Saturday, October 3, 2009

[Interview] Gisela Hoyle

Poet and novelist Gisela Hoyle was born in Barkly-West, in the Northern Cape of South Africa.

She attended Kimberley Girls High School and graduated with an MA in English from Rhodes University.

She taught at Rhodes University and then at various schools in South Africa. Currently, she lives and works in the UK.

The White Kudu (Picnic Publishing, 2010) is her first novel.

In this interview, Gisela Hoyle talks about her writing:

When did you start writing?

I have been writing since I was a child -- mostly poetry and mostly for occasions in the family or at school (I am a teacher).

I decided to get published about 18 months ago now -- because I had written my first complete novel, The White Kudu.

I took my manuscript to a Writers’ Clinic, where it was positively received, and I got some good advice on how to approach publishers; which I did.

How would you describe your writing?

Well I don’t think I’m a genre writer. I just write and let other people put it into categories.

The White Kudu has been described as both an Indiana Jones type of adventure story and a literary novel. I suppose this is because the plot follows this young geologist and his discoveries. These lead him to the local mythology -- which is what always seems to happen to Indiana Jones; and then the literary side, I suppose, has come from readers finding several layers of meaning in it, and perhaps the way it is written, I’m not sure. Also, because it is a story about stories and the role of narrative in defining identities, in the interaction between people and places.

Who is your target audience?

I don’t really write with a particular audience in mind -- I think ‘audiences’ are commercial categories for publishers, rather than real people. I’d like to think my writing would appeal to those -- of any age or gender or nationality.

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Writing about South Africa’s past is a challenge. I want to do that compassionately and truthfully.

South Africa’s past (and present still) was fraught with conflict and violence -- brought on by deliberate injustice. There are so many stories and versions of stories and they each will have some element of truth, but they will each also be utterly subjective and almost inevitably biased.

When I was growing up there, everything you said, the most ordinary daily details -- like what you had for breakfast -- were politicised; placed you in a camp, somehow. It was extraordinarily tense and loaded. So, how can one speak about it clearly, fairly, objectively? I think this is what the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings were trying to address -- speaking about such a past is always a risk: it risks being unfair, it risks being misunderstood and yet if there is to be a future, it must be done and done in a spirit of reconciliation. It was abused, of course it was, but it was an astonishingly brave thing, too.

For me, writing about it now, from another country means risking rose-coloured spectacles and nostalgia on the one hand, and dramatisation on the other; both of which will skew the real, the human story. I have tried to focus on individuals within such a situation of strong group identification and the resulting violence -- what does it mean to live your life, and live it decently, in such a world?

In the writing you are doing, which authors influenced you most?

Probably mostly South African authors, such as Marguerite Poland, Andre Brink and Etienne van Heerden, who all share an interest I think in the mythology of South Africa and the relationship of various people (coloniser and native, missionary, shaman and farmer) to the land and the landscape.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

Well, The White Kudu is set in the place where I grew up: a farm in the Northern Cape of South Africa. The place is a mission farm in an area, where land ownership was deeply contested -- and the questions of who the land belongs to, whether it can belong to anyone ; or whether it is not rather a question of people belonging to the land have always interested me. Also because of my own hybrid nationality. The time is the mid to late 90s -- so early post-Apartheid South Africa.

What are your main concerns as a writer?

I am interested in language: its role in defining our identities and how that works in multi-cultural or more specifically hybrid societies.

It is, I think, especially through stories that we achieve an understanding of ourselves and our societies. So The White Kudu is really a novel about stories -- their power over us, their beauty and their danger. But also their power to connect people and to help with understanding history.

You make reference to "hybrid nationality” and "hybrid societies". What do you mean by this?

I mean people and societies which are not defined by a single culture and that have been so for a time long enough to feel that they belong to both -- so, more than just multi-cultural.

I grew up in a German-speaking family with very close ties to Germany, as my parents worked for the Berlin Mission Society; but I also grew up in South Africa, went to South African schools, am ‘at home’ in South Africa. I belong to both. I think it is best expressed by a kind of ‘both and’; rather than ‘either/or’ approach to life -- it is always looking from two angles at once, and being OK with that.

