Interview: Neshani Andreas by Erika von Wietersheim

Neshani Andreas – A passion for writing
by Erika von Wietersheim
April 2005

This article is reprinted with permission from insight Namibia, October 2004

‘Writing is a lonely business, ’ says Neshani Andreas, one of Namibia’s most successful but unsung authors. ‘You write alone, and you never know if anybody will ever read what you write.’ But Andreas remains passionate about the written word. ‘I could never stop writing. It is with me every day, I never forget it. I edit in my mind whatever I hear or read. I pick up what people say, how they say it, I pick up words, expressions ...’

It is not easy being an author in a country whose writing culture is still at its infancy. Andreas has written one of Namibia’s finest post-independence novels, for which she gained international recognition. Her 180-page novel, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu,’ was published in 2001 by the prestigious Heinemann African Writers Series, generally regarded as the literary debut for some of Africa’s finest writers. The series includes about 70 authors from 20 different African countries, and Neshani Andreas is the only Namibian novelist included in the series to date.

‘I always wanted to write,’ says Andreas. ‘I wrote as a child, in high school, as long as I can remember.’ However, when her first novel was published and became an immediate success, Andreas was already 37 years old. Why did it take so long to bring her writing before the public?

‘For most of my life I just wrote for myself,’ Andreas replies. ‘I never told anybody.’  In her community, writing was not recognised, let alone encouraged as a serious activity. Even as a child, she withdrew into her own world, shy and almost embarrassed about a passion that was completely strange to the society in which she grew up. ‘I lived in a world that did not make sense to anybody else. On the other hand I had to fit into a world around me that did not make much sense to me,’ the author sums up her existence.

Andreas was in her early twenties when she made the first attempt to mention to friends that she liked writing. The reaction was devastating; nobody gave her wish to write any serious thought, and the young woman felt even more discouraged than before. Undeterred, Andreas continued her lonely writing for the following ten years, filling pages and pages with notes. ‘My writings became part of my luggage whenever I moved from one place to the next. They were my most treasured things,’ she says.

Andreas was born and grew up in Walvis Bay. After school she trained as a teacher at Ongwediva Training College and taught for five years in northern Namibia. During this time she got to know and understand rural life, on which her first novel is based.

In 1994 she moved to Windhoek, where she did a post-graduate degree in education at the University of Namibia, before joining the Peace Corps. It was here that her life as a writer took a new direction.  ‘I became computer literate, I polished up my English, and by doing a lot of travelling inside and outside Namibia I broadened my views and became more confident,’ Andreas recalls.

A turning point in her life came when Andreas finally met someone who shared her literary passion. One day she was speaking to a young Peace Corps Volunteer, Reed Dickson, and mentioned in passing that she had tried her hand at writing. Dickson’s reaction was different from any Andreas had experienced so far. Dickson immediately asked his shy colleague to show him some of her notes. Andreas gave him a few pages to read and, to her surprise, he was impressed. ‘This was one of the most treasured moments in my life,’ she remembers. ‘I had met the first person in my life who showed interest and understanding in my writing.’

The exhilaration of being acknowledged as a writer prompted Andreas to buy a laptop computer, and she started writing with a purpose. All the stories stored in her mind for years, particularly about village life in northern Namibia, surfaced in an outburst of creativity. ‘Now I was doing it!’ she recalls. ‘There were papers lying all over in my room, I was writing all day.’  - Andreas’ first novel was in the making.

The unfolding storyline was ‘inspired by true events,’ Andreas emphasises, ‘it is a combination of many stories fitting together like a puzzle.’ One problem Andreas encountered was finding a balance between absolute truthfulness on the one hand and love and respect for her community on the other. ‘I did not want to be insensitive to my culture, I did not want to be insulting, but I wanted to be as honest and realistic as possible,’ she says. ‘I have to write honestly, otherwise I would feel uncomfortable. Being dishonest to please others goes against your own creativity.’

