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Rayda Jacobs

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An interesting interview, done by Sameena Amien with the esteemed writer Rayda Jacobs, first published in the Boorhaanol Magazine in the early 2000s. Rayda Jacobs leads us into the evening into a room that reeks of a writer's space. Soft, dusk light filters through huge windows. Books are everywhere; a glass-topped coffee table groans under what must surely be a ton of them. Papyrus frames and a Qur'anic rakkam adorn the stark white walls. In the corner a bamboo CD stand houses the CD player and an eclectic collection of what looks like a hundred CD's.The air is punctuated by Gloria Estefan'spounding Afro-Cuban

rhythms. "Sorry, it's a bit loud, I know,” she mumbles in half-apology. Half, I say, because I suspect that the devil's advocate in her secretly relishes her oversight, so that she call later shock this reporter again, this time with her intense religious spirit. "I love God, and I love religion" she constantly asserts with  a zeal that seems almost evangelical. And the books on her coffee table and her recently published novel 'The Slave Book ‘ seem to bear her out here.

 

It wasn't always like this, she admits. Until the age of 37 ( she is 52 now but looks a drop-dead gorgeous 40) she was an "unconscious Muslim". Growing up in a strict, ritual-orientated home, her ever- questioning, rebellious artistic spirit grew to hate religion - or at least the concept that she was taught was Islam. A personal crisis at 37 saw her, as a last resort, open the Holy, Qur'an and here she found her redemption. Her inner conflicts in many ways mirror the struggle of millions of Muslims living in Western societies, but it was all the more intense because holidays in her early youth were spent roaming her paternal grandfa ther's farm in Lansdowne with Ammi, his half-bosjesman (as the Bushmen called themselves) shepherd. Here her passion for story-telling was first awakened by the wise Ammi, whom she'd often seen "talking to the fire." I interject here and ask her where she derives inspiration for her characters. "Ammi was my inspiration for In Eyes of the Sky. But mostly I derive it from everyday encounters with ordinary people. I find people fascinating, and the profoundest insights can sometimes come from the most unlikely sources. The other day I was visiting with my father and as I crossed the road this bergie came  and  tried to engage me. Someone else would probably have walked on but I was fascinated. He started philosophising by himself and had a lyrical style that was completely spontaneous - I was completely bowled over. People are interesting and like Ammi, that character will probably find his way into one of my books."

Resuming her story, she tells us that she had her own horse at the farm and enjoyed freedoms there that were taboo in her nuclear family borne (This was the '50s, remember!). 'To be given that free rein, then to be reined  in at home again must have confused the young Rayda and though she denies having any 'demons' as writers most times do ("I write because I have things to say," she insists testily), she does acknowledge being "a lonely child" and that her writing started from "a point of pain". It is said that all writers have a chief concern which finds its way into all of their works. For Dickens it was the abuse and manipulation of children by adults. In the case of Rayda Jacobs it is character displacement and the fragmentation of the self that accompanies it. Her first foray into publishing was The Middle Children, a collection of short stories that dealt with (The issues of children of racially- mixed parentage. And in The Slave Book Harman Kloot confides to the 'half-breed' Somiela, "Yes, I'm like you. Not one, not the other.In the middle somewhere." She is very "wrapped up in identity", she explains, because Apartheid had displaced her in her own country, then she was a South African living in Canada, refusing to vote in her adopted country and hating her separation from friends, family  and motherland. She finally returns home only to find that all those years of living in a foreign culture have left its mark willy nilly, and ironically she is displaced again. She enters a community for whom she possesses a faint trace of the exotic. She is foreign once again, and feeling it,in what should be her house, her community.

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But this is a grownup Rayda, more confident in her own perceptions yet less dogmatic. "You know what I've discovered? That I don't always have to be right..." she says with conviction. "And I learn my lessons from any messenger as long as the message is good."

She starts relating just such a lesson, jumps up mid-story to graphically illustrate her point and I am struck, not for the first time, by the idea that she could be a really good actor. The simplest talc is given life arid colour by dramatic pauses and inflec¬tions. It turns out that she acted in Canada. She has also been gently ribbed by friends, she ruefully confides, as being the Queen of Drama! Whatever it is, that essential spark draws you into the story and makes you see it dance before your eyes. It is like watching a movie. Her words trace the images and expressions and gesticulating hands all conspire to colour in the details. Having read The Slave Book this comes as a surprise to me. Why does this dramatic edge not find its way into her characters? How is it that for me, at least, The Slave Book seems bland in comparison to the writer? She does admit to editing and re-editing her work and tells me that for authenticity's sake in the Eyes of the Sky trilogy she deliberately toned down her language to fit in with the diction of the time. When I ask her whether writing comes easily she responds breezily, "It's as easy as breathing!". No question of writer's block there and she has been pretty prolific lately, producing three books in four years and working on her fourth. Although her reading is varied, she has a particular passion for John Steinbeck's writing, particularly The Grapes of' Wrath which she revisits regularly. But American and Canadian short stories are her preferred reading. Why, I wonder? "Well, it's a complete fix. I don't like being manipulated and you have to read novels from start to finish!"

That's rich, from a writer of novels, I charge, but the writer is adamant and I get the feeling that she likes being in control. She has had several movie offers for The Slave Book but has resisted there because "it's hard to let go. And besides you are completely at the mercy of somebody else's interpretation of your work. And that's okay, normally, but most people watching it Would consider the movie the only spin ." Rayda Jacobs's energy could leave a Duracell battery exhausted.  To relax after a hard day's writing she would perhaps sew herself a new dress or stencil her walls. And she still finds the time to enjoy an active social life. In the time that we were there she must have fielded at least ten telephone calls. There were times when her perceptions on Islam seemed very avant-garde but throughout the interview she was always ready to listen to another argument. At times she was hilariously irreverent towards some of the quirks that define our Muslim community and at other times fiercely protective of that very community. By turns forceful and pliant, strident and slightly defensive, she was also generous, hospitable and immensely entertaining and displayed an innocent enjoyment of her recent fame. (The Slave Book has just been prescribed for English Honours students at UWC.) And while she could probably be a formidable adversary, there is a faint air of fragility and vulnerability about her that lends her sometimes steam-rolling manner just a hint of bravado. ;ike all of us, Rayda Jacobs is a work in progress. Unlike most of us, she lets it show and seems to be really working on the progress.

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