Bridget Pitt (https://www.bridgetpitt.com/) has published poetry, short fiction, nonfiction and four novels. Her non-fiction work includes co-authoring Black lion, the memoir of Sicelo Mbatha, a spiritual wilderness guide. Her latest novel, Eye brother horn (Catalyst Press 2023), explores the social and ecological impacts of colonialism in South Africa. Her work has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book and Short Story Prize and the Wole Soyinka African literature award, among others. Pitt is a campaigner for social and environmental justice and has written on environmental issues in various journals and collections. She lives in Cape Town.
In this interview, she talks to a fellow writer, Mphuthumi Ntabeni, for LitNet.
MN: Thank you for agreeing to talk to me. Congratulations on the publication of your latest book, Eye brother horn.
The book took me by surprise and blew my mind. Let me first confess a desire – since reading Hans Andersen’s fairy tales – of one day writing a YA (young adult) book in a similar vein that would be derived from African fairy tale intsomi (fables) and mythology. I feel you have beaten me to it. I wanted to give our pupils what I wished to read when I was growing up. I feel that it might have grounded me earlier on in my own cultural background and narrative identity. For, as Toni Morrison ordered us: “If there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Before we talk about the book, please would you tell us about your research methods in writing it? Which sources did you use, and to what ultimate purpose?
Bridget: Thank you. Allow me to say that there is no limit to the number of books that may be written on this topic, so I certainly don’t think mine precludes any others – just look at how many stories the simple mythology of the vampire has inspired. It often happens to me that when I am busy writing a book, I come across one or more by another author which has an eerie synchronicity with my topic. I think we storytellers all have our antennae tuned into the prevailing zeitgeist, so it’s not surprising that we are gifted with similar stories.
My research methods were wide-ranging. On the reading side, I read anthropological accounts of Zulu mythology and belief systems, some historical analysis and many personal diaries of missionaries, hunters and other colonial settlers of that time. It was harder to find written personal accounts by indigenous people, but I did find a few. A particularly valuable account was by Paulina Dlamini, who wrote a description of her life in service to King Cetshwayo, and of her life after converting to Christianity. Some of the missionaries, notwithstanding their inevitable bias, took the trouble to learn Zulu and record the beliefs, customs, stories, medical knowledge and herbology of the Zulu, which was a valuable source, especially in understanding cultural practices which may have since fallen away. I also read several studies documenting the environmental and social impact of colonialism.
I also spoke to a number of Zulu speakers, and others, about Zulu customs and history, and also about the ecology of that part of the world. I spent much time immersing myself in the Imfolozi Reserve, and visiting mission stations and the Anglo-Zulu battlefields. I was privileged to co-author the memoir of my friend Sicelo Mbatha, and we engaged in many philosophical discussions which I think really helped to deepen my understanding and provide the more intangible insights. In many ways, this book is the product of years of thinking, talking and reading.
In many ways, this book is the product of years of thinking, talking and reading.
MN: Amazing. It shows. In the previous interview, with Sue Nyathi, we were talking exactly about this topic of topic synchronisation among writers. We also agreed that writers are just people whose antennae are tuned to catch ideas in the noosphere.
I am very glad your research went beyond anthropological studies, which as Africans we sometimes find problematic. The living energy one gets from interviewing people, especially elders, who do not only have life experiences but are also closer to the oral traditions and collective memories, is invaluable.
There are also some missionaries who had good hearts and intentions, like Theodorus van der Kemp. It is no wonder he ended up being a bane of other more racist whites in his era. That’s why I never accept the excuse about the tempo of the times or anything like that. Reverend James Laing also lived with the Xhosa for a very long time, applying himself to learning the language and culture. Read his diaries edited by Dr Sandra Rowoldt Shell, Indoda ebisithanda (“The man who loved us”): The Reverend James Laing among the amaXhosa, 1832-1836), and you’ll see that though he also had his issues, he was basically a good man.
Before we continue, for the benefit of our readers, please give us a synopsis of Eye brother horn, lest I bungle it. Tell us also about the time frame: when is the story set?
Bridget: Completely agree with you regarding the limits of anthropological studies, especially those written by outsiders – despite their best intentions (and they don’t always have the best intentions). They inevitably miss some of the depth and subtlety of the knowledge and belief systems of the societies they are studying. As an outsider myself, I’m well aware that my understanding is severely limited.
