Jonathan Amid interviews Zukiswa Wanner about London Cape Town Joburg.
Zukiswa, congratulations on writing London Cape Town Joburg, a deeply moving and evocative work that will speak to a variety of readers. Before we discuss your new novel, I’m interested in the moment or moments that you knew you would write for a living. Can you pinpoint any?
September 2006. It was two months before my first novel, The Madams, came out. I’d written an editorial piece for an NGO newsletter I edited. The powers that be in the campaign told me to retract the piece as they found it offensive to the hordes of Mugg & Bean activists in the Global South. I retracted it and sent it to an e-zine with a larger circulation. The piece got a lot of positive feedback from those who read it, and I realised that perhaps my activism was not so much of the NGO type, but rather of the observing, penning kind. I quit a few months later and embarked on the full-time writing thing.
Could you tell us more about your rather cosmopolitan upbringing and the places you have lived, with many of them being particularly charged politically? What role does activism play in your life?
There isn’t much to tell about the places I’ve lived, except perhaps my realisation that politicians are full of kak the world over – some are just better at hiding it than others. I think I am an activist as much as most laptop-wielding writers are activists. I don’t feel that I do nearly as much as I should to change the world I live in – and if you should make the argument that I do through my writing I shall respond that there are not nearly enough people who read what I say.
You’ve mentioned that Orwell’s 1984 had a profound influence on you. Do you ever reread that wonderful novel? Did it and does it continue to inspire you as it once did?
I read Orwell all the time. At least four times a year – 1984 and Animal Farm, plus his essays. Big Brother still continues watching; some animals are still more equal than others; and there are hordes of cynical donkeys whose names could be Benjamin but who go by the collective name of “writers”.
London Cape Town Joburg strikes me as a novel with a variety of overlapping yet distinctive voices, locations and perspectives. Let’s start with the choice of three specific voices that narrate different sections and fragments in the novel: Martin O’Malley, the handsome, gregarious financier son of an exile, with an adopted surname and birth in the UK; his wife, the Londoner Germaine Spencer, a feisty, creative ceramicist with many step-parents to deal with; and their son, the sensitive Zuko, a promising swimmer. Why did you decide to use their three voices to propel and focus the narrative? How did the timeline of twenty years influence the way you conceptualised their voices and their growth? How did you see the role of each character while writing the novel, and did anything change radically by the end?
I used the three voices because I thought they each had a distinctive personality and I wanted them each to tell their story. I don’t think Zuko’s joys and pain could have been captured by anyone other than a little boy. Ditto Marti and his observations as a South African who’s come home. Only he would have been ideally placed to critique some of our South African oddities, because if Germaine, for instance, had captured it, it may have got most of our backs up (I find as South Africans, we can take criticism better from within than from outsiders. We get very defensive when an outsider criticises us, on some “so why don’t you just go back to Xyz if you don’t like it here” trip). Sixteen years was the timeline, actually. It started in 1994 and ended in 2010. And the reason I used those sixteen years in particular was that for South Africans 1994 and 2010 were the two years that we had a certain euphoria. 1994 promised us many good things. We all had crazy ideas and hopes about what could be. In 2010 we all thought we’d get mega-rich from the World Cup. Some extended their homes to make them B&Bs; others awaited tenders that never came, and and and. But the timeline was essential because of who we are as South Africans – at least as I see it. Our highs are very high and our lows very low. We don’t seem to do mild-mannered very well. So every time in South Africa you feel like you are on a see-saw. We either think the country is about to crash and burn or that our country is the greatest thing the gods and the ancestors ever created since Mandela.
Did anything in the book radically change?
Yes. Would you believe, at first conceptualisation Zuko was a young girl.
The narrative is framed by Zuko’s suicide and the seeming dissolution of the marriage between Martin and Germaine. It’s a particularly harrowing opening, one that comes full circle by the novel’s astounding conclusion. How difficult was it to write about the death of a child? Did you intend for any parallels to be read between Zuko’s death and the “death” of blind optimism and idealism in the novel?
