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The doctor who became a writer

Maria

 

MariaMaria Phalima, author of Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away is one of five authors who made it on to the 2015 Sunday Times Alan Paton. The award is given annually for a book that demonstrates “the illumination of truthfulness, especially those forms of it that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power; compassion, elegance of writing, and intellectual and moral integrity”.

You’ve just been nominated for the Sunday Times Alan Paton award and your second book was recently published. Both are, to some degree, memoir. Tell us about them.

Postmortem – The Doctor Who Walked Away is about my journey through medicine – why I chose to study medicine in the first place, my experiences of working in the public health system, and the reasons I chose to walk away from the profession. I wrote this book because I wanted to fully understand the reasons behind my life-changing decision. I knew in my heart that I had made the right decision; throughwriting the book I wanted to interrogate that decision and to finally put that chapter of my life behind me.

My second book, Second Chances, is a novel for teens. It isn’t intended as a memoir, but of course it does draw on my life experiences to a certain degree. It’s about a young girl from Soweto who wants to be a doctor, but finds many obstacles in her way – poverty, peer pressure, HIV, sugar daddies. She has to navigate these obstacles and keep her eye on the prize. I wrote the novel because I wanted young people from difficult circumstances to know that their immediate environment needn’t limit their dreams. (Second Chances was the English category winner of the Maskew Miller Longman Literature Award in 2013).

The theme running through both books is one of overcoming challenges and trying again. I strongly believe that life always gives us a second chance, as long as we are willing to grasp it and make the most of the opportunity.

You identify now as a writer, rather than as a doctor. It’s a middle class parent’s nightmare: “If you want to get ahead in the world, become a doctor or a lawyer. If you want to be an actor or a writer you’re never going to get anywhere.” How do you interpret that fear, how did your parents react to your career change and what will you tell your children when they start thinking about what they want to be one day?

We all want the best for our children; I understand that clearly now that I’m a parent. I imagine my mother was concerned about my decision, though she never expressed it. She was very supportive; she wanted me to do well in whatever field I chose.

Through my drastic career change I see that our work is not so much about the pieces of paper we acquire; it’s more about the gifts we express and how these gifts can positively impact other people. So my children are free to choose whatever career they feel will best enable them to serve others and live a fulfilling life. And I think it’s also important for them to realise that their careers will evolve as they grow and mature. What works in their 20s and 30s may not serve them as well in their 40s.

At the Franschhoek Literary Festival recently you told Grade 11 learners that you’d been a reader as a child and that it made you realise what the possibilities were for you in the world. How did you become a reader?

I read to escape the reality of my home environment, and in so doing I found out that the world was far bigger than what I was seeing around me. I was fortunate that I attended a private school with a well-stocked library, so I had plenty of choice. Also my mother worked in education and she often brought home books from the African Writers Series.

Reading is vital for young people – for people of all ages, actually. It’s a form of personal development. I think young people should read whatever they find interesting and relevant to their lives. We as adults can do a lot to encourage them by reading to them when they are little, and by setting an example by also being avid readers. When children realise that there is a whole universe inside the pages of their books, they will want to explore it.

Do you think enough books are being published in South Africa that reflect a reality children and teenagers can relate to?

The majority of young people in this country face huge challenges in their communities, and often they have no way of processing what is going on around them. I think books which speak to these challenges in a way that is accessible to them – and enjoyable to read – can do a lot, to not only encourage them to read but also to impart knowledge and empowering perspectives. Young people need to be able to see themselves in what they read, so I think it’s vitally important that more books are written and published which black youths can identify with.

Medicine is about healing. Can books and literature be about healing?

Absolutely. Writing Postmortem was a cathartic experience for me, and I know from the feedback I’ve had from many doctors that it has helped them to see that they are not alone in their struggles within our health system.

I went into medicine because I wanted to heal others. I realise now that, through my writing, I am continuing on my path as a healer.

  • This Q & A first appeared in the Cape Times in May 2015

2014’s Top Ten South African books

ten on yellow

Every year, The Star asks me to select the top ten South African books of the year. Lists – just like literary prizes – are inherently problematic, exclusionary and faulty, yet I love them for their cranky assumption that they are right. Cranky, because I think lists know their own vulnerabilities but bliksem forth anyway.

I chose this year’s list by asking myself: if a foreigner came to live here for a while, which books would give him or her a sense of what it’s like to live here, what it’s like to be South African? These are the books I’d send them to:

TOP TEN BOOKS OF 2014

Tales of the Metric System

Imraan Coovadia

Umuzi

Spanning almost four decades in South Africa from the seventies, this intelligently devised chronicle takes in the lives of figures on the fringes of power, taking in broad social change and highlighting the individual against the backdrop of history. Coovadia’s fluid and unstrained prose shows the complexity of being alive in difficult times.

Lost and Found in Johannesburg

Mark Gevisser

Publisher

Memoir and history meld together around Gevisser’s cartographical journey into the social and geographic soul of Johannesburg. A breathtaking, intelligent and incisive poetry of place and identity emerge from the pages of this compelling non-fiction work.

Postmortem: The Doctor Who Walked Away

Maria Phalima

Tafelberg

This brave author, who seeks first to find fault with herself for her inability to continue coping within an inoperably sick public health care system, lays bare one of the most appalling failures of post-apartheid South Africa.

The Diving

Helen Walne

Penguin

This marvellous work is quick to read but plunges very deeply. Walne writes with a kooky clarity of vision about her brother’s death, examining suicide with unflinching intelligence and – oddly – with humour.

Dear Bullet

Sixolile Mbalo

Jonathan Ball

A devastating story about a single act of insouciant, casual and unspeakable inhumanity.  The “before” story has warmth; the “after” story is chilling considering how many men and women around us have been similarly brutalised.

An Imperfect Blessing

Nadia Davids

Umuzi

Davids investigates notions of liminality and heritage in this compassionate and humorous novel about Alia, a teenager at the time of the first democratic elections. She captures the in-between spaces in South Africa’s history, geography, identities and relationships.

A Man of Good Hope

Johnny Steinberg

Jonathan Ball Publishers

A chronicle of a young Somalian’s journey to South Africa at a time our country was particularly inhospitable to foreigners. Steinberg investigates the loss of control, the “in-betweenness” of having been displaced by great forces of history.

I See You

Ishtiyak Shukri

Jacana

Set in a fictional African country and around the life of an abducted photojournalist, this utterly singular novel elucidates how the present is also a part of history, and makes a case for dissonant and dissident voices.

Black Dog Summer

Miranda Sherry

Head of Zeus

Stepping gently into the potentially explosive area of farm murders, Sherry writes about the rippling effect of trauma through the eyes of a young girl. This is an unsentimental and richly rewarding novel that tightens its grip as it develops.

The Reactive

Masande Ntshanga

Random House Struik

Set in Cape Town before anti-retroviral drugs became generally available, Ntshanga’s brilliant debut follows Lindanathi’s life as it segues into the murky world of legal and illegal drugs. Lyrical and haunting, the novel “hears” the youth the way the goverment refuses to.

  • This list first appeared in The Star in December 2014.