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Interview Achmat Dangor

Michael and Vinu sit under the fig tree's canopy of dying fruit, inhaling the excessive, overripe sweetness of figs abandoned to the birds, to the thunderstorms that assail the city. The overhang of branches retains the day's heat; outside of this warm shelter, the night is chilly. Johannesburg cools down quickly, because of the altitude, six thousand feet above sea level, know-it-all conversationalists say.
'This is such a fickle place,' Michael says.
'The place or the people?' Vinu asks.
'Both. They are one and the same.'

- from Bitter Fruit

Achmat Dangor
Stacey Knecht

Bitter Fruit

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SK — You’ve been quoted as saying that you have ‘flashes of insight’ that lead you to write specific books. What was the flash of insight that lead you to write Bitter Fruit? I can’t imagine it was just one...

AD — No, it wasn’t just one. There were many, many of them. One, obviously, was the Truth and Reconciliation hearings, sitting at home by the television and watching things on Internet... In fact, I knew some of the people, some of the lawyers and one of the commissioners, but I also knew some of the victims. And listening, particularly, to the people who had been subjected to some horrific things, tortured, beaten up, even raped, sitting there calmly recounting their experiences, almost like the confessional in a Catholic church. Only in a Catholic church, in that hushed atmosphere, do you get that almost artificial serenity. I watched Bishop Tutu cry on two occasions, and I thought, here’s a human drama being played out, and none of the lawyers sitting there, or even the participants, really grasp what they’re doing. They’re taking all of South Africa’s history and putting it into the public domain. That was one flash of insight – it was really something that I felt needed to be done from a re-imagined point of view.

SK — Were all the hearings public?

AD — Not all of them. I had some access, you could watch them on television, you could switch them on during breakfast, you could watch them all day, like O.J. Simpson. There were some closed hearings, and those were often the sexual abuse ones.

SK — Why were they closed?

AD — Because many of the victims requested it. But I think it was more than that: South Africa wasn’t yet ready to talk about the dark side of war. Everybody was prepared to talk, funnily enough, about other things: I burned people, put them on the pyre and drank my beer while I watched them burn, because that was my job... The rapes began because there was the opportunity. It then became systematic. It became what we had to do, because it was also part of our job. But to actually say that you... Men are funny. I know, I’m a man myself, but we’re funny. We can talk about all kinds of things, like murder, robbery, our exploits, but did you ever hear a man say to you, ‘I raped a woman’? Or ‘I abused a child’? That’s the kind of confession that I think is the taboo barrier – not only in our society, but elsewhere.
So that was the second insight, and it came to me quite accidentally. I had started doing research for the book, because I knew I wanted to do something fictional based upon some of the hearings, but also based upon some of the things that I knew.

SK — How did you know those things?

AD — Well, I’ve lived in the country for three hundred years.

SK — You don’t look it.

AD — (laughs) My cosmic memory, perhaps, goes back all that way, and like many South African writers, I’ve often drawn from our past. But during this research, I came across something – you could never get any of the testimony for the closed hearings out in the public domain. You couldn’t get it through the formal, official channels. I called a friend and said: ‘Why?’ And he said, well, they’d made the decision not to put the testimony of these particular closed hearings on a website, as they’d done with some of the others. So I put it out of my mind, and then started constructing my story from talking to other people, friends, who said, don’t go there, you’re going to embarrass people. Then one night I went to the website, and there was the entire testimony – names, places, people – so I picked up the phone and called this friend of mine on the commission, who shall remain nameless, and said to him: ‘I thought you told me... ‘ and he said, ‘What?! It’s on the Web?’ It was a mistake. A bureaucratic mistake. It came off the next morning.

SK — Did you have time to download any of it?

