WORK/LIFE: Eben Venter

Eben Venter

Eben Venter grew up on a sheep farm in Eastern Cape, South Africa. After studying philosophy at university he migrated to Australia in 1986 when a State of Emergency was declared. His novels, which have appeared in both English and Afrikaans, include Santa Gamka (which won the W.A. Hofmeyr prize, the M-Net and the ATKV prize), Wolf, Wolf and Trencherman. His next English-language title, Green as the Sky is Blue will be published by Umuzi in August.

What does “writing” mean?

I have notes for a short story based on a Congolese refugee called Emmanuel (whom I’ve met in real life). Emmanuel has a problem with his eyes. They close involuntarily: he often can’t see what he’s supposed to. He is also shy, but an accomplished artist of line drawings.

Weeks before he has to see a specialist, he makes meticulous drawings of his eye condition. He’ll be too shy to explain what’s going on and his eyes might shut suddenly, so this is his solution. These are my notes so far. Sometimes during the night I wake up and continue the story. In fact, I’ve just about finished the story in my head. However, all of this, the notes and thoughts, do not add up to a written story.

Only once I’ve sat down and activate my imagination – the action of forming mental images, and writing them down – will the words follow on one another and guide my sentences from one to the next. Only in the actual process of writing will the building blocks of the story – those notes and thoughts – at last become story.

Which book changed your life?

This question does not apply to me. I can only say the following: during and after my brother’s death Sogyal Rinpoche’s The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying gave me insight into the process of dying. I love Remedios the Beauty whose beauty was so powerful that one day, while hanging out the sheets in the wind, she ascended into heaven – from Gabriel Garcia Marques’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. I like the Afrikaans writer Karel Schoeman’s meandering, dream-like sentences. J.M. Coetzee’s clear, precise use of the English language I admire, and how, in spite of the clarity, his stories always allude to something other than what’s on the page. I also love W.G. Sebald’s lateral jumps: from the eyes of owls in the Antwerp Zoo to the penetrating gaze of philosophers. That is the selection I’ll make for now.

Your favourite fictional character?

As a child I liked Noddy. But fascination with a fictional character changed as my reading matured. If I’m enveloped by the story and the way it’s told, the character at the time becomes my favourite. However, I am attracted to characters whose life and times seem absurd, as if they float one inch above the real world. Many Eastern European novelists created these sort of characters, maybe they would’ve headed for a gulag if they wrote otherwise. There is the young first person narrator in Bruno Schultz’s The Street of Crocodiles, and the wastepaper collector of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. There is Coetzee’s Michael K who silently subverts the system, and that obstreperous voice of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield I will not forget.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m writing a sixteen-part love story about a woman who migrates from Cape Town to Australia’s Gold Coast; it’s for a woman’s magazine called Vrouekeur. I am also making lots of notes on the different voices in, and doing research for, my new novel. More I cannot say otherwise my creative process becomes diluted. For sure it’ll only become a story once I start writing uninterruptedly.

Describe your workspace.

My study faces north-east with morning light pouring into the room. My desk is a broad top with six drawers, probably originating from an office in the old SAR [South African Republic]. The shelves in this room hold my collection of Afrikaans books, my dictionaries, philosophy texts and my own books: the eleven works of fiction I’ve produced, and the translations works. I keep these in sight to remind and encourage me of the task ahead: a story with a different approach, hopefully changing the form of the novel, and on a subject I haven’t tackled before. I am happy to have a working room like this.

Eben Venter's study.

The most important instrument you use?

My eleven-inch MacBook Pro, my current notebook with its HB Staedtler pencil, my set of two Shorter Oxfords, the HAT [verklarende handwoordeboek van die Afrikaanse taal], my Latin and Greek dictionaries, and the two thesauruses in English and Afrikaans.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The golden writing period is that three to four hours early in the morning. If I miss that time, I miss out on delivering my creative piece for the day. Very little alcohol, no dagga and early to bed are all pre-conditions of using the golden hours productively.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I don’t get stuck while I’m in the writing process. Even if I do write nonsense, it still exists as an amorphous creation from which I can make sense the following day. Stuck means not opening up where I had left my creative work the day before. Worse is not even making a single note in my current notebook.

How do you relax?

I take our whippet and kelpie to the nearest beach for a run and a swim. When the monkey mind takes over, the Buddhists’ term for the distracted, jumping all over the place mind state, I opt for compulsory relaxation. That consists of an hour work-out with my trainer at the gymnasium. As I cannot afford to pay in full, I barter by cooking him supper twice a week.

How has living outside of SA influenced the way you write about the country? 

