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This is the LitNet archive (2006–2012)
Visit the active LitNet platform at www.litnet.co.za


 
Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English > Mini-seminars

Big Book Chain Chat #16: Someone came knocking


Shaida Ali - 2010-10-29

Some one came knocking
    At my wee, small door;
Some one came knocking,
    I'm sure – sure – sure;
I listened, I opened,
    I looked to left and right,
But naught there was a-stirring
    In the still dark night;
Only the busy beetle
    Tap-tapping in the wall,
Only from the forest
    The screech-owl's call,
Only the cricket whistling
    While the dewdrops fall,
So I know not who came knocking,
At all, at all, at all.

– Walter de la Mare (source)


My mother memorised this poem during her first year at school. A lifetime later, when I was little, she’d recite it to me during the day as she completed domestic chores distractedly and sewed exquisite creations on an elderly black Singer, with zeal. Her performance of “Some One”, her repetition and rhythm always elicited goosebumps of delight.

During my childhood my mother never read to me. She’d been brought up to believe women who read were avoiding household tasks. Reading was an extravagance. Writing, by extension, was an unimaginable transgression. Instead, my mother told me the kinds of short stories I love to read today. Her stories allowed me to be, as Arja Salafranca wrote, “transported briefly to a place”.

I preserve intimate memories of her grandmothers, both long dead before I was born. I’m familiar with their foibles – their predilections for sinful cigarettes or perfectly laundered crackling bed linen bleached by the sun and embroidered, beribboned, well-ironed, white nightgowns.

I wove the images from my mother’s tales (enhanced by my annoying imagination) into a precious word-quilt, a gudri, heavy with warm layers of vibrant stories.

I am my seven-year-old mother, escaping abuse at the hands of the corner chemist. I am her eyes watching him as he begins to shut the shop’s door. I am the voice in her ear urging her to run. I am the feet on which she flies home.

I am her beautiful widowed aunt who chooses her second husband unwisely and grows slovenly to avoid his attentions.

I am my generous and gifted granny exiled to a foreign land and culture for two decades by a jealous, philanderer husband.


My mother attaches no significance to her stories; to her they are without value. She’s amazed that anyone would want to read books about Muslim women in general, and in particular about Muslim women in Cape Town. She asks me if my next book is about Muslims. I nod my assent. She gives me the kind of look she’d offer the family cat if she found him scoffing a mouse with a silver fork.

Ingrid Andersen wrote: “While my studies broadened my understanding, they narrowed me as a writer. (…) [I]t took the study of literary criticism to silence me.” Like Andersen, I was similarly burdened and I carried the additional weight of my mother’s belief that her tales, our stories, were without value.

Then “Some one came knocking” and “I listened, I opened”. That someone was Anne Schuster, a facilitator of writing workshops for women (www.anneschuster.co.za).

Colleen Higgs wrote that she “chose to be a publisher, to make a space for the voices of women”. Anne Schuster makes that space for women writers. She does this calmly, without fuss, sans fanfare.

“Women often have to snatch time and write in the cracks of their lives …”
– Anne Schuster

However, at my first writing practice in a group called the Monthlies, I was uneasy. I was in the city of my birth, it was the 21st century, but I felt foreign, particularly when another participant, a local white woman, asked me what my nationality was. I gulped my coffee (Anne always provides excellent coffee) and focused my alien-self on Anne.

She began the class with a writing prompt. She told us to free-write, without pause, for ten minutes. She set her timepiece, a clockwork egg timer. Ten minutes sounded like an eternity. But. I wrote. We wrote.

“Something indescribable happens when women write together …”
– Anne Schuster

We wrote. Without lifting our pens from the page. We wrote. Without self-conscious analysis. We wrote. Without searching for heady synonyms. We wrote.

We did not weigh our words as though they were out-of-season strawberries. We wrote. We did not hold up our words to the light to check for thumb prints. We wrote. We did not examine our words for bruises. We wrote. I wrote. My fingers fled over the page. I felt the same tingles of joy that reading brought, a lightening of spirit.

“In writing with others, without pretension, without competition and without trying to impress, there is an extraordinary connection of creative energies.”
– Anne Schuster

The alarm on Anne’s timer brought us back from our separate journeys. In her gentle voice she told us to underline, using the lurid kokis scattered on our desks, the words or phrases we liked. I found her suggestion startling. Although I’d loved writing in the allotted time, why did she imagine I’d be fond of the scribbles I’d spread across the page? Besides, school had taught me that errors were underlined. Not words you chose to cherish.

Still, along with the other women in the class, I highlighted a word here, a phrase there – in bright purples, pinks and oranges. Those words and phrases became prompts for all of us to write further. Our words took us on voyages to distant worlds. We’ve written short stories, poems, novels, memoirs.

(For a list of Anne’s “graduates”, click here.)

There are other Someones knocking on my door. They’re light and gloomy, they’re funny and twisted. They’re the untold stories, both true and imagined, of my mother and other women like her, like me, like us.

They want to be written. They want to be read.