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Donvé Lee

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The ‘imperfect musician with a perfect imagination’: this is Syd Kitchen

“On my better days friends find me flirting with the nurses, cigarette in one hand and scotch in the other, but if I listen carefully I can hear the tribute concerts starting up. There they are, celebrating my life like never before, and here I am, knock knock knockin’ on heaven’s door. That rhymes, doesn’t it? I think I might even feel a song coming on but I’m so tired and the words are slipping away and the music is fading into a soft chant round my bed and Madala was spot on, he said when God says He want you, we can’t run away. I’m not running anymore.”

Skollie, saint, scholar, hippest of hippies, imperfect musician with a perfect imagination, Syd Kitchen was, like all great artists, born to enrich his art and not himself. Plagued by drugs, alcohol and depression, too much of an outlaw to be embraced by record companies, he frequently sold his furniture to cover production costs of his albums, seduced fans at concerts and music festivals worldwide with his dazzling ‘Afro-Saxon’ mix of folk, jazz, blues and rock interspersed with marvellously irreverent banter, and finally became the subject of several compelling documentaries, one of which – Fool in a Bubble – premiered in New York in 2010.

Donvé Lee’s Scars That Shine is an intimate look at one of South Africa’s most remarkable artists.

“He was like a little leprechaun. Everyone danced around him because he brought the magic in.”
– ZETA PONTIN

“Syd was the one who said I will do it, I will make a living as an artist. He was one of those people who carried the dream.”
– RICK ANDREW

Syd Kitchen - Scars That Shine

Book details

An Intimate War review in The Star

The Star 07 Apr 2011

An Intimate War in top ten – The Star and Natal Mercury

THE MERCURY 27-12-2010-4

An Intimate War review, Durban Daily News

Daily News 09-02-2011-6

Herald Interview

Interview in Natal Herald, November 2010

Donve Lee is a novelist who studied fine arts, became a textile designer, a television news assistant, a graphic designer, a feature writer, an art teacher, a traveller, a wife and a mother, before finally realising that she was, quite simply, an artist.

How did the idea for An Intimate War come about?

I’m fascinated by the paradoxical nature of intimate relationships, the fact that the dark edges of intimacy are often rooted in unspoken childhood insecurities. The more exquisite the passion, the darker the undercurrents fuelling it. This became my starting point for An Intimate War .

What’s it all about?

An Intimate War is a tumultuous love story about two complex wounded souls bound together by an addictive passion. It’s about the disintegration of a marriage and its turbulent aftermath. It’s an exploration of emotional and sexual vulnerability, and the insanity of Eros.
What were the major challenges you faced in tackling the project?

I wanted to create a sense of claustrophobia in the story, and imbue the narrative with a breathless intensity. So I made the two characters nameless, and initially left out all commas. This heightened the intensity but made it difficult for the reader. In the end my editor persuaded me to reinsert some commas…

During the early drafts I struggled to write dialogue. My characters weren’t only nameless, they were speechless! Then one day they suddenly came alive and began to speak. I was delighted.

Integrating scenes from the past into the present narrative was another challenge. Too many flashbacks tend to unglue the reader from the page.

To what extent is the novel based on personal experience?

An Intimate War is, like most first novels, based largely on personal experience. But novelists are lucky – they get to play with their material and transform it.

What is the appeal for the reader?

My novel is unique in that it is a rare example of erotic literary writing, but women and men of all ages, and readers of both mainstream and literary fiction, find it riveting. The story is a universal one. Most of us have loved and lost. Most of us long to be swept away by blinding passion. Intimate wars are part of life.

What other projects are you working on?

I’m currently writing arts and culture modules for school textbooks. I also have two large works in progress, which will hopefully end up as published novels.

What subjects would you like to tackle in the future?

A: The tragedy (and the comedy) of women enslaved by the beauty myth.

Is writing a career or a sideline job?

A career.

What other career/path in life would you have chosen?

Today I paint mostly with words, but I am also a visual artist. I want to make art with paint and colour again, and inspire children and adults through creativity workshops. But I think, in another lifetime, I’d like to be a blues singer, or a sitar player.

What are the most difficult things about a writing career?

Writing a novel can be excruciatingly lonely. Isolation goes with the territory, but it can make you crazy. And if you’re not an established writer, the struggle to get published is daunting. You need a sense of humour and a truckload of tenacity.

