'Other than my mom, I wasn't scared of hurting anyone.' Christy Chilimigras on Things Even González Can't Fix
The 24-year-old memoirist discusses her addict parents, masturbation, and faking bravery
With her dark tresses partly obscured by a pashmina, sipping on a Castle Lite, a lit Camel in hand, the 24-year-old Christy Chilimigras could easily be mistaken for yet another millennial patron at Melville’s #hip Hell’s Kitchen.
But there’s more to this South African Greek gal than meets the eye.
Despite not having reached a quarter of a century yet, Christy recently wrote her memoir (yes, you read that correctly) in five and a half months (yes, you read that correctly as well.)
Published by MF Books Joburg, author and journalist Melinda Ferguson’s publishing house, Things Even González Can’t Fix is an affecting, funny and searingly honest account of Christy and her older sister’s turbulent lives as the children of drug addicts – crack, in her dad’s case; marijuana, her mother’s.
Sisonke Msimang, who’s memoir Always Another Country was recently published, encourages her pupils to “Write from your scars, not from your wounds”. I ask Msimang’s fellow memoirist whether she relates to this…
“I love that so much, I’ve never heard that before,” Christy answers in her animated, unmistakably Joburg-bred voice.
“I mean I guess, sure, to a certain extent that was the case. Like when I had the [memoir] writing course with Mel [Ferguson], she came to me on the first day and she was, like, I was the only person in this room of, like, 14 people who hadn’t cried throughout. And she was like ‘This is how I know you really need to write this book’. It’s almost like I was at a point where I could … write about everything without fucking destroying myself all over again,” she responds contemplatively.
“So, sure. I guess maybe that was it. I’ve been writing about it and been thinking about it and talking about everything for so long at that point, that then you can kinda write about it more calmly, and more objectively, I think. So, sure. I think there’s a beautiful truth in that.”
Christy was concerned that she and Melinda, a recovered heroin addict who’s own memoir, Smacked, chronicles her years of substance abuse, would bash heads over her depiction of addicts.
“I was so worried she would hate me and I was fine with that, but I mean – growing up the way I did – I really can’t stand addicts and it just triggers me immediately.
“She would – I imagine, as a recovered addict – she would hope for kindness and understanding and I’m not there yet,” she continues, lighting another cigarette.
“But she was amazing and I think she was quite refreshed by it, in a sense, because I think she’s so used to addicts gravitating towards her to speak about their stories and I was coming from the other side of it. So I think I was looking at her to understand my parents more, and she was looking at me to understand her children more.
“So it was kind of serendipitous and lovely in that way and there were no hard feelings – from either of us.”
Christy’s admiration and respect for Melinda is near-tangible, supported by Christy’s powerful statement that “if anything, she’s challenged my ideas regarding addiction.”
After a brief pause and another sip of her suip, Christy continues.
“As much as she’s written about her experiences … it’s not like a chip on her shoulder, you know? I had an addict father who, like, feels like the world owes him something because he’s been through what he’s been through and he’s ‘clean’ now,” she says, air quoting ‘clean’.
“I say ‘clean’ because I don’t know. But ja, man. She challenged me. Which was cool.”
An impassioned “I don’t know how people write books otherwise! I swear to God!” serves as definite affirmation when I ask whether Melinda’s advice to write as if the people you’re writing about are dead is in any way sound.
“It was so fucking freeing because … I mean, my mom is my biggest fan and she’s always been the most supportive person. But she’s a fragile person, too.
“And that’s one of the things I love most about her. So that was really terrifying. And just hearing that … When I finished the course I didn’t think Mel would approach me about publishing my book. I didn’t think there was a book coming from it. I didn’t event want to write memoir.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to come in, learn as much as I can, and apply to fiction’. Fuck memoir. Memoir is the worst. How self-indulgent,” she exclaims, complemented with an eye-roll to end all eye-rolls.
“It’s sad that I needed that validation and that permission from someone to say ‘just write your truth’, but I think a lot of writers need that.”
Although Christy has been writing her whole life and writing about her family her whole life, she never thought that a book would materialise. It was a “sickening compulsion that drove me insane” which drove her to pen the past to paper.
Having always considered fiction writing as a possibility, she describes it as “bizarre” that she eventually wrote an autobiographical piece, without ever having considered writing a fictionalised account of her life.
“I never thought ‘let me dissect these characters, these real-life characters in my life, and turn them into fiction’,” she furthers. “It just happened and it happened really quickly – in five and a half months! – and I just ran with it.”
