A novelist, poet and essayist, Denis Hirson grew up in apartheid-ridden Johannesburg, South Africa. He left the country at the age of 22, after his father’s release from jail. Moving first to the UK, he later settled in France in 1975, where he teaches English today. Remaining true to the title of one of his poems – The long distance South African, he has written several novels revolving around the memory of the apartheid years. From his début book The House Next Door to Africa to the much praised I Remember King Kong (The Boxer), his frequent crossing between prose and poetry have installed him as one of South Africa’s most original voices. Hirson’s latest novel, The Dancing and the Death in Lemon Street (see our review here) has just been released. In this interview, he talks about growing up in South Africa, and how this impacted his literary approach.
The South Africa of your childhood is a central theme in your work. Could you tell us about your roots?
We did not speak of ancestry in my close family. The fact of being Jewish, with grandparents who came from Latvia and White Russia, was reduced to a detail. My father was intent on his underground political activities; our place was South Africa, our time was, without anyone saying so, the future, though real political change seemed improbable during the darkest years of Apartheid. As a child, my roots were in daily life, in games with classmates, in my collections of stamps, beetles, dried leaves, feathers, postcards, badges. I was eight before my brother was born, twelve before my sister was born. So I grew up as an only child with very busy parents, and liked keeping my own company. My roots were in solitude.
Why did you eventually decide to leave South Africa?
I did not decide to leave South Africa, this was decided for me. In my early teens I knew that my father was going to be released from prison when I was 22, and then the whole family would leave because he would not be able to lecture at the university. It was either house arrest or an exit permit for him. I was very closely tied to my family. There was no question at that time of my staying behind in South Africa.
When did you decide to write? Why?
Writing came to me when I was about 15, in the form of poetry. I remember writing a poem about the black man in his blue overalls and ‘tackies’ who went around our high-school, from classroom to classroom, with the register. The presence of each schoolboy was marked in the register, but the black man, like most black people, was entirely absent as a full person from our lives. I think I was strongly concerned by the question of absence. Behind that man’s absence, there was my emotion related to my father’s absence. And I too could be absent in another way, caught up in dreams instead of concentrating on my studies.
Where are your literary influences to be found? Which authors do you admire? Were some pivotal in your choice to write?
I have usually read in quite a scattered way, shifting from one writer to another. At school, I loved Kipling’s novel Kim, for its language, and for the theme of someone pursuing a quest. I found the same theme again later in one of my favourite novels, Patrick White’s Riders in the Chariot . I loved then, and still do, the language of the Bible. Many writers have influenced me, including (in no particular order) Dylan Thomas, Isaac Babel, Bruno Schultz, Henri Michaux, Carson McCullers, Raymond Carver and Georges Perec. In literature, my first love was Pablo Neruda, I am sure he is still somewhere in the wings of my own poetry. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Athol Fugard’s theatre made a powerful impression on me, above all for his capacity to give a voice to people in difficulty; a spare, South African voice (at that time one rarely heard a South African accent on the stage). But I think the desire to write was not linked to any writer at all. It seemed like the most natural way in which to express my feelings.
You published your first novel some ten years after you left South Africa. Is it difficult to write from afar, both in time and distance?
I would not have written in the same way if I had not left South Africa. For one thing, most writers of my generation who stayed on in South Africa were not involved in memoir-writing at the time when I wrote The House Next Door to Africa, in the mid-1980’s. This is because they were caught up in other questions, some of them related to political struggle. More generally, distance is a double-bladed gift. It allows for perspective, gives leeway to the imagination, makes way for memory. But it can also cut the writer off from the source of writing, though I don’t feel that it has had this effect on me. When I was living in South Africa, much of my experience, political, social and intimate, was wrapped in layers of silence. When I left the country at the end of 1973 I felt like a mute. I think I could spend a lifetime continuing to unwrap those layers of silence, finding words to say what could never be said.
You have published five books in the last ten years. What motivates you to write?
I think the books I have written could perhaps have come out earlier, they might have been in cold storage, I don’t know. Anyway, in recent years I have been ready to write them. There was a huge silence between The House Next Door to Africa and I Remember King Kong (The Boxer) which came out eight years later. During that time many things happened to me, including, crucially, getting married and having two children. Max Frisch says “What’s ripe falls on your head.” Perhaps that is what has happened to me. I have burrowed a kind of Mont Blanc tunnel between myself and the past in South Africa, and now that tunnel is filled with traffic.
