It’s not uncommon for authors to draw on their own experiences when they write fiction, but Danila Botha didn’t hold anything back when she recounted the most traumatic event of her life in a short story.
“The story My So-Called Date was pretty much autobiographical,” said South African-born Botha. It’s one of 12 stories in her first book, Got No Secrets, published last year by Tightrope Books in Canada and Modjaji Books in South Africa.
Set in Toronto, South Africa and the United States, the stories are dark and disturbing, dealing with mostly female characters who struggle with drug addiction, trauma, dysfunctional relationships and promiscuous sex.
“My So-Called Date is probably the darkest story in the book, and it was really cathartic for me to write. I don’t like to talk about it, but it is something that happened to me,” Botha said.
The story is about a girl who was raped by her ex-boyfriend and is desperate to move on from the traumatic event by dating another man.
“I was trying very hard to be honest and authentic and to write about certain things that I’ve experienced that I didn’t feel comfortable addressing in any other areas of my life,” said Botha, who moved to Toronto 13 years ago when she was 15.
But this traumatic event, which led Botha to experiment with drugs in her early 20s, was not the impetus to writing the book. It was her volunteer work with the Mobile Jewish Response to the Homeless, a program run by Ve’ahavta, the Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee, that inspired her.
When Botha was a York University undergrad in the creative writing program, she volunteered to help distribute meals to the homeless. She said she was intrigued by the stories she heard from homeless teens.
“I got to hear a lot of stories about drugs and addiction, and I was just really surprised by how non-discriminating addiction is,” Botha said.
“I’ve met homeless teenagers who were Jewish kids from Thornhill. There was a boy who grew up near Chabad Gate, and it was a shock to me that someone from such a similar background could end up on the streets selling crack.”
Two of the stories in Got No Secrets reflect the fact that some of the troubled and homeless people she met on her Ve’ahavta missions came from Jewish homes.
Jesus Was a Punk Rocker is about a 28-year-old pierced and tattooed nurse who drinks to excess and cuts herself because “it helps [her] feel real, brings [her] anxieties and fears down to earth.” She comes from an Orthodox Jewish family, but she hates being Jewish herself.
Don’t Talk Junk is about a heroinaddicted teenager who moves in with her boyfriend to get away from her mother, “who had been making [her] life a living hell for years” and “killed herself to send [her] to a private Jewish high school” that she hated.
Botha, who herself is a graduate of the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, said she wanted readers to understand that “it could be any person. Anyone’s mom, sister, it could be someone’s daughter, best friend, or a girl you sat next to in class.
“The more research I did into addiction – and I interviewed addicts and dealers… because I wanted to try to tell their stories authentically – I remember just being shocked at how incorrect my assumptions were.”
Botha, who said she was “very, very stupid” in her early 20s when she experimented with drugs, is grateful that it didn’t lead to an addiction.
“But it always seems strange to me that it did for people whose circumstances had been similar or better or worse [than mine]. So I really wanted to understand addiction, and understand why things happen to certain people and why certain people go all the way and others don’t,” she explained.
Botha hopes her stories will add to the voices that say “terrible things happen sometimes, but you can keep going.” “It’s possible to survive them and to get through them.
It’s possible for it just to be a small anecdote in the story of your life… It’s possible to go through something really difficult and for it to almost feel a few years later like it happened to someone else,” she said.
Botha, who is currently completing her bachelor’s in education at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, said that as a teacher, she hopes to be able to speak candidly to her students about her past.
“We talk very openly about certain things, and it’s actually very useful to them to have someone who speaks openly about that stuff,” she said.
Earning her teaching degree is not going to stop Botha, a graduate of the Humber College writing program, from publishing. She is almost finished a novel titled Too Much on the Inside, which will be published next year.
It’s a story about four immigrants in their 20s who move to Toronto. One character hails from South Africa, one comes from Brazil, another is from Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia and the fourth character is Israeli.
Choosing the nationalities of each character was not random, Botha said.
For example, Botha wanted to write an Israeli character because of her connection to the Jewish state.
Her mother is an Israeli, and growing up, Botha spent each summer there with her family.
“When I graduated from York, I did a teach-English-as-a-secondlanguage course and I went to live there to teach ESL for a couple years,” she said.
“After living there for what I felt was a significant amount of time, I had a different view on the country, on the army, on the politics, on all these things I had felt differently about as someone who used to only live there in the summer.”
Botha also has plans to write a graphic novel about the Israeli-Palestinian situation called The World Is Dead and I’m Full of Joy.
It’s about two women in their early 20s – one Israeli and the other Palestinian – who meet at a language school in Jerusalem where they develop a relationship.
“I’m moving away from some of the confessional stuff I did when I was younger,” Botha said.
But, she added, she’s grateful for the catharsis she experienced when writing Got No Secrets.
“I’ve learned a lot since then, and I have a much healthier outlook now.”