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The doctor who became a writer



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

Look who’s coming!


Every time I meet someone who’s just attended their first lit fest, I’m surprised that they’re all ooh and ah about how funny the authors are, how entertaining the events were and how all round amazed they are that literary festivals are any fun at all.

Clearly, authors, you need some marketing. Why do people not know how bracing your company is? How amusingly self-deprecating you are? How clever and informed and thoughtful you are?

(Most of you. Some of you are total plonkers, but there’s usually a rotten spot or two in any basket of fruit.)

For the most part though, authors are way more entertaining than their bad hair and crocs give them credit for. So roll up, roll up, all you non-believers and see whose on at the Franschhoek Literary Festival next year in May.

  • John Boyne (Ireland) Boyne’s latest novel A History of Loneliness, is a deep and subtle examination of culpability and innocence, about a ‘good priest’ caught up in the scandal following the revelations of abuse within the Catholic Church in Ireland.
  • Chris Bradford (England) (Young Samurai series) will be in South Africa for the Book Week for Young Readers programme at schools in the Franschhoek Valley in the days preceding the main festival, and will be part of an event for schools at the main festival, on Friday 15 May.
  • Jackie Kay (Scotland/England) Acclaimed poet, short story writer, and memoirist, Kay will participate in a number of events, and will also be part of the judging panel for the high schools’ Poetry for Life finals, which will be held at the FLF (see www.poetryforlife.co.za for information).
  • Eshkol Nevo (Israel). Nevo’s latest book, Neuland, will resonate with many South Africans as it explores the need to get away from one’s homeland in order to understand it, and oneself, more deeply and honestly.
  • Romain Puertolas (France). The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe, Puertolas’s first novel is raking in positive reviews and he’s sure to be a popular panelist at the festival.
  • Sarah Waters (England). Waters has a strong fan base in South Africa for her historical fiction, and is sure to attract keen audiences. Her latest novel, The Paying Guests, is perfect holiday reading now in preparation for her appearance at the festival.

And here are some of the Seffrican authors you’ll get to rub shoulders with in the creamy light of late autumn Franschhoek:

  • David Attwell (York University). Good news for anyone wanting to get to grips with the work of Coetzee, Attwell will be in Franschhoek to talk about his new book, Face to Face with Time: JM Coetzee and the life of writing, to be published in 2015.
  • Belinda Bauer (Wales). Bauer is one of the most exciting crime writers to gain ascendence in recent years. Her latest novel The Facts of Life and Death, is out now.
  • Lyndall Gordon (Oxford). The biographer of many beloved literary figures, including Virginia Woolf, the Brontes, and Emily Dickinson, Gordon’s newest book, Divided Lives, is a memoir about her relationship with her extraordinary mother. (Gordon may also be presenting a life-writing masterclass/workshop).

And some of the locals who live on African soil:

  • GG Alcock. Alcock’s memoir, Third World Child, is a story of a unique life that could only emerge from South Africa.
  • Ekow Duker. A Ghanaian author, based in Johannesburg, Duker has written two well-received novels — Dying in New York and White Wahala.
  • Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, author of A Human Being Died that Night, will be at the festival with her new book, Dare We Hope?
  • Daisy Jones, winner of the Sunday Times Best Cookbook of the Year Award for Star Fish — a very useful guide to cooking fish from sustainable stocks.
  • Zelda la Grange, author of the bestselling memoir, Good Morning, Mr Mandela, will share her memories of Madiba.
  • Bongani Madondo, music journalist and author of I’m Not Your Weekend Special: Portraits on the Life + Style and Politics of Brenda Fassie, will add a jazzy note to the lineup.
  • Thando Mgqolozana, a powerful voice emerges in the three books by Mgqolozana, A Man Who is Not a Man, Hear Me Alone and Unimportance.
  • Emma Sadleir & Tamsyn de Beer (latter still to confirm her attendance), offer don’t-ignore insights into being active on social media in their book Don’t Film Yourself Having Sex.
  • Jaco van Schalkwyk, an artist and author whose first book The Alibi Club (also available in Afrikaans) introduces an exciting new voice to the SA literary scene.

There will, of course, be many other familiar names from previous festivals, plus a host of new names still to be confirmed. Details of these authors and participants will be revealed in the new year.

(The programme will be available on the FLF website from mid March 2015 — an announcement will be posted on the FLF website, www.flf.co.za, the Franschhoek Literary Festival Facebook page, and on the Twitter feed, @franlitfest.)


COLUMN: War Literature

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Guernica by Pablo Picasso

Can a literary recounting of war stop the wholesale murder?

By Karin Schimke

War, for anyone who hasn’t been in it I would argue, is an idea so foreign as to belong to the realm of fantasy.

Its lived travesties, its dust and blood, the way it distorts and flattens places and people and ideas of goodness and desires for hope – these are unimaginable to me, no matter how much creative thinking I bring to it.

Also the larger phenomenon of war as an aspect of human life, the fact of it, the inevitability of it, is too strange to contemplate on a philosophical level. War is so remote, its realities so outlandish, that I have never been able to muster an active interest in its meta-workings nor the ability to imagine myself in its microscopic horrors.

Consequently, I’ve never sought out war literature, though I haven’t actively avoided it either. And yet all that I can begin to know about it has come to me by way of literature.

The non-combatant’s inability to imagine war is taken on directly by Wilfred Owen in his poem Dulce Et Decorum Est. This was my first taste of war literature – or the first one I can remember – and along with Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong and Ian McEwan’s Atonement one the most vivid encounters I have had with the devastating wars of twentieth century Europe.

Wilfred tells the reader that if he or she could, in dreams, pace behind a wagon into which he and his fellows had to fling a man dying in a gas attack, they would not “with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory” tell “the old lie” that it is sweet and good to die for your country.

At the Franschhoek Literary Festival earlier this year, I attended a reading by John Maytham of literature from World War I called Dulce Et Decorum Est after the famous poem. The script was seamlessly put together by poet Finuala Dowling and Maytham’s emphatic and humane voice was transporting. Tears washed down my face and a furtive glance around me showed that I was not alone – men and women all around me had wet faces.

“War, what is it good for?” are the lyrics of an anti-war song made famous by Edwin Starr. Nothing, nothing, nothing that I can see from my experience-impoverished perspective. But it does produce memorable literature.

I’ve been thinking about it this week as I picked up a book and found myself engrossed in the writing by page two. It’s called The Yellow Birds by Kevin Power, who served in the Iraq war. His lyrical rendition of combat is deeply engrossing and provides a perspective on war that no media – even television – can match.

His work reminded me of Brian Turner, also a veteran of the Iraqi war, who wrote a book called Here, Bullet, as least as powerful as Wilfred Owen’s work, but more modern. Turner and Power have the same ability to convey to the reader the jumpy reality of expecting to feel a bullet rip your flesh apart at any moment, as well as the stupefying effect of escaping combat unharmed, with its attendant feelings of survivor guilt and years of post-traumatic stress.

Other war literature that has rocked the world (but sadly, without ending war) include Charlotte Grey by Sebastian Faulks, For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, If This Is A Man by Primo Levi, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and the outstanding works of Pat Barker.

I count myself lucky not to have the experience that makes war imaginable. I count myself lucky to live in a world in which abomination can be rendered worthwhile on at least one level. I continue to hope that literary recounting of a repugnant aspect of life on earth will continue to spread loathing for wholesale murder.

It might be the only antidote we have to man’s insatiable appetite for armed conflict.

  •  This column first in the Cape Times in October 2014.
  • Schimke is an independent writer, a poet and the editor of the Cape Times books pages.