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Giving a name to pain: Interview with Marli Roode

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Sitting at the Vida e Caffè on Roeland Street [where Marli graciously agreed to meet me because I’m vegan and they have soya milk], I gather my notes and make sure I have enough battery life in my voice recorder. Then she walks in and I ask her what she’d like to have and she says same as me; she’s never had vegan coffee before and she’d like to try one. I like her immediately and start feeling at ease.

If you haven’t read Call it dog, her “superbly written, intelligent and powerful debut” (M.J. Hyland), then go to your nearest bookstore and get it immediately! The plot describes Jo Hartslief’s return to South Africa to cover the xenophobic and violent riots, after 10 years in the UK. In the midst of this, her estranged and sociopathic father, Nico, turns up unexpectedly and forces her into a road trip with him to help him prove his innocence in an apartheid crime which, along with other incidences of the time, is described poignantly yet vividly; what I would describe from a meta-perspective as a plea for us to look and see and, as Marli says, to remember that our story doesn’t begin or end in 1994.

Here’s what she had to say, confess, be forgiven for and be honoured for.

If you could have a dinner party with any five people in the world, who would you invite and why? Regardless of who I invited I would serve my wine in glasses found at http://www.kjokkenutstyr.net/

Oh my gosh. I would invite Gene Kelly because I have a massive problem with dance movies, as in I watch them whenever I can. And I have to confess, they range from the old school awesome classics like Dancing in the rain to trashy ones like Step up to the streets. [Here I confess to her that I have the same illness, but I forward the speaking parts in the trashy ones and only watch the dancing.]

Then I think someone like Margaret Atwood because I’ve always admired her writing, particularly the earlier works. And I must say, this is so weird because I have to think about what is important to me. I guess one would need someone entertaining or the dinner party could end up with those horrible, awkward silences. So I think Jeanette Winterson because she is entertaining and great. I’ve been attending some of her classes and have actually had dinner with her. [My face turns green with envy at this point.]

I feel like I should say a politician next and part of me wants to say Nelson Mandela but I feel like that’s pandering a little bit. So I actually think probably Obama. It would be interesting to see what he’s like as a real person behind the rhetoric. And then I think a comedian called John Oliver who’s on the Daily Show. So I think we’ve got a good mix of people now. Although four of my choices are entertainment based. Hmm… I wonder what that says about me?

What do you hope that people will take from your novel?

There are layers of hope, I suppose. There’s a part of me that hopes people will take all the weird meta-stuff in there [and there’s a lot in there, I’d like to add here] like the chapter titles and so on, but I think ultimately I would have to say that the major thing would be about the antagonism between your family and your history and your conscience. That’s really the problem for Jo [the main protagonist in Marli’s novel], and I used to think that this is a novel about what “home” is, but I’m realising more and more that, at the same time, it’s turning into something else for me. It still is partly about that, for example how a child like Jo steps out of the shadow of a father like Nico. And it is a South African story, but I don’t think it’s a South African story that is only relevant in South Africa. What it is for me, is a story about very different individuals and I hope that people don’t take those individuals as “standing in for the whole group” which I think South African readers tend to do. I think they tend to universalise aspects when they speak about novels and I hope that this is rather read as a narration of many different people and how complex they are, especially in different kinds of relationships, otherwise you lose the particularities of the novel and the creative process that went into creating the characters and the plot.

What made you choose to set the novel in 2008?

It’s very important for me to remind or show people that the narrative of South Africa doesn’t stop in 1994. People seem bored with South Africa now, like it’s old news. For example, my agent tried to get the novel published in the US and they won’t touch anything from South Africa. I guess in the publishing world some other African country is focused on right now and that also pits African countries against each other. I was 9 years old in 1994 so I think that other people can probably do a better job of rendering a story about it in a more evocative way than I can. 2008 was right before the Soccer World Cup and so there was a lot of momentum in the country. At the same time, people outside the country were writing about how it was the worst bloody idea in the world and that tourists will come here and get drunk and be more susceptible to crime and rape, because that’s of course all we do in this country [read: sarcasm] and then with the xenophobic violence, I just thought the setting was ideal. Actually I think we’ll still look back at 2008 and see it as an important year in South Africa’s history. You have all these things bubbling up beneath the surface while the country is simultaneously trying to move forward economically. Yeah, and I started writing the novel in 2009 so it was relevant and close enough to my experience.

I’m very interested in the protagonist and her agency as was discussed during your Open Book festival slot, but she made me so angry at times. I felt like she was a smart, strong individual and that she almost allowed or wanted Nico to manipulate her. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, it’s important to remember that she’s only 23 years old and still finding out who she is. I mean, that’s quite young to be sure of who you are. And she makes me angry too. Her reticence, for example, really bugs me and it makes things harder. Also, with one’s parents –Jo really wants to believe Nico. But then there’s also this level above that in her head where she can watch herself do it and try to justify both of their behaviour. So she’s conscious of the fact that Nico has this hold over her and that she wants to get out of it, but basically whatever she does she feels bad. So she can either turn him in and feel awful or listen to him, or she can be charmed by him, or even traumatised by him, and then feel appalled for having been taken in. Basically she’s stuck in this in this self-created loop of guilt. Both action and inaction blows up in her face. There are unwanted consequences to both decisions; neither leads to a happy conclusion. And she really still wants something from him, if not for her, then at least for him to say he didn’t love her mother. So at the end of the novel, she realises she needs to give up that expectation and she doesn’t pursue it anymore.

I really liked the confined space of the car and for me it almost became a metaphor of the “bubble” that South Africans had lived in for so many years. What made you think of the idea of this strange road trip that is partly a stripping of Jo’s agency, partly a reconnection – if a strange one – between father and daughter and partly the triggering of political memory?

Well, some of it was mechanical and some of it is a bit more profound. On the mechanical side of things, it was an easy way for Nico to control Jo and I needed to have their interaction with other people quite limited. But while I started writing the novel, I was writing an essay on trauma fiction and focusing on JM Coetzee’s Disgrace and Cormac McCarthy’s The road. Road novels are interesting because they tend to be towards a destination, you can track your progress and it’s about the countryside moving by and the people you meet. But in Jo and Nico’s case, they meet very few people and there is no destination. One of the meta-techniques I tried out was, for example, to talk about the road crumbling on the side or things that had melted into the tar and become hardened – things were either stuck or dissolving. So this journey is kind of a subversion or inversion of the usual road trip novel in that there’s no resolution at the end and it doesn't seem as if anything good is ever going to happen to these unfortunate people.

Another aspect that really interested me was the trash they collect in the car and never get rid of. I mean, usually one gets rid of your rubbish when you’re stopping to get food or petrol. What are your thoughts around that?

I think it’s part of Nico’s self-mythologising so he doesn’t let anyone in or let anything out of him in case it pierces that bubble and so I suppose it does have to do with their psychological and emotional “baggage” or rubbish really. [It’s almost like they’re incapable of letting go of this mess, I interject.] Well, I think you’re right actually. I think it’s something that happened without me realising that it was there, but I think that that’s a fair assessment of them as people. See, had I been “switched on” I would have had Jo throwing something out of the car at the end to show progress, but I don’t know that she necessarily would have.

Do you think of yourself as “political” and what does that mean for you?

I do. I think at the Open Book festival we’ve heard quite a lot about the personal being political and that rings true for me. I think I’m politicised around gender, race and class. Also, living in the UK, the primary differentiator between people is class. Here it’s seen as race but I personally think race, class and gender are quite similar. So yeah, there’s that internet phrase “check your privilege” now and I have been privileged and I’m aware of that. In the book, Nico’s witnessing and looking are in themselves political acts. But he chooses to look away or frames his view or knowledge in a way that leaves out the bad stuff or the hard stuff. In a South African context, for example, you can wear sunglasses and avoid having to interact with the beggars or people trying to sell stuff at traffic lights. That is a day-to-day political act whether you acknowledge it as such or not. In the UK, I’m trying to address these issues by belonging to a feminist group and I’m also a member of a socialist party which involves actions like campaigning, handing out flyers and all that sort of stuff. I basically don’t think that true equality is possible in a capitalist society so I’m very disappointed that the global movement is towards that despite the recent economic collapse. And I also think the free-market thing is rubbish. Basically, if you want a quip on how political I am: if I were to meet someone in whom I had a romantic interest and I found out they played golf, that would be a deal-breaker. All that space should be used for housing, food gardens or something in that line.

