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The ABSA/LitNet
Chain Interview

Die Ketting

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.
Zakes Mda Zakes Mda is a South African writer of plays, novels, poems, and articles for academic journals and newspapers. His creative work also includes painting works of art, theatre and film productions. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the 2005 Notable Books Award of the American Library Association and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Africa Region and the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Award.

Damon Galgut in conversation with Zakes Mda

  1. Although you spend a lot of time here, your permanent home base is in the USA. How does that distance affect the way you see South Africa? Do you feel freer to let your imagination loose?

    I regard myself as a migrant worker in America. I am free to let my imagination loose anywhere I am, Damon. I spend seven months of the year in the USA and five in South Africa. However I do a lot of travelling, mostly in Europe. I write wherever I am: in the plane, at the train station or in the hotel room.

    When I was with you at The Hague about two years ago I was writing The Whale Caller. So a few pages of that novel were written there. The rest were written in Johannesburg and in Ohio. About 60 percent of The Madonna of Excelsior was written in Lille, France, in Nyon, Switzerland, and in Amsterdam in The Netherlands.

    I do not need to be in South Africa to write about South Africa. I carry my South Africa with me. In fact, all of my very first novel, Ways of Dying, was written at Yale University in New Haven Connecticut, and most of my second novel, She Plays with the Darkness, was written in Burlington Vermont. At this point it makes no difference where I am. In the early days distance did make a difference (for the better).

    I used to envy those writers who were based in South Africa, for they were able to create "authentic" stories ... you know, grabbing a slice of apartheid life and transferring it on to the page or on to the stage and have wonderful absurdist narratives (created for them by apartheid since it was a very absurd system).

    Since I was denied that luxury I had to learn to use my imagination to create my stories ... I had to rely more on metaphor, on allegory, on magic and on any other devices I could lay my hands on to portray a South African life that was becoming a fading memory. Distance proved to be useful in training my imagination.

  2. You started out writing for the theatre. What aspects of that discipline have carried over into your novels, and what have you had to learn from scratch?

    I have been told that my novels are very visual. Perhaps that comes from the theatre experience. I think it also comes from the fact that I am a trained screenwriter for film and television. In my first novel I consciously used dialogue sparingly because I wanted to train myself to write sustained descriptive prose.

  3. Reading Ways of Dying, I was struck by the use of the collective "we" to denote the narrator. This seemed to me both innovative and natural, and a sign of a different sensibility from the usual first person voice. How much scope is there, do you think, for traditional African modes of storytelling to alter the European conventions of the novel in that way?

    I also thought that communal voice was innovative until I returned to the USA and read Faulkner's A Rose for Emily. He uses the collective "we" throughout that story. Just shows how almost impossible it is to be "original" in this darn world! Whereas my communal voice was informed by traditional African storytelling, it obviously exists in other cultures as well.

  4. Politics is a constant topic of debate in the local literary fishbowl. An inevitable question: Are we at a point where South African writing can free itself from political concerns? Should it?

    Fortunately I am not part of those futile debates, Damon. No one can prescribe to me what I should or should not write at this or any other point in our history. I write what I like. Always have. If I think the kind of story that I am writing demands that overt politics should feature, then it will feature.

    If there is no such demand from the nature of my narrative, of my characters, of their environment etc, then of course overt politics won't feature. My characters don't interact only among themselves. They also have to interact with their environment, and sometimes that environment is overtly political. I stress the notion of "overt" politics because all works of art are political, whether we like it or not, whether we are conscious of that fact or not. For me, it is not the thought-police or the cultural commissars who will tell me that my work should or should not be political. It is the work itself.

  5. Leading on from the last question ... You are working on a new novel about quilt-making in the USA. Is this a sign that - maybe for the first time - South African writers might be turning outwards, into the wider world, for their stories? Is the sense of crisis finally over at home? Do you feel responsible for - in the sense of being tied to - the future of this country?

    Well, Damon, it just so happened that I discovered a wonderful story to tell in Ohio, which everyone here was either ignoring or unaware of, and I was confident that I could tell it more effectively since I am an outsider.

    Insiders usually take a lot of things for granted, whereas an outsider like myself is fascinated by "ordinary" things which then become a source of inspiration. No, the crisis is not over at home. It will never be over as long as human beings continue to live there. In my notebooks I have three other novels waiting to be written, and these are set in Lesotho (Ululants), Eastern Cape (Mhlontlo) and Durban (Rickshaw). Then, after that, I'll write a novel set in Papua New Guinea, although this may come somewhere between the South African ones if I happen to gather more material on it.

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LitNet: 19 July 2005

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