Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Till We Can Keep an Animal

So, last night I went to the book launch of Megan Voysey-Braig's Till We Can Keep an Animal at the Exclusive Books on Kloof street (thanks for the invitation, Themba!) where the author did a reading, had a bit of a Q and A session, signed some books, and then mingled whilst us attendees made good use of the free food and drinks.

It was an interesting experience for me, and there was plenty of food for thought (for me, anyway) when I got to thinking about how books and stories come about, and also how they are written and intended to be read. I did wonder beforehand what the author would actually be like, and I suppose it must have been a little strange for her as this was her first novel, and so therefore first reading and book launch too, and first ever signing (I got the first ever signed copy of her book, just by the way. As in, first ever signed copy EVER in the whole wide world, which was pretty cool).

Anyway, I found her a timid seeming woman (outwardly only, she is quite small physically but no doubt very strong opinionatively) and her voice and reading showed that as well - her voice is not strong and loud, and she somewhat mumbled slowly through the passage she'd selected. The passage was pretty bleak (the whole book is pretty bleak and intense) and her reading it the way she did (which is no doubt the way she intended it to be read) gave it the whole feeling the book should feel, I think. Which is a feeling of hopelessness, restlessness, bleakness, and general non-happiness.

In the Q and A, I asked her whether the story was something she'd always wanted to write, or whether it was just at the time, to which she answered "It was just at the time." Which is fair enough, I suppose. But it made me wonder on how and why she wrote the story - there are different ways of writing and reasons for writing, but in my opinion, the main ones are:
  • You have a story that needs to get out, so you write it.
  • You are exploring a theme or subject, for example "What would happen if...." and follow on with a story.
  • Or, and I think this was her reason, you want people to be aware of something (e.g. a political, misogynistic, democratic situation in a country) and so you write a story about it to show what you think about the subject.
I'm not a huge fan of the last one, as I'm one for fiction as fiction - a story that takes us away. My choice of literature is and always has been the fantastical, esoteric, horror kind of literature - because that always tends to have some element of paranormality or something that isn't possible (or very unlikely), and doesn't happen to us in reality. I like reading about such things because they take me away from here, they show me a world of magical awesomeness that makes me feel like a kid, they show me a place that exists only in my mind the way I have imagined it, and that escape is what I crave for.

When I read a book, I want to be able to read through it in a matter of days (even hours), I want it to draw me to it, suck me in, let me lose myself in it completely and utterly, and long for it's stories when I'm done. I want the characters in it to become real, I want to be there with them watching the story unfold, I want the entire world in the book to be around me, to be imagined even if it is not explicitly mentioned in the story itself. That's how I like my books, and so why a book like this one would never attract me normally. However, this book is narrated by a dead girl - by a ghost.

That, obviously, is something that would pique my interest, and so there is a small chance of reading it. Even reading the first few lines, I was interested in reading further, but this bubble has kind of been burst since, mainly due to the author's reading and her answer to one question in particular.

Her reading showed that the book is intended to be read in a subdued, bleak, helpless manner. My initial tone for the narrator was nothing like the author's intention, and so already the book is not what I expected and not something I'd look for in a book (generally, if there is going to be helplessness, I would prefer it to be due to a demon or alien or some kind of horrible supernaturality, rather than the political situation in the country I live in).

The question she was asked was something along the lines of "The narrator is a ghost. Why doesn't she rest? Why is she still here?" (I have to add, at this point, that the asker of this question had a lofty, important, educated, I'm-so-clever-and-fancy-and-book-readingly-important-like, pompous-ass-like tone) and the author's answer was (not, as I thought to myself at the time, "read the book", but) that it's part of the metaphor for how the helplessness of the girl and the situation. That answer makes me wonder, did she write the story and then think of the metaphor, or the other way round? Did she sit down and think "what is a good metaphor for the helplessness of this particular plight against woman?" and then decide that a dead narrator was the way to go? Not really my kind of story then.

In any case, I bought the book. I'll read it first, and then post a review, but I'm not sure if it's something I will enjoy, or something else entirely (beautifully written, but unenjoyable because of its close to home topic?). In case you're wondering, the title is also a metaphor for democracy in our country: Till We Can Keep an Animal. The animal in the title is democracy, and obviously it's along the lines of us not taking the big steps before we've taken the little ones.

Aside from all that literary crap, the food was good and the wine was nice. Once again, thanks Themba and Exclusive Books!

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