Henrietta Rose-Innes is an award-winning South African writer based in Cape Town. I was lucky enough to be able to catch her at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in advance of her session, ‘New Voices from South Africa’, which is on the last day of the Book Fest, this Monday 26th August, at 15.30. Our Q&A and more information about her work follows, below.
Rose-Innes will be in conversation at the Edinburgh Book Festival with another multi-award winning South African author, Sifiso Mzobe. On the surface, the pairing of Rose-Innes and Mzobe is an intriguing one. In Rose-Innes’ latest novel, the gently wry, elegantly written Nineveh (2011), the completion of a contemporary luxury housing development in the area outside of Cape Town is impeded by the confusing excesses of its location, geography and environment. It’s not just (beautiful) beetles that swarm through Nineveh; subterranean, buried and otherwise unknown forces do, too, challenging far more than the control methods of Katya Grubbs’ humane ‘Painless Pest Relocations’ business – but also those of her sense of home and history, and of what our place might be in a transforming world.
Mzobe’s keenly paced and evocative debut Young Blood (2010) addresses crime in post-apartheid South Africa from the perspective of a township teen, Sipho. Through Sipho’s voice – he at turns confesses, describes, and details a year of his own turbulent criminality, where it is money, cars and guns that ‘talk’ – Mzobe not only reverses the expectations and conventions of the crime writing genre, but throws out any clichéd and predictable answers to the questions that the novel implicitly raises – questions regarding young township men and women, structures of power and the availability of crime.
Although Mzobe’s and Rose-Innes’ work is very different, both write of contemporary South Africa in ways which we have not necessarily come to expect or recognise internationally. I’ve described Mzobe’s novel as radical before, and I think the strength of this is that it is unfettered by any sense of a burden of radicality, or having been written with a radical label in sight. It’s with this sense of writing beyond, and without any sense of writing to what may have become an outdated and prescriptive idea of South Africa, particularly for an international literary market, and with the title of the Book Fest’s ‘New Voices from South Africa’ session in mind, that I talked to Henrietta about new work and old, and being a new South African voice in Edinburgh at the International Book Festival…
Henrietta Rose-Innes: I love the city and the Festival has been wonderful. It’s been great to meet other writers. The fan in me is excited to see and hear authors I admire who may never come to South Africa.
Katie Reid for AiW: You are a ‘new South African voice’ at the Edinburgh Book Fest – your session next week with Sifiso Mzobe is entitled ‘New Voices from South Africa’ – and I know that you have recently completed a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Residency, whose mission is “to promote innovation and identify impact-oriented solutions to critical global problems”. What’s newest with you and your work?
HR-I: I have just finished the manuscript of a new book, called Green Lion, which among other things explores the natural history of Table Mountain. At one point, when I was frustrated with sorting out the complex story structure of my last novel, Nineveh, I told myself that the next book would involve somebody going to the top of the mountain and then coming back down, and that would be the entire plot arc: simple. Well, of course it didn’t turn out simple at all, but it still has that movement at its heart.
Green Lion is set in a slightly alternate Cape Town, where species loss is further advanced and the mountain has been fenced off entirely as an exclusive reserve. The main character works for a new zoo that is trying to breed back into existence an extinct species of Cape lion. This is based on fact: there was a black-maned lion that was endemic to the Cape before it was shot out in the 19th Century. There have been (unsuccessful) attempts to breed it back from remnant populations found in far-flung zoos. It’s a book about loss and the inevitability of death; about taxidermy, artificiality and the real; about human-animal encounters. And lions.
This seems to reflect the definite and clear shift away from what had become the more traditional cultural responsibility, the political ‘work’ of the writer to oppose the apartheid regime at home and internationally, towards a new set of concerns. Do you feel that writers still have a specific cultural or socio-political role in South Africa today?
Contemporary South Africa remains a rich and challenging subject for writers. I think it’s important for us – for the vitality of the culture – to have writers who engage with what’s going on in their local environment. And the way one chooses to do that is political, of course.
An ongoing tension in South African writing is the pressure to look to the US or the UK for publication and readership, which can be a distorting relationship. The international market can be constraining in what it demands of South African writing: books are perceived as not travelling well because they are hyperlocal or too idiosyncratically South African – or they are not “South African” enough in the ways that people expect or recognise. Of course South Africa is fortunate, in the region, to have its own established publishing industry; but readership needs to grow for that to be sustained.
I resist the idea that authors have compulsory tasks, but do feel a certain responsibility to look at the complexities of where I am, and respond in as nuanced a way as I’m able. Exploring specific land- and cityscapes is one of the ways I try to do this in my writing.
This is something that comes across very strongly in Nineveh. There’s a deep sense of the ecological, but also of an old order being consumed by something transformative and potentially new.
Yes – Nineveh is about flux. Not uni-directional change, but the need to accept that the world (especially the urban environment) is unstable; that disorder is inevitable and not something necessarily to be feared. Those concerns are, of course, informed by our historical experience in South Africa. Central to the ideology of the old regime was the belief in, and the urge to enforce, rigid and unchanging categories.
In Nineveh, Mr Brand is a property developer – a symbol of power and crude dominion over more complex ecosystems; but that dominion is revealed to be a sham, and Mr Brand a hollow man. The real power, it emerges, is embodied in the tiniest, humblest, most marginalised of creatures – the insect pests. The protagonist, Katya, is a marginalised figure too, and identifies with the bugs she’s supposed to be eradicating.
