I’m most comfortable when I’m writing. It’s easy for me, it doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything. I just listen to the voices. Everything has a thing that it wants to be. Everything knows what it wants to be. It tells you what it wants to be. You just have to listen to it, listen to the voices.
How much of yourself do you allow into your fiction? The ‘I’ voice in this collection is so intimate and confessional it’s easy for the reader to think of the narrator and the author as the same person. Is this so? How much crossover is there between your own experiences and the things you write about?
I’m interested in the manipulation and construction of social distance – especially in a country like South Africa with its long history of containment and segregation. Mainstream Western fiction assumes a position not too close, not too far away. It’s like the white suburbs in a city like Cape Town where I live, which are populated by individuals who maintain a safe distance from one another and from the racial inequalities of South Africa. I’m curious about what happens when you challenge this comfort zone, when you collapse the distance between the author and narrator so everything is a little too close for comfort, a little too real, a little too in your face, too intimate, too hot and sweaty, too gooey. There also always something embarrassing, almost self-effacing and self-depreciating about the confession mode. You make yourself vulnerable, open to the reader and thereby resist authority – the author, authorship, the all-knowing narrator etc.
Are there any characters that you return to over multiple stories? If so, do you have favourites?
I don’t so much write characters as I do construct fragments of characters out of memory, emotion, psyche… this isn’t some attempt to be clever or experimental as it an expression of how I experience the world and people in the world. I don’t know any fully-formed, consistent individuals who undergo linear transformations. My experiences of people are disjointed, confusing, volatile, compressed and often intuitive and deeply emotional. The characters that populate my books are expressions of this. They often overlap, become confused or disintegrate and then reappear as someone else.
The stories in ‘Because the Night’ are very deeply rooted in contemporary South Africa. What audience do you imagine for your stories? Do you intend them to be read primarily by other South Africans, or are you conscious of addressing an international readership?
My stories are largely set in South Africa but that is in itself a complex, contested place made up of overlapping histories, space and time zones. Cape Town is basically a cosmopolitan European city transplanted into Africa; South Africa is an African country that can’t seem to shake its colonial obsession with the West; Africa is, to borrow from Cameroonian thinker Achille Mbembe, a temporal formation made up of numerous time zones and dispersed entanglements, the unity of which is produced out of differences. We live in new global condition, in which the south and the north are increasingly entangled. My closest friends are scatted around the globe. So I do think the lines are slippery.
As an African writer, are there any themes you feel you have a responsibility to explore or expose in your work?
I think the responsibility of any writer is to provoke the imagination, to open up the possibly of new worlds and other spaces and places. It seems to me that fiction has possibility to shakes us out of our complacency, reminding us that we are alive and that things don’t have to be the way they are. I believe that that is the real responsibility of all writers. That said, yes, I do try to make work that both culturally and politically resonant and as a white South African I’m compelled to take on the prejudices and paranoias that still haunt this country. I often try to tackle these by engaging them in ways that are uncomfortable, uncertain, conflicted, emotional and self-depreciating rather than detached or ironic. I also try to write with an urgency and immediacy that matches the urgency of our current political and social condition.
I love the way that Mario’s images collide against mine and in that collision evoke new meanings. There is wonderful play between his masculinity and my femininity that makes for friction and cohesion, conflict and beauty… it’s a bit like a love affair on the book’s pages really.
The killing of Reeva Steenkamp has drawn global attention to the position of women in South Africa, the prevalence of domestic violence and rape. In ‘Because the Night’ you delve quite controversially into these issues: you discuss rape, even the desire to be raped, physical and emotionally abusive relationships, drug use… When you write about the risky and frightening positions women find or put themselves in, what are you trying to do?
