Open Book Report: Earl Lovelace and Etienne van Heerden in conversation

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Earl Lovelace, celebrated author from Trinidad, and well-known South African author Etienne van Heerden took part in the Free the Word PEN Dialogue at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town on Thursday, 22nd September 2011.

Lynda Gilfillan chaired this discussion, which centred on the books Salt (Lovelace) and 30 Nights in Amsterdam (Van Heerden), and in which the authors discussed the problematic notions of nationhood and postcolonialism. Lovelace expressed his disapproval of the term postcolonial, preferring independent in a description of countries that have been liberated from colonial rule.

Etienne van Heerden, Earl Lovelace and Lynda Gilfillan

Etienne van Heerden: “As I get older I think one should settle down and say, ‘Yes, I am an Afrikaner.’”

Earl Lovelace: “Bigness is not everything. There is a space for smallness as well.”

Van Heerden discussed his work in terms of his scepticism of nationhood, saying, “I’m not the flag-saluting type and I will forever be sceptical of the notion of nation.” He pointed out that in his work he is more comfortable with looking at unsettledness than at belonging, referring to the protagonist in 30 Nights in Amsterdam as a striking example.

Lovelace also spoke of the way in which people represent other people and other experiences, saying that people are often lumped together as if they had all had the same experiences. He stressed the importance of imagination and hope in the creation of a better future for all people. “We need to find a way to make people see a future which is less painful than the present we are living in.”

Etienne van Heerden and Earl Lovelace

Both authors suggested alternatives to discourses of homogenous nationhood, Van Heerden making a compelling case for a “patriotism of care” in which we need to look for signs of humaneness among our fellow men. He also spoke of the strategies of dissociation that were at the core of apartheid, the fact that people were not seeing others as being human. 

The dialogue also touched on rewriting histories that run counter to master narratives, as well as the issues surrounding literary translation and the nature of English and its variants. 

Both authors read from their work, to the delight of the audience.

The discussion ended on a positive note, with Lovelace proclaiming, “The time is coming when we will want to hear each other – really hear each other.” Van Heerden discussed the possibility of nursing of our shared humaneness as a national project instead of perpetuating traditional notions of nationhood. Which made me think – not for the first time at Open Book – that it would be great if our authors were our politicians. 

Etienne van Heerden on the physical experience of writing: “Things I’ve written become part of my body.”

Earl Lovelace: “If we are to live together, it seems to me we have to face each other.”


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