A history of African literature

Indaba: Interviews with African Writers

by Stephen Gray

(Protea Book House)

Since his time as a graduate student at Cambridge, the distinguished poet-academic Stephen Gray has been interviewing African (and particularly South African) writers for various academic journals and popular publications (including the Mail & Guardian). Including such greats of South African literature as Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Douglas Livingstone, Dennis Brutus and Guy Butler, as well as distinguished authors from other parts of the continent—notably Luis Bernardo Honwana, Nuruddin Farah and Veronique Tadjo—this book serves a number of purposes: an indirect and necessarily eclectic history of African literature, a meditation on literature’s art and significance, and how the changing contexts of place affect the vocation of writing.

In some cases Gray has interviewed the same author a number of times. Most notably in the case of Gordimer, the result is in effect an account of a writer’s development—personal and literary.
The earlier Gordimer—interviewed it must be added by a much younger, inexperienced and quite awestruck Gray—displays many of the characteristics of the writer of the 1980s, yet it is the later interviews that display her at her most sharply savvy: the sense of deep political engagement, yet never at the price of her writing. And, later, Gray draws out through his last interview the way in which she sees the post-apartheid scene and the challenges that are laid down for writers today.

Since these interviews span about four decades, it is also useful to see how some authors’ pre-eminence have been eclipsed by historical circumstances. Seen as slightly dangerous in Nationalist circles in the 60s and 70s, yet also as one of the greats of the SA literary scene, history has not been kind to Guy Butler. His work has been eclipsed and his liberal politics largely forgotten, perhaps rightly—perhaps wrongly. Gray’s interview published here reminds us of Butler, his contribution and the time in which he wrote.

Other interviews display the remarkable and dangerous circumstances under which writers lived. Dennis Brutus’ interview is an account of art in a time of activism, detentions and exile—conducted in the confused and confusing interregnum of the early 1990s. Gray’s interview with Jeremy Cronin was conducted shortly after the launch of the UDF—in secret, out of the prying eyes and bugs of the Security Police, and sent in secret to the publisher in London. 

Another measure of how history affects art is the shift in the collection towards the rest of Africa, particularly as South Africa opened up to the continent after the apartheid era. New authors, new circumstances, present themselves to us in this book. There is a sense of a cultural isolation ending and—near the end—an interesting shift: where South African authors often found themselves exiles, many of these new African authors have found themselves settling—whether for artistic, cultural, political and in one case diplomatic reasons—in South Africa.

In a way that Gray certainly notices, given their historical sweep, these interviews are not only a series of portraits of the writers interviewed but also a mirror of the life of the interviewer. We see—at times more directly than others—the intellectual growth and the growing confidence as a journalist of the author himself. Even among the most unobtrusive of interviewers there cannot but be a sense of the one asking the questions.

This is an excellent little book containing many gems of literary history. It is sad that often such interviews that appear in small journals or newspapers so easily disappear; it is good that these are preserved. Gray and his publisher deserve our complements for this enterprise.

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