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An Interview with Sharon Gelman

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Sharon Gelman is a writer, editor, and activist. She was the U.S. managing editor and lead interviewer for 200 Women: Who Will Change the Way You See the World (Chronicle, 2017). As longtime head of Artists for a New South Africa, she created the award-winning audiobook Nelson Mandela’s Favorite African Folktales (Hachette, 2009) and penned the afterword for the unabridged audiobook of Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom (Little, Brown, 2013).

Gelman holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and has workshopped at Bread Loaf, Tin House, Macondo, and the Fine Arts Work Center. Her creative efforts have been recognized with a Maryland Independent Artists Award, the Page One Prize for Novelists, Audie Awards for Audiobook of the Year and Best Multi-Voice Performance, a Grammy nomination, and as a Story Foundation Prize semi-finalist, among other honors. She is at work on her first novel, which is taking approximately forever.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

This novel began as a short story, a piece of contemporary historical fiction, inspired by experiences relayed to me from a couple of my South African friends. One story slowly grew into a series of connected stories and then into a novella and, eventually, a novel.

As the political winds in America have shifted, a narrative set against the backdrop of the apartheid regime—with its extreme segregation and virulent bigotry, tightly closed borders, severe censorship, and government double-speak—suddenly seems less historical and more a cautionary tale. Yet I also have tried to capture the myriad ways that life and love go on even in the most dire of circumstances.

As someone whose life has focused on the pursuit of social justice, I’ve wrestled deeply with the ethics and craft challenges inherent in writing some characters whose race and cultures differ from my own. While cultural exploitation and appropriation are genuine concerns, much can also be lost when artistic worlds retreat into segregation. I believe it is writers who live multicultural lives who need to take the risk of writing exemplary multicultural fiction. Yet this path is risky. It forces me to interrogate my own privileges and assumptions and to face issues of race, religion, and culture with searing honesty. It calls for painstaking attention to historical and cultural accuracy. It requires me to seek out and carefully consider frank input from BIPOC writers and readers, especially South African colleagues, and also to continue supporting of writers and artists of color. My goal is to complete a literary novel worthy of such risks.

Tell us the story of your book’s current title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

I started with a working title, “Exile,” and then changed it to “Left.” I knew neither of those was right, so I started keeping a running list of title ideas, which ended up running for pages and pages. Some were long, some short, but none seemed to capture the essence of the novel.

One day, I was reading a news article that quoted Ahmed Kathrada—he was my beloved friend and mentor before he passed away and was also a hero of the South African freedom struggle—where he said, “Young people should remember that freedom did not fall from the sky but was fought for with blood, sweat, and tears.”

And I thought, that’s it. That’s my title. Freedom Does Not Fall From the Sky.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

There are many songs I’ve listened to while I have been writing and editing this novel and some I even refer to in the book. A few that embody the spirit I am trying to capture in words:

“Mandela (Bring Him Back Home!)” by Hugh Masekela

“Asimbonanga” by Johnny Clegg

“Revolution” by Tracy Chapman

“Johannesburg” by Gil Scott-Heron

What books are you reading (for research or comfort) as you continue the writing process?

For research, I am currently reading two books by the great South African writer Mandla Langa: The Texture of Shadows, a novel, and Dare Not Linger: The Presidential Years, the second memoir by Nelson Mandela, which Mr. Langa completed after Mr. Mandela’s death.

For pure pleasure, I’m reading Day by Michael Cunningham, who always inspires me with the sheer beauty of his writing line by line as well as by his capacity to convey nearly ineffable interior experiences. Plus, he is weirdly skilled at keeping the reader oriented in time and space.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

For many years, I ran Artists for a New South Africa a US-based nonprofit organization founded and supported by notable members of the arts and entertainment community and guided by extraordinary South African leaders including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. This novel grew out of that experience.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I have always been an avid reader, thanks in large part to my parents, who read to me constantly when I was little, and who had shelves throughout our house crammed full of all kinds of books, none of which were off-limits to me or my sister. I wanted to do for other people what writers I love did for me: enlarge my understanding of the world, transport me to other places and inside other people, use words with such beauty and power that I am overtaken with awe.

I’ve also always written, starting with poems since I could hold a crayon. But the desire to be a writer solidified when I first read the play “Our Town,” at the age of ten, and came to an exchange between the Stage Manager and Emily, not long after she’s died and he lets her go back to witness a single day of her life:

EMILY: “Does anyone ever realize life while they live it…every, every minute?”

STAGE MANAGER: “No. Saints and poets maybe…they do some.”

Where is your favorite place to write?

Sitting on my bed, propped up by numerous pillows, with my computer on my lap and my two cats cuddled around me, sleeping.

My main thing is privacy. I often enter a sort of dream-like state when writing, and sometimes I mimic the physical action in a scene to better grasp how to describe it, so I find it difficult (not to mention embarrassing) to write in coffee shops and other public settings. The best way for me to think through issues in my work is while taking long, meandering walks.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I hope readers will think about the power of collective action to bridge our differences and create positive social change.

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