Remaining Conscious Amidst Surrender: A Dialogue with Sarah Isaacs

REMAINING CONSCIOUS AMIDST SURRENDER

A DIALOGUE WITH SARAH ISAACS

Sarah Isaacs is a writer and visual storyteller based in Cape Town, South Africa. After graduating with a psychology degree from the University of Cape Town in 2009, she shifted her professional focus to portrait and documentary photography, aiming to create safe spaces for South African women to share their everyday struggles and stories. 

Boosted by the voices of the women she photographed, she was able to explore her own relationship to issues of identity, gender-based violence, and the impact of infertility on a woman’s sense of self. In 2018, she invited survivors of gender-based violence to be photographed and, if they were ready, to make their experience public. She turned the lessons she learnt from that portrait series into a 2019 TEDx talk, titled The Vulnerability-Victimhood Paradox, which centred on survivor shame and its implications for the expression of vulnerability. 

She was accepted into the University of Cape Town Creative Writing Masters program in 2020, and completed her first novel, Glass Tower, at the end of 2021. 

She lives in the city centre with her husband and two cats, and finds joy in walking through town and watching strangers go about their day.

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BY DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

This conversation took place between Paraty, Cape Town, and Kampala via email.

Glass Tower is a story about the growing friendship between Leilah and Frankie, two teenage new-comers to a racially-divided school in Durban, South Africa, and how it helps them navigate their places in the world; it is set in the late 1990s, a period of flux following South Africa’s first democratic election.

Sarah shares her very personal battle to find her novel’s voice, explaining some of the ways in which fiction makes writing about race and sexual abuse a little less frightening, and why she considers braided essays to be one of the most persuasive forms of storytelling. She also speaks about the benefits of being part of a tight-knit creative writing class, the influence of her mother’s reading recommendations on her writing career, and why she never lets people borrow her copy of Anita Daimant’s The Red Tent.

 

Davina: Working as a comic book artist earlier in her career formed a big part of Katherine Hunter’s style:

While I wasn’t looking specifically at comics from DC or Marvel, drawing inspiration from these definitely helped me to figure out how to bring motion into an image. I spent a lot of time studying how one image flows into the next to end up with a series of images that can tell you a story, even without text. This involves attention to detail, symbolism and careful composition. You learn to say a lot with very little—almost like the “show, don’t tell” rule that you often hear about in writing.

And you, Sarah? Who/what/when influences your visual style?

Sarah: I’m a documentary and portrait photographer, and wear both hats across most of my work. Even with my more classical portraiture, I adopt a very candid approach with no forced or uncomfortable posing. I rely on natural light and real-life backdrops, as I feel both bring out the natural character of those I work with. 

I love capturing the relationship between person, light, and place. The unpredictability of all three keeps me on my toes, and though I always go into a job with a brief in mind, it’s not at the expense of spontaneity and surprise.

Davina: I hope you don’t mind that I nicked this from your website—

My love of photography grew from a love of travel. Leaving behind familiarity and routine let me see the world anew, it grew my curiosity in people and my appreciation for everyday detail. Whether walking to the shop, listening to the birds wake up, or making eye contact with a stranger, ordinary looks and feels so extraordinary when you travel that it’s easy to be present, not rushing to be anywhere else.

—but it spoke to the part of me that’s always on the lookout for new ways to see old things. Were you deliberate about incorporating everyday details into Glass Tower?

Sarah: Yes, I was. With photography, my focus is primarily on visual details, but with writing I had to tune into touch, smell, taste, and sound just as much. For the year that it took to write the book, I felt like a tired old sponge, absorbing as much as I could so that I’d remain conscious of each sense when sitting at my computer to write. 

Details create a believable, relatable fictional world, but they can also become tedious, so I was forever questioning what was necessary for the reader and what was self-indulgent. I can only hope I edited out most of the latter.

With Leilah, one of the main characters, I was particularly conscious of her senses. She’s a young teenager, very aware of all the changes occurring inside and around her, and I wanted the reader to feel the angst and joy that can accompany that degree of sensitivity. 

Davina: I find Frankie to be equally as sensitive, albeit in a different way. Frankie seems to have a better idea of where and why society draws lines; she’s more attuned to nuances in behaviour. 

After introducing herself to the class, Leilah blurts out that this is the first school uniform she’s ever had to wear. When Leilah returns to her seat, Frankie warns her not to tell “…anyone anything you don’t want them to know”:

“That’s the first rule of surviving somewhere new. You better stay close to me, unless you want to be eaten alive. That’s what teenagers do, you know, they eat other teenagers alive.”