AD — I read it through the night. I just couldn’t stop reading. And I was drained. My wife said to me, what are you doing? I said, I’m probably going through our real dirty linen. These are the dregs of what our country sunk to during the apartheid years. Descriptions of an older woman saying how a young policemen would say to her, he just wanted to feel what the inside of a black cunt felt like, so he pushed his hand up her, just to feel. And it didn’t end there. There was an activist who was giving testimony from a different perspective, describing how in an ANC camp, she had been raped by her fellow soldier, and when she complained to her commander, he raped her as well. Eventually both of them were disciplined, but it was too late, in her view. Justice came after the deed.

SK — What happened to her?

AD — She’s still in South Africa. She was a government official last time I talked to her. She never really speaks about it. But you know, these are the kinds of things – that was the third catalyst that made me start writing the book.
The first chapter of Bitter Fruit was published as a self-contained short story in a South African magazine. I would’ve been happy to leave it as a short story, because it was painful to write. And if you notice, the first chapter is almost the harshest of all, where Lydia externalizes her pain by transferring it from her head to her feet. But I knew then that I couldn’t stop. When the story was first published it got a vehement response from many people, some saying, what are you going to do now? This is exploitation! That was the uncanny thing: there are so many people who identify their experiences in this book, even though it’s not based on any one individual.
I could’ve written another magic-realist novel, but this novel demanded a way of writing which was very different for me: to contain my imagination, to constrict and constrain it the whole time. And my language: to tone it down and not do what I normally do in my fiction. I sometimes allow my characters unbelievable latitude – they can become birds, when things become too difficult for them, and fly off into the sky. That was very demanding. The other thing was not to exaggerate the so-called ‘atrocities’, or the reactions to them, on either side. In the end, I’m happy that I finished the book, but I wouldn’t want to do it all over again.
The novel I’m working on now has also got to do with exploitation, with abuse and betrayal, but in a very different milieu altogether. It‘s set further back in South Africa’s history and it’s very particular to a small family unit, three males this time –

SK — Three males?

AD — Yes. A young man and a gay couple: his uncle and his uncle’s boyfriend, who is a Jewish man, his uncle is half Indian. The story moves back and forth across the color line, and there’s the transgression of sex and the state and of course the religious component... and yet I don’t feel, as I write it, that I’m constantly pushing up against barriers, constantly probing the soft flesh of South Africa, the parts that we don’t want to talk about or feel, the wounds and the bruises, whereas when I was writing Bitter Fruit, I did have that feeling, all the time.
My editor, Ivan Vladislavic, said to me – and I’m grateful for his advice – ‘I really think you have to explain this’, because there were some parts where I said, no, I don’t want to explain things, I want the reader to put the book down and say, ‘What the hell is he talking about?! Why does he create this conundrum?’ But I’m grateful now that I did, that I created linkages and explanations, it makes the story a lot more linear than it would have been. What I originally wanted to do was to maintain the jagged tone of the first chapter, throughout the book. But Ivan’s advice was: halfway through, the readers are numb – you have to give them some relief. So for example, in the one part where Alec and Silas are sitting at the bar and Alec suddenly tells him that he works for the National Intelligence Service... well, in the original manuscript all I have is Silas staring at him over a glass of whisky and saying, ‘Would you like another drink?’ And Ivan said, that’s too extraordinary – no human being would react that way. So I went back and thought about it and then found a way of Silas actually responding by thinking back. What I didn’t want to do was get into the polemics of blame, because I think, in many ways, the character of Silas has gone beyond that. He himself did so many things that endangered the lives of his comrades – had affairs, made people who were already vulnerable even more vulnerable, and so on – so I think he’s right to be a little reticent about these things.
On the whole, I tried to keep the tone of the language as cool and calm as I could, because I was really in very heated territory. It was necessary for me to drain away any sense of melodrama. The gender issue in South Africa, issues of sexuality, male sexuality, and all the connotations there, are probably even more controversial than AIDS. They are not easy issues to deal with, to explore, let alone talk about rationally. Africa is socially conservative: historically, culturally, and as a legacy of colonialism. We think the colonial legacy was liberal, but it was not. What was left behind in both Francophone Africa and the whole British empire was the worst Victorian kind of prudery you can find. It was everything that educated English colonists would read and wouldn’t allow their subjects to read, because they were scared it would corrupt their minds and mentality. And that has become an established fact in our universities, in the educational discourse. And then you have religion, juxtaposed with all of that. I remember, when I was the head of the Children’s Fund, traveling with Mandela in rural areas... We had urged him – and he took the challenge – to go out and start speaking about the real reason that AIDS is prevalent in our country: unsafe sex. Mandela was speaking in areas where he’s like a god! One man stood up and said: Madiba – which is his clan name – we love you and respect you, but if you don’t stop talking about sex now, we will ask our women all to leave this hall! But he’s a very good diplomat. He said, ‘Well okay, if you like, I’ll speak to the women on their own!’
Fellow African writers have even said to me, ‘We think you went a little overboard on this one.’ That’s the kind of response you get. Sex? Speak about it among men, with the boys, or over a beer, or with a brandy – that’s fine. But don’t put it in a book and try and make a kind of literary virtue out of it.

