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Farida Karodia: thoughts beneath a Big Sky

Stephen Debros

Buy here
Other Secrets
ISBN 0-140-29565-8

I am to meet with Farida Karodia at a comfortable bed and breakfast establishment in Newlands, Cape Town. I have to wait for the previous interviewer to finish up. They seem to have gone over time and, as I sit with a biscuit and coffee, I consider what it is I want to learn from Farida.

Farida does not want to be pigeonholed. It takes a little while for her to say this explicitly but from the beginning of our conversation she is soft-spoken and pleasant, but guarded especially as the questions get closer. She is currently on a publicity tour for her latest novel Other Secrets organised by her South African publisher, Penguin.

I turn over my copy of her latest novel in my hands and study the author’s black and white photograph with its blurb on the back cover. Farida was born and grew up in the Eastern Cape. She left South Africa in 1968 and only returned to stay in 1994 as the political climate improved. This novel is her third.

I decide to start with a question that seems deceptively simple — I want to know why she writes. “I’ve never thought about why I write,” she begins. “I just know that it’s something I have to do. I can’t stop writing.”

I keep at it. Does Farida have a sense of calling, a sense of vocation in following the writing path she pursues? Her answer is non-committal, more about the inevitability of being a writer, of feeling compelled to write. “I enjoy writing, I really do. My writing is always challenging. You want to do better than you’ve done before so yes it’s a challenge.”

As an exile Farida found a new home in Vancouver, Canada. She finds that living between Canada and South Africa a strangely inspiring experience.

“When I’m in South Africa I find ideas about other places. When I’m, there, in those other places then I want to write about South Africa. It’s almost as though I miss those places — I have to connect to them.” It seems that as the sense of place changes, it stirs up different and complex feelings inside her. Call it a mood of nostalgia, an aching fondness, but it’s real and it stirs up the creativity to fuel Farida’s writing. Space is important to Farida and Canada has a special place in her soul because, like South Africa, she can find wide open places there. “I’m fonder of the prairies than I am of Vancouver, which is like Cape Town in many respects. In South Africa, I love the Karoo. That’s where my heart grew. I love the landscape, I find it a very powerful landscape — in the same way I’ve found the open sky in Canada. They call it the Big Sky, and I love that. I love the colours in Canada. I love the fact that the sun sets at 10h30 at night and you can see the northern lights from the prairies. Those are the things I really miss.”

This love of place means that Farida also has a special fondness for Afrikaans because of it’s mutability, the subtle changes in turns of phrase which locate a dialect, insert it into the context of green-leaf Cape Town or an arid farm stoep in the middle of the Karoo. “What I like about the language is the way it changes in different areas. Afrikaans takes on the character of a place, which is marvellous. It doesn’t really happen in English. I love the sense of languages that can evolve with an ability to adapt and change. That’s how I see Afrikaans. In fact I’m trying really hard to speak more of it again.”

I’m intrigued to learn what voices Farida hears as she writes, what influences she’s become aware of. “Maybe there are,” she says cautiously, “but I can’t say whom specifically.” Her pause here makes me want to dig a little deeper and Farida begins to explain: “Perhaps it’s events that have occurred in my life that have affected me profoundly. Then that particular event becomes a catalyst for the story I’m working with. Something that I remember, a place that I’ve been — those things are more of a driving force for me.”

Farida admits that these isolated events have to sit inside, mature within her, before she can apply them to paper. “I find places have a great influence on me. When I returned to South Africa in 1994, a friend and I rented a car and just explored. We went to the areas we both loved. To give you an idea of the distance we travelled, we even ended up at the Springbok National Park near Port Nolloth, close to the Namibian border. It was such a wonderful trip. It opened up so many avenues of thought and inspiration. In fact, Port Nolloth was the setting for one of my short stories. It’s more a sense of place that evokes something, an idea for what I write, rather than people. I think I start with a place and then build people into it.”

Something about what Farida is saying about her reverence for wide open space, for the Big Sky as she affectionately keeps remembering it makes me think about E M Forster’s Passage to India and the way that in striving for a symbol to unite divided cultures, an overarching sky, another Big Sky is appealed to. For Farida, the open sky enthrals her. “In Rajastan, India, there is also this amazing sky,” she remembers. ‘the colours are so similar. I think it’s the light reflecting off the earth and it resonates with this peculiar colour. If you could capture that on film, it would be just incredible.”

Farida admits that the visual aspects of her writing are extremely important to her. “Quite a few people comment about that,” she notes with a smile. “I once had someone say to me that I write with a filmic eye.”

Gradually our conversation turns towards the spaces of Farida’s most recent novel Other Secrets, and I want to know why the eastern Cape of South Africa intrigues her. “I sort of hesitate to give specific names,” she begins in a guarded tone. “I’ve just named this place Soetstroom. People have this tendency to try and identify people or places they know. The place is a complete work of fiction, so are the characters. It is a typical small town in the Eastern Cape, a very generic small town. You can identify it by the one Indian shop, the Dutch Reformed Church, the small railway station.” We laugh about the Eastern Cape for a while. Cantankerous farmers, the wide, barren openness of the Karoo, god-forsaken forts once manned by British soldiers on the frontier, and Farida identifies these images and giggles. “I don’t know what it was about living there in my childhood but we felt compelled to climb all those koppies. That’s what I did as a child, just climb those koppies.”

Farida seems compelled by the mixture of desolation and emotional turmoil churned up by the locale of the Eastern Cape, of people having to eke out an existence from that tough soil. The Eastern Cape is still such a hotbed of controversy, whether it’s Farida’s story commenting or South Africa’s contemporary leaders. It’s the place our country now prides itself on as the nurturing ground of leaders like Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Fort Hare University educated some of Africa’s respected and infamous leaders, like Robert Mugabe up north. But in the same breath, the Eastern Cape remains one of the most impoverished provinces in South Africa. Farida feels deeply about this, is saddened by this.