Your latest book, the novel The Dancing and the Death in Lemon Street shows how the apartheid enterprise could rely on the huge indifference people had for each other’s condition. Could you tell us a bit more about this?
I hope that in the first place this novel will simply be read as a good story, which does nonetheless reveal something of the nature of human relations in the comfortable suburbs of Johannesburg in 1960. Racism at that time served the apartheid regime as well as big business, which worked hand in hand with the regime, allowing not only for social discrimination but for a huge pool of cheap labour. And racism in the suburbs was an insidious habit. Almost all black people there were servants, their presence reduced to their capacity for physical service. Yet these same people, who were referred to as “boy” or “girl”, had families of their own, as well as a sense of ancestry and identity which were continuously negated. They spoke languages which most white people in the city perceived as nothing but noise. How does one have anything like a full relationship with another person of a different culture without understanding that person’s language? Some aspects of this situation still have not changed, even today.
You write books and you teach English. Do you have other passions that foster your writing?
Yes, I like reading in public, this is a continuation of my earlier activities as an actor. I have done any number of public readings of South African poetry drawn from the anthologies The Lava of this Land and its French translation Poèmes d’Afrique du Sud (with translations by Katia Wallisky and Georges Lory), as well as the more recent Afrique du Sud, une traversée littéraire. I do these readings with actress Sonia Emmanuel and saxophonist Steve Potts. We have been all over France, as well as to Belgium. We have visited schools, libraries, cultural centres, bookshops, festival venues, even a prison in Le Havre. And I also invite a writer once a year to our local bookshop in Saint-Mandé for a public interview and reading. Sculptor Ousmane Sow and his companion Béatrice Soulé have come (she wrote a book about him), so have Nancy Huston and Bernard Noël.
“Africa Book Club” is about African literature. Who are the African authors (both in and out South Africa) you read? What books or writers would you recommend?
I read a lot of South African and Southern African writing. Some of the books that have stayed with me most strongly in recent years have been Alexandra Fuller’s exceptional piece of autobiography Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, Ivan Vladislavic’s Portrait with Keys: The City of Johannesburg Unlocked, Hugh Lewin’s Stones Against the Mirror. There Was This Goat, by Antjie Krog, Kopano Ratele and Nosisi Mpolweni, is quite startling in its revelation of cultural misunderstanding, and deeply moving and informative in the way it confronts this. I find JM Coetzee’s Summertime as engrossing as his other two volumes of autobiography, and like the way he once again takes formal risks in this book. I particularly like the poetry of Ronelda Kamfer, some of the work of Isabella Motadinyane and Mxolisi Nyezwa, All the Days by Robert Berold and The Hurricurrent by Rosamund Stanford. I was very taken with the poetry Rustum Kozain read at the Open Book Cape Town festival (Denis Hirson attended this literary festival in September – ed.) and look forward to his new book. Finuala Dowling had me in tears of laughter and sadness with her reading from In the Dementia Ward. At the same festival I was attracted to work by Tuelo Gabonewe, Chris van Wyk and Isobel Dixon, though I have not read their new books yet.
You write books, something a lot of our readers would like to achieve. Do you have any advice for them?
Every writer is different, but here are ten general points I would make:
- Write as often and as regularly as you can.
- When you are engaged in writing, try to end on any one day at a point which allows you to easily pick up the thread the next day.
- Finish the project that you start. Go beyond the point when you think it is not good enough, and get to the end.
- Surprise yourself. If you are only writing down what you knew before you started writing, that may well not be good enough. Follow unknown paths of the imagination, let your words take you where they want to go.
- See whether your writing can make you laugh from time to time.
- Avoid trying to tell the reader what to think.
- Avoid the viewpoint of the victim; avoid a viewpoint that is rooted in guilt, unless you want to play with, rather than indulge in, these two perspectives.
- You are your own first reader. Be as firm and gentle in relation to your writing as you would be to someone you love and do not want to lose.
- Find a small number of good critics (two will do), who can see what it is you are doing, and will give you rigorous yet creative criticism.
- Do not show your work to a publisher before your chosen critics have given you their response, and you have taken the time to decide whether you want to listen to them or not.