Q&A: Words on the Times with Ivan Vladislavic on “The Distance”

Umuzi (South Africa, 2019) and Archipelago (international, 2020) editions.


South African novelist Vladislavić delivers a moving, closely observed study in family dynamics in a time of apartheid…Vladislavić’s tale unfolds with grace and precision. A memorable, beautifully written story of love and loss.

— Kirkus, Starred Review

Ivan Vladislavić’s latest novel, The Distance — first published with Umuzi in South Africa last year — saw its international release a couple of weeks ago this September from Brooklyn-based Archipelago Books, an independent not-for-profit press “devoted to promoting cross-cultural exchange through innovative classic and contemporary international literature”.

Ahead of his first (virtual) appearances with this new edition of the novel, we were able to catch Vladislavić for his Words on the Times – an AiW Q&A set initiated in response to the “#COVOID” for books released in the waves of the first lockdowns and social distancing necessitated by the pandemic.

Vladislavić will be in conversation about The Distance at the 2020 Brooklyn Book Festival’s first online edition and Festival Day on Sunday, Oct 4th; and with award-winning political writer and journalist Peter Godwin, at Community Bookstore on October 15th at 6:30pm EDT (GMT -4 or CAT -6). This latter event will take place on zoom, you can register here. Scroll down for more details of both events.

Words on the Times – Ivan Vladislavić.

AiW: Could you tell us a bit more about your novel/or your work and the ways that the pandemic has affected your plans?
Vladislavić: My writing plans weren’t affected much, but the lockdown derailed a couple of launches. Earlier in the year, Deep South published My Mother’s Laughter, the selected poems of Chris van Wyk, which I coedited with Robert Berold, and the bookshop launches had to be cancelled. Chris has a large and lively readership and we were looking forward to bringing people together. More recently, I’ve been promoting the international edition of my novel The Distance (Archipelago) online rather than through a book tour. I do miss the travel. It’s an opportunity to visit friends and see what’s around the next corner. Then again, I’ve been privileged to travel freely in the past, and now is a good time to think about the cost of our privileges.

How are things on the ground for you? Are there ways you are working now that you weren’t before?
My approach to the writing hasn’t changed. Over time, the restrictions on social life might leave a mark. As much as I enjoy the solitary work of writing, I also like to be out in the world, eavesdropping and looking through cracks, and my writing is shaped by the drift between the two spaces. I imagine it’s the same for many writers and artists. Although I don’t like losing ordinary freedoms such as these, I’m lucky to have resources and a comfortable home, and I’ve got off lightly compared to many people.

What have you found most heart lifting in this time?
My friends and family have made an effort to keep in touch and support one another, and to support the communities around them. The virtual gatherings are often heartening. As other people have found I’m sure, you occasionally look into someone’s life from a different angle, and that can be surprising and interesting, and also touching. 

How can our blog and books communities support you?
The basics are always important: buying and reading books, talking and writing about them. The pandemic has been a boost for digital publishing, and has opened new channels for promoting and selling books, which is good news. The best conversations are not always in the noisy rooms, and I hope readers go on supporting independent publishers and booksellers, who have taken a knock over the last months. I can recommend Love Books in Melville [Joburg] and the Johannesburg Review of Books.

Archipelago’s edition, designed by Zoe Guttenplan. Its art source is clipped from the iconic 1974 Zaire Ali vs Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” fight poster.

The Distance is a novel recognisably distinctive in the crafted, quality precision of its prose-style, and in the provocative subtlety of its formally innovative layering and unfolding of narrative meaning. It revolves around Pretoria boy Joe’s fascination with the inimitable Cassius Clay / Cassius X / Muhammad Ali –  “the Greatest” – and his collection of press clippings tracking moments across the boxer’s iconic career. We see this “archive”, as Joe labels it, develop and grow in significance, both as it’s compiled by young Joe in 1970’s apartheid South Africa and as it’s dug out to make something of decades later – a childhood memoir, Joe hopes.

But as Jeanne-Marie Jackson’s review for Africa is a Country makes clear, this apparent focus, on Joe’s “fixation” with the fighter and its later becoming a book, turns into something altogether more alchemical and freighted as it is narrated in back-and-forth pieces between Joe and his brother Branko.

Interleaved with quotes throughout from actual press cuttings from the 1970s South African media that Vladislavić acknowledges the novel “draws on”, The Distance “jumps” from the brothers’ “mutedly violent past to a more artful and even “woke” Johannesburg present using a set of Ali scrapbooks as springboard” (Jackson), mediating a series of colliding tensions and oppositions in the process, touching on who and what can ever be in one’s corner, and writing in to the gaps and spaces in-between.

