World renowned and acclaimed South African novelist, Andre P Brink, on Monday held a press conference in the capital at which Frederick Philander of New Era put specific questions to the 72-year-old author with 60 books to his credit.
Brink is in Namibia on invitation by Krit, a local writers’ organisation. The acclaimed anti-apartheid author will be launching his latest Afrikaans novel this evening at the Book Den. His next novel, A Fork in the Road, is to appear next year. The novelist is married to a Polish wife, Karin, 40 years his junior.
Q: Is the Afrikaans language under threat in the new dispensation?
A: I simply don’t feel nor live that threat. I am confident that there are enough speakers of the Afrikaans language in South Africa who are not white. In a new regime, which accommodates all colours and all cultures, Afrikaans can quite easily survive with the richness in the language, which can attract the attention and the affection of other people as well. There is a good chance that the language can develop naturally. We do have a majority of speakers in Afrikaans in South Africa.
Q: What is the preferred language you write in?
A: It is always difficult to say. Afrikaans is my mother tongue. So obviously I have a particular closeness and fondness for it. But ever since Kennis van die Aand (Looking on Darkness) was banned in the early ’70s I wrote exclusively in Afrikaans.
In essence, when that novel was banned I suddenly became a non-writer because a writer can live only through the word. When that word is cut off and silenced then one is shut up.
However, I never stopped writing in Afrikaans because during the apartheid years it was important for me to demonstrate by writing in Afrikaans that it is not the language of apartheid, the language of aggression, but that one can fully express oneself through Afrikaans. I started writing in English from then on. Everything I write is done in both English and Afrikaans. Now that I don’t need to do this anymore, because censorship hardly exists, it has become so much part of the way in which I write that I can’t think of writing without this dual language writing process.
Q: What is your take on the new Afrikaans writers coming to the fore?
A: My impression is that there have been so many writing forces created through the process of political transition that there is a whole array of new voices among which the majority are women writers causing the old male domination, which threatened the Afrikaans language, to completely recede.
All these young energetic and new voices, with new ways of interpreting the South African world in particular, I find them a tremendously exciting experience.
Q: Do you first write in Afrikaans and then translate your works into English?
A: There is no set recipe. Every novel tells me in which language it wants to be written or wants to be approached.
Usually it is a matter of the two languages growing alongside each other. I may write one chapter in Afrikaans and another in English and then I may wait until the whole thing is finished. Then I cross-translate the different chapters or I work on each one separately because if I say something in Afrikaans in a particular way I rewrite that chapter because it is never a matter of just translating it. I rewrite the whole chapter. Then I may in the process discover things in the English I missed in Afrikaans and vice versa. This cross-translation can almost go on forever.
Sometimes I write the descriptive passages say in English and the dialogue in Afrikaans or if I have different time frames I might write the presence in one and the past in another language. So every book has a different shape. It really just depends what I sense the book wants to be written in at any given moment. Sometimes it does happen that for a particular book I would finish one version completely. It is actually rewriting, a lot of work. I always tend to work too fast. This slows me down.
Q: Have you ever been nominated for the Nobel Literature prize?
A: They never tell one, but these things tend to filter through. Yes, it did happen a few times. I can now rest very peacefully because two South Africans won it in the last 12 years or so. But I think South Africa is off the Nobel map for the foreseeable future and I can just enjoy what I am doing.
Q: What were your experiences on the making of your first and only transformed novel into a movie, A Dry White Season?
A: I am fascinated by the medium of film, but I prefer to keep myself out of it. I have done my part with the novel. The rest is up to the film director as the person that understands me and the film that will get the best possible treatment. I won’t ever sell the film rights on my novels unless I am assured the filmmaker understands me and I understand that person.
Q: During the height of your academic career you and writers such as Breyten Breytenbach were in the forefront of critical debate and freethinking in South African academic circles. In Namibia this kind of debate is not really encouraged by local tertiary institutions.
The few free thinkers we have in the country are either vilified and stigmatised as out of order radicals because we are in a situation in which a primarily loyalist party patriotism is encouraged. What would you suggest should happen to rectify the situation?
A: Presently we have very much the same situa-
tion in South Africa – to me one of the saddest aspects of our transition to democracy.
I was totally elated when the new South Africa began, all the possibilities opening up to us 14 years ago. And then gradually, I think the situation is in a sense worse in South Africa. This can be attributed to the imbalances in the political structures of both our countries.
I don’t think it is healthy for any country to have about 70 percent of people supporting a ruling party and all the other opposition parties have to fight for the rest of the carcass that is left.
So there is a sort of tyranny that evolves from this kind of majority and free discussion is made almost impossible. It is just too easy to brand somebody as an enemy of the state or as unpatriotic or as racist or whatever. I really think it is a pity, especially at this early stage of a relatively new democracy as in the case of both our countries. I am really worried about that.
