A
 
Web www.artsmart.co.za
A R T S M A R T
arts news from kwazulu-natal

literature
www.artsmart.co.za
enquiries@artsmart.co.za
 A current news
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
letters to the editor
home page
archives A
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
 

NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

GILLIAN SLOVO (article first published : 2002-03-9)

Slovo is a big name in South Africa. Exiled anti-apartheid activist Joe Slovo was the first ANC Minister of Housing after 1994; his wife Ruth First was brutally killed by a letter bomb in Maputo in 1982. And the sight of their three daughters at the TRC hearings where Craig Williamson applied for amnesty over First's death and their publicly expressed reservations about the process are an enduring reminder of the difficulties of seeking both truth and reconciliation.

In Durban last week to launch the paperback edition of her novel Red Dust, Gillian Slovo, the middle daughter, tempers these reservations. A writer whose stature and success is growing with every book, Slovo admits that her attitude to the TRC has been fundamentally changed by the events of September 11 and their aftermath. This came out in her talk on Red Dust which is set against a backdrop of TRC hearings and which clearly shows her ambivalence towards the commission.

Later, Slovo expanded on what she had said. "The TRC has shown itself to be a healthier choice than what is being done in the name of September 11," she said. "The people who murdered my mother are murderers; they killed for the same reason that most people murder - hate. But I know she would have chosen the TRC response rather than September 11 style revenge."

Slovo still admits to concerns about the process. She feels that those who gave the orders were not dealt with and that there was manipulation of the system, both by those who applied for amnesty and by their lawyers. "The same lawyers appeared over and over again, with the same spiel coming up each time. It seems to me they had an agenda to have a say in the rewriting of South Africa's history - they were saying “both sides did evil; let's kiss and make up”. But it wasn't an equal struggle. But it was better than no TRC. It was part of a compromise that saved lives - I am very aware of how many lives had already been lost. And I am prepared to forego my chance of justice," she says.

Red Dust, a pacy, powerful novel, explores the process as well as questions of whether people and countries can change. Slovo feels a country probably can, but she is not so sure about individuals. And she also looks at how easy or hard it is to say, "I forgive you". "I don't have the answers - that's not a novelist's job. I just explore the arena," she says.

In the book Sarah, a South African-born lawyer, is called back from New York for a TRC hearing in the fictional Eastern Cape town of Smitsrivier. Her brief is to find out what happened to one of South Africa's "disappeared". The book mixes courtroom drama and an investigation of the moral questions facing a variety of characters from Sarah the voluntary exile to policemen and their former victims. At one stage Sarah says, "I hate this place, I hate what it does to me". I ask the author how much of this is Slovo speaking and how much Sarah. After all, Slovo at 12 years' old was forced into exile in England; she had watched her mother pack while the police waited to take her into detention; she lived a childhood where secrecy was the watchword; her mother was blown apart by an assassin's dirty trick. All this can be laid at South Africa's door.

Slovo pauses. "I don't feel like that this time. Of course, there's something of me in Sarah - there's something of me in everyone I write about. Her dilemma is 'do I belong or don't I belong'. I am in insider here by virtue of my parents' past, an outsider by virtue of my own."

"In the past, I have hated South Africa. First, when I went to England as a child. I felt it had caused me so much suffering. I tried to lose my accent and sense of belonging. The second time was during the TRC hearings over my mother. I hated it then because the hearings for me re-invoked the murderous rage felt by those who had all the power towards those who had none of it. I didn't see how this country could recover from that degree of hate."

However, Slovo now feels that the country is recovering, the atmosphere is lightening. "What I feel about South Africa is passion," she says. "Both negative and positive. I have an ambivalent relationship with this country." And then she laughs and asks, "Am I the only one?"

In Every Secret Thing, Slovo's moving memoir of her parents, she talks of the way secrecy permeated all their lives. It was always better not to know, never to be compromised. Is that what made her want to write - a need to tell? "Not really," she says. "I loved telling stories, so I made them up. I started writing detective stories because I liked to read them. But perhaps it did have to do with the fact that I spent my life trying to work out what was happening. The detective's job."

Slovo has tried to be open with her own child. "So I have tried to tell her everything - and her answer was, 'Why are you always telling me everything? It's so boring.' I have had to learn. We all try to do what our parents didn't do, but we often go too far the other way."

Slovo feels her days as a writer of detective stories, several featuring her heroine Kate Baeier, are probably over. "I think I have got better as a writer. I demand more of myself now. Plot has to come first in detective fiction - the subject is murder and mayhem, not grief or loss. But I learnt how to construct while I was writing them - they made me feel safe. There's something reassuring about that kind of writing because the plot pulls you so hard - you have to go where it is taking you."

Slovo feels this gave her the confidence to write in way that keeps the reader hooked, even when her subject is a personal piece of autobiography like Every Secret Thing, or a thought-provoking novel like Red Dust. It is this ability to create a page-turner that is making Red Dust popular here, where fiction about South African politics is inclined to send shivers down the spine of publishers and booksellers alike - it is normally hard to sell.

In Durban last week, both Peter Adams of Adams Booksellers who organised the Durban leg of Slovo's book tour and Karen Lane of Penguin Publishers admitted this. South Africans are notoriously reluctant to engage with fiction that goes close to the local bone and looks at South African reality. But Slovo seems to be breaking down this resistance. In Durban her audience - the predominantly female, white, middle-aged and middle-class readers who, says Slovo, make up the audience at author talks the world over - were all buying copies of Red Dust, and asking her to sign them. Perhaps another Slovo is having an impact on the country of her birth, this time on their reading habits. – Margaret von Klemperer




 A current news
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
letters to the editor
home page
archives A
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
a co-production by caroline smart services and .durbanet. site credits
copyright © subsists in this page. all rights reserved. [ edit ] copyright details  artsmart