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‘It’s a brutal, unpleasant truth that White South Africans in general do not perceive the lives of Black South Africans as full and human’

Booker Prize-winning South African author Damon Galgut on trying to represent the many South Africas in his novel, the waning relevance of writers, and why his Booker win hasn’t created much of a stir back home

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti |
December 4, 2021 11:30:28 am
Damon-Galgut-author-EYESouth African author Damon Galgut.

When his Booker win was announced, a visibly overwhelmed Damon Galgut, who had been shortlisted twice before in 2003 and 2010, had paid tribute to the fountainhead of his creativity — the ancient land that he belongs to. “This has been a great year for African writing. I’d like to accept this on behalf of all the stories told and untold, the writers heard and unheard from the remarkable continent that I come from,” the Cape Town-based writer had said. His novel, The Promise, that made him the third South African to win the prestigious £50,000 prize after JM Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, tells a story as old as time — of systemic injustice — through the story of four funerals in a White South African family, each set in a different decade. In the Swart family’s disinclination to keep their promise of a home and land to their Black housekeeper Salome, Galgut examines the rifts in a nation torn apart by Apartheid and, later, by the rise and fall of the dream of a rainbow nation.

In this Zoom interview, Galgut, 58, speaks of the changing role of the writer in South Africa, the country’s literary scene and why the literary problem that he poses with The Promise is also a life problem. Edited excerpts:

I want to begin by asking you which part of the story came to you first? Was it the deaths or the fact that you wanted to set it in four distinct political eras?

The first idea that came to me was the unusual structure of being able to tell a family story through four funerals. In fact, it was a friend I was speaking to — he’s older than me and he’s the only person left of his family. He lost his parents and his brother and sister. But he was telling me the story of the four family funerals that he’d been to and making me laugh. He’s a funny person and he managed to make various anecdotes about family and how people were behaving about inheritance — just the family dynamics — very, very funny. So I suddenly thought, well, you could tell a story like that, just by focusing on the funerals — it’s an interesting structure. It only came to me as a secondary idea that you could also convey something about the background of the country at the same time.

Most novelists draw something from their own lives for their stories. Does The Promise draw from your own experiences of your time growing up in Pretoria during the Apartheid?

Well, yes, and no. I mean, nothing very direct. But I did grow up in Pretoria, which is a place not much like any other places, especially back in those days. I did do two years in the military, although I was in the Air Force and working in an office. My mother grew up on a — well, you know, we used to call it a farm. But it was like the farm in the book, not much of a farm, but a kind of a patchwork of smallholdings just outside Krugersdorp. We used to spend weekends there when I was little. So all of that gets jumbled up together. You draw on various memories and you reshape them, but there’s nothing direct. The truth is, you can’t write characters in a novel without drawing on yourself in some ways. So each of these characters reflect some aspect of me, often exaggerated sometimes in an almost cartoonish way. But the idea that writers write books that have absolutely nothing to do with their personalities or their lives, I think, is false. Your raw material is yourself. There is nothing else to draw on.

I want to ask you about the perils of being a writer in a country like South Africa that has a chequered past. Are you expected to be a soothsayer of sorts who explains the past or shows the way forward?

Damon-Galgut-book-cover-759 Book jacket of ‘The Promise’ by Damon Galgut (Chatto and Windus, 304 pages, Rs 699)

I suppose that role has changed because South Africa has changed. I mean, there was a time, let’s say, in the era of maybe Nadine Gordimer or André Brink, where a writer was supposed to be a moral signpost, you could say, to show people how to think and where their values should be. Which is why, I think, in Apartheid times, the government so very strongly tried to control writers through censorship or banning. That’s not the case anymore. And it’s not just because, you know, the African National Congress (ANC) government is open to different points of view, although that is an element, it’s also because books are no longer valued in that way. I think writers are not seen as an important voice at all. Nobody would make a move now to ban a writer in South Africa, but they might make a move to ban Twitter or TikTok if it was threatening, just because that has far more power as a voice. My own sense of writers and their moral responsibilities, may be not so grand. I mistrust the idea that writers should be a moral signpost, just because most of the writers I know are not particularly moral people themselves. Because we’re all human. So I guess I’ve tried, in this book and others, to work against this notion that there should be a central character who sets a moral example. Even the characters that do act morally, in my writing, tend to have flaws or to be damaged in some way. Because that seems to be true of how humans operate. Even the best of us, with the most noble impulses, are always open to question. It seems that’s healthier than believing some people are more moral than others.

