Margie Orford – ‘the Queen of South African crime fiction’ – is also an award-winning journalist, photographer, film director, and children’s author. Her internationally acclaimed literary crime fiction novels, featuring her journalist lead Clare Hart who assists the police investigating cases in her specialist area of ‘femicide’, explore violent crime and its effects in South Africa. Apart from her crime fiction, she has written several works of non-fiction on subjects ranging from climate change to rural development, and a number of children’s books. She also writes regularly about crime, gender violence, politics and freedom of expression, and literature. Born in London, Orford grew up in southern Africa – “I’ve had a very vagrant life: colonial people do, I guess”. She was detained as a student activist during South Africa’s State of Emergency in 1985, writing her finals in prison. In Namibia in 1996, Orford co-edited, with Nepeti Nicanor, and published Coming on Strong: Writing by Namibian Women (New Namibia Books). While in New York, as a Fulbright Scholar, she worked on the groundbreaking archival retrieval project, Women Writing Africa: The Southern Region (Feminist Press, 2003). In 2008, she compiled 15 Men: Words and Images from Behind Bars (Jonathan Ball), a collection of writing by men with whom she conducted a nine-month creative writing workshop in Groot Drakenstein Prison (formerly Victor Verster) from 2007-2008. She lives in Cape Town, but travels widely as President of South African PEN and as a member of the executive board of PEN International. She is Patron for the children’s book charity, the Little Hands Trust and for Rape Crisis South Africa. Her concern about violence against women is reflected throughout the Clare Hart series.
Scholarly attention to Orford’s fiction (which she views with interest, if of a detached and a little bemused sort) has grown in light of debates about the explosion of genre and, particularly, crime fiction in South Africa as a writing out of conditions of the postapartheid state – of spectacles of violence; of reflecting actual levels of violent crime and perceptions of them in everyday lived experience, energized by and generating anxiety, racially and socio-economically charged; of relationships of the state to crime, to its public/s and policing, and, significantly, of the accompanying potential for meaning-making and resolutions offered by the smart, lone detective in a world of uncertain and malignant threats, political disappointment, and of deep corruption and power-courting affiliations. In these debates, although all fiction in South Africa to at least some extent need negotiate with its place and, therefore, the reality of its heightened criminal activity and extreme violence, crime fiction, as Sonia Mattalia has put it in another context, becomes perhaps the medium where the relationship between literature and the ideological apparatuses of the state is most exposed (Mattalia, 2008). In the postapartheid literary field, the genre has been talked about as re-occupying the space of the political – as “the new political novel”.
In this light, the possibilities offered by the narrative arc of the detective figure that is at the heart of the genre lend themselves to exposing, denouncing, addressing and constructing alternatives. Orford’s Clare Hart series is centrally concerned with violence against women in contemporary South Africa. In a 2014 Edinburgh Books Fest session centred on the trend of ‘new African crime writing’, Orford explained that with her Clare Hart central character, “ I was curious about a woman who would use her mind and not be like other heroines of crime fiction who often behave like men, if I can use that kind of stereotype – I wanted her to use her intuition and her emotional intelligence to figure out what was going on. Much of crime fiction is a spectacle of violence against women, the dismemberment that happens to the female body, so I have a character that’s pissed off about that and tries to understand what it is. She is interested in femicide, as I call it, which really is a problem in South Africa.”
All Orford’s novels have their origins in her responses to particular, real crimes. ‘Although my novels are not about those crimes in any literal way’ she says, ‘they are responses to both violent rupture and resilience.’ An example from her article ‘The Grammar of Violence, Writing Crime as Fiction’ (2013) about the genesis of her first Clare Hart book, graphically impresses their impact: ‘My first novel, Like Clockwork, was born out of an image: a drying rack that looked like a deli fridge in the medical forensic labs at Delft. Inside it was an assortment of panties. Big, small, expensive, washed over and over, Woolies beige, a lovely wisp of bloodied lace. And one tiny pair from Pep Stores. It had a label: age 2 – 3, one unravelling red thread that floated above it. I asked a cop who was showing me around what this was and he shrugged. ‘That’s Cape Town on a Monday morning. Those are the rape cases’’ (226-227). (Orford relates each real life crime that is the basis of the individual novels in the article – full details and where to find it are at the end of the post).
Like Clockwork, the first in the series, about a serial killer of girls, was published in South Africa in 2006; the fifth and latest, Water Music, centring on kidnapped and trapped women and children, came out in July 2013.
