Rehana Rossouw’s critically acclaimed debut novel, What Will People Say?, was shortlisted for the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature, and won a Humanities and Social Sciences Award for best single-authored novel in 2017. She chatted to The JRB Editor Jennifer Malec about her much anticipated new book, New Times, which is set in Cape Town in the mid-nineteen-nineties, as dark edges around the rainbow nation are starting to show.
Jacana Media, 2017
Jennifer Malec for The JRB: You’ve said that New Times was, in one way, motivated by the Fees Must Fall movement. What had you seen in today’s student activists that prompted you to write a novel in response?
Rehana Rossouw: I started writing the book in a fit of anger with Fees Must Fall activists after an interaction with some of them who were advocating violence as a justifiable response to the government’s intransigence. At great personal cost, my generation battled a violent state and established a democratic system that allows peaceful protest. I am still suffering the repercussions of the violence I witnessed from the nineteen-seventies to the nineteen-nineties and I wanted the student leaders to understand that they risked inflicting on their followers a lifetime of pain. My anger reached boiling point when students burned libraries and art.
The other refrain of the Fallists was that Nelson Mandela was a sellout. On this I agreed, and I wanted to show how he shot down our dreams. I covered Parliament during his presidency and saw how Mandela dismantled the Reconstruction and Development Programme and replaced it with a policy that led to massive unemployment and astounding inequality. I saw how much effort he put into appeasing Afrikaners; and how he largely ignored poverty, Aids and corruption.
The JRB: While I was reading the novel it struck me that it’s almost reverse speculative fiction. If spec-fic shows the darkness in a time of hope, being the future, your novel shows the darkness in a time of hope, being the past, 1995, a time when the ‘rainbow nation’ was still alive for most South Africans. Just as we can invent futures, your book shows how we invent our past. Was this something you were thinking about when you were writing?
Rehana Rossouw: There was much happening while I was writing New Times that took me back to the nineteen-nineties and made my task so much easier. The phrase ‘radical economic transformation’ was gaining currency again—this was the ANC’s promise when it came to power. The Penny Sparrow race debacle was yet another shattering of the rainbow nation myth. While my colleagues in the media unearthed details of the Gupta family’s corruption, I reminded them how many politicians have had their hands in the taxpayer cookie jar since Mandela’s presidency. The outcome of my Parliamentary cohort’s reportage on Sarafina II, Virodene, Travelgate and the arms deal was that Tony Yengeni went to jail for a few months and the crookery grew from millions into billions of rands. Mandela removed ethical colleagues from their positions when they blew the whistle on corruption in Parliament, and ethical politicians like Pravin Gordhan and Thuli Madonsela were being hounded while I wrote New Times. I wanted to show that the past is still haunting our present.
The JRB: Ali, a Muslim, says she finds a ‘peaceful immersion in my people’s rituals’, and yet she feel her religion does not allow her to be truly herself, a non-heterosexual, outspoken, Doc Martens-wearing career woman. Was this paradox something you wanted to unpick in the novel?
Rehana Rossouw: Aliyaah is a Muslim Doc Martens-wearing career woman acclaimed in her family and community. Despite being hopelessly in love with a woman, she’s not sure that she is gay—she perves every attractive man she meets. But she knows for sure that there is no space for lesbians in her community, which is an attitude that persists today. Ali is critical of some practices that have crept into the religion. But Muslim women are in professions and leadership positions across the world. Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, wears a scarf to work every day and so did Benazir Bhutto. The only paradox to unpick is why some men use their faith as a weapon to oppress women; and why some women tolerate it. They all know that the prophet Muhammad (PBUH) respected women and had them in his ranks as equals when he went to war against the infidels.
The JRB: Ali is very in tune with her world, and often feels her emotions as a physical object, a weary load ‘melting into the mattress’, her ‘tendrils of grief’ washed away by the morning air. And yet she’s very out of tune with her own emotional state and how to heal it. By the end of the novel, she seems to be coming to a kind of peace with her ‘double life’. Do you think this is the most viable option for someone in her position?
