A Conversation with Genna Gardini

Genna Gardini is a writer and teacher. She is the author of Matric Rage, which was published in 2014 by uHlanga Press. In 2012, she was awarded the DALRO New Coin Poetry prize and was chosen as one of the Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans for 2013. She is also the co-founder of Horses’ Heads Productions and has had several of her plays produced at the National Arts Festival including WinterSweet and Scrape, both of which went on to win Standard Bank Ovation Awards. In addition, she also works as the poetry editor of Prufrock Magazine, a journal in which her own work has featured.

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

I don’t know that it was necessarily a person. My parents are wonderful but I suppose are quite “normal”…whatever that means. My dad is an accountant and my mom was an administrator. She started working from home and she took care of me when I was a kid. So the arts are not a world that they are necessarily steeped in. I guess I came out quite precocious. I don’t really know why. I always wanted to be a performer and I always wanted to write. I was always doing both. When I was about nine or ten, I wrote fan fiction about myself: It was about me going to New York and becoming the understudy for Annie. But then, in the story, the lead actor became ill so I took over and took the town by storm. I was fairly narcissistic, I guess, which hopefully I am not now.

I read in an interview where you said that you wrote your first collection when you were six or seven years old?

The Shnozzcumber. I think I had been reading a lot of Roald Dahl poems at the time because they were pretty much a complete knock off of his work. There was a character called Nurse Betty who I had made up. It was before the Renée Zellweger movie that was called Nurse Betty as well. In this poem, I wrote something like, “Nurse Betty is a violent thing, upon her finger sits a ring.” but I had spelt upon as ‘apone’. I don’t know where I got that image from. My mom watched a lot of soap operas, like a lot of The Bold and the Beautiful, so maybe it was a character who I had seen in one of those?

Photo credit: Chris de Beer

You seemed to have this natural inclination towards writing but then also wanted to pursue a career as a performer and went to the University currently known as Rhodes. What was your time like there?

It was actually quite a difficult time for me. I was struggling with various things that made it difficult. But I’m really glad that I was there during that time because I met the people who I work with still to this day and the people who are my dearest friends. The greatest thing is to find your community. I found people that I wanted to work with and who really changed my life in a lot of ways. I was also taught by amazing people. Janet Buckland was a really important teacher for me and one of the first people to be interested in the work that I wanted to create and encouraging of it. Alex Sutherland was also my teacher there and Andrew Buckland and Reza de Wet as well. She was teaching at the time that I was there and was such an important presence to meet and to be taught by. To hear about her work and then also to see her work as well was incredibly important. A very important three years of my life but also tumultuous in its own way.

How do you feel that training has lent itself to the work that you do now?

I decided not to pursue performing because I realised that what I wanted to be a part of was less the magic of performance but more the moments before anyone sees anything. The secret of performance and the community that is created there, that to me was so much more interesting. I was writing my own stuff and, in third year, started to put on my own work. Suddenly to see my words and my ideas animated in front of me with real people saying them was quite revelatory. I became more interested in that. I was always writing. That was something that felt natural to me and performance felt like a pathway into creating work. I think that I’m always going to be interested in live performance. It’s always the base of what I want to do with writing because I think that writing should be performed in some way. I think that when you write something, you need to hear what it sounds like to see if it works. If you don’t hear the rhythm of it then it’s dead. It’s flat.  I teach within a drama department because the world of drama and the world of theatre is one that I feel very at home in. Even if that is not necessarily the work that I am producing all of the time, it definitely is a space that I feel very comfortable in.

Photo credit: Chris de Beer

I watched Performance Scale, the piece that you did with Amy Louise Wilson and I thought it was incredible to hear your words through an actress’ portrayal. What was it like creating that piece with her?