The story is set in the second half of the 19th century. It is about two boys growing up – Moses, a Zulu baby discovered on a riverbank, and Daniel, the son of white missionaries – who are raised as brothers in the mission of Umzinyathi. Both children are alienated from the religious dogma under which they are raised. Daniel has a strong connection to animals, after having narrowly escaped an attack by a rhino as an infant. Moses feels like an outsider to both white and Zulu society, despite the efforts of his adoptive mother to raise the boys as equals. He is drawn to science, which seems to offer a more reliable “truth” than either Zulu or Christian beliefs. When they reach young adulthood, the brothers leave the mission station to work on the sugar estate of a wealthy relative, and accompany him on a hunting safari. Here, they are flung into the full toxicity of colonial relationships, and their bond is tested to the limit.
I find that stories often have their own objectives, which I only discover while writing, or sometimes after writing. My impulse to write this story came when I was researching a contemporary novel on rhino poaching. I interviewed a number of rangers who’d grown up in that area, and came to realise that to understand this issue, you needed to look at colonialism. Colonialists radically disrupted the relationship of the indigenous people to the land and wildlife, and brought in a widespread commodification and exploitation of wild animals and natural resources – this was closely entangled with the exploitation of humans, the theft of land, and the dismissal and demonisation of indigenous belief systems. I became drawn to telling a story that explored these issues. But I am also always interested in subversion, in what impulses or circumstances may enable someone to subvert forces of power. I think that true love and connection between humans – or between humans and other species – may be sorely tested by forces of coercion and oppression, but also have the power to subvert them.
MN: The narrative voice of a book is a very important part of my enjoying it. If the writing style doesn’t work, I almost always dnf the book. It is one of the things I love in this book – its narrative voice, fairytale-like at times. It alternates between the points of view of both boys, Daniel and Moses. That way, we’re able to see events from both sides. This is brilliant because it reveals – ever so subtly – how, though they grow up together in the same house, they ultimately end up with different Weltanschauungen (worldviews). Are you trying to tell us that our worldviews are more genetic than sociological? I mean, however immersed in the “white civilised world” he may be, something in Moses’s blood yearns for his African ways, as if a call of ancestors. The gogo, of course, has something to do with this before she leaves. From the beginning, we get hints that things will not end well with this forced Christian upbringing.
Sometimes, the book reminded me of Marguerite Poland’s A sin of omission, but in Eye brother horn the internal life and emotional depiction of black people is more believable. Did you not worry that someone would be bound to accuse you of cultural appropriation while writing the book?
Bridget: I think there is some compelling research that suggests that ancestral memory, more than strict genetics, can influence our thinking. But I think that social influences are the stronger driver of who we are. Moses and Daniel are raised under the same roof, but their circumstances are fundamentally different – as Moses often reminds his brother. Moses is constantly urged by his adoptive father to repudiate his “heathen origins”. He also knows that his adoptive family is not his biological family, but he has no biological family to turn to. These factors create huge conflict in him and uncertainty about his identity, which Daniel never has to deal with. So, the “nurture” influences on both of them are different, as are the “nature” ones.
I think there is some compelling research that suggests that ancestral memory, more than strict genetics, can influence our thinking. But I think that social influences are the stronger driver of who we are.
I did worry about cultural appropriation. In the early drafts, I wrote the story only from Daniel’s point of view. But I realised that this was worse, as it relegated Moses to a “supporting role” of the main characters. The only way I could attempt to realise his character fully was to portray his point of view. It seemed that I either had to give up on this story (which I considered, but it seemed that the story would not give up on me), or attempt to do this with as much authenticity as I could bring to it. As authors of fiction, we know it is our task to imagine different points of view. I can appreciate that it is problematic for whites to step into a cultural space that they have historically appropriated. But as white authors writing about a country where most people are black, we either have to write peculiar, artificial stories only about white people, or we have to take a risk in portraying people of colour and their points of view. It’s a minefield, and I didn’t walk into it lightly. Only the readers will be able to say whether I succeeded in creating a believable and nuanced character. But I know I could never have even hoped to do this without giving Moses a voice.
