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Ingrid Winterbach: Novelist (Interview).

Margaret Lenta: Your earlier writings were in Afrikaans and deal with Afrikaans people and their relations with each other. What were your reasons for choosing this subject-matter?

Ingrid Winterbach: My writing deals with people and their relations with each other. That is--very broadly of course--the subject-matter. The fact that the characters are mostly Afrikaans-speaking and that I write in Afrikaans is less a matter of choice. I happen to write best in my home language. I have also written--in Afrikaans--about non-Afrikaans speaking people.

ML: Although your concerns take root in Afrikaans settings and circumstances--the dorp, the Boer War, the history/continuity of the Afrikaans language--critical opinion recognises a 'transcending' dimension to your fiction: transcending nationalistic enclosures, transcending the past, accepting contemporary challenges. Could you talk about your purposes?

IW: Which do you mean: recurring concerns, or what I aim to achieve in my writing? What I aim to achieve in my writing is to write well. Recurring concerns: I've been writing for twenty-five years, my concerns have changed. History is a recurring concern: familial history, South African history, geological and geographical history, the history of the universe. Also art history. I have written about loss, and death, and chance, and contingency. Hopefully these concerns transcend nationalistic enclosures.

ML: Why are many of your characters, as in Cronje, scientists?

IW: I am interested in depicting the tension between what can be known rationally, and what cannot be explained. In Cronje, for example, Reitz, a geologist, goes to great lengths to get in touch with his dead wife. I am interested in contrasting a rational, scientific discourse (evolution, entomology, geology), with that which is less easily circumscribed--human affairs, if you like.

ML: To turn to the aesthetics of fiction, you are seen as an innovator. Whereas, say, Dan Sleigh's Eilande (2002) presented a mimetic rewriting of Cape Afrikaans history, Cronje favoured post-modern re-creations of the past. Do you write out of a tension between past and present, of Afrikaner inheritance and contemporary, global interconnections, or, as a novelist, between plaasroman realism and Sestiger fictionalisation?

IW: Cronje is my only historical novel and when writing it I was conscious that I was looking back with a contemporary sensibility. In that sense I don't think that I was trying to re-create, or even evoke a historical sense. The other novels are set in the present, where neither plaasroman realism--also a form of fictionalisation--nor Sestiger fictionalisation is particularly relevant to my writing.

ML:Who are your strongest influences in the Afrikaans canon or in literary achievement in general?

IW: Etienne Leroux was very important. I corresponded with him when I was eighteen, and he wrote a novel, 18-44, based on that correspondence. If I have to isolate two authors--and I've read many people and many people have impressed me--then it would be Saul Bellow and J M Coetzee. Saul Bellow for his erudition and humour, and Coetzee who keeps me on the straight and narrow with the example of his "stripped narrative exposition" (his phrase) and unflinching eye.

ML: Have the political and social changes following the election of 1994 and the new constitution affected your interests and your writing?

IW: My first three novels, Klaaglied vir Koos (1984), Erf (1986) and Belemmering (1990), were 'struggle' novels. The state of emergency certainly left a mark. Klaaglied vir Koos, for example, is about a woman whose husband leaves her to join an underground movement. With Karolina, things had already started changing. The novel concerns itself with the implications of that change for a small Free State town.

During the eighties there was a big debate about the writer's moral duty to write engaged novels. The country is liberated now; I can go on with whatever I want to go on with. But what novel does not reflect at least some of the country's social and political circumstances?

ML: Any contrast with Karolina Ferreira, written after February 2, 1990?

IW: Karolina Ferreira presents a stranger from Durban who arrives in search of a rare moth in a remote community. The novel explores what the men of the village reveal of themselves in their reactions to this city woman. If Karolina disrupts the rigid community she does so not only as someone from the city, but also as a woman. There's a moment where she says that she won't be taken seriously, and neither will Basil September, because she's a woman and he's a coloured.

ML: Any comments on your own response to allegiances and demystifications? Is there a single entity, 'Afrikaner', or 'Afrikanerdom'?