As our French friends across the pond can attest to, ‘mémoire’ literally translates to ‘memory’ and while Christy might only be 24 years old, there’s a heck of a lot to remember. How, tho?
“It’s odd,” she responds after a while.
“I mean, my sister and I – we were inseparable growing up and she was my rock in a lot of ways – and us speaking in our adulthoods now, it’s quite wild in that I’ll remember two specific years with such clarity and she’s completely blanked those out.
“It’s the same with me. So in those scenarios I didn’t write about anything that I didn’t remember. When I was younger I interviewed my aunt and my mom. And my mom’s a hard nut to crack, she didn’t want to tell me a lot of things. Um…”
She ashes her cigarette before continuing.
“I just have a really fabulous memory in regards to retaining these things – and also it’s tricky to forget. There’s things that are traumatic and that you block out. And all of those I was fine to not write about. I wasn’t about to” – her eyes drift towards the somber winter sky as she considers her words – “I wasn’t about to attack my sanity to try recover things but the things that were obvious, that were just sitting there neatly and that I knew to be true, I went with those. But ja, I’m sure there’s lots else I didn’t dive into.”
If the things Christy *did* dive into could be compared to oceanic depths, the Mariana Trench would be a suitable personification thereof. She unflinchingly writes about her parents’ drug use, her own alcohol abuse, her mother’s failed relationships and her own failed relationships with not a single doekie left omgedraai.
“Other than my mom, I wasn’t scared of hurting anyone. And I know that’s a selfish thing and I am fine with that,” she honestly states.
“I’ve been screamed at by many a person who loves me, who used to love me. I’ve been told by an ex that this was a betrayal of intimacy. But I said to him you’re totally right, it is a betrayal of intimacy. I fucking get that.”
The conversation is interrupted by a backfiring motorbike. Christy, noticing me skrik‘ing, laughs and mirthfully yells “Get down!”
There were times when Christy was convinced that she couldn’t publish her memoir for fear of it being “too much”.
“It’s going to fuck me up once this book is out and everyone knows it’s about me,” she explains.
“Because as much as I turn the lens on everyone else, I think I was quite hard on myself in how much I gave away. Especially with the ending. That fucked me up so much.
“I sat on my couch and my room mate got home and she was like, ‘What is wrong?’ I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t breathe, I was like, ‘I can’t publish this, my boyfriend doesn’t need to know this’. And I read it to her and she said ‘You cannot change it!’
“So you pretend to be brave. I didn’t feel brave writing this but I faked it and then eventually … Faking bravery, I suppose, has the same end-result as actually being brave and that’s what I found throughout all of this.”
A topic she unambiguously writes about is that of covert incest: from a young age, both she and her sister were subjected to sexualisation by their father, with whom Christy no longer has a relationship.
After having spoken about this at her launch, she woke up the next day to a message from a girl that she’s known for years, which read ‘Oh dear God, I didn’t know this was a thing; this is exactly what I went through’, Christy tells me.
“So actually hearing the term for it fucked her up in a big way, but in a good way. Which is exactly how I felt when I came across it online.
“But that … that form of abuse is so subtle and I think I wrote about subtly, as well.”
She stubs her cigarette out and proceeds to denounce the insensitive, in-your-face approach so prevalent in books about, or featuring, incest.
“It’s like everyone wants you to be as hectic as possible. And when I started writing, Mel was like ‘Ah! There’s this new book called The Incest Diary out, I really need you to read it’.
“Mila, it was the most traumatising thing I’ve ever done!” she cries. “Have you read it?”
An ashamed ‘no’ escapes my mouth…
“It’s wild! It’s literally – and I’m not here to bash anyone, the author stayed anonymous and I’m really glad that she did – but I was as … as a victim slash survivor slash whatever you want to call it, I didn’t find that story … really empowering. I’m sure some people did. I was like ‘is this porn for a paedophile?’” she questions.
“It was so graphic. It was really graphic and really triggering. And then I put that down and I was like ‘Oh my God, is this what Mel’s expecting of me?’ Cause I’m not ever going to be like that. I don’t see the point of traumatising women, or men, with this thing in an effort to tell my story. Abuse shouldn’t be salacious in my mind.”
Christy attaches immense value to consent and the necessity of teaching young children about this crucial aspect of relationships, acknowledging “how much we, as his sisters and as his mother, had messed up” upon finding out that her younger brother had never heard of the word before.