And the most rewarding?

When my words start to sing on the page, I’m in heaven. When I see my work reflected in the eyes of my readers, and I see their joy and their tears, I feel deeply satisfied.

An Intimate War, review in Psychologies magazine

Very occasionally, a writer produces a novel that unwraps the complexities of human interaction, pinning down attraction, attachment and betrayal like butterflies to a display board, leaving readers exposed to their own unarticulated experiences. Donvé Lee’s poetic and illuminating insight into addictive passion charts the disintegration of a turbulent marriage with startling acuity. With her artist’s eye for detail and mood change, Lee somehow finds words for those silent but pivotal moments in relationships, when something that was becomes something else – Denise Cruse

Noordhoek launch of An Intimate War – conversation between Donvé Lee and Sarah Lotz

S: The title, An Intimate War, immediately encapsulates the essence of the novel – how deliberate is this?

D: Completely deliberate. The title had to capture opposite extremes – the dark and the light, and the fact that our deepest battles tend to be our most intimate ones.

S: The couple in the novel remain unnamed throughout, yet this does not seem to matter, as, in a sense it adds to the novel’s universality. Why did you choose to do this?

D: We don’t need to know the names of these characters because they dominate the story, and yes I did want to say that this could be every man and woman. Making them nameless also increases the intimacy, in a way the whole story is a private conversation,  a long love letter between the woman and her man.

S: The narrative is bolstered by a fine take on the everydayness of relationships: the discarded socks, dirty washing, the shoes on the bed, his ‘coke and smoke’ addictions, her private chocolate scoffing. The seeming banality of which lives are made of. Did you do this deliberately to balance the extraordinarily powerful scenes of longing, lust and desire?

D: I don’t think it was deliberate, it just felt right. I think many decisions one makes as an author are not conscious ones. But having put in those everyday scenes I could see that they belonged in the story, made it more true to life.

S: The narrator is an artist, and her work seems to mirror the ebbs and flows of her relationship. An enduring theme in the novel is the artists’ need to not to ‘look away’ (for example when she encounters the body on the beach), but her lover’s jealousy and insecurity gradually strangles this. Talk a bit about how your work as a fine artist influenced this aspect of the novel.

D: I think most artists and authors explore aspects of themselves in their work. Before beginning to write this story I had virtually given up painting because it seemed irrelevent and frivolous and self indulgent, so in some way I was trying to find a way back to my painterly self through the narrator’s journey.

S: Yet, as the emotional turbulence increases her work becomes steadily darker, she stops painting ‘decorative’ watercolours and experiments with deeper themes and imagery – for example the painting of the woman with a head like a cracked egg-shell, and towards the end of the novel, the burning doll collection. Are you trying to say that artists need turbulence and pain to dig deep inside themselves and produce great art – that in a sense the relationship that steadily erodes her self-esteem is the making of her career? (Interesting paradox!)

D: Yes I do think that you need turbulence to produce great art. Certainly if you look at great artists throughout history, they tend to be tortured souls. I’m probably saying in the book that art can save you from yourself, you can exorcise your demons through making art, but you pay a price. I do believe that art making is a very powerful, liberating process. Neurosis is the failure to entertain the artist within..

S: The theme of jealousy is particularly well-drawn and relatable and mirrors the narrator’s own private demons – the cloud of shame under which she grew up and which she struggles to shed. They both have issues that have bled into their relationship. Is this why they are drawn to each other in the first place? Two broken halves that can never successfully heal? (Like the broken sculpture in the end of the novel that needed sunlight and glue to hold it together?)

D: This couple are entangled in a classic codependent relationship. Their particular insecurities are perfectly matched, keeping them chained to each other. She needs a dark and dangerous man to make her feel alive, he needs a woman to soothe his troubled soul. She grew up in a home where the slime of life was never allowed to surface, in his childhood all kinds of shit happened.

S: Love and desire as addiction. In some passages the narrator is unable to quit seeing her lover, even after he spurns and humiliates her. Her desire for him is as irresistible as the next drink to an alcoholic. Why does she keep allowing him back in her life?

D: Why do alcoholics drink when they know they’re destroying themselves? Addiction to a person is very real.

S: Children. You struggled whether or not to include children as characters in the novel. Why did you choose to write them in in the end?

