South African author Christopher Hope left his home country in 1975 after his work drew fire from the country’s Apartheid regime. His debut novel, A Separate Development, published in 1981, was banned by the then South African government for satirizing the Apartheid system, but then went on to receive the David Higham Memorial Prize.
Over the course of his long and illustrious career, Hope has earned several more writing awards, including the Thomas Pringle Prize for his book, Cape Drives, and the Whitbread Prize in 1984 for Kruger’s Alp. In 1992, Hope’s other book, Serenity House, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1990.
In this interview with Africa Book Club’s Yusuf Serunkuma, the South African writer talks about his long career, discusses his latest book, Shooting Angels (released in 2011), and shares his thoughts on different subjects – from politics to his favourite writers.
What’s your involvement with the Cape Town Literary Festival? Are you one of the organizers?
The literary festival in South Africa which I had a hand in starting is the Franschhoek Literary Festival, in a town not far from Cape Town. It takes place in mid-May, each year when we invite to Franschhoek for three or four days, critics and publishers from Southern Africa and from abroad. It is a true international festival and has been going now for five years. It is intense, useful and a lot of fun.
A lot has been written and said about you, how would you describe yourself Chris?
It is always hard to describe oneself but I guess I am a writer fascinated by those who have power and the way it is perverted. Perhaps because I grew up in South Africa in the Apartheid days, I have some knowledge of power gone mad. And I write about it in novels and poems and essays.
At what point did you decide that you wanted to be a writer, and when did you get your first break?
I knew when I was about 14 years old what I wanted to do. It took a lot longer to find out how it could be done. But that is the same for most writers. You learn by trying to find out how the job is to be done.
Some of my early poems were banned by the Apartheid regime. Then I wrote my first novel and moved to London. That novel was also banned in South Africa. It was a satire called ‘A Separate Development’. Although it was a blow when the book was suppressed in my home country, it made me think that perhaps I was doing something right. Then, luckily, the book won a literary prize in the UK and that helped me very much to find my way.
Where do you draw your inspiration to write?
From the comedy of those who think they know best.
What was your motivation for writing your latest book – Shooting Angels, and what would you like your readers to take away?
In a novel called My Mother’s Lovers, the book that preceded Shooting Angels, I set out to paint a portrait of my home town, Johannesburg, a kind of Chicago in the African veld. Chicago as it was in the 30’s. A rough place of guns, cash, and gold diggers. It was a labour of love, this portrait ,though Johannesburg is not an easy place to love and I wanted to be as unsentimental and as accurate as I could be. Naturally there were those who protested – but then there are those who prefer their Africa sentimentalised. And that is not possible in a mining camp that became a metropolis , like Johannesburg, the greatest city in Southern Africa. But very hard to get to know. Not much over a century old, and sitting on a bedrock of gold, where the first settlers made sure that the town had plenty of speak-easies and a stock exchange, and never could tell the difference between bourse and brothel. And I suspect, still can’t.
When I came to write Shooting Angels, it was power that I had in mind; what it means and what it does to those who hold it and those who must suffer under it. I set in in a nameless country and I looked at figures like Jean Calvin and at Al Capone, the holy man and the hoodlum, both obsessed with doing things their way. I also remembered how it had been for many decades in a country like South Africa , where the regime had total power, and used it to destroy all forms , not only of resistance, but of recreation. And who believed they were always right.
If there was anything I’d like readers to take away from Shooting Angels, it’s the question I struggle with: why did Calvin do so much better than Capone? Shooting Angels is a murder story – in a land where murder is pretty much everyday stuff. It is also about betrayal in a place where treachery is just the way things are.
Having released your first work 30 years ago, what has been your enduring appeal? What is it that has kept you going and creating more works?
If I had to put into one word what it is that has kept me writing it is my astonishment – at how good human beings are at deceiving themselves.
You have written in all the genres – prose, drama and poetry. What appeals to you more?
I think poetry is the greatest form possible. But I write novels because they let me say something interesting.
Like many other contemporary African writers, you’ve spent (and continue to spend) most of your time outside your home country. Has this helped or restricted your success?
Exile is a strange thing. It helps you to focus on the country you left. That is the good thing. But it also means you lose touch with the very things that make you who you are. I don’t believe exile is good for a writer, but sometimes you do not have a choice.
You have collected several awards along the way. What do you consider to be your biggest achievement to date?
I don’t really know. I hope I have made a record of the stupidities and sadness of racial hatred. But it is for others to judge that. Certainly I am proud to have started the Franschhoek Literary Festival.
Are there any writers dead or living that you to admire?
I like Proust and Voltaire (French writers), and Joseph Conrad (English). I also like Amos Tutuola, who is from Nigeria. And from my own country,the satirist Herman Charles Bosman.
As a political writer, how do you compare the old South Africa under Apartheid to the one we see today?
I hated the old order under the Apartheid regime, which was narrow, cramped and stupid. I think the country is far better now that we can all vote freely. But the present ANC administration has lost its way and its authority. And in some ways, it resembles the last government in that it is also corrupt, and power-struck, and increasingly intolerant.
What about other countries in Africa?
I hope we will see an African spring. Africa has had too many dictators for too long.