What Will People Say? follows the Fourie family trying to carve out a "decent" life in the Cape Flats. One of the most sobering aspects of this novel is the way the story gently lays out the fact that the mantra, "Get an education," is not always enough to lift people's lives out of such circumstances. In fact, after finishing the book it made me realise how championing the idea that, if you stay in school, you'll automatically succeed risks cheapening and simplifying the hurdles families face when navigating the townships and, for many, poverty. Could you expand upon this, please?
REHANA: Well, the long list of apartheid legislation shrunk the aspirations – and the lives – of everyone who wasn’t white in South Africa. The government spent far less on the education of black children than white children, black teachers required fewer skills than white teachers and “bush” universities were built for blacks after they were excluded from other universities. And then there was job reservation, which ensured that low-skilled whites did not have compete with educated blacks for many thousands of jobs. All of those laws remained in place until 1994, and we can still see that damage to human aspiration in our hugely unequal society today.
Religion plays an interesting role in your book: as a sanctuary that offers people support, comfort and hope along with being a destructive element that can harm people and break up families. This was neatly mirrored by gangs, who also provide sanctuary, comfort and community, while also bringing sinister damage to the people and area they operate in. Was this parallel drawn on purpose, or did it naturally emerge with the writing of the novel?
REHANA: It wasn’t drawn on purpose, but when I realised the similarities in the recruitment practices of the gangs, the church and the comrades, I sharpened this a little in my final draft. All of them have a language, uniform and ties that bind. At the church camp, Kevin and Nicky sing different versions of the same song; they are “volunteers for Jesus/MK”. All the gangsters’ jeans hang below their underwear and they sabela to each other. Each of these sectors of society recruit township youth and shun them when they leave the fold.
Near the beginning of What Will People Say? are the lines:
"Her childhood was ending and it was time to learn to be a woman. The lessons started with Mummy teaching her to iron shirts."
The story is set in 1986. Has the understanding of what it means to be a woman progressed past this mindset? Or are chores still being split down genderlines as much now as they were then?
REHANA: I haven’t seen research about chores split down gender lines across the country, the only statistic I know of is from the HSRC (Human Sciences Research Council) which found that the vast majority of children are being raised in single parent (female) households. But I am willing to put my head on the block and say that family chores are still the preserve of women. I do find it very strange that women raise men in the absence of their fathers yet teach their boys to believe that they are superior to women, and that all women are put on earth to serve them.
What Will People Say? is your debut novel. How did the editing process for your book compare to the editing you experience in your work as a journalist?
REHANA: Writing literature is a vastly different experience to journalism. My daily work is often formulaic - ensuring there are five w’s and an h in every story, that the lead sentence encapsulates the entire story, that it is in reported speech and that all the parties involved get their say. With creative writing you use a completely different set of muscles, you write from the heart and not from the head (which is hugely difficult, I found).
What Will People Say? made the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature shortlist, a huge achievement, along with being nominated for other awards. Has the limelight helped motivate you to pen another book?
REHANA: Yes, I am writing my next book and I do have an agreement with a publisher.
On Rehana's Bedside
When I am writing I can’t read great literature, I get too depressed about my pitiful attempts at matching great writers or I imitate them shamelessly. I took time off from writing recently and read Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 which is so poetic, it almost convinced me I was a pathetic excuse for a writer.
But there’s always a long list of non fiction to read when I’m writing. I’m somewhat belatedly reading Pumla Gqola’s Rape: A South African Nightmare. I can’t read more than a page or two at a time – I have never read a book this slowly – because it is so painful and so true. We live among monsters in South Africa, our lives are so stunted by our fear of them.
Rehana Rossouw was born in Cape Town and is currently living in Johannesburg. She is a journalist and has a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of the Witwatersrand.
Interview by Tiah Beautement a.k.a @ms_tiahmarie