an interview with Achmat Dangor      
photo of giles bedford

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  Bold Type: Why do you write?

Achmat Dangor: I write because I have to and because I love to; it is the closest I am to having an obsession. Writing fiction and poetry, using both genres to tell stories, fictional poetry and poetic fiction, has helped me interpret my own life. Ever since I was a child, I don't think any event was real unless I told a story about it. When I was six or seven, my grandmother believed that I was "possessed" because I talked to non-existent friends. I only realised much later that I was having a dialogue with fictional characters who helped me understand the rather solitary childhood spent with an eccentric but passionate old woman.

BT: In what ways has your upbringing affected your work?

AD: In addition to those inexplicable inner urges to tell stories, I was influenced by my upbringing in a staunch, if not dogmatically 'fundamental' Muslim environment. In addition to the conventional Western school, I attended 'madressa' (Islamic school) each day. This was a world filled with moral tales, with colourful characters who lived amazing lives. I loved the story telling, though in retrospect, I am not sure about the morality it tried to convey. I still find writing that sacrifices the art of story telling for the sake of a "message" unreadable. By the way, my teachers complained that I did badly in maths and science because I was a dreamer. Thank God.

BT: The story of Kafka's Curse is told through a variety of voices, spanning families and generations. Why did you choose this narrative method?

AD: A single narrator, or a more direct and linear approach would have forced me to sacrifice the exploration of the many layers of reality that exists in what can only be described as schizophrenic societies. The South Africa I was trying to portray is certainly not a simple one. Not all the heroes were Black, not all the villains white. Of course, the militarily dominant white society did have greater access to the levers of villainy, and used these ruthlessly. But it would have been false to create 'representational' voices--this traps writers of fiction into what I call cultural sculpturing.

The different voices observed the life of their times and their country through sometimes deliberately contradictory viewpoints. This forced me as the writer to observe our history from what I hope is a compelling Babel's tower.

BT: Do you think the story could have been told through a single voice?

AD: No. It would have run the risk of ending up as a monologue with variations. What James Joyce called the 'nightmare of history' has too many subtleties to entrust its telling to a single voice.

BT: This book is essentially the retelling of an old Arabic legend; what is your opinion on the universal timelessness of such literary themes? Do you believe that human nature remains inherently the same in spite of the vast changes and advances that occur in the world over time?

AD: Human nature changes, undoubtedly evolves with time. What is a far more compelling force is the relentlessly cyclical nature of the external universe humans have to contend with. The ancient Arabic legend of Leila and Majnoen ("a name as well as a madness") is a cautionary moral tale: tamper with the hierarchy of a society's structure and you threaten its orderliness, and hence its very existence. Fortunately for the development of the human as a thinking being, there will always be rebellion. What I would term the insurrection of the loin, or the rebellion of the senses. Tyrannical movements like the Taliban fear the irrational beauty of love more than they fear the global economy.

"Rebellion," like "odysseys" remain timeless literary themes because they help a bewildered "world-orders" to see--ultimately--that there is no such thing as a "world order." Ask the Caliph who caused his daughter Leila and her lover Majnoen so much suffering: his caliphate probably did not endure as long as their legend.

BT: Who are your influences, literary and otherwise?

AD: I think individual books, read at crucial times in my life, influenced my writing, my politics, and possibly my attitude to life. I guess I was about sixteen when I read Darwin's "Origin of the Species." I probably greatly misunderstood much of book's scientific theory; it's context however shook the foundations of my belief.

After that, I started a kind of spiritual odyssey, which I fear is not complete, and is unlikely to be. A whole series of 'heresies' ensued: James Joyce's "Ulysses," Camus' "The Outsider", Kazantzaki's "Zorba the Greek," Patrick White's "The Tree of Man," Salman Rushdie's "Midnight's Children." Each book heightened the sense of transience and transition that I believe is what really moves the human cosmos along. Additionally, Raymond Carver's short stories have influenced the way that I write shorter fiction. It has to be precise, and if real people can not speak it, then it is not going to live as a piece of art.

My writing is compelled to explore this unending journey; it sometimes makes readers uncomfortable. We dislike uncertainty. Well, perversely, some writers are blessed--or doomed?--to become the "reporters" of all of history's ambiguities.

Politically, I have always been moved by the need to help bring about change, not necessarily to become a functional part of that changed society. From the day I was born until literally 46 years later, I lived in a country that desperately needed change, and desperately resisted change. Now that it has crossed the first threshold from political autocracy to democracy, someone else can take full responsibility.

Thank God for Nelson Mandela.

BT: Congratulations on your American publishing debut; how did you know that the time was right to publish in the States?

AD: When I felt I had written something that did not depend purely on it's "South African-ness" and when American audiences were ready to "read" a different, less simplistic account of this crazy country.

BT: From which part of the writing process do you derive the most satisfaction?

AD: Undoubtedly the first, mad "rush" of words, that initial lack of inhibition with which I compose the first draft. After that comes the gruelling re-writing, editing, cleaning up, making the book readable and publishable. So I first write for my own selfish pleasure, and then consider the art and craft demanded by the outside world.

BT: Any upcoming projects to discuss?

AD: I am now in the second stage of a novel that has been two years in the making: the first breath of selfish fire has been recorded, now comes the yearlong (at least) slog in the "finishing room." It is my most ambitious endeavour to date. The working title is "Rasputin is in the Garden, Dead"; part political thriller, part personal odyssey of a man who is roused from his 'dreamy' grief for his dead wife to defend a woman accused of murdering her husband, a man very close to the country's President. His search for a "defensible" truth leads him into the inevitable heart of decay that seems to be part of the birthing process of all magnificent democracies.
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    Photo credit © Annari van der Merwe