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Interview with Ivan Vladislavic
The following interview with Ivan Vladislavic took place in Johannesburg on 8 January 1999.
WARNES: Could you tell a little about your family background? What is the origin of your surname?
VLADISLAVIC: The name is Croatian. My grandparents on my father's side were Croatian immigrants. My father was born in South Africa. And on my mother's side my background is Irish and English, with a dash of German. I'm second-generation South African, on both sides.
WARNES: A lot of people, when they see the title "Propaganda by Monuments" and they discover that the story is about the dismantling of communism, must wonder if there is some kind of connection with your Eastern European surname. Did you have any investment of that kind when you were writing the story?
VLADISLAVIC: Not really. I'm interested in writing from that part of the world, but I wouldn't call it a genetic predisposition. I'm interested in some Yugoslav writing, for instance, because of the issues those writers deal with--questions of nationalism, their relationship with the Soviet Union, social change and historical memory, and so on. But I suppose such themes would interest me anyway regardless of my background. I also like Czech writers like Kundera, and Polish writers like Bruno Schulz. [End Page 273] Some people have suggested that there might be a temperamental affinity, but I'm fairly skeptical about that. Who knows? I feel attracted to Irish writing, too, but then anyone who reads knows that most of the best books in English were written by Irishmen.
WARNES: You studied English at university, didn't you?
VLADISLAVIC: I majored in English and Afrikaans. I've come to think that studying Afrikaans was probably more influential to my writing. In those days, the mid-seventies, university English departments were still very conservative, and there was hardly any South African writing on the program at all. I'm all for studying the Great Tradition, but writers especially need to know about their own literary culture. One of the refreshing things about studying Afrikaans was that everything you read was about the world around you. The Afrikaans Department at Wits [the University of Witwatersrand] was staffed by some fairly radical academics. Some of the senior lecturers were involved in the publishing house Taurus, which published Breytenbach, for instance. The extraordinary novelist John Miles taught in the department. We would often study books in the same year in which they'd been published. That was really exciting and changed my sense not just of Afrikaans writing, but of South African writing. And also of academia. Some of the same academics published a really great literary magazine called Stet. It was mainly Afrikaans writing, but every now and then they published an English story or two. That was one of the first places I published.
WARNES: What did you do after university?
VLADISLAVIC: I did various odd jobs. I worked as a translator for a while, and I had a brief and ignominious career in advertising. I worked full-time in publishing at Ravan Press in the eighties, for rather a long time--six or seven years. That was really crucial to my whole sense of the world.
WARNES: I would imagine you would be very good at the more creative side of advertising.
VLADISLAVIC: I would imagine so too. But I'm actually allergic to advertising, and I found it a difficult world to deal with, especially then. It was a strange profession to be pursuing, considering the state of the country.
WARNES: In terms of your work now as an editor, do you come into contact with books that contribute to your creative work? [End Page 274]
VLADISLAVIC: Very much so. In 1998 I worked mainly on two projects, which have been both demanding and rewarding. One of them was a collection of essays on South African architecture, called Blank: architecture, apartheid and after, which I co-edited with Hilton Judin, and the other was...