[Interview] Marita van Aswegen

South African author, Marita van Aswegen writes poetry, short stories and novels for both children, young adults as well as adult readers.

Her work has been published Afrikaans, Sesotho and English.

Her books include Dance Thispo, dance (Kwela, 1997); Gavin’s Game (Masterskill Publishers, 2009) and Phapo’s Gift (Knowledge Thirst, 2010).

In this interview, Marita van Aswegen talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

I wrote my first story when in 1964 when I was fifteen. I sent it to a magazine ... but it was rejected.

It was a love story and I sent it to Sarie. That was the favorite magazine of the sixties.

I was a teenager and my mind was filled with roses and moonshine and the perfect love.

What would you say motivated you to start writing?

As long as I can remember, I always wanted to write a book.

During the years when my children were small, I wrote essays and poems because essays are short and you can complete one in an hour or so. ( Small children do not give you a lot of time to write.) The essays were on subjects like: "Going to the hairdresser" (humorous essay); "We got electricity!"; "The day I put a cheque on the car’s roof and forget about it", etc.

The poems were for small children (through my children’s eyes) and also poems that expressed my own personal feelings. The latter I kept for myself.

Two of the poems for children were published thirty years later in Die nuwe verseboek by Riana Scheepers!

I just had to write things down, I felt happy when I did that.

After all my children went to boarding school, I started to write on a more regular basis.

My first book was published in 1997. I had sent the story to several publishers and got it back six times. But I did not give up. The book was in Afrikaans, but Kwela Publishers also translated it in English and Sesotho. The book was for adults who did not go to school when they were children and they got literacy classes as adults.

The book is about a young postman who has to deliver a letter to an old man who was waiting for a letter from his grandchild. The old man was attacked by a robber and the postman saved his life.

It was easy to write and did not take me long. I kept on resubmitting it because I believed it was a good story. Yes, Kwela translated it into Afrikaans and Sotho too. The book was beautiful, but unfortunately only the Afrikaans and English sold. The Sotho did not sell at all.

How would you describe your writing?

I have been writing for different markets.

The first book was for ABET readers.

After that I wrote Roer jou riete Pampas, a youth book in Afrikaans. It was translated in Sesotho.

I wrote several short stories for teenagers that were included in different books.

I wrote a teenage novel and several stories for the Kroonsteen series.

I also wrote more literary short stories.

How much influence have your personal experiences had on your writing?

I love writing for children age nine to twelve.

Because I work with children from the rural communities who grew up in difficult circumstances, I like to write about them. They have so much courage, they inspire me.

Being a social worker had influenced my writing in the sense that I became more aware of social issues like alcohol abuse, verbal abuse, poverty, etc. Real life had influenced me more than any book ever would.

Which authors have influenced you most?

I appreciate the work of Jacqueline Wilson, the British writer. Her stories soften the disappointments of real life.

It gives hope.

I like that.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

My main concern as a writer is the fact that children in South Africa rather spend time outside than reading books. Whenever I meet with children, I try and motivate them to read.

In the rural area where I stay, most of the parents of children are illiterate. Therefore there is no reading culture in the homes. Children have to walk long distances to farm schools. These children speak Sotho in their homes and then they have to learn English and Afrikaans in school. Reading is for them a nightmare because their mother tongue is neglected in schools.

Farm children do not have the facilities that bigger schools have. There are no libraries, no reading groups, no one who can open the world of reading to them. They should be helped to love their mother tongue and reading in their mother tongue. Writers in their mother tongue should visit schools and motivate children to be proud of their own language.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

The biggest challenge for me is to write every day. I discipline myself to do that. Even when I do not feel like writing, I go and sit in front of the computer and write something. After a while the ideas just flow. I write till I feel I have completed the specific idea that I am busy with.

I enjoy writing for children the most. But it is not always easy. As a writer you realize that you have an impact on children’s minds and for me this is a great responsibility.

I write mostly in Afrikaans, this is my mother tongue. I love Afrikaans because I grew up with it. I can express myself in one word. The last ten years I also started to speak English quite often, because my children are overseas and I visit them every year. I started to translate my Afrikaans children’s stories into English. I enjoy it.

What would you say Phapo's Gift is about?

My latest book, Phapo’s Gift is about the ten-year-old Phapo who is clever, pretty and happy. But she has a big burden to carry: her father, who she loves very much, is dying from Aids.

All around her, her school friends are getting boyfriends and girlfriends, but Phapo wants nothing more than to make mud cakes under her favourite tree and dream of beautiful dolls.

When the boys start to look at her, her Grandma tells her a very special secret: Phapo has a precious, perfect fruit inside her. She alone has the power to treasure or to destroy that fruit.

It took me about three months to write the story. It will be published during 2010 by Knowledge Thirst.

How did you find a publisher for the book?

I received an email from SCBWI where Knowledge Thirst was asking for stories.

I sent in my story and they accepted.

Since they let me know they want to publish the story, I have been working with professional, punctual people all the way. I enjoy working with them. I enjoyed writing the story, first in Afrikaans and then in English.

I feel the story has something to say for children and might help them to understand the preciousness of sex. What makes this book different is the fact that the publisher kept me informed all the time and I could see how the book was progressing. This was excellent.

What will your next book be on?

My next book is already finished. It is about an orphan in a centre for abused and neglected children.

Every book is an achievement for me.

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