Part of the joy of reading this book was how unexpected the narrator is, how he draws the reader into the story. I wonder if this is because of your training in drama?

Well, in fact, it was a fortuitous diversion, not into drama but into script writing. I got offered the chance to write a couple of drafts of a film script. I was already busy with the novel and not not very satisfied with the way I was handling the narration. When I got the chance to do the film script, I took the job, although that in itself was not especially satisfying either. But it did open my thinking into the possibility of a different mode of narration. In fact, I carried over from the film to the book the sense that you can jump and cut from one point of view to another quite fast. And that was instantly more pleasing to me when I started to apply it to this narrative. Because the way I thought of it, what I was doing … if you see the book as a kind of a painting, the conventional mode of narration would be long and steady brushstrokes. Whereas this felt much more like dabbing with a brush to give little points, like a kind of pointillism, or, to use another painting image, that it allowed me to fracture the image like Cubism would do. Now that was pleasing, because South Africa is made of infinitely tiny but warring perspectives. It’s not a country that has one voice or one perspective on anything. There’s the sense always that whatever your narrative position might be, there are countless others coming in to tell you: but what about this? and No, you’re wrong about that. So I was able to convey something of the sense that South Africa speaks in a fractured chorus, if you like, a dissonant chorus of many, many voices. As soon as you set up one perspective, another will come to cancel that out and another and another. So it allowed that, and also, just in a literary sense, one doesn’t always want to do what’s been done a 100 times or a 1000 times before. You want to find a new way of telling the story. But of course, it’s a way that has to work. I wasn’t sure about that. Once I started playing in this way, I was enjoying myself. But I was also not certain that other people would enjoy it or that it would hold together in a coherent way. So, I was having fun, and I was very insecure about the fun that I was having at the same time. And indeed, it has to be said this, this narrative approach has not worked for everyone. But enough people have liked it and enough people have gone with it for me to feel that my mission is at least fulfilled. The other thing to be said about it is that it gives enough space to speak with an ironic tone, to speak with humour, which is a relief because the raw material of the story is death, funerals and decay, which is very depressing. It might be true of human life, but it’s still depressingly true. So, humour is also a means by which human beings cope with the world. So it gave a relief to me in the writing and I think some relief to the reader also to have some humorous distance from these otherwise quite depressing events.

One of the things that always comes up with a big literary work in countries such as South Africa or India is the question of representation. What went into conceiving Salome, the Black character at the heart of the story. Even though the novel revolves around the promise made to her, we hardly get to hear her perspective. You must have known that there would be questions about your representation of her?

Yeah, I decided quite early on that I was not going to go into the minds of the Black characters in the way that I do with a White character. Primarily, because this is a book about White South Africans and how they see the world and other people. It’s simply a brutal, unpleasant truth that White South Africans in general do not perceive the lives of Black South Africans around them as full and human in the way that they would see the lives of other White people. So, I wanted to convey that in the narrative itself. I did think for a while that what I might do is withhold any sense of Salome’s inner life until right at the end, and then maybe open it up in a big kind of flood, almost, to let her life spill into the book. But I decided against it, rightly or wrongly, in favour of one of those moments where the narrator turns and actually speaks to the reader directly and says, if you didn’t ask, if you didn’t know anything about her life, it’s because maybe you didn’t want to know, and you didn’t ask. So I, as it were, implicate, the reader in this avoidance of seeing other people. Salome, let me say, is a character you can see every day on the street. There’s no difficulty in imagining such a person or imagining such a person’s life. It was a conscious decision not to do it, because I thought I would make her presence speak more loudly if she was silent. So, if for readers it’s a problem that Salome is a blank space on a map or a question without an answer, and in that moment when the narrator points a finger, the readers feel guilty or they feel implicated, for me that’s very satisfying. Again, I dislike books that solve their own problems, because you finish the book, you close it, and you close the problem. You don’t think about it again, you feel the world’s problems are solvable. Many are not. Why, 27 years into democracy, is somebody like Salome, and there are millions of them, why does she still have no voice in South Africa? That’s a problem. It’s a life problem. But I made it a literary problem too, so that I hope readers will carry that around and be bothered by it.

There were other conversations you were having with the readers on the side. For instance, the unfinished novel of one of the characters, Anton, has these questions scribbled on the margins — is this a farm novel or is this a tragedy or a comedy?

