I would like to find out more about the inspirations behind the book. I see that you reference Rustum Kozain’s poem “The Blessing”. Are there other influences?
Like most writers I’m a reader first, so the novel is shaped and inspired by a number of texts-some in more obvious ways than others.
Kozain’s ‘The Blessing’ – a poem of and for Cape Town- is an incredibly strong evocation of the landscape, its discontents, difficulties, startling beauty, its breathtaking capacity for cruelty. It’s also a dialogue between a mother and daughter-the wish of a parent who wants to simultaneously protect and inform their child about and from history, about and from the present. I first heard it at a reading in Cape Town in 2008 and it was a deeply affecting, moving experience. A few months later I began the novel and the poem was, in some ways, a guide to some of the things I wanted to talk about and think through.
But there were other works that were just as important and they’re not Capetonian or even South African such as Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddah of Suburbia and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. The first because of its radical, smart, funny take on Muslim/Asian characters- (anyone writing brown Muslim characters in Western urban/suburban landscapes owes Kureishi a debt). The second was a lesson in how to evoke place through memory.
Joan Didion and Sara Suleri’s work were similarly key in thinking through how we tell stories of and about home. And E.M Forster hovers above all of it because I wanted to write an immersive 20th century style novel. I also started read Junot Diaz about halfway through writing and his work was like a tornado blowing through my head-totally invigorating, simultaneously wild, taut, controlled, brilliant.
You also touch on something I experienced that a lot of Capetonians don’t like talking about: the complicated relationship between people of colour in Cape Town. Race is always examined, I feel, in literature, from a perspective of black people vs white people. You went deeper and looked at relations between characters like Lizzie and Alia / Nick and Alia / Anna and Waleed and examined how it is a little bit more complicated that saying “Coloured people” and “Black people” or “Muslim” vs “Christian” and that sometimes the word Kaffir is used by “coloured” people to refer to “black” people. So I wanted to find out if you grew up in Cape Town perhaps, and if this was something you or people you know had experienced? And why you decided to go there?
I grew up in Cape Town, I still spend part of my year there, my family lives there, is from there, it’s a fundamental part of who I am. The city is over 300 years old, it has a terrible and terrifying history -colonialism, slavery, apartheid- and that history remains very present. It’s complicated, vexed, tangled, difficult. It needs to be talked about.
Geography is a central part of anyone’s identity but for South Africans, coming from a place where geography is so deeply bound up in the struggle for citizenship, I think it’s more acute, intensified. That struggle was and continues to be a racialised one – so I don’t know how it’s possible to write anything about the country that doesn’t speak about the ways in which race is configured, how racism functions to legislate lives, how apartheid’s shadow doesn’t just linger, it chills. I wanted very much to write a book that explores race and religion in the Cape as a South African experience – to break out and away from some of the ways in which people expect to read about race in SA.
My feeling is that there is also something incredibly important about writers of colour writing about race and racism-it shifts us from being addressed, being subject to, into a position of doing the addressing. This doesn’t mean it’s an easy or enviable task-race as a construct enters the imagination almost immediately: it can be limiting and awful to live it and it can be limiting and awful to have to revisit it in writing. There’s a terrific article by Caludia Rankine and Beth Laffreda “On Whiteness and The Racial Imaginary” that articulates this all much better than I’m doing.
But in as much as the novel looks at race it also looks at class and religion and the way in which in those two things may occasionally complicate and disrupt race in South Africa, but in the final analysis are always subject to race. So race is a key element in the text, but it’s also about how race intersects with class and religion.
I also liked that you mentioned that the book was written in three cities. Can you tell me more about where in the world these cities are, what you were doing there and how you found the time to write the book (or perhaps the book was your main reason for being in that city)?
Cape Town; where I was born and lived until 2005, then New York and London where I went to do some research and live for a while. I think part of writing about home and the memory of home in such intense detail – the streets, the smells, the sounds, the language of place – was because I was homesick and the novel was a way of carving out a space of home in my everyday.
I think it was Adorno who spoke about ‘writing becoming a place to live’, though obviously, he was writing about people in exile. I was just away from home, feeling nostalgic, and in some ways bewildered and pained. Explaining South Africa, explaining Cape Town to anyone who didn’t grow up there, increases its bizarreness.
It is really hard to miss that JM Coetzee features on the blurb. Was he instrumental in you writing the book or would you like to share his role in your work with us?
