zp Priya Dala on Revolutionary Writing and Magical Realism

Host Christopher Merrill talks with South African writer Zp Priya Dala about being a psychologist and physical therapist and the Black Consciousness Movement, as well as her novel, The Architecture of Loss.

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zp (Priya) Dala Transcript


I’m Christopher Merrill and you’re listening to Origins.


Origins: The International Writing Program Podcast is an interview series with writers from around the world addressing the origins of their creative works, the literary and social cultures in which they write, and the art of language.


The International Writing Program is the oldest and largest multinational writing residency in the world. Since 1967, over 1,400 writers from more than 150 nations have taken part in the Fall Residency here at the University of Iowa, where writers participate in literary and cultural exchange. Visit the International Writing Program online at iwp.uiowa.edu.


This episode of Origins features South African writer zp (Priya) Dala.



Merrill: zp (Priya) DALA (fiction writer, nonfiction writer; South Africa) is a physical therapist, a psychologist, and a writer. Her first novel, What About Meera, won the 2015 South African Minara Debut Prize, was shortlisted for the Etisalat Literary Prize, and made the top 15 African novels of 2015 list. A second novel, The Architecture of Loss, is forthcoming in 2017.  Her op-ed pieces have appeared in The New York Times and elsewhere. She participates courtesy of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.


We are recording from the University of Iowa on Monday, October 24, 2016, when we had the chance to sit down with Priya, who is here as a participant in the International Writing Program’s Fall Residency.


Welcome, Priya. Congratulations on your forthcoming novel, The Architecture of Loss, which will be released in the United States with Pegasus Books. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the research that you did for this novel, and how the novel blends both fact and fiction.


Dala: Um, thank you Chris, and also thank you to the International Writers Program for giving me this opportunity. Um, the, the research into The Architecture of Loss began in a very um, factual way, um, as a, as a psychologist and a physical therapist. Uh, I was practicing at the time, and um, I was called in to see a particular patient. Um, we do a lot of work with patients in old-age homes and, uh, in um, institutional facilities, my- although I hate that word. But uh, even uh, um, you know, hospitals for people with mental illness. So, I was called in to see Jane, who uh, we’ll call her Jane, um, uh… The laws in South Africa s-um, suggest that if, if a patient is schizophrenic or suicidal that we’ve got to have our supervisor present when we, uh, go to see this patient. So, I, um, my supervisor declined, and uh he, he literally said he doesn’t want to take on yet another “headache case,” um, it’s economically-based, obviously. Uh, but I persisted because there was something about that uh, call, that uh, her cousin had made to me that made me want to go and see Jane. I uh, I persisted, I went against my supervisor’s um, instructions, and I put, went across to the old-age home, to see her. Um, what began the process in my mind is when I started to read her file, and I began to realize that um, she’s not just, any, you know, just a schizophrenic patient, which we always describe in such clinical medical terms, that she’d had a long history as an anti-apartheid activist. So, um, I- I persisted in seeing her about three times, before I was, um, taken off the case and, um, my supervisor forbade me from continuing any further consultation with her. But I still, somehow I couldn’t leave it alone, and I began to contact many sociologists and many uh, people who are doing research into the anti-apartheid activists of that time, um, and many of them, um, we began, I began to create this large, linked-up network, where suddenly I found myself collecting letters from them, and fi- them calling me for meetings, and these were people in their seventies and eighties. And I would find myself sitting in, in um, in tea shops, drinking cups and cups of tea talking to anti-apartheid activists. So, um, perhaps to debunk the story, I began to write it for my own self, and one day when I was reading through my own notes I realized that this is a book! And I decided to fictionalize the factual, and create it, and meld all these characters into the, the protagonist of my book. Um…


Merrill: So she becomes a composite figure.


Dala: She’s a composite figure. The, the, the protagonist of the book, uh, is, is a medical doctor, who is also an anti-apartheid activist, and she um, had to endure much loss. So, um, I suppose meeting Jane was the um, almost the catalyst, but then that created an environment where I met so many other people, which created the character who became the protagonist of my novel, yeah.


Merrill: You offer as an epigraph to the novel a, lines from the poem “Could You Not Write Otherwise?” by the South African poet and anti-apartheid activist Alan Paton.


Dala: Yes.


Merrill: The line reads, “I did not ask to write these same particular songs.” And so I wonder what compels you to address political and social themes in your writing.


