Author of the acclaimed novel, The Blacks of Cape Town, C.A. Davids is a writer, reader, but foremost, a citizen.
Tiah: Deon Meyer said, "Banging your head against a wall because it’s so nice to stop. Writing is like that." Agree?
C.A. Davids: Yes! No …urm, maybe?
Tiah: You faced some criticism for writing a political novel. Can any piece of writing truly be non-political?
C.A. Davids: It was hard to get The Blacks of Cape Town published. But you know, I’m not sure that anyone who read it, actually cared that the novel had some measure of political commentary, as I think much fictional writing seeks to do (while more does so passively) – but I think the notion that it might have contained political commentary probably did dissuade a couple of people from picking it up. I have two feelings about this: people should read whatever they like, but I’d hope that readers would be open-minded enough to engage with alternate perspectives of politics or anything else. Then, they might have discovered that The Blacks of Cape Town was a love story, a touch of travel journal, a multi-generational family saga – if one wanted, you could probably ascribe several themes to it.
Still, I think that we are emerging from an extraordinary period in South African literature where the uncomfortable and the unsayable were sometimes censored (and self-censored) under the banner of “fatigue” and “taste” and “consumption”. But that is far too easy an argument, and I think quite specious. Who are the arbiters of taste, who is the audience (and why) and what are the dominant messages (again why?) Sure, it’s the market, but it’s more multifaceted than that and many of the reasons can be explained in any rudimentary discussion on diversity, the dimensions and legacy of poverty and apartheid. But here is a real world example. I was the marketing manager for the Baxter Theatre for four wonderful years, where under the leadership of Mannie Manim (one of the founders of the Market Theatre) and with a team of passionate people, we saw that by changing what was happening on the stage, we changed audiences’ demographics; more, grew a new market of theatre goers and in that process, created dynamic theatre. It became a self-reinforcing circle. And I would think that any thriving industry requires those elements: a growing audience, an expansion of ideas and new elements to lead it into the future. And if the marketing groundwork had been done, then the other component that mattered was having the bigger commercial works subsidising more eclectic pieces.
If anything though, my political interests are about the freedom to write, speak and read as broadly as I or anyone wishes.
Tiah: 'The country was not, contrary to all expectation, split into villains and heroes. Sometimes ordinary people, good people, fucked up, Zee.' – This line from your novel, The Blacks of Cape Town, struck me as a writer. Yes, it is political, but it also speaks to good writing. Complex characters are not easily divided into good and bad. But dare to scan any online comments section, take Thoughtleader for example, it does seem the humans expect other humans to be this or that. Is that what you are trying to achieve with characters and story? A roundness that defies easy categorisation?
C.A. Davids: I tried to layer the novel and to insist as part of that on the full development of character and story (within reason) which for me are some of the rudiments of good writing and readability. You can approach a story from a single perspective, but more often than not such an approach will feel incomplete, possibly solipsistic, and so for me lacking merit.
I’m increasingly surprised at how flat public discourse has become. And much as I enjoy getting news from Twitter, I find that it and other social media forums have become a meeting point for outrage and grandstanding with little nuance or complexity. It’s a bit of a performance art, actually. But it has fun moments.
Tiah: Your publisher, Modjaji, is a women's publisher. Hilda Twongyeirwe has been quoted as saying, 'Men have been there for too long, let’s have some space'. Is that space here?
C.A. Davids: I think Modjaji has done something remarkable by placing stories written by women, which might otherwise have gone unpublished, into the mainstream.
Yes, I think it is space to breathe. And given that the bulk of buyers and readers of fiction (unless I am mistaken) are now women, this skewed outlook will change; is changing but too slowly.
Tiah: As a reader, rather than a writer, what do you hope to see change in the book world?
C.A. Davids: I’d like to answer that question as a citizen rather than either of those options if I may. And it’s about more than reading and books – but about creating a society that regards life, humanness, the humanities over the market and consuming (at whatever cost). For me, reading (as a branch of engaged thought as well as entertainment) is a fundamental part of that chain.
Starting with our elected government, I’d like to see my taxes going towards the promotion of reading given the ineluctable link between education and reading. Children excel in all spheres when they are exposed to books from an early age. As part of this we might have an agency dedicated to the promotion of reading, as in Brazil, and they have consequently pioneered many wonderful, innovative programmes. They’ve even included some of the most literally marginalised members of society -- prisoners: for every book read a report must be written, upon which four days will be removed from their sentence! But then the Brazilian government (and by extension its people) have taken reading and literacy very seriously and have actively sought to get their citizens not only literate but engaging with literature at all reading levels. We’ve not done that; not even close. Their publishing industry collaborates with government by financing a book promotion agency. In terms of the BRICS nations, it isn’t that we are lagging behind, we are not even in the game.
As for publishing houses, their professional readers and editors need to reflect the diversity of this country to a greater degree. The same goes for reviewers. Good writing remains the imperative, but let’s find it wherever it might emerge. And with a publishing industry that is energised to establish an industry outside of the narrow confines of the current one. Ditto for literary festivals: reflect the audiences you’d like to see at events.
I think civil society has a role to play by lobbying for more and better stocked libraries, innovating reading programmes, book clubs, programmes aimed primarily at children … the rest will come.
I don’t think any of these suggestions are especially challenging or hard to implement but will take profound acts of the imagination as well as heart, and it will take time. And here we have to wonder about our trajectory: in 20 years’ time we could either be looking at an industry, at a country, in a worse crisis or one where people not only actively read, and where illiteracy is eradicated but which has a place for intellectual thought and values life at all stages, in all its simplicity and complexity, over pure market forces and consumption. Ok, that last part is a bit dreamy …
And then … then, an extra wish: to see what Modjaji Books has accomplished for women being done for South African youth. Our market and literary industry is greatly skewed towards writers with established first careers, able to write because they do not have to rely on it financially (like me). But how wonderful wouldn’t it be to read a science fiction novel set in Khayelitsha by an 18 year old? Or a genre busting novel out of the Pretoria dust, by a 23 year old? Or a War and Peace like tome from Alex? We have to dream this before it can become reality, but I think there are many interesting initiatives happening (SSDA, Long Story Short, the small diverse reading clubs popping up all over the city). Let’s hope a thriving books world is only time away.
On C.A. Davids Bedside Table
Ali Smith’s How to be Both. Incredible that a voracious reader can still be transformed by a novel!
Zoe Wicomb’s exquisitely rendered October.
Henrietta Rose-Innes’s beguiling Green Lion set in a Cape Town that was eerily familiar and yet utterly strange.
C.A. Davids works as a writer, and divides her time between Johannesburg and Cape Town. Her debut novel, The Blacks of Cape Town, was published in 2013 by Modjaji Books. She has a Masters in creative writing, a degree in economics and a postgraduate qualification in marketing from the University of Cape Town. She has lived in Shanghai, China, New Jersey in the USA and in Switzerland. Her fictional writing includes a short story in an anthology by South African women writers: Twist (Struik; October, 2006) as well as a short story in African Pens: New Writing from Southern Africa (New Africa Books, April 2007). Her non-fiction has been published in the South African Sunday Times, and magazines VISI and Taste, amongst others. Davids’s professional career has included positions as the marketing manager for The Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, communications manager for the Alexander Kasser Theatre in New Jersey, USA, and as the advertising manager for Levi Strauss South Africa.