IW: When I wrote Bullerse plan (1999) we'd been living out of the country for eighteen months. I was writer in residence for a semester in Los Angeles at a small, private university, where I met many interesting people. Some of the characters in that novel are based--as far as this can be true, because a character is never entirely based on one person--on those people. In Buller se plan they've been transposed to a dorp; they speak Afrikaans; they have Afrikaans names; they have links with the Boer War (on Boer and British sides). But their interests and concerns have remained the same as the volksvreemde [strange to our people] characters they are derived from. Are they still Afrikaans characters? Have they become Afrikaners because they speak Afrikaans?

I was very conscious of putting these characters with their volksvreemde concerns and values in an Afrikaans context. Was my purpose to emphasise that the values of Afrikaners have changed? Or that an Afrikaans novel about Afrikaners could accommodate all manner of deviant and ostensibly un-Afrikaans characters?

ML: Do these people have large and philosophical preoccupations, such as might occur anywhere?

IW: I don't know about large and philosophical, but these characters would certainly be at home in any urban environment. The one runs an underground magazine from the dorp, one writes about lustmoord [crimes of passion], one is an internationally known painter. That is why the matter of Afrikaans characters, Afrikaans settings, Afrikaans concerns, is so problematic in my work. Buller se plan is set in an imaginary dorp to which these city people come out for weekends to chill. The main character comes to the dorp with a different purpose, and she meets here both the city slickers and some of the local inhabitants.

ML: Could it be that the definition of an Afrikaner as rural, conservative and a member of a reformed church has always been inaccurate and proscriptive?

IW: The Afrikaner hasn't been rural for a very long time. I do not want to define the Afrikaner; I can't do that. The word Afrikanerdom I have found offensive ever since at the age of seventeen I was asked by an aunt's Jewish husband--mockingly, although perhaps playfully--what I thought about Afrikanerdom. I have since become very much a 'lapsed Afrikaner,' but I do strongly object to stereotyping. I write in Afrikaans, my characters speak mostly Afrikaans, but I should hope that my work also explores 'unAfrikaans' themes. Which raises the questions: what is the norm, and are there typically Afrikaans themes? I have written about the larger, multiracial South African community. But in Afrikaans, of course.

ML: One critic (Du Plooy 2007) has found The Elusive Moth elusive, suggestive--the reader, we are told, is left to puzzle. Ambiguities, paradox, complexity--are these distinctive characteristics of your fictional intentions?

IW: I want the text to be dense. Tightly knit, carefully composed. I do not believe in tying up all the loose ends--in 'resolution' in a conventional sense.

ML: Andre Brink has for decades translated his Afrikaans novels into English; Marlene van Niekerk has had Triomf and Agaat translated into English. It's possible to suggest that Brink's decision in the 70s was mainly economic, but Van Niekerk's, especially in the case of Agaat, seems more complicated. What would be the position of an Afrikaans novelist today who refused translation? How would you understand his/her purposes?

IW: I can't think offhand of any Afrikaans novelist who would refuse translation, except Dot Serfontein, who belongs to an older generation and whose book is an autobiography. She's the last of an old order. The advantages of translation--well, without translation you would only be read in Afrikaans. If you're happy with that, fine. If you want to be part of a wider South African literature and reach a wider South African audience then you have to have your work translated. I can't think of any disadvantages.

ML: What about the immense amount of work--for the author, I mean?

IW: It's a schlep; it's time-consuming; it's expensive, but there's little one can do about that. You could of course complain about not being born an English speaker.

ML: You could start to write some of your work in English.

IW: I've written a novel in English; it wasn't a success, because I felt constrained. I simply didn't feel I had the same freedom I have in Afrikaans to take risks. It was important to write correctly, not to make mistakes on a basic level: the death of writing. It was like dancing on hot coals with iron shoes.

ML: The translated version of Karolina Ferreira was published in 2005, a decade after the novel's appearance. A great deal in South Africa, indeed in the world, had changed in the interim. Why was this novel chosen for your first venture into translation?

IW: I didn't choose the novel; someone else wanted to translate it. When nothing much happened to that translation, I decided to rework it some years later. And from that point there seemed to be a stronger impetus for translation coming from the side of publishers. Our move from the Western Cape to Durban, an English- and Zulu-speaking city, made the need for translation more urgent. Had I stayed on in Stellenbosch, it would probably still have happened, but not with the same urgency.

