Before I left for my author book tour of South Africa my friend Steven posted something by Anne Lamott on Facebook and said I should take note of number 7.
“Publication and temporary creative successes are something you have to recover from. They kill as many people as not. They will hurt, damage and change you in ways you cannot imagine. The most degraded and sometimes nearly-evil men I have known were all writers who’d had bestsellers. Yet, it is also a miracle to get your work published… Just try to bust yourself gently of the fantasy that publication will heal you, will fill the Swiss cheesey holes. It won’t, it can’t.”
I sniggered. How ridiculous is that. Of course getting a book published will fill my Swiss cheesey holes! Won’t it? Having a book published will give meaning to a mundane existence. Won’t it?
Dear Reader, indulge me, if you will. Might I confess that having a little taste of fame (re-fame?) and having the nipple taken away leaves this soi-disant demi-celeb in a kind of rootless panic.
Rootless panic, as you know, is fame’s co-walker. For the non-famous, the rootless panic which accompanies pain of divorce, having a double mastectomy, being retrenched, knowing that menopause is looming, can be assuaged by passages and rituals that will blunt the pain while one forges a new identity.
But the famous are a minority whose needs and anxieties are not understood. There are no ceremonies to mark end of a fortnight of “fame,”to ease one back into rag-mop reality.
“Fame” is in inverted commas, because of course I do know that my ‘fame’ was limited to a narrow strata of South African society for about ten days.
But in my defense it is said that there is a limit to the degree of time and attention which a human being can experience. The attention of 150 million people, or 724 million people (the number who saw Neil Armstong stake his giant step for mankind) or 21 billion people (the global TV audience) does not feel any more rewarding that the attention of the few hundred people I encountered at Jenny Cryws-William’s Book Event at the delicious Munro Hotel. Nor is it any different to addressing the Adele Searll 100 Club in the Ballroom at the Mount Nelson or even answering Alison Lowry’s Q and A’s at my favourite book emporium in the world, Exclusive Books in Hyde Park.
After a decade and a half of living in a blaze of obscurity, anonymity has been the lukewarm bath in which I wallowed.
The prospect of going to South Africa to promote my book made me anxious. With each day that passed and the date of my departure loomed, I felt like a watch spring that was being wound tighter and tighter.
On the way to JFK Airport in New York I snapped at my friend Tim.
“Writing this book was the worst idea!” I was suffocating in a terror of my own making. I have a mind that is a paranoiac sponge.
I shan’t bore you with too many details of the trip, but somehow, surrounded by the entire Jacana Media village that supported me, as well as new friends and old, I started believing that the universe is a giant spider’s web of meaning. Stretching infinitely in all directions, it sharpened my appetite for life, my will to live.
I was gobsmacked by South Africa; by the Walt Disney blue skies, the glamour, the poverty, the tangle of humanity, the high-white walls, stratospheric cost of living and something called load shedding (which I wrongly assumed had something to do with weight-loss.)
For two weeks I was making speeches, doing fund-raisers, signing books and being interviewed on television and radio. It was a gruelling schedule but adrenaline surged through my being. My mind felt so sharp it could have picnicked on a razor blade.
It is said that there are two deserts. One that is glory to the eye, the other that is weariness to the feet.
For two weeks, I saw only the former.
It was at a book signing in Kalk Bay that someone asked me “After all this how are you going to put on the hair-shirt of New Jersey and waitressing?”
On my return to New York, there was no-one to fetch me at JFK. I waited for two and a half hours and finally took an Uber. (It cost $265 – about R2,650).
I had been fussed over like a black guest at a Hampstead dinner party. Now I felt displaced. I didn’t know whether I was Arthur or Boksburg.
Those that followed my tour on social media had some idea of what I faced on my return.
Steven’s wife looked at me with pity. “How are you going to return to serving? You’re like Dorothy who finds herself back in Kansas in a black and white world.”
Another friend had an even more extravagant metaphor.
“You’re like The Last Emperor!”
I thought that metaphor a little outré.
Pu Yi was a grown man who had never done anything for himself. He didn’t know how to tie his own shoes or turn off the tap after filling a glass with drinking water. When we see him at the end of the film, he is working as a gardener in Peking.
He seems happy. His re-education was a success because it was essentially education in the first place for a man whose whole life was directed toward making him impotent and irrelevant.
The Last Emperor’s life is a sad irony and his end is a bittersweet elegy.
Everything involving the life of Pu Yi was a waste. Everything except one thing: the notion that a single human life could have infinite value. The Dragon Throne argued that making an emperor into a god ennobled his subjects. The Chinese revolution argued the same thing, by making him into a gardener.
Whatever. I have returned to waitressing and the author tour is a gorgeous fantasy. Whether it was a fantasy that was an escape from reality or whether it was a fantasy in which a determined author wrote a book that is praised by clever people is for you to say dear readers.
What I have learned is that writing a book will not make meaning of your life. Perhaps it will provide spoor, some kind of proof that I lived.
Since my Post Author Tour Hangover has more or less abated, I have come to realize that meaning – or mental health – depends on the world around us. Meaning is something that saunters in on a spring morning. Meaning can be found in the sight of the cherry trees wearing their pink and white blossom petticoats. Meaning is in the frooooosh-froooosh of the small waves lapping the beach and the piercing cry of the seagull. Meaning is the tiny, steady snores of a Pomeranian lying on the pillow beside me with her petal pink tummy turned upwards.
Jani Confidential – a Memoir is published by Jacana Media.