Like her creator Orford – provoked to write her first novel by a deep sense of moral outrage in the face of these women and children’s lives reduced to such forensic, evidential details – Dr Clare Hart, through her work on femicide, strives to make known the histories of particular deaths and criminal violence, to restore the individual so that they need ‘no longer be pared-down metonymies of degradation and pain’ (Orford, 2013).
As part of our extended Q&A below, Orford and I also talked about the ethical dilemma of writing this alternative from within this traditionally masculinist genre she describes – the ways that representing and describing these criminal acts might also risk recording and collecting the spectacle of violence against women, in images of the sensationalized victim or the femme fatale – the novels, then, part of constituting a particular kind of archive of their own of gendered violence in postapartheid South Africa.
Although Orford consciously works with the tropes and character archetypes of classic detective fiction, Clare Hart is an independent investigative journalist. Her working attachment to the police is with a special unit informally called ‘The 28s’ after a section of the Child Protection Act. Clare’s boyfriend, Riedwaan Faizal, is what Orford often refers to in her conversation as ‘a cop’: “…As a journalist and as a woman you are very obvious in a public realm. And obviously, I needed that Raymond Chandler thing, ‘When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand’ (from the intro. to Trouble Is My Business, 1950) so I gave her a boyfriend in the police.” These characters allow Orford’s plots to move across and through South Africa’s still highly segregated society, “from shanty town to the President’s office… The other option was mortuary workers – in South Africa they get everywhere – but they’re not very glamorous. I mean, you’re just not going to feel a great rapport with a mortician.”
Orford’s Clare Hart series is written in an unflinching social realism, observed with an acute forensic eye. Returning to South Africa to live in the early millennium as an investigative journalist herself, she hadn’t set out to write crime fiction – South Africa’s ‘new political novel’ – but here she is now 5 books in. And at this point in the story arc, her central protagonists are both moving their work, their pursual of justice, out of state institutional structures and into more personal, intimate, family-centred spaces, the very spaces that Orford’s series shows to be most prone, vulnerable to profound disturbance, extreme violence – intimate violence. Part way through the writing of the last book, Water Music, the Marikana massacre happened: in Water Music, the structural, legal and state-sponsored frameworks that have provided some level of support for Clare break down under corruption. And her cop boyfriend, Riedwaan, leaves the police. In our ranging Q&A below, Orford talks about this, its place in the Clare Hart crime fiction series – its characters, background and backdrop – writing violent crime and the genre, and her other work and projects, including her year-long creative writing workshop with maximum security prisoners in Groot Drakenstein Prison, that resulted in the book 15 Men, and what may be coming next…
Katie Reid for AiW: The books in your Clare Hart series have been written about by academics across a spectrum – literature, sociology, women’s studies, body politics…
Margie Orford: Yes – which I find quite curious. I suppose it’s because they explore what it is to be a woman in the world, that’s really what I’ve been writing out. You can put all sorts of fancy jargon on it, but the question of how women survive, what you split off in order to keep functioning in a society that hates you and tries to kill you… It’s a reasonable question to ask.
I did think that when I went back to live in South Africa in 2001 – why does everyone want to kill me? Why me? And why my girls [Margie’s daughters]? And then I realized that it’s got nothing to do with you. It might happen to you but you don’t cause it. It’s some terrible malfunction in someone else’s brain, in someone else’s rage. The best thing to do is to avoid it – but you can’t always.
Is that why crime fiction, and why Dr Clare Hart – who remains somewhere on the fringes, an expert independent outsider?
When I went back to live in South Africa – I left in 1989 – I had one question: why is it so violent?
Journalists are very simple people, we have one question. When I started the Clare Hart series, I switched from investigative journalism to writing fiction because there was a complexity to the truth of the violence there.
I found myself in a pathologically violent society in which the violence was normalized. There has been violence in South Africa for so long – slavery, colonialism, and then apartheid on top of that. We had been through this amazing political transformation: if you want to do a Freudian model of South Africa, the super-ego was perfect; the ego level people were trying to work out; but somehow this violence – this Id-ish, completely out of control violence, had been unleashed. It was there in the 70s and 80s – I think sometimes we forget quite how violent the apartheid system was to people’s everyday lives – but it seemed to me that that whole civil war had been sublimated. There was very much a sensation that the public violence – and people were literally charged with public violence in those days – had been sublimated into the intimate spheres, into the body, in extreme assaults on women and children, and into the home, into the private sphere.
