Hazel Frankel lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, close to where she was born. She is an artist, calligrapher and teacher, currently registered for a doctorate in Creative Writing at Sheffield Hallam University. A collection of poetry, Drawing from Memory, was published by Cinnamon Press in 2007. Counting Sleeping Beauties (Jacana, 2009) was shortlisted for the 2006/07 European Union Literary Award.
“When I began writing, I had no intention of writing a novel – I didn’t know I could. I wrote small vignettes that were poems in prose, but when I gathered these together they were like beads, jewels waiting to be strung.
Spanning the pogrom years in Lithuania and 1950s South Africa, Counting Sleeping Beauties weaves a delicate tale of despair, loss, love and attachment to place. It evokes the post-war years in heartbreaking detail, tracing relationships within an extended family and their struggles with guilt and grief.
A multigenerational story, the Jewish family is central to the narrative. Its values are explored through the voices of the bobba, Leah, the mother Susan, the young girl, Hannah, and the extended family member, the domestic worker, Sina. It blends South African histories and cultures using a polyglot of Yiddish, Sotho, Afrikaans and English to build the characters and express their viewpoints.
My main impetus was to uncover how the characters were affected differently by one critical event and how this complicated their relationships. I worked outwards from this kernel and framed it with a narrative that begins in the present, returns to the past and concludes in the present. Isolation is an important theme, as the characters never communicate their feelings or opinions with each other.
Set in an era familiar to me, I drew on my memories of Johannesburg when the Wits Rag Parade with its floats and queen was an annual highlight, when the woman’s place was almost unarguably in the home and the domestic worker had no status or rights. I enjoyed the explorations, making discoveries and learning as I went along.
The title of the book was initially Girl on a Swing, which indicates the pivotal role of the child, then Stone House, pointing to the overriding impact of place, but Counting Sleeping Beauties carries multiple meanings, and the way it combines with the cover image is both beautiful and sinister.
The novel has been many years in the making and has gone through numerous incarnations – originally there were six voices, two of whom were male. This created a concatenation. Instead, by focusing on the women I could emphasise the drama of the domestic.
Although I dreamed of being an artist, finding that I’m a writer is an unexpected delight. The processes are not that dissimilar: one word, one sentence, one paragraph, one stroke at a time, a few minutes here or there may be enough to catch a thought or idea or image, each a link in an episode, a chapter, a painting. In both writing and painting, nothing happens until there are marks on the page.”
Hazel’s exhibition of paintings opens at The Thompson Gallery, 78 3rd Avenue, Melville, Johannesburg, on Sunday, 2 August, at 15h30, where Counting Sleeping Beauties will be available.
Counting Sleeping Beauties will be launched at Exclusive Books, Sandton City, Johannesburg, on 11 August, 18h00 for 18.30.