It’s crazy that you caught that, because I remember thinking the same thing when I read the final draft – but I hadn’t intentionally put it in the manuscript. It just all sort of came together like that.
What role does irony play in the novel? As an example I’m thinking specifically of Zuko’s name, which means “the one with glory”.
There was no irony meant with Zuko’s name, weirdly enough. It just teased itself out. I was being self-indulgent and naming a character after myself, but because Zuko has the worst of it, in addition to being his parent I thought I’d feel his pain more and be better able to articulate it if he had my name.
Which weighs the heavier for you in this text – the public or the private? The personal or the political? Or are they, after twenty years of post-apartheid society, more intertwined than ever?
They are absolutely all intertwined and South African literature has shown this a lot, be it crime fiction, social realism, science fiction or any other genre. I love my non-fiction as well as the next person, but sometimes when I want a no holds barred critique of the country, it’s to fiction that I turn. Because fiction doesn’t worry about lawsuits.
The way you fleshed out the world of finance and art in this novel is quite remarkable. Particularly striking is the way you use financial deals and the art world in order to reveal deeper interpenetrations relating to the problematics of race, place and gender, and the difficulties of the exile in coming home. Did you set out to use the circulation of money and ceramics as tools to effect such a trenchant critique of South Africa after democracy?
Alas, no. I am not that clever. It was just a coincidence. 🙂
Did you intend to speak back to patriarchy, sexual abuse and homophobia while telling what is, at heart, a very intimate love story, one that crosses various borders?
Now that's what I very much meant to do.
Various secrets come to haunt the narrative, particularly those involving Liam, Martin’s brother, and Martin’s long-lost father. Without giving any spoilers away, do you believe that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely?
I believe so. I think of the different scenarios, even in homesteads. When a father or a mother has ultimate power, they become very unpleasant.
Liam is a magnificently Machiavellian character, one that appears to be modelled on the likes of Fikile Mbalula and other Zuma/Party loyalists. Did you have fun writing him? Do you see him as a sympathetic character? Is lying ever justified, even in the name of doing good?
I had a lot of fun with Liam. He was a bit of a mishmash of Fikile, Truman Prince, Tony Myekeni (as he is fictionally known in Mahala’s African Delights) and others. And yes, he’s a sympathetic character despite the fact that he is also in the end detestable. In writing him and everything that he has been through, the question I leave open-ended is whether he’s a vile human being or whether he’s an ill individual who actually needs help.
As a world traveller, how do you find South Africans as people? Are we as insular and self-obsessed as we might seem to someone on the outside looking in? How do you as a writer who’s so conscious of socio-political exigencies rate the robustness of our democracy?
I think I may have overreached myself and answered this on the other question above on 16 years. Our democracy is no worse and no better than many other developing countries. Sometimes we get it right, sometimes we mess up, and sometimes our politicians decide that they will use us to fight their battles and we are willing participants in fighting our fellow South Africans – now fortunately less physically and more on public platforms like newspapers and television.
Your writing displays a wonderful sense of vibrancy, warmth and humour in London Cape Town Joburg, particularly in the first hundred pages or so. Was it intentional to make the first part of the novel lighter and to make the rest progressively more intense as the story wears on?
Absolutely. The reader has just read a heart-wrenching prologue. What I was trying to do was see how then I can ensure that my reader forgets the tragedy of the prologue and keeps turning the pages.
Who is the ideal reader for this novel, and who do you write for?
I write for any reader over the age of 16. I figure anyone who’s old enough to get birth control is old enough to put up with the expletives I put in my books.
Finally, what is the most pleasing aspect of your vocation, and what can we next expect from Zukiswa Wanner?
The most pleasing aspect of being me and having my job is that I have many of the people whose work I admire immensely as friends. Expect nothing, then you won’t feel let down when I die in a bomb blast and there is no post-death material to be published.