Memories of war

2011-04-27 00:00

KWAZULU-NATAL-BORN author Jenny Hobbs took time out from her busy life as director of the Franschoek Literary Festival to put on her other hat and return to her home province to promote her new novel, Kitchen Boy . At the local launch at Exclusive Books in the Midlands Mall, she spoke to MARGARET VON KLEMPERER.

I ask Hobbs what drew her to war as a subject, in particular a war that ended more than 60 years ago, but when she began, she wasn’t thinking of war as the central issue. “I wanted to write about a hero then, as opposed to what passes as a hero now, a ‘celeb’. And when I started thinking about heroes, I felt it had to be someone who went to war,” says Hobbs, going on to talk about how, when war ended, those who had served had to find something to replace the camaraderie of those long years.

Hobbs had an uncle who was captured at Tobruk, and she has drawn on his letters and experiences for her central character, J. J. Kitching. She also met a retired colonel from the South African airforce, Graham du Toit, who has been researching South African volunteer involvement for more than 30 years and has a huge database. “He was very helpful, and was determined I should get the war details right,” she says. And so the war began to assume a central place in the novel.

Rugby, the other important part of Kitching’s life, was easier. Hobbs’s late husband, whom she met when they were students at the then University of Natal, was a keen rugby player, playing for Maritzburg. First, Hobbs watched him, and then the two of them watched the sport all around the world. “So I’m hopeful that blokes will read the book, even though they say that only women read novels — it’s about war and rugby after all, as well as about people,” she says.

Hobbs has her own memories of the war. She was a small child in Durban, and can remember the searchlights over the harbour as well as her mother bringing soldiers, sailors and airmen home when they were in Durban, recovering from their experiences. She also remembers her mother cutting photographs that showed the horror of war out of the newspaper so that she and her brother would not see them. “Now young men get their adrenaline rush by hanging off cliffs, or swimming across glaciers. Men are sucked into war, sent by cynical old men, and come home damaged.” When speaking at the launch, she quotes Bertrand Russell: “Wars don’t determine who is right, but who is left.”

But away from the war that is central to Kitchen Boy, Hobbs is busy preparing for the fifth Franschoek Literary Festival (FLF) which takes place next month from May 13 to May 15 ( “It’s going like a bomb,” she says. Each year sees numbers increasing dramatically — guesthouses in Franschoek are already sold out and beds in the area are at a premium. Although publishers were initially cautious, they have now come on board, as have various funders.

“It was Christopher Hope’s idea,” says Hobbs. “I caught him as he was walking out of a literary dinner — he had said he was keen to start an English-speaking literary festival, and I told him to count me in.” The format is informal: conversations between writers rather than readings. “We want people to talk to each other,” says Hobbs.

Unlike the Cape Town Book Fair, which is primarily a trade fair, or Time of the Writer in Durban, which has a rather more academic slant, the FLF is firmly positioned to appeal to book lovers. And one of its main aims is to raise money for a community library — to encourage a new generation. Hobbs, now with five published novels to her name, is keen to see that generation flourish.

• Kitchen Boy is published by Umuzi and is on Exclusive Books’ Homebru List for 2011.

Read the review here.

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