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Research in African Literatures 33.1 (2002) 144-152

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Zoë Wicomb in Conversation with Hein Willemse

This conversation with Zoë Wicomb (1948-) took place on the eve of the South African launch of her first novel, David's Story (Feminist P /Kwela), on 31 March 2001 in the Rosebank Hotel, Johannesburg, South Africa. She previously published to wide acclaim a collection of short stories, entitled You Can't Get Lost in Cape Town (1987).

David's Story tells the story of the former guerilla fighter David Dirkse; Sally, his wife; the enigmatic and physically powerful Dulcie, David's comrade and suspected lover. All along, the struggle was his life and now, after the release of Nelson Mandela and the dawn of the freedom Dirkse fought for, the main character finds himself in a difficult situation. His name is circulated on a hit list of uncertain origin. With this imminent threat and in fulfilment of his need for historical representation he tells his story to an unnamed woman writer. Dirkse and his narrator explore his identity as a coloured person (a person of mixed heritage) and his roots in the Griqua community. The peculiar ideas of Andrew Le Fleur, the founder--culture broker of Griqua identity, resonate in Dirkse's search for his place in the new, postapartheid South Africa. The novel has a fragmentary, postmodernist structure with a complexity of historical tales, imaginary relationships, and a mixture of historical and fictional characters who represent the ambiguities of racial identities and political and social life in South Africa.

I've found David's Story a most complex and multi-faceted book. I had to keep my wits about me to tie all your story lines together. I thought it was marvelous . . . .

Other people said to me that the book was complex and that worries me a bit . . . .

You probably remember the tradition of the Black Aesthetic--writing black--in America? I wondered whether this was a new attempt at "writing black" in South Africa?

Not consciously. I certainly didn't set out with a project like that in mind--no, not consciously at all. I tell you it was all I could do. People ask me, "Why did you choose this structure?" I didn't choose it. It was all I could do, because the problem came once I decided to have a dual time frame. That's how I've negotiated it.

The fact that this novel has a complicated structure undermines the notion of an uncomplicated, straightforward chronological tale often employed by black South African novelists.

No, I don't think that is what I set out to do. I didn't set out to do it. In fact, I have to say that I do now wonder if I'm capable of writing a linear, chronological novel and perhaps it's because I'm not capable of doing it. Perhaps that was easier. Because the story is by nature an incomplete story, it can't be told. [End Page 144]

Your material demanded an open-ended approach?

Yes, so it necessarily had to be fragmentary. It necessarily had to be open-ended. You're right: the structure is dictated by story.

I've found your re-invention of Andrew le Fleur, the Griqua leader, interesting. He's such a revered figure with his descendants, in his community. For them he is a messianic prophet, you made this man a bumbling, incoherent visionary.

But you see historically he is that!

No, I don't necessarily disagree. The Griqua descendants obviously invented key traits of their arch leader. They made him into a prophet, serving their communal ends.

Yes, and he certainly had illusions of grandeur. Apparently towards the end of his life he really did believe that he had been offered the governorship of Rhodesia, for instance. It is ludicrous. He did believe that, he certainly had illusions of grandeur. It simply is true--he was bumbling. He did have a vision, but he didn't get anything right. This is why I had to invent...


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