Fluidity and Immersion in Prose: A Dialogue with Jarred Thompson
Jarred Thompson is a queer, coloured writer, researcher and academic. He has published poetry, fiction and non-fiction in multiple publications, including the forthcoming Living While Feminist Anthology, to be published in 2020 by Kwela Books and compiled by Jennifer Thorpe. His fiction publications include The Johannesburg Review of Books, ImageOutWrite (2018), and The Heart of The Matter (2019) among others. His short story, Changing I’s, was long-listed for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and his poetry and fiction was shortlisted for the 2019 Gerald Kraak Award and Anthology. He has recently won the inaugural 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize. When he is not writing and reading he practices yoga, binges on TV shows and has gotten back into playing video games on Xbox.
BY NKATEKO MASINGA
This conversation took place in South Africa via email.
Nkateko: Hi Jarred! Congratulations on winning the Afritondo Short Story Prize for your story, ‘Good Help Is Hard To Find.’ Take me back to the day you found out that you were on the longlist, then the shortlist a month later, and then finally when you won the prize. What were you feeling throughout that process? Was there a sense of catharsis when all the waiting was over?
Jarred: Hey Nkateko. Thank you! Well, usually when I submit to prizes I don’t like keeping track of them too much. However, with this one, I don’t know why but things felt different. I suppose it could be because I was really confident that I’d produced something special, even if my story wasn’t longlisted or shortlisted. So, I found out about the longlist in the evening and it sent a spike of dopamine through me, which was nice. Then with the shortlist I felt more excited. But I’ve learnt to also never have high expectations even if you’re shortlisted for something. However, leading up to the announcement my mind kept returning to the possibility of winning and I basically said to myself that whether I won or not it didn’t matter, I had still written a good story. So, when I won it was definitely an emotional experience, partly because I had rushed to my mom to tell her and she got emotional, which usually makes me emotional. It was a very euphoric feeling for sure.
Nkateko: What inspired you to write ‘Good Help Is Hard To Find’, and what motivated your decision to use a first-person narrative for the story?
Jarred: In 2019 I had the lucky opportunity to house-sit for six months of the year in Kilarney, Johannesburg. I was tasked with looking after two adorable whippets. Now, for anyone who doesn’t know Kilarney, it’s an affluent area in Johannesburg and it is not that far from Saxonworld. During that time I would drive through Saxonworld, where the story is set, quite often and observe the houses, the affluence and the people coming and going: dog walkers, security personal, domestic workers and the owners of the properties. It was interesting to me that I would seldom see the owners of the properties; in fact, most often than not, I’d see the people who worked in the neighbourhood more. So Good Help is Hard to Find is inspired by these observations as well as my love for suburban dramedies.
When it comes to writing in the first-person I have a very dear friend of mine who usually reads my first drafts and he’s always told me I should write in a female voice more. In his opinion, my writing is at its most fluid when I am embodying a female character. So, taking his advice, I decided I’d explore Pamela intimately through the use of first-person narrative. In developing Pamela I drew on a lot of the coloured women in my life–their mannerisms, views on life etc.–to inform some of her characteristics. Once I was able to hear the first line of the story in her voice, the way she would say it, my comfort in letting Pamela speak through me grew.
Nkateko: I love the idea of fluidity in fiction writing. This makes me think of how ‘making words flow’ is a skill often attributed to spoken word poets and rappers in the art of freestyling, but in writing there are times where the pen seems to be moving on its own because the character’s voice has taken over. I admire that you have friends who know you well enough that they can identify where your writing is at its freest. I believe that this speaks to how writing is a solitary art but also a collective experience because others can identify our writing tics, our strengths, the subjects our work seems to only tough the surface of and that we need to delve deeper into. When you share your work, there are bound to be observations or comments from editors or friends that will surprise you and change how you look at a particular piece of writing, but what gives you the push to experiment in the direction of a suggestion and eventually make changes based on it?