Dala: I, I didn’t grow up in a particularly political environment. My parents somehow, um, protected us from it even though the environment was happening around, around us constantly. But my parents, uh…


Merrill: As background noise, I guess.


Dala: It was background noise, and, but they persisted in, I suppose it was this tacit agreement between them that they’ll protect their children from becoming involved in it because around me friends were becom- being arrested for protesting, and um, for pamphlet-bombing, and things like that. I, and uh, so, between my parents they decided, “My children are not going to do this.” But somehow I just, I, I don’t know, there was something that compelled me, that’s why that poem from Alan Paton struck me because, I didn’t ask, uh, to become involved in this. It- Somehow I always found myself becoming involved in protest marches, um, writing pamphlets, so writing began as well, in beginning to write revolutionary uh, pieces.


Merrill: So, you were writing revolutionary pieces before writing fiction?


Dala: I guess it, it, I didn’t think about it that way but you know, we, we, as part of a university environment, if you belong to, if you sort of uh, hide away from your parents, and go and start belonging to different councils, um, the black consciousn- Black Consciousness Movement is one of them, uh, because I found, uh, the writings of Steve Biko, an extreme, uh, inspiration to me. So, um, hidden, as I always say “hidden underneath the fashion magazines” were these Black Consciousness pamphlets and writings of Steve Biko, and because he was uh, a medical doctor and practicing, uh, training at the medical school, uh, near where we trained as physical therapists, um, it all melded together and uh, I became secretively involved without my parents really knowing what I was doing. And I guess, when I say I didn’t ask for these particular songs, maybe I’m being uh, counterintuitive because I did ask for it by, by actually going into it and digging around where I shouldn’t. But when I say, when I use that uh, poem at the beginning, I think what I’m talking about is this, the stories of Jane X, and her colleagues, her comrades, because I didn’t ask for the flood of letters and communication to come to me.


Merrill: Yeah. Character is destiny, isn’t it?


Dala: I think that’s very much a narrative in my life.


Merrill: Could you talk a little bit about the, what sorts of experiences and letters that Jane X experienced that caused you to want to write this?


Dala: You know, um, they’re quite, they’re quite horrific, if I were to, to even um, speak about it, it’s uh, her, her narratives and letters, I don’t think I received any letters from Jane herself but with Jane it was more interviews. But with the other um, people and the uh, comrades that I spoke to, there were letters, there were documents, um, so, with Jane it was my own created documents from interview transcriptions. But it was always stories of torture, uh, very very horrific torture, and uh, and what was a very very strong threat beyond torture was the loss that they experienced, of the loss of a normal life. The loss of being able to be a normal wife, having children, bringing up these children, sending their children to school, um… The greatest narrative that came across from all these people is that they had lost so much. And when we as a country looked at how much we had gained, when we got our democracy, they looked at it as how much they lost when we got our democracy.


Merrill: So, is the work of art at least in some fashion a form of balancing gains with losses?


Dala: This particular um, work of art you mean? Or as art in general?


Merrill: Well, this, and you can extrapolate to larger issues.


Dala: Yes, I think um, you know I somehow always draw, draw a lot of parallel lines and linkages with myself as a writer and what I write about because I feel that I, I have to have the right to say these things, I can’t talk about stories that uh, are alien to me. So it, it has always been a balancing act of gains and losses. Even in my own life. And once you decide that you’re going to take a path, um, and if that decision is, um, is given to you, I think that it’s a gift that is given to you but it is also, as we have a saying back home, it is a germ in your heart, it is a stone in your heart. Yeah.


Merrill: And you have not shied away from taking such decisions. I’m thinking that a few years ago, when you expressed your admiration for the works of Salman Rushdie, the result was traumatic.


Dala: It was very traumatic, yes.


Merrill: Can you speak about what happened, and how, maybe, so how a person transforms herself, so that any one experience does not define her?


Dala: Um, this, this incident happened, um, on the day before my book launch, my debut novel was due to be launched.


Merrill: Oh my gosh.


