Written over eight years, Ivan Vladislavić’s Portrait with Keys - Joburg & What What is a sequence of 138 passages depicting a shifting Johannesburg.
What motivated you to write Portrait with Keys – Joburg & What What?
A while ago, I was approached by Graham Friedman, who was putting together a celebratory anthology for the 70th birthday of Johannesburg writer, author and poet Lionel Abrahams. In preparing my piece for that book, I looked over a lot of the work that Lionel had done and I was struck by how much it had to do with the city. It got me interested in Johannesburg in a new way. I started making some notes towards a book of some kind, though I wasn’t sure what kind of book it would be. The next major momentum came when I was editing a book on SA architecture and my co-editor more or less insisted that I write something for the book, so I produced a piece called Street Addresses, which looked at sites around the city; that was the core of the book.
What is it about Johannesburg that interests you?
It’s different things. The way that the book grew also reflects my different interests in the city.
How long did it take you to write the book?
It’s hard to quantify because the pieces were collected over eight years. I worked on it in concentrated periods; when I was commissioned to produce a sequence of texts for a publication I would work on that in quite a concentrated way for a couple of months, but in the interim I was working on many other things.
In the years that you’ve lived in Johannesburg, how has your perception of the city changed?
I was born and raised in Pretoria and I came to Johannesburg as a student to study at Wits. When I came here I was a nice Pretoria boy and Johannesburg had this reputation for being really fast, dangerous, big and English. I’ve grown to appreciate what’s interesting about the city; I don’t think it’s a place that reveals itself obviously, you have to work quite hard to find the things that are pleasurable about living here. Often living in Johannesburg feels like hard work, but it’s also an extraordinary place with a lot of character.
Yes, because Johannesburg is aesthetically quite an unattractive city but it also has places of exquisite and surprising beauty.
I agree, but for me there’s even a beauty in the shabby, industrial side of Johannesburg. There’s nothing quite like driving on a Johannesburg highway alongside one of the industrial wastelands and seeing the remains of a factory or a mine; I think those places have a decrepit appeal to them.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
That’s difficult to answer. I suppose one of the challenges was making a coherent book out of the collection because it was written over such a long period.
Did you edit some of the older pieces at all before putting them all together?
I specifically didn’t change things. I was tempted to because the city changes so quickly and one’s perceptions of it change too. There were certainly observations about parts of the city that were no longer quite true and by the time I put the book together it was clear that I was thinking differently about things; but I thought there was a value in keeping the pieces as they were because it’s a documentary text.
The criteria for the Alan Paton Award say the book must ’illuminate truthfulness, especially those forms that are new, delicate, unfashionable and fly in the face of power.’ How does your book do this?
That’s a sweeping and grand statement; it’s not something that I, as a writer, would comment on easily about my own work. What I was trying to do was illuminate a few small corners of my own experience of the city. If that strikes a chord with other people, if they feel like I’ve captured something that rings true, that would be gratifying for me. I suspect that Johannesburg is a city of many truths.
How has democracy changed writing in South Africa?
We’ve been freed from an obsessive focus on the political. Writers have more freedom of movement both literally and imaginatively; there’s no sense of having to carry around the past and I think that’s reflected in our writing.
Having said that, do you think there is anything particularly lacking in South African literature?
The main thing lacking in SA literature is readers, but that’s another story. I think there’s so much to write about here, and not just about contemporary society, there’s still so much to write about the past. Having said that, we’re free to write more creatively and imaginatively and look at a much broader range of subjects. I don’t think that means that writers shouldn’t be looking at the past. The amount of information becomes more available and the kind of overview that you might need to write a really large, inclusive novel about apartheid becomes more possible as the period recedes a bit. That’s one area that’s still open to writers.
When, how and where do you write?
I write at night. I understand the virtues of writing early in the morning but they don’t work for me. I don’t have a rigid writing programme because I work as an editor as well. My rule is to write consistently. If you’re going to produce work regularly, you have to write regularly; it has to become a habitual thing.
What lessons did you learn from writing this book?
I learnt the lesson I learn from every book that I write — that it’s hard.
Which writers do you admire most?
It’s a shifting group of writers that changes all the time. I have certain favourite writers that I go back to a lot. I’ve just started reading Charles van Onselen’s The Fox and the Flies and that sort of work really impresses me.
What do you think separates the great writers from the good?
I think that some writers and artists are born with a gift; there’s an element of luck with genetics involved. I think what really sets the great writers apart is hard work; the ability to pursue your writing interests over a long time.
What impact would you like Portrait with Keys – Joburg & What What to have on those who read it?
I don’t think too much about that. I would hope that people find it diverting and engaging and that they recognise some corners of their own city in it.
If you were deserted on an island, which book would you take with you?
I would take a self-help book like Robinson Crusoe or The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Thor Heyerdahl.