Do you write every day?

I do try to write every day -- this is not always possible, especially during very busy times of term.

I get up early and write between 4 and 6 o’clock in the morning -- before school or anyone else in the family is even up. I love the quietness of that time.

I simply made a decision that a day in which I have not written is a day wasted and so I get up make a cup of tea and write.

At times I set myself a word target or just aim to get a certain scene or poem written. It ends because the rest of the day starts and I have to get to work.

How many books have you written so far?

The White Kudu is my first novel to be published.

It is the story of a young geologist, who is posted to a farm in the fairly remote rural area of the Northern Cape. He encounters there the legend of a white kudu as well as the story of his predecessor’s scandal. During his search for mineral wealth he uncovers an ancient skeleton, which adds another dimension the land claims battle raging in the area at the same time.

How did you choose a publisher for the book?

I chose Picnic Publishers because they stated very clearly that they were interested in the writing, the story or the poetry and not in the biography of the author. It is a small independent publisher, which is great as one stays far more involved in the entire process of publishing than I imagine one would with a bigger publisher.

Which were the most difficult aspects of the work that you put into the book?

There is quite a lot of anthropology in the novel -- that was an interesting challenge to work into the story. It was important for understanding the resolution, but it is not the sort of conversation people outside universities have much. So, I needed not to get too involved in that -- but it was very tempting, because it is so interesting.

What did you enjoy most?

I really enjoyed ‘reliving’ many of the stories of my childhood -- also doing the research on them and finding them to be a part of the authentic mythology of San people of South Africa. So the most difficult was also the most enjoyable, really.

What sets The White Kudu apart from other things you've written?

The strong mythological content makes it very different to many other books. The only other work I published is poetry, so as a novel it is very different. As a story it is also very closely linked to very specific places in the world -- poetry is not like that, or my poetry is not.

In what way is it similar?

The interest in language, in the power of naming things is present in all my work and the power language has to make connections: between people and the place in which they live, between people. The way shared language can create a sense of belonging -- but also the power of language to confuse and alienate.

Questions around who owns the land and who the land belongs to are contentious in many parts of Africa. Do you see a time when these questions will be resolved?

Yes, land ownership is very contentious, because it goes to the heart of the injustice of South Africa’s existence. When I was growing up, it was something constantly looming over our lives. The Nationalist government at the time did not trust the Berlin Mission at all and were constantly threatening to appropriate the land. So I grew up knowing that ‘home’ did not belong to us -- we were outsiders, from all sectors of South African society, but that did not prevent the feeling of belonging to the place. And I think that is perhaps a useful distinction: people belonging to the land and the land belonging to people.

People, for various reasons, have a right to live in a certain land: politically in South Africa the white farmers as a group had no right, because they had come by that land unjustly. But then, when you consider a farmer individually, who has worked the land, has got to know the land, has loved the land and taken care of it, perhaps even suffered for it -- what does that mean for ownership?

On the other hand, there are traditional claims to land ownership, there are blood-ties to land -- and the facts of stealing and war and conquest in history remain, too.

The farm I grew up on had been ‘given’ by the queen to the Mission Society as a refuge for those Black people, who had become Christian and were being persecuted by their people for it. So it occupies an interesting, ambiguous place in that history: it was both taken from the people but also being used for the people. The descendants of these communities still live there and the process of establishing their ownership of it is underway.

I have no answer to these problems but think that if history is so intractable, why can we not think about it practically -- what would be best for the land? I do not think that individual people owning an unworkably tiny piece of land as restitution for the past is a practical solution or is even fair in any real sense of the word.

The more I think about it, the more I find the concept of owning a piece of the earth strange. Perhaps we should only own time on the land, rather than the land itself?

What will your next book be about?

My next book is a coming of age story. It is also set in South Africa, but in the Knysna Forest in the Western Cape and further back in time -- still in the Apartheid era.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

I think it is very much too early to tell.

Possibly Related Books:

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Related Interview:
[Interview] Jason Blacker, author of "Black Dog Bleeding", Conversations with Writers, September 30, 2009

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