SK — What was your relationship, as a writer – and a man – to the character of Lydia?

AD — A very difficult one. Because I had to make sure that I didn’t patronize her by being some kind of liberal father, or anything like that. On the other hand, I wanted her to be authentic, she doesn’t become a Superwoman that overcomes all her traumas by simply ignoring them. So having to grapple with her physically and mentally was really quite difficult. Maybe I’m lucky I grew up in a matriarchal home, with my grandmother and three grown aunts.

SK — Where were your parents?

AD — Oh, they were around... I had another grandmother who didn’t like me...

SK — Your grandmother didn’t like you? That’s an unusual situation.

AD — She said I was... She was very strict, authoritarian, not at all what grandmothers should be. She kept together a very big, sprawling household, there were all kinds of battles. She wanted order, so ‘the disorderly one’ was sent to live with a grandmother who was more indulgent. But I think that helped me a lot. I grew up watching my aunts and my grandmother grapple with personal and emotional problems in a Muslim household, and the way their lives were arranged for them. My grandmother had no say in who she married, her husband was probably thirty years older than her... I watched her grappling with an ailing man, pious but poor, and she had to sustain the family. And then I watched my mother go through all of that again. And I watched a couple of my aunts break the mold – I think that in many ways helped me.
Still, artistically speaking, I do think that Lydia and her son Michael were the two biggest challenges for me.

SK — Tell me about Michael.

AD — Well, imagine this young person, molded by the life he has lived as a child. His parents were never there, father on the run, mother holding things together – there was never a simple, direct answer to a question like: Where’s my father? Oh, he’s in hiding... My own children tell me – I have kids from a previous marriage – we never want to grow up living the way you did! But I think the challenge for me was to take this young man, this young boy, take him out of the old apartheid era and kick him beyond the Transition, very, very quickly, not give him the luxury of actually being able to absorb the new situation. He simply has to go from A to B, very abruptly, and then his father coming home with that memory of the rape, and Lydia saying, ‘You’ve brought the rapist back into my home.’ Michael is an astute, very intelligent, very intense young man, who reads a lot, who loves to test his will – against everything. I could’ve ended up with a Holden Caulfield, or one of those outsider-prodigies, which Michael wasn’t. So I had to look for a series of devices that would move him along from where he was to where he would go. The name-change was one of them, from Mikey to Michael. It was a device for him, for helping himself to grow up and realize he’s got to be self-sufficient. I mean, to decide to execute the man who was alleged to be his biological father – because he has no proof – takes a lot of thinking, a lot of intellectualizing in many ways, which he did, but not directly, he didn’t sit down and think, why am I killing this man? He creates little ‘pillars’ upon which he can base the intellectual process of deciding to commit the act. And then the other little things that I thought might be useful: his interactions with all the women. He uses them for one purpose only: to see whether he can get way with it.
So Michael was complex, but in a sense, what I was trying to do was keep him away from the cliché of the young rebel who doesn’t know why he’s a rebel. He’s highly intellectual, maybe too old for his years, and, in the end, very cunning. He’s the kind of character I dearly love to write about, but the direction in which he’s headed at the end of the book – which I won’t reveal here – is certainly more difficult to write about since 9-11. This book was published two weeks before September 11th. Many readers who didn’t know that have said to me, isn’t this too fashionable? And I say, well, I wish it was, I wish I could say it was prophetic, or something like that – but it wasn’t. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the trends. Radical Islam became militant well before Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden. And I think the world ignores that fact. Let’s look at the chronology: in 1964 I was in my final year of high school, and I was also what we call a ‘senior scholar’ at a madressa, an Islamic school – that was compulsory, my family would’ve disowned me if I didn’t go! – so I was forced, for example, as a young person, to learn the Koran by heart, without understanding it, and only afterwards, at my grandmother’s urging, did I go and learn Arabic. And round about that time, the madressa, which was sponsored by the local council and still fairly secular, was taken over by some Islamic society, and then came this new breed of teachers, trained in India and Pakistan – not Afghanistan. That’s when I first encountered this obtuseness, this narrow focus on belief. For example: the first question they asked us, and I’ll never forget it, our teacher asked each one of us in his class – and he used an Urdu word, ustad – Who’s your teacher?

