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The ABSA/LitNet
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Die Ketting

Ashraf Jamal is based at the English Departments of the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, and the University of Stellenbosch. He is a critical and cultural analyst and a fiction writer. He is the author of Predicaments of culture in South Africa (Unisa Press/Brill, 2005). He is currently involved in research pertaining to Southeast Asia with a view to the publication of a collection of essays in 2007. His first - "The erasure of Malaysia and other disappearing acts" - will be presented at a conference at the National University of Singapore later this year.
Henrietta Rose-Innes has had two novels published by Kwela Books. Her first novel, Shark's Egg, was published in 2000 and was nominated for the M-Net Book Prize. The Rock Alphabet, published in 2004, was selected as part of Publisher's Choice.
She was born in 1971 in Cape Town and currently lives in Observatory in that city. She works as a book editor and occasional film and TV scriptwriter, and has also had several short stories published.

Ashraf Jamal in conversation with Henrietta Rose-Innes

  1. The thing I came away with after reading Shark's Egg and Rock Alphabet was the immense beauty of the sentences. Quite frankly, I'd gasp after reading one and ask myself: How do you do it? What's the mix of prose and poetry that allows you to reach such sensuous, evocative heights?

    As long as it's gasping, not choking … But thank you for your very kind words - I'm not sure I can live up to them. The first pieces of writing I ever did for my own satisfaction were poems, and for me the poetry of the language remains the most important and pleasurable part of writing and reading. But in my mid-twenties I started to find the compression and intensity of poetry too static and a little exhausting - I wanted to explore the looser rhythm and the forward momentum of fiction. I love the capacity of fiction to transport the reader over a longer period of time, to become a prolonged experience that one can enter and exit over days or weeks. In my writing I am trying to learn how to deliver those jolts of poetic intensity in a way that can be sustained over the course of a book, and to achieve the right pace to propel the reader through a long work. It is challenging, and for me requires both restraint - in terms of the density of the language - and a broadening of vision, necessary to conceptualise something on a novelistic scale.

  2. It seems to me that there's no one around who is as obsessive about the poetic integrity of the sentence. Do you think this is because South African writers are generally prosaic and secular: all about meaning and getting the job done; documentarist's really, and not artists in that high modernist sense? How did you end up writing the way you do? What were your influences? Oh, and by the way, do you think of yourself as writing in a particular way?

    I do spend a lot of time polishing sentences and paying attention to the relationships between words. It does get quite obsessive, but it is the part of writing that I enjoy the most. What you might call “documentarist” writing tends to bore me as a reader; if a book doesn’t have interesting things going on at the level of the language (and I don’t mean just lush poetic writing), I generally don’t feel inspired to stick with it. Perhaps historically there has been a kind of self-consciousness about paying too much attention to the embellishments of style, a sense that there was an urgent need simply to get stories out. But for me, if a writer’s language does not transport one into a unique literary universe, what’s the point of the novel? There are plenty of extraordinary stories and meaningful insights, probably better articulated, in other genres and other media.

    There are some writers who write very quickly – I think largely those who have an easy, conversational style, for whom writing must be like transcribing a natural storytelling voice. But I think such novelists are rare; mostly, writing requires a great deal of time and care, and often the most work goes into writing that appears the most effortless.

    I think I was always aware of rhythm and word choice, but the single experience that alerted me to what was really required was having pages marked up by JM Coetzee (when he was my MA supervisor). I realised the degree of word-by-word attention that was necessary if I was going to do this writing thing properly – no one had ever demanded that of me before.

  3. I remember reading Rock Alphabet while I was in the Cederberg - a pretty appropriate location, given the theme of the novel. I remember turning away from your pages and looking at the world around me and feeling that your words had somehow heightened my appreciation of - dare I say, my sensibility about - the place. Is it important for you to get the textures down just right? What do you feel you must communicate in the reconstructed instant of writing?