D: I wanted my characters to be well rounded, believable. Having children gave them more substance. The children also in the end played a profound role in the novel, they provided the voice of reason, as a counterbalance to the narrators chaotic and crazy emotional life.

S: At times, the reader feels frustration with the female narrator – she’s locked into a relationship that she’s powerless to resist, even though intellectually she knows it’s damaging to both her and the emotional ‘roots’ of her children. Yet at the same time the reader is always on her side. How do you feel about this?

D: I hope the reader is always on her side, but I suspect some readers will hate her for being so weak willed. I’d love it if some readers were on his side, but I guess that’s asking too much!

S: He is a man who has been brought up by ‘women who hate men’. This goes someway to explain his behaviour, yet he seems to be unable to get past this, and it’s almost as if he is punishing her for loving him. Is this accurate?

D: He’s not punishing her, he’s punishing women. She happens to be the one in the firing line. A lot of men have anger against women because of their own ambivalent connection to their mothers.

S: The sexual scenes between the two protagonists are extremely candid and honest – they are vital for an understanding of the narrator’s enduring addiction to her lover – yet they do not stray into the overtly erotic, which is a very difficult balance to pull off. Was this your intention?  Your views on sexuality in fiction, in art?

D: If by overtly erotic you mean deliberately arousing sexual desire in the reader, then I agree, this was never my intention. The candid sex scenes always serve the story, which is quite different from mainstream erotic fiction, which tends to be collection of sex scenes with a story tacked on top. What I find really gratifying is that the best reviewers, those that totally get the book, hardly mention the sex. They also don’t use the word ‘abuse’ when referring to the relationship between the lovers, which pleases me, because the relationship is much more complex, these are two wounded souls trying to heal themselves and each other.

S: Memoir versus fiction. The novel has the feel of an intensely personal, intimate and wholly believable account of a relationship, yet this is fiction not memoir. How close is the line between the two in your opinion?

D: Most first novels tend to be grounded in the author’s life, An Intimate War is no different. But as a novelist you get to play with your material and transform it. I enjoyed this process immensely. I didn’t want to write memoir. As an artist that would have been too restricting – I wanted to create something new.

S: How long did it take you to write?

D: I started writing it about 13 years ago, but worked on it intermittently inbetween other writing projects.

S: How many drafts did it go through?

D: I don’t really know, the way I work is quite organic. I didn’t finish one draft and then start another, I was always fine tuning pieces. A first novel is like a training ground. Nobody can teach you to write a novel, you learn by trial and error.  A good analogy is carving a sclpture – you start with this amorphous mass of material, you slowly whittle it away until you reveal the essential form beneath.

S: How did you find the editing process?

D: Relatively painless. I had done so much selfediting that by the time the manuscript reached Helen my editor, it needed what she called ‘a light edit’. I think the author/editor relationship can be a precarious one, but I really valued Helen’s insightful editing. She helped make it into a better book.

S: And from a purely stylistic view-point, the punctuation is spare and there are no speech marks. Why did you make these choices?

D: All my decisions as a writer were based on the one question – How can I increase the sense of intimacy and claustrophobia? I left out commas to add a feeling of breathless intensity. Leaving out speech marks seemed the right thing to do, I think this had the effect of blurring the inner and outer dialogue, her thoughts and her actual speech.

S: What feeling do you want the reader to take away with her after she puts the book down?

D: I want the reader to feel less alone, which is I think the purpose of great books. A quotation I love, from Robert Atkinson – ‘A good story allows us to wrestle our demons, dance with our angels, make plans with our inner guides, and ultimately connect with our soul.’

S: It was a testing journey getting published. Why was it important to you to see it in print?

D: Artists are driven by a compulsion to tell their stories. I had this big story and I had to tell it, and the telling only makes sense if I’m talking to an audience. So to get people to read my story it needed to be in print. I also hoped that through my honesty, I could help other struggling couples deal with their intimate wars.

S: What are you working on now?

D: Arts and culture textbooks for schools, and another novel which focuses on women and the beauty trap.

Karin Schimke reviews An Intimate War

Review of An Intimate War – Senseonline

An Intimate War Review

Written by Bonnie Jacobs

Artist Donvé Lee’s An Intimate War is one of the few novels to bring as close together as possible the art forms of writing and painting. Very rarely does a writer manage to create a piece on so visceral a level, with colour and mood seemingly squeezed and blended from every word.

