Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Zelna A. Oberholster about her life, what inspires her, and the creative process that went into her book; Napierville.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I am a wife, mother and dog owner who happens to be an author. wholeness coach and speaker. I am also a multiple childhood rape survivor with expensive lessons learnt. Living in South Africa with all its beauty and amazing people, I was unemployed for varied amounts of time, and I had to rely on my entrepreneurial spirit to survive. Because I am educated, and have unearned privileges, I was able to do this, despite the challenges of limited capital. My survivor instincts help me to find solutions where others only see problems.
In Afrikaans, my home language, we have a saying ‘‘n Boer maak ‘n plan”. Historically Afrikaners were called Boers (farmers) and were known for their ability to make a plan to be victorious in their doings. But millions of South Africans are illiterate, poor with no access to finances. Even before Covid Lockdowns, our economy took a dive, and even more people, even educated ones are without jobs.
I founded The SelfHelp Foundation NPC to address this, hoping to collaborate with academic, skills and training providers to upskill and reskill our people to be employable anywhere in the world. I love chocolate and seeing people reach their potential and love themselves.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I started writing Napierville to close a chapter in my life, I had been dealing with all my baggage and insecurities for four decades and was at a point where I wanted to bundle it up, package it, and put it away. This was towards the end of 2016, beginning 2017.
When did you take a step to start writing?
Writing comes naturally to me. Since I could write, I would write little poems. I never really journaled, but there were times that I jotted down some feelings, or wrote a letter to my mom to describe how I felt about an argument. In 2017, I sat in front of my computer and just poured my heart out. I had no intention of publishing it. It was just a feeling and memory dump. I closed my eyes and put myself in the room, car or place where the rape took place. I experienced a lot of fear, anger, resentment, nausea, physical pain. The numbness was making way for feelings I never knew I had. I wrote in the voice of that little girl at that age as I was her, while I wrote. I felt naked and knew I couldn’t stop until I was ready to be dressed again.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
I released the book in October 2017. So, I guess it took me about 10 months?
What made you want to write Napierville?
I was married to an incredible man, my daughter was well adjusted in school and I was in a fantastic job, and felt ready to delve in deeper into the actual rapes. There was a time where I had blanked out the first time. The psychologist I was seeing tried to hypnotize me but it didn’t work.
Every other healer I went to could ‘fix’ all my other issues, but would always get stuck somewhere on my lower back, saying my body is not permitting them to continue. They indicated that it was a traumatic experience/s in my early childhood that I had to deal with. I knew I had to, but didn’t want to. This book was intended to be just for me.
But in South Africa, it is estimated that every 25 seconds a woman is raped. South Africa is dubbed the Rape Capital of the world… Depression is debilitating many South Africans. Suicide figures in 15–24-year-old group in 2017 was 25.2 per 100 000 https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.STA.SUIC.P5?locations=ID .
I felt that rape and depression were misunderstood and that, based on conversations with my husband and others who loved me, they were clueless. We went for Imago therapy at one stage and I had to relate an incident to him. He was overwhelmed.
I decided to publish the book with my innermost secret rape healing journey to
- Let other survivors know they are not alone
- Help those who love survivors understand why the survivor cannot just get over it
- Why so many rape cases are not reported to the police or the authorities
- Give survivors hope and tools to live a life of thriving.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Napierville?
Dealing with emotions. It felt as if I was becoming undone all over again. It was hard for my husband and daughter to go through this writing process. Often, I could not see the words on the screen as I was so tearful. I often had to stop, have some tea, go for a walk, play with the dogs just to gather myself again and find the courage to continue again.
Sometimes my thoughts and memories were incoherent, as one insight would relate to another incidence and order it in a way that made sense.
I also had to protect the identities and had to find a consistent way to change the names, and keep a record of them. Some names are often the same in the Afrikaans culture, and to make it less confusing to readers I had to give different names.
Also, the legal side of things was a challenge. I had family members who did not approve of me writing the book as it would make our family appear ‘common’ and they had their doubts about the truth. In the end, I pushed through, because these were the same family members who were not there for me during the abuse and anyhow, never liked me. This was my trust to be told. I had many sleepless nights about that.