Jarred: Yeah I think you’re spot on. That sense of fluidity in prose comes from a sense of the character taking the reins. The trick, as a writer, is learning how to listen, trust and interrogate that character voice that is telling their story.
I also think that word, ‘fluidity’, is instructive because it refers to that mental state of ‘flow’ which was explored in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. For Mihaly, ‘flow’ is that state of full immersion: whether through playing a sport, reading a book or writing a short story. For me, it’s that mental state while writing where the voices of doubt and fear subsides in the writer and, two hours later, you look up from your laptop screen marveling at how fast time went by. Of course, it’s not always so easy to enter such states of ‘flow’ consistently.
When it comes to editors or friends that read your work I think it’s important to have one or two trusted readers for your work. People who you’re comfortable to disagree with and who are comfortable to tell you what worked and what didn’t in the story, without it jeopardizing your friendship. In terms of deciding on what advice to take and what to ignore it comes down to knowing what your intention behind a particular passage or phrase was and why, perhaps, your intention wasn’t received by your reader the way you intended it.
For instance you could ask: is there another way I can get my intention across to the reader? What is the reader seeing that I’m not and why? Are there places where I could shift the emphasis to bring my intention through more strongly? All these questions arise when I engage openly with a trusted reader. I feel these kinds of questions push the writer to focus on the finer details of a narrative that ordinarily they wouldn’t see on their own. It also forces one to have intention behind every word.
“I also think that word, ‘fluidity’, is instructive because it refers to that mental state of ‘flow’ which was explored in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book: Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. For Mihaly, ‘flow’ is that state of full immersion: whether through playing a sport, reading a book or writing a short story. For me, it’s that mental state while writing where the voices of doubt and fear subsides in the writer and, two hours later, you look up from your laptop screen marveling at how fast time went by.”
Nkateko: That state of full immersion is blissful, not only as a writer but as a reader as well. ‘Good Help is Hard to Find’ is one of those stories that grips you and does not let go. I keep thinking about the part where Nina and Pamela meet, and Nina assumes that the Devilliers family trusts Pamela so much that she has her own key, yet what she does not know is that the key only gives Pamela access to a small portion of one part of the house. I had to go back and read this again after I had finished the story because there is a contradiction between what Pamela can access materially and what she has overall access to. She is constantly reminded that she occupies small spaces; the back quarters of a home, cramped taxis, a small portion of her employers’ house. Yet she has to do so much physical and emotional labour for Mrs. Devilliers. She genuinely cares for her and what she does goes beyond ‘help’ in the way we typically think about the relationship between a domestic worker and their employer, but there is no distinct category for that type of care. Is that what is implied by good help? Even though an employment contract will only mention domestic tasks, is there always that underlying assumption that a domestic employee should be willing and able to do whatever is necessary for the wellbeing of their employee, even when their own wellbeing is compromised by a lack of access?
Jarred: I definitely think that issues of emotional labor, and other forms of unspecified labor, were circulating in my mind as I was writing this. So often domestic work, and many other working class jobs, require various manifestations of labor that are not factored into what people get paid at the end of the day. Living in South Africa, a country rated as one of the most unequal countries in the world, it’s almost impossible not for issues of class to creep into the stories one writes. In fact, looking back, almost all the stories I’ve written have underlying class tensions running through them, even if not apparent at first glance.
Domestic work in particular has a precarious history in South Africa, where non-white domestic workers looked after the homes of white families, including nannying the children. This ‘looking after’ occupied a strange position as the domestic worker was often ‘a part’ of the ‘household’ but not really part of the family. In contemporary South Africa I’ve heard many stories and met individuals whose mothers were domestic workers and whose employers also took on ‘parental’ responsibilities like paying for school fees or other extra murals for the domestic worker’s children.
This symbiotic relationship between domestic worker and employer is not neat: where there is a clear ‘good’ and ‘bad’ person. There are various forms of help occurring across this divide. And ‘good help’ definitely refers to all these layers of ‘help’ that Pamela gives but also the ‘layers’ of help that Mrs. Devilliers can’t see in her own life. The symbiotic relationship between domestic worker and employer is untidy and fraught with contradiction and I think that’s what made writing the story so productive for me.