“I’d love to speak to women and have that discourse but I also think the conversation needs to happen at the roots of it. So in that way I’d love to – yassis! – just chat to young boys and young girls about what consent actually is.”
Penning her past wasn’t an enjoyable experience, citing that the only vaguely likable part of her narrative was writing about young Christy; the Christy who cherishes the memory of the years spent at her beloved Wendywood house with her mother and sister.
“I hadn’t really visited that in a long time and those few years in that house, when my friends speak about their childhood, I’m like ‘ja, that was it’.
“So that was really special. I felt like I was able to reconcile my child self with my current self, which I’ve been desperate to do for a very long time.”
As for everything else she wrote about?
“Deliciously painful” comes the assured answer.
“God … Memoir … God,” she laughs in disbelief. “It’s so severe. I don’t know how I put myself through that. I get to work and I’m, like, shaking and the world is still carrying on and everyone’s just talking to you about deadlines and you’re like ‘I’m bleeding here’.”
Writing Things Even González Can’t Fix was a fairly lonely process, especially as Christy chose not to disclose what she was putting in her book as “all my closest people in my life that I would have spoken to were featured in the book and then you don’t want to speak to them because you don’t want to give them the opportunity to sway you.
“I didn’t tell my mom about the hard things I was writing, because then she’d be like ‘Oh, don’t write about that. People shouldn’t know that’. So you’re almost just completely shut yourself off from everyone.”
Christy admits that there were a few hard weeks (which she expected) after her book had been read by her mom, sister and partner, adding that they didn’t really know “if they were allowed to be angry with me.
“And I was like, ‘Of course you’re allowed to be angry with me; it’s a very selfish thing I’ve done’. It’s not easy to put my sex life out there for my boyfriend, it’s not easy to put my sister’s story out because her story is my story. So it took us all a long time to compartmentalise our roles within our love. And I was, like, ‘I know you still love me even if you’re fucking furious with me right now, that’s okay’.
“So once we learned how to navigate that, they would scream at me with abandon. Never Daniel, Daniel doesn’t scream,” she quickly adds of her boyfriend of the past two years.
“But my mom! ‘Oh my God!’ And then she’d be like ‘Do you want tea? Do you want lamb? What can I make you?’ SO Greek! I swear… But amazing. My mom’s amazing.”
It wasn’t only the content of her memoir that elicited a strong response; the South African bookselling industry took issue with the original title, The tiger, the mouse and the furious masturbator.
Letting go of the title was a “really hard thing”, because it made her feel like “I’m too much,” Christy divulges.
“I really, genuinely wasn’t expecting people to be taken aback by female masturbation. And every time people would look at me and roll their eyes, I thought ‘Oh my God, what’s wrong with ME?’ Why am I so willing to have this conversation or just to exist within this fact of life, but to everyone else – even women who I know flick the bean regularly,” she pointedly adds, “they’re still so taken aback by it.
“It wasn’t losing the title that upset me,” she muses, “it was that I felt like I was doing something wrong by wanting to speak plainly…”
Christy finds it incredulous that young girls in 2018 are being told that they’re ‘filthy’ for masturbating, querying “how the fuck” one reconciles this “‘filthy’ act that is so natural when you’re actually a sexual being later in your life … So I don’t know, man.
“Like now, I’ve also realised that I’m just going to say the damn thing and continue to talk openly, and if people don’t like how comfortable I am speaking about it – this isn’t the only topic I’m comfortable about. If you’re uncomfortable about me talking about masturbation, you’ll be uncomfortable with 80% of the stuff that comes out of my mind. So we’re probably not going to be great friends any way.
“So in that way I’m like ‘Wasn’t this a quick way we can cancel each other out? We know we’re not going to bond,” she laughs. “You just go home and Netflix and I’ll just go home and masturbate.” (LOL!)
Having covered addiction, family, masturbation, sex and relationships in her debut memoir of 256 pages, one cannot help but ask: What’s Next, Ms. Chilimigras?
“According to Mel and the back of my book, I’m working on my second book,” she grins.
“I’d really, really love to try my hand at fiction. I genuinely want to. I keep waiting for that moment of waking up from a dream and having it, having this thing and that hasn’t happened yet.
“I love scrutinising romantic love, that’s something that interests me a lot. And not even sexy love, but just humans trying to fucking make shit work. So we’ll see. I’m excited.
“But, ja. Fiction. My poor family…”
There you have it!