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Die Laughing Teaser: Q&A with Kristien Potgieter

Kristien PorgieterKristien Potgieter was born and raised in Johannesburg. She is currently writing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, where she is also the 2015-16 UEA Booker Scholar. She studied English and French Literature at the University of Pretoria and Wits University. She has worked as an English teacher in France and as a ballet teacher in Johannesburg, and has experience as a freelance editor and translator. Kristien won the 2014 Deon Hofmeyr Prize for Creative Writing, and her fiction has been published in Itch and on NewWriting.net.

 

What is your take on humour SA-style?

Some of the most truthful writing comes from our ability as South Africans to make fun of our own prejudices and idiosyncrasies. Humour is a way of seeing yourself anew, and you have to be able to make fun of yourself. A lot of the humour in my writing comes from my awkwardness and my tendency to get into embarrassing situations. They’re not nice to live through, but they make for good fiction.

 

Your DIE LAUGHING story, ‘Be Happy! Be Bright! Be You!’ has a double-edged title. One expects a light read, but it’s darkly bizarre. Why did you choose this title? 

For precisely that reason: it sounds cheerful but it hides something a lot darker under the surface. Also, I find most inspirational quotes, like the title, exceptionally irritating. They are trite and overused, and it is exactly the sort of thing a character like Willemien would pretend is terribly poignant but is ultimately meaningless.

 

The story unfolds from the point of view of nasty character Kobus. Hungover, and angry with his girlfriend, Nicole, he heads off from a shared flat to attend his classes at  Uni. Here he ‘sees’ right into his fellow students’ heads, their brains. What was the spark for your story?

I liked the idea of having someone wake up one morning and just suddenly being able to see these odd things that no one else can, yet he is so self-centred that he barely even takes notice. Sometimes a story is sparked by a single vivid image — I believe originally I had the idea of someone walking around with a fish bowl inside their brain. 

Also, I’m rather addicted to Instagram, where you constantly see all these sincere proclamations of unique identities, and yet if we’re honest with ourselves, our profiles all look awfully similar (I include my own in this!). We all have very ‘spontaneous’ pictures of sunsets and dogs and coffee and flowers and books. I think there’s something absurd in the way we try to express our individuality today, what with social media and how filtered and curated it is.

 

Were you purposefully trying to expose the ‘façade’ attached to the way people project themselves in social media?

We only post what we want others to see, after all, and it feels like we often go through experiences without enjoying them for what they are, just constantly thinking, ‘Would this make a good Instagram post?’, and then crafting the situation so that it’s more photogenic. So perhaps nowadays a lot of us think in pictures, because we’re always assessing a situation’s potential to be captured in an online post. A lot of our lives are experienced through a lens — the lens of cameras and filters — and so the story has a lot of references to seeing and watching: through windows, glasses, lenses, etc.

 

So, specifically with your ‘addiction’ to Instagram in mind, were you writing in ‘pictures’ so to speak?

I was writing in ‘pictures’ in the sense that this is a very visual story — I had a lot of fun picturing all these surreal things that Kobus sees.

 

Apart from being fun, was it also a challenge to get into the ‘head’ of this character, with his misogynist views and conservative outlook?

There is some irony in Kobus’s ‘visions’ or whatever they are, because he literally sees into other people’s heads and yet he is completely blind to any perspective but his own. Although fiction can often inspire empathy and understanding (and the most powerful fiction usually does), I wanted to explore the mind of someone who has no desire to see anything from anyone else’s perspective. Especially in South Africa, where a lot of our history is still unresolved and still has a massive effect on people’s everyday realities, I think this is a trap all of us fall into sometimes.

Unfortunately we have, to an extent, been conditioned to be unsympathetic towards anyone who is different from us. Kobus’ character takes this to the extreme, but I think there will be times when everyone fails at empathy because we don’t want to confront our own prejudices and it’s easier to rely on stereotypes.  Getting into Kobus’s head was an uncomfortable but interesting exercise. I definitely wouldn’t want to spend any more time with him beyond this one story.

 

How would you describe the humour of this story? Do you consider satire closely related to ‘humour’?

The things Kobus sees provides some absurd humour, I think, because it’s an intrusion of the bizarre into the everyday, and there is something intrinsically humorous about that. But I’m also very interested in writing satire, because I think it’s probably the most self-reflective form of humour. It’s supposed to make you uncomfortable and it can definitely be dark — I don’t think you’re supposed to come to the end of this story with a smile on your face.

 

On a personal note, why did you choose to study Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia? 

As a writer, I think it’s important and necessary to explore places outside of your comfort zone, and studying abroad has been such an enriching experience. I came to UEA because it has one of the best Creative Writing courses in the world. It’s allowed me to become part of an enormously supportive writing community that’s also extremely diverse. I wanted to see what the literary world beyond South Africa offered.

 

Do you feel ‘different’ there? Do you draw on your South African roots as far as story-telling goes?

I do feel different, but in a way that’s been really interesting, because it’s made me aware of things about myself I’ve perhaps always taken for granted. And my experience at UEA has been one of incredible support; my classmates and I all write about different settings and in totally different styles, but we try and learn from each other.

That said, I don’t think I could write about a setting other than South Africa. It’s my home and it’s where I draw all my inspiration from. Living in the UK hasn’t diminished this; in fact, I’ve found that being away from South Africa has actually given me a really fresh perspective on the country, and has invigorated my writing in a lot of exciting and unexpected ways. There’s no way I could extricate myself from my South African identity, and I certainly don’t want to.

 

As a student of Creative Writing, what can you share about what you have learned?

There really are no rules in writing fiction — every ‘rule’ has been broken by a dozen brilliant writers. But the only way to improve is to keep writing, no matter how crappy you think your writing is, and to put yourself out there. The first time I entered a creative writing workshop was terrifying, but letting others read my work has ultimately been the most liberating thing for my writing.

I’ve also learned to be wary of people who talk about writing more than they do any actual writing — it’s a dangerous habit, and an easy one to pick up.

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 9.00.45 AMBook Details:
Editor Joanne Hichens
Foreword Evita Bezuidenhout
ISBN / EAN 9780994680518
Publication date July 2016
Buy the book here!

 

 

 

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