Writing is a difficult act. Often, the very thought of starting a new piece of writing is daunting enough. Then there is that loathsome blank document, the ever-flickering cursor, the crushing self-doubt – do I need to go on?
Anyways, it’s often the case that before you can get to work, all you need is a bit of inspiration in the form of some exquisite piece of writing. In this regard, we spoke to a host of writers to find out what their favourite pieces of writing are. Some shot back immediately with their most treasured text while others refused to single it down to one example of writing, but all of them ended up sharing with us, their source of written inspiration.
Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters by J.D Salinger
This answer changes all the time, but the novel I have been thinking a lot about lately is Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters. It’s mostly about a wedding where the groom fails to appear, and it’s so funny and so sad and good. Also very short, which is more and more appealing to me. Most of it takes place over an afternoon. The title, which is from a Sappho fragment, is just about unbeatable, I think. These are all good reasons to love it, but my big reason is that it has one of the best beginnings of anything I’ve ever read. The narrator is describing the way he feels about his brother (now dead), how irreplaceable he is, and I have never been able to read it or even think about it without getting tears in my eyes. I use it always, now, to describe the way I feel about the people who mean the most to me. It’s beautiful – Rosa Lyster
Maru by Bessie Head
“Alone now, he slowly raised his hand to his heart. How was it? Something had gone ‘bang!’ inside his chest, and the woman had raised her hand to her heart at the same time. It was not like anything he had felt before. Dikeledi was the nearest he’d ever come to loving a woman and yet, even there, Dikeledi made his bloodstream boil by the way she wore her skirts, plainly revealing the movement of her thighs. With Dikeledi it was a matter of the bloodstream. And what was this? It was like finding inside himself a gold mine he’d not known was there before – Mohale Mashigo
A whole bunch
Spoiler: I don’t have a favourite novel. Before we descend into shock-horror, I’d want to state that the lack of a favourite is not particular to novels, because I’d be hard pressed to name a single writer, colour, film, meal. I deal in favourites more than I do in a favourite. Beyond that, in the particular case of novels, I find that different works do different things for me at different times in my life. Right now, as a writer and student in the Fallist movement interested in decolonising literature, I’m interested in how black women writers have fucked around with form. The four books that I am turning to are Yvonne Vera’s Nehanda. Ama Ata Aidoo’s Our Sister Killjoy, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Toni Morrison’s Jazz.
I’m rediscovering poetry so Nehanda, Our Sister Killjoy and Citizen are all amazing works of prose poetry. I love that while each falls within the same genre, Vera, Aidoo and Rankine have found such vastly different ways of storytelling. I include Citizen although it isn’t actually a novel. Beyond saying what it’s not, its really hard to categorise it and say what it is – part essay, part poetry, part prose poetry, part whatever…I love that. It fucks with so much received knowledge and convention on writing.
Jazz as an art form, as an ethic is blackness, decolonisation personified, so I’ve been reading a lot of jazz novels this year. Morrison’s Jazz is one that really stood out for me because in it the form and structure of the novel, is just as important as the narrative. Even while playing and fucking with form she slays the misguided idea that improvisation just means you get to have a jam session because her execution is tight and disciplined. (I’ve also just gotten a copy of Gayl Jones’ Corregidora, which I’ve been told by jazz aficionados, is the best jazz novel written, so it’s on my reading list and perhaps when you ask me what my favourite novel is in future I’ll name check it.) – Panashe Chigumadzi
Watchmen by Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (artist)
Watchmen, by Alan Moore (writer) and Dave Gibbons (artist), is a graphic novel that I re-read every few years. There have been a lot of accolades placed on the book and I’m not going to repeat them here, but it’s undeniable that it was revolutionary and changed the comics medium forever. A lot of the critical focus – rightly – falls on the book’s deconstruction of superheroes, but, personally, what I consistently draw inspiration from is how beautifully it’s structured. I once heard the book’s complicated narrative structure described as “crystalline” and that sounds about right to me. There are so many things going on – nested stories, for instance – that it takes many, many reads to unpack it all. Moore is really a master of structure and in Watchmen you are seeing him at the height of his powers – though I would argue that his book From Hell, rivals Watchmen in terms of form – Pravasan Pillay
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
This book and I met by chance, in the way that things whose paths are destined to cross do. To quote the book itself, there is a line in it that reads “But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?”. One afternoon, out of character for me, I dragged myself out of bed and made my way to a friend’s place, taking a train and then walking a distance not longer than five minutes, and arriving at her house for her 13 year old son’s birthday with all the intentions to dance and have a good time. Naturally bookshelves are a magnet for me and the bookshelf was the first thing that I looked at and found Fugitive Pieces. I remember reading the first few pages, standing in front of the book shelf, and then moving away from everyone and sitting in the sitting room and spending the rest of the party there. Reading it, everything became distant. I could hear chatter from the other guests, and the children screaming outside but all of this was only background noise. Fugitive Pieces rescued me in a way. I was writing already but felt that I was not writing what publishers want to read. Everything that was getting published, though I had not been submitting anything at the time, appeared similar to a degree and some of it was uninteresting, both in style and subject. In Anne Michaels I found a kindred spirit whose ink bled the same blood as mine. She manages to carefully weave a story about a Jakob Beer, a Jewish child in Poland, his narrow escape from the Nazis that killed his family, his rescue by Athos Roussos, moving to Greece then Toronto, his marriage and later writing. It is by no means a happy book, if you are one of those people, but its charm, for me at least, lies in the way in which the Canadian Poet Anne Michaels weaves the story together in the most poetic and heart wrenching way possible. In a nutshell, the sentences in this book are lit – Lidudumalingani Mqombothi