[Interview] Bettina Wyngaard

South African novelist, Bettina Wyngaard made her debut as an author with the publication of Troos vir die gebrokenes (Umuzi, 2009) - a novel about three generations of Afrikaans-speaking black women, dealing with issues like domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and crime.

The novel was subsequently shortlisted for the Jan Rabie Rapport Prize, which is awarded to a debut or early work characterised by fresh and innovative Afrikaans prose.

In this interview, Bettina Wyngaard talks about her writing:

What made you decide you wanted to be a published writer?

I’m not even sure that it was a decision, as much as an urge, a compulsion, if you will, to return to writing.

I write mostly in Afrikaans, but have never really felt comfortable with the Afrikaans literature that is available out there. I felt it did not really reflect my reality, with the result that I read mostly English.

Eventually, I realised that instead of complaining and bemoaning the lack of fiction reflecting my reality, I could be the voice telling those unheard and untold stories. So, I identified a story and a milieu that I could identify with, and that isn’t really portrayed in literature, and started writing.

There is very little fiction written in the sometimes very informal Afrikaans used in Troos vir die gebrokenes, addressing the issues that affect “real” people.

The language in most Afrikaans books is often stilted and formal, so that it leaves the reader uncomfortable, as if something is missing. I found it difficult to relate to those characters.

Why do you think the literature is like that?

At a guess, I would say it is because no one has been prepared to risk doing things differently.

There have always been Afrikaans writers who challenged the status quo and addressed social issues, but the vast majority preferred writing romantic fiction, for which, of course, there probably is a far greater market.

It could also be that the memory of past censorship has made writers more wary of taking risks in their writing.

How would you describe your own writing?

Social commentary, but packaged to appeal to a popular audience.

I shine a spotlight on relevant social issues affecting women in the hopes that I will get readers to think differently about these issues.

I don’t believe that all writers everywhere should only write about social issues. There is a definite place for fantasy and escapist fiction. Having said that, however, social commentary holds up a mirror to society, daring the reader to change their thinking and/or behaviour. I believe this to be a vitally important function of writing.

Who is your target audience?

Afrikaans-speaking adults with a social conscience.

What motivated you to start writing for this audience?

I believe that there is not enough fiction in Afrikaans that address social concerns, and that there is always need for that sort of writing.

Which, would you say, are some of the most pressing issues affecting South Africa today?

Crime, especially corruption and gender based violence, poverty, the ongoing AIDS crisis ...

We, as South Africans, have this tendency to believe that government should fix everything that is wrong, and that we are absolved from doing anything. We need to change that mindset - it is all our responsibility to ensure that our society is held morally accountable.

If we all work together, we can make a difference.

Which authors influenced you most?

I have mostly been influenced by social commentators such as Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, as well as the natural philosopher, H. D. Thoreau. They write about issues I’m passionate about, using words as a means of exposing injustice, but doing so in compelling, beautiful prose.

Have your own personal experiences influenced your writing in any way?

I’m not sure that any writer can divorce their writing from their life experiences. Certainly, in my own case, I have found that my writing only ring true if I write about things I know about, or can convincingly imagine.

In order to convince the reader to suspend their disbelief, the writer must be able to authoratively paint a picture of the events, the characters and the world those characters inhabit.

It’s important that my writing is authentic and accurate. As a result, I do quite a lot of research before I start writing. I’ll often interview people, familiarise myself with the environment I’m writing about, and ask loads of questions

What are the biggest challenges that you face?

Finding time to write. I generally set time aside over weekends to do some writing.

When I have a publishing deadline, I’ll write everyday. Otherwise, I write over weekends, but only when I have something to say, or am trying to explore an idea.

Writing is meant to be fun, and trying to force it, takes the joy out of creating characters and the world they inhabit.

When you do write, how does each session start? How do you proceed? How do you know when to stop?

I try not to do any reading for a few days before I start writing - to clear my mind of all clutter. When I write, I only listen to classical music, so no songs with words to interfere with my thinking. I choose the music to go with the mood I want to create in the piece I’m writing.

I always have an outline of what I want to write, even though the actual writing often meanders far away from the outline!

I stop when I lose focus and concentration, or when the plot starts losing interest to me. If I’m not spellbound, neither will the reader be.

How many books have you written so far?

One, an Afrikaans book called Troos vir die gebrokenes, published by Umuzi, an imprint of Random House in July 2009.

Troos vir die gebrokenes is about three generations of Afrikaans speaking black women, dealing with various social issues, such as domestic violence, alcohol abuse, crime, the effect it has on them and how they overcome. It is a story of hope, of the human spirit overcoming affliction.

Given that Afrikaans is a language which a generation or more of black women will have resisted, at one time or the other, is this tension between the language and the people who are using it reflected at all in the novel?

No, I deliberately did not take any stance on the language. The characters deal with issues, like poverty, like gender-based violence, that are far more pressing for them. Adding issues around language would have taken the focus away from the main message, which deals with hope and empowerment of women.

How long did it take you to write it?

From conceptualising to finalisation, about nine months

How did you chose a publisher for the book?

Random House has a reputation as a publisher of excellent material, and I wanted to work with them. It never even occurred to me to send my manuscript elsewhere.

What advantages and/or disadvantages has this presented?

Working with a group of dedicated people who really set the bar high, forces me to constantly evaluate the quality of my own writing. Having an ego, or being possessive of one’s work, is not even an option!

How do you deal with this?

Write, rewrite, and rewrite again until I’m happy with the result.

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

Writing about serious issues without striking a depressive note.

The challenge for me was to put my characters in extremely dark situations, but to have them retain a hopeful outlook.

It is a very delicate balance to maintain in life, and trying to use words to portray it without making your audience feel manipulated, is tricky.

I find that taking a step or two back from the work, and really looking at it critically, helps. Also, getting constant feedback from others.

Which aspects of the work did you enjoy most?

The whole creative process.

Contrary to common perception, writing is a collaborative process, and having a team of talented people co-creating with me, is probably the ultimate buzz - seeing my baby raised by a village, in a manner of speaking!

What sets Troos vir die gebrokenes apart from the other things you've written?

Troos is my first work of fiction, everything else has been factual

It is similar to other things I've written because it has a strong emphasis on gender issues, although it is approached from a different perspective to the more academic writings that I’ve done.

What will your next book be about?

Corrective rape, so it’s again about a gender issue.

I’d rather not divulge more than that - I find the story evolves almost without my input, so the plot I work on now, may no longer be applicable a week from now.

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

As a debut writer, I’d have to say getting my first book published by the first publisher I submitted it to!

When did you start writing?

I’ve always written, even as far back as primary school. In fact, my first published piece appeared in our school newsletter in my Grade 8 year. I stopped writing for number of years during tertiary education, and when I started working.

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