IN JULY 1994, I flew to Paris as one of six aspirant Black South African writers invited by the South African writer, Denis Hirson (resident then in Paris for twenty years), to a once-off fiction workshop sponsored by the French minister of culture. The other writers were Joan Baker, Sipho Mahlobo, Isaac Mogotsi, Roshila Nair and Mango Tshabango. Most of us had had bits and pieces published here and there, most notably Tshabango, who had had a story published in an early Staffrider. The workshop – ten week days – took place at Royaumont Abbey, a 13th century Cistercian monastery close to a small village 30-plus kilometres north of Paris. Apart from these ten days, our programme included five or so days in Paris, staying with Parisians and taking part in readings at two book stores.
With Denis at the helm – passionate, gentle, urbane – the workshops at Royaumont became invaluable lessons to me as novice. For the most part, we, the aspirant monks guided and driven by Denis, discussed each other’s writing, which we had earlier submitted as part of our applications. Politics, technique, sympathy for one’s characters… we argued and discussed and argued, starting at 9.30 in the morning, just after breakfast, and then continuing arguing over lunch, through supper, and often until late into the night, transferring ourselves and our materials to the lounge, a vaulted hall where I savoured the dark, French-roast coffee until long after the last service of the evening had brought it in thermos flasks at 10 pm.
And then we also had the benefit of working with three French writers: Gil Ben-Aych, Algerian-Jewish, who fled Algeria with his grandmother when he was a young boy, Pierrette Fleutiaux, who in 1990 had won the Prix Femina for her novel We are Eternal, and X., who by then had won a national prize and had also been shortlisted for the Prix Femina. Each of these visitors would lead an hours-long workshop session. In addition to the workshops, each aspirant was also scheduled two individual sessions, one with Denis, and one with a visiting author.
Though we worked (and fought) hard, our time in the workshop proper was not entirely formal – smoking was allowed, bringing the wine in from lunch was allowed – but the extended discussion after dinner or at other times of the day in the lounge had a markedly more sociable character. There was even some flirting.
Or was I, at 27, still the novice taken entirely by romantic notions, by the literariness of being in France? And by the licensing that such literariness allows its naïfs? Such that I felt that I could fall in love with all the women of Paris, young and old, lithe in stylish skirts, or bent-backed and wrinkled in black headscarves. Certainly Pierrette Fleutiaux had smiled more broadly at me, the smile only half hidden by the coffee cup she had brought to her mouth? But she was 52, I thought, 25 years older than me and married. Still, for a brief moment I indulged in fantasy: of being whisked away by the older, married woman in the kind of adulterous affair portrayed with some empathy in one or two of the French films I had by then seen. Some of our conversation at the table, indeed, had centred around differences between France and South Africa, how France was not as moralising as South Africa, how, if a French politician had a mistress, the public shrugged and went about their daily affairs.
X. was only 13 years older than me. I can’t remember how exactly my crush on her started, but somewhere in the story is her winking at me, while everyone else is laughing at someone’s joke around the coffee table after lunch. Or, like teenagers in a classroom, we catch each other smiling at each other, again while the rest are caught arguing a point or laughing at another joke that, maybe, maybe – be still my beating heart – X. and I did not find funny, thus sharing a knowing smile.
X. was to lead the next session and she left a few minutes early to prepare her papers and handouts. The rest of the group was still locked in discussion over something. The frisson of that smile and wink had effectively left me uninterested in the discussion and, a few minutes after X. had left, I followed. She was done sorting her papers in appropriate piles on the table and was now standing at the piano that stood to one side of the large room in which we conducted the workshop. I asked her whether she played. She nodded, gently sat down and started playing something, but abruptly stopped when the rest of the group noisily filtered in. X. looked at me and pulled her mouth both in disappointment and apology. What would otherwise be seen as someone ordinarily just showing off a skill like piano playing, instantaneously became a private, intimate moment.
X. started her workshop by asking us how we would define art. We hummed and rhubarbed. She pulled a page from a folder and said that she’d like to read a few lines that defines art perfectly for her. They were lines from a poem in my application folder. Fuck, that is all I need, I thought. To this novice, it was a strong affirmation and, of course, the whisper in my blood caused by a wink, a smile and what I believed was a moment of intimacy, turned into a vortex of white noise in my head. The romance bloomed when some of her aesthetic models were books on my reading list: Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, Coetzee, Raymond Carver’s prose.