In 2009 my novel Santa Gamka was published, later to become a successful stage play too. The story is about a young lad operating as a sex worker in a small Karoo town. All my notes, written and photographic ones, were made while I lived in Prince Albert in the Great Karoo. However the book I wrote here on the north eastern coast of New South Wales, Australia. The vast distance between myself and the location of the story made me into homo ludens, I could write playfully, say whatever I wished through the character of Lucky.  And I did. The distance also gives me that sudden, fresh appreciation of a word, an expression or the name of a small Karoo bossie – as if I’m registering the beauty and significance of these words for the first time.

Who and what has influenced your work?

Growing up on an Eastern Cape farm, privileged, the system semi-feudal (you have to insert these qualifiers now or you’re dead meat), influenced the story-lines of my earlier work (it boils down to what you do with your privilege, doesn’t it?). My Afrikaans teacher at Grey College was a worldly pedagogue, my philosophy lecturers, first at Potchefstroom, then at UJ, were all brilliant: What do you mean when you say that? And: You can’t just use that term without properly defining it. Other than that, I was an auto-didact: I shaped my use of language and my appreciation of literature by constantly reading.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

I once had an offer from the University of the North-West to take up a junior lectureship in philosophy. I turned it down. Never followed the straight and narrow which would’ve meant a steady salary and a pension. No-one told me I’d made a good choice. Quite the opposite.

I smoked hashish in an alley off the Ramblas and I looked at male models in Interview magazine and read Genet which kind of shocked me at the time. In 1986 when the State of Emergency was declared in South Africa I migrated. No one told me to do this. I just did it. And kept on writing.

Your favourite ritual?

Sometime ago I made ceviche for the first time – the Peruvian way of marinating raw white fish. It turned out beautifully. That is a ritual. There are other rituals described in my new novel, Green as the Sky is Blue, that I actively participated in and made notes of afterwards. Those rituals have enriched my life. There are simpler ones, like tickling a dog’s ear and drinking a lovely cup of tea. And reading.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Without any doubt it is persisting with the act of writing, as I’ve tried to explain above. Week after week, one month to the next, until you have completed your first draft. Then comes the meticulous revising. It could take up to two years.  If I remember correctly James Joyce sometimes spent two weeks on a single sentence, and fourteen years on Ulysses.

The most pleasurable part of the novel-writing process?

A single sentence, pared down, saying exactly what I had intended it too, can bring pleasure. When I reach the seventh draft of a novel I become happy too.

What do you dislike most about yourself?

The fourth of the seven deadly sins, sloth. On the other hand, I don’t want to apply such Calvinistic rigour to my life and work. That British nurse who recorded the top five dying wishes of people, noted that they regretted working so hard or not keeping in touch with their friends, or not simply hanging out.

What are you afraid of?

During the time of Cyclone Debbie our house, a Queenslander high on stilts, almost flooded. I had to take a Valium. Once the whippet did her business next to a baseball field and I refused to pick it up because the field manager told me to. He then started walking straight at me: the embodiment of the menacing male oppressor that has done so much damage through the ages – that scared me. And the dogs.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

You have to read widely in order to know what has been written and what’s happening on the writing scene now.

Secondly: you have to be prepared to write long hours on your own. Then be able to endure (constructive) criticism of your work.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Recently I received an email form J.M. Coetzee after he had read my last novel, Groen soos die Hemel daarbo. I can’t say what was in it for privacy reasons, but his words will make me happy for years to come.

Author photograph by Stephen Fourie.

REVIEW: The First Law of Sadness

BY GARETH LANGDONThe First Law of Sadness

The title of Nick Mulgrew’s latest short story collection, The First Law of Sadness, gives only scant insight into the depth which the young author has been able to plumb with his sophomore collection. Ambitious, insightful and relatable, each story in the collection speaks volumes about how Mulgrew has grown since his debut collection, Stations.

The trouble with analysis as almost any first-year English class will teach you is that it is simply too easy, and too novice, to associate narrator and character with author. But reading Stations and The First Law of Sadness side by side (as I have done by pure coincidence) does everything to invite such a comparison.

I remember when I read Mulgrew’s work the first time. Stations felt throughout to be deeply personal, a collection that seemed naturally auto-biographical in some sense, outlining carefully some of the author’s more formative childhood and adolescent moments. The First Law of Sadness is a departure from this personal space: an apparently deliberate pivot. Mulgrew is clearly forcing himself to be challenged and grow as a writer – to not be predictable or pigeonholed. As this fresh batch of stories shows, Mulgrew is growing into a writer who is able to inhabit the minds of new characters, many of whom are nothing like him, and unpack human experience in new and interesting ways.

Mulgrew takes many risks in this work, especially with the characters he chooses to write as and about. Inhabiting other selves is a dangerous pursuit, especially when these other selves are so far outside of your normal. Attempts at this — especially by young authors — can quite often lead to superficial, ignorant and even offensive results.