MN: You tempt me by mentioning ancestral memory, because it is a topic that features much in my own work, with my trying to understand it. But I am fascinated by your tendency to subvert the stereotypes: like making the white boy more sensitive to animals and ecosystems, where one would have expected that Moses, though a warrior-type black boy, through his genetic African culture would have been the one more in tune with nature and the cycles of the ecosystem. Rather, you make him almost masochist in his deeper understanding of the brutality required to survive in Africa. “Brutality” is perhaps not the right word, but there’s a certain sense of callousness in his understanding that in the African bush, you need to kill to survive – the scene of the jackal killing springs to mind here.
Bridget: I was consciously working to subvert stereotypes, to encourage a deeper interrogation of the narrative and characters. Moses does not have the benefit of being raised with and immersed in a Zulu worldview. But I think any genetic connection he may have with the cycles of nature is expressed in his fascination with the laws of physics, with lightning, with astronomy. Had he not been raised by missionaries, these leanings might have led him to become, like his biological father, a healer concerned with protecting the community against lightning.
I think, too, that because Moses’s place in the world is so much more precarious than Daniel’s, he has to develop a certain toughness. Perhaps he also takes on that role to protect Daniel from having to do it – yet another manifestation of how their relative positions were so predicated on Daniel’s relative privilege.
I think someone in Moses’s situation, where he can’t trust any account about who he is and where he comes from, would long to find some certainty beyond the human world. He seeks that in science, not yet knowing that even the science he encounters is blinkered by Western philosophy and religion.
With regard to Daniel’s sensitivity to nature, this could have ancestral origins: it’s important to remember that paganism was the predominant belief system in Europe before it was stamped out, often violently, by Christianity. The church persecuted and murdered witches, most of whom were women who practised shamanistic and herbal medicine. Daniel’s mother is fascinated by healing plants. Perhaps Daniel’s paganistic ancestors were pushing that rhino to cast its spell on him, or perhaps Moses’s ancestors were doing so, to ensure that Moses would have a true brother in his corner. These are all possibilities I leave open to the reader to reflect on.
Whatever its origin, Daniel is aware from a young age that his empathy with nature is sharply at odds with his father’s beliefs. Feeling connected to nature was not unheard of in Western culture, but, especially as industrialisation and capitalism took hold, it was given little indulgence by the prevailing powers.
MN: Indeed, I love how you juxtapose things in creating their characters to subvert the stereotypes in particular.
Another thing I like about your book is that although you’re writing about strong themes like colonialism, religion, racism, environmentalism, etc, it reads well because these are broken down into literature. The book is not preachy or an excuse to shout down an intellectual “dissertation” over our heads. Please take us through your writing process regarding avoiding this.
Bridget: I’m very aware of the risks of hammering home a social/ideological point – partly because I have done and still do quite a lot of polemical writing. But what is wonderful about fiction is that you can explore how these big issues express themselves in people’s day-to-day interactions and interior lives. Fiction enables you to explore the rich subtleties and contradictions of this expression, the small acts of subversion or compliance, which are so often lost when you look only at the broad brushstrokes of power relations and big issues. I think time and experience have taught me to be less strident and more nuanced in my thinking about these things. When writing fiction, I am mindful of the old adage to “show-not-tell”, and try to push myself into really thinking how the dialogue and behaviour of the characters can reveal these issues more subtly and authentically. I sharpen my awareness of this through reading other fiction, taking note of what it looks like when the author strays into preachiness, or how they manage to convey insights without being preachy. I do a lot of rewriting and editing with a red pen that is hypersensitive to preachiness and hectoring – the early drafts can be very clunky. And I have wonderful readers and editors who help to ferret out offending passages!
I’m very aware of the risks of hammering home a social/ideological point – partly because I have done and still do quite a lot of polemical writing. But what is wonderful about fiction is that you can explore how these big issues express themselves in people’s day-to-day interactions and interior lives. Fiction enables you to explore the rich subtleties and contradictions of this expression, the small acts of subversion or compliance, which are so often lost when you look only at the broad brushstrokes of power relations and big issues.
That said, I am mindful that this is a potential danger because I do feel strongly about these issues, so it is encouraging for me to hear that, in your view at least, this book is not too guilty of this.
