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“Hair can really shake things up” – a Q&A with Trade Secrets contributor, Sally Ann Murray

Though not a sentimental person, Sally Ann Murray loves her family and her dogs. (She hates the expression ‘her loved ones’.) She is the recipient of prizes such as the Sanlam Literary Award for poetry, and the M-Net and the Herman Charles Bosman prizes, for her novel Small Moving Parts. She likes to create things. By nature (when time and heat allow) she is a gardener. Mostly, what she does is chair the English Department at Stellenbosch University, working with a group of excellent colleagues. Here Sally Ann and Joanne Hichens, the curator of the Short.Sharp.Awards discuss her Trade Secrets entry, how hair can really shake things up, and challenging The Authority…

You have mentioned that your story, ‘Clippings’, derives from quite a tangle of ‘clippings’. What was the initial inspiration for your story?

When I worked at UKZN, I once praised a colleague’s sleek, chic hairstyle. Actually, she said, she lived with the wound of another self, a girl with rampant, springy curls. She told me of a girlhood experience: standing in her very red school uniform, with her very red, embarrassed face, enduring her mother’s furious complaints about having to deal with that bushy hair. This snippet was the imaginative kernel of ‘Clippings’, though red hair, per se, was nowhere in evidence. I had to wait for the idea to take fuller shape…

Was this ‘fuller shape’ influenced by the fact that issues around ‘hair’ seem always to be in the news?

…mmm. Remember the outrage around hair in girls’ schools: black hair, afro hair, big hair; hair that needed to be controlled? In that racist climate, I was prompted to imagine a scenario in which ‘hair’, under the narrows of apartheid, could manifest as a gendered provocation. And let’s not forget that at the time I was supervising a PhD on the representation of sexualities in African fiction…

Certainly ‘hair’ and identity are closely linked… in general, why is ‘hair’ so loaded?

I’m not sure. Maybe because it’s so intimately changeable, so difficult to control? For some people, ‘hair’ is a border which marks race, or gender. I mean, in terms of schools, say: ‘hair’ is a site over which The Authorities are used to exerting petty control, and securing obedient subordination. All those young boys with their vulnerable, exposed necks, and bak-ore. Girls who must rein in their wildness, and be biddable. I am not my hair. But I love the fact that hair can really shake things up. Now it’s this style, and colour. Then suddenly it’s blue, or a man-bun. For all those old-style ladies who habitually went to get their ‘hair set’, well, hair doesn’t settle. It doesn’t stay put, either.

With all the contemporary focus on ‘hair’, why choose to set the story in the past?

Not because I’m nostalgic! Maybe because I’m interested in history? And definitely because I was chary about entering the current debates. From whose point of view would I be able write? Some uptight white school authority. That’s not me. But nor did I feel legit voicing the experiences of a young black woman, caught in the racist debacle. Sure, I think a writer should be free to write into experiences beyond her own, that’s part of the imaginative skill. But I didn’t figure I had the right deftness to handle it, never mind the right. And anyway, I really did want to offer an angle in which the emphasis on race, in apartheid SA, was turned towards other, more occluded, complexities.

Ruby’s mother, with all her anxieties and burdens of family – in one form or another – hovers in the background as young Ruby is attended to in the salon ‘A Cut Above’ by the stylist, Richard, who has his own issues around being gay, and certainly the state of the country… Are these the kind of complexities you speak of?

Maybe the story is tussling with the complex forms of authority, and power over person, through which personhood nevertheless grows into being? ‘Clippings’ tries to lead beyond the obvious surface, so that a reader’s allegiances and empathies are repeatedly unsettled. The mother annoys the hell out of me, with her dogmatic insistence, her apparently self-satisfied absorption in style… and then something in me, as a writer, found a node of connection, and the story coaxed me to discover this woman’s own sorrows, her living sadness and alienation. And Mr Richard. He’s a gay man, and often in a style that veers towards affirming the flamboyant, received expectation – that’s possibly in keeping with the historical setting of the narrative (as are the slurs used by the husband, Mr Bosch). And yet Mr Richard’s highly expressive, animated queerness is also subversive, resistant, a powerful means to challenge the narrows of the town in which he works, the politics of the country as a whole. And then yet again, as his dealings with Ila (his co-stylist) suggest, his queerness cannot suddenly be burdened with the demand of representing progressive, alternative masculinities. Just because he’s queerly different, should we expect him to be more tolerant, more accepting, of Ila’s messy life? That ain’t necessarily how things work!

The young protagonist, Ruby, is quirky, could be described as difficult in some respects, as was the ‘daughter’ in another of your stories, ‘How to Carry On’, published by Short.Sharp.Stories in Incredible Journey. Does writing this sort of character appeal to you? Do you have a preference for the ‘family’ drama?

I do like writing girl children. Especially their potent power, in the space of girlhood, when they have not yet been formalised and contained. They’re wonderfully ambiguous. So full of feistiness and fragility. I mean, really, the terrifying, inescapable thought that you will grow up to be a woman! And as for family dramas – what else is there? In terms of engaging fiction, the family is the seat of so much tension and possibility, always socially situated. Tolstoy was on to something, even if you don’t utterly agree: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

How did you imagine yourself in the shoes of this child?

It’s not easy, even if sometimes the ideas do slip beautifully into place. When it comes to kids (people in general), I’m a hoarder of sidelong glances and words overheard – those help to get the story right. But it’s a difficult line to work, not overstepping the child’s view with that of the adult author. Especially since the kind of kids I find imaginatively appealing, for story material, tend to be the precocious, sassy, smart-mouthed kind, already too big for their boots, some adults would think. And who yet are tender and breakable.

I’m sure your personal experience of the ‘hair salon’ (I presume there have been visits!) influenced your threaded narrative?

…salons. I’m awkward in the hands of stylists. I pull back from spaces which entail revealing intimacies, among strangers. My hair is a happy mess which I (un)happily used to hack myself, until my family suggested I ought to relinquish inept control. But I know quite a bit about hip barbers, really, since our idiosyncratic daughter likes a buzz cut, etched with distinctive ‘vinyls’.

As a consummate ‘pro’, please would you share a writing Trade Secret (or few…)?

I’d rather be given The Secret myself! But, ok: don’t wait too long to get started. Don’t think of yourself as a reader, not a writer: the two are closely connected. Develop a thick skin, for those days when nothing goes right. (Rejections. They happen. And happen.) And then as soon as possible make yourself vulnerable again; thin your skin to the world because that’s what you need to make the writing better.

Trade Secrets

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