No role except that he was kind enough to blurb for me and it went on the front of the book. The ‘thank you’ was for that generosity. I have a circle of readers who I send the work to – some of them are writers, some aren’t. This is essentiall I think: you need people who are going to be both fiercely supportive and intensely critical. Sometimes the more critical the reader, the more supportive they are being.
It is always said that if you are a writer, you can write anything. I think this is true for you because you write across mediums like screenplays, plays, short stories and articles. Was writing a novel a natural progression or was it really challenging?
Very challenging! Novels are, I think, incredibly difficult for any writer. They are unwieldy and tricky and impossible to hold in your head in their entirety-especially if they are long. I found it incredibly difficult, particularly crafting the narrative arc. Novels are slow, painstaking things that reveal themselves over time-you get into a relationship with a novel, you’re stuck with those characters, sometimes for years, so it helps if you like them (which I did).
Conversely, for me, a short story always seem to arrive in a rush, unbidden, whole, and all I have to do is take dictation; I can spend ages editing and reworking, but the initial idea comes quickly.
And then play-scripts, are really only half the text: the other half –crucially- is in the performance and in the staging. A great performer can elevate an existing text, create new dimensions, layer it, tease out meaning whereas a poor performance can do the opposite. I’ve experienced both: the latter can induce a near-aneurism,-it’s live and there is nothing you can do about it.
In my experience different stories need different mediums and I try to work out the best medium for the story and then use it. That said I sometimes worry that hopping between forms is not a good idea: maybe it’s better to stick with one form and get really good at it. I don’t know.
The book is set in 1993/4 and 1986. I often had to remind myself of this while reading the book and wondering, for example, why people don’t just send each other Whatsapp’s or call from their cellphones. So, I cannot imagine what it must have been like as a writer living today and writing about periods so long ago (in terms of how technology and to a large extent, the country, has advanced). How did you manage to do it in a way that looks so effortless?
I didn’t even think about that. I think I was so tied up in the novel that it didn’t occur to me. Also, it really didn’t feel that long ago to me. But what I did do was change the tense in the different time periods so as to bring the ‘earlier’ past into the foreground: all the 1986 sections are in present tense to give it a greater sense of immediacy, to suggest how the past is present. The 1993 sections are all in past tense.
I struggled to put down because I really loved that it had a historical/ political perspective yet it was also funny at times. I found myself chuckling at Alia’s incident in the taxi; or her and Nasreen being blown by the Cape Doctor and Fozia’s grumpiness. I lived and worked in Cape Town from 2008 till about a year ago, so I found the characters highly relatable and to an extent you reminded me a bit of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth in the way that you manage to find something (almost) diabolical in the mundane. So I felt like I was there in Walmer Estate with you. How would you describe your writing style and the voice / tone of the narrative?
Thank you! I hoped that it would be read as funny. And I’m so happy to hear you connected with the characters and their experiences-that is all any writer wants. I remember reading and loving White Teeth and thinking that Smith’s On Beauty was an absolute joy..
I don’t know how I would describe my style – a bit hyper-realist when it comes to the humour? I am interested in the quotidian, the ordinary and how absurdity lurks within those spaces. Humour-and not cruel humour, but empathetic humour- is also a way of drawing readers towards characters, suggesting sameness without flattening or ignoring difference. I learnt that in theatre.
There is also some feminist critique of masculinity, which I found very interesting because a lot of novels or writers tend to glorify someone who behaves like Waleed in a relationship (brooding writer types). I’d like to hear more about why you went there.
Well, I’m a feminist, proudly so, and I suppose one’s writing is a reflection of one’s world-view. So feminism informed my take on Waleed’s choices, but it also shaped Alia, Anna, Zarina, Fozia and Nasreen’s respective journeys.
Most of my previous work had focused almost exclusively on women’s stories and women’s voices and I wanted to extend myself a little with this work – to write about men, how they speak to each other, move through the world, how they love, what their friendships look and feel like.
Some of my favorite moments of writing were the scenes between Waleed and his friends: in the car on their way to stop a demolition, watching rugby, chatting in bars about relationships, about politics. Those felt like profoundly male spaces and it was liberating to imagine and inhabit them.
Waleed, like some of the other characters, is a bit selfish and self-absorbed, but I think this is as much a function of him being a young writer as being a man. And that was another thread I enjoyed thinking through-what does it mean to live a life of art and activism – do those two things complicate each other? What happens to writing and writers during a revolution? What happens after?