The spectacle of the Steenkamp murder provides a deeply skewed and manipulated perspective on crime in South Africa. The real victims of crime in South Africa are black not white. Crime is rife in South Africa’s “townships” while the wealthy, predominantly white suburbs are relatively safe. For example in Cape Town, wealthy white suburbs such as Camps Bay, Claremont, Mowbray and Rondebosch are among the safest places to live in South Africa with no murders occurring in 2013-14. Crime statistics tell us that Khayelitsha as a township has the highest number of murders in a township in South Africa – 353 murders occurred there in the 2013/14 year. But Nyanga has a higher murder rate (152 people per 100,000): 305 people died in this township last year. Ironically, wealthy white suburbs also have five times more members of the South African Police service than the unsafest townships. It’s a similar story when it comes to rape and other violent crimes. This reality is skewed by both the local and international media who splash crime against white victims on their front pages while ignoring crime with black victims. Of course any crime against anyone is terrible and of course white women are also victims of violence in South Africa but the misplaced hysteria and hype around crime in South Africa’s white communities needs to be taken on. I’m not saying my stories necessarily do this but I do try to be self reflexive in dealing with crime. I also do try to portray it with more complexity. South Africa is a deeply violent and patriarchal society. This has its roots in the apartheid system and I’m very aware of how much I’m a product of this system. I try to speak to some of the incongruities and confusions around that, to pry open my own insecurities and uncertainties around sexuality and power and womanhood.
‘Because the Night’ seems to channel the voices and experiences of many ordinary women, but elsewhere you also use female public figures in your writing – Castor Semenya and Charlize Theron, for example. What does responding imaginitively to real, well-known women help you achieve?
Playing in the boundaries between reality and fiction, in a factional space is one way to challenge traditional and rigid understanding of reality. I suppose I’m trying to tap into how blurred that space has become in our media society. At the same try I also try to write public figures differently – to really hone in on the emotional aspect and write the very small internal challenges and triumph and responses instead of the grand narratives. I guess basically it’s about finding the strange in the familiar and the familiar in the strange or fucked up. Oh and ‘Because the Night’ does in fact include or rather allude to one public figure… “Vanishing Point” is very loosely based on Charmaine Phillips, who together with Peter Grundlingh became South Africa’s “Bonnie & Clyde” when they went on a murder spree in the early 80s.
Lots of your stories end up with some sort of suspense. What is about this sense of uncertainty? Can it refer to your point of view about human life or relationships? Is it an atmosphere you find in South Africa?
It seems to me that with live in an age of radical uncertainty – an age cut loose from historical markers and linear time; from fixed ideas of identity; an age of post-industrial hyper-capitalism defined by speculative economics, spectral markets and increased threats of violence. This is both a very scary space to be in but also one full of possibilities.
The brutal apartheid system did little to inspire self-confidence, spontaneity or esteem in individuals. And the freedom we had all dreamed of never came to pass. Instead we were thus into a capitalist system that reinforced and exacerbated inequalities between people. We remain poise between those two spaces, frozen in time. But more specifically, yes, I think South Africa certainly engenders uncertainty. It’s a bit like Friedman’s thing on black holes, ‘Friedman Space’. If you fell into a black hole it would end pretty quickly, you’d be torn into particles… but to anyone watching you’d look like you’d approached the boundary and remained frozen there forever. Time for you would have stopped.
There is however a growing discontent amongst people that one hopes against everything will somehow spark something, a burst, a charge, a change, somehow hurl us in another direction, open up a possibility for a new radical politics. I worry that it may be too late. That we may have past the event horizon already.
Then I guess as a person I’m prone to awkwardness, self-doubt, uncertainty. I fall in love too quickly, too easily. I get upset and hurt too easily… my heart is always exploding into particles.
Squirreling is a special piece. It makes us think about a void and the urgency to fill it in. What is this void?
We’re back to black holes! Its certainly capitalism, consumer society… which are enemies of the imagination. In this story it’s also the whole construct of “adulthood” and all it’s fucked up deadening conceits and constrains of job, house, car, TV etc. The squirrels are really the antidote to all this – they’re all hot and eclectic and alive, all quivers of teeth, shocks of tail, all pink and furry and frantic and stupid. But of course holes are also sometimes escape routes in my stories, they portals, escape hatches, ungrounded tunnels… secret ways out.
Very often, your characters are waiting, searching, wanting something difficult to grasp. What is this?
Ha! If I knew that they wouldn’t be out looking for it! I guess for me writing is really how I process things, it’s a way of thinking through, of trying to understand. I never know where a story is going to lead only that I have to keep going, to follow the road as one of my characters might say. I guess sometimes that’s enough.