Holding My Breath: Facing grief through writing
Wordsmith Ace Moloi recently launched his second book, “Holding My Breath”, at the University of the Free State (UFS). The book takes the form of a memoir, with Moloi writing a letter to his mother who died when he was just 13 years old. The author spoke to Linda Fekisi shortly after the launch about his creative process and how writing became an important step in his grieving process.
The dead are never really gone. They are with us in spirit. This belief is universal. “Holding My Breath” is UFS student, Ace Moloi’s, second book. It tells the story of the writer as a young boy who loses his mother, the deep sense of pain associated with loss, and his journey to becoming a man. The book is packed with the various adventures life has thrown at him, and despite the heavy subject matter, it easy to read and at times, humorous. “Holding My Breath” is a must have memoir. At the book launch, Moloi spoke about his need to write and continue to grieve.
The Journalist (TJ): Your book deals with many difficult issues, the death of your mother must have been incredibly painful. What was the hardest thing about writing your second book, “Holding My Breath”?
Ace Moloi (AM): Having to talk about my mother is the hardest thing ever. Because I had never talked about her, which is a decision I took that I have to forget about the person so that I can survive. Or else I was going to be bitter, left feeling betrayed by people and unloved, feeling like an orphan, lost or all those things. So, I decided right there and then that I’m not going to talk about this person.
The book is like a conversation. The conversation we as Africans have when we visit our parents and ancestors in the cemetery. You know you would kneel down and just talk to the person. You update the person and it gets personal. For me that was hard. I felt like every night when I was writing I felt that I was at her gravesite and we were just talking. At times I would cry and I would stop writing. But because I saw her and I remembered the kind of sacrifices she made for me I would encourage myself that it is not about me but about this person that I am addressing.
I really saw this as a letter in the actual sense. That’s why I was able to open up. I sort of misled and deceived myself that somehow it will end up in heaven and she’s going to read it. Maybe in the afterlife or at some point, or maybe when her reincarnate comes, reads this book and feel like this is her own story. I wrote it freely because of that. I told myself that I don’t care about the market, I don’t care about the publisher, book critique or anything and that I am writing this letter to my mother even if it does not get published.
TJ: At the book launch you disclosed that you haven’t been to your mother’s grave since the funeral, is that right?
AM: Yes, the last time I saw the grave was in 2005. I can’t locate or pin point where it is. There are many others who do. Everyone else knows it and they go to clean up. I don’t [go] because I don’t want anything to pull me back and remind me of this person because if I do, I am going to be miserable.
TJ: Is the book your first step to facing grief?
AM: Yeah. I think I’m facing everything now. I don’t want to make it only about my mother hence I write about other things that affect young people. For me, it represents closure.
TJ: In the opening pages of “Holding My Breath”, you describe yourself as ‘broken’. Why?
AM: I am [broken] because I’ve gone through so many things in my life that don’t make me a normal human being. Things such as the manner in which I think and how I perceive being a black man. I’m broken because I feel depressed. I’m depressed by things around me. I’m depressed by the lack of opportunities around me, graduate unemployment and things in the country.
This year I’ve thought about suicide…you reach that point where you feel like there is no one to help you. Your father is broken, as a son who grew up without a father, you don’t have a mother and you grew up in such terrible family circumstances.
TJ: In the book you disclose an incident, linked to these suicidal thoughts that you mention. What keeps you going?
AM: After these thoughts, and the incident, you hate yourself. But you also feel some kind of ‘you can make it’ and you shouldn’t feel this way. So, the self hate moves you towards change. For anything to change, you need to hate something. Just like how you need to hate how taxis operate in order for you to buy a car.
TJ: There are a few notable similarities between your first novel, “In Her Fall Rose A Nation” and “Holding My Breath” (HMB). These include your main character, Zenzile’s, mother and yours. The living conditions are similar. Your trip to Japan, your sense of humour and your God fearing personality comes through as the writer. There are similarities but, there is definitely growth. How has the journey been from your first book?
AM: With “In Her Fall”, I was telling a story that was not linked to me as a person. It was more of a creative parable or a fable, an African story. It’s actually a form of philosophy. It’s a form of creative non-fiction. Through it I wanted to say something to my leaders and young people who come to university from my background.
HMB is more personal and I am more engaged with it. The reason for that is that this is me, my truth and there is no way that I can escape it and I am deeply immersed. And so, the growth, firstly the writing style. “In Her Fall” assisted me to know my writing style, what my strengths and weaknesses are. The first book also established a market for me.
TJ: You mention that “Holding My Breath” is more personal and you’re more engaged. At your launch you also said there is no single story that ‘authoritates’ what suffering is. African men are known for not being good at sharing their pain, let alone things that hurt them. What really inspired the bravery to share your pain?
AM: You know when you know you have a story to tell and the story keeps piling up inside of you? Somehow there is a point that you reach where the story just blows up. For me that’s been the case. I had a lot of events piling up in my memory and they wanted to come out to be expressed.
That’s where the courage came from because I knew if I don’t do this I’m going to be either a philosopher, I’m going to write poetry and too many things to try and ease the tension inside of me. It was either I go out once and for all and tell my story for what it is or I keep philosophising.
TJ: Your epilogue is written in such a way that resembles a rendition of a eulogy. Do you make that connection?
AM: When your mother passes away when you’re still a little boy you are not even given a chance to speak. You can’t say anything. Everyone pities you. Everyone asks you do you want cakes? Do you want meat? Are you fine? What’s your shoe size? People make empty promises just to comfort you because they don’t know what to say to you. You also can’t interpret.
My mother died before I could interpret her. It’s only now that I am able to reflect on what she stood for and what she did for us. That [the epilogue] was deliberate, to really write something to her. I was hoping one day I would get this big board and place it just by her grave and print the epilogue because I feel like I have never said anything that’s meaningful about her and to her. She passed away way before I could even begin to think deeply about her. I owe her that kind of thing. I owe her this book.
TJ: So, you are looking into visiting her grave?
AM: Yes, I’m going to use the royalties of this book to erect a tombstone for her.
TJ: Do you still hold your breath Ace?
AM: Yes, I do…
Ace Moloi is a graduate from the University of the Free State, is an author and youth motivational speaker. “Holding My Breath”, follows his debut novel, “In Her Fall Rose a Nation”.