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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

Herman Wasserman Herman Wasserman is the author of the short story collections Verdwaal and Aan die ander kant van die stad. He has also published several stories in collection volumes like Vonkfiksie and Uit die kontreie vandaan. He is the co-editor (together with Sean Jacobs) of the academic essay collection Shifting Selves: Postapartheid Essays on Media, Culture and Identity. He was born in Port Elizabeth on 29th July 1969 and matriculated at Durbanville High School in 1987. He studied literature and journalism at the University of Stellenbosch and obtained the BHons Joern, MA and DLitt degrees. He worked as an art columnist and book editor for Die Burger, and has been a senior lecturer in the Department of Journalism at the University of Stellenbosch since 2002.
Damon Galgut Damon Galgut was born in Pretoria in 1963. He published his first book, A Sinless Season, when he was seventeen. Since then he has written Small Circle of Beings (1988), The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs (1991) and The Quarry (1995). His latest book, The Good Doctor, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Dublin-IMPAC Award. He lives in Cape Town.

Herman Wasserman in conversation with Damon Galgut

  1. Has being nominated for the Booker Prize changed the way you think about your work as a writer?

    No. It's probably changed the way other people think about it. For me, the books remain the same - cause for both embarrassment and pride.

  2. Your earlier work has just been republished by Penguin. Upon reading The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs and especially Small Circle of Beings, both written in the late 80s / early nineties, I was struck by how the most intimate lives of your characters were marked by the political turmoil of the day. Would you consider yourself a political writer, in the sense that you feel bound to comment on the actuality of the day?

    I don't think of myself as a political writer, but I am aware of how politics has shaped the lives of all South Africans. "The actuality of the day", to borrow your phrase, is only partly made up of politics. I am far more interested, to be honest, in psychology - how an individual interacts with the world. I'm surprised that you think of Small Circle of Beings as being marked by the political turmoil of the time; I think of that as a very small and personal story, marked only by fate and chance, if anything. Human lives, it seems to me, play out at the meeting point of private, inner impulses and public, social forces. As a writer I would like to evoke the strange, sometimes scary space in which this happens. But to reduce everything to politics ... no.

  3. Your most recent book, The Good Doctor, again engages with South African actuality, this time in post-apartheid South Africa. Do you think that it has become more difficult for politically engaged writers to find material in a democratic dispensation?

    If one thinks of writing as merely an act of resistance, then I suppose these days we lack a huge central evil to resist. But I'm not politically engaged in the way that you suggest. I see writers as very amoral creatures. There is, of course, a human level on which we're moral beings, like everybody else. But when you approach the world with your pen in hand, something else takes over. The storyteller is looking at human events from a distance, trying to find the elements that will drive his themes along. What elements? Well, conflict and power have always been rich raw material for a story. And we certainly don't lack for those. "Power" is, perhaps, a more apt term than "politics" for what interests me. I don't have any political agenda, I don't subscribe to a particular ideology, but I am fascinated by social interactions, by what big forces of history might lie behind a seemingly innocuous conversation.

  4. You have already gained international recognition. What is your opinion of the current state of English literature in South Africa? And Africa?

    I should confess that I am woefully underread in South African writing. But it's my impression that we are not doing too badly. There is certainly a big interest internationally in what we are producing here, and local writers and publishers are rising to the challenge. There is a sense of a gathering clamour of voices, trying to be heard. On the downside, I suppose our literature has been fired in one particular mould for so long that we are battling to find new ways to speak. Perhaps inevitably, a lot of what gets written is just not terribly good. More worrying, there doesn't seem to be much awareness of the standards set by international literary tradition. Most worrying of all is the fact that such a low value is placed on writing by South African society in general. It's surprising that we have as many fine writers as we do, given that so few people care. I'm afraid I cannot speak for the rest of Africa; I just don't know enough.

  5. What would you still most like to achieve with your writing?

    Hmmm. I don't really think in terms of "achieving" where writing's concerned. Not in a big, overarching sense. It's more a matter of going from book to book, trying to complete each piece of work, which feels like an overwhelming burden. Right now, my only ambition is to finish the book I'm busy with - and believe me, it seems impossible.

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LitNet: 21 June 2005

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