Dancing with Rhumba

Film to Fiction: Michele Magwood in conversation with Elaine Proctor. Franschhoek Literary festival, 11 May.


Elaine Proctor, esteemed film maker and newly published novelist, enters the room with the elegance of an artist not only in her physical appearance, but also in the air she carries of a woman who has seen several sides of the world. Her first novel, Rhumba, has just hit the bookshelves, laden with a profound expressivity and a richness of visual description which are not surprising in view of Proctor’s work as screenwriter.

More and more contemporary writers are producing novels with a greater-than-usual amount of visual appeal in their narratives. Proctor believes this is directly related to the existence of an overwhelmingly visual world in which events seldom occur individually, but rather manifest themselves as single events within a larger sequence.

Books and films often “pollinate one another,” Proctor suggests, with narratives being inscribed in an increasingly imaged-based language. One refrains from merely telling a story – one shows it, pictorially.

Having moved from the world of film to writing, Proctor is acutely aware of the vast differences between these two domains. Words undoubtedly have greater power within a novel. This power manifests in the voice in which a novel is written. The voice can be nuanced and the written words are usually read individually by the audience. In film, however, an entirely different road-map is employed – and the audience must remain captured in order for them to stay interested in, and intrigued by, the film. Readers naturally spend more time with a book, feeling the force of words, sentences and voice. Proctor found herself captivated by the potential attentiveness and deep exploration of that a narrative text offers.

Rhumba was initially written as a film script, and it is easily recognisable as a “visual” writing. Its opening paragraphs, depicting the playful hunting of doves by a small Congolese boy in London, expressively convey the picture of a boy at play with nature under the piercing rays of the sun. Proctor crafts an unforgettable scene of this immigrant boy hunting doves for his dearly missed mother. After being sent to London for his own safety owing to the increasing occurrence of human trafficking, the young Flambeau awaits his mother’s arrival. His excitement and love are powerfully evoked in the narrative.

Rhumba, then, becomes the story of a ten-year-old boy on a quest to find his mother. His deep connections with a Scottish girl, Eleanor, and her Congolese boyfriend, Knight, tell a deeper story of love between friends and comrades.

The wonderful symbolism of Knight as sapeur – an exquisite Congolese dresser – conveys the hidden trauma and despair among Congolese immigrants in London. Knight’s impeccable dress signifies his refinement of heart, mind and inner world. He is able to hide the hardships of his life behind the veil of his unimpeachable appearance. Throughout her narrative, Proctor conveys Knight’s empowerment through this armour and its protection against the realities of the life he has been forced to live.

Proctor’s affective public reading of the first chapter made it impossible to prevent an elaborate visual tableau from forming in one’s mind. She ended her reading with the notion that Flambeau had stolen the heart of the Scottish Eleanor, and my first thought was that he had stolen mine, too.