Ivan Vladislavić was born in Pretoria in 1957 and lives in Johannesburg. His books include the novels The Restless SupermarketThe Exploded View and Double Negative, and the story collections 101 Detectives and Flashback Hotel. In 2006, he published Portrait with Keys, a sequence of documentary texts on Johannesburg. He has edited books on architecture and art, and sometimes works with artists and photographers. TJ/Double Negative, a joint project with photographer David Goldblatt, received the 2011 Kraszna-Krausz Award for best photography book. His work has also won the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, the Alan Paton Award, the University of Johannesburg Prize and Yale University’s Windham-Campbell Prize for fiction. He is a Distinguished Professor in the Creative Writing Department at Wits University.

https://www.ivanvladislavic.com/Archipelago Books | Umuzi (South Africa)

A beautifully, thoughtfully crafted novel … [The Distance] seeks to engage the reader — subtly, but in astonishingly many different ways, on questions about everything from race to how one can present narratives, from capturing a boxing match to attempts at autobiography to the films Branko’s son is experimenting with. Vladislavić again shows himself to be an exceptional writer — and this, as perhaps his most readily accessible work (though in fact it is many layers deep), is a good introduction to his work.

— Complete Review

His stylistic virtuosity, sardonic wit, playful inventiveness and his cool intimations of menace transmute the banal into something rich and strange loaded with comic and philosophical significance.

— Mail & Guardian

Boxing is just one example of the kinds of opposing forces that Vladislavić explores with wit and sensitivity in this book: fact versus fiction, boyhood versus adulthood, masculinity versus machismo, apartheid versus freedom, and, most potently, brother versus brother.

— Mark Athitakis, On the Seawall


– Register here for the zoom event hosting Vladislavić in conversation with political writer and journalist Peter Godwin about The Distance at Community Bookstore on Thursday October 15th, 6:30pm EDT (GMT -4 or CAT -6, i.e. midnight oil burning times for many of us)…  See more details at Archipelago’s site.
– Vladislavić will be in discussion about The Distance on Sunday, Oct 4th, in the Brooklyn Book Festival Day session “Coming of Age in Challenging Times”, 2pm EST/GMT-4. Click here to learn more and register for the event. See below for more information about the Brooklyn Book Festival, running virtually this year for its 15th anniversary.

The protagonist of Ivan Vladislavic’s The Distance obsessively follows the career of boxing great Muhammad Ali in 1970s Pretoria, his hero-worship a form of defiance in apartheid-era South Africa. (Brooklyn Book Festival.)

Sunday’s Brooklyn Book Fest Day runs (online) for *13 hours*, from 10am to 11pm (EST), with 4 sessions per hour of books and literary conversation. Already known for its diverse and inclusive programming, check out the seriously impressive events programme here, which demonstrates this commitment in particular this year, as it takes advantage of the new virtual format in its capacity to host an array of national and international writers, thinkers, and events, linking with a range of independents and cultural partners.

Other authors appearing at the Fest Day on Sunday of particular interest to AiW readers may include: Mozambican author Mia Couto, in the panel Under the Skin: Traces of History (11am EST); Zambian-American writer Namwali Serpell, whose The Old Drift has just won the Arthur C. Clarke award (for its “stealth sci-fi”!),in Imagining Other Americas (12pm EST); Alain Mabanckou (Republic of the Congo) on the international fiction panel Ripples of Violence: Personal and Literary; and Tochi Onyebuchi (of Nigerian descent, whose novel Beasts Made of Night won the 2018 African Speculative Fiction Society Nommo Award), on the panel “mining” the Soul of the City (at 1pm, EST). Ngugi Wa Thiong’o will be discussing his latest novel-in-verse, The Perfect Nine at 7pm EST, as part of Time-Travelers: From Creation Myths to Future Worlds; and Maaza Mengiste, author of Booker shortlisted The Shadow King, will be in conversation with Salman Rushdie at 8pm. Also of note, the info for Festival “Bookend” event on Monday 5th, a screening of the documentary The Pieces I Am, on the life of the legendary storyteller and Nobel prize-winner Toni Morrison at 7.30pm (EST), mentions her “’70s-era book tours with Muhammad Ali” in the film’s “reflections on race, America, and the human condition as seen through the prism of her work”.

Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A, Words on the Times

Tags: , , , , ,

join the discussion:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: