This post draws together reflections on two sessions from the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2013, featuring books from or about South Africa – one called Getting Over Apartheid with award-winning South African author Achmat Dangor (unfortunately, Sindiwe Magona had to cancel, so Dangor appeared alone), and another with debut novelist Marli Roode, part of Cultures in Flux, where she appeared with Italian debut novelist Giorgio Vasta.
In Roode’s novel Call it Dog (2013) the protagonist, Jo – South African born but living in England since the age of 13 – returns to South Africa in her twenties as a journalist to cover the xenophobic riots that spread across the country in 2008. Whilst on this assignment, she is drawn into a twisted road trip with her estranged dad – the hideous but (arguably) not entirely unsympathetic Nico – who enlists her help to establish his innocence as he is investigated for a part in the violent group murder of a young black man under apartheid. Significantly, in these layered and multiple South Africas, Jo doesn’t know, never knows for sure; she is left only to guess at the level of her father’s culpability, as well as to attempt to decipher her own responses in her return to the country of her birth.
Not shy of either violence or of the political, Roode’s novel details the crisis of unbelonging and the question of knowing one’s place assuredly, the father-daughter relationship manifesting the shifting sands of changed and changing truths, abuses of trust, the optimism and disappointments of longing and hope and the uncertain responsibilities of being uncomfortable with one’s roots and history; the xenophobic violence pulls all this, through Jo, into contemporary realities and its ethics – Jo’s initial ‘in’ to Alexandra to cover the riots, for example, is through a commercial township tour.
After Roode had read at the Book Fest session – from a road-trip section of Call it Dog where Jo is trapped with her father in their anonymous hire car – she spoke about the significance of context of the old, of multiple ‘versions’ of South Africa, and of self-mythologising. One of Nico’s strengths is his ability to narrativise – constantly – to act at a remove, literally, to reinvent himself in plays in which he draws Jo in to supporting roles – “it’ll be fun” – flirting with versions of self and other and undercutting the holds of history in the present. Throughout, Nico is malevolent and unreconstructed, but Roode manages this and him with deft touches of wry humour – he is undeniably funny, and unfortunately for Jo and us, smart (if also and generally warped); there are even flashes of tenderness, compassion for her dad. Rather than worrying about making Nico unsympathetic, Roode talked in the session about her concern that he be ‘true’, saying “people like that exist”, still part of contemporary South African reality.
Achmat Dangor read from both Bitter Fruit, his 2001 novel shortlisted for the IMPAC award and the 2004 Booker Prize, and then from his latest collection of short stories Strange Pilgrimages (2013). The first reading from Bitter Fruit, at the point where the female protagonist Lydia, in Dangor’s words, “says goodbye to all her men, to the burden of her past and indeed her history”, opened a particular framework of hearing from the story collection Strange Pilgrimages – of returning to a bitter past and acknowledging its realities in the present before moving forward. Each of Dangor’s characters’ strange pilgrimages are narratives of revisit as well as of return; various characters explore their relationship to the changing and changed political dispensation in South Africa, re-viewing the struggle from a variety of different points, geographies and locations. Initially the consistency of this movement, this obsessive re-treading of existing ground, jars. But it becomes clear in Dangor’s skillful narratives that for each character and each ‘journey’ back, the implications are for ‘now’, the movement of each story arc actually about whether the characters can move forward and in an enlarged, much more plural context.
In response to chair Professor Willy Maley’s question about whether we need to remember to forget, Dangor talked about the necessity of remembering the past in order to heal, taking care to point out the dangers of and the continuing sense of obsession with idealisation, particularly of the struggle years. Moving recollections of Dangor’s experience of apartheid for me included the anecdote about a Brazilian student reality checking the South African ‘miracle’ when he was teaching in Harlem; how his mother suffered the effects of apartheid and his own exile; and the clear, tight image of a young Dangor reading books and literature from his uncle’s forbidden cabinet, the ‘don’t touch’ box – vividly illustrating the unavailability of African literature. This last is a particularly strong thread, too, throughout Strange Pilgrimages, as characters wrestle with a literary heritage dominated by Europe, and where others fight to create their own voice.
Without wishing to draw generalisations on the basis of these two different books and divergent writers – drawn together simply by virtue of being on the Edinburgh Book Festival 2013 programme and of interest to me – there is something striking, even in their dissimilarity, about what these books share – the dangers of over-invention and excessive fictionalisation (of Nico, of former activists holding on to a version of the past), coupled with the insistence on questioning and uncertainty in these texts. And both urge the revisit of the South African past for the renewal of its stories in this light, so all manner of anachronisms can and need to lose their place, querying the status of truth and of transformation.
‘Banned’ for six years in apartheid South Africa, Achmat Dangor then taught literature and writing at the City University of New York. Works include the novels Kafka’s Curse (1997) and Bitter Fruit (2001), three collections of poetry, a play Majiet (1986) and a prizewinning novella and short story collection Waiting for Leila (short stories, 1982). He is the winner of many literary prizes, including the South African Bosman prize for Kafka’s Curse. Bitter Fruit was shortlisted for the IMPAC award and the Booker Prize. Dangor is also an active development professional and has headed up various non-governmental organisations in South Africa, including the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. He is currently Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. (http://www.blakefriedmann.co.uk/bookClients/_164/)
Marli Roode was born in South Africa in 1984 and moved to the UK when she was 17. After earning both a BA and an MA in Philosophy and Literature, she worked as a freelance journalist in London before beginning work on her novel, Call It Dog, at Manchester University’s Centre for New Writing. Her short stories Second Degree and Spring Tide were published in the 2009 and 2010 Bristol Short Story Prize Anthologies; Pieces Green was shortlisted for the 2011 Bridport Prize. She is currently a Writing Fellow at Manchester University, where she is working on her second novel. (http://www.amheath.com/author.php?id=523)
As a first novel, Roode’s Call it Dog is part of the Edinburgh 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 Roode’s Call it Dog on the website. Voting will close on Monday 14 October. Everyone who votes is entered into a prize draw to win all of the 42 shortlisted titles.