“African writing is vibrant and alive”: Damon Galgut
Born in Pretoria in the early 1960s, Damon Galgut’s early life was marked by strict racial separation in South Africa. He moved to Cape Town in the 1980s and has lived there ever since.
He won the 2021 Booker Prize for The promise, which tells the story of three siblings growing up in a white family in Pretoria, and how their mother’s dying wish, to bequeath a family estate to a black servant, turns their lives upside down.
The novel will be released on December 23 in German under the title “Das Versprechen” by the Munich literary publishing house Luchterhand Literaturverlag.
Galgut’s other books include the good doctor, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003, the impostor (2007) and In a strange room (2010). He spoke to DW via Zoom.
DW: How do you feel now that you’ve won the Booker Prize? You said at the awards ceremony that it was a surprise.
Damon Galgut: Yes it was! I think I’ve come to terms with the fact that it happened, or at least I’m coming to terms with it. Of course, it feels good. It’s also life changing in ways that don’t come naturally to me; I’m more of a discreet person. There is nothing discreet about the experience. I’m still figuring it all out.
It’s obviously life changing, but in what specific way for you?
Well, it brings a level of attention that I’m not used to. It gives me a much, much wider readership. This brings me multiple translations into languages that my work would never have entered before. Of course, this also brings some financial reward.
All of these are obviously welcome for any writer; they’re sort of a writer’s dream. But they also come, as I said, with a level of intense interest and attention, which focuses on the writer rather than the work, and that’s not always easy to manage.
Where did the idea for the book come from?
It really came out of a conversation with a friend. He is the last remaining member of his family. He lost both his parents, his brother and his sister, and he was talking to me one day about the funerals of other family members, which seems to be a very depressing subject, but he is someone who has a very dark sense of humor, and he made it very, very funny. It’s funny, because he was talking about things that happened at funerals, that involved the living: people trying to get money, trying to get an inheritance. People arrive late, people misunderstand each other.
Anyway, all these little anecdotes crossed my mind and eventually took shape and the idea that this would be an unusual way to structure a novel about a family, that one could tell the story of the family through the arrangement of four funerals.
Then when I realized that if you spaced the funeral over a number of years and each was in a different decade, you could say something not only about the family, but also about the country, Africa of the South, in the background.
Is the fact that the story spans four decades also the reason why you chose children, for example the character of Amor, as protagonists?
Well, she’s not a kid for the whole book. In fact, she is only a child in the first part. I wanted to watch what the weather does, to the people and the country [South Africa], to the landscape, to the politics of the country.
But part of the appeal, certainly in watching a character like Amor, the youngest sister in the family, is seeing what happens to her, her body, and her life during this time. But she’s not the only character, of course.
Was it difficult to tell the story of the breed? Because it’s a book about race.
Well, you can’t really write about South Africa without writing about race. It’s difficult in the sense that you have to continually negotiate quite sensitive areas and, of course, you have to decide how you approach those issues.
So yes, there are a number of decisions you have to make as you go along, but it’s not a topic beyond my mental reach. It’s not beyond the reach of most South Africans. As I say…it is part of everyday life in South Africa; it must be. This is a country that is very, very obviously very concerned about racial issues and its future depends on whether or not these issues are resolved.
Is the Swart family in your book a typical white South African family?
It’s hard to answer because I don’t know what a typical South African family is. I wanted them to represent white South Africa. In that sense, I guess they are typical.
But there are probably as many white families that don’t fit the bill as this particular family, but, certainly, it captures many aspects of growing up in South Africa that I remember from my childhood in Pretoria. , where I was born in 1963.
What were some of those aspects that were dominant in your life?
Like the Swart family in the novel, I grew up in a kind of turbulent household with a dysfunctional family, but also with many different strains and personalities feeding into it.
First of all, my mother converted to Judaism because my father is Jewish, so we were raised with a bit of that tension. She later divorced my father and married an Afrikaans man with a sort of Calvinist background, so we were subject to that aspect.
And she herself is a bit of a spiritual seeker, my mother. Thus, there were also various oriental influences in the house. All of this is reflected in the various religious formulations that run through the book.
I wanted them [ the aspects] to be representative, in the sense that I think South Africa is a melting pot where there are no pure races [in South Africa] any longer, which is why a lot of racial contestation seems a bit absurd, given that at this point in history, we’re all a mix. And I wanted this mixture to be seen in the family as well.
We see many authors from the African continent winning major literary prizes in 2021, such as Tanzanian author Abdulrazak Gurnah, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr, who won the Goncourt Prize and David Diop, who won won the International Booker Prize. Do you think that these recognitions have brought African literature to the general public?
I hope so… But you never know why it happens. I mean, it could be a fluke, just an accident or it could be a sign that in fact attention is finally on African writing and African writers. I hope so.
Either way, I think the time has come for all of us African writers to seize the moment and crystallize attention to the fact that African writing is a living and living condition and hope that perhaps some African governments will take it seriously. too, and invest in supporting and caring for their own artists.
Because the problem is not only that the West is not receptive to African writing, it is a question of making Africans themselves more receptive to tradition. So, yes, it’s a double fight.