"I want to write my patch of the world into existence, and trust that others around me are writing theirs. Otherwise, I fear these unique locales will vanish from our literary map."
Award-winning author Henrietta Rose-Innes is back in South Africa for the launch of her new book, Green Lion. SSDA's Rachel Zadok caught up with her and asked her about animals, insects, being human, writing and how being far from home affects one's view.
RZ: You’re currently living in a pod in Norwich, doing a PHD at the University of East Anglia. I’ve always felt that some distance between a writer and their home enables them to see home more clearly, or if not more clearly, than at least from a different perspective. Have you found this to be true? And, if so, how does home look from Norwich?
HENRIETTA: I don't feel so far away - especially as Green Lion is so immersed in Cape Town-ness, and I am currently so immersed in promoting the book. I have alot of contact with South African friends and colleagues, and have already paid two working visits home, with another planned for September (for the Open Book Festival). So I suppose I'm experimenting with being a literary soutpiel, with feet in both worlds. But I do have another two years of study to go, and I'm sure things will shift in that time. My work has been very bounded by the geography of home, so far, and maybe now I'd like to experiment with being a South African eye abroad. That would be a new departure for me, and a challenge.
"For me, each book needs a long time to come into focus"
RZ: Green Lion, your fourth novel, has just been released in South Africa. The novel took you four years to write. Nineveh, your previous work, took five. What do you think is gained by a writer spending that amount of time crafting a work in an industry that wants a new work produced every two years?
HENRIETTA: I'm not under that kind of pressure – certainly not the pressure experienced by a best-selling or mass-market writer, or someone under very strict contract. Honestly, I don't know if I would manage at all if I had to produce on a very tight schedule. For me, each book needs a long time to come into focus – it's always hard for me to say exactly how long each one takes to write, because each has its genesis in a period of vague exploratory messing about, in which I may wander in many directions. I feel my writing benefits and grows richer with the leisurely pace – it allows time for layers of meaning to accrue. I'm not the kind of writer who has all of those complexities worked out from the start.
Of course, towards the end of the process, everything speeds up. By the time I have to hand in last corrections, I'm a hyper, sleep-deprived wreck. I do also like to revise and revise and revise, so it's important for me to have time for that built in at the end stages. My publisher is endlessly patient about this… and it still doesn't prevent the final frenzy. Maybe I'm just lazy and have very bad time management. But I'm ok with that.
RZ: In your previous novel, insects invade human spaces, nature is lush and powerful, pushing against the encroachment of humanity. The message seems to be that nature will take back. Four years on, Green Lion reads like a tribute to a lost kingdom, a shrinking kingdom of animals driven to extinction. Animals are ever present in their absence. Have you, since writing Nineveh, lost faith in the human race and our ability to avert mass extinction?
HENRIETTA: It's not that I've changed my mind, although of course in the intervening years prognostications about climate change and species loss have indeed become more and more dire. In a way, I see Nineveh and Green Lion as companion pieces: they both examine relationships between the human and the non-human , but they take different approaches. Nineveh is about how the natural world is both irrepressible and deeply intertwined with human lives, whether we like it or not – although not always in expected or appealing ways. Green Lion, on the other hand, looks at the other extreme of the human experience with nature: how we are growing more removed from the wild, and more alone and lonely in our human-ness; and how, as this happens, we mythologise and perhaps fetishise these creatures that no longer share our spaces. I think both of these processes are true and ongoing; it's part of the complexity and contradiction of ecology.
Green Lions are the wild things that we will have to live without, or know only in artificial or symbolic forms. The novel is about our reactions to this loss. Nineveh, on the other hand, is about acknowledging the messy, thriving urban wilderness we actually live in now. Ideally I would love people to read both books: Nineveh is a more optimistic vision, and a jauntier read; Green Lion is bleaker, but perhaps amore intimate and emotional story.
RZ: Publishing territories like the UK and USA seem only interested in African stories if they’re told by Africans in the diaspora, i.e. have some bearing on being English or American, or in genre writers who’ve left their roots behind and write from a global perspective, or narratives that fit the western media's view of Africa. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing about those things. Tell us about the markets into which your books have sold, non-English speaking markets, and why you feel that these markets offer some hope to African literary writers like yourself?
HENRIETTA: I haven't yet attracted a publisher in the big English-language markets, although I remain hopeful that this will happen. But recently, and encouragingly, some of my books are being picked up for translation in European-language markets. (French via a Swiss publisher; Spanish via a Mexican publisher.) My sense is that there are serious, educated readers out there who are very interested in African writing and want greater access to it in translation. It's wonderful to be able to find these readers, and if my books are successful in translation, it may open a side-door to bigger English audiences.
Also, I should mention that European institutions, such as residencies and competitions, have been very generous to me over the years, substantially funding my career. I think this is probably true for most African writers with any kind of international profile.
RZ: What makes your perspective uniquely African? i.e. Call yourself an African writer? Why?
HENRIETTA: My interest is in specific locations – so far, mostly in and around Cape Town – because that is where my eyes are focused as a writer, and where my particular powers of observation are best put to use. I think this is one way of conceptualising “Africa”, or any place: as a vast constellation of small, personal, shifting and overlapping territories. It is a pragmatic approach. I am attached to these landscapes in front of me, these rocks and buildings and beings, rather than to a larger, more abstract identity. Of course, some writers do have bigger ambitions, and succeed in writing on a national or even continental scale; but that's not my talent. I want to write my patch of the world into existence, and trust that others around me are writing theirs. Otherwise, I fear these unique locales will vanish from our literary map.
Currently on Henrietta's Bedside Table:
Edgelands: Journeys into England's True Wilderness by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons. Beautiful writing by two poets about “familiar yet ignored spaces which are neither city nor countryside”. Very relevant to my current writing and to my thesis.
The Peregrine by JA Baker. Having waxed lyrical (like everyone else) about Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk, I've been told and told again to read this slim classic of nature writing.
The Blue Fox by Sjon. A strange and intense fable set in a 19th-century Icelandic winter landscape.
101 Detectives by Ivan Vladislavic. These stories by one of our finest writers are simply essential reading.
David Grossman's Be My Knife. Picked up on a whim. Grossman seems a really interesting, often political Israeli writer; but this is a touching story of hopeless love. Not my usual cup of tea, but something about the blurb touched my heart. It may make me sad.
It Might Get Loud – the translation of Ingrid Winterbach's much-awarded Die aanspraak van lewende wesens, which I would read in Afrikaans if wasn't such a lazy rat.
All these books are available from your local independent bookstore, on the shelves or to order. Keep bookstores alive. Read reviews online, buy from the local.
Henrietta Rose-Innes is writer from Cape Town, currently based in Norwich, UK, studying towards a PhD in Creative & Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her fourth novel, Green Lion, has just been published by Penguin Random House SA (Umuzi).
Her 2011 novel Nineveh was shortlisted for the 2012 Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the M-Net Literary Award, and in 2015 (in French translation, as Ninive) it won the François Sommer Literary Prize. Her short novel Shark’s Egg (2000) was shortlisted for the 2001 M-Net Book Prize.
Her short stories have appeared in various international publications, including Granta, AGNI and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011. In 2012, her short story ‘Sanctuary’ took second place in the BBC International Short Story Competition. Her story ‘Poison’ was awarded the 2008 Caine Prize for African Writing (for which she was shortlisted in 2007) as well as the 2007 South African PEN Literary Award.
Her work has been published in a number of languages, including French, Spanish and German. Green Lion is due to be published in Spanish at the end of the year.