Well, specifically with Anton’s novel, I knew I wanted him to be a failed novelist. And then you have to solve the problem of what is his novel about. As with most novelists, I made it a kind of disguised version of his own life, one maybe in which he’s dressing himself and his potential up in ways that are unrealistic, or self-flattering, which a lot of writers do. But I also built in those little questions, my own insecurities about the writing of my own book. Those are questions I asked myself as I went along — is this a tragedy or a comedy? Is this a farm novel or a family saga? I may have those answers for myself, but I thought I would leave those questions for the reader in the margin, as it were.

Will you tell us your answers to those questions now — is it a farm novel or a family saga, a tragedy or a comedy?

I see the novel as a family saga more than a farm novel.The farm novel is, incidentally, a staple of South African fiction. It goes back to colonial times and is an established genre. The farm novel asks questions about land and land ownership. So, you could see this as a contribution to that dialogue. But for me, the family is first and foremost. As for the question of whether it’s a tragedy or a comedy, I subscribe to Samuel Beckett’s idea in Waiting for Godot, that it’s a tragi-comedy. I see life as a combination of the two. I think life is essentially tragic, but we have to laugh at it while we’re living it.

You’ve spoken about your discomfort with comparisons with (JM) Coetzee. I wanted to ask you if it’s because we don’t know enough about contemporary South African literary life and so tend to reach out for recognisable literary figures for comparison.

I think what you’ve just expressed is true, that people know relatively little about South African writing. So they reached for figures that are immediately iconically recognisable, and have dominated the literary landscape for many years. There’s a certain satisfaction, I have to say, in thinking that perhaps at last, I have managed to carve out my own ground in this respect. And that people may think I have a voice of my own as opposed to just being another tortured White man from Cape Town.

So what is the contemporary South African literary scene like? Is it vibrant?

I think ‘vibrant’ might be an overstatement. There are new voices all the time, not necessarily telling very happy stories. South Africa has far more publishers and far more booksellers than the rest of Africa, with the possible exception of Nigeria, which has always had a vibrant scene. But on the deficit side, it’s very thin and patchy, seen compared to India, for example, or the West, where there’s a strong sense of a platform. In those places, if you have something to say, you have a reasonable chance, if you write a good enough book, of being published. That sense is not widespread here. Only a certain number of people are ever going to find a way into print. And there’s not, as I said before, great value placed on writers writing. They don’t understand this way of living, and they don’t care enough to understand. So, you know, it’s depressing, if you think about the lack of support from the government. I’m sure everybody has complaints about their own government in this department, but some performed a lot better than others. And in South Africa, it’s just not a priority. It’s also noticeable to me that most most young Black kids, who didn’t necessarily grow up under Apartheid, are not flocking to write novels. They want to be doctors or engineers, they know which professions are going to change their economic position, I understand that. But there is a sadness that books, and the arts generally, are not valued more highly. So, you could see it in a positive way, if you compare it to the rest of Africa, but you could see it quite negatively if you think about how things could be as opposed to how they are, which is true for a lot of this country unfortunately.

Where do you think South Africa is poised now, in the aftermath of COVID and the economic hardships it has brought on?

I’m not optimistic about our present moment, or about our future, I’m sorry to say. Even before COVID hit, our economy was in a dire state. But it’s been wrecked by the crisis. Not just South Africa’s economy, clearly a lot of a lot of other national economies have been very badly hit. But there is no big vision from any party or any politician to change the situation that we’re in. All everybody seems to be putting forward is versions of the same neoliberal capitalist model, which is supposed to reward the rich and throw a few scraps to the poor. We have the biggest wealth gap in the world between rich and poor. Every day there are more and more homeless people on the street. It’s a terrible thing to live with every day because South Africa essentially is a wealthy country, we have the means to structure the society differently. And yet, it’s just never happened. I don’t understand why it was not a priority for the ANC government when they came in — to house and educate people rather than to enrich themselves. But that was the path they took. I’m not hopeful about where we are or about where we’re going. It seems to me that the only way forward is for the government to put down protest more and more forcefully because there is no other plan.

Do you still run the Indian restaurant (Masala Dosa) in Cape Town?

No, that closed during COVID, unfortunately. Well, from my point of view, fortunately — no writer should go into business. I did it to help a friend actually, who wanted to buy it. I thought, well, it’s a working restaurant, if I put my money into it, it can pay me back my money. Then it can become the business of my friend. But in fact, in year two it began to struggle. We had a drought situation in Cape Town, which affected tourism, then the area started to go down very badly. People didn’t want to go to this particular street at nighttime. And then of course, COVID hit. So I lost everything, including the restaurant too eventually. It was a salutary lesson to me never to get involved in the real world. I’m sticking to books.

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