SK — Figuratively speaking?

AD — Figuratively, but also literally. Because there is where the school of thought came from. If you were following the teaching of a certain whatever... the closest I’d come to that was being in love with Sufi poets (laughs). I didn’t know how to answer this man. We started debating with him: What do you mean by that? And when he came to me, I didn’t know what answer to give him. I said: ‘I don’t have one.’ Literally: those of us who couldn’t identify an ‘ustad’, as it were, in the radical mainstream, were sidelined. We were seen as people who didn’t belong in this class, because it was a class for gifted people who could be sent up for scholarships elsewhere – not that I wanted to, but it was a challenge for me. So just think about it: 1964, 1965, and already there was this hardened artery of religious thought being introduced in schools in South Africa. It has been through such teachers that these ideas have become a systematic part of the Islamic construction. Those teachers were, in fact, trained proselytizers, trained in a certain school of thought and sent around the world. So let’s not kid ourselves that there was some romantic uprising in Afghanistan that threw the Russians out and gave birth to Osama Bin Laden. He’s an extreme example, but it started long before.

SK — The story of Bitter Fruit: is it a typically South African one?

AD — Not necessarily. It could have been set in some other ‘transitional society’, as we call them, or in a small, American town, perhaps, because it has got that very closed, almost cloistered atmosphere. I could also very easily have set it in a country like Egypt, or Pakistan, or Eastern Europe. I was interested in writing about societies that find it difficult to delve beneath the skins of their lives, of their national lives, and dig any further.
But it also had to be a city in transition, not just a country. Countries in transition are usually vast and diverse, whereas here I concentrate more on the way a city always reflects the changes that are taking place in a country, and sometimes resists them. When I think about the book in my own mind, I think about Johannesburg, which at night becomes transformed into what New York was in, I guess, the late ‘80s: a mixture of very beautiful places with very dark and sinister places. The urban atmosphere is very important in this book, the streets, in contrast to life in the suburbs.
We’re talking now about transition: you know, people often look at the end of apartheid as one door closing and another one opening. Well, life’s not as simple as all that. It’s not like you’ve crossed a border and suddenly there’s light at the end of the tunnel. What we forget is that there’s a greater continuum between 300 years of history and what’s happening right now than we care to think about. What has changed formally is that we have a new government that is far more democratic than the previous government. Far more inclusive. And therefore, the country has an opportunity to extend ownership of both the problems and the solutions to a greater number of people. But realistically speaking, it’ll still be an elite that will lead the country forward. There’s no mass movement of people who will suddenly go from pre-apartheid to post-apartheid – it doesn’t work that way. And it’s the same with literature. Do you think I went to bed on the 26th of April 1994 as one writer, and woke up the next day as another?

