Q&A with author and performer Chase Rhys
'I think people enjoy reading Kaaps because it can be a multisensory experience'
Nal’ibali Column 7 Term 3 2019
Your fantastic novel Kinnes came out last year and tells the stories of four young people living on the Cape Flats. One of the distinctive things about the book is that it’s written in very contemporary Kaaps. What reaction to this did you have from publishers through to readers?
I wasn’t surprised when the publishing industry had their reservations! There were people who said that using the Kaaps language made Kinnes “too niche”.
Thankfully I had forward-thinking publishers at Kwela books who really took a risk with me to make the first book completely written in Kaaps. Our risk paid off! Readers took to the work and Kinnes continues to exceed all my expectations. I could never have imagined that this Kaaps book would be studied in Afrikaans departments at universities across SA.
I think people enjoy reading Kaaps because it can be a multisensory experience. At first the words look unfamiliar, so you start sounding them out loud and instantly you hear Kaaps — its rhythm, its people, the place and its energy.
You’ve said before that you wrote Kinnes for people who think they don’t like books. Why are books important for everyone, no matter their background or previous experience?
Reading a book is intimate, your attention goes inwards, it makes you still. This world could do with more stillness. I think perhaps people have been put off from reading because of how books were made in the past. There was something about the types of stories, intimidating language and unrelatable characters that repelled a lot of people. I’m interested in reaching those people.
You’ve also contributed a short story to an anthology of LGBTI+ work titled They Called Me Queer. Why is queer visibility and celebration of identity so important, particularly in SA?
I always knew that I was queer and it was my greatest source of shame as a child. Growing up in the ’90s I don’t remember seeing many positive representations of queer people of colour — right now I can only recall the hairdresser from “Streaks” on SABC1. I imagine that if I’d grown up in a world where I saw people celebrated for their diversity, I would have had relief from all the unnecessary self-hatred.
What would you say to people who want to tell their own or their community’s story creatively, but are intimidated to begin because it’s not one they’re used to seeing in SA?
In this time, where it seems like society is moving backwards, it’s so important that we access as many different perspectives as possible. Please share your story, so that we can also experience what your life has to offer.
You are also involved in the Borderlands Public Arts Project. Can you tell us a little bit about what Borderlands does?
I co-founded Borderlands in 2015 because I was so disturbed by how inequality operates in society. I live in the hyper-segregated Cape Peninsula, where there have been no efforts to integrate communities segregated by apartheid spatial planning. So I collaborated with a group of artists to create Borderlands. We use the border/buffer zones that were designed to separate areas — roads, mountains, valleys — as neutral spaces for people from different communities to come together and encounter each other. We use public art in the space as a way of addressing issues of land, race, inequality and peace.
I love the premise of the project: how border zones between communities can bring people together in public spaces. How do the spaces between us, whether through space, language or culture, hold possibility for amazing creativity?
There are two ways to deal with perceived space between people. Unfortunately the way most us engage with any sort of difference is to be afraid of it. The better way to deal with it is to try to look beyond the spaces. This way is more beautiful and natural.
Let’s say we don’t speak the same language. Instead of immediately fearing each other, we can find other ways of communicating that transcends language. We could try communicating with physicality, gestures, paintings, drawings. When we stop fearing difference, all sorts of possibilities for creative expression open up.
How have you experienced the ways in which storytelling, whether it’s through writing, acting, painting or making music, can transform people’s lives and make a difference?
I used to be haunted by my past. Then one day, while writing about my painful experiences, I discovered that there was a difference between my stories and who I am. I could use fiction to play with my stories; I have the power to reimagine memory, change what happened and write my ideal endings. Fiction took away the sting of my past. Storytelling is the reason I’m no longer disturbed by my memories.
What gets you excited about the creative ways people are telling their own stories in SA?
I’m excited by all the content created online and through social media. Our technology lets more people tell and share their stories than ever before, which is brilliant!
People can catch you on several panels at Open Book Festival in September. What are you most excited about discussing?
The Fictional Lives panel on September 5. I’m really looking forward to speaking about how I use fiction as a tool for healing.
• The Open Book festival takes place in Cape Town from September 4 to 8.
Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access stories in a range of South African languages, visit www.nalibali.org.