Thursday, October 9, 2014

This Day with Tiah Beautement

I recently had the opportunity to have a sneak preview of Tiah Beautement's novel, This Day, before its launch at Open Book here in Cape Town, and while it's not my usual fodder when it comes to literary tastes, I was nonetheless immersed in the story. Of course I had to have her over to chat about her novel, and some of its imagery. So, a big welcome to Tiah!

What struck me about the story was the authenticity of your voice, and the sensitivity when approaching the topic of a child's accidental death, as well as depression. Care to elaborate? 

I listen to people. I’m terrible with names, but I’ll remember certain aspects of a person: foods they dislike, if they have pets, what makes them laugh, what drives them bonkers. I hear what they thought and felt. Science can tell you facts and theories backed up with research. That’s useful for writing, too. But to understand opinions and emotion, one has to listen to why people feel they way they do. Debating why a person prefers the yellow necklace over the blue one, is rediculous, unless they are forcing you to wear it. Listen to why that person likes yellow, even if you do not. I don’t believe in taking over a peron’s personal experience for my work. That story is their own. However, when I’m getting into a new character’s head, the thoughts and feelings are traced to having emapthy of the tales that naturally are told through living life.

Which means my own life, too, contributes towards the narrative. Depression runs in my family and has afflicted more than one member. I have also found myself grappling more than once with it. These experiences are not This Day, but they did feed into it.

In dealing with her husband's depression, as well as her own grief, Ella has become isolated. Would you say that she's in a way responsible for her own loneliness, or is she in her own way not coping with the situation?

Ella’s story highlights a tendency in this modern age to demand that those who struggle have an obligation to put on a brave face for the benefit of us, for society. It is, somehow, unsporting to still be not cured of an illness, still be grieving for a lost loved one, still be struggling to sleep after a horrific event. If, after some societally proscribed time, a person fails to plaster on a big smile and report that she is fine – just be positive – she will be shunned. There will be whispers of how she is just not coping well, whilst she is quietly overlooked on the guest list for the next braai. ‘She’s such a downer.’

This allergic reaction to life’s realities – that aspects of living stink – further isolate the very people who need help. It is as if we – the collective we – are afraid we might catch the so-called bad luck.

The theme of water runs throughout the story: both life-giving, a vast, hostile environment, and deadly. What are your own feelings in regard to this?

My fascination with water started as a child, both the science of it (thanks grandpa!) and the joy. I grew up in a small sea-side town of about 3 000 people, and oh, how I loved playing in the icy-cold Pacific. But living in an area known for sneaker waves, undertow and a treacherous bar (where boats cross from the river into the open sea) there was respect for water’s power. And when somebody dies in a small town, there is a personal connection. You might not be acquainted yourself, but you’ll know a person who was friends with the deceased.

But in the case of This Day, the theme of water can mostly be blamed on what was occurring while I tried to write the book. Mossel Bay had only recently emerged from a drought when my health started its rocky slide. I went from being hyperaware of saving every drop – quick showers, no baths! – to doing physiotherapy in a pool most days of the week. Water was a key part in my being able to physically finish the story, and I was using it lavishly.

Can you share some of your own experiences in the creative process behind This Day?

Misery loves company? The story was written during a very challenging part of my life. I was in a lot of pain and losing functionality. For a while, nobody knew what was wrong with me. Life is so interesting, and I’ve embraced many activities and hobbies. So! Much! To! Do! But it became clear that I needed to make choices.  Doors were shutting fast. What did I really want to do with my smaller world? I wanted to be there for my children. I wanted to write. Yet the stories I had wanted to write didn’t no longer appealed. I manage much better these days, but during the time I wrote This Day, every word was accompanied by hurt. That kind of pain…you become selfish. Focused. What sort of story is worth this much shit? Ella is everything I envied – financial independence and brilliant health – and I made her life stink. Then I cheered for her, word by word, as she picked herself up and tried again.

The story itself is open-ended, as all life situations are. Ella realises that she can only live day by day, according to the tides of life. The acceptance of her innate loneliness is perhaps the most heart-wrenching – that she can't get her son (and husband) back. This picture is perhaps bleak, but can you share some of your own thoughts with regard to this?

I adore Ella and Bart. I got them through another day. The rest? I have hope, but tempered. The Bart-from-before will never be again. But that’s as it should be – because the Ella-from-before is gone, too. People evolve, even while seemingly staying the same. This is also true of storytelling.

For those that can’t find This Day at their local book store, it can be bought online via Kalahari, Loot, Exclus!ves or contact Modjaji directly. Coming soon is Amazon (paper and Kindle) and other ebook formats.

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