As it turned out, my one-on-one sessions were both going to be with Denis, the first one the following day. On that day, following the first personal session, I protested. While Denis and I shared many fundamental ideas about art and politics, and many other things besides, and while he had astounded me with his perceptive reading of my writing – while we were, in short, becoming good literary friends and my complaint was therefore not a slight – I complained to him that, like the other aspirant writers, I wanted to enjoy the benefit of having a non-South African writer’s insight and personal discussion. Some of my complaint spilled over into the get-together in the lounge that evening.
Eventually, X. offered to take me, but it had to be that evening. The following day was going to be busy and we were leaving early for readings in Paris.
She needed some time to go through my portfolio again and I was to meet with her in her room at 10 p.m. My heart was racing.
I got to her room, glass in hand, knocked, and was invited into her room lit only by a table lamp. X. asked me to leave the door ajar, complaining about the heat.
Now I was unsure. Certainly this was a signal of sobriety? But then, what was all the winking and smiling and piano playing about? And quoting from my poetry? Was the open door there as discouragement, or to test my resolve? Did she want it open so that, were anything to happen, I would have to show decisiveness first – get up, close the door? Did she, in other words, leave it open so that I would have an opportunity to signal her? But at once still leave an opportunity for withdrawing? Was the open door perhaps there to soothe what she, as an older woman, rightly would think would be my anxiety, signalling that there would be no pressure, that we were actually working, but that there may be a slight chance, in which case closing the door would be the most unambiguous signal on my part?
We sat at the small, dark, monkish table, pages of my writing lit by the low yellow light of the lamp. She had stopped smoking, but let me smoke. We made small talk for a bit, then moved to general talk about writing, about anxieties around writing, about this aspirant’s anxieties around it. At a pause in the talking, she took my cigarette from my hand, dragged on it gently, handed it back and let the smoke drift from her mouth. In her mind, in her reading of things, she said, I was a writer. At another pause minutes later, she took my glass from my hand, sipped from it, handed it back. Another drag from my cigarette. It was all clear to me where things were leading, where things should be leading, where things should or could have led. But behind me was that open door.
We winded up our discussion. She was tired, she needed some rest. The next day, she and her husband (damn) had to pack for their summer holiday in the countryside. With their children.
On the trip to Paris, X. shared the back seat of the car with me. I think Roshila sat on the left, I was in the middle and X. on my right, her window open. Occasionally, over a bump or around a bend, our arms or elbows brushed against each other’s. But nothing was more electrifying than wisps of her brown hair, streaming in the wind, tickling my face.
Was I fine with the window open? she asked. Yes, yes, it doesn’t bother me, I said.
She really wanted to come to the reading to hear me read, she said, then corrected herself: well, to hear all of us read. The driver, who was an official from the ministry of culture, asked her why she couldn’t come. Because she and Z. were to pack; they’re leaving for the countryside the next day. Z. My god, she was married to Z. I knew that name, a well known literary philosopher. I had read some of his essays. I said as much to X.
But she was heartsore, she said, unable to come to our reading – implying that over the two days at Royaumont we had all built a rapport with each other, thus her ache. But I suspected, wished, another motive. And all the time her brown hair blowing in my face.
She’ll see, X. said when we all said our goodbyes in Paris and we went off to Denis’s flat to rehearse. Maybe she can pinch off an hour or so.
The small bookshop was packed, all the way up a narrow staircase to a small mezzanine floor where the reading would take place. Each writer would read something in English, and then a French reader would read a translation. I read an excerpt of prose and a less favoured poem which Denis, however, liked. It was abstract, about love and desire, and apparently worked well in French because of that. Of course when I looked up at some point while reading, there was X., standing on the staircase.
After the reading, I went outside for a cigarette and to look for her among the small crowd standing around in clumps, drinking wine and talking. The sun was going down somewhere behind the buildings of Paris. Eventually X. broke off from a conversation, came over to me, and pulled me away from whomever I was talking to. Behind her, she dragged a trolley, a wicker basket on two wheels with a few books, perhaps a bag of groceries and her handbag in it.
She really had to go, she said. She wished me luck on studying in America (to which I was on my way directly from Paris), then leaned forward, brushed my cheeks with her lips, gently pressed my one arm, looked at me and said: Just be one, be a writer.
She broke off, crossed the road, and strode along the pavement across the way, her trolley bobbing behind her in the dusk light.
Ten years later, I saw X. again when she was on a trip to South Africa. I asked her whether, ten years before, I had been suffering from a novice’s feverish imagination. She smiled and said, no, that perhaps there had been a frisson of something at Royaumont. She left me with some aphorism about such matters, which, regrettably, I now forget, but which was appropriate to that moment a decade ago, and perfectly balanced, a mot juste, literary, and light, as her hair flowing in the wind, her lips brushing my cheek.