Dala: Yeah. And we had a big uh, launch planned, you know a launch party, activities, um, so… I had been called to speak to a, at a gathering of school uh, schoolchildren, so I think about ten to fifteen schools brought about fifteen learners, so it was a large gathering of children from I think probably grade eleven or twelve. And um, we were on a panel, we were discussing very, uh, fun and interesting conversations with, with the learners, and the typical question always comes up at the end of the panel, well, “name some writers that you admire, and who have been your inspirations.” So, uh, I answered, and I answered truthfully that I admire the, the magical realists. An example I mentioned was Carlos Fuentes, and uh, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Salman Rushdie. And when I said “Salman Rushdie” a large group of people in the audience got very nervous and they stood, they stood up and walked away. Uh, they walked out of the aud- out of the hall. Uh, I didn’t pay attention to it at the time, um, and the following morning as I was um, incidentally driving to my beautician because the launch was going to happen, I was uh, followed, by uh, two men in a car, and I was run off- uh, run off the stre- run off the road, um, my window was open – Durban is very hot place – so my window was open, so the passenger got off his vehicle, um, he came across and he hit me in the face with a jagged brick, and uh, he put a knife to my throat and he called me “Rushdie’s bitch” and uh, immediately I think which, in my, in my existential world saved me was that a, a taxi pulled up next to me and the woman in the taxi started screaming, so the, the man got back into his vehicle and drove away. So, following this I can’t really recall, um, being taken to the hospital and being treated, um, I had a fractured cheekbone, and a hairline fracture on my forehead, and uh, I still have the scars today, uh, my vision is still a little, um, is, is not perfect, on, on the left side. Um, to, to transcend this, I think it was a very very difficult experience, because it was fir-first was the physical healing. And what was the strongest difficulty was the absolute media frenzy that followed that. So, for me, I was trying to physically heal, to protect my family, to protect my home, because um, it was just one tweet sent out that created a storm, where I had um, I’ve got very young children, my children at the time were two and six, and so, having, you know, strange phone calls in the middle of the night constantly, um, people coming to my home, um, enforcing that I retract the statement of my admiration of Salman Rushdie, and publicly join uh, particular religious groups so that I show, I can show affiliation to um, non-Rushdie narrative, I suppose, um, it um, it completely changed my life. That, put it, obviously the book launch was canceled, so for me…


Merrill: That’s the least of the issues, isn’t it?


Dala: It was the least of the issues but it was heartbreaking for me because this was my debut novel, it had, it had nothing at all to do with politics, or anything controversial, but uh, I never had the opportunity to launch my novel out into the world, in a, in a, with a glass of champagne in my hand, yeah.


Merrill: Yeah, instead you were in a hospital with bandages.


Dala: I was in a hospital having, you know, surgery and uh, following that uh, because I was being pursued by the media, um, I was, um, I also suffered quite badly with turns of post-traumatic stress disorder, so I was placed in a um, hospital for, uh, people call it a mental institution and it makes me very uncomfortable when people use that term, but in a psychiatric hospital. And um, it was there even that the journalists pursued me as well. So, finally the decision was taken to get, get me out of the hospital. And uh, it became a big negotiation process of how to get me out without any of the journalists finding out where I was going to be, so literally at eleven or twelve at night, I was packed out of the hospital and sent back home and then obviously my family, we gathered together, and with the help of PEN South Africa, and PEN America, we um, we moved away from uh, our home for a while, so that we could uh, let the dust settle. So, I don’t know if I really transcended that experience, it’s something um, I’ve never uh, found uh, comfortable yet. I don’t think I’ve really found the meaning in it, or the comfort level in it yet.


Merrill: Do you think that shaped in any way the writing of the, your next novel, The Architecture of Loss?


Dala: Um, you know, after the incident with the, regarding Salman, I didn’t write for a very long time. And um, I, I know I went on ranting and raving to people that I’ve given up this, now, I don’t want to be a writer anymore, this is terrible, and I had advisement from families and friends, “Why are you doing this, you know, stop writing.” But um, again, I go back to the Alan Paton poem, suddenly, a consultation lands in my lap, and I just cannot leave it alone, and it’s almost an itch that you’ve got to scratch. And I suddenly began writing almost in a flood. Um, without being able to stop, so uh, and I, I think the incident with Salman Rushdie made me braver, to write anything that I wanted to say, in this new novel, The Architecture of Loss. I didn’t censor myself.


Merrill: Well, you didn’t have the chance to celebrate the publication of your first novel, but maybe you could tell us a little something about the, What About Meera.


Dala: Yes, What About Meera.