MN: Job well done. Your book first came out in the US, and this month in South Africa. Whenever I meet black African writers, in particular, they always complain about the lack of global reach. That the international publishing market is interested only in certain stereotypical themes, mostly poverty or violence pornography, when it comes to Africa. Or the themes of white fears of the barbarians at the gates wanting to revenge colonial wounds. If this is true, where, in your opinion, do you think the problem lies? Are other African stories too regional for the global market? Is it a quality and style of writing which these publishers feel won’t resonate with the global market?
Also, there was a time, during the apartheid era in particular, when the international world was mostly interested in the political novel when it came to South African literature. I am now thinking of your Nadine Gordimers and the rest. Even JM Coetzee became popular through his sociopolitical novels. We can count the likes of Bloke Modisane with his internationally successful memoir, Blame me on history. Do you think there’s an unspoken reluctance now in the publishing industry, especially the global one, to shun a political novel? African writers, especially black ones, as you may have noticed, are still busy trying to make sense of their historical scars and collective traumas through the popular genre of historical novel. Is this the reason why they find themselves in a global limbo, with the exception of those living in the West who tell their stories from an immigrant point of view, which itself has its own problems?
I know it is almost impossible for you to answer these questions, but please do your best. I just want to see whether you also have noticed this.
Bridget: This is difficult for me to answer with authority, as I have not done an analysis of what is published where. But, in my experience, the publishing industry has become a lot more challenging for writers of literary and historical fiction, particularly with an African focus. People are reading less (books now have to compete with pursuits like Twitter and Netflix), and the big publishing names, which have bought out many of the independent labels, are investing primarily in popular and genre fiction. I think we are in the midst of a confusing sea change, where the conventions of storytelling are rapidly evolving, in line with technology and consumer demand. I have had books accepted by editors, only to be turned down by the marketing division of the company; when I started writing, it was the editors who made the decision to publish. I did not easily land a publisher for this book, and I can readily believe that the odds are further stacked against black authors, notwithstanding the success of African-based black authors of historical/political/literary fiction such as Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu, NoViolet Bulawayo, Tsitsi Dangarembga and Zakes Mda, to name just a few. I do think that the need for black African writers to “make sense of their historical scars and collective traumas” is absolutely critical, not only for the writers themselves, but especially for the readers. The world needs these stories, and it is so important to be alert to “the danger of the single story” coming out of Africa, as Adichie has highlighted. If commercial publishers are not providing the platform, perhaps other avenues need to be explored. Catalyst Press is one of the rare publishers strongly committed to releasing these kinds of stories. But they are a small company and can bring out only a few books per year.
I also think that much can be done to promote reading in Africa. When I visited Nigeria for an awards ceremony, I was impressed by how much seemed to be done to support, publish and promote local writers. I sometimes think we suffer from that colonial mindset that dictates that a book is successful only if it is embraced by the Western world. It would be wonderful if we could promote reading to the point where the African-based publishing industry gave black authors of historical and literary fiction the support and promotion they need.
MN: Thank you for answering this difficult question so expertly. I totally agree about the need to guard against “the danger of one story”, even if in the same breath I wonder, in a Juvenalian sense: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Who’ll guard the guards themselves?)
I was also impressed by how much wealthy Nigerian individuals sometimes compete with sponsoring literary prizes and events, and can only wish that South Africans also did the same. It must be the reason why Nigeria has such a strong global reach when it comes to literature.
I recently read an article you wrote for African Arguments. Its tone reminded me of Writing the ancestral river: A biography of Kowie by Jacklyn Cock. I don’t know whether you've read it?
The only speed bump I got from the piece was when you compared the British colonial empire in South Africa with the Roman one in Britain. In my understanding, that was a mere occupation for mineral taxes, the same as in Egypt for grain. It didn’t alter the nature and core identity of the people in the British Isles – only the flora and animal species, perhaps. They were still allowed and able to develop through their own organic paths once they had paid their taxes to Rome.
Here, things were radically different from the minute the British came to settle, and they systematically worked not only to dispossess but to cannibalise native cultures, even criminalising them for the hegemony of their own and their religion. It was not only land they took, but cattle and other means of self-development and sustenance. Advocate Tembeka Ngcukaitobi SC, in his book Land matters, makes this succinct point. This is what I thought your book also exposes so well. So, that argument in the article surprised me. Unless there’s something I am missing here?