That was a project for the ICA. I knew that I wanted to make a larger work about diagnosis and I had written this poem which was about my diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis. I asked Gary Hartley who is in the company Horses’ Heads Productions with me and also one of my besties, if he would direct it and I asked Amy if she would be in it. It was really important to me that it be performed, shot and made by people who had some relationship to MS. And obviously they have a relationship to it because I’m their friend and they love me. It’s something that has affected my life but it’s also affected theirs. That was really important to me because I was starting to research what would eventually become part of my PhD project, looking at people telling their own story of sickness through performance. With MS, when people who do not have it tell stories about those who do, often specifically women, it’s mostly stories of inspiration or stories where we are a great burden to others. So either we burden people or we inspire them and, in many of these stories, we die at the end and our death is this great lesson to everyone else. This is not my experience of illness. I’m at home, I’m watching Buffy, I’m eating pizza. I don’t think that I am a great inspiration to anybody. These are not the stories that I had experienced so I thought that it was quite important for this project to be an opportunity to tell stories about MS and to tell them through the perspective of people who actually have it or people who are affected by it. Not in terms of MS being this horrific burden on them, necessarily, but in a real and complex way. That is why I asked Gary and Amy to work on it with me because they are creatives who I really trust, respect and admire. I’ve worked with Amy repeatedly and I love and respect her so much. I think she is an extraordinary actor. We sat down with the text and spoke about it, which I really like doing, tried to figure out what the different parts of it meant, what the secrets were that were embedded into it, to give her an understanding that she could take into the performance. What I thought was really interesting about how she performed the poem, is that it is so different to the way that I would read it because, of course, it means something different for her. I think it’s emotional for her in a different way and for me, when I read it, I find the situation sometimes funny and ridiculous and all of that goes into it. Obviously that is not her experience of it at all and to see that made manifest in the video was quite interesting. This is also something that I am trying to explore now in my studies but we’ll see how that goes.

I’m curious about your writing process. Are you someone who has to force yourself into a routine of writing everyday or do you write when inspiration strikes?

No, it’s a routine. It has to be a routine. I think it was quite different for me when I was younger but certainly, as I’ve become older, it has to be a routine. I teach, I am studying as well and I am trying to write my own work at the same time. I have to have a certain amount of hours that I set aside to do each thing and then there is also the admin, the work that comes with having a chronic illness as well which is something that is a part of my life and something that I need to allocate time to. Luckily, I am in a position right now where my health is not necessarily something that takes whatever time it wants from me. But that could change and it it is the case for many people who have chronic illness. I try to stick to my schedule as best I can. I don’t know how good I am at it but I have to force myself into doing it or I just won’t get anything done.

Photo credit: Chris de Beer

Do you work on one thing at a time or do you have multiple pieces of work in development at once?

Generally, I have to have a couple of things going on but not of the same magnitude. I have to have a poem or something that I am figuring out, that is percolating in me, and then, at the same time, I have to have another kind of work happening. I need to know that, “Ok, I’ve got to do this for my work as a lecturer or I’ve got to do this for my studies as well or I’ve got to do admin.”  I think that I need to have quite a lot going on but at the same time, I also need to zone in and focus. It does not work out all the time, quite rarely actually but I guess this is my ideal of how I would work. I’m not always successful at it, though.

I think it’s safe to say that you are incredibly young and have accomplished so much in terms of the work that you have produced…

I don’t know about either of those things. I’m turning 32 this year and my great panic and joy around it is that I’m going to be the age that Lorelai Gilmore was at the beginning of Gilmore Girls. When I started watching that show, I was 16, the age that Rory, her daughter, was. Now I’m going to be the age that Lorelai was. Lorelai had a child, was a manager of an Inn, had a fiancé who packed a town full of flowers for her at 32. I do not have quite a few of those things.

But she didn’t have a book published! I think you’ve one-upped her in terms of that.

Thank you. I think that’s probably the only thing.

Photo credit: Chris de Beer

What was the journey around having Matric Rage published? I was also wondering if maybe you can talk a little bit about the independent publishing game.

There were a collection of poems I had been writing from when I was around 18 to when Nick Mulgrew asked me if I would be interested in publishing it. I had wanted to make something out of them for ages and had sent them off in various iterations but at those times they weren’t ready to be a collection yet. By the time Nick asked me if I was interested, I think that it was a point where I was ready to try to make something out of the work. Also, Nick is somebody that I trusted and thought was a good person to work with and he has become someone who I’ve worked with repeatedly since. That was the time when he was starting uHlanga. The first three books that he would publish were by me, Thabo [Jijana] and himself. It was really exciting to be in the first flush of what uHlanga would become, of this publishing company that I think has really changed the face of poetry and publishing poetry in South Africa. I think that we came from a tradition of South African poets who were published often being older white men, although of course Modjaji press, which is so fantastic, was putting work out specifically by women. I think uHlanga really exploded old, confining ideas about publishing poetry and challenged it in an important way.

Your first collection was met with such a positive response. Did you suddenly feel pressured after having that work published?