Happily, this is not the case in The First Law of Sadness. From middle-aged suburban housewives, to men of colour struggling with their homosexuality, to divorcees and drug addicts, Mulgrew’s analyses and depictions of character are, while not perfect, still brave, mature and more often than not, movingly insightful explorations of everyday experience in both the ugly and the beautiful. Drawing us closer to these unique experiences of the characters through well written narrative, Mulgrew has been able to foster empathy in the reader in ways that are usually reserved for seasoned authors.

Explorations of otherness are not always simple though, and the most difficult instance of this appears in “Bootlegger” in which Mulgrew inhabits the mind of a black student who has, accidently, killed a duiker, which he then decides to turn into biltong. The student is not a first language English speaker, and Mulgrew attempts to recreate his inner monologue verbatim:

A grand problem started then. There was one of your private securities. He walked to me as I attended the butchery bureau, and commenced to shout at me. He asked if I have paid for my produce. I say no. He says I am not authorised to eat this produce. I must pay first. I attempted to explain, no, you do not understand: this is my biltong. He interrupts. He calls me a thief. I say, no, again, you do not understand. I carry this biltong with me. I made it myself. He says this is impossible, that I’m a pirate of biltong, that I must pay. I am grabbed by him, and all of the people in the supermarket, they look at me in the way that your people do when a man like me is at the centre of a problem.

This passage felt uncomfortable. Mulgrew has used a language here that is deliberately stodgy, with almost no contraction or use of the active voice: “grabbed by him”; “do not understand”. This reads like the voice of someone who has a weak grasp of English, and the otherness is reinforced by the final “man like me” drawing attention to the character’s blackness amidst a group of (assumedly) white people at the supermarket.

Writing this way raises questions: What does it mean for a privileged white author like Mulgrew to write in a voice like this? What does it mean for him to inhabit the mind of a black character and then assume the level of this character’s grasp of English? Where does the author’s license end? While he is drawing attention to the racist society this story is set in, in what way does he contribute to these assumptions about others through his choice of diction, his very way of writing? Most interestingly though, I found myself asking seriously why this made me uncomfortable, and was the discomfort as a result of my own ingrained prejudices and misunderstandings about an entire race and class of people, and indeed of the author himself. In any case, the fact that Mulgrew could, through a single story, cause me to begin to pick apart my personal assumptions about race, and how to write about it, is a sign of his growth and of his undeniably bright future as an author in South Africa today – a place that needs bold and brave narratives to help us understand each other.

Mulgrew is adept at dealing with the everyday too, and one of my favourite examples of this is “Jumper”, where the author takes the seemingly horrifying site of a man apparently about to kill himself during a victory parade (the particular South Africanness of the moment brought about by it being a parade for the Springboks) and turns it on its head. I can’t explain the joke without ruining the story, but my audible giggle while reading is testament to Mulgrew’s ability to play with different perspectives, circumstances and the sometimes banal sometimes confusing aspects of everyday experience in South Africa. In “Jumper”, assumptions are undercut in a way that mirrors what Mulgrew does throughout the book. You might think you know what life is like for others, but really, you have no idea.

Overall, The First Law of Sadness, is a wonderful, richly detailed work. With each of Mulgrew’s collections demonstrating an upward trajectory in authorial maturity and skill, I’m excited to see more from this promising South African talent.

The First Law of Sadness is published by David Philip Publishers.

REVIEW: Asylum

GARETH LANGDON reviews Marcus Low’s quietly devastating debut novel.


Post apocalyptic motifs are overdone. Between The Walking Dead and The Hunger Games, contemporary media seems to scream the need for us all to be prepared for the worst – for the coming of the end. Whether or not this is a universal set of fears, or something unique to Hollywood is not much of a question. What matters is that it is a tired trope, and that anyone hoping to tackle the genre is going to have an uphill battle.

Marcus Low makes light work of this challenge in his debut novel, Asylum. The novel follows, through a series of eloquent and detailed journal entries, the plight of James Barry. Barry has been diagnosed with a fatal lung disease – likely tuberculosis – and finds himself incarcerated in a treatment facility or modern day sanitorium, in the middle of the Karoo. His days drag on at a snail’s pace as he gazes out of the window at the dry bones of the earth, watching nothing happen, and writing regularly in his notebooks. He has made some friends though, and as inmates are want to do, they begin planning their escape. The novel traces Barry’s internal struggles as well as the planning and execution of their proposed escape. Composed of notebook fragments and interjected with editor’s notes, written from what is ostensibly the point of view of whoever discovered the notebooks, the novel has an intensely personal feel.

