‘There’s no single meaning’: Poet Francine Simon speaks about her debut collection, ‘Thungachi’

Francine Simon’s debut poetry collection Thungachi, published through uHlhanga, probes into South African-Indian identity and womanhood. Raised as an Indian Catholic and attending Model C schools, she was subjected to a confluence of cultures, languages and beliefs – all of which shaped her identity.

As a poet, she emphasises the importance of embracing different facets of her identity and her writing bears testament to this, drawing on mythology from Catholic mysticism and ancient folk Hinduism.

Simon is currently doing her PhD in the English department at Stellenbosch University, and her work has been published in South African literary journals such as New Coin, New Contrast, Type/Cast and in three volumes of the Sol Plaatjie European Union Poetry Award Anthology. We spoke to her about her debut anthology, perceptions of poetry and the publishing industry in South Africa.

Francine Simon

Being a poet isn’t a run-of-the-mill vocation. When did you first start writing poetry?
 
It wasn’t like I wanted to write poems from the beginning and be a poet. I just wanted to write, and it was during school I was reading poetry, and one day I thought about writing a poem, and I did. I continued throughout my high school and university. I was also writing short and longer stories. At university, I took a creative writing course, and my supervisor said I should focus on poetry.

I told them that I wanted to focus on novel writing, but they said my poetry is far more advanced and that I’d been writing it for longer than my fiction and short stories. And maybe I should focus on my poetry to improve my writing skills so that later I could take on novel writing. I really appreciated that.

With poetry, how important is the accessibility of meaning?

Once the poem is out of my hands, the meaning is dependent on the person, who is reading it. I think your interpretation and the meaning that you make and the meaning that I make are two different things but are both completely acceptable. It’s very important that the reader is making their meaning. It’s important to acknowledge all interpretation.

If that’s the case, what do you think makes a good poem?

(Laughs) that’s a very hard question. For me, poetry catches me if I have an emotional connection to it. I really put a lot of value in figures of speech and incredible metaphors. In high school, you learn how poetry works and if someone is invested in the form of poetry, that creates a stronger emotional connection to their work.

“You have to read my poetry to understand my culture better and how complicated it is. I also had a lot of influence from the schools I went to. I was competing with the cultural effects of school and cultural effects of home, so I feel like I have mixed influences.”

I hated the didactic and old-fashioned way they taught poetry in high school. What place do you think poetry has in the 21st century?

At school you learn poetry as a rote learning thing – the poem means “this” because of “that” metaphor. When I left high school and started university, I started reading new poetry people were writing – 10 to five years old. I learnt a lot, and I think now we can grasp knowledge quickly through the internet.

I think a lot of people would rather read poetry on the internet. They would rather click on a link and read a poem than go to a bookstore and buy a poetry book. It seems like it’s moving in that direction, but I think it’s not moving fast enough. I would like it to move faster towards a digitised form.

Also, you can play with the form with a digital medium, which is quite interesting to me.

Nowadays, everything is so instant and fast. We’re constantly scrolling through bite-sized bits of information online. What do you make of poetry’s relationship with our pace of life?

I think poetry would fit into our lifestyles well if we gave it more of a chance. There’s a perception that poetry is niche and not easy to understand. People think because I write poetry it must be completely opaque – I get that a lot. I always try and tell people that I write in everyday language. I write in a way I would speak or with words I understand. I don’t go far into my academic language. I keep it as real as possible to me.

Poetry would fit in really well given the transition into digitisation. There are already a few online journals in South Africa which are helping to elevate poetry into the digital medium. Aerodrome is a good example. People might not read Aerodrome and Type/Cast, but there’s always an opportunity for them to read it. You can also post it to Twitter and Instagram.

Francine Simon

Do you think poetry is an instructive or meditative medium?

It can be both. I don’t think that’s dependent on what the poet is writing. The misconception is that if you’re a poet it’s a meditative thing and you think about the poem and articulate it in a suitable way. Something like poetry can be powerful in a person’s life. It depends on what you write. Maybe the poem is about abuse, but it’s not obvious and could perform in the same way for example as slam poetry. For me slam poetry is self-aware, so it transfers its meaning a lot more quickly. It’s subjective for the readers and listeners.

Your debut poetry collection is called Thungachi. Can you tell us about the title?

‘Thungachi’ is a Tamil word and very dependant on the tongue. I don’t know a lot of Tamil, but when I hear it spoken – as opposed to English where there’s more lip and nose engagement – with Tamil, you tend to have to use the tongue more.

The word means little sister. The story of Thungachi was part of my PhD. My younger sister had come home from university and said she’d gone to her friend’s house. When they got home, her friend’s mother called her by a different name, and my sister asked if she’d been calling her friend the incorrect name, but her friend said it was just her house name. So, she asked my parents what a house name is. Some Indian families have names they use at home and other names they use when they’re out in the world, sort of like a nickname. I asked why we didn’t have nicknames, but that’s because my family is Catholic, so some of the more traditional aspects of Tamil or Hindi have been lost.

My dad suggested ‘thungachi’ and we laughed about it, but it became an imprint in my mind. I’m the oldest, not the youngest, but maybe it’s because my sister is taller than me. I named the collection ‘Thungachi’ because there are inconsistencies with my culture and identity and I embrace them. You can embrace being Catholic but still, have South African Indian cultural superstitions. I embrace those things and use them in my poetry.

