“When Did You Start to Think of Yourself As African?”
Ivan Vladislavic in Conversation with Nuruddin Farah and Robert Kelly
South African writer Ivan Vladislavić was in the US recently to launch the new edition of his novel The Folly published by Archipelago. He was also at Yale University to participate in the Windham Campbell Prize Festival as one of the 2015 prizewinners for fiction. This is an edited transcript of a conversation at Bard College this October between Vladislavić, novelist Nuruddin Farah and poet Robert Kelly. To start with, Vladislavić read extracts from three of his books, Portrait with Keys, The Loss Library and The Folly.
Nuruddin Farah: First of all, we must congratulate you on winning this major prize. We are very proud of you, as South Africans. I was interested in the stories about security that you read from the Johannesburg book. You live in Johannesburg and I live in Cape Town, and they are two different worlds, two different worlds in that we say—forgive me if I’m wrong—but in Cape Town we say, “Johannesburg people talk about security all the time the way colonial wives always talk about their servants.” Would you agree with that?
Ivan Vladislavić: Do you mean in the relationship that people have with security guards, with particular people who serve their security interests? Or more generally than that?
NF: No, the reason I ask is that I’m reminded of something. In 1979, I lived in New York, in Manhattan. I stayed in an apartment for $38 a month, and the reason was because the owner of the apartment was too scared to live in it, and I had it for one entire year. New York is no longer what it was then, and it’s always my feeling that Johannesburg is not going to be what it is now—so what creates this particular phobia and fear that people continue talking about it and thinking about it in a way that Capetonians do not?
IV: Well, I think it might be that Cape Town is the more colonial situation, in the sense that white Capetonians are more protected from crime. We always have these discussions about which is the most dangerous city. Is Cape Town really safe? Is Johannesburg more dangerous than Cape Town? It’s quite competitive. But whether it’s more dangerous or not depends on where you live in those cities, right?
NF: I live in Rondebosch.
IV: The crime rate on the Cape flats is undoubtedly higher than in most parts of suburban Johannesburg. But perhaps one could say that there’s a slightly more equitable distribution of violence and crime in Johannesburg than in Cape Town.
NF: Very democratic. I read The Folly when it first came out—I published a book with the same publishing house, Serif Books—and loved it. And as I was trying to remember, to reactivate my memory of The Folly, I continued thinking that you were unique in the South African context, unique in that you occupied your own space, you occupied your own territory. Because every writer—actually every good, very good, or great writer—occupies a certain territory that is his or her own. When you think of William Faulkner, you think of William Faulkner. You don’t think about William Faulkner living in Paris or anywhere else. You think about William Faulkner living in Oxford and writing the kind of books that he did. And yet, the books that you write are not necessarily and always South African in the way that Nadine Gordimer’s books were absolutely and totally South African. You couldn’t think in any other way. So, what do you think gives you that quality?
IV: Thank you for the compliment. I think it may have to do with my reading and also with my immediate experience in the 1980s, including my work experience. I was working at Ravan Press in the 1980s, and exposed to the best and the worst of South Africa’s highly political literary tradition. As engaged as I was by the work and as pleased as I was to be there, I felt a little claustrophobic in that world and somewhat constrained by it. By this time, the mid to late 80s, South African writing had settled into certain lazy or habitual attitudes about the society and how it could be changed. And then I chanced upon the right books, as one’s sometimes lucky to do. I remember especially the influential books published in the Penguin series called Writers from the Other Europe, which was edited as I recall by Philip Roth. They published Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, and A Tomb for Boris Davidovich by Danilo Kiš, the Yugoslav writer. They published writers who were highly political in the sense that they were interested in power and interested in the history of their societies, but they approached these subjects in a much less dogmatic way than I was used to. I think I found those models at the right time.
NF: When I read your books, there are two writers who come to mind quite often. One of them is Antunes, the Portuguese writer, one of the greatest European writers in this century, I think, and the other one is our own Mozambican writer, Mia Couto. And the reason is that you, like them, are playing in the periphery, so to speak. When other people are living in the house and playing in the house with the lights on, living in the dark, you stay in the periphery looking in. Does that make it similar to what detectives do—because I also associate you with detection—in that you can only see what is in front of you, you can’t imagine what will come out of that corner. The fact is that you can’t know, because there is a bend, and you don’t know what’s coming around a bend. How would you respond to that?
IV: The link you mentioned with Couto is interesting, because I suspect that we may have arrived at our writing positions by some of the same paths. We’ve surely read some of the same writers, but at a distance from them. Perhaps that’s something like what you’re getting at. Borges is a very important writer to me. But now I’ve just been in Argentina, and it was really driven home to me that if you come to a book like Borges’s Labyrinths as a student in the 1970s, in South Africa, in English, it’s a completely different thing from coming to Borges in the 1950s, in Spanish, in Argentina. There’s a fascinating lag that happens with work that slowly gets into translation and takes decades to find its way into another language world. That distancing, a certain cultural distancing that comes from having grown up in a place like South Africa, a place that is culturally dislocated in some ways, would be likely to create an oblique perspective.
