Shafinaaz Hassim in conversation with Janet van Eeden

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Belly of fire: an anthology of hope, forgiveness, redemption and reawakening
Compiled by Shafinaaz Hassim

Short review by JvE

Belly of Fire is a book of activism rather than of literature. Each contributor to this beautifully produced volume, published by WordFire Press, has scoured his or her soul to shed light on an aspect of life in South Africa where prejudice or injustice holds sway. As such it is a searing exploration of pain either experienced by the authors’ characters themselves, as in Lubna Nadvi’s “Candlelight Dreams”, or else through received pain as the protagonist sees others around her suffering, as in “Land of Betrayal” by Nazia Peer.

The common theme running through the stories is that of disempowerment, either through sexism, poverty, racism or war. The phrase “belly of fire” refers to the churning anxiety inside each soul whose voice has been suppressed through fear of reprisal. In this collection many of those in oppressive circumstances are heard for the first time.

It is just as well that this little volume has a sturdy hard cover to contain the powerful utterances within. Belly of Fire is not for those seeking light entertainment or a pleasant holiday read. The stories and poems in this book speak their truths plainly and fearlessly. For once, at least in this collection, the voiceless are given a voice.

Q&A with Shafinaaz Hassim

Shafinaaz, how did this hard-hitting publication come about?

A total of fifteen authors are featured in this new publication, including some activists and analysts who are now published in fiction for the very first time. The themes expressed in Belly of Fire include abuse, genital mutilation, displacement, war, polygeny and a range of issues that continue to face both women and men in the contemporary global context. Many of the stories also look at how women and men relate within the parameters society demarcates for acceptable and “corrective” behaviour. Identity is sparked around these limitations and expectations. Individuals are scarred along the way, or are able to find a spark of opportunity to break beyond the limits. Deviance, acceptability and stigma are perceived concepts, difficult to measure, but these largely regulate social behaviour. Many of these stories are reflective of this. In “Diary of a First Wife”, which I wrote, the comment on rights and responsibilities is made evident in the lack of transparency around ownership and financial inheritance, issues that secure wives and offspring.

I asked some of the contributors to describe the motivation and message behind the stories and poems they’ve written.

“Candlelight Dreams” is a multi-layered narrative. At one level it reflects the reality of life in South Africa for the majority of people who live in shacks or informal settlements and is about collective struggles faced by the poor. At another level it is about a very personal emotional struggle faced by one person. When juxtaposed, both struggles are about the human condition and how human frailties interact with one another in the private and public spheres of our lives. Yet the message is that despite the challenges there is hope that all can be well one day, if one just perseveres. – Lubna Nadvi

“Kabhi/Sometimes” is a reflective piece about an individual trying to find her/his place in the world. Originally written in Urdu and translated into English (not an exact translation but equivalent) it is a philosophical attempt to interrogate the nature of existence and how individuals see the world from multiple perspectives. – Lubna Nadvi, political scientist, writer, poet

“The Stench of Prejudice” was something I felt I just had to write as my small jab at how easy it is to breed racism, intolerance and bigotry while being shrouded in a veil of “normalness” within our society and societies all over. “The Stench of Prejudice” says that we are all culpable and that we are all capable of embracing the “other” rather than dousing ourselves in that “stench” that is prejudice. – Afzal Moolla, poet.

“Land of Betrayal”: South Africa is still plagued by its apartheid history, even though South Africans have been living in a democratic country for 17 years. Inequitable economic distribution, inadequate service delivery and high levels of unemployment and disease have resulted in general dissatisfaction among ordinary South Africans. The xenophobic attacks highlight deep-rooted issues that need to be addressed by those in leadership, NGOs and ordinary South Africans. Burning people alive, destroying their belongings and mob attacks speak volumes. “Land of Betrayal” is a story about a doctor who is treating the victims of the attacks and who then starts to see his country and himself differently. – Nazia Peer, medical doctor, writer, mother

“Whispers of Freedom”: I write my poems to strike the spark of consciousness within readers so that they become aware of the changes in our world which can steal upon us like the twilight before the dark. – Rassool Snyman, poet