    Well, if that is what you felt then I have achieved most of what I tried for: a transformed perception (if not, perhaps, understanding) of the world. I don’t feel that the textures must be just “right” in the sense of exactly true to life – the kloof of my story exists nowhere in the real Cederberg, and though one must be respectful and careful not to create blatant misrepresentations, I am not too rigorous about accuracy in that sense. But one needs to be specific and detailed about the textures of a scene, real or imaginary, in order to bring it convincingly to life. Its truth can be measured only against internal truth – feeling, memory.

    I am lazy about “research”, which some writers are so conscientious about, although I will check or add details if it is important; but I don’t think I could write a book about something I first had to study, rather than something I had already internalised and made part of my personal landscape – whether through actual experience or in imagination. As with the colours and textures of the Cederberg. Personally, I’d like to see more outright invention in South African fiction.

  4. The fact is, I don't return to your writing for the characters or the story. For me they are somehow secondary to the key rush: being under the skin of your sentences; tasting the élan of your art! Your characters, therefore, don't quite move me that much. I think this is perhaps because for you the characters are mediums for an other more complex aesthetic tapestry rather than agents in a story; which is why your work reminds me more of Djuna Barnes and Virginia Woolf than of George Eliot. As George Eliot - secular moralist that she is - said: character is an unfolding. In your work I don't quite get that sense of progression and revelation. This is because, for me, your characters are not wholly defined by the story, but are impelled elsewhere. What do you think?

    Yes, well. You are not the first to feel this way. Actually I quite like my characters, but then, of course, they are aspects of myself - and probably, mostly, myself as passive absorber of sensation, reticent eavesdropper … Human beings do continue to mystify me. Which some might say disqualifies me from writing novels. But there are many valid kinds of fiction, not all of them focussed on character. I think I am more interested in unfolding scenarios for my characters - and my readers - than I am in setting up and resolving character arcs and examining relationships, which to me is a little dull and too much like life. I like to release my characters into interesting landscapes to explore, rather than make the characters themselves the primary sites of exploration. In a way I think they act as eyes and ears for the reader.

  5. This leads me to the other interesting obstacle in your work: your inability to tell a good story. Before you get pissed of with me, remember that I don't particularly rate storytelling that highly. Sure, if you want to hang around a fireside being entertained by an orator that's great. And we all do! Craven victims of pop culture that we are! But in my view the novel is not wholly tied to the oral and plot-based side of things. That said, I feel that you, however, have a quite desperate hankering to tell a good story. I sensed this yearning in Rock Alphabet. Why? Why on earth do you feel that you of all people - you with your immense poetic gift - need to tell a good story? Is it because you feel that that way you'll communicate better? That you'll sell more books and reach more people? That that is the only way people in general will understand what you are trying to do?

    I suppose I write what I like to read; and I am probably more interested in imagery and situation than in the mechanics of plot or the working out of human relationships. My primary aim in writing is to create a kind of alternative universe: a sense of transformed reality that does not cross the boundary into fantasy but which manages to give the known that kick of otherness, and which helps one understand the world in a different way. (An early love of sci-fi can give one a lifelong yearning for other planets.)

    Non-fiction and history are full of stories. I can contribute different things – a certain way of perceiving; a certain aesthetic; particular imagery. Whether I am successful in this or not is another matter. That said, one does need something of a narrative thread, or some kind of coherent shape to support a reader through 200 or 300 pages. And I do have admiration for the art of the neat story. I love a good mystery or thriller that is slickly plotted, and I would like to learn how to deliver that satisfaction to the reader. Not so much in the raconteurish sense of telling a tale from start to finish, but in the sense of building a story that works like a machine or puzzle. This is a skill that must be learnt; at least for me it is. And novelists do their learning very publicly.

    But as I’ve said, I do think there are many kinds of novel, some perhaps not yet invented, and certainly space on the local scene for more experimentation with story structure. The kinds of books that are being written and published are on the whole – with some notable exceptions such as Ivan Vladislavic’s work – very conventional, both in style and structure.

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LitNet: 19 April 2006

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