As a writer, what do you consider your greatest achievement?
Winning the Prix du Marais 2005 for the French translation of Skyline was the most moving experience in terms of response from readers.
This prize was awarded by the municipal library of Lille in France and I received it at L’Odyssée, Médiathèque in Lomme.
Librarians made up a short list of titles and library users voted. The library outreach at the local prison brought in many votes for my novel. I think they swayed the vote. One of the prisoners was permitted to attend the prize giving ceremony and was in the audience with her minder. I could not meet her because of prison protocol. But I was told she was there, and about how the prisoners had personally identified with my novel.
When I think of that day—of standing there with a big bunch of flowers, and everyone clapping, and of knowing that a group of my readers were prisoners, and that one was there sharing my honour, and that my book was giving meaning to broken lives—my heart aches. Really, I feel it physically.
Of all the books, the characters, the stories, essays you have written, what stands out for you as a paragraph you always enjoy re-reading?
In Skyline, it is the scene on the roof where Bernard tells the girls that the stars are his wife’s beads, which she threw up into the sky as markers, so that the family could find itself again after the war.
In A Time of Angels, it is where the young, Jewish boy, Massimo, in hiding with a butcher and a baker from the Nazis in German-occupied Italy, is taken by them on fantastical journeys to source ingredients to make imaginary fruited bread. But I also like Primo’s encounter with Lucifer. And something should be said about that crazy party in Long Street.
In The Apothecary’s Daughter, it is the seduction of the noblewoman by the visitor, wicked as he is. I would single out the love poem which he uses to woo her.
In A Quilt of Dreams, it is the silent courtship of Rosa by the travelling salesman, who sources the fine fabrics for her quilt. And also the scene where he says goodbye to his driver at Cape Town station. From this book, I would also add the description of the bombing of Dresden, and the circus clown’s pathetic attempt to stop the bombers. Sometimes, at night, the image of that clown trying to stop the Dresden bombing wakes me up.
From The Master’s Ruse, I would choose the description of the ocean, which no longer bears life. And then I would choose the development of the poem, the love poem to the earth, and the way the narrator creates that poem.
Violence has been a recurrent theme in your books. Do you think it is an eye opener for your readers?
I am troubled by the recurrence of war and genocide and use my fictions to highlight the phenomenon of human conflict. Each of my novels holds at core various dark questions which allow me to explore compassion, mercy and tolerance through my various characters.
So yes, I do hope to offer eye-openers to my readers by showing them the terrible deeds of war, while at the same time alerting them to the inherent goodness within the human soul.
The depiction of war and violence in your books is inseparable from certain elements such as sensuality, profusion of details, beauty, food, or the development of inner life. Is it difficult for you to find the balance between such opposing elements, or does it come out naturally?
No, it is not difficult, because such profusion is already there in everyday life. People do all these things: they war upon each other and are violent and brutal. But they also make love and feast and create works of art.
My difficulty is in not understanding why all these opposites occur in life. Why, having loved, do we still make war? Why, having fathered and mothered children, do we still kill the children of others? Why, having struggled with and overcome our own poverty, do we have no sympathy for the destitution of others?
What is it about war?
Your memoir, Thrown Among the Bones, covers holocaust, genocide, war and ethical light. You speak, in the chapter The Management of Evil, about what is required of someone in war. I’d like you to read it. And then say what you mean by ethical light.
"Perhaps warfare is a vital behaviour, magma and lava-like at our core. Perhaps this is why we employ our greatest minds. Our most skilled inventors and engineers, most brilliant choreographers and strategists, most daring visionaries. Most persuasive orators. War seems always to require our best, while paradoxically delivering our worst."
There is a thread running through my memoir. That thread is my personal quest, in this life, which is full of questions, for ethical light. The light which guides us towards good, the light, which guides us toward compassion, and non-war, and non-conflict. The light which makes us think twice before we run to do evil.
How did the impact of war, in particular the Rhodesian Bush War, shape you as an author and as a poet?
By the time of the Rhodesian Bush War, I was already ‘tattooed’ by the emotional impact of war. These indelible markings came through a sort of osmosis from my parents who had experienced World War 2. They barely spoke of their experiences, but the atmosphere of our home was loaded with a concealed pathos and mourning. It was charged with a sense of ‘unfinished business’ which in later years I would be compelled to examine through works of fiction and poetry.