SK — As a history teacher of mine used to say: it’s not as if somebody woke up one morning and said, ‘Well! Today we’ll have the Renaissance!’

AD — (laughs) What I do think is different is that we no longer have this big Bogeyman called apartheid that we can target, and for many writers, that’s a challenge. Suddenly your raison d’être has been removed and you have to find new ones, different ones. In tone, in milieu, in subject matter, we have to move away from simply identifying old enemies, old foes, in the same old way. For me, it’s exciting, because I can now write about the past. I can write about apartheid without being a ‘pre-apartheid writer’. Hence this novel I’m now getting into, about my uncle.

SK — So it’s your uncle...

AD — (smiles) For years and years, I’ve thought: there’s a history that needs to be told, but from a very different perspective. It’s not about whites and non-whites, it’s about these two human beings, who, if you had transplanted them from the sixties in South Africa to, say, the sixties in Eastern Europe, might have gone through the same thing. Or will that still be seen as ‘pre-apartheid writing’, because I’ve set the story in a city center around the old station, where there were white and non-white entrances, and my uncle was called a ‘play white’, which meant that he and his partner lived in this whites-only area and he called himself Abie Ross instead of Abdullah?
We’ll see.
Last night I gave a reading here in Amsterdam, and I spoke about my optimism for South Africa’s future. A young person stood up and asked me: How can you talk about being optimistic when this young man, Michael, represents the future, and he’s a killer? I told him that I never intended to create any kind of representation here. Michael is an extreme example of the questioning that is taking place among young people nowadays. For me personally, he is an experiment in a different kind of characterization. But not unique. If you go back to my very first novel, Waiting for Leila, you see the character Samad, in Cape Town, and his own odyssey from one part of the old world into the new. He also moves into a white area and lives with some friends, and, funnily enough, ends up killing someone. Hmm... (laughs) I never actually thought about that! But he, too, was the outsider, he too was the innately rebellious young person looking for something different, even different from the values of liberation that the liberation movement was promoting at the time. He would ask questions like: freedom from what? Freedom for whom? Will I have the freedom to lie about and do nothing? And then he’d answer his own question: No, you’ll kick my ass and tell me to go back to work!

SK — Do people tend to expect you, as a writer, and a South African, to come up with answers? Solutions?

AD — Yes, they do. Especially when they find out, oh, he worked for Mandela! Then they say, very indignantly: In your book, you talk about the transition between the old president and the new president, but how can you do so without leading us to some huge political significance? And I say, well, I was simply exploiting wonderful characters, and how can you disallow me the opportunity to contrast this huge, looming, colorful character with his colorful shirts to the man who dresses like a Wall Street banker?
I’m optimistic about the future of South Africa, that we’re going to resolve our problems. All South Africans are optimists, by nature. We wouldn’t have survived the struggle if we weren’t. But we have to be realistic. And I think right now, as a writer, I don’t have any duty to support or criticize anyone. The only duty I have is to be imaginative.
I’ve often been asked whether the Ali family, Lydia, Silas and Mikey, is a metaphor for South Africa. In fact, I’ve asked myself that same question. But the answer is no. This family goes in different directions, so perhaps they demonstrate the diversity of our country. Let us accept that we are not going to be the homogenous, ‘utopian’ society that some of us want to be. We will have divides between rich and poor, like they have in the US, inequalities, like you have everywhere else. You have rich and poor, famous and infamous... and I keep saying to people, why don’t you just look at South Africa as an ordinary nation, at the tip of Africa, which is grappling with a series of problems? We are one of the richer nations in Africa, and so we’re a magnet for migrations, which brings a new kind of richness and challenge. I’d rather look at these kind of things. I’d love to explore that. What is emerging, in a sense, is a melting pot, in spite of the state trying to resist it. And it was happening even before Nelson Mandela walked off Robben Island.

SK — What about the fact that your country was divided on something as fundamental as skin color? Do the racial issues fade, or do they become more pronounced, in a country in transition?