I love your title, especially in light of Nietzsche’s quote at the beginning.

I have given a name to my pain and call it ‘dog’: it is just as faithful, just as obtrusive and shameless, just as entertaining, just as clever as any other dog – and I can scold it and vent my bad moods on it, as others do with their dogs, servants and wives.

Why is pain in all its guises such an important and recurring theme for you?

I think pain is so important to me because it cuts to the heart of what it means to be a human and to be able to empathise. There are of course questions around how we communicate all these different kinds of pain and verbalise it, especially for a writer. I can’t be sure that other people experience pain in the same way I do, or that I can necessarily understand their pain fully, so it’s a very complex and fascinating aspect of human life. And actually (here comes the carrot), my second novel is about subjectivity and objectification so I’ve been thinking about this a lot. How, for example, do you explain to someone the physical or psychological pain you experience? And if the words fail you or if the words are not capable of communicating that pain truthfully or completely, how does someone who is already predisposed to not believing you understand you? So I suppose for me pain is intertwined with the failure of language and finding perhaps, behind the hollow words, some other way of communicating our different pains.

I thought that the search for Gideon in the book resembled the ideas of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Was that an intentional plot device?

I think he works on a few levels. He is the “bogeyman” that we can point to and blame everything on so he’s a totem for our guilt I guess, and also for Nico’s guilt. But I think in positioning him that way, the quest to find him takes on more weight because it remains impossible and so akin to Waiting for Godot. I wanted to highlight the difficulty of resolution and of pinning it all on one person. It’s more about our collective guilt and our collective inaction, but also the ability we have to re-collectivise and to then actually take action. And that could be positive or negative so we all need to take responsibility

What music do you listen to and who are your favourite bands or artists?

Ooh. My music taste is basically too eclectic to be considered good. I used to love the Back Street Boys when I was younger, but don’t worry, I don’t anymore. I really like Laura Marling, Andrew Bird, Arcade Fire and that kind of music, like The National. But I still think the album which speaks to my life the most (and I mean every single track), is Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged little pill.” [Okay, confession time, I have the original and the unplugged albums, but then so has Marli so it makes me feel just a little more justified and less embarrassed.] I also like Philip Glass a lot [who doesn’t?] and my favourite classical music is Handel’s Concerto Grosso. I missed the punk era so I’m afraid none of that speaks to me. I really like women with guitars and then the electronic stuff. Add a beat and I’m yours! I can dance to anything! So nothing super-cool. I don’t think I have what is considered “cool” taste, but I like anyone with an interesting voice and a good melody. It’s very easy to please me.

What are your favourite foods and drinks?

I’ve just discovered an amazing cocktail which is called Jack & Ginger and it’s made with Jack Daniels, Ginger Beer and then Ginger Bread Liqueur. It’s like dessert in a cup.

Then, I’m a vegetarian, and I really miss guavas and litchis. But of course in the UK they pronounce it “leyecheese” which drives me completely mad. And then I like sugary stuff but when I’m in South Africa I basically eat as much fruit and have as many amazing fruit juices as I possibly can. I think the sugar thing started in my childhood. Because we were not well-off, a treat for us would be toasted white bread with margarine and sugar on it.

Oh and I’ve recently discovered coffee so I feel like a proper grown-up now. Finally.

If you could be anyone else, who would you want to be and why?

OMG this is an amazing question. I think I’d want to be a man because I want to know what that must be like; how easy that is and also having your genitals on the outside of your body so it’s always out there for you to think about.

Hmm… who would I be? I think probably Nate Silver (a writer and American statistician who, for example, analyses election activities and so on) because he’s interesting, brainy, well respected, is trying to make a difference but is also at root a man with his genitals on the outside of his body and so he has a much easier time of life than women do.

Who would you have a secret love affair with?

Ooh! I would say Jeanette Winterson but I know her now so that would be a bit weird [introduce me please…] so I think A.M. Homes actually. [Good choice!]

And that’s the end folks!

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