Niren Tolsi sought response from writers attending the Time of the Writer festival about their role, and Breyten Breytenbach’s views on South Africa.
Max du Preez
Journalist and author. His books include Memories of a Renegade Reporter (Zebra Press) and Of Lovers, Warriors and Prophets (Zebra Press).
I thought Breyten was brave to stick to the kind of criticism that he has been voicing recently. And at a venue like this where he must have known a great many people in the audience would have [objected].
On South Africa
I engaged with him afterwards and said to him that one should be very clear to differentiate between the sins of the government of the day and the ruling party of the day, and the sins of us as a people. I don’t think that one can be depressed about the state of the nation.
I admire his genius as a writer, and I’m concerned that he would overemphasise the negative simply because he doesn’t spend all his time here. He spends most of his time in Gorée [in Senegal] or in France. So I think I’m doing him a favour by emphasising the positive here, which he doesn’t experience.
On the role of the writer
I’ve always tended to over-romaticise the role of writers, and I think the new society is also doing this. It is similar to cult figures, which is never a good thing. Writing’s pretensions then are false: that writers can save us. No, writers cannot. They can stimulate our minds and they can remind us of truths that we find too uncomfortable to uncover ourselves.
An author whose debut novel Coconut (Jacana Media) earned her the 2007 European Union Literary Award.
On general impressions
I thought he was brilliant. But I think we’re coming from different places — he is older, I’m younger. Breyten spoke about a void now. We’re coming from the great suffering of the past and there’s the pressure of looking forward and this inbetween state at the moment. They always say ‘don’t finish until you’re finished” and I think a lot hasn’t been finished.
When we got freedom we were very happy: fists in the air, all out in the streets. But that isn’t where it ends. It was a challenge to a younger generation to not let what has been done come undone.
On the role of the writer
I’d like to think that writers encourage people to explore the depths, the whys and the causes and etymologies of poverty and suffering, and joy and love. I don’t think my writing would solve poverty, but it might get people thinking.
I don’t think we are able to change governments. But I think books change people and that can result in revolutions or change.
From Congo-Brazaville. Founder and former president of the National Association of Congolese Writers. His 2000 novel Le Feu des Origins (Lawrence Hill) won him the Grand Prix d’Africa Noir and the Grand Prix de la Fondation de France.
On the role of the writer and the need for a ‘moral imagination”
In what I write and what I seek, the term ‘moral” sometimes frightens me because I don’t know exactly what norms are used. But what I am seeking is honesty: you have to be true to what you see when you look at the world.
For instance, in my last novel called Johnny Mad Dog there are child soldiers looting, raping, killing. It’s very brutal really. But I don’t demonise them, because I try to go into their minds and to discover why they are really doing that. You begin to understand that these kids don’t have an agenda but in their circumstance — the whirlwind of what is going on — they commit these acts. If you condemn without understanding nothing will change.
On the writer with power to affect change
When I was younger I really felt that writers would change the world. But I got wiser as I got older. I can’t think we have that power to change the world, especially fiction writers. But that doesn’t mean that our books are not important. We can uncover some truth, an uncomfortable truth hidden under the surface. We bring forth these truths, which you will not read in a United States report or a sociology study.
On the role of writers
I think when you say that you are a watchdog then you are putting yourself in a spot where you have to take a political position. So as a writer I don’t think I am a watchdog of society. I am a citizen and I am an activist. In my fiction it is through my characters that I see the world. If there is injustice they will denounce it. So as a writer I’m not taking any position.
Born in Northern Angola and emigrated to the Democratic Republic of Congo at age two. He returned to Angola in 1992 but sought political asylum in South Africa in 1994. His debut novel Going Home (Kwela Books) was published in 2005.
On the role of the writer
I think there are two categories of writers here: some writers think they have a responsibility towards society so they have to tackle issues like crime. There is another category of writers who believe that you just write your stories, you just don’t give a damn what society thinks. You can’t be dictating and you don’t have power over how people are going to respond. I belong to that category.
But there will be instances. In my book, Going Home, there is a need to educate people that foreigners are not all bad. I wanted to change perceptions of local people to immigrants in South Africa. But I’m not under any pressure, I just write. Do you know what I have to say to people who say we must be politicised? Fuck them. Fuck the politicians.