I’ve written stories since I exited the womb one sultry summer’s morn within the sound of Big Ben striking the quarter hour. 15 minutes after 5, I’m told, after an eighteen day lag. Messed up my horoscope good and proper. Last day of the last June of the 1950’s. My mother calls it the defining moment of her life. It certainly was the defining moment of mine.
I got my first passport at six months. I’d lived on four continents by the time I was nine. I was transplanted to South Africa in my early teens after several rounds of Aberdonian freeze, Sydney swing, north London suburbia with a few trips into Carnaby Street with a wayward au pair. Then back to the mother and father’s land for the bulk of my schooling, landing in Johannesburg during the depth of Apartheid. High School was hell. But could I write.
Mother took the sibs and ran off to America. Daddy stayed in the UK, chasing after recognition that would never be his. I took on an ill-fated early frum marriage and steeped myself in the culture until I could take no more. Post divorce, post two year ramble, I settled in South Africa six moths before the release of Mandela. I’d made the euphoric but unconscious choice to be here. To make my contribution to a new country. I’ll be the last one switching off the lights at the airport. If we still have an airport.
If I’m remembered for anything it will be for being the world’s best granddaughter. After mommy emigrated with the sibs, I went to live with Granny and Poppa, my second set of parents who saved my life, literally, but imposing structure and discipline on my rebellious kaftan clad dimply ass. In their later years, they became as children to me, as they regressed towards death in the home run by the chevra Kadisha. Granny took eight years to go after Poppa, my one true love. I learned to love the unlovable with that grandmother of mine. She was fraught with apartheid’s double standards. They’d got off the pograms and come here. It was their turn. Even if they had to step over the bodies and the blood of their live in servants, the ones who came by kaffir taxi, as they were known. Washed dishes until eleven at night. Were summonsed by a bell from not ten feet away.
I rebelled as I never had with the original folks. But they had me when I was a wind up toy. I called out South Africa for what it was. And was rewarded with a Zionist brainwashing that still kicks in from time to time.
Granny died in 2011, six days after her one hundredth birthday. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that I’d been there twice, three times a day for eight years without fail. Sometimes a duty. Sometimes with a scowl. Always trying to get through to the now blinded deafened matriarch for whom every waking breath was a complaint. We got her a day carer. A night carer. A microwave. A bar fridge. I bought sparkling sweets by the kilo. Nothing was good enough. Where’s Myrtle.
After granny died in 2011, I felt I’d neglected part of my creative self and took the 10 week course with allaboutwriting. This opened me up to the realisation that my writing chops were up to speed and won a couple of gongs along the way. I do recommend writing groups. But the writing itself is a lonely hunter.
I came across the UCT summer school in the summer of 2013. Three women who had worked together on a saucy chicklit series, told of their Creative Writing courses. I had a BA from the Cheltondale days – we both got a degree before we went travelling – but I always had a bit of a chip on my shoulder that I hadn’t done any post-graduate university stuff. And that I should be writing, yeah? This was the way to go. It was time. This coincided with the My baby bearing years were over. I applied to the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Literature, Language and Media Studies. I was accepted. A Masters would become me. Two and a half years of the work at Wits, and a further two and a half years with a novel whisperer, Alison Lowry, who has been with me every step of the journey to raise Wanda’s game.
They say I rose up singing Summertime in the key of Am, but that’s just a family rumour. Verbal was our vice. Eloquence our passion and our despair. I read before I could walk. Sang before I could talk. Scared the bejeezus out of my classmates at the Aberdeen high School for Girls by acting out the curse of Jack and the Beanstalk, chanting Fee. Fi. Fo. Fum so loud it shook Fiona McKenzie’s pony tails in the back row.
Reading became my passion. Writing, my profession. It was the only thing I was ever any good at at school. The only praise I ever received. The only A I got in matric. Marrying early, I got onto the Unisa bandwagon and worked my way up from assistant PR assistant – so good they named it twice! – to copywriter, then senior, then, upon my request to be creative director, to freelancer and captain of my own freelance ship. I’ve been doing it for 40 years. Bringing storytelling techniques to campaigns that speak to the hearts and minds of everyday South Africans, founding my branded content company, Creatrix, in the 90’s after perceiving the massive gap in the market to create communications that resonate to the target market. In between, I always wrote. Learned music. Did cabaret in Grahamstown
After a short-lived first marriage to a fascist frummie, I took off for lands afar, using my British passport to its fullest. Reconnected with daddy in the UK and mommy in the US, feeling less and less like the prodigal child and more like the wanderer my birth chart had predicted. I flaunted my international status and flitted around the globe for a couple of years before crashing and burning in New York City. Worked for minimum wage as a typist and skivvy maid. Returned to SA after two years of reality bits and bytes just as Mandela was released and committed myself to the new South Africa with all my passion. Built a business around branded content in mother tongue. Conceptualised and wrote a slew of radio plays, dramas, series. Nurtured a crew of magnificent women who are now directors of the business. so I can take my foot off that gas and glide them into the driver’s seat.