Barely ten years after independence, Andreas thought Namibians might not be ready to look honestly at themselves and their society. ‘ Namibia was a new country. people were still talking about the struggle, about exile and returning home. Writers were expected to write about great events, to glorify the past and the present, to glorify people.’ Andreas, who was not in exile, realised that she could not do justice to such topics.  ‘My struggle was different,’ she explains. ‘I was not involved in high-profile political activities. I had to write about other things: travelling in overcrowded minibuses, selling and buying at markets, about sickness, witchcraft and church, about ordinary things.’

The Purple Violet of Oshaantu is indeed about ordinary people and everyday life. But the story is neither ordinary nor simple. Set in a fictitious village community in northern Namibia, it tells about the friendship of two women, of marriage and widowhood, of domestic violence and death, of harvests and markets, of witchcraft and AIDS. The novel dissects the positive and negative forces within a rural community and exposes the vested interests that lie behind traditions and gender roles. Written in simple, gentle prose with beautiful poetic passages, the novel reflects on modern rural life with all its contradictions – its beauty and brutality, its wisdom and foolishness, its simplicity and intricacies.

When Andreas completed the manuscript in 1999, she handed it to Namibian publisher Jane Katjavivi, who passed it on to the editor of the African Writers Series. Katjavivi considers this as one of the most memorable moments in her publishing career, realising as soon as she had read the manuscript that it would be a success. One year later the novel was published and publicly launched in Namibia.

Since then, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu has sold steadily, both inside and outside Namibia and will be reprinted shortly.  ‘She is a talented empathetic writer whose perspective, compassion and social conscience is needed,’ says Andreas’ publisher Irene Staunton.

The response to the novel back home was mixed. Andreas appeared on Namibia television, the book was reviewed in most local newspapers, and people in the streets stopped to congratulate her. This made her feel happy and comfortable with what she had done. However, most of the accolades were in response to her coverage in the media, rather than to the novel itself. People reacted to her as a person, a friend, a family member, but rarely as an accomplished writer. Those who did were often disconcerted, taken aback or simply curious. ‘Did you actually write this book yourself?’ some would ask. ‘Where do these stories in your book come from? Did they happen to you?’ or ‘Why do you write something like this? Are you up to something?’ – As much as family and friends were happy for the budding author, Neshani the person and Neshani the writer somehow did not fit together.

In spite of the success of her first novel, writing remains ‘a lonely thing’. ‘You don’t want to talk about something that people do not relate to, so I keep talking to myself,’ says Andreas. ‘Writing is still not encouraged by Namibian society, it is not regarded as a respectable job, as something that has any benefit’. But today the author is at peace with her life, which is so different from most of her contemporaries. Loneliness has turned into a ‘most treasured solitude,’ the chosen price for being able to write. Andreas has just finished her second novel. ‘It is quite different from the first one,’ is  all she reveals at this stage.

As is the case for most Namibian artists, Andreas cannot live off her creativity alone, and continues to work full-time as a project officer at Forum for African Women Educationalists of Namibia (FAWENA), an organisation promoting women’s and girls’ education. Would she like to become a full-time author if the money allowed? – Andreas’ face lights up with the thought: ‘Yes, yes, yes, a million times yes!’ The breaking news that her novel has just been included in the English literature syllabus for secondary schools in Zimbabwe is certainly a step in this direction.

Extract from The Purple violet of Oshaantu by Neshani Andreas

‘Men who beat women are the ones who cannot stand up against other men,’ Mukwankala concluded. She made us think. Shange was feared in the village, but he had never beaten anybody except his wife. His brothers beat people all the time, but Shange, no. Why was he feared if he had never beaten anybody? Any man? The curious customers stood there, holding their breaths in anticipation of the unthinkable. Her age must have saved her. Shange could have humiliated her there and then in front of everybody. But this time Shange was humiliated. He wished the earth would part below him so he could disappear. Nobody made any attempt to stop Mukwankala from insulting him. Some were even quietly happy that he had been told to stop abusing his wife.

When I heard that Mukwankala had confronted Shange at the cuca shop, in public, I was scared to death. Although I admired her act of bravery, I thought it might cause more trouble than good. I thought that once Kauna came home, Shange would kill her.