Of jewels and gems: A tale of two countries

EVENT: Dawn Promislow – Launch of Jewels and Other Stories (Saturday, 24 September; Lobby Books)


Dawn Promislow, author of Jewels and Other Stories, talks to Harry Garuba.

A little-thought-about truth is that the segregation of apartheid affected everyone, not just black people. A young white girl who sympathised with the suffering of black people could not reach out to them, just as they could not reach out to her. This is a concept explored in one of the fourteen stories in Dawn Promislow’s collection Jewels and Other Stories. They are insightful and perhaps offer the reader a different perspective on life in apartheid South Africa.

Dawn, a South African who emigrated to Canada 25 years ago, aimed to capture ordinary situations during the apartheid era. “Because I was interested in everyday situations, I thought the best way to do this was to use ordinary day-to-day language,” she said, adding that writing the book was somewhat intimidating as she wasn’t at all certain that people would want to read about a past that had happily come to a long-awaited end.

In conversation with poet and writer Harry Garuba, who is head of department and associate professor of UCT’s Centre for African Studies, Dawn explained that she would never be able to write about Canada with the same passion, although it has been her home for a long time.

“I guess it is in every emigrant to become obsessed with the place she has left,” she said of her imaginative life — her writing — that is rooted in South Africa, adding that when she arrived in Johannesburg a few days ago, she visited the house where she had lived as a child – the same house where ‘Pool’, the opening story of her book, is set.

Harry said Dawn is one of his favourite authors, and admired her for writing a book that “rediscovered the ordinary”, to use writer and professor Njabulo Ndebele’s phrase.

But how does one keep calm and reflect gently on a time that was so troubled and so tragic – which had compelled her to leave the country in the first place? Dawn said it was partly due to the passage of time: “Had I had written the book soon after I left South Africa, I doubt I would have achieved any such calm and gentleness.”