Frankie also advises Leilah not to mention that her dad is Coloured and her mum is German:

“…maybe don’t say anything about your mom and dad being different. I don’t mind it, but some kids might.”

“But, won’t people see that I’m a mix?” Leilah asked, confused.

“Not really,” Frankie said. “You just look like a white girl with a tan.”

Frankie strikes me as the perfect guide for Leilah, and not just within the confines of their new school.

Sarah: That’s a great observation. Frankie has her faults but she’s my favourite character in the story, so I’m happy you asked about her. She sees the wood for the trees while Leilah is still fighting her way through the undergrowth, unsure of where she’s going and how she fits in.

Leilah is very sensitive to the world around her but at the same time blind to it. She feels rather than sees her environment. Frankie’s sensitivity, on the other hand, is rooted in her understanding of the social structures in which she operates; she knows how and when to break the rules because she’s painfully aware of them.

While Leilah is the more academic one, Frankie is smarter when it comes to real-life stuff. She has a keen eye for people, and from very early on in their friendship sees – and peels through – Leilah’s confusing layers. Leilah, who understands even less of herself than she does of others, relies on Frankie to interpret both for her.

Though the title doesn’t relate to their relationship in particular, Frankie is Leilah’s glass tower. She reflects her understanding of the world, their friendship, and Leilah back to her while also tussling with her own reflection.

Davina: Why is Glass Tower a novel? Why isn’t it a collection of short stories or essays? Why a novel in English, further?

Sarah: I’ve wanted to write a novel for as long as I can remember so that wasn’t really a question in my mind at the outset. Looking back, I could have written a set of short stories, treating each of the book’s four parts as its own tale. But since family relationships are one of the core dealings of the book, I think the cohesion of a novel was necessary. It was the glue holding the family members together.

Literary fiction has always been my preferred reading material. I find it to be the most powerful format for conveying an array of real-world ideas and problems to readers from different walks of life. I enjoy writing essays but have to fight the urge to make a point. With issues as sensitive as racism and sexual abuse, which my novel deals with, literary fiction gave me the freedom to explore opinions that I don’t necessarily share. 

While no writer should be ignorant to the sociopolitical framework in which they or their writing exists, “big picture” stuff is not – in my mind – what drives a good story forward. Character development, dialogue, points of view and the everyday details we chatted about earlier make a story come alive, and these are tools for which fiction makes plenty of room. 

As for writing in English, there are characters in the book that would have spoken Afrikaans, and I would have liked to use some Afrikaans dialogue. However, as South African writers, we always have to ask what is sellable to markets in the United Kingdom and United States. I don’t like this consideration but it was emphasised throughout my creative writing program: keep international, namely Western world, readers in mind if you want any chance of making it as a novelist. Hopefully, one day, that will change. 

Davina: Journalist and novelist Stanley Gazemba spoke about this too – how excited he was about being published in the USA because this meant he could be read “as widely as possible.”

He also spoke about sometimes wanting to avoid “…what is taught in creative writing classes.” Were there moments when you chose to ignore or resist what you’d learned?

Sarah: Yes, certainly, when it came to point of view, which was what I struggled most with at the start of the story. Beyond the protagonists’ observations and feelings, who was the story’s narrator, and how much of myself – as the writer – could I reveal in the book? Each of my teachers throughout the creative writing program had different opinions on point of view and all of them were valuable. 

I first started writing in first person, then changed to a head-hopping approach, switching between the minds of different characters within the same chapter, and finally settled on dividing the book into parts, written in third person with each part dedicated to a single character’s perspective. Though this decision was influenced by my teachers and teachings, it was a very personal battle finding the book’s voice, along with my own. 

I had to let go of what I’d learnt, and what others thought, and trust my gut. It took me six months to write the first 20,000 words, but once I found the right point of view, I felt as if I was in the driver’s seat of my own storyline, and things got a little easier. 

For the year that it took to write the book, I felt like a tired old sponge, absorbing as much as I could so that I’d remain conscious of each sense when sitting at my computer to write.

Davina: I’ve always wanted to write essays but for a long time didn’t feel competent enough to try. Thankfully, last year, I had an opportunity to participate in a cross-cultural creative non-fiction writing project. During orientation, I was introduced to several types of essays, and instantly fell for the braided essay (which is the form that I ultimately chose for the project).

