Garden of Dreams (Penguin SA, June 2014) is long-time Noordhoek resident Melissa Siebert’s first novel, but she’s been a journalist for decades – here in South Africa, in the US (she’s from Boston) and in the Middle East. She first came to SA in 1988, pretending NOT to be a journalist – they were kicking foreign journalists out of the country then. But after training cadets at The Weekly Mail (now The Mail and Guardian), Siebert started a long career as a journalist and media activist in South Africa, covering human rights, the struggle against apartheid and many other issues in the print and broadcast media.
She’s won a PICA magazine award and several other awards for reporting and teaching (at Harvard, UCT and the American University in Cairo). She was a founding member of Ubuntu Productions and the Media Peace Centre, which develops media projects to help manage and transform conflict around the world. Garden of Dreams – a boy’s coming-of-age saga colliding with the underworlds of child trafficking in India and Nepal – is another step along Siebert’s journey to both expose human rights violations and inspire people’s commitment and empathy towards strangers less fortunate.
Scenic South (SS) spoke to Siebert (MS) recently about her book, which Slumdog Millionaire author Vikas Swarup called ‘a large-hearted, coming-of-age tale brimming with non-stop action and told with profound empathy…India comes alive in Melissa Siebert’s absorbing debut’:
SS: What inspired you to write this novel?
MS: I’d covered ‘rights-based’ stories for years – forced removals and other apartheid atrocities; the struggle for freedom, human rights and statehood in Palestine; discrimination against and exploitation of black blues musicians in Mississippi; and many other stories. Children’s rights – and how they are abused around the world – is a subject that has interested me for a long time. Child trafficking is the worst abuse of those rights, with 1.2 million children being trafficked a year globally, the majority into sex slavery. It’s a tricky and dangerous subject to cover as a journalist, so I guess you could say I took the ‘easy’ way out and wrote about it in fiction. Though that’s only part of the novel. It’s also a coming-of-age story, the story of a fragmented family and the tough choices people make between the personal and the political in life. I’ve wanted to write a novel for years – but it seems I needed to live life to this extent to be able to write this book.
SS: How did your career prepare and lead you to this point, ie to writing the novel?
MS: I’ve been a journalist since graduating from the Columbia School of Journalism in New York in 1976, working in print and broadcast media as well as training journalists – conventionally and specifically in how to more constructively cover conflict. The media often aggravates conflict rather than help manage and transform it – we at Ubuntu Productions and the Media Peace Centre developed a different paradigm (taken up as ‘peace journalism’ by some, or ‘conflict-sensitive reporting’). An ethical paradigm, you could say, that was more conscious of the power we wield as journalists and a commitment to using that power for social good. A controversial paradigm that finally has seeped into mainstream journalism to some degree.
Aside from this – of course as a journalist for so many years, I gathered hundreds of stories, not all reported. The wonderful thing about writing fiction is that you can draw on these stories, but are not accountable to accuracy in the way you are in journalism. You can adapt and remake these stories into your own creations. I think my journalistic style – pretty spare, lean yet evocative (especially since I started travel writing a few years ago), dramatic with an emphasis on character (or people) and making them live on the page, be who they are, has definitely translated into my fiction/novel. Being a journalist has probably also made me a writer who wants to move the story along fairly rapidly…without sacrificing depth, I hope!
SS: What in your personal life has informed the novel?
MS: The three Anglo characters in the book – the 13 year-old protagonist Eli de Villiers, his South African father Anton, and his American mother Margo – are loosely based on our fractured family. My son Rafe, now 17, inspired Eli, and my husband Hannes (we are separated) was the model for Anton. I am not nearly as deranged as the mother Margo, but there are aspects of me in her, her in me. Possibly one reason I wrote this book was to try to understand what had happened to our family, why it broke apart (for twelve years we’ve seen Hannes once a year; he is an international mediator currently based in Beirut). And to understand the pain on all sides.
On a more upbeat note: I am a complete Indiaphile, so made India the primary setting for the book. (India is also one of the worst, if not the worst, human trafficking culprit in the world – a market, source and transit country.) I’d spent four months there many years ago, but went back in early 2011 to research my novel, and then continued on to Nepal for further research, as the novel deals with the trafficking of children from Nepal into India. In India I went to GB Road, Delhi’s infamous red-light district (where quite a few chapters of my book unfold) and interviewed prostitutes and pimps. In Nepal, I interviewed people working in counter-trafficking, as well as walked the streets of Thamel, Kathmandu, lined with dance bars (many housing trafficked kids). I went into the jungles of southern Nepal and interviewed Maoist soldiers who’d fought the revolution against the monarchy. I also sat sipping tea in the neo-colonial Garden of Dreams, a real place, an oasis in crazy Kathmandu – and namesake for the book.
SS: What/who are some of your favourite authors and books?
MS: Hmmm…many! But I’d have to first mention as a favourite novel The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre…When my initial supervisor at UCT (I was in the Master’s Creative Writing Programme there) asked me what sort of novel I wanted to write back in 2009, I immediately named Le Carre’s book, wonderful on so many levels – as a love story, as a heroic quest/fight for human rights, as an evocation of a country and its people (Kenya). I love Carre’s writing, particularly in that book – strong, often ironic, well-paced, no overwriting or self-indulgence. Just so true, striking to the point, to the heart.
Other books – was always a fan of Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky, a very disturbing book, however. I’m a big fan of many classics, which I re-read: just re-read Forster’s A Passage to India, magnificent book; love Moby Dick, ALL of it!; To Kill a Mockingbird; lots of Dickens; Faulkner and Hemingway, nearly everything; Flannery O’Connor’s short stories; and…as for favourite books in the last twenty years or so: A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali (Courtemanche); The Lower River (Theroux); Lawrence in Arabia (Anderson, non-fiction); Scribbling the Cat (Fuller, non-fiction); Shantaram (Roberts); The Poisonwood Bible (Kingsolver); The English Patient (Ondaatje). For starters!
SS: What’s your next book?
MS: I’ve started several projects – two fiction and one memoir. One novel is set in Limpopo and deals with (false) witchcraft accusations against children there, as well as drawing upon my own personal ancestry/connection to the 17th-century Salem witch trials in the US; the other novel deals with the decimation and alienation of the Bushmen (Khomani San) in particular in the Kalahari. The memoir deals with my wild and adventurous youth in Egypt, Palestine/Israel and South Africa back in the eighties. Not sure where I’m going with them…hopefully forward in the near future.
Garden of Dreams is available at bookstores throughout SA, but locally at Longbeach Wordsworth, the Write Shop Longbeach, Kalk Bay Books, Exclusive Books Constantia (well, Exclusives throughout SA), and online through www.kalahari.com and www.exclus1ves.net, plus as a Kindle version on www.amazon.com.