Author Zoë Wicomb has a tough time writing, but once she has an idea, she works at it relentlessly, which results in a read that sits masterfully in its time and plays with the reader’s imagination quite magically. She tells DIANE DE BEER about her latest work, Still Life (Umuzi):
What struck me first and stayed with me while reading Still Life (Umuzi), is the originality with which the story is told.
Zoë Wicomb, a South African-born author living in Scotland says she has for a long time been interested in Thomas Pringle, “not so much as a poet, but rather in his writings about being a settler and his encounters with native people.”
The blurb on the back of her book describes the Scotsman as an “abolitionist, publisher – and some would say – Father of South African poetry. A biography of Pringle is in order, and a reluctant writer takes up the task.”
But what really captured this reluctant writer’s imagination were his political conflicts at the Cape which seem to embody the problems and contradictions of colonialism.
“But as always my ideas about a subject, in spite of research and knowing much about them, remain inchoate, and with Pringle I really did not know how to write about him,” she explains.
And that is what makes her, reluctant or not, an extraordinary writer. It is in the solution that she tells a fascinating tale.
“After several false starts, self-reflexivity offered a solution –– I decided to exploit my inability to write, to fictionalise the writer herself, and to make the actual writing of Pringle’s history the framework of the novel.”
And that works magnificently.
What she does is ‘create’ three characters and through them tell her story, which is one smartly centred on colonialism, something that one might think would have been more written and talked about with perhaps much more resolution (and understanding) than currently exists.
She tells the story mainly through Mary Prince, a West Indian slave whose history Pringle had published, the ghost of Hinza Morossi, Pringle’s adopted Khoesan son, and the time-traveller Sir Nicholas Greene, a character she exhumes from the pages of a book.
How she arrives at this motley crew she explains thus:
“Hinza Marossi, Pringle’s adopted son, was of interest from the outset. Not only is his story recorded in a poem, but I wanted to explore the question of interracial adoption under colonial conditions as well as what that story looks like from Hinza’s point of view.
“The character Mary Prince was an obvious choice because her slave narrative was the first by a woman. It was published in London by Pringle in spite of opposition and litigation by British people who benefitted from slavery. He was also reviled by fellow Scottish settlers at the Cape, who persisted with the myth that slavery in South Africa was an altogether more benign affair.
“Nicholas Greene, a character from Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando (one of my favourite novels) is a more controversial choice, and really I don’t remember how he entered the story. But I was drawn to the fact that he is a time-traveller and to his fictionality as opposed to the other real historical figures. Thus he enabled me to address yet another level of the real within my fictional account. Given that the novel is about the writing of Pringle’s story, Greene also offered another version of the writer.”
Then there also a young woman, Vytjie, a character from one of Pringle’s poems. “According to his notes, she is based on an actual servant. Her perspective on the man therefore differs from that of Hinza who occupies a more privileged position in that household.”
If that doesn’t have you salivating, this isn’t your book. Even though Zoë notes that the publishers see this as a “difficult book”, that’s not the way it reads.
What she found with her chosen route of exploring Pringle is that the variety of characters enables her to represent different aspects of his life. But she underlines, “although the nature of the story itself is such that no comprehensive picture of the poet emerges; in fact, in my novel the project of writing his history fails.”
But that’s again the reluctant novelist protesting. I beg to differ. What emerges is a far more imaginative reflection on our past with a clutch of characters whose voices of that time are never heard. And for some of us, given the superficially privileged colour of our skin, questioning that is something that only began in larger numbers very recently.
Ask Zoë about writing and she’s quick to respond how difficult she finds the process. “I’m drawn to a subject, do the necessary research, and then the problem of how to represent that subject arises. A struggle of trying to write something that may or may not lead towards a solution, and really it’s a matter of faith, of believing that something will come out of the daily routine.
“There are periods of giving up on the project, then inexplicably I return to wrestle with my material until finally the first draft shapes itself through the process of writing. Then follows many more drafts, less torturous than the first, in which I straighten out events and try to refine the prose, but doubts about the value of what I’m doing persist ––I am after all not read by many; in fact, my readership is more or less limited to students of Postcolonial Writing.”
But hopefully this one will change that … as it should. It is a tough topic for many but one we should engage and deal with – especially and finally in this time.
She makes it easy to start doing so if you never have. When I ask her about the lighter tone of the writing, her response is as amusing and direct as the banter between her characters: “It is impossible to overlook the comic aspects of white supremacy. Worth representing, I think.”
For readers, who like me, don’t know much about this writer, she left in the heyday of apartheid and made a life for herself elsewhere.
“But,” she says, “you can’t ever think of yourself as belonging in Europe. In terms then of an interior life, I remained South African, through teaching and writing about South Africa – both fiction and literary criticism. I returned for a few years and taught at UWC but then I couldn’t manage the family separation, and returned to Scotland.”
“I imagined that when I retired from teaching, I would live mainly in South Africa, but in the meantime the promise of liberation has been hollowed out and I’m not attracted to the pathologies of historical colonialism that persist. Still, I do spend a couple of months every year at the Cape and return to the north with great reluctance.”
For her sins, she says, she lives in Glasgow, where the awful weather is by no means the worst thing.
“Now having grandchildren means that I’m stuck here, although they’ve done much by way of ameliorating my stay here. I’ve worked at the University of Strathclyde, but have retired as Emeritus Professor.”
And she’s no less harsh about her writing and how she views it. “Having always had a demanding job, I saw teaching as my primary responsibility, so writing, both fiction and critical writing, was something that I did in the summer breaks or during sabbaticals. It is in that sense that I do not think of myself primarily as a writer. Then there is the fact that I find writing so very difficult, so dispiriting for much of the time, that I can’t help thinking that there must be a category of ‘real’ writers who find it less of a struggle.”
Read her book and see how you disagree. I was pulled into the lives of her characters but especially the way she found to tell this very important story of our time. There’s no longer a running away from the past.
And next on her agenda?
“I have not managed a book in the past without self-isolating for extended periods. But it is not a good idea to talk about a next book; in fact, given the difficulty I have with writing plus my faculties being impaired by ageing, who knows if I’ll manage another.”