Essayist, poet, and professor Nicole Walker described the braided essay as “one of resistance.” She proposed that “the further apart the threads of the braid,” the more it “resists easy substitutions and answers”:

Perhaps the braided form is most effective when the political and the personal are trying to explain and understand each other. The process of pulling together two disparate ideas allows for surprise. In an essay I wrote about geothermal power in Iceland, I asked the question: although geothermal power is a sustainable, green energy, is it infinite? Will the supplies run out? Research revealed that an overtaxed well could, in fact, run dry, and the power produced by that particular natural hot-spring could come to an end.

In a parallel story, I got mad at my husband and stormed off, wondering whether or not a church on a hill was Catholic, and angry that he had made me walk there if he didn’t want to know. Neither of us would let the issue go. I wandered by the ocean long enough to make myself abysmally sad. I stayed gone long enough to get really mad. I came home and fell asleep on the bathroom floor. When I awoke, I couldn’t find my husband. I found him waiting for me across the street, letting it go, forgiving me. The essay led me to understand that our relationship might be elastic and strong, possibly infinite in its resources, but perhaps I should be cautious before I tax it.

What topics do you tend to wrestle with in your essays? What form(s) do you favour?

Sarah: I love Walker’s relation of the planet’s natural resources to the well of shared history and affection that characterises a partnership. It’s surprising, as she says, and as a reader I want to be surprised. Braided essays make difficult social, political, environmental issues easier to digest, and can create common ground on issues that might otherwise divide us. 

Someone might not care about geothermal power in Iceland, or what it says about climate change, but if you’re in a relationship, you can certainly relate to the bonds of romantic affection and the extent to which these bonds can be stretched before snapping. 

I enjoy this form of essay writing, where the personal and political are interwoven in interesting, preferably subtle ways. As with Glass Tower, my non-fiction leans towards issues of family, intergenerational pain, racism, and women’s struggles for identity. 

In 2020, following keyhole surgery to remove my endometriosis, I wrote a braided essay about my battle with infertility. It was a story about my husband and I, about the experience of being in hospital during lockdown, and the sense of inadequacy I felt, not being able to conceive. But surrounding that personal tale was a look into the racist and misogynist history of gynaecology, the predominantly white male lens through which women’s bodies are still viewed, and the inadequacies of Western medicine when it comes to diagnosing women’s pain. 

In hindsight, I wrote the essay too soon after my surgery. I hadn’t emotionally recovered – I was still very angry at something I couldn’t pinpoint – so I let the political overtake the personal, raging against outside forces and forgetting to tell a good story in the process. But if one can write from the scar and not from the wound, as one of my supervisors so eloquently suggested, I think braided essays are one of the most interesting and persuasive forms of storytelling. 

Davina: What you said earlier, about how literary fiction serves as a powerful format for conveying an array of real-world ideas and problems, suggests that Glass Tower was always destined to be realist, literary fiction. Still, I’m tempted to ask: did you truly never toy with the idea of adding speculative or supernatural elements?

Sarah: I’m a hopeless sucker for realism so, no, not even for a minute. Perhaps I’ll climb out of my (still uncomfortable) comfort zone one day but for now there’s so much interesting stuff happening in the real world that I don’t want to look away from. 

Davina: I find that writing about real world stuff can sometimes be less straightforward than writing about, say, supernatural beings. What grounded your approach and your sense of responsibility? 

Sarah: I didn’t realise it at the time, but two of the most valuable pieces of advice I received from Imraan Coovadia, our course convenor, were: 

 

Don’t let politics get in the way of good storytelling.

If people are having disagreements about your work, it means you’ve done your job.

 

I try to remember both whenever I get scared or anxious about the feathers I could ruffle, both with Glass Tower and in my future writing. One does have a moral responsibility to treat characterisation and complex themes with sensitivity, but too much sensitivity or over-analysing stifles creativity. 

We had numerous class debates over white writers assuming characters of colour, straight writers telling queer stories, and men writing women’s stories. We didn’t reach any fixed conclusions – if there is such a thing – but there seemed to be some consensus around awareness. If I’m exploring experiences very different from my own, it’s my responsibility as a writer to ask plenty of questions about those experiences, to probe my own ignorance, and most of all to be respectfully curious. 

There’s an excellent essay by Binyavanga Wainaina, How to Write About Africa, published on Granta, that cleverly covers the many tropes writers fall prey to when writing about Africa. A good lesson on what to avoid! As to what we can write about? My feeling is that no subject or subject matter should be off the table for any writer, except maybe Paul Theroux.