The Rhodesian War was more ‘real’ in that it was being enacted within my own life.
Both these expressions of war—the hidden and the real—shaped me as an author and poet by imbuing me with very strong emotions and feelings concerning the error of war and the horror of genocide.
Where do you get inspiration for your new books from? And do the characters often resemble real people and situations?
Life inspires me, and other people’s lives, and the pathos within everything. I identified my author’s voice early on. This voice advocates peace and highlights the futility of war. My children’s books carry a message of peace, among our own species, but also towards other creatures and the earth. My adult works hold at core my own dismay at the recurrence of war and genocide and intolerance of other religions and cultures.
Yes, my characters do often resemble real people. Because I draw from real life, and am a keen observer of people, though not in a judgemental way. I watch life. I look at what people do with their lives and then make use of what I see. So I am able to create very real characters, ones with whom readers can empathise.
In view of the recent xenophobic violence in the country the topicality of your debut novel Skyline has been highlighted yet again. Have the events changed your outlook on the novel?
You were one of the first writers in the country to include African migrant characters in prose fiction. What was your inspiration to do that? And what did you intend to achieve through your portrayal of the city?
My inspiration in writing the novel, was compassion for persons displaced by war, particularly for those who could never return home or, if they returned, came back to nobody because their families had been killed. I seek through much of my fiction to give a voice to those who are voiceless, to speak up for those who are victims of war or regime or poverty.
About the city, I wanted to capture its many faces: Beauty. Harshness. The soft edges against the sharp. The way a person can lie curled up and hungry on a pavement and not be noticed. The way full moon rises behind the high buildings.
Despite Skyline’s innocent narrative voice, the novel offers an unflinching view of war, child soldiers, inner city violence and xenophobia. Yet through its cast of exotic—if troubled—players, it exposes hope and resilience. Please comment on that.
And yes, do read the piece that takes place in the Pan African Market, revealing the dark core of your novel, along with the extraordinary understanding and forgiveness which underpin the whole work.
In the novel, resilience and hope run alongside war, as two capillaries tracking a pulsing artery. Those capillaries might not, at first glance, seem as prominent as the arterial scarlet of war, but they reveal themselves as a vital energy, nonetheless, beguiling the reader toward the good in the human heart and its inherent ability to forgive.
“A woman brings us Cokes on a red, tin tray. One of her hands has been chopped off and her wrist is crudely rounded. She puts the tray down and scrapes our money off the table into the palm of her good hand.
"Her hand was cut off by rebels and thrown into the bushes, leaving a trail of red blood. Her hand was held down on a tree stump by boy-soldiers and chopped off with a machete.
"The fine, bleached-white bones of her hand lie outside her door in Freetown up in Sierra Leone. One day she’s going to fetch them back. One day she’s going to look for those boy-soldiers to ask them why they did this terrible thing. And she will find many other bones of hands and arms and feet and legs piled up in the hot sun.
"And the boy-soldiers, now grown to men, will tell her the rebels stole them from their mothers and drugged them and beat them and forced them to do these things. And she will see that their eyes are not the eyes of wise men, but the eyes of children trapped in killing fields. She will see in them the eyes of children forced to war. And she will be unable to be angry with them. She will understand these boys who have grown to be men in such a swift and terrible way.
"So she will just gather up the bleached-white bones of her fingers, though they have no use, and leave these boy-men drinking in the bars where she found them.”
The Master's Ruse is a love poem to the earth. It’s about repression and redemption. It has biblical prototypes and is decoratively furnished. Give us the gist and the genesis. Also tell us, is the fictitious narrator actually yourself? And is her Professor modelled on JM Coetzee?
Yes, it is essentially a love poem to the earth, a eulogy of sorts. A lamentation for the way we abuse the planet.
I began writing this novel in defence of the earth, really, and to highlight—within fiction—the destruction of the ocean. But a number of other threads run through it.
One thread looks at the repression of literature. Another at the concept of messianic energy. The fourth and central thread is that of a masterclass in the creation of fiction. I draw the reader in to the whole process of writing fiction, drawing from my own experience as a novelist.
And, yes, I have modelled some aspects of the narrator on myself. Her method of creating fiction is my own. Her love of embroidery. The way she draws fiction out of her reality. Some of her colonial experiences.
