interview by Vianne Venter
Where is home?
I’m increasingly accepting of being a ‘soutie’ (perhaps in clarification for some readers, it’s an Afrikaans term which is short for ‘soutpiel’ = referring to an English (white) South African male, his right foot in England, left foot in South Africa and penis dangling in the salty Atlantic Ocean in between).
Do you write full time?
No, although I’ve heard a lot of stories as a clinical psychologist and continue to do so as a narrative psychology researcher. All great fuel for writing, but I can only grab what time I can.
What inspired this story?
Watching a news report on ‘corrective rape’ that outraged me. Although it’s seemingly only a small part of the story, it’s a central kernel. Other stories spun outwards from that one – and especially once I’d heard MamBhele’s voice, while walking along a path in the Silvermine reserve in Cape Town – then, it almost wrote itself.
You’re based in the UK now (?), are you originally from Cape Town? Do you regard yourself as a South African storyteller?
To continue the ‘soutie’ metaphor, the weight is currently on my right foot (London), but I’m hoping to shift it at least partially to the left (Cape Town) in less than a decade – as that’s where both my and my partner’s families of origin are. I’ve lived longest out of a good few places now in Cape Town (21 years), where I also spent my formative years – although I was born and raised on the Copperbelt in Zambia until I was ten. Still, I am a naturalized South African and continue to self-identify as a South African writer.
Where did the stories within this story come from – e.g. the story of Monkey, the story of Machelanga and the story of Nongqawuse?
The direct source of Machelanga I can’t remember off hand, I’m afraid; it’s a Khoi-San myth if I’m remembering correctly and it may have been in Penny Miller’s book on South African myths. The story of Monkey was in Grainger’s book on ‘Stories Gogo Told Me’ – that one gave me a kick, as it was recorded not far from where I was born. Nongqawuse, of course, is based on a true and tragic story, which I first learned in history at school and is covered in Peires’ book ‘The Dead Will Arise’. There was a beautiful, multi-layered and fictionalized rendering of this in Zakes Mda’s ‘The Heart of Redness’.
What research did you need to do for this story?
My favourite sources, books and people. I do look at the ‘Net too, but there’s a lot of low-quality information out there that needs careful sifting. I have taught some township writing classes on behalf of SAEP (South African Education and Environmental Project: http://www.saep.org/). I was thus pleased when they put me in touch with Zandile Mahlasela, one of their writing graduates, to help check the veracity of MamBhele’s voice. I was nervous about that as I was aware it’s culturally-loaded subject matter, but I also knew from my clinical work in South Africa, that homosexuality has no cultural or ‘racial’ borders. The website ‘Behind the Mask’ does in fact exist too: http://www.mask.org.za/
The story and its characters are poised between worlds – the ancient and the modern, the real world and the spirit world, the natural and the man-made – as well as cultures. Does this reflect how you see South Africa?
Yes – there’s a tension with all of these things I think, although I’m aware my view may be marginalised to some, as I no longer live there. I remember meeting a young, depressed amaZulu male for therapy some years ago now – he was seemingly very Westernised, but it took a good few sessions before he felt he could tell me he thought he’d been bewitched. However, a similar thought process operates for so many of us, ‘Western’ or otherwise – wherever we live. For example, we perhaps like to think there is a personal external Order to the universe, even if it’s not an explicit belief. ‘Luck’ is one such notion; the Universe smiles at us when it’s good, frowns at us when it’s ‘bad’. But who’s to deny the reality of such spirit worlds? I think we need to know and respect our joint and ancient (African) roots, but without reifying anything as absolute, either.
In the end, everything changes too, including culture and the stories we tell. But I also hope our stories start to embrace more fully our co-inhabitants of the Earth, our fellow animals too, while we still have them – says he, a guilty carnivore! (Wendy Woodward’s ‘The Animal Gaze’ looks at Southern African narratives around this theme.) I also strongly hope that the hard-won right to free speech in South Africa will remain entrenched, as we need to keep our diverse voices and stories alive.
It’s South Africans versus the apocalypse. Who would you put your money on?
South Africans all the way – the country has been through so much shit – and I know it still struggles in some ways – but I have lived and worked with so many wonderful South Africans that I believe that through it all, in the words of Gloria Gaynor, we will ‘survive’. I also hope that eventually, nearly all of us will end up thriving too – although that’s still some time off!
Are you working on anything right now?
A book based on a short story of mine called ‘Bridges’, which was published in the Irish SF magazine, AlbedoOne. The novel is provisionally entitled ‘Azanian Bridges’ and is set in an alternative world where apartheid endures.
Where might we find more of your work?
I have links and material at http://nickwood.frogwrite.co.nz/.
Vianne Venter is a freelance writer and sub-editor for various South African publications. She served as story editor and sub for Something Wicked since its inception in 2005. She is also an artist and mother. She can communicate with inanimate objects, but only if they’re feeling chatty. In her spare time… oh, who are we kidding? What spare time?