Davina: I remember how panicked I was the first time I attempted to write a story about racism. It was supposed to be set here, in Kampala. Over the years, I’ve been within earshot of people that have said some extremely racist things, have had relatives relate their own horrible experiences of racism, etcetera, so it wasn’t that I lacked material. Yet, I couldn’t write beyond a few paragraphs. On one hand, I worried about keeping my personal feelings and interpretations of the racist protagonist’s behaviour out of the story; on the other hand, I was frightened by the prospect of appearing to be empathising with a racist.

Sarah: Writing about race is frightening, but thankfully fiction allows space for characters who are flawed, and even unlikeable. 

Leilah is mixed race but, upon moving from her Coloured neighbourhood in Cape Town to a racially divided school in Durban, quickly realises that she passes for white and does everything she can to deny her father’s existence. Because she’s still a girl, I felt I could empathise with her more than I could with an adult; even so, I found it very difficult to write racial slurs onto the page – terms Leilah learns to normalise within her new environment. 

Dwight, Leilah’s father, is not immune to racism either. There’s a scene in which he reflects quite cynically on his Coloured identity, and makes remarks that could easily be construed as anti-Semitic. 

Do we write off characters completely because aspects of their character are disagreeable, cruel or offensive, or do we remain interested, even empathetic, by acknowledging the many parts that make up any given person? 

As a writer, I can’t offer any neat solutions to the very complex, very nuanced, and very painful history of racism in South Africa. But as a narrator of a fictional story, I wanted to develop specific characters – at a specific time, and in a specific place – who could pick at the seams of racial constructs in a way that would interest rather than alienate readers. Only time and feedback will tell whether I managed to do this with enough sensitivity.

Davina: What resources did you need that only a creative writing masters program could provide?

Sarah: I know the world of academia can be stuffy, and perhaps even outdated, but I love the structure and sense of belonging it provides. I’m a freelance photographer, so I spend most of my time alone, but I didn’t want to tackle writing alone. 

My class was small – only nine of us – and we learnt to feel safe with one another, safe enough to share our most intimate ideas and experiences, which may have been off-putting or too heavy for people not going through the same learning process. 

Getting your thoughts out for others to pick apart is crucial if you want to write. If not for the constructive criticism and positive feedback from my classmates and teachers – offered in a controlled and familiar environment – I would not have had the confidence to share my work more broadly. 

Davina: Writing can be difficult and frustrating. Especially because it’s such a solitary activity. Ironically, though, this is often what I enjoy most: that only I am in charge of the outcome (at least initially).

Turning my work over to others is still nerve-racking. I’d thought that, with time, it’d become less so. How wrong I was! No matter how safe I feel with the friend I’m sharing a story with, a part of me dreads feedback (even the kind and thoughtful type). The emails that terrify me most are the “…attached are my comments on your story” ones. My heart runs away and I think “Woe unto me, for I am undone!” Do those emails terrify you, too?

Sarah: Yes! I can really relate to your enjoyment of writing-solitude. The work is yours and yours alone until you start sharing it, which is when you lose all control. The truly frightening part is that you have no idea how readers will respond, and you cannot be there to explain any element of the story to them. How your characters, structure, themes, and style are interpreted is not up to you. You surrender everything to your reader: once it’s out there, there’s no going back.

That’s why critical feedback from a number of trusted sources, coupled with a rigorous editing process, is so crucial, especially for newbie writers like me who still have plenty to learn. I used to bite my nails to shreds when sharing new work with my creative writing class and thesis supervisors, but I knew they were a safe audience with a good idea of who I am, and the kind of writer I want to be. They offered honest feedback on risky topics like race, and pointed out my blind spots. 

Of course, you can’t please everyone all the time, but that first round of critical feedback is so important before sending work to potential publishers. Following the prize, I’m working on yet another round of editing, and I know there will be many more before Glass Tower ever sets foot in the real world. That’s when the real nail biting begins!

Davina: Novelist and photographer TJ Benson spoke of friends who know him well enough to know what he ought to read:

 

…often by seeing similarities in my experiments with those artists even before I encounter them. David Ishaya Osu, the poet, seized me by the hands and [led] me into the worlds of Michael Ondaatje, Lidia Yuknavitch, Mary Ruefle, Kaveh Akbar and many others. Servio Gbadamosi read something I had written and couldn’t categorize and directed me to Khalil Gibran. Rotimi Babatunde judged We Won’t Fade Into Darkness and drew stylistic reference[s] to Italo Calvino and Paulo Coelho, and now I am on their path.

 

Do you have friends like this, and if so what paths have you found yourself walking because of them?