I emerged as a cabaret composer/performer in early 90’s Grahamstown with Surendran Reddy, Saranti Reeders and Clare Loveday. I took up my kithara and returned to guitar lessons aged 40. Studied with the late, great Johnny Fourie who opened my head to the wonders of jazz music theory and practice. ‘Water finds its level,’ he said to me. I wasn’t sure what he meant. But I spent the next twenty years wondering. After his passing, I passed on to Tony Russell who has been flaying me ever since. I’m impossible to teach in a linear way. Leads to all sorts of discoveries.
And through this I continued to write. Fragments. Poetry slivers. Haiku. I missed the whole flash fiction phase because I was actually in it.
I guess I’ve always been late to the party. Even my birth was eighteen days late. Precocious in my early years, I was kept back at South African high school due to my dearth of Afrikaans. Luckily it came in useful later, but at the time I was bored to dangerous depths.
Kidnapped to the motherland by an over-zealous grandfather, who’d had enough of the shit being kicked out of his only child, we relocated with my mother to South Africa in the white heat of Apartheid. Never understood the prejudice. Hardly even knew I was a Yid. Then the brainwashing started. Getting us beyond.
If I’d been careering in the nineteen twenties, I would have most certainly become a tin pan alley lyricist. In nineties South Africa, nobody could earn a living by music alone. On my return from my post-marriage bender, I freelanced copy at every street corner and delved into cabaret, scouring the Yeoville bayou for my fellow playwrights, musicians and artists, teaming up with Harry Kalmer for The Secret of my Excess, with Clare Loveday, with Surendran Reddy for Negress and La Revue Bleue and the satirical look at the New South Africa with ‘Look what they’ve done to my moon, man,’ with Saranti Reeders. I even was a page turner on the Grahamstown stage with Richard Cock at the baton. Surendran sightread the entire piano part.
It’s not like I just popped out of thin air. Who gets reborn at the ripe old age of sixty? I’d say I was a #sexy #sextenarian, but I’m new to this; I still think I’m a virgin, touched for the very first time. At the age where most women disappear of everyone’s radar, Wanda is here to wake them up. Can I, may I disguise myself within the character? Of course. That’s what creativity is there for.
I don’t think I could have written this novel in earlier years. Even if they say that every author’s first novel is a form of bildungsroman, I segued from autobiographical fiction – a teenage misfit in northern suburban Apartheid South Africa, an inversion of Alice in Wonderland, the hidden Anti-Semitism, the sexual vroetelling with underage girls, one of them me, the ostriches in the sand, the community on the rocks.
The book was always going to explore the question of ‘What if … the Wandering Jew … was a Woman?’ Through the eyes of a younger me. And one day, as I was writing about the assault, I wrote the words, ‘he had me in the shadow of the Temple.’ I of course was referring to temple Shalom, on Louis Botha Avenue. It’s a Lubavitcher shul now, I believe they had to deep clean it. but it was there that my teenage wet dream came through, the lovechild of Harvey and Jeff in the yag room, on the Rabbi’s desk, in the Maginim bus that transported we chanichim safely through the dark suburbs of Sandton on a Sunday evening. And then I thought, ‘what if it wasn’t Temple Shalom, but The Temple, the archetypal original back in Jerusalem one. The bus became a camel cart, the teenager became Wanda, catching me in the creative undergrowth, demanding to be brought into being. By shifting the historicity of my experience, I could find its universality. The shift was on with the same premise, but now this would be a fictional autobiography, Picara style, of a woman striding through the ages on her own mission; to become the Tenth Muse. Wanda even wrote the reflective essay. I had to do it over, but it was worth finding out what she thought of academia. She is not me. I am not she. But Wanda has a voice that may have been suppressed for a thousand years. And she will not be still.