Jill Kandel, winner of the 2014-15 Sarton Memoir Award for her book, So Many Africas: Six Years in a Zambian Village, believes in the power of words and the power of women telling their stories. This is a happy time for this mother and grandmother, who has lived and worked on four continents. But it wasn’t always so for the writer. Kandel grew up in North Dakota, and after earning a college degree, married a man from the Netherlands whose heart was set on teaching agriculture techniques to African farmers. Her book is about the first six years of her marriage, which she spent in a primitive and remote African village. In those years, she gave birth to two children. After ten years of living abroad in Africa, Indonesia and the Netherlands, the couple moved to the North Dakota/Minnesota area in 1992, and have lived there ever since. While her husband works full time, teaching agriculture to farmers and doing research in farmer’s fields across North Dakota, Kandel enjoys her children and grandchildren and the “extra” hours she has for the first time in her life.
“I teach journal writing to female inmates at a local county jail,” Kandel said. “I teach about the power of words and the power of telling our stories. I write for a local women’s magazine and love meeting the most amazing women. I also am a member of a church and especially love encouraging young women and young mothers. It’s hard to be young. It’s hard to raise a family well. But it’s so very important, to us as women and to society as a whole.”
In an interview for the Story Circle Journal, Kandel explained more about her journey to become winner of the Sarton Award.
When did the act of writing call out to you, and how did you go about answering it?
When I moved to Zambia, I thought living in a village would be a cinch. I was young and naï¿½ve. My husband loved Zambia and had a dream job, but we were really foreigners to each other. I didn’t understand his culture any more than he understood mine. So we came into a new marriage and a new job and moved three thousand miles away from my family. For most of our six years in Zambia, there was no phone or Internet. It was a 10-hour canoe ride to the nearest town. How can anyone be prepared for that kind of isolation? For the first nine months we lived in Zambia, we didn’t have a house—just a room in a hotel. I was overwhelmed with culture shock, survival, finding food, cooking, washing, disease.
When we moved back to America, I needed to find the words in order to understand those years. When I started writing about Africa, what I was doing was putting words into a time which was basically a big silence in my life. I was allowing myself to say what I hadn’t said. I needed to articulate both the grief and the glory. I needed to take away the silence.
Writing about Zambia changed everything. Words have always been an important part of my life and I was living in a village where the act of talking (I didn’t know the language) was a daily struggle. When you lose the ability to speak in a language you know—to really communicate—there is a sense of loss and isolation. And something odd happens: when you stop talking, you stop hearing yourself. You forget who you are.
The writing definitely called out to me. I had to write. So I sat down and wrote. And every year I went to one writing conference, or workshop, or retreat. Writing was a refuge. It was also a long process to learn how to write better. I put in the hours. I did the work.
Parts of your book were published in literary journals. Were the short pieces your original goal, or was it a book that got written piece by piece?
I didn’t have a goal when I started, just an overwhelming need to write. Writing short pieces is easier when you are beginning. And it’s a great way to hone your work. The essays grew as I read literary journals and fell in love with them, and wanted to see my work within their pages.
The book came later, after nine essays were published. I saw that the essays could fit together and make a bigger whole. I did this by using the Voice of Innocence (a voice that in effect says first this happened, then this) and mixing it with the Voice of Experience (a more mature authorial voice that establishes thought and reflection), and then adding in an overall emotional arc. What does winning the Sarton Award mean to you?
Winning the Sarton Award is very confirming. It’s great to see my book get some extra notice and publicity because then more women might find it and read it. I enjoyed the trip to Texas and meeting so many fantastic women. And now I have some shiny gold stickers to put on the front of my book, which is also very sweet!
What is your next big writing project?
My next book is about half completed. It’s a continuation of my first, written in the same voice, but focusing on my relationship with my father-in-law. He was a young man in the Netherlands when Nazi Germans invaded and occupied his country for five years. WWII affected his whole life, and yet he seldom talked about it. The book will thread my life as it intersected with his, his life as a child in Occupied Netherlands, and the decisions he made at the end of his life.
Do you think other women can related to your experience of being pushed into becoming Super Woman – like as you dealt with overwhelming situations, but at the same time felt invisible? Have some female readers commented to you about similarities in their lives?
I never tried to be Super Woman. I don’t believe in the concept. I don’t try or even want to live up to those aspirations. There is too much pressure on women today and they often feel like they fail. I would say that I survived. The hard work came later. The hard work was learning how to let go of bitterness. Learning how to write. Learning how to take the sorrow, and the isolation, and the drought, and the pain, and let it grow into something of beauty. It’s so easy to hang on to our pain and to clutch it to ourselves and let it define us. Letting go of it, finding a way to move beyond it, that is the hard work of life.
I have had many women write to me and say they’ve never been to Africa but that my book inspired them. One woman said, “Wonderful! Makes me almost brave enough to write about my own Africa.” A woman in jail said, “If you could do Africa, I can do jail.” My book gave her courage. I find that a remarkable thing. I’m grateful that my writing is out in the world, and that women are reading it and finding courage for their own lives.
Describe your writing space, if you have one, and your writing habits.
I joined a writing club at the age of 41. At that time, I was homeschooling my four children so I’d get up at 5 a.m. and write till 9 a.m., when the school day started. I wrote six days a week, four hours a day. Early mornings were my only alone time. I’d wake up, drink coffee, and write. My writing routine has varied somewhat over the years, but mostly, I’m an early morning writer. I read, research, blog, and do the business side of writing after I’ve done the creative work.
My first writing space was in a corner of our house. Later, I moved to the basement. I didn’t need much, just a corner and a desk and a computer. Now that I’m older and some of my children have moved out of the house, I have my own room. It’s light and airy with four windows. The walls are white and lime green and it has a lot of bookshelves in it. I have one shelf for local authors and one for favorite books, and one for books on writing. My desk is an old metal army desk that I found for free on the curb. I painted it turquoise and have bright yellow chairs. I like white and color splashes.
I made a paper chain and hung it on one wall. Each link in the chain represents 1,000 words. Every time I finish writing another 1,000 words in my next book, I tear one chain off. It’s a visible encouragement to me. I love seeing that chain growing smaller. When I reach the end of the chain, my book will be complete. Well, at least the first draft of it!
In the room, beside my computer desk, I have a space for making art. I play with acrylic painting and book making. In the evenings, when I’m tired of words and writing, I like to paint.
How does your family feel about your writing success?
Writing is my job just like agriculture is my husband’s job. My family is happy for me, but they also see the long hours and hard work I put in. They cheer me on. But they also take it for granted, “Mom is a writer. That’s what she does.” My son, who is a videographer, made a two-minute book trailer using old 8mm film footage, photos, and scanned documents. My daughters are both photographers and they help me constantly. They help me design my bookmarks, business cards, and a lot of the visual details.