Sarah: My mom has been my biggest influence in this regard. She gave me The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant, over ten years ago, when I was feeling detached from myself, bored in my job, and unsure of the path I wanted to take. The story is set in biblical times, and is told from the female perspective; in a roundabout way, it led me to women’s portraiture five or so years later. 

I like re-reading books to see how my perspective and preferences have changed. While many of the authors I read when I was younger no longer appeal to me (funny enough, Paulo Ceolho’s Eleven Minutes comes immediately to mind), The Red Tent continues to speak to me: it’s the one book in my library that I never lend out. 

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was another book my mom gave me, which I started many times but only finished during my creative writing program. It was a godsend; it showed me how much fun one can have spinning multiple narratives, and how to embrace clever point of view twists. It captured me at the perfect time, and opened my eyes to the limitless nature of fiction. If you can think it, you can do it – this is a freedom quite at odds with the lessons around good and bad writing one is taught in an academic setting. 

Let the Great World Spin, by Colum McCann, was perhaps the most influential book my mom suggested. I read it many years ago, and back then it was my first taste of a story told from multiple perspectives. I’ve since sought out more stories written in the same format, but that was the first and it had a lasting impact. I’d say it was the book that informed my approach to Glass Tower

Davina: I was once advised by a writer friend never to force myself on books. He said it behoves us to revisit books that initially resist us or refuse to open up to us. Which is what I did with The Blind Assassin and One Day I Will Write About This Place, both of which I failed to finish the first time I read them. I put them aside, and read other books. Months later, when I picked them up again, I read each in one sitting!

Other books I encountered when (I now realise) I wasn’t ready for them include Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, and Ryū Murakami’s Coin Locker Babies. I suspect that I mis-read them, so I’m determined to re-read them.

I’ve added Let the Great World Spin and The Red Tent to my to-read list. Have you read Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womanhood? I immediately thought of it when you mentioned The Red Tent

Tell me more about your portraiture. My favourite portrait is the one in which a plant appears to be climbing up a woman’s body. (I recognize those leaves from my childhood, although I can’t remember the name of that plant.) 

Sarah: A Year of Biblical Womanhood looks excellent; I’ve added it to my list! I am currently working my way through the 2022 Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist. I must have highlighted a quarter of Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss on my Kindle; I related to so much of her protagonist’s mental health struggles, and her use of dark humour to deal with it. 

I’m equally intrigued by Maggie Shiphead’s Great Circle, although more for her style than the content. She jumps masterfully between centuries, voices, and writing styles – another lesson in what writers can achieve when they are brave enough to break the rules.

I’m moved by your description of those leaves climbing the body. That’s actually me; it’s a self-portrait taken a few days after my endometriosis surgery. I wasn’t in a good space and I thought capturing that moment in time would give me some sense of peace or, perhaps, closure. I posted the image to my Instagram account many weeks after taking it, and the feedback I received encouraged me to do a series called Womb Stories.

A number of women stepped forward to be photographed, and each one of their stories felt like a lifeline. Alongside endometriosis, I learnt about ovarian cysts, early onset menopause, the stigma and shame surrounding heavy bleeding, severe hormonal depression, and the devastation of miscarrying in the third trimester (babies lost this late in pregnancy have to be named and declared officially deceased, a pain I can’t even begin to imagine).

I’m still amazed that it took me thirty-five years to learn about these things, yet I’m sure I only scratched the surface. As a society, we owe women more space to talk freely about menstruation, and the associated struggles that so many of us face.

I consider it a privilege to be welcomed into a woman’s internal world; while I now commit most of my time to writing, I never want to give that privilege up.

 

This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Zenas Ubere.

Davina Philomena Kawuma

Davina was born in a university teaching hospital in Lusaka and raised on the grounds of Uganda’s oldest university in Kampala (from where she would later receive a BSc in Botany and Zoology and a PGDE in biological sciences). Her MSc (Zoology) research assessed the abundance and richness of forest-dependent birds in two tropical lowland rainforest fragments in central Uganda. 

She writes poetry, fiction, and essays. Her short story, “Of Birds and Bees”, was shortlisted for the 2018 Short Story Day Africa Prize and the 2022 Gerald Kraak Prize. Her short story, “Touch Me Not”, was shortlisted for the 2020 Afritondo Short Story Prize.

She’s interested in the intersection between literature and science, will read anything with an arresting title, writes about topics that interest her, and is an aspiring wildlife photographer.

DAVINA PHILOMENA KAWUMA

INTERVIEWER

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