A Conversation with Nadia Davids

Nadia Davids is a writer, theatre-maker and scholar. Her plays, At Her Feet and Cissie, have garnered various theatre awards and nominations and has been staged internationally. Her play What Remains will be performed during The National Arts Festival before returning to Cape Town for a limited run. Her debut novel An Imperfect Blessing was long-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction Award and shortlisted for the UJ Prize and the Pan-African Etisalat Prize for Literature. She holds a PhD from the University of Cape Town and, as an A.W. Mellon Fellow, has been a visiting scholar/artist at the University of California Berkley and at New York University. She lectured at Queen Mary University of London between 2009-2016 and is a recipient of a Philip Leverhulme Prize. 

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?

I have wanted to be a writer since as long as I can remember. The minute I was able to read, it became apparent to me that it was possible to create these worlds and step into these spaces and imagine this entirely new landscape. I felt this urge to create from a very early age. I was always doing lots of plays at home. I got my first journal when I was six. My mom gave it to me and I would start writing down poems and short stories and that kind of thing. There were two choices, I wanted to either be an MGM 1950’s Hollywood star but I can’t sing and I can’t dance so I had to put that dream aside very rapidly, or I wanted to be a writer. There’s never really been a choice. It’s always been a very strong instinct. 

Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch

How do you feel your drama training at UCT has lent itself to your writing?

It’s interesting because I realised when I was writing my novel that I had a very theatrical approach to my characters because I would see and hear them first which is the convention of developing a theatre piece. I knew my entry point into all of the characters was to hear them. In that sense, I think there is quite a strong theatrical slant to the way in which I make work and think about work. When I was in drama school it was such an invigorating and enlivening process to be surrounded by young people who were making really provocative work and staging important conversations. I think drama school, more than English, for me, was a space in which a lot of really generative discussions were had about different art forms, about the political landscape of the country at the time…I think it was an amazing investment in time and energy and focus. I had some really terrific teachers as well. 

This production is returning with some cast changes. What are you looking forward to seeing during this incarnation? 

The handing over process has been really quite liberating because I went through a stage where I used to direct this work as well and I am just no longer interested in directing. The stuff that I want to focus on is text, stretching text and looking at the way text is malleable and which you can tell stories. It’s the handing over process to Jay Pather and seeing what he does with the work. The first time we did it, it was an extraordinary experience because I didn’t expect to see the text animated in the way that it was. I think every writer, for theatre specifically longs for a cast and director who can find new meaning unexpectedly in the work and when it does, it is kind of a thrill. I am excited to see what else they find out. 

It’s an extraordinary cast. 

We are really very lucky.

Especially the women. They are all incredible in their own individual regard and to assemble them together is very exciting. 

I don’t know if you have seen Shaun Oelf perform but he is a phenomenal dancer. You’ll see when you see the work how that dancing informs the work. There’s a generational range with those women as well. There’s Denise Newman who is an amazing legend in South African theatre. Faniswa Yisa, who I went to drama school with so we have known each other for years. She is just a phenomenal performer and then there’s Buhle [Ngaba.] She is from that new generation who is doing some interesting, dynamic things. We are very lucky and very lucky to have Jay as well. 

Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch

As a playwright, do you remember the first time you got to watch your words come to life on stage?

I did a revisionist Sleeping Beauty when I was nine. I rewrote it from the stepmother’s perspective who I always thought was quite hard-done by. I staged that for my birthday party and roped some of the kids into doing the performance for it. I think the first time I really felt that sense of a text being performed and found and animated was when Quanita Adams performed in At Her Feet. That was quite revelatory for me. She is an amazing performer. It was a wonderful synchronicity coming together with her for that work. 

I’m glad you mentioned At Her Feet. Through my research, it said somewhere that the piece was one of the first Muslim related pieces of theatre to come out post 9/11. Did you realize when you were writing it what kind of effect it would have?

No, I was 24. I wrote it over a series of three weeks, I think. I got up every morning and these monologues came to me. I think when you are a young person, and this is what excites me about seeing younger people’s work now, is that you have such an unmitigated sense of certainty about some things and some issues. I was very passionate about certain issues and I wanted to stage certain questions. That passion hasn’t gone but it operates at a different register at that age. I was excited. I think with that work there is kind of  delightfulness about it as well. There is an exuberance about it but no I don’t think we had any notion about it. We were nervous the night before. We were saying some difficult and dangerous things. It was a very fraught time. I look back now and I think there was a lot of courage that went into the work but we didn’t anticipate that it would become what it did.

Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch

Your work tends to focus on women who seem to be completely underrepresented in all kinds of mediums. I’m not going to ask you why you do that but rather why you think that, even in 2017, those stories seem to still be underrepresented?

There is this wonderful quote by Arundhati Roy which I’ll probably end up butchering but she said that there is no such thing as voiceless, there are only people who are deliberately not listened to. Something along those lines. I think there are all kinds of systemic mechanisms in place in the world which render certain people invisible and not listened to. When I was growing up, I was a young Muslim girl in Cape Town and I didn’t see myself reflected with any kind of accuracy in most of the literature that I encountered. I was an avid reader from the time I was a child and that was always kind of startling that there were certain characters that you identify with completely but there is a moment when there is only so far you can travel with a character because their experience is so fundamentally different to your own. I think the question, “But why does one do this?” is a perfectly fair question. Part of it is, I think, a push back against the invisibility and writing oneself into being and part of it is also, certainly with At Her Feet and with An Imperfect Blessing, even with Cissie, these are works that come from a place of tremendous love for visibility and to celebrate it in a joyous way and reflect it and to kind of narrate those spaces. As to why certain people are unheard, this is the world we live in. 

I find it so inspiring to see how in-depth you have gone within your research and studying. What is it that keeps you constantly wanting to learn more?

If you are a writer, you are someone from a very early age who observes and absorbs the world. That never stops, whether you are observing and absorbing your family dynamics and then that kind of stretches out and you start looking at the world and systems in the world and how these things work. I am insatiably curious. I am curious about lots of things and I am curious about the richness of stories and how the deeper one digs to understand something, the more complicated it becomes and the more unknowable it becomes. There are a lot of theoretical texts that I have read that are as important to me as any creative work I have ever come across. I don’t really believe in a boundary between creative and academic life, the two are quite seamless. Academic work can be incredibly creative. It is taxing in a different way and it doesn’t have the latitude that creative work has but the ways in which ideas are examined and picked over and turned around…there is a lot to be gained from learning how to think in a certain way. Having said that, I have just left academia. I left my post in London to move back home. I’m on an academic break. 

I find it so interesting that you are this big academic but in another interview, you said something along the lines that the stories and the characters develop and unfold on their own. 

I think most writers would say that there is a process of unfolding. I like to do a lot of reading first then I put that stuff aside, then there is a quiet space that has to open up which is sort of all the theoretical stuff having to recede a little bit and within the center there is a space where these things can come and grow. Sometimes it doesn’t come and that is the other side of the creative process. Sometimes there is nothing and you have to let it be nothing for a while which is hard in a different way. 

Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch

Are you one of those writers who force themselves to try to write every single day?

No, I always feel like I am terribly lazy and I should be working more. I try to write every day, I very rarely succeed. I think there is huge merit to writing every single day. A friend of mine, Gabeba Baderoomis a poet and she talks about how her responsibility is to show up at the desk. That is your life responsibility and you must do that. When I was finishing my PhD which was a mind-bendingly arduous task, there was a book that we were given by a professor and it was called Write Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day and the premise of it was that all you had to do was show up for 15 minutes. That is all. Even if you do nothing else, you’ve done a small chunk of work and inevitably what happens is that you end up working for much longer. I think it’s like being an athlete, you have to exercise every day. You have to train every day but now I’ve just confessed that I am utterly lazy and I don’t do this. 

Now that you’ve left this world of academia, what would you like to do next?

I’m trying to work on a new novel at the moment which I can’t talk about. That is kind of what I am supposed to be getting at. Once the play is done and has gone up to Grahamstown, I can hopefully find time to work on that and then I’m enjoying some of the work that I am doing for PEN South Africa around freedom of speech and the activism around that is taking some of my time. I am finding some meaning in it and that is important as well. 

Photo credit: Sophie Kirsch

What advice do you have for young, aspiring writers?