Can I pick up on this sense – from the Freudian model you use – of the violent response to the body politic being sublimated into the intimate and personal? You’ve spoken about a movement in crime fiction towards a ‘dystopian domestic’ (and mentioned Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl in that context) and your books being an exploration of that. Could you expand on this? Was this something the Clare Hart series specifically set out to address?
All the books I have written explore where relationships of trust have broken, where power is used to inflict pain and to give pleasure to the person exerting it, rather than the protectiveness that should come with strength and power.
And I suppose what I’ve done with my main characters is counter that. I didn’t do it that intentionally but it was important to me that Clare, my protagonist, had a functioning relationship, even though in all of the books she has struggled to make that relationship with Riedwaan work. Because I think as a woman you osmose the violence around you and it affects your personal domain. It’s difficult to keep things separate. I suppose I was setting up a place for her, the domestic as a kind of sanctuary.
In each of the books I have explored a different aspect of violence in South Africa. The latest one, Water Music, was very much about the family because South Africa is a very patriarchal society where male domestic violence is pervasive and so common. The book before that was called Gallow’s Hill and there I looked at the aftermath of slavery, the traces of violence left behind with slavery and apartheid – how people were literally viewed as an object and not a human being. I looked at the gangs in the Cape Flats in Daddy’s Girl, the hypermasculinity that is involved and how that worked. I suppose each one goes more and more deeply into the intimate psyche of what makes other people hurt other people, be harmful.
And I think they do it because they can get away with it, and it makes them feel nice. It’s pretty simple. In the research I’ve done I’ve worked with victims and with police who try and sort that out – I shifted the location through the series, I guess, to perpetrators and trying to figure out what they did. And the reasons are very banal, literally because they can, I think very often, and that plays out in a domestic situation, which poor Clare got caught up in in Water Music.
Water Music is interesting in terms of the narrative arc of the series in this regard. There is a bit of sea-change in Clare’s life: she’s very much at risk at the hands of the target she is investigating; throughout, she is poised on the brink of a decision to move into a much more intimate, shared private space and the possibility of a particular, domestic anchorage and trust, while at the same time all of her public spaces – the structural, legal and state-sponsored frameworks that have provided some level of support – are radically insecure and threatening to collapse. Riedwaan, her boyfriend, is at the centre of this and going through his own life changes – resigning, finally disillusioned, from the police and his public role as protector.
And Riedwaan is a nice guy. He was always interesting to me as a slight outsider figure. He’s Muslim; he’s from a minority that’s never really had power in South Africa. So that perspective from someone who has never had and is never going to get political power was interesting. Riedwaan is also a classic crime fiction character for me in that way as an outsider – I mean, as you say, Clare’s a bit funny herself from that perspective – but also the sort of person I like who instinctively does what’s right. It may not be legal but they do the right thing.
This comes across very strongly throughout the series – the moral and ethical individual as against state, legal structures.
Until 1990 in South Africa what was legal was morally evil. So what was legal and what was right was radically split. You would get into trouble for doing what was right and normal. After that, we had a period where there was the intent of putting the legal, the right and the moral into one domain, but people have struggled to implement that and it gives you the feeling that the state and the ethical system is utterly fictional. When I started writing crime fiction ten years ago, the police force was trying to do what was right; now there is so much corruption and the police are so violent, it’s very hard to sustain that belief in the police force.
You tackle that head-on in Water Music…
I know a lot of cops and have come to be friends with a lot of them over time. As I said before, 10-12 years ago, there was still the belief that you could weed out bad cops. I think now it’s much more apparent that the entire structure of the police and a lot of the criminal justice system has been so politicised that it has failed in many ways. In the earlier books there is much more functionality in the police, which there used to be. Now many of the experienced cops I know have left. You can only do it for so long. I mean, we’ve had one Chief of Police go to jail for 15 years for corruption and extortion, and the next one was fired. So I’m not making it up. I was halfway through writing Water Music when the Marikana massacre happened, where the police were blatantly used to suppress an economic threat to people in government who had a direct share: Cyril Ramaphosa was on the board of Lonmin. The tropes we had didn’t work anymore. Reality caught up.
Do you view your own work, then, as others have, as a form of social realism?
Yes, the crime fiction I write is a way of looking at society, a way of investigating what can work and what the moral limits are. And it seems to me that in South Africa they are not within state structures. I mean, Zuma’s so corrupt. There’s a trickle-down contagion in all of these things.