Is there something about the city of Cape Town that particularly inspires you?
Well, it’s my town – I’ve always lived there. I do also think it’s a very rich locale. It has deep layers of habitation, of conquest, colonisation, slavery, immigration, transformation, expansion – over a longer period of time than any other urban space in South Africa. And, importantly for me, it has very interesting overlapping zones: between urban and wilderness (the mountain, and sea); rich and poor, old and new. I am interested in exploring these in-between spaces.
I like the idea of making a particular locale a long-term literary project. It’s a fun time for writers to be doing this in Africa generally, because there are many places (especially urban spaces) that are undocumented, or that have not been fully written into the literary history, or have changed so much in recent times that that transcribing needs to be done again.
With that in mind, could we talk about the title and epigraphs of Nineveh? Although there is a concentrated local setting, the references ‘world’ the book…
Nineveh is a tightly framed book, with a close focus – one person’s story playing out in one specific, rather peculiar time and place. But I did want to gesture to universal themes; to the rise and fall of cities. The one quote in the epigraph – from the Lament for Ur, c. 2000 BC – suggests deep time, and provides the story with an ancient, global context; as does the biblical quote (Zephaniah 2.14-15), which refers to Nineveh. I first read the Lament long before I started thinking about the book. It’s so evocative; I knew I wanted to use it somewhere.
These legendary Mesopotamian sites are the most ancient and iconic human cities, emblematic of human ambition, famous for their hubris and destruction. They are also places reclaimed by wilderness. In the ancient verses, this is viewed as the ultimate degradation; whereas in Nineveh the novel I take a more positive view of these cycles of building-up and breaking-down and repurposing. Biblically, the city of Nineveh was destroyed for the sin of pride, which resonates on a smaller scale with the hubris of the housing estate, and other human ambitions, in my novel.
I found the third quote in the epigraph, from Darwin, right at the end of the writing process, at proof stage. It felt like a gift; its sly humour balances the grandiosity of the rest of the epigraph, and reflects the tone of the book, I think. It’s also a nod towards scientific classification as another attempt to impose system; and a tip of the hat towards the father of evolution, that grand vision of the power of chaotic transformation and incremental change.
I love the cover…
I worried a bit about the cover! I thought that people who were insect-phobic might not want to even pick it up, let alone read it.
But it’s not too buggy – it’s very nice.
Yes, I like it, very much. And people do respond well to it.
I have the best people helping me with my books. The cover designer is Michiel Botha. He is very much in demand in South Africa, with good reason. He really takes time to read and absorb the books before creating his beautiful pieces.
Originally we had a different cover – a much friendlier one. It was in greens with a round, almost cuddly scarab on the front. It was beautiful, but we didn’t use it, in the end, because that beetle image had been used elsewhere.
Your first book led the way in South Africa as an early example of a particular kind of new voice in local literature, when the South African literary market opened up to a new range of perspectives and social concerns post-1994…
My first novel was written as part of the then brand-new Creative Writing Masters at the University of Cape Town – the first course of its kind in South Africa.
Under the supervision of JM Coetzee, I produced, very slowly, this small novel called Sharks Egg. JM Coetzee was an ideal supervisor for me: exactly the kind of rigour I needed. It was how I learned to edit myself. After going through that, I felt fairly confident that my first book was going to be OK.
I went into the process of writing and publishing with no expectations; happily, Shark’s Egg got a kind reception from critics and readers in South Africa. (Later I was to discover that the writing life is not always that painless…) I think that book had a certain novelty at the time. Now there is a proliferation of young South African writers, many of them part of a close-knit community, but back then (in 2000), I didn’t know of many others among my immediate peers. And Shark’s Egg was perceived as a not-overtly-political book, which at the time attracted some comment.
That first novel, Shark’s Egg, was shortlisted for the prestigious M-Net Book Prize (South Africa) in 2001. Nineveh was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the M-Net Literary Award (South Africa), and in the same year, Rose-Innes’ short story ‘Sanctuary’ took second place in the BBC International Short Story Competition. In 2007, Rose-Innes received the South African PEN Literary Award and in 2008, her short story ‘Poison’ won the Caine Prize for African Writing.
I asked Henrietta about the Caine Prize and her experience of the attention and comment that prizes and nominations can offer, local and international…
The Caine Prize has been important to my career – it is a significant amount of money that bought me a year or two of writing. Also, perhaps even more gratifyingly, the prize helped me to feel connected to a broader network of African writers.
Otherwise, Nineveh has been shortlisted for a couple of awards, and my short stories have done quite well here and there. I also try to take up the opportunities provided by residencies and fellowships, which all supplement this lifestyle and have given me space to write.
Thankfully, for us! We look forward to the new book...and to the ‘New Voices from South Africa’ session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, on Monday 26th August at 15.30. Copies of Nineveh will be available and ready for signing after the event in the Edinburgh Book Festival Bookshop. Both Nineveh and Rose-Innes’ short-story collection Homing (2010) are available on Kindle.
Get tickets for Henrietta Rose-Innes and Sifiso Mzobe – ‘New Voices from South Africa’ in the Writer’s Retreat, on Monday 26th August at 15.30 here.
Mzobe’s novel Young Blood (2010) is his debut and so is also part of the Book Fest’s First Book Award, which “celebrates the wealth of new writing included in the Book Festival programme each year” and is selected by readers. You can vote for Mzobe’s Young Blood on the website. Everyone who votes is entered into a prize draw to win all of the 42 shortlisted titles.