Beyond the boundaries

2014-03-19 00:00

THE first thing I ask Mark Gevisser is, why write a memoir? He doesn’t really answer, but immediately says he is uncomfortable with the word “memoir”.

“I know the book has to fit somewhere on the shelf, but it’s not a life of Mark Gevisser. In many ways, it’s an extension of writing about other people.”

He goes on to explain that to write biography — his last book was Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred — a writer has to be very clear about his or her own personal perspective: it is a subjective act.

“I sensed the impossibility of telling a life story when I was doing the Mbeki book, and the sense is stronger now from working on my own story.”

Lost and Found in Johannesburg uses Dispatcher, the game the very young Gevisser used to play as he sat in his father’s car with an ancient street map of Johannesburg, dispatching imaginary people on journeys from one street and suburb to another, to explore borders and boundaries, both literal and metaphorical.

“If I was at a dinner party, I would tell the story differently, emphasise something different. I would use it to show how I was a nerdy kid, get a laugh. That’s the beauty of storytelling and the different ways we can remember things. We reconstruct our lives by what we remember and what we don’t.”

So, Lost and Found is not really a memoir, although it tells about Gevisser himself, his family background and life in South Africa.

It is also a very different book from the one Gevisser set out to write. Three weeks before it was due to be delivered to the publisher, Gevisser was visiting friends in Johannesburg for an evening of watching television. They were held up, subjected to an horrific, violent attack and robbed. And among the things stolen was Gevisser’s manuscript.

“The book was going to be about my relationship with Johannesburg and borders and boundaries. Then I realised I could write about the attack as well.”

So Gevisser phoned his publishers and told them the book would be a year late. On the one hand, writing about the experience was therapeutic: on the other it changed the book.

When I started reading — and Gevisser initially tells his readers about the attack in a prologue — I was concerned. Surely we weren’t going to be treated to yet another misery memoir?

Gevisser says he was very aware of the danger, and structured the book so that by the end he has moved on from the attack. When I ask whether he thinks the result is a better or a worse book than would otherwise have been the case, he laughs: “I do know I would rather not have been attacked and had a less good book.”

He says he made the story of the attack the fourth act of a five-act play. “I wouldn’t have written about it if I didn’t have a way of moving the book on beyond it.”

In one interview, he was asked why he didn’t get straight onto a plane after the attack and head for Paris, where he currently lives. “One reason is that no one in Paris would get it. They would have been so horrified, they wouldn’t know what to say to me. Johannesburg is a humanist city where people look after each other.”

An important part of the book deals with Gevisser’s sexuality. As a gay man, he has had to face his own alienation, his encounters with social boundaries.

But it is also a political book, and I ask if there isn’t a danger that readers will see him equating his own difficulties with those of the black majority. It is a suggestion he vehemently rejects.

“I know I grew up as an empowered, privileged person, and cannot compare my experience to that of blacks growing up under apartheid.” And by telling poignant stories of gay black men he has met, he makes that doubly plain.

Gevisser’s take on the rising tide of homophobia in Africa is interesting. He sees it as a backlash against globalisation, and a result of the importation of ideas. “Patriarchy is becoming freaked out,” is how he puts it. But he is encouraged by the way in which the values of the South African Constitution are becoming entrenched.

“Jacob Zuma is prone to making homophobic statements, but every time, they have to be retracted the next day — spokesmen saying he was misquoted and so on. And I was struck, listening to a phone-in on the radio, by the respect for people’s choices.”

It’s one of the things that makes Gevisser determined that he will eventually return to his home country, and probably to his home town, the strange, boundary-defined place that has inspired his book.

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