I have a question and I work it out through the writing: it’s not like a paint-by-numbers thing. So, I had literally no plans to remove Riedwaan Faizal from the police, but the Marikana massacre happened part-way through the writing as I said, and I’m so fond of the Riedwaan character – he’s where I put myself in the books – I just couldn’t keep him in. It was too big. It was so like the massacres of the 80s I couldn’t keep an instinctively moral person in that place.
I grew up thinking that the space of morality was outside the state, so I am familiar with that. I don’t particularly expect any state to be benign, not here, not anywhere. It’s not the nature of power. But South Africa is pretty spectacular in terms of corruption and venality. And South Africans kill each other a lot. So what I have to do is to distil it down to something comprehensible.
Out of 20,000 murders a year, you are telling the story of one in order to make each body matter, because bodies don’t matter when there are so many. I was a journalist for a long time. I worked with the police, I worked in prisons, in mortuaries – you see what you don’t expect. I think what is overwhelming about crime stories from South Africa is the murders of women and children but if you go into a morgue on a Monday morning, what you see is dead men between 16 and 40 – alcohol, drugs, suicide, car accidents. In some ways the writing of crime fiction is trying to figure out which bodies matter and which ones don’t.
And 85% of murders are committed by family members, so when people ask me if it’s safe to travel to South Africa I say “choose your family members carefully”.
You open Water Music with a violently disturbed sense of family: the case is set in train with an incredibly strong image of an abandoned, emaciated child found on the slopes of Table Mountain…
I know – poor little baby.
…She’s a toddler, but the sole of her tiny foot is ‘so smooth, so unmarked it seemed never to have been walked on’. It’s clear she’s been trapped in an utterly confined space and that she’s never seen light…
With that little girl, I was thinking about the massive fuss that happens when a child goes missing, a known child, and coincidentally in some research I’d been doing on child deaths one of my pathologist friends told me that there are quite a large number of children, small children, that are never identified: either infanticides, or late-term illegal abortions, or abandonments of babies and small children. And that absolutely horrified me, that there are children born who are never recorded anywhere. I thought, how utterly abandoned are you? There was a whole spate of them, these abandoned children who’d never been named, never been known, who were utterly motherless. It’s such a strong image – the anguished mother and her missing child, whether she has killed it or not – and I thought what happens when what we take as the most natural bond between mother and child is broken? There’s something really wrong with a society when that can happen. And it happens a lot. If you read the broader society through the refraction of the family, of the intimate, of the domestic, you get a very different reading of power. You don’t see it as something separate. That’s where you see what’s malfunctioning. It’s almost like a way of diagnosing, of taking the temperature of the place. And in the Haut Bay area there were a couple of these little infants found.
Haut Bay, your setting for Water Music, is very clearly and specifically evoked, an integral part of the plot and its telling. As much as each novel explores a sense perception and its violent deprivation by force, there is a strong, distinct and very specific sense of place in each of the books: they tend to feature maps and mapping, or alternative maps – tunnels, literally the underside of the surface beauty of Cape Town – as well as an alternative kind of psychogeography. Four of the five novels are set in Cape Town, one – Blood Rose (2007) – in Namibia, where you have lived and where you worked as a publisher, producing Coming on Strong: Writing by Namibian Women in 1996. You’ve talked before about the landscapes of Namibia – the desert, the dunes, the erasure and palimpsest of it – and the mists – the significance of knowing this landscape and it as a setting for writing crime fiction: Blood Rose is set in a depressed port in the Namib Desert. You have talked about the importance, too, of liminal spaces and water, ports, gateways and shifting, clandestine populations they support to all your work. You’ve said that you wouldn’t set a book in Joburg or anywhere that was landlocked. Does this close focus and detailed knowledge of place and the limits of its boundaries have particular connections to the genre for you?
Of my books set in South Africa, in each one I’ve chosen a very specific area of Cape Town. You try and understand it as a writer to give your reader a sense of place. So, the difference between Cape Town and Joburg, for instance – Cape Town, the city and its splendour, the physical natural splendour – the city overrides people: it doesn’t change, but the people come and go. Whereas Johannesburg tears itself down and builds itself up: it’s defined by people. It’s constantly changing in a way that’s quite different in Cape Town. In Joburg you can disappear. It’s kind of non-linear. The geography in Cape Town, where I live, is unique. You can literally drive fifteen minutes and you’ve gone down through every level of affluence to poverty. So as a writer you don’t have to explain. All you have to do is describe and your reader is with you without having to beat them over the head with why it is like that. Also the poverty and violence that live so close together with this affluence and peace. Where I live there are no murders. Fifteen minutes away there are 750 murders a year in Gugulethu.