Write every day. Bear in mind I’ve just confessed that [I don’t.] But I think it’s something one must take very seriously. I think when you are in your 20’s, if you are lucky, and if you are middle class and you have certain automatic privileges already, your life can be quite unfettered and there is a lot of time in which to write. Those are the important years to read as widely as well, to write as much as you possibly can because of course things change. The tempo of your life changes as you get older but it would be about trying to establish a daily practice of writing so that even if you miss a couple of days along the way, you have a certain strength that you have built up. The other would be to be unafraid of criticism. It is incredibly hard but it is very important and to learn within that diminishment of fear, and it comes over time, when the criticism is important and valid and there to help you deepen and improve the work and when it is maybe not coming from the nicest place. You’ll start to be able to hear the difference but to not shy away from critique because critique is very important. And then the final one is to read. I think reading is fundamentally the most important thing that a writer can do. To read as widely as possible. And when you are writing, don’t read crap because the crap will show up in your own work. Read good people. Read people who you admire and who challenge you. Don’t leave a book because it’s difficult. It is important to know that not all reading is for pleasure. Some reading is there to challenge you. It’s good to be challenged. 

Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you? 

I love this question and I’ve seen it in Sarafina before. One of the reasons I love it so much is because it really allows us all to think about the kind of creative genealogies that we have in the city. I love it so much that I actually have a list. 

You are the first person to ever prepare for this question! I am so excited. 

I didn’t want to leave people out. My creative relationship with Quanita Adams has been incredibly important. It is such a long friendship and such a beautiful creative relationship. We are doing At Her Feet again at Artscape in August for the Women’s Festival. It is the 15 year anniversary of when the play was first staged. We are very excited about that and also kind of sad that the work is still relevant. Faniswa Yisa, I think she is an amazing performer. She is deep, she is interesting. She is very hardworking and very precise while being flexible at the same time. Warona Seane and I were also at drama school together and some of the work that I saw her do at school was really incorporative. She did a play called Sacred Thorn that I loved very much. Denise Newman, of course. I have been watching her since I was very young. It is kind of a dazzling surprise to have her in a production. Bo Petersen, who I’ve worked with and is a wonderful performer. Then there’s Jennie Reznek because of the work she does. I think that the work Magnet Theatre does, it’s impossible to overestimate how key it is in the South African theatre landscape. Lara Bye, and then Yvonne Banning who passed away in 2009, was my mentor at UCT. She taught me pretty much everything I needed to know to be set off on a path of being interested in feminism and in South African theatre text. She was incredibly giving. I feel like in some ways her teaching methodologies are still alive and present at UCT. South African writers who have been very important to me are Gabeba Baderoom, Zoë WicombYvette Christiansë who is based in the states now, Margie Orford and a writer called CA Davids who is a dear friend. All these women have been working in very committed ways with the ideas of women characters, of political landscapes while achieving very important aesthetic heights with their work which is what I am interested in doing. “How is this politically interesting?” and “How is this also doing something interesting aesthetically and also entertaining people?” Something can be difficult but it must also invite people. The door always has to be held open to the reader or to the audience member. I think that is a very precious relationship in lots of ways. When an audience member or a reader answers that invitation, one must respect it and remember that they are on the other side of it. And then the young contingent of South African theatremakers, Buhle Ngaba, Koleka Putuma and Ameera Conrad. I am so thrilled that they have this kind of comradeship and that they are so fantastically unapologetic about their feistiness and they are staking a claim. I am excited by the work that they are doing. Even those these are men, I must mention Mannie Manim and Jay Pather. Mannie gave me incredible support from a very early age and he produced my work and even today he is someone I can take my work to and get his advice on it. Jay is wonderful as well and I really admire what he does with text. 

What Remains will be performed from the 6th to the 12th of July at Hiddingh Hall, Cape Town, following its run in Grahamstown at Graeme College from the 29th of June to the 1st of July.

For tickets to What Remains at The National Arts Festival, please click here.

For Tickets to What Remains at Hiddingh Hall, please click here.

Special thanks to Nadia DavidsSophie Kirsch and Christine Skinner.

All photos taken by Sophie Kirsch.

Sarafina Magazine and Sophie Kirsch maintain copyrights over all images. For usage or inquiries please contact us.

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