Chase Rhys first took the theatre scene by storm with his playscript, Kinnes, when he was announced as the winner of the inaugural Adam and Rosalie Small Award for Debutant/Debutante Writers in 2017. Weaving together the lives of people linked to the tragic death of a baby killed in gang crossfire, Kinnes captivated audiences with its true Kaaps-style when was later stage in 2018 at the Artscape under the direction of Hennie van Greunen. Thereafter, Kinnes appeared in to bookstores as a novella, showcasing Rhys' ability to embrace the various forms of storytelling with his unique narrative approach. It's then no surprise that Rhys is one of the young theatre voices featured at this year’s Open Book Festival from 4 to 8 September 2019.
While eagerly awaiting the start of the festival, we asked Rhys to reveal the impact of storytelling on his life.
1. You are an author and a playwright. When did you know that the sharing of stories and writing was your life passion?
Life has always shown me that writing is for me. I remember as toddler I didn’t want toys but I desperately cried for the You Can Read book series and cassettes from the early 90s. One of the earliest stories I wrote was in grade 2; a sequel to the movie The Mask. I remember our class was in the school library and I started reading to my friend. I was really into it, doing the character voices and sound effects in hushed tones. When I looked up my entire class, including the teachers had stopped what they were doing and they all came to sit before me and listen to my story. I’ll never forget their faces, they were captivated. I knew then that there is power in story telling.
2. Is there someone you look up to as a mentor? What about them do you regard as inspirational in influencing your approach to and style of writing?
When I was younger my two favourite books were Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh and A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Both books are English but the text looks so unfamiliar on the page because of how the authors used slang, dialects, created new words and broke language rules. As a teen reading these books it felt playful and anarchic. These books gave me the audacity to write in Kaaps.
3. As a child, did you have a favourite story that you wanted to hear or read more than once? What about that story made you love it most?
I loved The Emperors New Clothes, where these designers pretend to create a bespoke fabulous garment for the King. But the designers are shady and don’t actually make anything, instead they say that the fabulous new material they use is invisible to stupid people. So naturally everyone lies and pretends that they can see the clothes. Until a little boy calls them out and says the Emperor is just naked, there is no garment. I could relate to that little boy who saw through the ridiculousness of the world. It was always clear to me that this reality isn’t all there is and that people are more than who they think are. I’m still motivated by the bravery of the little boy in that story.
4. Why is it important for people to hear stories by them and about them in their own mother tongue and dialect?
There’s something incredibly validating about feeling like “this story is for me.” In Kinnes I address how Kaaps stories are often told from the outside in, and more often than not it’s the “gangster narrative” produced and presented really irresponsibly. I wrote Kinnes to show how to tell our stories in a way that leaves the community feeling hopeful. Yes, visibility is important, but only if people are being represented with dignity.
5. You are one of the collaborators at Borderlands- a community project that uses the arts to create encounters between segregated communities. How important is the role of the storyteller in the empowerment and upliftment of communities?
As an artist I make work in the hopes that somewhere along the line it will reach a “decision maker”; someone in a position to make real structural changes in our communities. I hope that people would be so moved by the story they would feel compelled to help. Story telling is subversive –its power is unassuming because on the surface it’s “just” a story, but we all know that the pen is mightier than the sword.
6. What did the creative journey of writing Kinnes mean to you personally?
It was an opportunity for me to fall in love with my community. Living in the Cape Flats is a heightened experience; our tragedies are Shakespearean in how extreme they are. The war I see happening on our streets is not new, it is the most ancient war; the battle between good and evil or light versus dark. To tell this story I had to put myself in the shoes of players on both sides, and in doing so developed a deep empathy and understanding for all involved. It was in writing Kinnes that I came to discover the divinity in our people.
7. What was your reaction when you found out Kinnes was nominated for an ATKV-Woordfeertjie, as well as twice nominated for a kykNET-Rapport Book Prize?
It’s a great honour. I sometimes jokingly refer to Kinnes as the "Little Book That Could", because there were people who told me that a book written entirely in Kaaps would be “difficult” and “too niche.” So every time the book achieves something –like these triple nominations, or being made a setwork at Universities across the countries– I do feel vindicated.
8. You recently contributed to They Called Me Queer, compiled by Kim Windvogel and Kelly-Eve Koopman. What can you tell us about the inspiration behind your latest short story, Blue Tea & The Beast, that forms part of this soon to be released book?
Blue Tea & The Beast is an example of how I was able to take a negative experience and alchemise it with fiction. The story is based in reality; when I was a child I coped with trauma by imagining an older adult version of myself speaking to me saying, “Everything is going to be okay,” “you’re going to be fine.” It really calmed me down and helped. I’m now the adult that I imagined myself to be; things really are okay and I am more than fine, so from this space I consciously project those packets of encouragement and peace to my younger self. This “time-travel” is the inspiration for Blue Tea & The Beast. When I wrote about these traumas I made it fiction; changed things, made myself more powerful and gave my ideal ending. Now when these memories arise they no longer feel like an attack. I am not disturbed by my past because fiction has made it sweeter.
9. You are involved in five events on the programme of this year's much anticipated Open Book Festival: Fictional Lives, Made to Fit, Kwela Giveaway, Allowed to Dream and Wintersports. What can you tell us about these events to entice fellow lovers of stories to come join the conversation?
At Fictional Lives (5 September, 12pm), I’m looking forward to speaking about how I use fiction to find freedom and peace from my past.
I’m excited about Made to Fit (5 September, 2pm), because it’s the first time that I’ll be chairing a panel, living my talk show host dreams.
If you’re a Kinnes fan then you have to come to the Kwela Giveaway (6 September, 5pm) as I’ll be hosting a quiz based on Kinnes and you could win one third of all the books Kwela Books have published over their 25 years.
In Allowed to Dream (6 September, 6pm) we’ll be talking about finding bigger worlds.
Wintersports: The Food Edition (8 September, 2pm) is going to be so much fun, we’ll be talking “disaster dinners.”
10. Why should Capetonians make the Open Book Festival part of their September diary? What would you say to motivate them to come see how the power of words can change and inspire lives?
Open Book is probably one of the most accessible Book Festivals for Capetonians –it’s in the city so there’s public transport available, a lot of the programme takes place during the day time, and tickets are not expensive. The items scheduled are diverse and relevant for all people experiencing Cape Town.
Join The Book Lounge and The Fugard Theatre for the ninth Open Book Festival which takes place from 4 to 8 September 2019. With a record number of more than 150 events, this promises to be the best Festival yet. Enjoy book launches, workshops, readings, performances, panel discussions and more, with topics ranging from poetry to politics, to comics, food and fun. The engaging and entertaining discussions are designed to keep the conversations going long after the event. Tickets can be book online via Webtickets.