With Water Music and the Haut Bay setting, I wanted to write about a community where you could close things off fairly easily, where horrific abuse can remain invisible, unseen. I was having idle thoughts about the nuclear family: I have a vast number of children [this turns out to be 3] and I was thinking how horrifying the nuclear family could be, if it were ratcheted up. I took that on – it’s a horrible novel about a hidden and trapped woman – and I was interested in the psychology of how, in amongst the most ordinary and seemingly everyday things, you can have the most extreme crimes going on, like the Joseph Fritzel case, for instance, or that case in Ohio of that man who kept all those women in his basement.
Haut Bay is beautiful. But like many places in South Africa it’s great beauty founded on enormous pain and forced removals that are hidden below the surface of this exquisite place. There you have this wealthy white suburbia, one of the poorest squatter camps/informal settlements that’s become a township, Imizamo Yethu, and this old coloured mixed-race fishing village near the harbour which is very old, of people who had been marginalized, so it was almost like a microcosm of the whole place in one location. It was a bit like a country house murder and there are three roads in, so you kind of know where everyone is.
And then you have the mountain – Table Mountain…
That beautiful mountain. And those tunnels that I write about – they are there, they exist. I’ve been in them. The water tunnel is there and there’s another one that they use to smuggle drugs from the harbour to come down to Camps Bay. So all of that stuff that I write about absolutely exists – it’s there. That castle that I write about – that’s there.
And that castle both gives a very strong and specific sense of place, of view, vista and geographies, that’s also tied into socio-economic issues, illustrating poverty and segregation, about wealth…
Extreme wealth [I wish I could accurately convey Margie’s tone – it’s high]. I mean that castle’s got a helipad. And it’s literally across the road from 30,000 of the poorest poor people that you can imagine. It’s obscene. And it’s perfect. South Africa just gives it to you. I’ve been in the castle – I pretended I wanted to buy it. That’s how I do a lot of my research into particular places; I pretend I want to buy somewhere. I’ve done it with all my books. You get inside – I mean, the castle was on the market for 450 mill or something obscene.
You’ve used this research method – ‘getting inside’ – for all your books?
Yes – I did it a lot in Daddy’s Girl, these incredibly poor working class suburbs. So you go inside people’s houses and you see what furniture they have and what they eat. And the amount of women in their pyjamas in the middle of the day. That’s when I realised how many women don’t work. How little they do. Shocking. How trapped they are – this is in the poorer areas – how trapped they are domestically. You walk in and you can smell this… stew and depression. And little children around. It’s awful.
Do you find you can access those places where there are, say, the 750 violent murders a year?
I’ve worked with cops. I was a journalist for a long time so you figure out how to get access. And I used to make documentary films so I’m used to that process of getting to know people and to interview them. I work with NGOs and organisations like that, through schools. And what I’m interested in is not so much necessarily gore and drama, but the everyday living of people. And you’re very invisible as a woman. People are very open to you. You’re flagged differently to a man – you can talk to women, they will tell you stuff, give you tea in their kitchen. You’re not a threat in any way.
And then I do that classic filmmaking thing – I find a fixer who will take you and take you and take you. And it’s not difficult. I think South Africans are frozen very often with fears of fear. And visitors too – they’re told “don’t go here, don’t go there”. My mother has a fit. She always says I was born without a fear gene. But you find people who will escort you through and you listen to them, you follow their advice.
I try to write about what’s beneath the surface, or what happens within the household, or what happens away from public view – I’m not so interested in spectacle. I’ve seen gang shoot outs but they’re very boring. It’s just idiots shooting each other.
This raises a whole lot of ethical questions about representation.
The ethics of representing violence? Of single bodies and which matter? Yes, it does. It totally does. It’s the ethics of aesthetics, the ethics of whether if something is really terrible you should represent it at all. The painter Marlene Dumas wrote that painters avoid completely representations of sex and death, whereas in literature people do write about it more. Do you make it worse when writing about it? Do you collude with it? And one of the things I’ve found in writing it is that there’s a borderline – part of the ethical problem is that cruelty gives people so much pleasure – sadism – and if you look at what pornography is, it’s a spectacle of violence. So you’re writing in a very blurred zone. My own feeling is you should try to represent. It doesn’t make stuff go away by not saying it. It doesn’t ‘unhappen’ it. And one of the things I am interested in is the notion of bearing witness to things. Because people who have endured violence – it’s happened to them – how do you find a way to tell that story, how do you find a way of representing that trauma, often where language stops existing completely, or is inadequate to the event of violence? I don’t know if it’s right. You know you have to feel it yourself and then you make that person reading it feel it themselves and I don’t think that’s ethically wrong, but it can feel very disturbing. Very shameful. Which is a bodily sensation rather than a rational thought. I don’t know. But in a way you have to find a way to tell those things. It’s very blurred ethics. It blurs ethics. But silence is not an ethical choice.
