Terry-Ann Adams draws finely with ‘White Chalk’: New Frame

“If it wasn’t for therapy, we wouldn’t have this collection,” says Terry-Ann Adams of white chalk, their recently published collection of short stories. “Because I want everything I do to be authentic, unfortunately I have to tap into the well that is within.”

Fortunately and unfortunately. white chalk begins and ends facing death, and what lies in between is punctuated with grief and trauma, much of which is the author’s own. Inspired by this, Adams takes his chalkboard and draws a colorful image of joy, innocence and vibrancy, bringing what was written to the pavement in an age of youthful play for all of us to see.

Adams’ first novel, Those who live in cages, took their community of Eldorado Park under the microscope, confronting “the socio-economic hardships and violence that exist in – but do not characterize – the region”. In white chalk they zoom out of this lens, while maintaining the same attention to detail that characterized their debut.

“I think with Those who live in cages the community was so well defined,” the author says. However, white chalk remains anchored in their community but this time highlights its many faces. “With white chalk, we have different communities. We have the disability community, we have women, we have gender diverse people, we have queer people, we have so many different communities represented in the book. And it’s about doing justice to all those communities.

This idea, which dates back to their brief stint as a journalist, is hugely important to Adams. They came to learn that “when you write about people, you have to write about them in a way that reflects them and who they are. You are not writing for them, you are not the voice of the voiceless. You are more of an amplifier or a megaphone for people who have their [own] voice.”

In this way white chalk is more of a voice anthology of sorts, most often using the first person to channel it. The story matrix dance brings protagonist Robyn to a point of reflection. “I’m not a girl…I’m not a boy either…I’m neither, and sometimes I’m neither, and sometimes I’m both.” I don’t know how to explain it to my mother; heck, I can barely explain it to myself. The effect is sometimes more devastating: “I tell him that living is exhausting.

A feeling of gratitude

With so many overlapping identities and communities, it is through their literary and observational talent that Adams’ collection speaks directly to the senses, in an unmistakably South African way. They evoke the all-too-familiar tenderness and “sanctuary” of a black grandmother’s house, “our family’s epicenter (sic), watchtower, fortress of solitude and HQ”.

“The smell of Jungle Oats wakes us up in the morning,” Adams writes in the story. Mom’s house. In the afternoon comes “an impressive Sunday lunch with the seven colors present and explained” and in the evening “the house is filled with the smell of braai meat”. Meanwhile, “Ma’s house smells of Handy Andy, candied peaches and homemade bread.” It’s an accuracy that can only come from a lifetime of memories, but at the same time it paints a scene straight out of every black South African home as the holiday season approaches.

One wonders then, with such emphasis on the character’s personal voice and the local texture of the setting, why Adams chooses to abandon the novel and slip into the short story form. “Novels want to be completed,” they say. “What I like about short stories is that it’s a game between the reader and the writer. We work together to find the end of a story.

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Indeed, part of its pleasure is that white chalk leaves a lot to the imagination. When asked what brings together a collection of 18 short stories, each with their own universe, Adams is clear. “I think if there’s one thing that’s a common thread running through all the stories, it’s that there’s a mental health issue.”

Mental illness – its stigma, its apparent ubiquity and its many remedies – is front and center, but most importantly, it is never considered in isolation. In fulfilling their mission to “open society to itself,” Adams resists the politicization of identity and uncovers the wound – the person – that lies beneath.

They link mental illness to religion and its many ugly heads, recounting “the year Brandon went to a Christian school and was bullied by kids who were supposed to be saints of the Lord.” Andrea, in Back homewalks away from his colorful house where “the darkness [her father] was imperfection… He longed for whiteness and wanted us to do the same. She is damaged by the pain this upbringing has caused her. “Home is meant to be where you are. In a strange way, I found myself. I found an anxious, depressed wreck beneath all the rejection and torment.

Adams also links mental illness to grief, the collection’s other guideline. Writing through their own loss, the author delivers a book of short stories that fulfills an incredibly difficult purpose: to find meaning in the devastation. Rooted in reality, it’s the kind of meaning that stands up to scrutiny, one that readers can cling to and carry far beyond the book’s last word.

Resist erasing

Adams’ attempt at solace finds its way into the title of the collection. “As easily as [white chalk] can be a weapon as easily as it can be obliterated. It’s almost representative of what our lives are like. As much as we can leave a mark in a very short time, we can die and be erased. So I love the imagery of something that is so powerful yet so fleeting, yet so fragile,” they say.

Yet Adams goes beyond that, dismissing the image of grief we’re used to seeing and talking about instead of the many different things we mourn. of their history Beaches they note:[The speaker’s] not just mourn the death of his mother. In a way, she always mourned a part of herself to have lost the fact of having albinism. The same with Sunday morning – it’s not just that she mourns her sister, but she mourns the life she would have had if she didn’t have albinism.

This is something Adams recently discovered. “I mourned that part of myself that I couldn’t be because I have albinism,” they say, “and I’m just becoming myself and living without shame and accepting the disability. So I wanted to show not just the grief of death, but the grief of self.

Taken together, this intersection of ideas and identities reveals white chalkmost enduring quality: that at its best, it is deeply aspirational. Little by little, his 18 short stories reconstitute a new and better world. It is a world in which a person does not have to “come out” because sexuality is seen as fluid and individual; where a baby doesn’t have to grow up in a room painted pink or blue; where therapy is understood as essential, not overwhelming. Adams does not do this by naively turning away from the evils of society. Instead, they confront them head-on, both personally and creatively. When we’re lucky, they do both at the same time.

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About Debra D. Johnson

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