Rehana Rossouw: Ali has PTSD, a condition that I have had since my teens as a result of witnessing horrific violence. It is an occupational hazard for comrades and journalists; The Bang Bang Club best describes the perils we faced reporting the Struggle against apartheid. I was only diagnosed in my mid-thirties, I know how bewildering it is to experience whiplash emotions when you don’t know that you have a condition dredging them up. I had intended to use some of my experiences in the novel, but four months after I began writing my father died and I had my worst bout of PTSD so far. So every description of Ali’s emotions and symptoms in the book are mine at the time of writing. PTSD is triggered by fear, grief and anxiety. When it hits it traps me in a recent event or drags me back to my childhood. Therapists recommend talking about the traumatic events to mimimise their impact. But I generally fear them, try futilely to bury them and cope by ‘doing’ in an attempt to escape ‘feeling’—and this time, my ‘doing’ resulted in a book!
The JRB: Similarly, Ali says she won’t force her friend Lizo to examine his memories, as she knows ‘exactly how much it hurts when you look at the past’, and yet one way she deals with her flashbacks is to print out the news report she wrote about the boy, murdered by police, who haunts her, and stick it up on her bedroom wall. Do you think it’s possible for both of these tactics to work?
Rehana Rossouw: My therapist reckons that the violence I’ve witnessed is equivalent to a soldier on active duty—I have been at the scenes of bomb blasts and gunfire that resulted in deaths, and listened often to other people relating their torture and trauma. When I have a flashback I’m dragged away from my present back to that event, and I experience the same levels of fear, anger or grief as I had when it happened. No matter how many times I’ve had the flashback, the feelings it stirs never diminishes. I can’t figure out how to covert them into memories that lose the power to inflict pain. Ali has just discovered that she has PTSD and what she needs to do; I hope with all my heart that her tactics work. She is surrounded by people who love her, that helps.
The JRB: At the launch of New Times at Love Books you made the point that there are damaged people from both sides of the Struggle, and that you feel for former members of the South African Defence Force, as at least former freedom fighters ‘have the comfort of victory’. The spiky friendship between Ali and Servaas, the Afrikaans sports editor at New Times, illustrates this like-mindedness. Was this a difficult relationship to write?
Rehana Rossouw: Not at all. The first person who suggested that I had PTSD was an Afrikaner colleague with the condition. There are men who were conscripted into the SADF in my family and among my colleagues. I have had conversations with them that have been honest, painful and healing. In fact, the first person who spoke to me after the discussion at my book launch at Love Books was a man who had been in the SADF. He told me he had lost some of his hearing in a bomb blast. We exchanged a fierce hug. PTSD is a lonely condition. Everyone else has moved on, they’re celebrating the rainbow nation in the rugby stands. No one voted for the National Party, and colonialism and apartheid were good for everyone. Some men are ashamed of what they did during their national service, which is why it was so useful to give Ali a similar shame that she was forced to bottle up. When you are surrounded by people who don’t want to remember what happened, or people who deny that it happened, it is impossible to heal.
The JRB: The novel illustrates, quite powerfully, one of Nelson Mandela’s gravest mistakes, his mishandling of the looming Aids crisis, and thus touches on the emergence of his infallibility. And yet when Ali meets with Mandela towards the end of the novel it’s a very moving moment, and it means a lot to her, showing that the much-repeated catchphrase of the current generation that ‘Mandela was a sellout’ is perhaps overly simplistic. Was this something you wanted the reader to think about?
Rehana Rossouw: From my limited interaction with Nelson Mandela I know for sure that he would take time out of his busy schedule to playfully comfort a young woman who once told him how much she missed her daddy. He was our Tata Madiba at a time when we needed someone to end our violent squabbling and to teach us to live together. Despite his secret compromises with big business and many other missteps, Mandela ranks very high in the charts of the world’s most charismatic political leaders. I could feel his power when he stepped into a room. The current generation may be right when they label him a sellout but it infuriates me when they dismiss how much he sacrificed so that they could enjoy the right to protest and criticise their government.