People say my books are particularly violent but they’re not actually. I think they seem violent because I try to write so that you feel what the victim feels. Much crime fiction is presented as spectacle, so you’re actually sitting in a much more comfortable position of that scopic power as a reader, whereas to deal with the ethics of violence I try to make you feel what it feels like to be in that place. They’re actually not so violent – they’ve become less violent. Much of the violence is implied. It’s fear.
Do you think that crime fiction might be able to contain any of this?
No, I don’t. What has frustrated me about crime fiction, about genre fiction, more and more over the years is that it was born out of misogyny. Its purpose is to punish women and to present the female body as legitimate corpse. It’s a spectacle of torture, the hard-boiled school of it, in which masculinity and femininity function in a very specific way. I didn’t plan it, but having a female character in what I perceive as a very masculine genre it disrupts it. But it’s not easy – you can disrupt the genre, yes, but it’s from within. Representation or telling stories is an ancient art, so each story carries that whole tradition – you can only tell stories within the tools that you have and it always refers to other stories. Having a female lead is not easy, but not easy in a good way because it makes you think about what you are doing. It’s disruptive in and of itself.
And how do you work through those genre concerns in terms of recording or representing what is still such a segregated society?
Because it’s so segregated, where people come together is in moments of crisis, which is often around a crime happening. You’ll get people from different races and different classes in the same place – it’s one of those flashbulb moments. And what you can do with a crime novel is observe that closely, make the familiar unfamiliar.
There is the obvious fact to do with race and racial hierarchies and supremacies about why South Africa is so violent. And how it constellates in people and plays out absolutely all the time in every situation every day; how it functions in terms of masculinity and power and identity… One of the conscious decisions I made when I was writing – I think writers make few conscious decisions, actually, but this was one – was to never name the race of a person directly. And that I did very consciously because one of the ways I have understood race historically in South Africa is as a racialised class system – that classic Marxist analysis that you create an impoverished underclass to work just slightly below what it costs to stay alive, vast labour pools and a constructed class of white affluents. I studied economic history at university and so the Marxist historians seemed the most accurate to me in terms of colonialism and the policies that came before apartheid. So, I decided never to name a race because all you do is trigger the prejudices of the people reading it. Because race explains almost nothing. It explains everything and nothing.
Crime fiction is a very individualistic form of fiction. What I wanted to reveal was character. And you can do that through where a person lived, how many people they lived with in their house – that context seemed to me much more meaningful than that shorthand of ‘this is a black man’ – what does that mean? What does it mean in terms of how a person experiences the world? I tried to reveal my characters through a whole lot of realist things around where they lived and what they ate – observation. And some people have liked that and some people get very angry with me – why didn’t I just say that this character was this? Why didn’t I just tell them what they were? People would say “a black man would never do X” – and I’d say that’s inconsistent with this character. It was a way for me to think beyond the surface.
If you understand and have experienced the realities of the social geographies in South Africa, you understand the socio-economic and embedded realities of the place, but otherwise…
I think you write clearly enough and that is enough. You get the economies of it because it’s key to the revelation of the plot and how people live. And die.
Do you feel a sense of responsibility in terms of who you write for, and local or international audiences, given the spectacularised nature of violent crime in South Africa?
Not really. I think South Africa’s estranged to most South Africans. What I think about is how to make a story work.
Which has a lot to do with the immaculately observed and rendered detail – your stories are told with a specifically trained eye…
A forensic eye?
Exactly. I am wondering about this forensic lens and the relationship to real crime – the factual nature of it. How do you feel about the boundary crossing your work performs between fiction and non-fiction?
Well, in Water Music I use non-fiction verbatim – there’s a scene where Clare reads a report of two girls who have been incarcerated – those are genuine verbatim interviews given by a girl who was held in a hole in the ground outside Cape Town for two years.