Bridget: I haven’t read Jacklyn Cock’s book – thanks for alerting me to it; it looks interesting. Thanks, also, for inviting me to clarify my reference to the Roman occupation. I did not mean to suggest that there is an equivalence between the Roman occupation of Britain and British colonialism in Africa – just the opposite – although David Mattingly has written a fascinating article positing that a sanitised view denying the negative impacts of Roman occupation (such as forced military conscription, widening economic inequality, seizure of land) became popular with the English ruling classes precisely at the time when they were colonising other nations and seeking to justify imperialism. It is also arguable that the Roman occupation laid the basis for the class system that remains a determinant of economic privilege in British society today, and possibly even sowed the seeds for British imperialism in the colonial era. But that is another discussion.
In raising the Roman occupation, I was trying to forestall the arguments of those who say we can’t pay reparations for colonialism, because where would it end? My argument is that for Africa, colonialism is not ancient history. It continues to shape the reality of people, their sense of identity and, importantly, their economic and social opportunities.
In raising the Roman occupation, I was trying to forestall the arguments of those who say we can’t pay reparations for colonialism, because where would it end? My argument is that for Africa, colonialism is not ancient history. It continues to shape the reality of people, their sense of identity and, importantly, their economic and social opportunities. The relative wealth of the global north is derived from colonialism and slavery, and these countries continue to exploit Africa through unequal trade agreements and inequality in wealth and power. I was arguing that it is entirely justified and morally valid for colonised countries in the global south to expect some form of redress from their former colonisers, because they continue to suffer the dire consequences of colonialism – whereas Britain cannot make that same claim on Rome.
MN: I am very glad to hear this. It makes more sense now. I knew I must have misunderstood something. In the near future, I mean to have a discussion with advocate Ngcukaitobi about his idea of redress and reparations. The Germans have begun the process in Namibia. From what I hear, the current king of the United Kingdom is also sensitive to these things, judging by his refusal to wear the British crown, which has the Cullinan diamond in it, because of controversy over how it was taken from South Africa. I hope he is considering bringing it back to South Africa, together with our bullion!
Another thing I liked most in your book was the use of original indigenous names for things and places. Do you suppose this should be the way to go? I mean, when I am home in the Eastern Cape, I get baffled by places like a suburb called Nahoon, which in the greater scheme of things is meaningless. Why not revert to its original name of Nxarhuni, which we know is the Khoisan/Xhosa name for the river on whose banks the suburb was built? We can extend that to the river Kowie in Makhanda. The name Qhoyi is the sound the river makes as it travels through the mountain crags, according to the indigenous people, and is what they called the river. Because the white people were unable to click, they called it Kowie. The same applies to Nxarhuni.
Do you think that where we at least know the names of places and things before the colonial mischief took over, we should restore them? Also, how fluent is your Zulu, because you speak a lot of it in the book?
Bridget: Yes, the least King Charles could do is send back that diamond!
I think the restoration of original names is a critical part of reclaiming a sense of identity and place. I agree that as many places as possible should be restored to their original names. I know many white people who mutter about the expense, but I think that shows a poor appreciation of what an ongoing offence it is for people to hear their mother tongue butchered in the way that you describe, or to have to call something by the name of a conquering colonialist. I was pleased when the names of Makhanda and Gqeberha were changed, especially as John Graham was such a pernicious character, as you refer to in The broken river tent. At the very least, there should be a dual name, as with KwaZulu-Natal.
Sadly, my knowledge of Zulu is paltry. I have been learning Xhosa with limited success for some years, so I am familiar with the grammatical structure and noun groups, etc, and can compose simple sentences – this helps with Zulu. But I relied heavily on native speakers to guide the use of the language in the book. My experience really illustrates how important it is to learn languages at a young age – it is a lot harder to learn them as an adult. I am sad that my children did not learn Xhosa as well as they learned Afrikaans, even though they attended school after 1994. I hope that this situation has improved, but I think the trend is unfortunately for more indigenous language speakers to be proficient in English. But the least all South Africans can do is to learn indigenous place names, and the correct pronunciation of them.
MN: I read somewhere that it is almost impossible to learn Xhosa properly after nine years of age, because of all the clicks. You can rest easy in knowing that it was the frustration Reverend Laing also took to the grave after doing his best to learn the clicks. That said, I am very pleased with how most white people took the challenge of pronouncing Gqeberha with good humour when the name of Port Elizabeth was changed. And many of them do a very decent job in pronouncing it now.
