September 19, 2013 | by Shafinaaz Hassim
An interview with reflection, some probing
Interview with Pearl Boshomane for Celebrating Women Mag, Times
-Who is Shafinaaz Hassim? What defines your identity?
There are many layers to who we are in the social, personal and professional spaces that we occupy. I am a South African woman, and I was brought up in a Muslim family during the 1980’s when the memories of being evicted from roadside picnic spots and the wrong side of the beach, are vivid. But then I also spent my formative university years in a time when we were making history and showing the world our template for peace and reconciliation. I think that had a powerful bearing on who we are, who I am. I am a creative artist, a thirsty scholar and a writer of prose and poetry. I don’t just see myself as an author, just as are most writers and creatives a sum of parts, wearing various caps in ways that make sense to their particular circumstance.
– Could you please tell me about your upbringing. How did you grow up, where, what your family was like…
I grew up in a town formerly called Pietersburg, now the city of Polokwane; the eldest of three, I have a sister and a brother. I’ve always had a particular fascination for numbers and books. In our home family time centred around dinner table discussions about how everyone’s day had gone. My mother came from Johannesburg, but my father was born in Pietersburg; his was a large family of humble stature, but his strong work ethic made him an unequivocal success. Both of my parents love reading, and education was always a big priority. We travelled widely, saw famed cities of the world and traipsed through places that we were told tourists don’t always get to see, and developed between us, libraries of books collected from our travels, a habit that continues to the present day.
– How did your upbringing and background, as well as the society you were raised in, influence the woman you are now?
I’ve been a keen observer of what happens around me and so ending up as a social scientist makes perfect sense. Having had the chance to travel from around the age of seven also opened my worldview to new experiences and different ways of seeing people, lifestyles and customs. Books have also contributed in a big way to opening new worlds to me. I grew up in a small town, and only moved to Johannesburg after high school. I think that a close sense of family and the ghetto of community allowed for initial (perhaps false) sense of belonging to be forged (although this was originally an imperative of the previous regime). Life offers many opportunities for this to expand as we grow. I’m influenced by the human qualities of compassion and resilience that I see in people who are brought through challenges and are able to display their best.
– What has been easy or not very challenging in life for you?
My route through education has been relatively easy. I first attended the University of the Witwatersrand to study a degree in Architecture, as the medical sciences for which I had been also accepted, did not appeal to me. After the three years of undergrad, I was so profoundly influenced by the arts courses that I had encountered in passing and through friends, that I registered for an BA degree. I felt like a kid in a candy store; I took Psychology, Sociology, English Literature, African Literature, Philosophy and a range of electives along the way, and my writings and publications are a spin off of my dissertation work on gender and sociology. The fiction is a new foray into narrative writing of the research data around social issues and violence.
– What are your challenges both as an individual and as a woman?
I grapple with the superficial conditions that society presents as options for the way women are expected to live. I come from a background that construes a tradition of the Prophet Mohammed saying that marriage is a major part of faith. I don’t dispute this. But I look at the data around me in the contemporary social sphere and I’m convinced that its more commonly a bartering or trade of domestic labour and the body for a life that many don’t bargain for. And until men and women are able to socially accept their responsibility to each other as equals, I think that society will degenerate, more and more people will feel resentful of their position. Not enough people are fully aware of the decisions that they take and the life that they lead, serving first the self –gratification needs above the higher goals of reaching their full potential and self-growth.
– What are your aspirations personally and professionally — are you who you want to be? What are/were your dreams?
My life makes perfect sense to me. I love writing. Full stop. There can never be a finished product. The story evolves, even when I’m doing a reading at a launch, I often find myself trying something new in the text, in a way that doesn’t change the story, but challenges my presentation for the moment. And so I intend to write for as long as the muse lives. I also have much to be grateful for in my personal life, a formidable family and partial motherhood through my three nieces and one nephew. This arrangement works well for a travelling artist. For the moment. I love painting, and I wish I had more time to explore that side of my life, and perhaps I will do so in the future.
– What is most important to you?
Family and books. And political stability.
– What drives you?
A new story or project, with an intention to create a shift in thinking. Its one thing to present data for a research project, and for analysis, but a completely satisfying journey to insert that data into a story and watch it take on a life of its own as readers take ownership, identify with the story and expand its scope in that way. My novel on domestic violence has done that.
– What scares you?
– What is your perception of the society/country that you lived in when you were a teenager compared to now?
Growing up in apartheid South Africaembedded a strange consciousness of isolation in me while growing up, and these questions broke down when we travelled to other countries, and noted often glaring differences, a freedom of association emerged. While I was still too young to vote in the 1994 elections – by one year – information was still guarded and we felt a mixture of caution and elation even during that transitory period.
I think that my views have changed in various ways over the past twenty years. Earlier euphoria has given way to concern over our individual responsibilities and how we might harness them to bring out the best in this wonderful country.