ML: Do the purposes of your novels change in translation? In To Hell with Cronje you seem to be exploring the attitudes of men and women at the end of a bitter war fought upon and over their own land--I use these words because neither British people nor Americans have known a conflict with foreigners on home soil for many generations--and the novel cannot revive or re-interpret memories for them as it might for Afrikaners.

IW: The purpose of the novel remains the same--the reception would be different for people who would presumably read it as a novel about war, and not about a war fought by their own people upon and over their own land.

ML: Karolina Ferreira was followed by Landskap met vroue en slang [Landscape with women and snake] (1996). I haven't read this novel. Its title, nonetheless, points to the fact that the woman character--her agency or consciousness, her catalytic effect--is a feature not only of The Elusive Moth, but also of To Hell with Cronje, where the character Niggie, with her red hair, has been likened to a trickster figure, and also of The Book of Happenstance where Helena, narrator, lexicographer, collector of archaic Afrikaans words, collector of shells, pits chance (toeval) against agency/ conscious direction/consciousness (toeverlaat). Do you work from a perception of women as intuitive, flexible, relational, prone to spirituality, and men as unbending and intellectual?

IW: No, not at all. In Cronje, for instance, the men are most of them traumatised by the war. Reitz, a geologist, smokes a concoction in order to get in touch with his dead wife. My female characters are often more inflexible, less intuitive than one would expect women to be. Karolina, for example, has difficulties in the emotional sphere. In The BookofHappenstance chance is not pitted against agency, but against refuge or solace.

ML: Niggie has attracted considerable commentary. You are complimented on your 'intertextuality': allusions to Christoffel Coetzee's Op soek na generaal Mannetjies Mentz (1998), Klaas Steytler's Ons oorlog (2000), Jan FE Celliers's (2000) Boer War diary. [See Botha and Van Vuuren 2007] Your own Buller se plan (1999) is focused on the war. Did you set out to contribute to a Boer War literary tradition? Was the impetus the centenary of the war?

IW: I think that war was very much in the air at the time of the centenary, but it actually features in my work right from the beginning, even if it's just by allusion. In Buller, the novel is framed by Buller's setback at Colenso. And in Cronje the war provides the setting of the novel. I have often said that the Anglo-Boer War represents my father's world to me. His father and elder brothers (much older than him; he was born in 1908) fought in it. And some of those stories he passed on to me.

ML: Niggie has invokedfrom critics several other current 'postcolonialisms'. We read of "Interfaces and Liminal Spaces: Survival and Regeneration in Niggie ". [See Du Plooy 2007] How have Dutch readers responded to your work? Any key differences from the local reception?

IW: One would expect Afrikaans readers to respond in a particular way because it's their history. Although the Afrikaans response has also been varied, obviously. An English-speaking and a Dutch audience would presumably read it more as a novel about war in general.

ML: There is a determination in some Afrikaans critics--Van Coller is an example--today to retain an Afrikaans literary system; others, Krog, for example, seem to wish to merge Afrikaans literature with other South African literatures. Others again prefer to link Afrikaans literature to a global map. How do you respond to such debates?

IW: I don't know if it would be possible ever to merge Afrikaans literature with other South African literatures, but I would like it to be part of a South African literature, because I think the separation between an Afrikaans literature and a South African literature in English has continued for too long. I think there has long been something like an animosity towards Afrikaans literature, partly because of the history of apartheid. The more that non-Afrikaans-speaking South Africans read of Afrikaans literature (in translation, of course), the less they will, hopefully, want to stereotype Afrikaners.

ML:And people outside South Africa?

IW: The same. Surely literature helps to nuance the reader's perceptions? Does good literature not reveal complexity and problematise typecasting?

ML: Two recent surveys of Afrikaans literature list developments such as retrievals of Cape history and doom, even apocalypse, in the new South Africa. In contrast, there is the challenge of new, creative intercultural relationships; contemporary treatments of male dominance; the female voice as no longer docile; the gay scene; private aches; the TRC; memory and identity. Your work touches on several of these concerns. What about identity? Has the loss of Afrikaner power, the threat to the language, changed this? What about the coloured Afrikaner?

