Did you write as a child or is it something that comes later on in your life?
From around the age of 5, my twin sister and I would write stories in little exercise books. That was something we did throughout out childhood; we were always writing. As far as my early poems go, I can remember being at the seaside when I was about 8 years of age, and I couldn’t go into the sea because I had an earache. So I sat on the beach and watched the waves and I wrote a poem about the sea. I still have a typed copy of that poem somewhere. I think my mother typed it out for me.
Were you encouraged at home, or in school, to write?
My twin sister and I had a wonderful cousin who was involved in the local arts scene who encouraged us with our writing. She was a real inspiration, not only to us, but to many other young people in the community. My sister and I also wrote poems for family events, such as our grandparents’ fortieth wedding anniversary. I think I was about ten years old at the time, I remember reading a poem at the anniversary party which centred on my grandparents’ experience of migrating to South Africa from Latvia. I wrote about an incident on a train from the port of Durban to Johannesburg, when someone gave them a pineapple to help them quench their thirst in the heat. As they had never seen a pineapple before, this was quite a conundrum, and a fascinating subject for a poem!
Our primary school teachers also encouraged us to write. When I was about 10 years old, I came second in a national essay competition and won a bike. In those days we didn’t have television in South Africa, we had newsreels, and that was on the newsreel in the cinema. It was very exciting. The essay was called “Should school be abolished?’ and I argued that it should. It must have been convincing!
As far as encouragement to write at high school goes, the picture was more variable than at primary school. One teacher crossed out all of my original imagery and language and substituted it with cliches! However, the school did submit my poems to English Alive, which was an annual collection of the best schools writing in South Africa. I had poems published in English Alive three or four years in a row, as far as I can remember. I want to pay a special tribute to my English teacher in second form, Anne Peltason, who not only started an after-school poetry club for several poets in the school, but also introduced me to the work of TS Eliot after school hours. By the time I left school, I had read and discussed all of his poetry and dramas, which stood me in good stead when I studied English Literature at university. My first collection, Elements of Distance, is dedicated to Anne, with whom I am still in touch.
What about your writing while you were at university?
My output diminished drastically during my years at university. I felt overwhelmed by the great masters of literature, and felt that I had nothing to say; I had no voice. The English department was very Eurocentric, and concentrated on the writing of men mainly, so that also had an impact on me. The curriculum was very much based on what might be taught at an English University.
Luckily, there was one optional module on South African literature which I found very interesting – and also inspiring. It was delivered by the late great oral historian and writer Tim Couzens. He also supervised my Masters dissertation, which was on a Zulu writer. He helped me to see the connection between research and creative writing.
You grew up in South Africa during the Apartheid years. How did this influence your writing?
There were many powerful writers writing powerful poems and stories about the horrors of apartheid. I read the protest literature, but I didn’t feel that I had a right to contribute to this, as a privileged white middle class person. How could I hope to convey the injustices and all the suffering?
But what I could do, as a worker in an adult literacy NGO, was to help people to tell their own stories. The adult literacy NGOs were part of the anti-apartheid movement; we made spaces for people to share their experiences. The organisation I worked for produced two books called ‘We Came to Town’. These were collections of the stories of migrant workers who were forced by poverty and discriminatory laws to leave their families in the homelands and move to the cities for work. We also wrote materials for our learners about their legal rights and about health issues.
As far as my own writing was concerned, one piece that stands out for me was a children’s short story that I wrote for my son when he was about four years old. It was called ‘The Frog Who Wanted to be Red’, and was published in a collection of South African stories for children to raise money for a literacy campaign.
The stories were published in many South African languages and also broadcast on the radio. Each story was accompanied by a painting by a local artist. When the books were launched in the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the paintings were sold to make money for the charity involved. This all happened round about the time we left South Africa to move to Northern Ireland.
See more imformation about Shelley Tracey’s work at the following link – shelleytracey.co.uk
Part two of this interview is here