“There was a sense of exhilaration, a sense of adventure, a sense of enjoyment in everything that we did” – on his time in the Sestigers
André Brink is one of the greatest South African writers of his generation. A key figure of the Sestigers, he helped revolutionise Afrikaans literature, but he is also equally well-known as a consummate master of English prose. In his long career he has explored many themes in his work, including the legacy of colonialism and apartheid in the country. He’s written more than twenty novels, most recently Philida, which is written from the viewpoint of a female slave who was owned by one of his ancestors. The book was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2012.
Zara Jade Bosman interviewed the great man for House of Publishers.
André Brink is a literary powerhouse. Masterful in both English and Afrikaans, he has wowed South Africa with his uniquely apt turns of phrase since his debut as a writer in the late 1950s. I visited him in his Rondebosch home to discuss his writing, his role in the Sestigers, and his views on the Censorship Bill. Brink’s house is full of beautiful artworks rendered in bold, vivid colour – perhaps a reflection of the writer’s rich imagination. After having been previously married four times, Brink seems to have finally found true love with his current wife Karina Magdalena Szczurek, who is also a writer. It’s a beautiful relationship, as he clearly adores her and she dotes on him. Karina is there for him when he needs any kind of support, whether it is a helping hand while walking (he is now 78 years old), or drawing up diagrams to assist him with his work. We cover a lot of interesting ground during the interview, including Brink’s time as a revolutionary Afrikaans writer struggling with the burden of apartheid’s ubiquitous censorship, but it is when he is talking about writing itself that he becomes most animated. You can judge his passion for yourself in the video interview below or in the transcript that follows.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt from a lifetime of writing? To write. You have to keep doing it, and you learn with every little bit that you do. Every book, every article teaches you something you hadn’t known or hadn’t known in that particular way. It’s a matter of constantly learning, constantly being alert, and taking it from there.
You were a key figure in the Sestigers. How successful do you feel the movement was in liberating Afrikaans literature? I think it turned out to be extremely successful because of the dire state in which Afrikaans fiction found itself in right then. At that stage, there had been a long tradition of very naturalistic, realistic storytelling. Everybody did it more or less the same way. It was a 19th century approach, so it was a pretty dreary thing. Then along came this group of young writers who had all spent shorter or longer time overseas, especially in Paris. Paris became the sort of focal point and main point of reference for the whole movement. That bound us together. We wanted to do something new, and we wanted to do it in roughly comparable ways to the things that were happening overseas. There were some people, like Jan Rabie and Bartho Smit, who had spent something like seven or eight years abroad and really knew the scene out there extremely well. Others, like Chris Barnard, went for only one year or slightly less, but in that short space soaked up the atmosphere of what was happening. And, because it was so startlingly different from anything that was happening in Afrikaans at that time, it immediately made an impression on our minds and we just tried to, like a sponge, suck it all up. So there was a sense of exhilaration, a sense of adventure, a sense of enjoyment in everything that we did. We didn’t get together very often. Right in the beginning almost no one knew the others. I don’t think there was any one of us who knew all of them. That makes it sound like there were a hell of a lot of people, but there were only six or seven of us. The country is big, so we didn’t often get together. In fact, I think that in the period that the Sestigers lasted (and that wasn’t all that long, I think two or three years) we got together as a group only two or three times. For the rest, of course, we corresponded. But correspondence in those days was nothing compared to what it is today. It was not a matter of just picking up a phone. Because we got together so rarely, the communication among us was very intense. There was this sense of discovery, coming at a time when something drastically new was necessary in the field of writing. We were there with this passion, this very fervent interest in the processes of writing, so all of this had an effect on our work and we did, at least some of us, start, from a very early stage, to realise that our interests lay in the same direction. To try and spread our ideas, we were very fortunate in that one of us, Bartho Smit, was a publisher. This meant that we could found a little magazine, which brought us together, which fired our interest, and which gave us the possibility of going to the public. This magazine only lasted for two years. Partly because right in the beginning we decided that even though we were passionately fired by the same interests in prose writing and storytelling, we did not want to be a school. We didn’t want to be too close. We wanted no sense of inbreeding with everybody in the little group doing the same sort of thing. I think right in the end that was one of the weaknesses of the group; that we did not last long enough because of the decision we had made beforehand. And so, we were brought together and at the same time kept apart because we were aware that even in our sense of storytelling, we approached writing from so many different angles. Each one of us had a very different way of wanting to tell a story. To go back to the success of the Sestigers, I think part of the reason for it was the political climate at the time. The apartheid situation was coming to the fore and people were getting interested in new things. And it so happened, almost inevitably, that our interest in a new kind of writing coincided with a need in our society, which in world terms is very small, for pretty radical new ideas. Because of this, the press became very interested in what this movement was about. The Afrikaans press, but also the English, and that gave us a larger window on the world through which they could look in on us, and we could look out on them. This became an immensely fruitful part of the whole communication setup within which the Sestigers operated.
