I read Mavis Gallant’s From the Fifteenth Distinct – and loved her long, almost at times novella-length stories and her cool, impassioned voice.

Any advice / tips for writers starting out?

Read, of course, read as much and as widely as you can. Doing a literature course at university introduced me to the nuances of interpreting writing in an academic sense – I took English and majored in African Literature at Wits University. Try and join a good writing group – so that you can get good feedback on your writing. And stay true to your dream and passion. Do whatever it takes – don’t let people discourage you by telling you that it’s hard to make money out of it. Publish when and as you can – it gives you a boost, confidence-wise, and encourages you to write more. Not everything you publish will be brilliant, but that’s part of the journey. Enter competitions. They get you noticed if you win or come somewhere – and they also serve as further encouragement to your writing.

I also read some advice from a writer recently – her name escapes me – but her advice was to have a half day job, or a three-day a week job so that you can still eat and pay the bills and all – but that leaves you time and more importantly energy to write. Of course, that’s not always possible – and you may find yourself with a punishing 5-day a week schedule – but carve out time, whatever it takes. Whether it’s evenings, early mornings, weekends, whatever. That’s how PD James forged ahead – she wrote on the trains going to work. She had a husband in an institution, two children to care for and a demanding job. But she wrote when she could.

Hardest part of the writing and publishing process?

Getting published can be hard at times. In South Africa we do have a handful of literary journals – so that’s a good start, and often it’s easier to get your work published there – ie poetry and short stories – than in book length. And while that’s important and vital for so many reasons, publishing in journals and online, you do come to a point where you are ready and want to collect the poetry and stories. We have a small market here for these often marginalised arts – so it can be hard finding a publisher. My thanks in this regard go to Modjaji Books’s Colleen Higg who started a women’s only press in 2007 and has forged ahead with publishing these marginalised works as well as novels and memoirs and so on. A number of her books have won awards – kudos to her publishing insight. Beyond Touch is a co-publication with Modjaji and with Gary Cummiskey’s Dye Hard Press – another small press that has forged ahead with publishing poetry and so given writers a voice.

South African writers, poets or books that have made an impact on you?

When I was fourteen a friend of mine’s mother pressed the poems of Eva Bezwoda Royston into my hands in a collection titled One hundred and three poems. That opened a world to me. These were intensely personal and vivid poems – and I’d never read such confessional poetry. The fact that it was by a South African was also mind-blowing, she spoke about the world I was living in. When I was fifteen or sixteen we studied the poetry of Sipho Sepamla and Oswald Mtshali and other poets from the 60s, and 70s. Again, this made me aware that the world I saw was one worth capturing. Until then so much of my reading was American or British based – from the novels assigned us at school to the poems.

What are you reading at the moment?

I’ve just finished the intensely interesting and beautiful H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a memoir on grief and getting through that by training a goshawk and have now picked up an acclaimed book of longish short stories by South African writer SJ Naude, The Alphabet of Birds. Interesting that birds appear in the title of both of these books, both of which I have been wanting to read for some time.

Any other genres that you’re interested in trying your hand at?

I love travel writing – both essays as well as long narrative travelogues. I’ve done a fair amount of travel writing for my job as a lifestyle editor – but have never yet attempted a longer travelogue – I’d like to do that one day. I also have an idea for a novel that I have begun tackling.

Proudest moment of your writing career?

Winning the Sanlam Awards was an extremely proud moment – receiving a wonderful review for The Thin Line from Joan Hambidge was another. Hearing a poem had won the Dalro Award – there are many. There’s also the quiet satisfaction of writing, alone, and knowing you’ve created something that speaks, that satisfies in some primal sense.

Favourite quote from a book / poem?

There are lots, of course, but the most recent quotes which resonate with me at this time which I read earlier this year come from lines quoted in the New York Times when John Bayley, husband of Iris Murdoch died:

“He chronicles, with a quiet relish, the pleasures of a successful and enjoyable marriage,” she wrote, “in which two singular souls found a happiness as luminous as any we have heard of in the annals of marriage (a genre not noted for appealing models). For John Bayley and Iris Murdoch, marriage was much concerned with the preservation of individual solitude.”

“Mr. Bayley could be aphoristic on that very theme. ‘To feel oneself held and cherished and accompanied, and yet to be alone,’ he wrote. ‘To be closely and physically entwined, and yet feel solitude’s friendly presence, as warm and undesolating as contiguity itself.'”

“At another point, he wrote, ‘Inside marriage, one ceases to be observant because observation has become so automatic, its object at once absorbing and taken for granted.’”