Merrill: So American readers could have a sense of it.


Dala: Yes, absolutely, um, What About Meera is, it’s written in magical realism style, with a great level of stream-of-consciousness, um, and uh, it’s a story that I also, it, which seems to be quite a common thread here, is that um, it’s a collation, Meera, the protagonist, is a collation of many women’s stories made into one character. And um, the story is about a young woman from a South African Indian community, who um, has to undergo the narrative which is quite common in the South African Indian community, of um, arranged marriage, and then she is brave enough to divorce because of spousal abuse, and uh, she has this image that moving to a, to a Westernized country, moving to a, um, as she puts it a “white country,” is going to free her. So she runs away to Dublin, which is, I lived in Dublin for some time, so I knew the, I knew the place well. And when she does go to Dublin, somehow that um, the, the sense of tragedy still follows her because she becomes embroiled into a, into an extramarital affair, with uh, the father of an autistic child that she’s caring for. And this ends tragically as well for Meera, but she returns back to South Africa, in my opinion, a happy woman, in her, in her, much much later.


Merrill: Any plans to have the book published in uh, in the United States?


Dala: I’ve been trying, um, I’ve um, it, it’s published by Penguin/Random House Africa, so um, I’ve been speaking to my agent to try to bring it across here because, unbelievably so, lots of people are asking for the novel and uh, I believe it’s been taken out of the library here at the University of Iowa quite often…yeah.


Merrill: Well, we will hope for, for good luck on that. And there may…


Dala: I’d love, I’d love to…


Merrill: …we can raise a glass of champagne here at Iowa.


Dala: Absolutely. You know it just, it’s, it’s such a, it’s an untold story, it’s something that you would never hear about this community. And they exist, and I think it would be very interesting for people to hear about the practices and rituals of this community.


Merrill: Yeah, yeah… Okay. So you’ve mentioned your admiration for Rushdie. Are there other writers within the South African literary tradition or outside that are, have uh, influenced you?


Dala: Um, it’s, I think within the South African um, literary community, I find it a little bit of a, um, a little bit of a desert, because there is a very very common um, genre that’s practiced in South Africa currently, and it’s crime fiction. The whodunit stories, the mysteries and the detectives, and things like that. Which, although they’re quite rich and they’re quite interesting, we don’t seem to experiment with different genres, um, when it comes to things like magical realism as an example, um, even fantasy fiction is not, is not experimented with, so currently, I always seem to go back to, to the favorites like [21:08 names], so cur- they’re not contemporary at the moment but, uh, I, I particularly enjoy their work.


Merrill: Yeah… Uh, regarding [Coetzee?], who emigrated to Australia –


Dala: Yes, he did.


Merrill: – which is not an uncommon experience for South Africans, uh, post-apartheid, uh, does his work continue to speak to you in the same way, now that he’s writing from afar?


Dala: Uh, I enjoyed his novel Disgrace very much, although it was a very dark novel. And uh, his latest novel that uh, he released, I think it was a year ago, um, I, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I did enjoy his stuff, his work that he did whilst living in South Africa. So that, but that was just a personal preference. But I still, um, I think, I didn’t enjoy the narrative but I enjoyed his style which is, which is quite, uh, he’s, he holds very strongly to his style.


Merrill: Masterful.


Dala: He’s, he is a master. Um…


Merrill: So I wonder if you could also talk just a little bit about your work as a psychologist, how that informs your, your writing. You come to that, you come to this with, with licenses and training.


Dala: Absolutely. Um… As a psychologist and physical therapist, because, uh, for me embodiment is…


Merrill: Head and heart and body.


Dala: It’s all, it’s all linked. And uh, I think I’d be disingenuous or lying, really, if I said one does not inform the other. Because working as a psychologist you begin to notice, uh, characters a lot more, so you begin to notice the difference between character and caricature. So, um, it is these unsaid uh, subtle body languages that, as a psychologist, you’re trained to pick up on. Um, which helps you in practicing your profession. But it also helps you in writing, because then you’re able to develop characters that don’t have to have massive amounts of dialogue, maybe a simple movement of the body or um, a little tic, so to speak, that could say so many things in metaphor. So, it does, as a psychologist, I’ve begun, I’ve been, I’ve, I’ve always been an observant person but I think as a psychologist we’ve been trained to hone that observancy, which does inform my writing.