Nkateko: My maternal grandmother was a domestic worker in the Pretoria East suburbs forty to fifty years ago and my mother often tells me stories about the countless times she spent her school holidays helping out at the various houses where my grandmother worked; washing windows, scrubbing floors, sorting through the things that the “Madam” did not want anymore and taking some of those things home for her family. Over the years, my grandmother had “piece jobs” in some houses and more permanent job placements in others. At the houses where she worked everyday, the sense of being a part of the household but not part of the family was certainly there; she could go home with food, cosmetics, old appliances and other odds and ends that the family no longer wanted or needed, but her employer’s family never met her husband or children except when one of them would go help her at work. All interactions were confined to the workplace.
Twenty years ago, my family moved from Mamelodi, a township northeast of Pretoria, to a house in one of the suburbs where my grandmother had worked all those years ago. My grandmother was with us as the former owners of the house handed over the keys to my parents and she was so happy that she insisted the former owners give her a tour of the house, speaking to them in Afrikaans as they guided her through the various rooms. I was too young to realise what that day meant to her back then, but reading Good Help is Hard to Find took me back to that part of my family’s history, to my grandmother’s lifetime of longing for “better” and that hopeful day when my parents were finally owners of a house in a place that held bittersweet memories for her. I often think about how every generation of my family will remember this house differently.
I am reading a book titled In The Wake: On Blackness and Being by Christina Sharpe and simultaneously reading interviews where the author discusses the book. In one of these interviews, Sharpe talks about how memory and forgetting are “sutured” into the experiences of people of colour, which is a theme she explores in the book in the context of post-slavery and post-racial memory. Do you think that fiction is a necessary tool in the preservation of memory, especially when the history we are retelling is fraught with trauma? Is fictionalizing history an act of forgetting or of remembering?
Jarred: That’s a really beautiful memory you’ve shared and it just goes to show the slow generational changes that are taking place in the everyday amidst a world that seems to be in one moment opening up and changing and yet, in another instance, closing down borders and sealing others out. I think this constant push and pull of history is an on-going thing that each generation faces with different dynamics.
I think fiction gives us an opportunity to lean into memory, to press down on it so it can reveal its cracks: those spaces where we can’t remember accurately, where we have to recruit our imagination to put us there between the cracks. Fiction can help remind us of the presence of historical memory in the present and how even those memories are constantly changing in the different contexts we find ourselves. For instance think about the memory you’ve just shared with me. That memory has undergone a transformation for you as you grew older, not so much because the memory itself changed but because you changed, matured, grew into another chapter of your life. I think fiction has the ability to throw us off-balance, off our closely-held assumptions, so when we do look back at memories we believed we had a firm grasp of we start to realize that there was so much more happening beneath the surface that we can now see. I think this ‘looking back’ does require imaginative aspects of the mind, the same mechanisms involved in the dance of remembering and forgetting: remembering the past from different perspectives and archives of feeling while allowing the natural human tendency to forget things to perhaps give us a ‘relieved distance’ from trauma and some space into which we can breathe and and ‘play’ with the possibilities only made possible by the very act of forgetting.
In fiction and in life it seems the dance of remembering and forgetting is always a balancing act. We remember the past and so remember the moments that really shaped our individual and collective identity. But forgetting has its uses too: it allows us to push on into the present and future, without the emotional intensity of our scars inhibiting dreams we have for ourselves. Not holding on to parts of your identity rooted in the past may offer pathways to personal transformation you hadn’t known were there.