And, yes, I have modelled the fictitious professor on JM Coetzee, who supervised my Master’s thesis some years ago. In the novel, I take the relationship of master and student further than it went in real life. I allow the two to age together, and form a friendship, and continue discussing their own literature—all in the face of the governing Junta and the severe repressions imposed on freedom of speech They— the fictitious professor and student—continue the ‘master class’ which JMC gave me during academic supervision
JM Coetzee was your supervisor at university. Is there anything you learnt from him that you would like to transfer to us?
I learnt to take care that each word has resonance and to discard everything superfluous; that once the work is set in motion, the author should move swiftly through the crafting of it.
He never imposed his way of writing on me. Nor did he in any way inhibit me. Our work is different. Where mine is opulent and sensual, his is stark and minimal. Where mine is hopeful and redemptive, his is bleak and without optimism. He never asked me to change my style or to write his way. It is upon this that one can judge his mentorship.
What was the origin of the idea for your novel, The Apothecary’s Daughter? What were the influences—those you were conscious of—on your writing it? What ‘message’ would you like people to come away with after having read this novel? I know each reader’s experience is different, but there are some commonalities, I think.
This novel crept up on me. I was working on something else. The narrative voice of The Apothecary’s Daughter kept intruding, disturbing the voice of the work-in-progress. Eventually I put aside the other manuscript and just got on with the intrusive one. It was a difficult novel to write because of all the over- and underlays and because of the complexities of the characters.
The novel creates a fictitious arena in which to discuss religious intolerance, and intolerance of new knowledge, with particular reference to the refusal by the Church of the time to accept that the earth was not the centre of the known universe. I would like my readers to come away reflecting on these issues. Yet at the same time, I want them to enjoy the romance and sensuality that is stitched through the tale. It is a many-levelled love story. It’s erotic—I’d like them to enjoy that. The costumes and furnishings are good too. I still often close my eyes and ‘walk’ into the interior of those rooms and feel the fabrics. And I can smell the aniseed that fragrances the lover’s pipe-tobacco.
What is your greatest fear?
What does your being a professional author entail? What are the best and worst parts of the job, and why did you choose this career?
Using narrative prose, I create worlds that do not exist. I then fill those worlds with fictitious people and set them to enact credible dramas. The work involves research, composition, writing, editing and proof reading.
Writing fiction is hugely creative, challenging and rewarding work. It is exhilarating to complete a novel, to know that you have created a set of lives and circumstances, and told a story that will outlive you. Having a manuscript accepted for publication validates the hard work. Plus, it is really satisfying to think about the trajectory the book will take and the pleasure or food for thought it will give to readers.
It is essentially a lonely profession. Whole working days go by when the only people I interact with are fictitious. One is frequenting a totally make-believe world for most of the time. This can be problematic because you risk losing social skills and can find yourself talking about a non-reality when out to dinner. You can also find yourself not certain about which is the real world—this or the other. There is the risk of preferring the fabricated world to the current one. For this reason I try not to work at weekends, when I give myself a chance to be a person in the real world.
I chose this profession because I had a talent for creative writing and an imagination. My school education was strong on literature and language. We were exposed to Classics from an early age and had to produce a creative story each week. We studied poetry, Latin and Latin poetry. Also, I absorbed history lessons as though they were an unfolding tale. This, all together, gave me an interest and confidence in writing. My career as a published author began when I wrote for the pre-school children I taught years ago. I grew my skills slowly over a number of years until I had the confidence to tackle a work for adults. To break out of the isolation, I did a master’s degree at UCT which was wonderful.
What is your favourite genre to write in and why? And who has been your greatest inspiration?
Magical-realism is my favourite because it allows me to create totally credible worlds, with all the gritty realism of actual life, but then to add an improbable element, like the visit by an angel or a Madonna.
This genre allows for small miracles to happen in the everyday life of the fiction. I also enjoy writing meta-fiction, where the reader—or me as the author— are compelled to actually enter the text and play a role within the fiction.
I enjoy the challenge that both these genres present because they require great attention to detail. All the threads must tie up, otherwise credibility is lost.
Many people have inspired me during the course of my life. There have been those who’ve been courageous in the face of calamity; or generous while being desperately poor themselves. I’ve been inspired by other people’s joy and forgiveness and compassion. Insofar as authorship is concerned, I would say Carson McCullers and Harper Lee have set a bench mark for excellence. And all those authors whose works I read as a child, well their inspiration lives with me even today.