I had a friend who had made an installation and had interviewed her for an art piece: I would never include in my fiction a verbatim Q&A with someone I’d interviewed, but the whole thing had already appeared at the Havana Biennale. So, the ethical question – because the interview had already been done and was publicly displayed, I thought, I can put this straight in – it already exists as a document. And, I mean how can you make that sort of thing up?
That one blurred the most: it was the closest in terms of using a piece of the real inside a distillation of the real, which is what realist fiction is. It’s not psychologically good for one to write that kind of thing because you have to go into that place. But I don’t know how else to write. I can’t make stuff up. It’s questions of power that have driven each book, and that last book, Water Music, was just particularly close up.
Is there a real-life counterpart to Clare Hart, perhaps somewhere amongst your networks?
Many of the experts I know in the actual world are women – ballistics experts, forensics experts. Interestingly, male cops have often said that female cops are the best because they don’t react with so much anger and want to get revenge but they react with precision – I mean this is what these guys tell me – but they say that women want to find out as much as they can in order to catch the people who have done these terrible things.
But crime fiction is not at all close to that world – you’re functioning on different tropes. There’s Jungian imagery – which bodies matter which ones don’t, which ones evoke feelings of loss – which is young female bodies not male bodies, or those of menopausal women. You’re dealing with a whole lot of archetypes really, and crime fiction functions on those archetypes. It’s quite medieval, in a way, in terms of the tropes and the stock characters that you have. You are working with what’s known. You have to have a disruption and you have to have a resolution at the end – you have to have the good and the bad. It’s really like the very old art of storytelling. And that’s why so many people like crime fiction. It’s really a very deep pleasure that you get from it.
You worked with maximum security male prisoners in Groot Drakenstein, formerly Victor Verster, Prison, teaching creative writing and storytelling in 2007-8. Did that experience inform your own fiction writing?
Working with those prisoners was utterly revelatory experience for me. The most obvious person in a crime and if you’re trying to understand why South Africa’s so violent is the victim. The victim can tell you nothing because things just happen to victims. It’s like crossing a road and a bus runs over you. There’s no reason the bus ran over you, it just ran over you. So in the next book, I thought, OK I’ll go to the police and investigators – but they’re also not the answer in terms of the violence. They’re trying to mop it up and manage it and do the dirty work of democracy, as Anthony Altbecker called it. Working with those prisoners – that’s the origin of people who act out on their violence. It was when I was writing Daddy’s Girl, which was a very harrowing book to write because it was about gangs and about men who are unbelievably damaged and extremely dangerous.
I worked with those guys for a year. I have done a lot of adult teaching and so I said to them, “we’re going to do a book” and they looked at me like I was mad. But I worked with them every week for a 3-4 hour session. And I would get the most radical migraine afterwards that would last 2-3 days. It would just start to lift and then I’d do the next cycle. I just couldn’t keep it in my head, what they’d done and the humanity of them simultaneously. It split my head with these headaches. I never found specifically what they did – you actually can’t work with someone if you know they’ve stabbed three children to death, you can’t – it’s just too distracting because that’s all they are, all you can see them as.
Was that your conscious choice – not knowing what they had done – before you started the work?
Yes. Originally I said I could have 15 of them, and the prisoner governor asked me if I could take one more. And he was quite insistent. There was this horrific case in South Africa where a woman had hired four men at a taxi rank to murder a baby – a 6 month old baby – which they did. They cut this little baby’s throat. And the warden told me that this was the youngest of this group of 4 men that this woman had hired to kill her boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s baby. It was the most horrific crime. Beautiful little, tiny little baby. And as he told me this, it was like somebody hit me on the head with a sledge-hammer and I knew I couldn’t – that he couldn’t join – he’d actually just been sentenced so he was in that particularly unstable phase, and I realized, how can you work with someone you know has killed a baby? You can’t. That’s all you would see that they killed a baby. So I decided then – I didn’t find out what any of the group in the writing workshop did. And it was amazing working with them. When I started there were two that I thought would drop out – one smart but a psychopath, completely cold, and one because he had stabbed a warden in the liver, whose nickname was Graveyard, in fact – and they did drop out, both of them. The rest all stayed. Four or five of them would never be released. Because in South Africa life is 25 years, unless you are in a category where you have life without parole. So they were extreme people. But it was fascinating working with them because you could see the empathy switches, because creative writing is an empathic process – you have to feel into the lives and bodies of others. And I lost my fear of crime and this feeling that some sort of evil had been unleashed in South Africa. A lot of talk about crime is like that – like that Yeats poem, the beast slouching towards Bethlehem to be born – but I realised that it is just individual people who do terrible things and who have had terrible things done to them. That’s also interesting – it’s like sociology for beginners, seeing what kind of crimes people did because of where they came from. And that’s when I started working on the ‘Grammar of Violence’ article, because it was so predictable. It was so simple.
