‘Literary Doyen’, André P Brink in conversation with Victor Dlamini on Philida, 17 May 2014, Franschhoek Literary Festival.
“It needs simple bloody cheek for me to deliver me to her position.” André P Brink is responding to my question from the audience whether the recent polemic of white ventriloquism, spearheaded by poets Ronelda S Kamfer and Nathan Trantaal, renders him nervous with regards to his portrayal of the slave woman after which his historical novel Philida is named. “Nervous would be too weak a word,” he affirms, “but without the primitive faith of jumping into the story … the dark of the story … knowing that you may be thoroughly wrong … I cannot try to make sense of my world and I cannot do that if I cannot write.”
The narrative of slavery in South Africa is indeed a story steeped in darkness as Brink’s discussant, Victor Dlamini, suggests. He wants to know of Brink whether we have dug deep enough. “So far, not enough …We are scared of where this voyage will take us…” It certainly took him to a scary place. While doing archival research on the Franschhoek farm where large parts of his novel are set, he came across records of his own ancestors’ involvement in slavery. It came as a “shocking revelation” but he considers it “a wonderful acknowledgement” of a very essential part of his being: “Something I cannot get away from.” Instead, he jumped into it.
Although he claims that it was Philida who had found him, and not the other way around, the challenge was to find her voice, considering the sparseness of slave dialogue in historical annals. He was reminded of observing, as a child, his father, a magistrate, “transcribing in his beautiful handwriting, ordinary people’s struggle to express themselves, to tell their life stories, or parts thereof, at least.” For Brink writing means “paying witness to the magistrate in [his] head”. In forging a language for Philida, he tried to remember the sound of his Sotho nanny’s lullabies during “that green paradise of youthfulness” (quoting Baudelaire), before the “tragic inductance into maturity and division”.
Throughout the discussion Brink’s “answers” to Dlamini are anecdotal, if not elusive, and it leads him mostly to recollections of his childhood in the rural Free State from which he draws a sense of his rootedness in this country. So, for instance, he recalls playing with black workers and he remarks on “childrens’ natural tendency to affirm their togetherness” in response to Dlamini’s question on the “complex narrative of Philida and Frans’s sexual relationship.” Possibly Brink is deflecting the question, subtly prompting the audience to rather read the novel and to let the text speak for itself? On the other hand, he might be hinting at the powerful ambiguity of sex and the dubious metaphors of unity, harmony and consent it so often evokes in post-Apartheid literature, aligning it with the tenuousness of a child’s “innocence”.
Maybe it is merely his “assertion of his freedom as a writer”, another phrase recurrent throughout the discussion. One such strategy, Brink, explains, is through the “guest appearances” of characters from earlier novels, such as A Chain of Voices, in Philida. “The more bizarre these appearances are, the more pleasing it is to write!” He had “fortunately never yielded to the temptation of rewriting an earlier novel” but it seems as though the travelling of characters from preceding texts into later ones gestures a sustained, if ambivalent relationship with what has gone before, the essence precisely of Philida as a portal to a 1830s South Africa.
Brink’s ambivalence to the past bleeds into the present. He considers the Ministry of Arts and Culture’s investments in projects of “social cohesion” a “nebulous ideal” as he argues, “we are defined by what divides us.” However, he suggests that it is precisely in this “green paradise” where he finds a clue of what it means to be South African. Brink tells of recently overhearing children at play, inventively changing their game form playing they are cats, dogs, cowboys and Indians. Finally one of them came up with the best idea: “Let’s play we are children!” “Perhaps,” Brink proposes, “we should all begin to play we are South Africans.” What precisely that means for him is not yet clear; Brink is playing in the dark after all. Perhaps it is for the “divided” readers of his novels to decide.