The year 2016 has been a memorable one for PEN South Africa Member, poet and social philosopher, Athol Williams. From scooping poetry writing prizes, the most recent being the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award, to publishing two books, one being a book of poetry called Bumper Cars, the other being his autobiography, Pushing Boulders.
At the 6th annual Word N Sound International Youth Poetry Festival, we treated our audiences to a surprise reading from Athol Williams, on the eve of him winning the Sol Plaatje Poetry Award for his poem, Visit at tea time.
We spoke to Athol Williams about his autobiography, which tells of his relentless pursuit of education, overcoming challenges that range from the apartheid government, to being destitute while studying in the USA. He eventually graduated from five of the world’s top universities, and later on in life, sold his house and cars to fund start an NGO to inspire and empower children. It is a book about resilience despite numerous challenges.
KG: Tell us about the process of writing Pushing Boulders, how and where it began.
ATHOL: I started planning the writing of Pushing Boulders in 2012. At that point I set out the broad structure and started conducting research. I relied mainly on family accounts of our family history, but I also gathered some info from published sources. I also relied heavily on my diaries and letters for detail and also timelines. I also read extensively in order to put my story in the appropriate context of what was happening in South Africa. It took me 2 years to write from start to end, including multiple revisions and rewrites.
KG: The process of editing is a tough task that needs you to leave out some things you would have loved to include. In this book, what are some stories that you would have really loved to share with your readers?
ATHOL: My editing didn’t leave out whole sections as much as reducing the detail of the stories that I tell. I had to reduce the manuscript from 120,000 words to 80,000 words – taking out 40,000 words requires a lot of detail to be removed. It was a good discipline because it forced me to tighten my writing. I would have wanted to include more extracts from letters and diaries, as well as include poems because I think these give the real flavour of my life’s journey.
KG: What is something you want readers to take away from the book with?
ATHOL: I want readers to awaken to the profound possibilities that life holds. I believe that ‘going with the flow’ ensures a life of mediocrity. If you want to experience the profound possibilities open to you and if you want to live an extraordinary life, you have to do extraordinary things.
In high school I wrote to 29 companies asking for a bursary – I got 3. I applied to Oxford 3 times – was rejected twice but persisted. This year I have entered 40 poetry competitions, I’ve won 2. I have had multiple businesses fail but I keep going. Success requires extraordinary effort, it requires bold dreams that we pursue with self-belief and resilience.
I use the analogy of a boulder being pushed up the hill – the real test of character is when you get to the summit and the boulder rolls back down – will you give up or will you go back down the hill to push again. If you believe in your dream and believe in yourself you will have the resilience to go back down the hill. I chose homelessness in the US over a fully-funded scholarship because I would not give up on my dream. How far are you willing to go? I sold my house and cars because I wanted to create an NGO to inspire young children. What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve what you set out to achieve?