The Long and the Short of It

An Intimate War paints for the reader a graphic dissection of the passion shared fiercely between two unnamed lovers, both of whom are broken and bruised in certain ways form the adversities in their pasts. This is, in essence, the extent of the plot, and those who look for twists and dramatics, beyond the emotions of two people, in their reading will be disappointed or unsatisfied.

However, this should in no way be considered a fault in the novel. Much importance nowadays is given to the happenings within prose, and while plot can certainly add great backbone to the quality and enjoyment of a novel, it should never be thought of as a necessary ingredient for a successful book. One need only look to novels such as Mrs Dalloway and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to see that even the most simple slices of life can reach heights of masterpiece.

Hint of Stream of Consciousness

One can also see a likeness between Lee’s work and the abovementioned classics in the fundamental style of the novel. There is a certain pace to the prose that has very much the flavour of a stream of consciousness flow, with almost no distinction placed upon the context of time, giving the words an independent chronology and allowing the flush and hustle of emotion and sensation to dominate the reader’s impression fully. Dialogues are stripped of their usual identification devices, and memories of the narrator and present awareness are given equal treatment, so that one cannot but feel an overall ethereal, dreamlike quality to the book.

Only You and I

What makes Lee’s novel that much more unusual is her choice of narration: its primary voice is that of first person present, yet it touches more than lightly upon the almost unheard of second person perspective, with the unnamed female constantly relaying to the reader the actions of her lover through a perpetual inner monologue addressed to the male character.

Such a device of course captures perfectly the mood of the theme Donvé Lee seeks to explore within the novel – an air of almost claustrophobic intimacy is flawlessly rendered by the narrator commenting on all but exclusively the actions of her and her lover, with other characters left completely within the periphery of the story.

Generally this exclusivity would pose a snare for a novel. Often a drought of characters can leave the pages of a book mundane and without colour; and by and large, the more varied and distinct a cast of characters a book has, the greater is the accolade given to the novel. But Lee’s small assortment of figures is effective in exactly the same way her choice of narration is; this is a story set around an intense affair, an intimate war, and the characters or lack thereof serve only to add all the more focus to the subject of the novel.

An Artist’s Touch

The highlight of Lee’s work, though, is undoubtedly the loveliness of her prose. Descriptions and perspectives are rendered in such a way as perhaps only an artist can manage. Lee somehow manages to bleed words of their full sense, and saturates her pages with images and sensation that seem almost more belonging to poetry than prose. Scenes within the novel are not described, but rather painted, so that almost every tone and texture of an object portrayed is utterly tangible.

An Intimate War is in all considerations a remarkable work, crafted so beautifully that one might actually consider the removal and framing of each page.

Published by Jacana Media

‘An Intimate War’ Launch at the Book Lounge, conversation with Helen Moffet

1) Tell us about the process of writing the book — how long, who was involved, the Creative Writing MA, the fiction v. memoir debate.

I started writing this story around 97, its been a very long journey, seen many incarnations. I worked on it intermittently, inbetween other projects.  I began by reflecting on the contradictions and the mystery and magic of intimacy, looking at my experience and those of friends, I saw that the dark edges of intimacy were fuelled by unspoken insecurities from childhood. In my life the more exquisite the passion, the darker the undercurrents fuelling it.

A friend of mine talks about black holes – many of us have them in our intimate relationships, our unspoken stories, often filled with silence and shame draining the life blood from us, shutting down vital energy. And this was my starting point in the story, two people madly in love and in lust but with black holes – in her childhood, there was a shroud of silence over anything that stirred the heart or the body. In his, traumatic events which violated his boyhood and left him filled with guilt and shame. So when these two people got together the stage had been set long before, for their inevitable intimate war.

A first novel is a training ground, I’ve been a novelist in training for about 13 years, thank God I’ve finally graduated.. I made many discoveries along the way about myself and my characters. Initially I wanted to create a very claustrophobic story about these two people and their great passion, so I made them nameless, left out commas which gave it a breathless intensity, left out reference to physical place. In the beginning there was no dialogue, my characters weren’t only nameless they were also speechless! I couldn’t seem to get it right, then one day it kind of clicked. The dialogue suddenly brought my characters to life.