Francine Simon

How would you describe your style of poetry?

It’s changed a lot in the collection that I’ve written – it was written over many years. I started in 2011, and I wrote the last ones last year. It’s a correlation of when I was in China, last year and doing my Masters. This is a question I’m afraid to answer because I don’t want to say something and someone interprets it completely differently. I would say it’s quite experimental, and by that I mean I like to experiment with the page and use it in a different way. I try not to be cliché.

How has your cultural hybridity influenced your world outlook? 

I didn’t think about it at first until I started writing. I couldn’t seem to write something that was exclusively Indian or Catholic or 21st century. I realised there were these inconsistencies in my writing. I’d always read mythology from different cultures, so when I started writing poetry I was trying to write in a linear thread, but all these things kept pushing into my writing. My supervisors told me to bring together my influences, instead of trying to keep them apart.

What do you find challenging about writing poems?

Not writing clichéd poems. Sometimes I think in clichés, or I think of a clichéd line that I know is cliché to me or the outside world, and I think I can’t write that.

Francine Simon

There’s a school of thought that thinks no matter how large an artist’s body of work is, they’re always circling the same theme or exploring one over-arching idea. Can the same be said of your poems?

There is a central point, but I’m not sure that I’m trying to answer a single thing. What I’m trying to do is understand the culture I come from. I started going back to what I knew, and it became more complicated.

The first thing I tried to understand was my culture and how I associated that with myself. It’s complicated for me. Instead of finding one thread, I followed all of them, and they came back to me and how I was trying to identify myself. Instead of identifying myself as one thing, I think of myself as South African, as Indian and I speak English, but I sill long for what would have been my home language.

“The other is that no one understands poetry and that it’s not meant to be understood. I don’t think poetry is just one thing. It can be surreal; it can be literal – it depends what you read and what people write as well.”  

All these questions are still being answered for me. You have to read my poetry to understand my culture better and how complicated it is. I also had a lot of influence from the schools I went to. I was competing with the cultural effects of school and cultural effects of home, so I feel like I have mixed influences.

In Durban, I started school in 1996 when everything was transitioning. I went to a previously white school, so when I first started, there were only white teachers, and it seems my accent developed that way. Later the classes were more diverse, and my accent changed a bit…You get influenced by your teachers, so there’s that multi-cultural effect happening.

What are your thoughts on poetry and the publishing industry?

The publishing industry in South Africa is extremely difficult to get into. I say that because when I was in high school, I was bored at school and was writing whenever I could. By the time I got to matric, I’d written over a 100 poems. My dad teased me and said maybe I’d publish a book and I can buy him a vacation somewhere. I was quite hopeful until I started doing my research and understanding the publishing industry in South Africa. For years I thought I needed to improve before I submitted anything. Then I started submitting and got rejection after rejection. This was for a single poem.

When I wanted to publish this collection, I had a big manuscript but no one takes unsolicited work – that’s a big hurdle. By then I had published a few poems and was trying to get my work out there. You have to publish individual poems so people and editors can read your work. I always thought I would be 45 before I published anything like this. It’s difficult. I tried every place I could. Thankfully, uHlanga has open submissions.

It’s difficult for short story writers and poets. You want to publish your work but you have to be good enough and so it’s subjective. You submit to a lot of places, and when you get rejected, you’re bad. I thought I was okay because I was getting one poem published for every 10 rejections.

How did you decide which poems would be in this selection?

I had never worked with my publisher before, so it was a completely new experience. He selected the poems he liked and thought were necessary for what we wanted as a collection. Then he asked me which poems I liked and which ones I felt were necessary – those are two different things. The collection is about identity and things like that and all the poems centre around that; what it means and how it’s formed.

With a few poems, I’m playing with the form of language – the forms I was taught and the forms my family speaks. There’s also poems about university and meeting the most amazing people. One of my favourite poems is three lines long. I wrote it in China. I had read a poem by someone else which I thought was amazing. How can someone write a poem with so few words? I attempted to do something similar, and I feel like I achieved the three-line poem somewhat. It’s called “#8” and appeared in the Sol Plaatje Anthology Volume IV. There’s much going on in my brain and sometimes the poems are bizarre as well. 

Francine Simon

When it comes to reading poetry, are there any ill-informed approaches you’ve noticed or popular misconceptions?

There isn’t one meaning. Very often someone reads my poems and asks me what I mean, and my response is always, “what do you think the poem means?” I really try to get the reader to interpret what they think by themselves. It’s in their hands. When it’s in my hands, I have my meaning, but when it’s in their hands, they have their meaning.

The other is that none understands poetry and that it’s not meant to be understood. I don’t think poetry is just one thing. It can be surreal, it can be literal – it depends on what you read and what people write as well.  

You fall into the space of reflecting on all the things you’re reading or the things people in your creative group are looking at. For me, at university, we all speak about similar topics and the music we listen to is seemingly similar. I’ve tried to expand my world by watching and listening to commercial stuff, so I know what’s going on with people, who are my age, and not falling into creative or academic exclusivity.

A few years ago I was very apprehensive about 50 Shades of Grey – everyone was reading it. I’m a literature student, and I thought it’s my duty to read it. I try to make sure my influences aren’t narrow.

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Want a copy of Thungachi? Mail nick@uhlangapress.co.za to order a copy for R150 incl. postage. 

Check out Thungachi’s Stellenbosch launch details on Facebook

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