Virginia Quarterly ReviewThe Johannesburg Review of Books Vox Populi.
At Heathrow, three hours before her flight to Boston, Thandi was in one of the shower rooms below the Galleries lounge in Terminal 5. A previous tenant—someone who, at some point in the day, had been in there before her, before every inch of the shower room was cleaned, its towels and various amenities replaced—had left a trace of themselves: the radio on, the dial turned to Classic FM. Which meant that Thandi had spent the last twenty minutes listening to Fauré and Vaughan Williams. Now it was Handel. From Solomon: “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.”
Where did you find the idea for this story?
Some years ago, a friend of mine told me about this strange encounter she’d had with a white woman in an airport. It was quite mild, nothing as dramatic as Thandi’s, but even in its mildness, my friend sensed more sinister energies. So, I became interested in examining that sort of thing: a seemingly innocuous encounter that’s not innocuous at all. At about the same time, another friend reached out to inform me that she wanted to publish a collection of “unexpected voices” and wanted to include me in it. It didn’t happen, but the idea was that I would write a story that considered what it meant to belong to a set of weirdly intersecting circumstances: those citizens of poor nations who are prosperous on the one hand, but who, on the other, come to learn that their economic privileges do not shield them from certain forces or constructs. The story emerged out of that context.
How long did it take you to write this story?
It took me a while (by my standards)—about six months to get the first draft done. In the past, an early draft of a story would take me a couple of weeks max. But this one came to me slowly, in driblets, which might be why I didn’t have to revise it as much. It was frustrating at the time, but in the end, I found I had less work to do. Typically, for me, the real work begins at the end, so it was a pleasant surprise.
“Transit” interrogates the intersection of race and class in an airport. How does this transitory setting full of strangers lend itself to the premise of the story and Thandi meeting Flannery?
There’s a line in the story about how in Thandi’s mind, airports belong not to time but to “airport time.” It speaks to the sense that some people have when they’re in an airport—that they’re in a place that exists outside of time and space, a big waiting room that promises them some kind of miraculous escape.
I used to think of airports in this way. Being in an airport—waiting to be delivered wherever I desired to go, watching planes blink in and out of the sky, viewing the scroll of infinite cities on screens, observing the multitudes of people who looked nothing like me, and spoke differently, and dressed in ways I didn’t understand, and yet were also clearly like me—was intoxicating. And sometimes this is still true, but I’ve also come to know the less magical side: the unwarranted suspicions of airport staff; the nasty behaviour of immigration officials; the sense, almost everywhere I’ve travelled, that Black Africans are uniquely unwelcome. Funnily enough, a few years ago I was thinking about this very problem, and I discovered that some British historian had, in the twentieth century, likened the history of Africans to “unedifying gyrations of barbarous tribes.” It felt apposite.
Back to the matter of airports: In the end, the sense of the magical, the sense of possibility and shared humanity that they breed is, for me, almost always transitory. An airport is not this supranatural place where you can escape humanity and its leagues and divisions. Presently, there is no such place. Flannery (and even Thandi) is an example of that.
Around the midpoint of “Transit,” the narration switches to Flannery’s point of view during an uncomfortable scene where she goes through Thandi’s belongings. What made you decide to switch to perspectives, and was it difficult to write from Flannery’s perspective? Why or why not?
I didn’t find it especially difficult to write from Flannery’s perspective, but I wanted to convey her and to give the reader enough information to be able to actually consider her. I’d written the first draft without the switch before it became clear that for me to attain this objective, she couldn’t remain opaque. Plus, it would’ve been a lot less interesting—so I decided to switch.
How has the Robert J. Dau Prize affected you?
The prize has given me a big boost of confidence, and a kind and gifted set of writer comrades. But also—just the wonderful knowledge that something like it exists. I come from a culture that deifies the established and gatekeeps everything on their behalf. So it makes me glad that there are in fact spaces in the world where professional youth is celebrated.
What are you working on now?
I’m wrapping up a story collection and working on a novel.
Finally, where do you discover new writing?
In the pre-pandemic past, I’d go to bookstores and meander—and whatever found itself in my hands found itself in my hands. These days, I mostly rely on recommendations from friends, as well as writers I follow on Instagram and Twitter. Plus, a bunch of literary journals.