How did you work with them?
I was just very in charge of their space – because I am a very in charge sort of person, I feel very in charge of myself. I set it up so that they didn’t write for me. Everything that they read they could choose and then read publicly so they were each other’s audience. That I had decided. It had to be very boundaried in terms of what came to me. I just went there and we sat in this weird classroom and I did guided writing exercises and worked with them and they loved it – taught them how to keep journals; how you work through from the sensation of feeling to the thought of feeling, through language; made them read a lot, obviously. We had a space – they all wrote a lot – and it was three hours of very contained quiet energy. Those prisons are radically overcrowded and stressful. And I had been a prisoner myself as well – I mean I had been detained. I never told them that, but I know the feeling of it. I knew that smell – despair and dust – terrible smell. I didn’t feel sorry for them. I don’t think they should be let out. There’s no therapy in prisons, there’s nothing. It is a form of mental torture just to throw people in and do nothing to try and fix what went wrong. That’s why you have so much recidivism and so much extreme violence when they come out. Run by the gangs, prisons. So it was like being close up to extreme violence and its effects on people for a whole year. It wasn’t a good plan for myself. I felt very much like I’d walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
Did anything they produced help to alleviate that?
Well, we did the book, 15 Men, and I did some art workshops with them as well.
There is a YouTube video, when we did the launch. One of the prisoners was invited by the minister of correctional services of prisons and did a presentation in parliament. It was quite a thing for them to make something, to imagine from the beginning to the end that they would have a book and then to actually do it. It’s the power of imagination and deferment.
But no, I mean, nothing compensates for all the dead people they leave in their wake. And I learned something through working with them – there’s stuff you can’t fix; there’s stuff that’s broken forever. I don’t know what you do with that thought.
And where did this come in terms of the narrative arc of your books?
I was doing this when I was writing Daddy’s Girl, which is the third one in the series. It was in the middle. So Gallow’s Hill and Water Music were written in the aftermath of this experience – I don’t know if you’d call it depression, but it was this feeling that I went in to.
Has your background in investigative journalism affected the ways that you work, or what you write?
You learn, as a journalist, to observe things very closely. And you learn to absent yourself and watch how other people interact. Heidegger said, ‘we can keep secret only what we know’- people reveal so much without knowing they are doing it. You learn to read people – say one thing, show another thing.
Have you always written fiction, or did you begin with Clare Hart and the question of violence in post-millennial South Africa?
Yes. I wrote a lot of children’s fiction and I did write fiction earlier on but I remember in my mid-twenties deciding that I was never going to write a novel until I didn’t need to write about myself. Then I turned 40 and I completely lost interest in myself, you know that sort of space where you are trying to work yourself out, that bildungsroman type nonsense. And I learned enough about putting books together: it’s a craft and something you have to learn. I’d written lots of books before. But it takes a long time to write a novel. You have to have a question you really want to answer. I wanted to write fiction because I needed to understand South Africa. I wanted to understand violence. It fascinates me. It has always fascinated me. It’s so prevalent. It defines human beings, perhaps, how we manage the desire to hurt other people. I wanted to know why it had been unleashed and what happens once you step over that taboo.
But, I’ve answered those questions now – I’ve got other questions to formulate, I think. And I guess my questions were more to do with that than finding a formula to reproduce.
I’m very interested in psychopaths. This idea of the private self and what’s behind that innermost gate – you know you can get close to a person but there’s a point at which you can’t ever know them – I’m interested now in that borderline of what happens in the psyche as we live more and more on display, or live in order to display and what remains hidden, what people don’t act on. The next book I want to do is around those gateways and what happens when you cross that border with somebody – how that changes your perception.
Margie’s Clare Hart series is published in South Africa by Jonathan Ball and in the UK by Head of Zeus. Visit her website (http://www.margieorford.com/) for more details of the books and how to get hold of them, to keep up (if you can) with her other writing and news, and more.
Margie’s article, ‘The Grammar of Violence, Writing Crime as Fiction’ appears in the Special Issue: Crime Fiction, South Africa of Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa (Volume 25, Issue 2, 2013), pp. 220-229.