Nkateko: ‘…a world that seems to be in one moment opening up and changing and yet, in another instance, closing down borders and sealing others out.’ This is such an accurate reflection of the world we are living in today, and specifically the ‘new’ world we are living in as a result of the global pandemic we are faced with. A week ago, I was reading this article about a law proposed by the Hungarian government to end the legal recognition of transgender people in Hungary. It broke my heart. A few days after that article was published, a friend here in South Africa told me that they were on their first day of receiving hormone therapy. I am overjoyed for them and yet heartbroken that others in the world are unable to reach or even celebrate a milestone like that because of inadequate healthcare or discriminatory laws in their countries. I think of laws such as the one proposed in Hungary as one of the many borders that seal people out, and the fact it comes at a time when physical borders are closed is more devastating because there can be no public protests, no visible acts of solidarity with those affected. I find it difficult to live with hope and devastation at the same time. One always seems to overpower the other.
You speak of the dance of remembering and forgetting’ as a balancing act and I love the image that is conjured in my mind by that statement: a ballerina dancing with memory. I have often wondered why certain memories fade over time while others remain as vivid as a new sunrise but I think this is what makes us want to continue living, the hope that we can experience love again after a heartbreak, good health after illness, life after the death of a loved one. I am now thinking about Mrs Devilliers and that heartbreak she suffers at the end of ‘Good Help Is Hard To Find’ and I wonder if that is the kind of pain that jolts a person awake or kills them.
Jarred: That example of the new Hungarian law just goes to show how there are so many different forces and agendas at play, sometimes it feels like all these agendas, ideologies and arguments for and against different ways of life murky the water and, for me, it becomes tough to see a way through to the other side. A good yardstick that I use when it comes to forming opinions about social issues is a question I ask myself: “Does this (law, opinion, event etc.) let more people in, to share in the abundance of life, or does it keep more people out? Sometimes this question throws out even more questions than answers, sometimes it orientates me towards formulating some kind of tentative solution in my mind. But back speaking to your example specifically, it goes to show how, as queer people, vigilance on all spectrums of queerness must be guarded by everyone who falls under that umbrella term ‘queer’. For if we let one of our queer communities suffer, then it is a slippery slope to each of us suffering (this is something which extends outside of queer communities too). This slippery slope is one reason why I can never understand the reason for any animosity between groups of historically oppressed people because it makes me wonder: “doesn’t group x realize that how they were oppressed historically is born of the same metal through which they are oppressing group y in the present?” I think of places like Palestine, and the many queer communities living across Africa, who live in fear for their human rights when I ask this question.
In terms of hope and devastation I do think we can’t have one without the other, and that is a hard pill to swallow. The trick is, I think, to not let the devastation harden our hearts, closing us up into our own preoccupations of self. In other words, to continue to open ourselves up to being vulnerable to other people’s pains and joys. It’s a crazy ideal to live by, perhaps, but I think one we can’t help but give in to because, especially in romantic relationships, we are always opening ourselves up to heartbreaks and disappointments, even though we know that relationships end in some form of tragedy: be it two years from now or fifty years from now when your loved one (or you) eventually pass away. I guess what I am trying to say is that heartbreak reminds us of our humanity, heartbreak can be useful: allowing a part of us to die into a new kind of life that is more empathetic and attuned to our own and others circumstances.
This ties in with what happens to Mrs. Devilliers at the end of ‘Good Help is Hard to Find’. Having lived so long in control of herself, using her intellect in her academic job and now settling into a routine of domestic life, she feels something akin to a ‘limit-experience’: a chaos erupts out of her that makes her throw herself in her swimming pool, clothes and all. And I think that whether this jolt of pain kills her spirit or saves her depends on her mind’s orientation to her heartbreak. Is she going to hold on to this memory of pain and let it eat at her, turning the pain into suffering? Or is she going to learn what she needs to learn from the pain and maybe open herself up to being a different person? These are not easy questions for a person to find their way out of, but that’s what makes life, and writing fiction, so enthralling and never a simple zero-sum game.
