M&G LitFest: Metaphorical dimensions that shape fiction

On Sunday, Craig Higginson chaired the session "Fact & fiction: The story is our escort, without it we are blind". The panel comprised four debut novelists: Claire Robertson, Dominique Botha, Maren Bodenstein and Carol-Ann Davids. 

It was a wide-ranging and erudite discussion. Higginson asked the authors to consider the extent to which they drew on their personal lives as material for their novels, as well as the allegorical or metaphorical dimensions of their works. The perennial South African literary question of the ethics of "writing the other" was also enthusiastically debated at the close of the session. 

According to Robertson, her background in journalism allows for her objective approach, which, she said, is so entrenched in her writing style that she feels "unable" or "not brave enough" to reveal herself in her writing. Despite this, certain aspects of her character and experiences have seeped into The Spiral House.

Higginson complimented Robertson's employment of allegory in a way that opens up meanings, rather than seals off interpretations in the way that blunt allegories often do. Robertson explained that the characters in parts of the book were vivid, whereas those represented in later years were purposefully caricatured; living a "dry as dust existence" in order to show the impact of apartheid on relationships and identity. In this sense the earlier characters invited a richer allegorical reading, whereas the latter had been reduced to types.

False River is categorised as a novel, however Higginson queried this category seeing that Botha and the people to whom the book is dedicated appear as characters in the novel. While the book is a "highly personal story", Botha used "novelistic techniques" and disputed whether truth is ever really achievable, particularly in capturing dialogue. She proposed that "to retrieve a memory is a first act of fiction". In this sense the distinction between memoir and novel is "spurious", despite the reader's need for one.

Botha wrote the novel in English and then translated it into Afrikaans, as Vals Rivier. Higginson said he was impressed by her poetic style and her ability to convey "the textures of Afrikaans in English". Botha ascribed this effect to her initial process of "transliterating memories laid down in Afrikaans", which are then "retrieved and put into English in an environment which is very clearly Afrikaans".

Metaphorical readings
The novel's title suggests several intriguing metaphorical readings. It is the name of the farm on which her late brother, Paul, is buried, yet there is also a connection to the poet Eugène Marais whose biography was entitled Dark Stream. At the festival, it was also heard that Paul was obsessed with Marais and they both battled drug addiction. 

Higginson suggested that Shooting Snakes "reads like a memoir in its authenticity of details and anecdotal tone". Bodenstein admitted that the novel stemmed from researching the family history of an old missionary. The textures of his life were familiar to Bodenstein who grew up in a missionary town; thus she was "guided by someone else's story". For that reason, the author said she appreciated the title of this session. Higginson admired the use of these minute details, which Bodenstein says allowed her to "enter the intimacy of life, the truth of life".

Concerning the origin of the title, Bodenstein explained that while writing the novel, she was living in an "archetypal gevrekte dorp [dead town]". Her neighbour would patrol his yard on Sunday afternoons, shooting snakes. It seemed such an apt "symbol for South Africa, or some part of it, this overreaction to snakes, the violence of things". The biblical serpent and the Venda python dance also influenced the choice of the snake motif. Higginson suggested that by shooting the snake, "you destroy what you don't understand". Bodenstein agreed, extending the metaphor to include the missionaries who had the gall to brand an entire spiritual belief system as wrong; "just like shooting snakes".

Davids disclosed that the motivating factor in writing her novel was to write of "a Cape Town fraught with layers" and simultaneously to reflect on her own life. "I hadn't read a book that explored the politicised community I came from". So she decided to write one and to disrupt the clichéd view of the city. Davids's verdict on the veracity of her novel is that "it's entirely fictional … but that's not true".

The title, The Blacks of Cape Town, is a kind of a "joke", Higginson said, since "blackness is one of the things in dispute in the novel. Davids intention was to complicate ideas of race rather than speak for, or represent, a certain group. She also drew on her experiences living in the US and how Americans struggled to identify her race, or found her illegible. She wondered, "Can you classify anyone as authentic anything in SA?"


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