The JRB: When the unrequited love of Ali’s life abandons their plan to vote for the first time together, and spends the momentous moment with a new love interest, she says: ‘The happiest day of my life has turned to shit.’ At a structural level, the novel layers the politics of the time with Ali’s personal journey. Did you find this historical aspect to the book a useful plotting tool?
Rehana Rossouw: People are present at every moment in politics—it isn’t a big marquee event for presidents and other politicians. Ali carries her pain everywhere, and it spews out when she goes to the polling station for the first time. It was a useful device to show the numbing effect of PTSD, for millions of South Africans that was the happiest day of their lives. I’ve laced the book with my symptoms: walking blindly into traffic, crippled with cramp, isolated from people, constantly on guard against attacks, crushed by fear yet lashing out with an uncontrollable anger.
The JRB: The demonic Iblis that shadows Ali when her angry emotions overpower her is so vividly described that despite its horrifying nature it’s one of my favourite things in the book. I was wondering how that idea came to you.
Rehana Rossouw: The constant symptom of my PTSD is an anger that roars up from the pain of the past. I can’t control it. My posture changes, my voice changes. It feels like an exoskeleton on my spine. Some Malay people believe that demons and djinns are present in everyday life (they sweep the evil out of their houses every day before maghrieb), so the Iblis was a useful metaphor for Ali’s externalised pain.
The JRB: The book is peppered with wonderful observations and turns of phrase: The CEO who ‘blew the whistle into a deafening silence’; a character presents gifts ‘like a dog lifting its leg on my family’; knuckles that ‘burn like spun glass before they erupt’; and this passage: ‘There must be hundreds of people who died in the Struggle like leaves dropping silently off trees; trampled into the mud when democracy arrived like a spring shower and we all went to dance in its sweetness.’ Are these the kinds of observations you jot down in a notebook, or do they come to you in full flow?
Rehana Rossouw: I intend to be a writer who keeps a notebook to record my clever thoughts and stunning phrases I overhear, but I haven’t succeeded. I strive to make my metaphors appropriate to my characters’ cultures.
The JRB: One piece of advice I give people is: Don’t read this book hungry! Your description of Malay food is so evocative. And of course you also delve into the history of certain dishes, akni versus briyani, for example, and by extension the convoluted and fascinating history of Malay culture and language. Is this a subject close to your heart?
Rehana Rossouw: Both of my grandmothers were born in Bo-Kaap so I have roots there. The community has a culture that is distinct from the rest of the country and their food is one cultural signifier that many people recognise. But a subject that is close to my heart is my slave ancestry. This is a topic that has been virtually banished from present-day discourse. Many white South Africans frown on black people who dwell on the past, especially when we point out that the ‘civilisation’ they brought to this country was built on the inhumane forced dislocation and ownership of millions of human beings.
The JRB: The New Times newsroom is quaint in many ways, a world of faxes, people smoking at their desks, peering at green text on their computer screens, but at a less material level—the political and economic circumstances and even the demographics of the newspaper staff—it also shows how the more things change, the more they stay the same. Would you agree?
Rehana Rossouw: Absolutely. We are still debating the unrepresentative demographics of the newspaper industry. But things have changed. For the worst. There are now far fewer resources in newsrooms—human and technical—than in the nineteen-nineties.
The JRB: I won’t ask you the annoying question ‘what are you working on next’, but as you are establishing yourself as a preeminent writer of Cape Town—Hanover Park in What Will People Say and now Bo-Kaap in New Times—are you planning more explorations of Cape Town in your future writing?
Rehana Rossouw: I do have a vague idea for my next book (which I won’t be writing soon, I need time to recover) and it is not set in Cape Town or South Africa …
The JRB: Finally, what have you been reading recently? Do you have any recommendations?
Rehana Rossouw: I had a huge backlog of books because I can’t read when I write—I either copy style and voice wholesale or fall into a pit of despair because I can’t match the writing. The first novel I read after New Times was published was The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy (bliss). I also recently read, and recommend, Sisonke Msimang‘s Always Another Country, Pumla Gqola’s Reflecting Rogue and Orhan Pamuk’s The Red-Haired Woman.