The worst thing about writing a novel is that it is a very solitary process. After a while I was so sick of working on my own I applied to UCT to do the Creative Writing MA. I was surprised to be rejected on two occasions, because I was already an experienced writer, published over 30 books, mostly for children but also adult non fiction, been short listed for Sunday Times Bessie Head Feature writers award, awarded writer’s residency in the US, etc.

When I finally got accepted into the program about 3 years ago Stephen Watson was my supervisor, he inspired me, instilling in me the belief that I am a writer, Henrietta Rose-Innes took over as supervisor when Stephen went on sabbatical, and later, after completing the degree, I worked with Dorian Haarhoff, a writing mentor. All of these people helped me fine tune my craft.

One of my biggest dilemmas was what to do with the children in the story. My main characters had children when they met, but I needed the focus to be totally on the parents and their passion, and the children kind of got in the way…(as children have a habit of doing…)And I also wanted to explore the tension between being a mother and a lover, so there was a conflict of interests. I tried leaving the children out completely, but eventually I ended up putting them back in, after feedback from readers, I think it was after receiving reports from the MA supervisors who assessed the final work, one of them clearly couldn’t take the intensity. So the children re-entered the story and in the process of bringing them back I made this amazing discovery – somehow they grounded the story. The children became the voice of reason, providing the balance to the desperate passion of their parents.

Before and after doing the MA, I sent the manuscript to assorted publishers and agents locally and internationally. After a while it became somewhat embarrassing, it felt like everybody in the South African publishing industry had seen it. General response was – ‘not commercial enough’.  I kept on reminding myself that JK Rowling and other famous writers had zillions of rejections so who was I to complain… And perhaps South African readers weren’t quite ready for this. I submitted different versions to Jacana on three occasions, third time lucky enough to be read by Jacana publishing director Maggie Davey who fell in love with it.

I recently came to believe that I needed to go through all those rejections, because it led to more refining and distilling of my material, a bit like carving a sculpture, continually chipping away at superfluous material to reveal the essence beneath.

2) How do you deal with having written something so personal, intimate and erotic? How do you feel about family and friends reading it? How and why did you put it all out there?

I had a powerful story that I had to tell, as an artist you’re somehow obligated to the gods and goddesses of creativity, forces bigger than yourself.

The heart of this story is about speaking the unspeakable, liberation from silence and shame. Sex is such a fundamental force and so little is really said about it. Maybe its time for us to get over ourselves. After all, we all do it…If I had been coy about writing about sex, I would have gone against one of the key themes of the novel, which is to break the chains of silence and shame. I had to speak the unspeakable, which meant writing about sex as honestly and as beautifully as I could.

My children are adults in their late twenties, enjoying their own intimate relationships, I have great respect and admiration for both of them, and to maintain my integrity as an artist I need to push my own boundaries, perhaps this will encourage them to do the same. But if they find it too uncomfortable they can always put it away and read it in 5 or 10 years time.

To say I feel exposed is an understatement, but I didn’t set out to write an erotic novel, more of a tumultuous love affair. The reader becomes a voyeur into the intimate lives of this couple, but the explicit nature of the writing serves the story, the erotic theme grew as I went along, the more I wrote the more I realised that this was where I felt most powerful as a writer, writing about great love and great sex. I found myself creating a multilayered work, a tapestry woven out of connected strands of art, addiction, love, lust, sensuality, the power of beauty.

Having said all that I believe that my intention as a writer is largely irrelevant. The work is more intelligent than I am. What happens between the reader and the page is far more important than anything I have to say about it.

3)How do you feel about erotica in art and writing generally and locally?

I appreciate erotica in all art forms, I haven’t read much local erotic writing, Oshun’s collection of erotic stories must be one of the few around today, but I must confess I haven’t read it. It came out around about the time I was dealing with endless rejections and I thought I should been asked to contribute to this collection, so like a petulant child I decided not to read it…..! I always loved Anais Nin, but her diaries more than her overt erotic stories.

I’m wary of this novel being lumped in the genre of erotic writing, which tends to be clichéd, often moving from one sex scene to another with the story seemingly tacked on afterwards. An Intimate War differs because its a complex exploration of sexual vulnerability.

Erotic art  should be a celebration, whether it is visual or literary – one of my best responses came from my dear friend Karin – she said many wonderful things about An Intimate War, among them that the book is a celebration ….

Intersection of two creative processes in your work, visual and literary art?

Two very different media, I can express myself more powerfully through the written word than I can with paint and visual media.