Friday 15 January 2010

The Sweet Smell of Sliced Watermelon and Swimming with Dolphins - Dianne Hofmeyr

While snow has bucketed down across the Northern hemisphere, I’ve been fighting a duel today with my modem (Broadband doesn’t come easily in Africa!) and have only just managed to pick up all the ABBA news like Leslie’s lovely icy descriptions and Meg’s blog on the Big Outdoors and Elen’s notebook and the 100 odd emails on the books everyone got for Christmas. Sitting here barelegged and barefooted tapping away at these keys I feel about as out of touch and as isolated as being stranded in a snow-bound home.

So with the sweet smell of sliced watermelon wafting up from the breakfast table I’m wondering about how we as writers connect with where we live. Does growing up in a certain environment impact on our work? Are our taste buds for story set by certain idiom according to the landscape of our childhood?

I grew up before television in South Africa. The stories I knew came from movies, radio serials, from being read to, and listening to grown-up gossip while hidden under the table or slinking in doorways. Later I cut my teeth on Nadine Gordimer and writers like Carson McCullers… writers who have a strong sense of place. I don’t think it’s about an ability to describe landscape, but more about a landscape informing your characters. Annie Prouxl does it brilliantly. Her words fairly crackle with a sense of the people who live in a place at a certain time. Which perhaps mirrors what I think happens to all writers in reality. We write as we do because of our inner landscape and connection to place.

A sense of landscape is often perfectly reflected in short story because it’s so condensed – a small fragment that becomes real, important and compelling. The pleasure for me in reading Prouxl, is being completely caught up and utterly driven from line to line in a rush of impact, knowing that in a single sitting I can immerse myself entirely and give myself over completely to the story. Some novels manage this too… their characters informed by an immensely strong landscape… Cormack McCarthy’s ‘Road’, Rhys's ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ and Tim Winton's ‘Breath’ I read in the same way, feeling literally at times that I had to come up for air.

I remember seeing the face of the Oklahoma bomber in a newspaper when I happened to be in the US at the time. He was staring silently out, caught in a maelstrom of people milling around him – police, crowds, photographers. In a short story ‘Face of a Killer’ I took this image and gave it to a mother opening the morning newspaper to find her terrorist son staring out at her in the last years of the ‘apartheid’ struggle in South Africa, when gunmen were shooting down people in churches in Cape Town and when Steve Biko lay naked and dying in the back of a van in winter on the 1000 Km journey to Johannesburg, while two policemen sat up front.

Another story ‘Coming of Age’ was written after spending Christmas in intensive care at the bedside of a friend. A young boy was brought in paralysed from the neck down after a diving accident on Christmas day. The gold tinselled Merry Christmas strung across the ceiling shivering in the air-conditioning, the tree at the entrance flecked with artificial snow, the florid red of the cannas in the dusty car park outside the window, and the tinny sound of Christmas carols did nothing to alleviate a sense of the unreal.

Now picking up your snow stories, how strange and unreal it is to be sitting here smelling sweet watermelon and breathing in the warm smell of sea and ‘fynbos’ which literally translates as ‘fine bush’ - the natural scrubs, wild pelargonium and bulbs, indigenous to my sand-dune. I claim it as my own even though it holds the footprints of eons of people before me. Some of the ABBA bloggers might remember the driftwood ‘yurt’ I built on the beach last year. The log pointing skyward in the photograph above is all that remains 12 months on. This year on New Year’s morning of 2010 a group of dolphins slowly circled my son while he was swimming… so close that he could hear them ‘clicking’ underwater and see their scars. What a celebration to the start of a year.
What landscape will inform him as he begins the year he turns 40?

a dolphin wave jumping one evening.


Anonymous said...

Diane, I'm a bit of a lurker here but I'm delurking joyously to celebrate that beautiful beach that I know so well and to thank you for sharing your photos. Plett is the scene of many my holidays home in South Africa and I love it dearly.

I find what you say about landscape and place so interesting, since as an expat writer I am so deeply attached to the landscape of home. It informs my writing, even when I don't write about South Africa because that ache of home is so acute to me, even 13 years after leaving.

Penny Dolan said...

Lovely post as ever, Dianne! (Now not only are we blue with cold here but also green with envy.

More truthfully, how happy you sound being there with your family. Thanks for these beautiful pictures that match your beautiful time. Though alas, poor yurt!

adele said...

I'm envious too! Have a super time....thanks for lovely post.

Ms. Yingling said...

It sounds like this winter is MUCH better than last. I'm glad. And jealous, a little, of the weather.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Great to have you lurking on the ABBA site Charlotte. Are you UK based? Thanks Penny, Adele, Ms Yingling... though I do feel a bit guilty when I hear some of you are being so prolific. Makes me panic a bit. Does it count if I work through the UK summer?

Anonymous said...

I came here because I "met" Elen elsewhere. I live in Germany, and am grateful every day of my life to the internet for keeping me in touch with English writers.

Natasha Mostert (Author) said...

I arrived back from the Cape over the weekend to torrential rain and bone-snapping cold. Your blog immediately brought back memories of the sun and scents I left behind in Africa. I'm homesick and not even the joys of having a proper "speedy" internet connection can make up for it!