A Van Gogh who lived in South Africa

Cornelis van Gogh, a sibling of celebrated artist Vincent van Gogh, spent the last ten years of his life in the former Transvaal.

Cornelis van Gogh, a sibling of celebrated artist Vincent van Gogh, spent the last ten years of his life in the former Transvaal.

Describe yourself in a sentence
Just a bloke who loves to experience new places, nature and, of course, writing.

Describe your ideal reader.
One who is really interested in the subject and happy to share his or her views on it with the author.

What was the originating idea for the book?
Five years ago, when working on Brothers in Arms, a book on the Hollander volunteers in the Anglo-Boer War, I came across the name of Cornelis van Gogh, who had sided with the Boers. I was inspired by the fact that little was known about him and that no biography of him has ever been written. The fact that he spent the last 10 years of his life in the Transvaal was, of course, significant from a South African perspective.

Were the years you spent in journalism significant?
In the sense that it gives an edge to look into preconceived perceptions regarding Cor van Gogh and then through one’s own research to discover what was myth and what was fact. 

Describe the process of writing and researching the book.
How long did it take?
The whole process took about three years, but bear in mind that I have been writing other books at the same time as well. Once I had put together a proper framework I explored the Brabant towns in the Netherlands where Cor and his family lived (Zundert, Helvoirt, Etten, Nuenen) and where he went to school and worked (Helmond, Breda), and did further research at the Van Gogh Museum and Zuid-Afrikahuis in Amsterdam. The final research was done locally on his career in the Witwatersrand goldfields and the Netherlands railway company and his involvement in the Anglo-Boer War.

Name some writers who have inspired you and tell us briefly why or how.
I was deeply struck by the work of novelist Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, how he brought the spirit of the Welsh valleys and its people to life. From a nonfiction perspective, John Kannemeyer – this man could write a biography. Of course, he concentrated on literary figures – Uys Krige, JM Coetzee, Jan Rabie, etcetera – but I admired his thoroughness in researching all aspects of a person’s life.

Do you write by hand, or use a typewriter or computer?
Here and there I make notes by hand when away from my desk but overall I just type on my laptop.

What is nonfiction’s purpose?
Just broadly, to narrate and provide insights into the life of a person or certain events, or to convey know-ledge on certain skills (as in craft or cook books). Most people have experiences, knowledge or skills, that could be the ingredients for a good book if handled properly.

Is there anything you wish to add?
Yes, a very rewarding part of this exercise was walking in the footsteps of this family in the lovely province of Brabant and reading their letters. It was also an opportunity to learn a lot about Vincent and his art, to discover what a prolific writer and a philosopher he was, how deeply he thought about the meaning of life.

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone is books editor of the Mail & Guardian and director of the annual M&G Literary Festival. All Under Heaven, the memoir of his (mainly) Chinese family in South Africa (David Philip, 2004), was shortlisted for the 2005 Alan Paton Award. Accone is a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University. Read more from Darryl Accone

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