Nkateko: I love the notion of opening up to being a different person. Life often requires this of us, not only through the more dramatic limit-experiences of our lives but through other less chaotic but equally life-changing events. For me it took going to university to realise that a lot of ideas I had about life up to that point were just the opinions and beliefs of teachers, church leaders and parents. For the first time in my life, I had to find out what my own beliefs were and this was a very confusing time, especially having grown up in a very conservative Christian home. I moved to Kenya for three months last year and in my first week, I was invited to a drag show organised at the headquarters of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC) in Nairobi. I almost turned down the invitation as the event took place a week after the ruling declaring same-sex relations illegal in Kenya, and the last thing I wanted to do was risk my safety. A friend of mine, who was going to the event with me, reassured me that we were in no danger. At the show, we discussed our concerns further and someone said, “Only the actual act is punishable by law. They can’t arrest you unless they catch you in the act.” We had a great time at the show and I made lots of new friends, but I was saddened that even in a safe space, our enjoyment of what should be an ordinary experience was marred with fear and doubt.
I have truly enjoyed having this conversation with you, Jarred. I learnt a lot, not only about the topics you deal with in your award-winning work but about life and the many experiences that shape us as writers and as people. I look forward to reading more of your work and engaging in further conversations in the future.
Jarred: It’s so crazy that I’ve had a similar experience entering university as a queer, Catholic man. Being on my own in a foreign country (Montgomery, Alamaba, USA) I questioned so much of my beliefs and what I’d been taught and told. In fact, there was one point in my four years there where I declared I was a humanist atheist, essentially throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because I couldn’t see myself as part of a religious institution that asked me as a queer man ‘to not act on my queerness’. This is a ridiculous thing to ask of someone and it would not be asked of hetersexual people.
Heterosexuality has for so long stooped itself in ‘righteousness and morality’ on the basis that it is ‘life-giving’ because the union of man and woman produces children. But, as our ecological crisis is showing, more and more children in the world isn’t necessarily ‘more just’ because the more people in the world the more natural resources we require to sustain a global population. Two women who love one another (with or without a child in the mix) can be just as ‘life-giving’ and procreative in other ways.
It’s interesting to me that ‘the act’ of queerness is what drives oppressive heterosexuals crazy. I’m curious as to what ‘act’ they are referring to? The loving embrace of two men? The fluid eroticism of transgender individuals? And if someone tells me that it’s specifically the ‘sexual act’ I will ask why they are framing, and limiting, queerness to ‘the sexual act’ because, if they really wanted to educate themselves, they’d realize queerness is an orientation to life, a culture, a deciding for oneself what the terms of one’s own engagement in the world will be through the expression of one’s gender, sexuality and all other factors of life linked to those aspects of personhood.
I would also ask: do heterosexual couples not have anal intercourse? What makes a heterosexul anus ‘more just’ than a queer anus? When you begin to pull on these different strings of hetero-patriarchal logic you begin to see how the indicment to suppress the queer act of love (whatever law-makers frame that as) is really an indictment against heterosexuality itself because heteronormativity refuses to see its own constructedness, its own taboos it hides in the closet. For queer people, we were born with taboo in our mouths and we live with the transgression of it joyously, and precariously, every day. That to me is a beautiful thing and worth fighting for on every front.
Thank you so much Nkateko. This has been a stimulating and profound interview for me as well. I’ve enjoyed dancing with you through each other’s thoughts, feelings and memories. I look forward to chatting again.
Nkateko Masinga is an award-winning South African poet and 2019 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers Residency. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2018 and her work has received support from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg and the Swiss Arts Council. In 2019, she won the Brittle Paper Anniversary Award. Nkateko is an interviewer and director of the Internship Program at Africa In Dialogue, an online interview magazine that archives creative and critical insights with Africa’s leading storytellers, as well as the founder and managing director of NSUKU Publishing Consultancy. She is the author of a digital chapbook titled THE HEART IS A CAGED ANIMAL, published by Praxis Magazine. Her latest work has been selected by the African Poetry Book Fund and Akashic Books to be published in the 2020 New Generation African Poets chapbook box set.