BY SALIHA HADDAD
This conversation took place between Namibia and Algeria, via email.
Saliha: Hello Natasha. Congratulations on being on the shortlist for the 2021 Bank Windhoek Doek Literary Awards. Thank you so much for doing this interview.
Natasha: Thank you Saliha.
Saliha: Ouma Sofie’s Gold is a powerful read. The essay touches on so many important topics; identity and mental health as well as family and one’s relations to their country in nuanced, few but wonderfully-crafted sentences. I have read in the information about you on Doek! that this is your first published essay (I understand it to mean personal essay but correct me if I’m wrong). How does it feel to be nominated for such a great literary prize with your first published essay? I am also curious to know how you felt when you submitted it for publication; was it apprehension—since it’s so personal—or excitement?
Natasha: Thank you Saliha. Yes, this is the first published personal essay. As a journalist I have written many articles but I was never the subject of the story. Ouma Sofie’s Gold is very personal as it touches on my great-grandmother’s story, drawing links to my own experiences. This is new territory for me.
I was extremely anxious when submitting it for publication. I worried that Rémy Ngamije, Doek‘s editor-in-chief, would tell me it was not the type of thing they published, but he was really encouraging in his response and throughout the editing process. I am very grateful for the experience and incredibly humbled to be shortlisted in the inaugural Bank Windhoek Doek Literary Awards.
I believe everybody has a story to tell and that there is value in writing about your unique history, culture, experiences and challenges. There is hope and healing hidden beneath the fear.
Saliha: This is the second compliment I’ve heard about Doek!’s editors and I am so happy about it. I understand the anxiety part and I sympathize with you. It is indeed a great leap to submit and get a very personal piece published and read by many people, most of them strangers.
Since this is a new territory for you, I want to know how the writing process was for you regarding this essay. And how is it different from the journalistic writing process?
“I think one of the duties of a writer is to get people talking about the things that are shrouded in silence. To shine a light on the human condition.“
Natasha: Thank you Saliha, I have long wanted to write about Ouma Sofie but never planned to link her story to my own.
I started writing the piece two years ago. I wrote on a random basis in 2019, returning to the piece in 2020 and again in 2021. I never thought about the format, rather the words just flowed out of me. It was a very natural process, which just felt right to me. It was as if the spirit of my great-grandmother was pushing me along.
In June, I was quite ill with Covid and had just had a day from hell, waiting in line to be tested. I had been crying and generally feeling sorry for myself and when I got home, I saw a notification on social media that reminded me that that day was the deadline for Doek! submissions.
I had wanted to submit the piece for two years but I was afraid to ‘put myself out there’ so explicitly. Me having Covid gave me that final push to hit submit. I think deep down I feared I may not make it, but that was just me being a bit dramatic. (Laughs).
The journalistic process is far removed from me personally. I usually write about other people, which does not require me to reveal much about myself.
I am quite shy and private in some respects, so writing about myself is quite nerve-racking. However, I felt a force greater than myself pushing me, sometimes until late at night, to keep working on my piece. To allow my vulnerability to show, to be honest and authentic. It gave me the courage to share it with my loved ones and then finally, to submit it to Doek!
Also, I’ve had a fair bit of distance in terms of time, from what I went through immediately after the birth of both my kids, to now when they are 8 and 5 years old. I needed some distance to be able to process my emotions. Writing is also a very healing exercise.
I’d like to encourage others to write about their experiences and share their stories.
Saliha: I don’t think you are being dramatic at all. The world has seen so many losses because of the pandemic, so of course you were right to panic. I am glad you are well now and have recovered.
It is a healing process indeed. It’s interesting what you are saying about sharing with loved ones before submitting; it’s actually the opposite for me and I am not sure why. (Laughs).
Can I just say that what you are saying about being shy and private comes across in the essay? There are feelings of vulnerability that surface from it and now I think I understand why.
In your essay, you touch on the stories that are passed down from generation to generation. In it you are questioning the veracity of the stories told about Ouma Sofie and trying to discern the truth in them. She suffered from mental health problems but because of the time and the diminished place of women in the society, she was misunderstood, not helped early on and not in the best ways. But even though you are far removed from her in setting, you came to recognize what was ailing her. First because you are a woman as well, and second because you understood those surrounding elements that made people talk about her in a negative way.
I have lately come to realize that many stories that were told about my own female ancestors—where they are mostly diabolized, painted in a bad way and vilified—were not true. The behavior described in those stories is actually normal; they were misunderstood.
Do you think as writers we have this duty to correct those narratives surrounding our female ancestors? What are other ways we can do that besides writing? And when did you come to understand that the stories you were told about Ouma Sofie were not completely true?
Natasha: Thank you Saliha.
I may have shown my loved ones Ouma Sofie’s Gold before publication but I’m not so sure I would do it again! (Laughs).
It’s very interesting what certain people focus on and it can sometimes take away from your own unique voice, to allow that feedback in.
My father, particularly, had his own emotions around the topic, I think due to his own shame surrounding his grandmother’s mental illness. He was teased about it as a child. I think through the telling of her story (and mine), he has been able to heal. He also writes about Ouma Sofie and shares stories from his childhood, in both Afrikaans and English. He’s a wonderfully talented writer and if I have inherited just a fraction of his talent, I am content.
I would not say that Ouma Sofie was vilified, necessarily, rather that there seems to be a veil of silence that surrounds her among the adults in the family. They seem to be particularly guarded about talking about her, perhaps due to the stigma they suffered in a small town at a time when mental illness was not better understood.
It was the children, in their curiosity and imagination, that were captivated by her.
I think one of the duties of a writer is to get people talking about the things that are shrouded in silence. To shine a light on the human condition.
I feel a shared connection with her. Sadness for what she went through, frustration at the times and treatment she received, and gratitude that I live in a different time. One where there’s more information and support for young mothers and those who struggle with mental health issues.
I only came to understand that the stories I heard about her as a child were possibly exaggerated when I was writing and researching her life by talking to relatives. I wish I had taken the opportunity to ask my grandmother to tell me about Ouma Sofie while she was still with us. There are few people left who actually interacted with her, so most of what I have to work with is what was passed down in the family.
Saliha: It’s really fascinating to learn that about your father. I do believe you have inherited his talent.
Going from here, with the publication of your first personal essay, where do you want to take your writing next? Are you keen to write more personal pieces? And are you working on any new creative writings right now?
Natasha: In terms of the future of my writing, I am keen to try and expand on Ouma Sofie’s story—through fictionalizing her backstory and conducting more research about what life was like at the time. This is obviously a longer term project but in the meantime, as a journalist, student and sub-editor, I will endeavor to make each piece of writing the best I can, whether it is an academic essay, personal project or editing other journalist’s work.
As you may have heard by now, I won the Bank Windhoek Doek Literary Award in the nonfiction category on Thursday night. The win has been such an amazing experience in my life. It is so validating of my creativity, skill and talent and I am so grateful for the recognition.
The first part of this conversation was conducted prior to the announcement of the winners of the 2021 Bank Windhoek Doek Literary Awards. Congratulations to Natasha Uys!
This dialogue was edited by our Editor, Tamanda Kanjaye.
Saliha Haddad is an Algerian part-time teacher of English at university. She graduated in the field of Anglophone Literature and Civilization in 2015. She is an Interviewer for Fiction at the online magazine, Africa in Dialogue. She has written about cultural subjects for the Algerian online platform Dzair World and for the printed and online magazine Ineffable Art and Culture. Her debut creative nonfiction piece has appeared in Agbowó.