Resisting Social Hierarchies: A Dialogue with Jenny Robson

RESISTING SOCIAL HIERARCHIES

A DIALOGUE WITH JENNY ROBSON

Jenny Robson was born in South Africa in 1952, but has lived most of her adult life in Botswana, where she works as a music teacher. Much of her writing is for children and young people. To date, she has eleven YA novels published. One of these novels, Because Pula Means Rain, was awarded the UNESCO Prize for Children’s and Young People’s Literature in the Service of Tolerance.

Jenny also writes short stories for adults and her work has been published in magazines both locally and abroad. Some of her work has been translated into other languages including Kiswahili, German, Spanish and Korean. Her stories and novels are set always, firmly and with love, in Africa.

Charity Ngabirano

BY CHARITY NGABIRANO

This conversation saw emails fly from Kampala to Botswana and back.

 

Charity: So, first things first, congratulations on winning the Kendeka Prize for African Literature. How does it feel to be a winner? And what does this mean to your writing journey? 

Jenny:  Hi there, Charity, and thanks for that! In a word, winning the Kendeka Prize feels overwhelming! Being able to live and write in Africa is an integral part of who I am, so to get validation from African literary judges is heart-warming. Their generous comments about my story will stay with me forever. Even better, I got to represent Botswana and bring honour to a country I love with passion. 

As to my writing journey, I have been writing for over thirty years. For most of that time, it was an intense and constant part of my life. But in the past few years, my writing has slowed to a trickle and then mostly stopped. I suppose I felt over the hill and past my sell-by-date. At 69 (yes, I am 69), perhaps I no longer understand the values and concerns of younger people? Perhaps I am no longer in touch with the beating heart of the universe? So much today feels strange to me.

But with this prize, I realise I still have something to offer, so here I go. Writing again. Once more with feeling! And this time, I won’t be stopping! Human souls are human souls whether they get their information from encyclopedias or Wikipedia, whether their music comes from LP vinyl records or iPods.

Charity: Water for Wine has an eye-catching title. What is the message in this story? 

Jenny: Oh goodness! I don’t like the idea of a story having a “message”. I’m simply offering my view of something (in this case, different belief systems) and hopefully showing that there are at least two sides to any story. Usually more!

Charity: Much of your writing is for children and young people, and you also write for adults. Which of your books were most enjoyable to write? Is it easier to write for children? And, if you were to genre-hop, which genres would you most like to try writing? 

This story explores social hierarchies and how a person’s worth and value is judged—so wrongly—by the employment position they hold.

Jenny: My day-job is music teaching. So to connect with children, communicate with them, appreciate their sense of fun, is part of daily life for me. I feel way more confident writing for young people – although self-doubt still lingers. When it comes to adult writing, self-doubt is my constant companion. Despite my age, I have this sense that I am not properly grown-up or mature. On the other hand, there are themes and topics close to my heart which do not really belong in youth literature. A genre-hop, how tempting! It would have to be science-fiction, but in a futuristic vein. AI and space-travel as such don’t interest me. But it is fascinating to wonder what psychological effects possible futures would have on us humans.

Charity: Your story carries topics that are close to my heart too. The relationship between Nurse Agnes and other staff, especially Kay, is admirable. The kindness towards her patients is not to be ignored. She labours to save lives even when the locals insist it is witchcraft. She does not vehemently disagree with them but educates them in a compassionate manner, regardless of the social gap. I am led to suggest it’s because her heart holds a lot of positivity drawn from the love of God. “Our dear Lord worked miracles. He isn’t bound by natural laws.” And, “Our hearts they are the same colour. Our souls don’t have a birthday.” These statements speak a thousand words. Apart from religion, what other themes do you explore in this story?

Jenny: This story explores social hierarchies and how a person’s worth and value is judged—so wrongly—by the employment position they hold. Acceptance of others, flaws and all.

Charity: Your character development is commendable and the story plot is well knit. I imagine that after thirty years of doing what you love, you have gathered numerous lessons from drafts and mistakes. What do you know that you wish you had known at the beginning of your writing journey? And, what would you advise young writers trying to build a publishing history or an author platform? 

Jenny: My advice to my younger self:

1.Never send off a story the minute you have finished it. Let it lie—in your mind and in your word processor or drawer—for at least a week. Then go back to it. Read it aloud. You will be surprised at how many changes you will want to make.

2.Send your work out. Everywhere. Anywhere. Especially in these wonderful times when you do not need to pay for postage or paper. Find places to submit to online. Subscribe to writing newsletters. Don’t sit waiting to hear back about a single story you sent off. Editors often take a long, long, long time. Get busy on the next one.

3.Accept criticism. Do not get hurt and do not get mad. Think carefully about what the critic has said: which parts do you agree with? This will help you improve your writing. Where do you think the critic is mistaken? Remember, a critic is human just like you. 

4.If you have passion for your writing, never give up and never stop believing. 

Here is my favourite story from when I first began this journey: I took a course on children’s writing with a distance-learning college overseas. I submitted several stories, putting my heart and soul into them. My lecturer wrote back to say that I clearly did not have the talent or ability and that I should try another hobby! Thirty years later I am still writing. The college no longer exists.

Charity: Thank you so much, Jenny for sharing yourself with us. Most of the things you have spoken about, I have experienced. And I believe most writers have. I once shared my writing dreams with a Law school lecturer and he poured cold water on the whole thing, stating that being a writer/journalist isn’t as prestigious as the reason I was in Law school. Keep doing what you’re doing. We look forward to more of your amazing work. 

Jenny: Only a pleasure, Charity. It has been fun thinking about your questions. All good things to you and bon voyage with your writing journey. I only started at 38 so you have a good head-start.

Charity:  Thank you. Lastly, paperback or eBook? 

Jenny: Paperback every time. No machine can feel as soft and comforting and full of promise as a real live book in your hands, especially at bedtime. It just upsets me that books are so expensive. They should not be luxury items; they should be priced as staple food for the mind.

Charity: Water or Wine? 

Jenny: Water every time. I do not do alcohol. 

 

This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.

Charity Ngabirano

Charity Ngabirano is a Ugandan lawyer and short story writer. She worked with the Centre for African Cultural Excellence as the project coordinator for Writivism in its inaugural year, 2013. Her work has appeared in The Kampala Sun, Afreecan Read Magazine and is forthcoming in Sahifa magazine. She lives in Kampala with her husband and their two beautiful daughters as a full-time mother. 

CHARITY NGABIRANO

INTERVIEWER FOR FICTION

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