IW: The Book ofHappenstance is certainly concerned with these questions, especially the threat to language. Would a common concern, throughout all my novels, be trying to define an Afrikaner identity? I'm asking that because I don't know.

ML: No, it doesn't seem that it is. But if identity is something that accrues all one's life, part of the way it accrues is through language. Many of the words in The Book of Happenstance which are falling out of the language are part of the rural vocabulary. If rural experience dropped out of Afrikaans, then the Afrikaans identity would be different.

IW: The rural experience has for a long time not been central to Afrikaner identity anymore. A considerable segment of Afrikaners has become urbanised. With urbanisation comes diversification.

ML: At the beginning of the nineteenth century, many Cape Dutch people saw two identities as available to them, that of the indigenous aristocrat, which they understandably preferred, and that of the African peasant, which the British thought appropriate to them. When do you think the bourgeois identity became not only available to Afrikaners, but chosen? In the 1930s, perhaps?

IW: I really don't know. I'm afraid I can't answer this.

ML: Has urbanisation made it impossible to write a plaasroman?

IW: Agaat is a plaasroman, a rewriting of a plaasroman, so it's still possible to write a plaasroman. Yes. But a plaasroman with an edge--like Agaat.

ML: Another concern of many writers is the end of the serious book, a concern not confined to Afrikaans literature. We hear that young people are not committed readers, but video/digital merchants. Your response to the 'death of literature'?

IW: Well, I still write novels, and I read novels, and I still believe in the novel. I hope that as long as I live there will still be novels around.

ML: Where to as a novelist after The Book of Happenstance?

IW: My most recent novel (to be published in early 2010) is set in Durban, like The Book of Happenstance. It's about a painter, it's about a family, it's about the relationship between two brothers. There are different motifs in the book--with every novel I hope to include a little more of the world.

I think the really great novel suggests that it contains the whole world. It doesn't--but it gives that impression.


Botha, Marisa and Helize van Vuuren. 2007. "Eksperiment en intertextualiteit in Niggie." Journal of Literary Studies 23(1): 63-80.

Celliers, Jan F E. 2000. Oorlogsdagboek van Jan F E Celliers, 1899-1902.

Stellenbosch: Genealogiese Instituut van Suid-Afrika.

Coetzee, Christoffel. 1998. Op soek na generaal Mannetjies Mentz. Cape Town: Queillerie.

Du Plooy, Heilna. 2007. "Interfaces and Liminal Spaces: Survival and Regeneration in Ingrid Winterbach's Niggie (Cousin)." In: Viljoen, H and C N van der Merwe (eds). Beyond the Threshold: Explorations of Liminality in Literature. New York: Peter Lang: 29-44.

Le Roux, Etienne. 1967. 18-44. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

Serfontein, Dot. 2009. Vrypas. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

Sleigh, Dan. 2002. Eilande. Cape Town: Tafelberg.

--. 2004. Islands. Trans. Andre Brink. London: Secker and Warburg.

Steytler, Klaas. 2000. Ons oorlog. Cape Town: Tafelberg.

Van Niekerk, Marlene. 1994. Triomf. Cape Town: Queillerie.

--. 1999. Triomf. Trans. Leon de Kock. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.

--. 2004. Agaat. Cape Town: Tafelberg

--. 2006. Agaat. Trans. Michiel Heyns. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.

Winterbach, Ingrid (Lettie Viljoen). 1984. Klaagheid vir Koos. Johannesburg: Taurus.

--. 1986. Erf. Johannesburg:Taurus.

--. 1990. Belemmering. Johannesburg: Taurus.

--. 1993. Karolina Ferreira. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

--. 1996. Landskap met vroue en slang. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

--. 1999. Buller seplan. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

--. 2002. Niggie. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

--. 2005. The Elusive Moth. Trans. Iris Gouws and Ingrid Winterbach. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

--. 2006. Die boekvan toevalen toerverlaat. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

--. 2006. To Hell with Cronje. Trans. Elsa Silke and Ingrid Winterbach. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.

--. 2008. The Book of Happenstance. Trans. Dirk and Ingrid Winterbach. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau.
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Author:Lenta, Margaret
Publication:Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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