How did having the first Afrikaans book [Kennis van die Aand] banned by the South African government change your direction as a writer? It certainly made a change because censorship had been in the air; had sort of been born with the book. It was just a time when the government was thinking in terms of passing a new censorship act, systemizing the whole approach to literature, English and Afrikaans. But, because it was a largely Afrikaans government, the Nationalist government, their primary focus was deviant writers in their midst who were threatening to challenge their long held opinions and approaches of the Afrikaner community. That meant the interaction with the press, the interest of the press, was such that almost nothing that we did could pass unnoticed. In a way, it was wonderful, knowing that we were not operating somewhere apart from where things were happening. Everything was a part of this community. There were a few journalists, Helen Zille was one of them, she was working at the Rand Daily Mail at the time, who brought a wider English perspective representing a wider political view; so that even TIME and Newsweek started writing articles about what we were doing, which was quite a thrill for us. We had never thought of a larger audience at all, and then suddenly a part of the world’s attention was focused on us. There was so bloody little to write about as far as South Africa was concerned, apart from apartheid, which was the same old story again and again. Then with Ingrid Jonker and her father, her father was one of the leading Nationalists, the world really sat up and took notice. There were strong rumours that he would be in charge of the new censorship board that would be instituted. Ingrid was one of the seminal figures within the Sestiger movement, and she had links to all of us, so, of course, she was of great interest to the press. She was a most unconventional sort of person who could take a view, a totally different, unexpected, staggering, shocking, scandalous view of young South Africans to the world at large. So, what we did, and what was initially meant to be kept among us as a group, became spread all over the world.
Of all your achievements, which makes you the most proud? It’s such a moving thing, and writing is such an active, constantly changing, developing form of communication. In a world that is changing so fast, it gets difficult to keep track of everything because something that might have been immensely important to me at a particular stage for particular reasons as a result of a particular book, may not feel so later.
Your latest book, Philida, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. How do you feel about missing out on that for the third time? Well, there were so many other times in between that it just became part of what was happening. But, for me, there has always been a sense of achievement and disappointment in a new book. It was nice to get the book done, nice to see it in print, and nice to see it being translated into other languages. At the same time, there is a sense of disappointment with every book. I always knew that this wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. I wanted to do it better. I wanted to do it differently. So, there was a sense of disappointment every time, and it becomes part of the package. You sort of work knowing that you will never get where you want to be. So, you just keep on and that keeps it exciting, keeps it adventurous, and keeps the sense of adventure alive.
The protagonist’s voice in the novel sounds very authentic, yet her situation couldn’t be more different from yours. How did you get into the head of a female slave from the 18th century? What process did you follow? I think writing, whatever the subject is, has the basic thing in common that you have to imagine yourself into the skin of someone else. Without that you can’t even start. A certain amount of displacement always takes place, and you come across the opinions, the views of other people around you. Sometimes they are violently different, sometimes they are very close together. There are shades and nuances of difference between them. In order to try and understand the world in which you live, there is a need to move out of yourself and into the imagination and the living world and the history and the story of other people … and, if that leads you very far from where you set out from, as in this case the mind of a slave woman in the 18th century, then it is just part of the process.