When we were growing up, there was an intsomi (fable) my grandma, Umakhulu, used to tell us about an eaglet who grew up with chickens, scratching in the ground for grubs and worms, believing she couldn’t fly. The eagle egg had rolled down the cliff to a chicken coop and ended up hatching with other chickens. Our grandma varied the ending: sometimes the eagle died disappointed, jealous of other eagles who soared above in the skies. Other times, the eaglet eventually learned to spread her wings until she, too, could soar with other eagles.
I sense a variation of this story in your book when you call Moses, the black boy being raised by a white family, an owlet raised by chickens. Of course, your Moses has a similar background as the biblical one, having been found at the Mfolozi River and all. But he is an owl, rather than an eagle, which is a symbol of wisdom in Western culture and of witchcraft in Nguni culture. Without revealing the plot of your book, could you please explain to our readers the significance of these metaphorical references?
Bridget: The character who made this comparison of Moses did so with reference to a particular injured owlet which Moses raised as a child and which used to follow the chickens until it realised it was an owl. The underlying message, of course, is that Moses needed to find his own true identity.
I am familiar with the Nguni association of owls and witchcraft, and with the traditional tale of the eagle. It would have been simpler to refer to the traditional story of the eagle, but I felt that Moses’s identity resonated in a more interesting way with the symbolism of an owl (in both Nguni and European culture). As a child raised by white settlers, with an intimate knowledge of their ways, Moses was regarded with suspicion by some of the local people. Equally, his intelligence and insight led him to question Christian dogma and colonial morality, which increasingly alienated him from the white community. There is a close relationship between wisdom and witchcraft – the wise are often cast as witches, because people fear their capacity to see things that others might not.
MN: What do you think the future of South African literature will look like in a decade or so? By that, I mean do you think we shall follow your enviable style of using our own myths, culture, worldview and all to communicate our stories, as opposed to merely wanting to imitate Western trends?
Unlike with other countries like Kenya and Nigeria, I feel that South Africa doesn’t really have a collective, distinctive, indigenous literary voice of its own. I am currently reading a book of our modern history by an American lady, Eve Fairbanks, The inheritors. She also makes the similar point that, like in literature, we’re writing our historical narrative in silos. I am not sure whether this is our strength or weakness. I must qualify that by saying I read mostly Xhosa and English novels. I don’t read many Afrikaans narratives, though living in Cape Town has made me begin to mend this shortcoming. What would you say is the future of our literary future, were you to speculate?
Bridget: There are so many wild cards at play here, it is hard to picture. I do think that we will see more storytelling that is rooted within our own identities. In the last decade or two, so many powerful voices exploring indigenous realities have come onto the literary scene that I can only believe that this trend will become stronger.
I do agree that South Africa does not have a distinctive literary voice, but I am not sure which country does. What would the distinctive American voice be, or the distinctive British voice? Even the countries you cite, Nigeria and Kenya, have given birth to a wide range of literary voices, although there may be common threads. South Africa battles to forge a unified national identity, so I think our writing will continue to be quite diverse.
I do agree that South Africa does not have a distinctive literary voice, but I am not sure which country does. What would the distinctive American voice be, or the distinctive British voice? Even the countries you cite, Nigeria and Kenya, have given birth to a wide range of literary voices, although there may be common threads. South Africa battles to forge a unified national identity, so I think our writing will continue to be quite diverse. I think that is a strength more than a weakness, but I agree that there is the tendency to read in silos, which inhibits the cross-pollination of ideas, and there is also a tendency among English-speaking readers to overlook local writers for those from abroad. Ideally, our government would be finding ways to support writers and promote reading, rather than fantasising about giant flagpoles. But in the absence of that, we authors need to promote a fertile literary community that supports authors and promotes reading. The publishing industry remains a tough space, with our small local readership and high costs; but whatever the commercial pressures, we need to do whatever we can to promote the reading, writing and buying of those books which can help us look into the mirror and understand ourselves better. That is why, as an author, I am so grateful to platforms like LitNet, which do exactly this.
MN: It has been a wonderful pleasure talking to you. Thanks very much.