Monday, October 8, 2012

A Literary Adventure in South Africa

For those of you who have had the...pleasure of interacting with me in the last year face-to-face, on the phone, via email or by sighing annoyingly at my Facebook statuses, you may have heard that I, through the help of a good friend and that magician's kit I bought, landed myself an awesome job at the UN. I know, right!? I show up to the same location every day! And I'm on time like 65% of the time! I'm growing up! Where the hell did I put my Legos?! 

In my short time at the UN thus far, I have learned many things. Mostly, how to go to my inner happy place while the really smart people I work with talk about the weather and Africa. It seems that I have also learned how to throw around impressive phrases like "disaster risk management" and "pre-planting coefficients" enough that I got myself included on a few trips for work, the latest of which was in South Africa. Despite my absolute fascination (obsession?) with relatively benign things like puppies, miniature objects, and iPods, I think I do a decent job of taking advantage of where I am in terms of cultural, political, and artistic activities and events. But saying "disaster risk management" 50 times a day while using magician's kit is exhausting, so when I had the opportunity to go to Cape Town for a few days after work, I settled on one requirement for my vacation:

I don't want to learn anything.

Of course this excluded learning basic things like:

- Where is my hotel?
- Is there a museum of miniature objects in Cape Town?
- What kind of puppy is that?
- Am I wearing pants?

But you get the point. Anything involving history, books, or words with more than two syllables were thus summarily banned from my vacation repertoire, including the words "summarily" and "repertoire." Then I looked at the list of things I had to do in Cape Town. And realized only three things on the list were actually in Cape Town, two of which were closed. Being the American't I am, properly driving a stick shift car is out of my range, and driving on the left side of the road is like asking me to fit in at a Republican convention, so I figured I'd last approximately 3 seconds if I managed to convince some unsuspecting South African to let me rent a car. This created a dilemma, for my lack of preparation in coming to Cape Town masked the simple reality that there is not a lot to do in Cape Town unless I am willing to learn something. Bleh.

I instead settled on putting on pants and going to see a mountain that is flat and apparently famous. Smart phones are both empowering and destructive, for I feel total confidence in walking outside in a new country with zero inclination of where I am, yet I scream bloody murder if my phone doesn't have all the answers. Siri was being a sassy that day, and instead of telling me how to get to the bus, decided to lead me down a few harbors and two cafes (she was thirsty). So I shut her up and stormed in the only direction that makes sense (backwards). Two hours later, I realized all I had managed to do was make twelve wrong turns and walk halfway to Pretoria.

As though the God of Nerds had commanded its wish, I realized I was 30 feet away from the main venue of a literary festival someone told me about the night before. My un-learned instincts told me to stay away, but the rain told me to get the hell out of the middle of the street, so I went inside. What I saw inside was frightful...there they were - the ultimate evil of all mindless vacations: BOOKS. Despite all efforts of resistance, the God of Nerds used its awkward pocket-protected power to push me to the table of bound paper that would inevitably make its way into my bag and proceed to sit on my nightstand for 10 years in a guilty dust-gathering silence.

Slowly but surely, the God of Nerds infected me with its learning virus, and I found myself back at the literary festival two days later after another failed tourist attraction visit. (Castle of Good Hope, my ass.) The most interesting event on the literary event agenda was a conversation hour with two people I'd never heard of and Kiran Desai, who wrote a book called the "Inheritance of Loss", which, over the years, has taught me how to spell the word "inheritence" "inheritance." Being the Grade A planner I am, I forgot to get tickets. So when I walked up to the cashier and expected to be gladly ushered into the event, I was annoyed to find out that the only event that still had tickets available for that time was a few French people talking about a bunch of short stories they wrote that no one really cares to read. C'est geniale quoi. NOT. But eh, you know, je speak francais sometimes, so I got tickets anyway. The God of Nerds was pleased.

The other American I was with and I stood in the middle of the waiting area to demonstrate the poor walking skills of what appears to the whole of South Africa (seriously, they're worse than New Yorkers). Five minutes and 4 broken toes later, we were pushed (literally) in with a giant masse of people towards the back of the venue. The woman ushering the audience told us we could either sit in the very back or the very front of the theater. As appealing as the nose bleed section sounded, the God of Nerds virus had successfully infiltrated my brain, and I vraiment speak francais de temps to time, so the front it was.

There are many passions in my life, one of them being complaining about artificial overhead light, of which there was a lot in said theater. After giving myself a few minutes to adjust to the grating waves, my eyes focused in a small stack of books that looked anything but francais and short. Then I saw the first part of the title on one of the books: I-n-h-e-r-i-t-a-n-c-e. Oops. I was in the event that was sold out.

My first inclination was to tell someone we had wandered into the wrong event. That lasted approximately 0.2 nanoseconds. Screw that, Cape Town ruined my "me no learny" policy for vacation, so if I was going to commit to breaking my only requirement, I was going to go all the way! As I relished in this moment of Nerd rebellion, the person I was with reminded me to not be a dumbass and get rid of my ticket that clearly said, "Pretentious French event." In a classic Mala exaggeration, I decided the only ways to get rid of said ticket was to do one of the following:

1. Light it on fire
2. Eat it whole
3. Bust out the magician's kit and make it disappear
4. Create a wormhole and send it to another dimension.

But my friend suggested I put it in my pocket. Oh.

After sweating bullets for another ten minutes, the authors and the moderator took the stage, and I determined I would not indeed get caught and thrown out of the city of Cape Town for life. (That's an appropriate punishment for crashing the event, right?) The authors and moderators engaged in a series of quips, anecdotes and senseless banter before the moderator opened up the floor for questions from the audience. Apparently the quips, anecdotes and senseless banter flew straight over the audience, however, because the 100+ people in the room sat in a strange silence for a solid minute since no one seemed to have a question. Finally, I raised my hand.

I have a tendency to say a smattering of the stupid thoughts that run threw my head, so I fully suspected I would blurt out something like,

"I'm not supposed to be here."


"Where's the bathroom?"

But instead, I managed something like this,

"You all spoke of the nascent stages of your writing career; as I suspect I am one of several burgeoning writers in the audience, how did you address the issues of intersectionality your books cover? What advice can give to someone trying to carve their space out with agents and publishers without being pigeon-holed in a particular discipline or genre?"


One of the authors gave an answer that completely missed the point of the question, which of course made me cross-eyed and cross-armed. A few seconds later, though, a small smile crept over Kiran Desai's face. The moderator noticed, and asked Kiran if she wanted to say something. Kiran simply shrugged. But then! She looked directly at me and said,

"I just want to wish the young lady good luck. Keep at it."

Yeah, that happened. A world renowned author told me to keep at my writing. And that, my friends, was my Literary Adventure in South Africa.

"It pays to learn."

- God of Nerds

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