AD — Ethnic awareness is still there. It would be futile to deny that it wasn’t. But it’s more in economic terms now rather than cultural ones. When you look at what’s really changing the country now, it’s the economy. People who are making the transition are becoming immensely wealthy. The black middle class is growing. The country is expanding in its wealth. And what it’s creating, obviously, are the economical divides I just spoke of, which we’ll need to try and overcome. The migratory patterns into the cities are immense: Durban is one of the fastest growing cities in the world, because the rate of urbanization, the rate of people leaving the rural areas to come into Durban, is unbelievable. I’m not a romantic about the rural areas. If there’s one thing that I resist, it’s the wish that many Western commentators have, to see in South African literature a kind of redeeming pastoralism, where the world is saved by gray-bearded sages in villages who sit back and communicate with the ancestors and come up with very complex answers. That’s not going to happen. This book, Bitter Fruit, is entirely about the cities, and I think some of the best literature coming out of our country – like Ivan Vladislavic, or K. Sello Duiker – is about cities. When you bring people together in great and concentrated numbers, the next thing you know you have cinemas and theaters. And literature, as literacy grows: not just the ability to read, but the desire to read, the desire for leisure. I think this pastoral African dream that many, dare I say, ‘people of the Diaspora’, many African-American people aspire to as well, is false. It’s a myth. And it’s misleading.
As an artist, I found it very difficult to write about this pastoral ideal: my experience of it was one of poverty, of depravation, of suffering, one where the imagination was being crushed all the time. And isn’t it funny... that’s where the old white minority regime wanted to keep most of the black people. Now suddenly it’s become this romantic place where we all want to be! Whereas I know of millions and millions of people who have risked their lives, daily, to sneak into urban areas, falsifying passes, they started a whole chain of corruption by bribing white officials, simply to get these false documents.
So when people ask me, what will change South Africa, and what will change Africa: it is these economic forces. And that is where the racial divisions will disappear. The ‘colored areas’ where I used to live, the land and housing is relatively cheaper than the ‘white areas’, so people from the townships, who want better housing, are taking advantage of that. And this is going to break down the racial divides, because when people live together, they become communities. But it’ll take years.

SK — How does your work for UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, tie in with your writing? Or are they very separate?

AD — No, they’re not, in the sense that AIDS is probably the biggest crisis in South Africa and the biggest crisis in the world. If we don’t resolve it, I won’t get people who buy my books anymore. People are dying, and we need to acknowledge that. I originally took this job because they said, we’re at a critical stage, we need to actually change the way the world responds to AIDS. And it’s probably the one area of denial that still continues among writers: if there is no AIDS in the world, if people aren’t being infected every day, we can write about sex, just go out there and enjoy ourselves and never mind the consequences – so if there’s one area in my own writing that I need to develop, it is around AIDS, and the way it is spread. On the other hand, it’s such a traumatic area that I have to constantly balance the language of dread and hyperbole, which, as you know, can be death to the fiction writer’s craft. I have to be very careful about that at UNAIDS as well, because I’m head of communications there – I have to look at all the messages we send out and make sure they’re succinct and reach people. The world needs to recognize that this is not just another disease: it is actually worse than the Plague. With the Plague, we killed rats to stop the disease. But you can’t kill people in order to stop AIDS, and we, in a sense, are the ‘carriers’. And people are so judgmental about it – there are people in some parts of the world who are infected even though they themselves never behaved promiscuously, which makes it very difficult to get at the heart of the problem. We assume that marriage is protection from AIDS – but it’s not. Women must have both personal and legally enforced power to say ‘no’ to their husbands. Patriarchy is not the only cause of AIDS, but it is a major factor and a major obstacle, and if we don’t overcome male attitudes about ownership of women and the place of women in society, we’re not going to stop this disease. That is going to be the long-term battle: if we want to stop AIDS, we have to transform our societies. But it’s not a popular thing to say.
The Ledge
editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
Thanks to: De digitale pioniers and
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Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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