Writing in anxious times

2008-08-06 00:00

Cape Town author Henrietta Rose-Innes is intrigued by the odd interactions that take place between natural and urban landscapes and by the manner in which people have to adapt to inhabit unstable environments.

So it makes sense that one of her most recent stories is about a boulder falling off a mountain and embedding itself in a luxury house, to create a “dangerous, unprecedented landscape”.

It also explains why her short story Poison, which recently won the Caine Prize for African Writing, is all about the challenge facing South Africans who have to step into the reality of a much-changed country, comprised of many different communities that don’t often interact.

“I am interested in the theme of people’s existences in the spaces between the city and the wilderness, particularly in and around Cape Town where we have such interesting urban spaces between the city and the wilderness. I have always felt drawn to those spaces,” said Rose-Innes. “I have written about the informal dwellings on the edges of the city that are not quite urban, but not quite wild, and the strange interactions between the natural and urban aspects.”

We met, over lunch, to discuss what it means for her to have become the latest winner of the prestigious £10 000 (R142 993) prize for the best short story in English by an African writer. The award, which Rose-Innes received at a ceremony in Oxford, England, is sometimes called the African Booker. The prize was founded in England in 2000 in memory of Sir Michael Harris Caine who chaired the Booker Prize Committee for 25 years. Rose-Innes’s work was described by judge Jude Kelly OBE as “writing of the highest order”.

Poison, described by Rose-Innes as “an apocalyptic vision of how polarised South Africans would react in crisis”, is a story about a character, Lynn, who finds herself stranded with a bunch of Capetonians who find themselves out of petrol at a remote petrol station, while trying to escape a chemical explosion in the city. Lynn watches as the others negotiate, across their conventional social divides, to work out a solution, but does not herself take any of the escape options.

According to Rose-Innes, the story looks at the traditional social divides in South Africa and how Lynn is not able to remain the same, but is also not ready to adapt to the new realities of her country. Poison, which was written in 2006, also won the 2007 South African PEN Literary Award. As part of the Caine Prize, Rose-Innes will take up a writer’s residence for a month in Georgetown University in Washington DC.

Rose-Innes — who, among other writings, has written two novels, Shark’s Egg (2000), which was nominated for the M-Net Book Prize, and The Rocket Alphabet (2004) — is still reeling from her trip to London to receive the award.

“The level of interest in this award was astounding to me. I lost track of the number of interviews I did after the award was announced,” she said. “I am touched by the huge amount of interest and support. I am also pleased that the Caine [Prize] is becoming more and more visible. Every year the level of public interest grows.”

She hasn’t read any of the British newspaper reports on the award, but she clearly charmed some of the cynical press people when she said she had “an inkling” she might win.

“The usual British etiquette for prize winners is to bashfully express how amazingly amazed they are to have walked off with the laurels before hastening to credit a hundred helpers. Rose-Innes, who even while carrying a fairly heavy post-celebration head has a quiet but striking self-possession, is not burdened with such self-consciousness,” wrote one literary journalist.

Before she knew she had been awarded the prize, Rose-Innes promised herself that, if she won, she would channel the winnings back into her writing.

“I want to use the money for what it was intended. This means prioritising my writing over everything else that gets in the way. I have a responsibility to do this,” she said.

Her other projects, in between teaching at the University of Cape Town and privately for an online writing course, include a collaborative book of personal essays about Table Mountain, which she is doing with her sister Olivia, and a collaborative novel with three other South African writers.

The 37-year-old writer grew up in Cape Town — “in the same house that my parents live in today” — and obtained a Bachelor of Science with a major in archaeology from the University of Cape Town, after which she did honours in biological anthropology at the University of the Witwatersrand, before returning to Cape Town to complete a masters degree in creative writing.

Her relationship with archaeology — which started when her mother, a student of archaeology who worked in Cape Town’s Museum of Natural History, took her children there — is still “unresolved”.

“The romance of time and ancient history is strong in me. I haven’t worked out for myself why that should be so potent.”

Rose-Innes does most of her thinking about work during “bouts of insomnia” in the middle of the night.

“I am conscious of how my mind works, particularly with a short story. I will start it, then puzzle over it and leave it in disgust and not think about it for weeks. Then, if it is going to work, I will have a little feeling about an ending, a solution, and it will come. There is nothing magical about it. I think at least 50% of the work is done on an unconscious level.”

Readers of her work often find that there is a sense of unease in her stories. “It’s probably true. I am drawn to themes of threat and anxiety which I think is in the Zeitgeist. Globally it is a time of anxiety and uncertainty about the future. I am drawn to situations of unease which I think reflect the political moment.”

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