The most complicated, fraught, and in some ways, consistent relationship of my life has been with Johannesburg. Every effort to leave seems to see me return though choice or obligation.
Johannesburg was written during the first December I was back in that city after living in rural Suffolk for 7 years. On my return, I found the city physically and emotionally overwhelming and extremely confronting after the soft voices and rustling hedgerows of rural England. It was in this destabilising even violent environment that I began to write, with urgency, realising that as soon as I found my land legs again and had lost the eye of an outsider, the rasp and blade of the city’s energy would no longer be accessible to me.
A book which had influenced me greatly in the preceding year was Deborah Levy’s short story collection, Black Vodka. I read it in one sitting which afforded it the feeling of a strangely fragmented novel and one which, in the end, is an astonishing love song for Europe. It was for me reminiscent of Kieslowski’s film trilogy, Three Colours: Red, White,Blue another paean to the democratic project.
Apart from the immense effect Mrs Dalloway had on me when I first read it nearly twenty years ago, and Woolf’s work in general, her novel’s components made it an obvious scaffold. Woolf’s nakedly exhilarating love for London and her ability to painfully excavate moments of redemption, even among the worst of days, chime very closely with my own strategy to surviving Johannesburg, and indeed, life.
Further, I wanted to interrogate who the daughters and grand daughters of Mrs Dalloway and Virginia Woolf would be today? How would Woolf’s women find themselves living? What would be the results of their apparent emancipation? She may not have had daughters of her own, but readers of her work all become her descendants and inheritors. I was keen for my female protagonists to be as comfortable with her language and heart as her natural daughters might have been.
I did not re-read Mrs Dalloway prior to writing Johannesburg as I felt this might constrain me and, of course, terrify me into silence. I read three pages of The Hours and abandoned it for the same reasons. Already the project of writing a “South African Novel” as a white woman was enough to raise a near crippling imposter complex. I had worked very hard in my debut to avoid writing a South African novel.
I wrote the first draft of Johannesburg in the four weeks of December 2013 (not allowing myself the indulgence of self-reflection and guided stylistically by two words: depth and speed). Within a week of beginning work, Nelson Mandela’s death was announced. It was an extraordinary time in the city, deeply affecting (even now) and one which ultimately provided the tone and temper of Johannesburg. More than that, it announced the size of the heart and the temperature of the blood that would support the very simple story of a single day, characters across a city-scape, culminating in a party.)
Post-Apartheid Johannesburg (and South Africa in general) has much in common with Post World War One London - both are societies which still bear the scars of a traumatising and fracturing political and social experience. Each has their own war wounds. These are both societies which, eager to forget their past, immerse themselves in the frivolous, the acquisitive. Parties. The country, the cities and crucially, individuals are however still victims of a long standing trauma, often to the point of pathology. This is the trauma of violence, loss, de-humanisation and the constant proximity of death even as these societies become rabid consumers of unblemished newness
Also, I do believe, and hoped to convey through Johannesburg, that the true honouring of the democratic project only begins with a constitution. True democracy must become a personal activism to extend justice (by which I mean love) to everyone - the homeless hunchback, the policeman firing live rounds at protestors, the millionaire mine boss, the domestic worker. With Johannesburg I hoped to extend the democratic project to its most potent potential even if only within the limited context of its pages. In this sense it is, for better or worse, both a love song to a city and a manifesto on love.
JOHANNESBURG will be published by Corsair, 3 Aug, 2017
IMAGES: both are stills from South African artist William Kentridge's OTHER FACES, 2011. His work has influenced me hugely but for in writing JOHANNESBURG, his images held particular resonance.