Merrill: So it makes it possible, I imagine, to create characters truly from the inside, doesn’t it?


Dala: Absolutely, that’s very true, because um, you know you begin to create characters that um, you know their motivation, I know they always say that your character’s motivation is very important, so sometimes, you’ve got to really um, dig deep into a character to find true motivation. So even an ugly character, or a very very antagonist character, you are, you’re able to pull out motivation, and poi- and that character’s point of view.


Merrill: And embody it maybe even in the smallest of gestures.


Dala: In the smallest of gestures. I think even in all – in both my novels, there’s very tiny little gestures, or tiny little actions that characters do that could possibly say volumes about this character.


Merrill: Well, before we wrap up our conversation I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about what you’re working on now, and what you’re reading, and any recommendations you might have for our listeners.


Dala: Um, well, at the moment I’m wearing so many hats. What I’m reading is, is The Handbook of Qualitative Research, but that’s beside the point. That’s because I’m interested in doing a doctoral study in, which is qualitatively-based. Um, what I’m working on which is, is largely taking up most of my passion at the moment, is a play, because I’ve now decided to experiment with writing a play, a, you know to writing script, and uh, this play is a deconstructed version of “Hamlet,” which I know has been done to death, but uh, what I’m doing is I’m using the anti-apartheid narrative, and I’m melding it with the indentured laborer story, of how the Indians came from India to South Africa, uh, it’s very post-modern, this play, because it also touches on the love affair between uh, Mohammed Ali Jinna, who was the president of Pakistan, and his um, tragic love affair with, um, Rattanbai, who was a Parsi young girl. So it’s a play that, that sort of has many languages, and um, many many different, uh stories, but Hamlet’s the, the baseline story.


Merrill: And, of course writing a play is much different than writing a novel.


Dala: It’s very different.


Merrill: What… are there special uh, challenges that you face in doing this?


Dala: I think the greatest challenges is ov- is I tend to over-explain, and uh, although I’ve written a lot in terms of backstory of the play, you know, character analysis, and things like that, and I’ve done that in a narrative uh, style, short story style, uh, now it’s come down to using the sharp scissors and cutting things down, and you know you’ve got to trust your director to understand uh, that you don’t have to explain, over-explain yourself so much.


Merrill: It’s back to figuring out which gestures will propel the story forward.


Dala: Exactly. I think it’s, it’s, it’s also, for me a lesson in trust, because uh, to trust the director as well, yeah.


Merrill: Yeah… Any recommendations for our listeners?


Dala: Oh, I, I’m certainly not going to recommend The Handbook of Qualitative Research.


Merrill: Which is a far cry from The Satanic Verses, isn’t it?


Dala: Absolutely. Although, you know, I suppose I could draw the link but… Uh, I think recommendations, read, read, read, read everything. Um, at the moment I’m reading, um, apart from uh, academic literature, I’m very interested in reading let-, books of letters. So, one of the recommendations I have which I said I must note is, uh, it’s called Letters of Note, it’s by Shaun Usher, and it’s um, it’s a selection of letters amongst many people, between and amongst many many people, including, uh, Virginia Woolf, and [name], Gandhi, Dostoyevsky, Mick Jagger, Elvis Presley… so it’s letters. So, I’m very very immersed in reading these letters at the moment. So that’s one of the suggestions I would love if people would get this.


Merrill: Well, another suggestion I will throw in there is to read The Architecture of Loss when it comes out in 2017.


Dala: Oh, that would be a pleasure.


Merrill: Priya, thank you so much for making this time with us.


Dala: Thank you very much, Chris, thank you.


The International Writing Program is a nonprofit organization supported by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. To donate to the IWP or to support a writer, please visit us online at iwp.uiowa.edu.


Origins is edited and produced by Kathleen Maris Paltrineri, with editing and design by Donna Brooks, and production assistance from Todd Johnson, research assistance from Hodna Nuernberg, Claire Jacobson, and Nathan Bläsing; music composition is by Noel Nissen with pianist Trevor Polk and music production with Brandon Darner and Micah Natera. I’m your host Christopher Merrill. For a transcript and more information about this episode, please visit us online. Stay tuned to our next podcast available November 15, 2017 on iTunes and SoundCloud where I talk with Mauritian writer Shenaz Patel.


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zp Priya Dala
October 15, 2017

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