Robert Kelly: As a back story to some of the European writers you’ve been speaking of, I ought to mention to the audience that in this novel, there are occasional words of Afrikaans, words that we associate with South Africa, but the story could happen, forgive me, in New Jersey. There’s nothing African about the story. The characters have odd names—Malgas, Nieuwenhuizen—but the actions on their veranda, in their suburban house, on the vacant lot next door could happen anywhere. What I’m stressing here is the fact that the book is not African in exactly the way Borges is not particularly Argentine, in exactly the way that it’s totally human, totally out of the place, and thus really true to the place. I was very impressed by the way in which the suburban family moved from the cliché of suburban housewife towards her more realized person. Any place, after all, is a cliché, house is a cliché, love is a cliché, man is a cliché, woman is a cliché, and these clichés have to be brought to life, and I think that happened very successfully in this particular text … but I couldn’t find the Africa very much. I wasn’t looking for elephants, but it’s certainly without that. What can we say about the universality, the globality of the story?
IV: Well, Borges has been very much on my mind after visiting Argentina. While I was there I had cause to reread his essay on tradition, on the Argentine writer and tradition, written in 1950 or so. He argues very strongly against local color, saying that in fact Argentine writers should stop salting their texts with local color or regional words and phrases to make them appear more “Argentinian,” to signal that this is Argentina. He calls for writers to have a more open frame of reference and, in his terms, to take the whole of Western culture as their patrimony, or take the universe as their patrimony. I’m not suggesting that this essay influenced me when I started writing, but I recognize its position. I was aware that a certain kind of South African writing relied on triggering familiar associations for readers. Some of this had to do with using a particular vocabulary that readers would recognize and with throwing in the occasional elephant or the occasional thorn tree. There is a thorn tree in The Folly.
NF: Let me actually react to your claim, in inverted commas, that you couldn’t find the African in The Folly…
RK: The conventional Africa…
NF: The conventional, well, if there is a conventional Africa. Before I do that, let me tell you a story about what happened to me once. I published a novel in 1986 called Maps. A German publisher, one of the biggest German publishers, at a dinner party I was attending came to me and said how much he loved the book. But he said he wasn’t going to publish my novel, and the reason is, he said to me, “Where is the drum?” And I said to him, “What do you mean, where is the drum?” He said to me, “Where is the drum? In a novel by an African you must find a drum, drumming.” Now the reason why I’m reacting is this: I’m saying to you that in this novel you find everything that’s African, if you know the Africa of which Ivan or other writers write about. In other words, the African, you have to understand—and I’m not being facetious—but the African is just a human being with the same pains and loves and hates as everybody else: cold, fear, everything that you can imagine. And therefore this is a human story, and to the extent that it is a human story, it is also an African story. Even if he had not used some names that are peculiarly local and pertain to specific areas, the book is African in so far as it is human, and this is one of the reasons why such a book appeals to readers such as yourself, such as myself. Because basically this is a cosmopolitan novel, and the novel being cosmopolitan is of itself what we all want.
NF: I’m going to ask another question, and this is going to be a very provocative question. I’ve asked the same question to Chinua Achebe in 1987, and I put this question to André Brink in 2012. And the question is: when did you start to think of yourself as an African?
IV: I grew up thinking of myself as a South African, with no real sense that this was an exclusionary category. Bear in mind that I was a child in the harshest period of apartheid. I was born in the late 1950s, so I was a child in the particularly repressive period of the 60s, when the opposition had been more or less shattered or forced underground, and people had been driven into exile. I grew up in Pretoria, which was the seat of government, in a very conservative, racist white environment. As I say, my family gave me a rather proud sense of being a South African. I guess the question is whether the “African” in that “South African” had a content that extended beyond the borders of the country, or beyond a narrowly conceived white identity. I certainly didn’t think I was a “European,” although the term was applied to white South Africans. I became conscientized about South Africa and its politics when I went to university in the mid-70s, where questions of identity were being discussed very intensely. There were programs of what we called “Africanization” among white students on some campuses and there were campaigns that drew attention to the fact that as white South Africans, we were not fully rooted in our own space, in our own country. Then I began to think about the idea of being an African —of actually being in Africa—in a different way. Living in a democratic society has given me a different, fuller sense of being an African, partly because our country is more open to seeing itself as part of Africa. Still, it’s not a simple notion for me, and I will probably wrestle with it for the rest of my life.
NF: Because of skin color? Is that why it is?
IV: That has something to do with it. I’m the kind of person who likes to connect with the world around me; when I’m in a city, I need to feel that I’m part of it, I like to be out on the streets. In parts of Johannesburg today—or the country, for that matter—I’m out of place simply by virtue of my skin color, I lack a certain anonymity. I would be freer to engage with the place and the people if my difference wasn’t signaled by my skin color.
NF: Well, perhaps we should bring other people in. This is a point I’m quite sure many of you have your own views about. When I asked the question when did you start to think of yourself as an African, I phrased it in such a way that it includes time, duration, and purpose. And the purpose is usually not governed by the skin color of the person, but is so much in the head. Here in America, we can actually find a German-speaking Austrian who lives in New York and who doesn’t speak a word of English. They live in their own communities, speaking German, eating Austrian food, and so on and so forth. They would say, “I am different,” but they live in America. Now there are some Africans—since you mentioned the color—black South Africans who would say that only a black person can be an African. Many of us don’t think that’s the case. We think that it is in the head. If you accept that you’re an African, in the head, you are an African.
IV: I would agree with that. It should be simple: if I’m there, my life experience is there, I’m committed to being there, I’m an African.