K Sello Duiker’s first novel, Thirteen Cents, a grim story exploring the life of Cape Town’s street people, attracted considerable publicity and won itself a 2001 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. Hardly pausing for breath, Duiker has now published a second novel, The Quiet Violence of Dreams (Kwela). This is a much more ambitious book, both thematically and in terms of its length (over 400 pages). Set again in Cape Town — townships and wealthy areas such as Llandudno being evoked with equal authority — The Quiet Violence of Dreams explores the life of Tshepo, born into a relatively wealthy family, traumatised by the killing of his mother by his mobster father, turning to drugs and incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital. As the novel proceeds, though, Tshepo finds a new sense of himself, a sense of his own worth that includes the recognition he is gay, and a startling vision of the realities of the new South Africa.
The Quiet Violence of Dreams is very much a multivocal novel. Each section is “spoken” by one or another character, so there’s no single dominant perspective. Why did you choose to write the novel this way?
I had lived in Cape Town for two years and had been to many places. I felt that writing a multivocal narrative would allow me to try and capture the varied sense of geography that Cape Town has and all the stories and characters that come with a particular place.
Tshepo’s female friend, Mmabatho, is a very important character, isn’t she? She has an affair, gets pregnant and separates from her lover. How do you see her role in the novel?
Mmabatho to me serves as a bridge between two worlds. She tries to integrate her own African culture with that of Cape Town and everything that is perceived as outside African culture. In a way, she’s her own tapestry, having chosen things she likes about her culture and weaving them with other things that she admires about other cultures. She is also honest enough to discard certain things that she feels are outdated about her African culture — the shackles of oppression, the whole blacker-than-thou syndrome. She is no longer willing to make love to her chains, but sees herself as a South African.
One commentator on the novel sees it as being unusual among South African novels in not being especially concerned with race. This seems to me a slightly odd reading: what’s your view?
I wouldn’t say that. I think I am very aware of each of the characters’ race. Maybe what is different here is that I deal with it in a less obvious way. I try to let the characters deal with each other as people. And like all people, they have different histories and backgrounds, so that in the end race is not seen through superficial eyes but as a vibrant, interesting part of culture. I would say that I deal with race through culture.
Some readers are going to label this novel as gay-themed, despite the fact there’s a lot of material in in that doesn’t address that experience. And it certainly isn’t your average “coming out” novel, is it? Beyond a certain point, Tshepo hardly frets at his self-discovery — he embraces it with a kind of calm, measured joy..
It was a challenge just writing a novel about a young black man trying to find his sexual identity, because there is the perception that it’s a very un-African scenario. So, already, I was aware that the novel might be looked upon as gay-themed. It doesn’t bother me if people see it that way, because I feel Tshepo’s story certainly isn’t unique. I have been encouraged by black readers who felt I captured some of their experiences as people trying to find their sexual identity. And the fact that Tshepo doesn’t make a big deal of his coming out is indicative of what is happening. There are a lot of well-adjusted black people out there, comfortable with their sexuality, who don’t feel any less African than a heterosexual. But certainly the novel is about more than this. Tshepo’s questions about his sexuality engage him in a bigger journey about what it means to be black, educated. Can the West and Africa be reconciled? What does it mean to be a man? And his psychotic episodes are indicative of the difficulties he finds in trying to find meaning.
Some passages in the novel deal with mystical or transcendental insights — the Brotherhood philosophy of the massage parlour Tshepo works in, and then the revelations that lead him to leave Cape Town. Do you think some of your readers might baulk at this?
I think ancestral voices are a huge part of the African psyche and certainly I was influenced by this otherworldliness in African fiction — for instance, The Famished Road, Maru, Voices Made Night and so on. But I also find that the same can be said in Western culture. The Brotherhood angle was my attempt at making a connection between something as African as the ancestors and the Brotherhood’s spiritual view of their work. Maybe the two are not that different. Whether people might baulk at this or not remains a question of taste.