What are you working on at the moment? It’s a new novel. I’m about halfway into it. It’s about someone I discovered in the process of writing Philida – which spanned the history of my family, my predecessors, and my ancestors. I found another person who is, at the moment, the passion of my life. She grew up as a little girl in the Karroo, literally barefoot. Her father became very interested in politics, so through her father’s connections in the political world at the end of the 19th century, she got in touch with some of the bigger names of her world: politicians, and people from the diamond world, people like Barney Barnato and Cecil Rhodes. She, at quite an early age, was taken by an Afrikaner family with connections in England, to England. Not for a long time; for a year or two. That happened at the time when she was only about nine. But then later she was forced to come back when her father died. After that, the wife of the governor of the Cape Colony became interested in her, and when they went to London, they took her with them. So, she landed in London again and found herself in the theatre world. She met one of the key figures there, Oscar Wilde, who was an utterly remarkable person in his time. She even became the mistress of the Prince of Wales. There was a rumour that she had a child by him, so that means I could have royalty in my family. Just from every point of view she became a totally remarkable young person. She also met one of the Rand Lords, John Dale Lace, who married her (although she was already married to somebody else!). It was the beginning of an immensely colourful life. She came back to South Africa with John and settled in Johannesburg. She had a house designed, one of the great, grand houses of Johannesburg (which still exists and is now a museum), and met everybody who was anybody. She would drive around in a coach drawn by six zebras. She was just way out in every way imaginable. She had a bath that moved on rails from the bathroom to the bedroom, and occasionally somebody might press the wrong button and she would be drawn in, in all her splendid nakedness (she was very beautiful), when there were people there. She seemed to take it all in her stride. In fact, she seemed to take a sort of perverse delight in that sort of thing. Then her fortune disappeared, which was only to be expected in those circles. She ended up in a two-room little zinc house in one of the poor suburbs of Johannesburg and died in rather miserable circumstances, but having experienced everything that her time could offer, from being the mistress of the Prince of Wales to that. It is a fascinating life; a life that to the dirty mind of a reader, or writer, is just so fascinating that I could not let it go.
You were a lecturer at Rhodes University and then UCT. What do you have to say about the university system in South Africa? It isn’t what it used to be. I think, thank god, that when I retired it was just about the time when the universities started changing from educational institutions to big corporations. It’s just not my scene at all anymore. I think that there are a few excellent universities. Wits is one, UCT is another; not many more. They can’t really compare to what America and Britain and a few other countries offer. But for the rest, I think our education is in a terrible situation right now. We are [Brink and his wife] sort of foster parents, not officially, to our housekeeper’s daughter, who is very bright. She is now finishing school and will be going to Rhodes next year. Through her it is possible to stay in touch with much of what is happening. And, because she is black, and very smart, she sees what is happening and certainly doesn’t like it all. She is impressed by some aspects of it and totally unimpressed by others.
Do you think writing can be taught, or do you think it is something that is innate? I did teach creative writing for many years, here and in America, and a little bit in France. However, you can’t really teach someone to write if it isn’t there. If the talent isn’t there or the curiosity and the ability to write, the fascination with language, then it can’t be taught from the outside. There has to be something, a certain interest, a certain curiosity, a certain ability; then one can certainly refine it, and you can send it in particular directions or open up possibilities and options. In that respect I think courses can be very beneficial. But to teach somebody to write is just not possible.