Of course, I started the book as an intimate journal of my sexual abuse. When I decided to publish it, I never considered that a publisher would be interested in publishing it so knew I had to go the self-publishing route. The information on the internet was confusing (and still is) and there are no published authors in our family to consult with. Towards the end, I remembered that one of the great intellects at my Toastmaster’s Club had published a book and I asked him for some tips.
By then I had other challenges- front cover design, book design & layout, ISBNs, editing, proofreading, reviews, etc. Mistakes did still slip in, and it’s hard for me to know that. During the printing process, I discovered that the graphic designers did not include one of the pages. It was too late to fix with the hard copies, but could still be corrected on Amazon.
I think the biggest challenge was silencing that inner voice and critic “Who exactly do you think you are? You are no author! English is not even your first language! You are not a celebrity that someone would want to listen to. Who will want to buy your book?
What was your research process for Napierville?
I generally have an excellent long-term memory, so I could remember the addresses and circumstances really well. But I had to confirm through Google Maps, that that was indeed the right house or the right place.
Finding people to confirm facts regarding my family was a little difficult, as my parents are both deceased and their siblings etc. mostly passed on. I did find an old lady, not related to me, who could fill in most of the gaps. Some of my options were dead -ends and I had to omit that information.
I researched the impact of socio-economic conditions on the prevalence of rape, alcoholism and spousal abuse and spoke to expert professionals for confirmation. Also, the origins and purpose of the establishment of the South African Railway Service concerning the ‘armblanke’ (poor white) problem after the scorched earth policy of the English.
But most of the ‘research’ came from conversations I have had with rape victims in support groups and members of audiences. There are stories, more worthy of being published than mine as they could help so many men and women.
How did you plan the structure of Napierville?
At first, there was no structure. Just pouring out of emotions and memories on paper. Once I decided to publish, I sorted the memories into addresses and themes within them for my painful years, which I also chose to keep in my childlike style and voice. My healing journey chapters are divided into key focus areas and written in my natural writing style. English is not my first language, but I felt that it could help more people if it is published in English.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Napierville need?
Choosing an editor was rather hard, as editing means different things to different people. I needed someone who could proofread, correct grammatical and spelling errors and ensure that there is a golden thread throughout. Huge chunks were cut out, and I felt a bit uneasy about it but trusted that the editors knew best.
I also asked a few close friends to read and provide feedback- AFTER the book was laid out. That was an expensive mistake as the graphic designers charged every time, they had to make corrections!
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
Try to find someone who has a reasonably successful published book and ask to be mentored by them BEFORE starting to write the book. I might not have chosen the self-published route or have printed hard copies had I known beforehand that no one in my country is prepared to accept books to distribute or list or sell by a single published author. I think my focus and process would also have been much different if I had guidance from the start.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I definitely want to write a follow-up book, simply because so many readers have written to me stating that they were too traumatized to finish reading the book. That was not what I was going for, so the next book will only have the hope and positive side of my healing journey.
I also have a fiction book brewing in me, showcasing the diversity and life of my people, South Africans from all walks of life, tackling serious issues with a bit of humor. The language of the book is still under consideration, as we have 11 official languages, with most of us being fluent in at least 2 of them. isiZulu and isiXhosa are the most spoken languages and I am unable to write in either. My home language is Afrikaans which is the third most spoken language, followed by English. For the sake of international markets, English would be the better of the two that I can write in.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I am proud that I continued through all the feelings and emotions. I am not sure if I am proud of publishing the book. To me, my sense of accomplishment and achievement comes from the feedback of the book and the conversations it started between children and parents, husbands and wives and survivors in general. At the heart of my decision to publish the book was a goal: If I could help just 1 person to understand a survivor or give just 1 survivor the hope to live a thriving life, I would succeed in my goal. And that I have achieved multiple times over. I am proud and fulfilled by that.
More from Zelna A. Oberholster :
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