That is not how it felt. It was exciting to have it published and exciting for it to be in the world, but it also felt like work. Which is not to say that people’s positive responses aren’t important because of course they are. I’m human and like anyone else I like affirmation, it’s great. That can’t be the point though. It can’t be because if that becomes the point then the work is all about that and then the work is empty. But I don’t know how to really answer that question. I do think that if you realize you have kind of a platform, no matter how small, you should think about what you are going to do with that platform and how you can use that in some way to be helpful in this world which is already such a bad world. With Nick, he used his platform to create this publishing company that is doing such amazing work. I am so admiring of it and I think that is a good template for how to be in this world as a creative.

Photo credit: Chris de Beer

How do you ensure that you stay true to your voice in terms of the work that you create?

I guess it’s been different at different points in my life. I can only really speak about this point and how I’m thinking about what I am making now. I want to make work that is in some way relevant to what is happening in the world now, but specifically what my experience of the world is. The work that I am doing now is very much about looking at illness, looking at autobiographical performances around illness and a reclamation of stories about people’s personal experiences of illness. This is because, like I was saying, I think those stories are so often told as inspiration porn. It’s certainly not my experience and, I’d imagine, not the experience of all of the complex, interesting people who I know who have chronic illness, who are disabled. I am interested in telling my stories but also facilitating people telling their stories.  That is the thing about teaching, as well. How can you facilitate space where a person feels they can tell their story?.

What advice would you have for young women who are thinking about embarking on a writing career?

I never know how to answer this. I am never sure. I guess, to trust the fact that it’s alright for you to be telling your story if it is not hurting anyone who didn’t hurt you in the first place, if you know what I mean. We often don’t trust that we have the space to be able to do that. Like I said, I am terrible at answering this question. I am not sure except to say, if you want to write and you want to be making that work and it is not harming people, then why not? Why not try?

What was the best piece of advice you received during your career?

It’s not advice that I received personally but the quote, “Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.” I think it’s Doris Lessing. That always stuck with me because so often it just feels like there is no time to be able to do something. That is something that I carry with me all the time because if I don’t do it now then I probably wont do it, so I should just do it now. I tell this story quite a lot but when I was doing [my] undergrad, Reza de Wet was taking us for a practical class in drama and she let all of us start walking across the stage in front of her. Then we would walk in front of her by ourselves. She watched us and said where she felt the power centers in our bodies were. I felt very weird and awkward about doing it, but I did it and afterwards she told me that I had two power centers: one that was in my groin and one that was in my throat, and what was in my throat was blocking me being able to say things that I needed to say. I was so scandalised when she said that. My groin?! I felt very shy but it really was some of the best advice I have ever received, unplugging whatever was there and feeling like I should say the things that were in me and that had to be said.


I’d love to hear more about your involvement with Prufrock.

We are busy finalising the new issue which is really exciting. I had some poems published in that magazine before and then they asked me later to come on board as the poetry editor. That was something that I was beginning to be really interested in, editing poetry, and I’ve worked for uHlanga as well as an editor. So, I began to work at Prufrock and it’s been such a fantastic opportunity. It’s a great space for people to begin to try sending out work and see that work published. It’s questioning the idea of what a literary journal is and trying to make something that is younger, more inclusive in terms of languages being published in those spaces, and allowing more voices to be anthologised.

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

I had really good teachers. Specifically, Gay Morris [and] Sara Matchett at UCT, who were the first teachers to really encouraged me in terms of scholarship and challenged me in a lot of ways as both a young person in academia and as a human being, as well. I am so admiring of people like Nadia DavidsBuhle Ngaba and Koleka Putuma who are theatre-makers but are writing work in other mediums as well. Nadia is someone who I really admire as an academic, as well. Amy Louise Wilson, who I’ve spoken about, is such an important talent and also such a strong, feminist voice and not afraid to say what she thinks. I would be remiss if I didn’t add that it’s really important for us to be celebrating women and it’s also important to remember gender non-conforming folks who are so incredibly talented. It’s vital for us to be mentioning them within feminist spaces [and] within queer spaces as well.

You can follow Genna via Twitter or Instagram.

To purchase a copy of Matric Rage, please click here.

Special thanks to Chris de Beer and Genna Gardini.

All photos were taken by Chris de Beer on February 8th 2018.

Sarafina Magazine and Chris de Beer maintain copyrights over all images. For usage or inquiries, please contact us.


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