What is your creative process? Now that I’m getting older it’s much more laborious. It takes me about five times the time it used to take to write a book before. I used to try to write very fast so that I could grapple with the ideas very intensely for a short period of time, and then sit down again with it and start sorting it out. So, as I said, that now happens much more slowly. In the past I sometimes did a book in a few weeks. The time that I write, that also had to change because in the past when I was writing a book, I would be so totally lost in the world that I could only focus on that writing, which meant that for ten, twelve, fifteen, sometimes twenty hours a day while I was writing, I would just be in the book and not do anything else. And, then I would be totally exhausted until I started the revising process, which I really think is the most important part of writing. Now it’s different. I am very fortunate in having a truly remarkable wife who is a writer herself, and so understands the highways and byways of writing. Philida, for instance, was the first book that really took me several years to write and I lost track of all of the aspects of the story. Karina helped me to sort out the incredible mess of the manuscript, because I would write down something, some event, four or five times in different ways. Now, she’s drawing up charts and putting stuff up on blackboards for me to be able to follow my own story and then make choices about what to keep and what to cut. It becomes a very complicated sort of jigsaw puzzle-building process which in itself I find fascinating. The process has always fascinated me, but because of the change of speed some changes have entered the process. I can’t say I do my writing in the night; I’ve never been a night owl. I can’t write early in the morning. Early is sort of before lunch, so some time after that, and, inevitably, once I’ve spent some time in the bath. I do a hell of a lot of my writing in the bath. I think it is the relaxation of entering the pre-natal world. So now, it’s not a particular routine that I follow.
What about research, how do you get into the mind of the characters you are writing about? That is just something that is built into me. That is why I started writing. I am fascinated by people, their way of doing things and how their minds work. It’s amazing how much one finds out just by observing. Starting with your friends, your family; watching them. Watching very avidly and curiously, asking questions. From there it just escalates. How do you deal with writer’s block? If you had asked me a year ago I would have said I have no idea what it is. But now I know. I try, and I’m still in the beginning phases of that, I try to believe that if I try hard enough sooner or later something will give way.
What advice do you have for young writers? Write; again, where we started. Read as much as possible. There is no exercise as good and as profitable for a writer as reading. Read as varied as you can, so that you can see how other people did it. Try reading the greats. Try to find out what made them succeed or not succeed. Sometimes you can learn more from other people’s failures than from their successes. Try to find out why a certain book works and another book doesn’t work, and then try either to follow or steer away from that.
You’ve been married five times, if my sources are correct. What observations have you made about women, and how have these observations informed your writing? Yes, I’ve been married five times. There was one particular interview where I said six by mistake and, for some reason, that became the number that was sent into the world. I suppose because it sounds more interesting. Like with writing, it’s through your failures rather than your successes that you learn the most. Now I can say I know what a good marriage is about. I am fascinated by women as people. I’m fascinated by people, whether they are male or female. At the moment I’m writing about Oscar Wilde, which means that homosexuality is something that fascinates me too. Not that I could ever move in that direction, but the way in which people live, the way in which people assess themselves as people, the road they follow, the things they get interested in, that has always fascinated me.
Who are your literary idols or influences? The great Spanish writer Cervantes, who wrote Don Quixote. That to me remains the greatest book ever. Shakespeare: one of the funniest, one of the liveliest, and one of the saddest writers who ever lived. One can just re-read and re-read and re-read. The genre in which you write will always decide the choices that you make, the things that you prefer. But I don’t think anybody could do better than to read Shakespeare. I don’t think anybody has written more perceptively about women than him.
The character of Eugene Maritz in the Ingrid Jonker biopic, Black Butterflies, is widely considered to be based on you. How do you feel about that perception? Wrong, like most perceptions. There are certain approximations, but frankly I think it was a very bad film in terms of how the different people were portrayed. I don’t think it even scratched the surface of some very fascinating human relationships. But, I was obviously too personally involved to ever stand back far enough, so my view of it would have to be skewed.
You are intensely opposed to the Secrecy Bill. What, in your opinion, can writers do to fight back? I think just going on doing what we have been doing; protesting as loudly as possible and pointing out the stupidity of what the government is doing and has been doing for a long time. It’s a return to the sort of stupidity that the Nats committed throughout the whole of the apartheid period. But, I suppose it’s not even limited to what the Nats did, or what Zuma’s group are doing. It is something that goes with power, and once the corruption of power seeps in to a society, I am afraid there is just one way in which it can end. Thank god it does end. That is one thing one does learn through a reasonably long life; none of this ever lasts. But also, people just never learn. They just go back, making the same mistakes in the same way. We are basically a failed species; it’s not a species to be proud of. I think the cockroaches are much more intelligent. They make sure that they stay alive.