Asylum is at once apocalyptic rendering, and psychological exploration. Barry is a sensitive character, with a painful yet mysteriously unsubstantiated past. His voice reads as hurt rather than angry, as resigned rather than determined. The notebooks function as both a solace for him, and as a way of leaving a legacy – one which is, at times, deliberately skewed. The choice of setting in the Karroo works well for this genre as the vast expanse of the landscape, as well as its dry, dusty harshness, create an atmosphere that lends itself to a story of loneliness, longing and resignation.

The plague in Asylum is more insidious however. Rather than go the obvious route of monsters or Orwellian dictatorship, the author has chosen a silent killer – a lung disease, airborne – that slowly causes deterioration in its hosts, presenting as coughing up of blood, tiredness, and the odd hallucination. Low seems far more interested in the interior conflict of Barry however, and the lung disease serves more as a measure of time, counting down the days to his death as it progresses, and as a parallel to his mental deterioration.

Like the disease that afflicts Barry, the sense of this novel overall is also insidious. The reader has the sense all along that something is very wrong, but that what’s wrong is less important than the characters’ experience of it. What matters to Low is what is going on in their heads – the humanness of it all – which explains the use of journals as the primary medium in the novel. Cleverly, by focusing on a single point of view, Low avoids many of the traps of modern end-of-the world fiction, the distractions of monsters and dictators. Instead, we are presented with a very human experience in an inhumane world, and are made to appreciate the moments of light that make our own experience bearable, even if for Barry as for some of is, these come in the form of dreams and hallucinations rather than genuine human experience.

Rather than offering escapism, Low is brave enough to dig deeper. He explores humanity without sacrificing the enticing nature of mystery that many apocalyptic-genre novels do well. The choice of the Karroo as a setting also eases the imaginative leap that a South African reader has to make, a feeling all too close to home running throughout the narrative.

As a debut, Asylum is cleverly crafted and engaging – an encouraging sign of things to come for an exciting South African talent.

Asylum is published by Picador Africa.

WORK/Life: Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog by Antonia Steyn

Antjie Krog is the author of the Alan Paton Award-winning Country of My Skull and A Change of Tongue. Her first poetry collection, Dogter van Jefta, was published when she was aged 18; other collections include Mede-wete / Synapse and The Stars say ‘tsau’. The English edition of Lady Anne, a collection first released in Afrikaans in 1989, was recently published by Human & Rousseau in collaboration with Bucknell University Press.

Krog has been an extraordinary Professor of Literature and Philosophy at the University of the Western Cape since 2004.

What does “writing” mean?

Writing, for me, means to attempt to say the unsayable.

Which books changed your life?

I don’t read books that do not change my life. I expect of every novel or poetry volume to shift something in me so that I am a different person by the end of it.

Your favourite fictional character?

Petrus in Disgrace and maybe a real character such as Teboho Raboko who shouts in his Sefela: “Hail you, fire-speckled giraffe, Hail you quinea fowl, with water tearing upwards from your head.” And in Afrikaans, a character by Eugene Marais: My vaal sussie Gampta, “al wat ek in die wêreld het, buiten my ou ouma.”

What are you working on at the moment?

I try to return to poems. Just single individual and not-thought-about poems.

Describe your workspace.

I write poetry, or the beginning of poems on my bed. They are reworked on paper until they move to the computer. I only got a “study” with a surface exclusively for a laptop and dictionaries when I was around 47-years-old.

The most important instrument you use?

Pencil. Sharp. HB. A4 paper and a Pelikan rubber. That’s for poetry. For non-fiction: laptop and a good chair.

What’s your most productive time of day?

Half-past-four in the morning, for non-fiction. Poetry is like a big shit. It comes when it wants. If you squeeze it back, it will be hard and dry. So you must have “endless” time…

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I once read that a writer’s block has to do with ego, so I work on the ego.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

To sit down. To lift the pencil over the white empty page. To allow it to be a fishingrod lined into the unconscious, touching and lifting out shimmering fishes from below, fitted out to say what you try to say. The hardest thing about being a poet is that you don’t know when it will leave you – just one morning, and it’s gone, that heard-voice coming from you don’t know where. Gone. And as far as I can make out: it never returns.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

I have no advice for younger poets in this technological age – coming from a time where the poem was what mattered, not the poet, her looks, her recipes, her relaxation methods, her self-doubt, his marriages, his Facebook page, agent or public utterances. That is why I didn’t answer some of your questions, those that I thought: jesus, what the fuck?

[Editor’s note: Those questions unanswered included “What do you dislike most about yourself?, “What are you afraid of?”, “What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?” and “How do you relax?”]

Lady Anne is published by Human & Rousseau.

Author photograph by Antonia Steyn.