Q: What is your interpretation of the current situation in Zimbabwe?
A: I think it is a terrible situation. To look at what Zimbabwe was just after its liberation and to see what freedom brought to that country. I remember that in 1988 I was planning to lead a group of Afrikaans writers to the then well- known Harare International Book Fair, one of the great cultural events of the year for a long time in the capital. The plan never materialised because the sponsors of the book fair withdrew.
All the writers were asked whom they wanted to meet in Zimbabwe. They all said first Robert Mugabe and the Cuban ambassador. To these writers the two represented forces of freedom, renewal and new possibilities. But then to have seen what happened after that changeover how gradually that situation grew direr until we arrived at the point where we are now is sad.
Q: Your advice to would-be Namibian novelists?
A: I would say, first of all write and read and try and stay in touch with your roots in the situation in which you live. Try to explore those roots more and more deeply to get closer and closer to the truth of where you come from and how you became what you are and from there perhaps you can start discovering what your future possibilities may be.
Q: For how long have you been writing?
A: I am 72 years old. I knew I was going to be a writer when I was nine years old. I published my first book 50 years ago in 1958. So I have been writing for quite a long time. I feel I will go on writing until I die. (Brink has written more than 60 books.)
I am passionate about books. The one book that has been an inspiration to me is that great Spanish book, Don Quixote. I
try to reread it at least twice every year. I feel one cannot live without it. It has keys to many questions.
I have a particular fondness for big books because they have such a feeling of safety when you are inside them, a feeling of threatened danger looming when you see that the remai-ning pages are [getting] fewer.
Q: Have you ever experienced writer’s block?
A: That is one thing that I have been very lucky to escape. There were a number of years in the ’80s when I simply could not write because of the political situation in South Africa, there was too much to do every day. I didn’t have time to write.
Q: What are your views on life itself?
A: I think life is just such a constant mystery, surprise and joy, but sometimes deep, deep disappointment as well. However, the sense of discovery in life every single day is something that just keeps me
Q: What is your creative writing process?
A: When I am into writing a book, it may take a long time to get into it, maybe months or even years to prepare for it, making notes, getting research done and getting everything together as well as organising my thoughts.
But once I start writing, I write every available moment, usually about 18 hours per day because the pressure becomes so much I want to get it out of me. Once everything is down on paper I then can really start working on it. I think a very important part of writing is rewriting. The most rewrites I have done on a book were 13. I just love rewrites because it is so wonderful to work on a paragraph coming to realisation on paper.
Q: Does history do-minate your novels?
A: I don’t think every single novel is connected to history, but I think it is one of the richest experiences in writing because history has to do with a search for where we come from. I think it is that inquiry into the past in order to understand the present better, which in turn can lead to some of the most significant texts in a novel one can hope for.
Q: Are you one of those South African white writers who have distanced themselves from the ANC and have you become calmer in your writings or are you still angry?
A: Oh, yes, I can be bloody angry. I think perhaps inevitably as one grows older there is a sense of trying to understand a bit more and therefore to get out of the immediacy of rage when writing in order to evaluate a bit more fully what is at stake in the situation. I suppose that is an almost inevitable process.
In a sense, I have distanced myself from the ANC, which is one of the saddest experiences in my life because in political terms the arrival of the ANC on the scene was to me one of the moments when I got closest to a total euphoria. I really thought we are there.
This was also really a very strange experience having fought against the political system in the country for most of my life and then suddenly to feel, my God, I am on the winning side now. It was so new and then gradually to be deceived and disappointed by most of what the ANC has become and had been doing.
There are still a few wonderful people in the ANC whom I think have not betrayed the cause or have not let the cause down. So many of them, people with whom I have been close with when they lived in exile in places such as Lusaka or wherever. And to see how abuse of power and corruption set in and corrosion started is really one of the greatest and deepest disappointments in my life. But there are a few that make me realise why I supported the ANC. They do give me hope.
Q: What is your view on the escalating crime rate in South Africa?
A: Crime is appalling in South Africa. So little has really been done to address the problem. Finding the root causes of crime and trying to address those and not just window-dress a little bit here and there. At present almost every person in any South African company will have a personal crime story to tell they have experienced on a daily or monthly basis. Crime is pervading the whole atmosphere.
I don’t know how we are going to get out of that unless people in authority can really accept and realise it as the truth that something has to be done about it immediately, especially our so-called minister of safety and security.
Presently, it is like having a minister of marine life and fishing in Switzerland. This person can’t care a damn about safety and security. He has his bodyguards, electric fences and he feels safe. Unless people in power can realise how serious crime really is in the country the situation will not improve.