Gaele Sobott November 2010
I didn’t sit down one day and say I am going to write for this or that reason. Why I write is probably a lifetime process. Little bits of the answer are always changing. I need to go back to my earliest writing, actually I think it is more about stories. I’ve always loved listening to and reading stories.
I was born in Yallourn, Victoria, Australia – an open-cut, brown-coal mine. The town was built especially by the State Electricity Commission of Victoria to house their employees. My father drove Euclid trucks. He was a member of the Eureka Youth League and a union delegate on the labour council. We travelled a lot. My parents moved from town to town looking for work and better opportunities. I think I was five when my father started explaining Communism and Capitalism to me. It was during one long trip from Yarram to Melbourne, we’d got as far as Traralgon when Father Christmas drove by in a horse and cart and threw some lollies into the car. I don’t know which were more delicious those sweets or those big words I was rolling around in my mouth.
My parents always emphasised not only the importance of education but that everyone had a right to it. My father read books to me every night before I went to sleep. The Triantiwontigongolope by C.J. Dennis was one of my favourite poems. He’d recite poems by Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson – a young drover drowning in a flooded river, second class passengers waiting on a railway platform. He also made up stories about three kangaroos, Hoppy Skippy and Jumpy. I absolutely devoured fairy tales. I read every fairy tale in the local library and then searched for more. My German grandmother delighted in telling me stories from Der Struwelpeter, particularly the one about Little Suck-a-Thumb. As I sat thumb in mouth she would whisper watch out for the tailor with his giant scissors! He’s coming to cut off your thumbs! She’d tell me about the tricks that Max und Moritz got up to. There was a rebelliousness about those boys that appealed and I loved the way they taunted the tailor. Schneider, schneider, meck, meck meck! (It seems Germans have a thing about tailors?). She would tell me about her time in the orphanage, about the Black Forest, about the adventures of the little church mouse that sat framed in a glass cabinet amongst her crockery. There was an intriguing darkness and an almost grotesque humour to her stories. I did the rounds of all the church denominations. There were only Christian churches around country Victoria in those days. I loved the Bible stories and they gave out free books. My father wasn’t too keen on God but I went anyway. As I got older he plied me with books of short stories by Gorky and John Steinbeck. He gave me Grapes of Wrath, Frank Hardy’s Power without Glory, Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist and a little yellow hard-cover book about Paul Robeson in Peeksville. I was too young to understand the full implications of these works but they did well and truly satisfy and develop my love of stories that expressed the pain of oppression and the gritty reality of everyday lives. This was reinforced by the records my parents played; Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Paul Robeson songs, Tennessee Ernie Ford Sixteen Tons, about life in the mines Johnny Cash, Bitter Tears. I was particularly touched by Paul Robeson’s rendition of traditional spirituals which moved me at a very basic emotional level beyond the language of books.
I thrived on the stories that surrounded me. My uncles talked amongst each other about the depression years, hardship in the bush, work, life in inner city Melbourne. One was an ambulance man during WWII in New Guinea and was very much against war. He was awarded bravery medals which he dismissed as rubbish! One uncle deserted from the army up in Queensland. Towards the end of his life he found it more comfortable to walk backwards. One uncle was an SP bookie and always on the run from one thing or another. Neighbours, farmers, my mother talking to people when she was shopping, the stories just kept flowing in. It was almost as if I was an invisible presence floating sponge-like absorbing and collecting personal testimonies as to what life was about. Every piece I collected was a highly-prized jewel.
My first writing consisted of my personal thoughts and emotional reactions to the events around me. I always had a pad or exercise book that I kept in my bedroom. I took notes gleaned from other people’s conversations and wrote vignettes of real and imagined characters. I also drew sketches and cartoons of people. I never kept a diary. I still have an aversion to writing the day-to-day personal details of my own life. At school I loved writing English and History essays especially when we had the choice of writing in the first-person narrative. I got pleasure from imaging the characters, their voice, their circumstances and their historical and social context. I wrote for the school magazine. In the seventies I was reading books of all kinds but The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee were the two I treasured. I think travel has influenced my writing greatly in varied ways. I went to Greece in 1976 where I lived for two years. I’d write short pieces based on what Greek friends told me and my experiences with them. Some had been imprisoned for their activities against the Regime of the Colonels and only just released. They taught me a lot about Greek politics and culture. Wherever we went there were always animated discussions. They were particularly into the Rebetika revival of the time. Apart from the lyrics, the music had it’s own emotive story to tell. In 1978 I followed my parents to Botswana. There I met and married the father of my two eldest children and became a citizen of the country. This was one of the most formative periods of my writing and my life. I hungrily absorbed the oral traditions; the myths and proverbs that were so much a part of everyday life. I learnt through osmosis by going to weddings, funerals, barbecues, working, partying, having children, making friends, visiting relatives in South Africa. I was a white woman married to a black man during the Apartheid era so there were many interesting and sometimes challenging personal experiences but more importantly it was a time of huge political change with the Rhodesian army making incursions into Botswana in the north, Internal Settlement and eventual independence of Zimbabwe. The resistance to Apartheid was growing and becoming more and more effective but also the response of the South African regime was more and more brutal. It was impossible to live in Botswana then and not be part of that change; not to respond to the harsh injustices going on around me.