“A Way to be Born” was written to show that there are many births, besides the physical one, that take place in all of us all throughout our lives. Perceptions, ideals, even knowledge of ourselves and the reasons we made certain decisions, are born again and so we are gifted with brand new beginnings every time we stop and really listen to what life is saying. I believe that women who are self-assured and truly honest with themselves are the cornerstone to a successful society and indeed our global village. The human spirit has the ability to grow strong through conflict – even if that conflict is within ourselves. What I write also seeks to illustrate that there is no such thing as coincidence or chance. “He is too perfect a Planner.” Everything does indeed happen for a reason. – Tasneem Basha

“Escaping Decay” tells of a journey of self-discovery, a transition that reconciles a hurtful past with a promising future. At its core lies a message of hope for the resilient. The poem was penned on 26 April 2004, a day before Freedom Day, while I was a 1st-year student. My choice to include “In my mind’s eye” reflects my fascination with Shakespeare’s writings. – Sana Ebrahim, poet

“When Children Scream”: My story is not so much about rape as it is about survival and hope. In the ’90s I wrote several real-life pieces on rape, the first of which was aptly titled “Rape Survival: We don’t call them victims anymore”. I encountered women that were raped by men they knew and others that were gang-raped by total strangers. What I am left with is a keen sense that, as women, we are undoubtedly vulnerable to the physical strength of men, but we are also in no way the weaker sex. The women I encountered were ordinary woman, leading ordinary lives. But they were extraordinary in their strength. They survived. They led productive lives despite being violated in the most unimaginable ways. This is my tribute to them. – Julekha Kalla

“Girl-child” was written for the gentler gender, for our woman-ness, for our sexuality that often becomes our shackles. It was written as a cry of uprising, to razorblade and move; it was written to remind the world. – Gulshan Khan, poet

“I am Hate”: The poem was a slight glimpse that I saw in people from different cultural and social circles. I have seen these people at the edge of their tolerance for fellow human beings who are different from them or below their own definition of what it is to be human. Whenever a situation pushed them close to or past this boundary, something overpowered their senses. They became senseless and failed at every attempt to contain their discomfort. I always seemed to notice this flame dancing inside of them and although some showed it, others didn’t. The intensity of this insanity was all the same. By allowing myself or attempting to become that flame, to take its form, its scent and its essence, I hoped to mirror to that individual the state of hate that they’ve become. In this way I’d like them to reflect on that image of themselves. I’d like to make them aware of themselves so that they may take stock of themselves. – Camillo Mubarak Zimba, poet

I asked Shafinaaz Hassim to comment on the responses from people who attended the launch, as well as from those who had read the book.

The book was launched in Polokwane on 21 September, 2011 and received interesting responses from the audience, who wanted to interrogate the idea of dealing with real issues in fiction format. While many women seek validation from the telling of their own pertinent narratives, there are many who remain silent on significant issues and so we identify the prospect of providing a wider platform to voice stories through the vehicle of fiction. Belly of Fire does that. We’re on a full book tour, and the second launch hosted at Love Books in Melville generated an enthusiastic crowd. The next launch is at Exclusive Books in Durban and then we move on to Cape Town.

Other comments after the launches

I was deeply moved by "Roots of an Oak Tree". Maybe it’s because of our own ignorance or preconceived notions of what every Jewish person thinks or sees. I have many Jewish friends, but for the first time I put a face to Israel which is contrary to what I had always thought. I felt for the character Aron as I think he lost his soul in his quest to find it. He needed to redeem his sister’s death and perhaps this was the easiest way to do it – through creating a common enemy he could vent at. He directed his hate at a population which he dehumanised so that it made it easier to hate them. – Zaheerah Bham-Ismail after the Johannesburg launch.

This is a collaboration of work that resonates with who we are, where we come from, how we think, how we manipulate emotions, what we conceal, how much we reveal, what we choose to believe and how we relate to our own circumstances. Belly of Fire gives voice and life to the things we never really get around to being honest about ... Lubna Nadvi makes room for a deep nostalgic reflection of a journey, in an Urdu poem, that's ultimately a homecoming. – Katy Essa after the Johannesburg launch

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