In her novel Farida speaks, predictably enough, about secrets — the ways in which people hide the personal truth of life’s events from others and even themselves. The central characters are small-town sisters Yasmin and Meena who live with a hopelessly optimistic father, a frustrated sexually charged mother and a grouchy grandmother. The novel resists obvious appeals to the politically correct rhetoric of the Struggle and instead focuses on the layers of conversation operating between the women in this novel. The men are there, but as backdrops to the secrets shared and hidden by mothers and daughters.

Divided into three parts, “Daughters”, “Mothers” and “Other Secrets”, the novel traces the sadness and impossible dreams of a non-white family in a small town. We experience the journey from early-70s South Africa right through to the mid-90s and what could be called the almost-as-good-as-new South Africa. What we see is a life through Meena’s eyes as she tries to make sense of her family, of her idealistic and reckless sister Yasmin and as she strives to balance her respect and affection for her Ma and Nana against her personal needs. Meena is caught in the process of claiming personal freedom from the roots of her small-town worldview.

This is a world of secrets, of things not discussed between mothers and daughters, a culture in the time-space of this novel. Women had to run families when their men were imprisoned or unable to find stable work. Grandmothers often had to use their pensions to keep their children and children’s children alive, even as many South African elderly still do today. The book says that, as cantankerous and opinionated as they might seem to daughters and granddaughters, the older members of a family unit are vital to its existence. “I should have dedicated this book to grandmothers because I feel so strongly,” agrees Farida, who recalls her grandmothers, on both sides, as very special.

In the novel Farida also treats the white people in this small town with compassion. Together with the obviously bad, wealthy whites are poor white trash, mostly government employees. A girl called Elsa lives with her alcoholic mother in a small railway cottage along the tracks together with her railway-clerk father and a small bare-bummed, snot-nosed brother Mannetjie. Even though Elsa refers to Meena as a “coolie meid”, a rough friendship forms between the two. One of the sub-plots running beneath Meena’s story is Elsa’s. When it is discovered that Elsa is pregnant, everyone assumes that she has been sleeping with a bad sort of boy, the anonymous father of her child. Elsa leaves Soetstroom briefly for Pretoria returning with a respectable husband, Johan. Elsa’s peace is short-lived. Her son Niels is killed in a car accident, and as secrets are spilled in the grief which follows, we realise with horror that Elsa’s father is the father of her child. This small story-within-the-story reinforces the nature of “other secrets” which women must endure, lie about or try to forget and in particular the tension between a mother and daughter.

If the novel is, in some ways, about crossing the abyss of generation gaps, then the matriarchal timeline of Other Secrets flows down from Nana, to Ma, to Meena and Yasmin, and finally into the life of little Soraya. Yasmin’s daughter, Soraya, is carried for nine months as a hated reminder of the carefree and seductive Yasmin’s rape by a wealthy, white landowner’s son. Yasmin, like Elsa, flees McBain, the locus of unbearable pain for both women. For seven years Soraya is brought up without a mother, mostly by Nana, her great-grandmother. The novel seems to totally bypass the traditional role of men, replacing patriarchal dominance (made impotent by apartheid) with the gentle but fierce resilience of women in a small and god-forsaken town.

As a white, male reader I identify with the harsh racism in Other Secrets as I remember the contemptuous insults flung around a wide kitchen table in my grandfather’s house. I too had to learn, as I grew up, that people of other colours were sometimes more worthy of respect than members of my own white community, even members of my own extended family. Any person who has discovered, over the course of a lifetime, that that family has kept its “other secrets” buried and hidden behind barbed wire fences and “No Entry” signs will relate to this novel. Farida has crafted a story which exposes the necessary pain when “Other Secrets” are revealed. Her central character Meena makes a hard decision to stop being the nice, safe and dependable daughter. In becoming a prodigal Meena begins walking along the knife-edge of a steep learning curve. As she uncovers the secret passages of her own growth, she must also uncover the painful “other secrets” of her family — secrets guarded most fiercely by the women in her life.

We speak more about the creation of this novel, which Farida describes in terms of evolution. “I do very little planning. I don’t analyse and formulate it, saying a bit of this here, a bit of this there. I certainly had no intention of writing a political novel. It’s about relationships. The one section where politics is mentioned is because it’s set in London. It was a time when a lot of exiles were living there. It would have been very unrealistic to say Meena would never have met politically involved people. But she romanticised it. She ultimately becomes a romance writer,” Farida says this with a slow smile and continues.

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed the section where Meena has an affair, finally this is the one big love affair of her life. But she’s already become a romance writer. That is the only deliberate thing I’ve done in the novel, to use a romance-novel style to describe their affair, their moment of sexual encounter. It’s her voice. You might want to look out for that.” We both laugh at Meena’s over-the-top style and rose-tinted choice of words.

The interview’s over. Farida’s publishing agent is hovering, reminding me that her writer still has a radio interview to prepare for and a telephone call she needs to make. I thank Farida for her time and slowly pack up my equipment. It’s been a strange time, one which started cautiously, with Farida at pains to resist any intrusion into spaces she’d rather not discuss right now. As she admits at some point in our discussion, she’s set on a journey of spiritual discovery which cannot be tied down, precisely because it’s a process on the move. But as I prepare to leave, I feel we’ve managed to break the chill and explore some deeper water. So Farida walks deeper into the pine-floored rooms of the house. And I step out into a mid-morning Cape Town day. Life goes on, with and without secrets, beneath this beautiful, Big Sky.

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