I found African literature for the first time in the Botswana Book Centre. Bessie Head’s Collector of Treasures and Mhudi by Sol Plaatje. I immersed myself in these books. Mhudi remains one of my favourites. Staffrider was first published in 1978. The magazine had a non-racial, non-elitist publishing policy. Writers who weren’t getting the chance to publish under Apartheid were published. It was the kind of writing I loved. There was this sense of knowing the characters, walking with them through their day-to-day existence, learning about their lives. I was also really impressed by the lino prints especially those by Bongiwe Dhlomo. I sent Staffrider a story called The Hill based on the tales I’d heard about the lovers who went up Kgale hill and disappeared. It was published in 1985. That was one of the major highlights of my writing life. Staffrider gave me the encouragement I needed to become a published writer. Then the South Africa Apartheid regime began its attacks on Gaborone. In response I wrote a short story called Hide them Under the Bed. It was published in Staffrider in 1986. I still feel a need to write more about these events. I haven’t written it out of my system yet.
When my children were at primary school in Gaborone I realised they were reading books from England with English contexts relevant to English people. In 1986 Halley’s Comet was passing over Botswana. I went to a parents-teachers evening at the school and was both saddened and angered to see the teacher, an English woman, had put a big banner up across the front of the classroom. It read, ‘ The Bushmen don’t know what Halley’s Comet is but we do!’ I wanted to apologise to all the peoples, all the civilisations who have observed and named this comet over the ages, hundreds and hundreds of years before that Englishman called Halley. I decided to write children’s stories relevant to Botswana. The first story I wrote, The Magic Pool, drew on general mythology associated with rivers and water holes and was published by Heinemann Junior African Writers Series. I published more children’s books with them and other publishers including Baobab Press in Zimbabwe. I enrolled for an arts degree at the University of Botswana. That’s where I really learnt not only about African literature and history, and Shakespeare for that matter, but also about rigour. I gained a solid understanding of the principles of research, of analytical and literary crafting skills. It was about this time that I began to read books by women writers. Any woman writer I could find. I read heaps. The University library had the journals of Anais Nin so I read every one of those and I read all of Alice Walker’s books. I loved her. I loved Toni Morrison too. Then I did a Ph.D. on twentieth century black South African women writers. This also affected what and how I write. Meeting these women writers whom I absolutely admired, interviewing them, discussing their writing and their thoughts on life was fantastic. Their courage, their humour, their ability to survive the pain of Apartheid and live and create with dignity has created a lasting impression on me. Juby Mayet, Fatima Dike, Jayapraga Reddy, Miriam Tladi, Gladys Thomas, Nise Malange, Ellen Kutswayo, Gcina Mhlope and so many more. I also learnt from reading the works (translated into English) of early women writers who published in their own languages particularly Lota Kakaza ‘s Intyatyambo Yomzi (1913) and uThandiwe wa kwa Gcaleka (1914), Violet Dube’s Wozanazo:Izindaba Zika Phoshozwayo (1935), Natalie Nxumalo’s, Ubude Abuphangwa (1936). I liked the way Kakaza and Nxumalo used (Xhosa and Zulu) myths, idioms and proverbs in what are largely autobiographical works. I also learnt from Dube’s short stories which successfully transport Zulu oral tales into written form while, as I read it, also occasionally making tongue-in-cheek allegoric commentaries. I published a collection of short stories, Colour Me Blue, with Heinemann African Writers Series in 1995 which reflects my understanding of oral traditions, the history and everyday life in Botswana and South Africa during the 1980s and early 90s.
My life has taken many twists and turns. I lived in England, France, spent time in Algeria and now live in Australia. Even though I have always sought out oral tales, myths, legends, proverbs, idioms, I am not an oral story teller. I am a writer. I enjoy the distance, the time to craft, the protection from immediacy that writing provides. I am constantly observing, listening, watching. I write to translate the musicality of language onto the page to represent characters and communities through the colloquialisms, the swear words, the idioms, myths but also through their actions. I write to represent the way people relate to each other and to the world we live in. There is a lot to celebrate about human beings including humour, compassion, versatility and ingenuity and there is a lot to celebrate in the natural world we inhabit. I write to fight injustice. I write because I believe in the power of the metaphor and imagination to bring about positive change. I write because I enjoy writing.
My latest book, My Longest Round: The Life Story of Wally Carr is a biographical account of the Australian and Commonwealth champion Aboriginal boxer who held over twelve titles, from featherweight to heavyweight. He fought the 15 rounders and over 101 professional bouts. This book took me on an amazing journey in understanding humanity: Aboriginal, rural, working-class urban, boxing and sporting, male and so much more of what it is that makes a community in Australia. I wrote this book because I believed Wally had not received the recognition due to him, because I wanted to contribute to the fight against the injustices perpetuated against Aboriginal people in Australia and because Wally had a story to tell! Nothing pleases me more than telling a story that should be told and isn’t being told.