There is non-fiction that strives to be strictly informative. Eat that, do this, go here! Then there is non-fiction that uses all the nuances of storytelling to weave a tale that reads like you are there, that you are following along with the subjects’ daily lives. Maggie Messitt’s THE RAINY SEASON, is just that. She uses all her journalistic and narrative-writing muscles to bring to life a community in South Africa. It’s a beautifully written book that gives a peek into a whole new world, so different, yet in many ways similar to our own experiences.
THE RAINY SEASON introduces readers to the remote bushveld community of Rooiboklaagte and opens a window into the beautifully complicated reality of daily life in South Africa. A work of literary journalism, Messitt’s debut tells the stories of three generations in the Rainbow Nation one decade after its first democratic elections. This multi-threaded narrative follows Regina, a tapestry weaver in her sixties, standing at the crossroads where her Catholic faith and the AIDS pandemic crash; Thoko, a middle-aged sangoma (traditional healer) taking steps to turn her shebeen into a fully licensed tavern; and Dankie, a young man taking his matriculation exams, coming of age as one of Mandela’s Children, the first academic class educated entirely under democratic governance.
Read my conversation with Maggie and make sure to enter the giveaway for your own copy of this wonderful book.
What time of day do you love best? I have come to appreciate a time in the morning that others might still refer to as night. When I’m my best self, I am in bed by ten p.m., read until I fall asleep, and rise just after four a.m. Yes, you read that correctly—four in the morning. There’s an intense silence at that time—in the world and in my brain. Four is my favorite hour. The world leaves me alone. And I have a sense of clarity and focus typically stolen by days filled with too much information flying at me from every direction, at varying speeds, and via multiple platforms. I’m not going to lie—I am half asleep when I’m fumbling to make my stovetop espresso, but on most mornings, I don’t need more than a few slow sips to feel on my way. Wrapped in my house sweater, I curl up on my couch or sit at my desk and begin my day in darkness. Now, in my thirties, this is when I do my best thinking. This is when my best writing happens.
Have you ever tried writing in a different genre? How did that turn out? Yes. I wrote poetry long ago but, more recently, I secretly started writing fiction. I don’t always sleep very well. I’ve gone through long periods of absolutely no sleep—truly, not even a wink. Sometimes this is because I can’t stop writing in my head; in which case, I just need to get out of bed and type. But, sadly, all too often, my inability to sleep is simply because I can’t stop thinking. A few years ago, a South African friend of mine was killed. I wasn’t there at the time. I was in the US and I’d been phoning his cell to no avail. He wasn’t responding. Eventually, I emailed another friend and asked if she’d seen or heard from him, and that’s when she told me: he was killed by his cousin. I knew them both. And, I was stuck inside this netherplace. I could imagine how this might have happened—how things could have played out—but I also desperately needed to know what happened. Eventually, I started writing. I (re)constructed the murder, the funeral, and, eventually, a mob surrounding the cousin. I wasn’t there, but I knew that place like I knew myself. And the only answers available to me were going to come in the form of fiction. As someone who obsessively works to tell true stories, making things up in this way—writing fiction—is like a dirty little secret.
Do you have a regular first reader? If so, who is it and why that person? I never used to have a regular reader. This has always seemed like a luxury and it’s also a status that felt far too personal to allow one person to have—or maybe I’m just too insecure about my work. I’m a big believer in Anne Lamott’s shitty first (second and third) draft. This makes early sharing feel like standing naked in a room of strangers. When I’m writing personal essays or memoir—a new thing for me—it’s like showing someone a gaping wound and saying, here: poke. And, yet, it has to be done. A certain novelist and essayist in my life has started reading my work on a regular basis and helping edit before things go to print. I’m not always sure how I feel about this. On some days, it carries some kind of strange (self-inflicted) pressure. On other days, it’s a great relief (and gift) to get feedback from someone you trust.
What’s your next big thing? I’m currently working on a hybrid of investigation and memoir, the story of my aunt, an artist, missing since 2009. I’ve travelled the country in search of her life story, using more than 200 handwritten letters and emails as my compass. Ultimately, it’s about finding her in the things she left behind (and, subsequently, finding myself inside her story). You can read more about this in a craft essay I wrote for Creative Nonfiction this past winter and, through an essay I wrote for Bending Genre, you can see how this work has started to leak into everything I write.
What is your advice for aspiring writers? It’s never to late to sit down and write.
GIVEAWAY: Comment on this post by Noon (EST) on Friday, May 29th to win a copy of THE RAINY SEASON (US only). Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter for extra entries—just mention that you did so in your comments. We’ll choose and contact the winner on Friday. Good luck!
Maggie Messitt has spent the last decade reporting from inside underserved communities in southern Africa and middle America. Author of THE RAINY SEASON, Messitt lived in northeastern South Africa for 8 years during which time she was a long-form reporter, newspaper editor, and founding director of a writing school. Since returning to the US, her essays and reportage have been published in Creative Nonfiction, Essay Daily, Memoir Journal, Mother Jones, Narratively, River Teeth, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance magazine, among others. Messitt is currently a PhD candidate at Ohio University and a 2015 Scholar-in-Residence at Bowers Writers House.