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April 15, 2011

Elusive human connections

Dawn Promislow talks about writing Jewels and Other Stories.

Sometimes, no matter how much you may yearn to connect with another person, you just can’t; there are no words or actions that can permeate the personal or societal barriers. In Jewels and Other Stories, within the confines of 1970s South Africa, writer Dawn Promislow beautifully expresses the fundamental separateness of human beings, with both sad acceptance and quiet pride in the paradoxical strength and fragility of the human spirit.

Promislow was born and raised in Johannesburg and, while her first collection of short stories is set in a country that many of us have never visited and during an era of repression to which most of us cannot relate, it speaks to universal themes, as all worthwhile and compelling stories do. She not only movingly conveys some of the harsh realities of apartheid, but also the innate difficulties people have in forming and maintaining relationships with each other.

“I don’t think I am more sensitive to matters of race than those who have not seen racism at its worst in a country like South Africa,” Promislow told the Independent in an e-mail interview. “I think most of us now are sensitive and sensitized to race matters, and, indeed, people have said we now live in a post-racial era. But I think we have to always be on guard, we can never do enough to avoid marginalizing people, no matter who they are, no matter how a group is defined – whether by race, gender, sexuality or anything else. I think every society has ongoing work to do with this, because I think it is human nature to exclude or bully based on power; human beings, sadly, seem instinctively to seek power.”

The type of power that Promislow celebrates in Jewels is that which lies within us and which gives us the ability to live another day, even find some private enjoyment, despite dreadful circumstances – though not all of her characters manage to access that strength. This uncertainty, coupled with Promislow’s taut yet evocative style, creates tension throughout each story. Readers will be equally on edge, for example, during “Bottle,” about a black nanny who, in accompanying her white employers to the beach, sees the ocean for the first time and lovingly brings back some of it in a bottle so that her husband can share in the experience, and “Counting the Days,” about a young white girl who befriends a black boy and then fears that their friendship and talk about political change will be discovered by the police.

Some of the tension is the product of Promislow’s use of short sentences, which not only add a sense of urgency, but also allow readers to fill in the blanks, so to speak, with their own imagination. She implies a vast amount of information and sentiment with relatively few words.

About the genre of her first book, Promislow explained, “I think short stories are wonderfully elegant, at their best. I think a short story can say as much as a novel can, which is remarkable. It just says it in a much smaller space. A short story is very concentrated and distilled, it gets to the essence of things. It has to, in order to succeed.”

But short story, of course, doesn’t mean a short trip from writing to publication, though some of the stories in Jewels were published elsewhere previously.

“I started the actual writing of Jewels about five years ago, but the subjects and characters in the book have been in my mind for much longer,” said Promislow. “It’s possible they have been with me since the 1970s, when I was a child. This book takes place in the world of my childhood, and it took me a long time to find a way to write about that world. I cannot say how it was that I finally found a way to write about it, but once I did, the actual writing came very fast. It came remarkably fast, as though these stories had been waiting all this time to be told.”

One aspect of Promislow’s childhood that readers will not find in Jewels, other than very tangentially, is much about her Jewish upbringing. In the title story, for instance, the young girl Carol talks about her nanny, Eva, beginning with “her light brown skin that was as smooth and glossy as polished stone” and progressing into wonderment about other parts of Eva’s life, including her three children, one of whom was named after Mary Magdalene, someone unknown to Carol. “Angels and God were not familiar to Carol, in her house across the yard. There was never talk or thought about angels and God in Carol’s house,” writes Promislow. “And they had a different religion in any case, in the house across the yard. An older – a dustier – religion, Carol thought, one taken out on special holidays, like a vase, and Carol wasn’t sure about God in all that.”

“I am probably a secular Jew if I had to describe myself. I am not religious,” Promislow shared with the Independent. “The subjects that preoccupied me in the writing of Jewels were not really connected with Judaism or my Jewish heritage. My book alludes to the failure of organized religion in general, in apartheid South Africa. Organized religion (the institutions of Christianity and Judaism), as well as individuals, failed there. My book is not about that, but it implicitly raises questions about this great moral and institutional failure.”

Promislow left South Africa with her family in 1977, moving to London, England, briefly, but returning to study at the University of Cape Town. She settled in Toronto in 1987.

“I spent quite a long time looking for another home when I left South Africa,” she said. “I had relatives who lived here, I thought Canada was a good place to live, and then I married a Torontonian. And Canada is indeed a good place to live, a wonderful place to live.”

While her bio says she works in magazine journalism, Promislow admitted, “I have never been a very good journalist, my instincts don’t work very well for that. I work freelance for a number of magazines, mainly in research. I am much happier creating worlds of fiction, and better at it, I hope! I am continuing to write short stories, and I have had two new stories published since Jewels. Perhaps these will eventually become part of another short story collection, I don’t know. But I am starting to work on a novel; that is what I really would like to do. It is a novel that will be set in South Africa.”