500 Words From...is a series of guest posts from authors, in which they talk about their recently published books. Here, Melissa de Villiers, a South African expat now living in Singapore, discusses The Chameleon House, her newly published collection of short stories set in post-apartheid South Africa, London and Singapore. The Chameleon House has been longlisted for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award 2015.
So, over to Melissa…
“The best question I’ve been asked so far about my book was: The people you have written about – white, in the main – are the sort that nice liberal or left-thinking South Africans would feel rather ashamed of. Why focus on them?
Why, indeed. At the time – this was at a launch event in my home town in South Africa’s Eastern Cape – I think I muttered something about it being a great relief, nowadays, for South African writers to feel free enough to write about any subject they choose, rather than focus on what was for so long our Great Subject: the evils of apartheid and the need to dismantle it.
But of course, that doesn’t really answer the question. The fact is, many of the people in my stories aren’t very nice. They tell lies, have affairs, smuggle drugs and yes, some are racist as hell.
It’s a sad fact that this is still our reality. South Africans have experienced twenty years of transition, where the social order has shifted, identities have been renegotiated and cultural boundaries have been swept away. But I’m interested in the extent to which South Africans remain ensnared in their past, and how whites, in particular, are coping with that.
Some have done much to disguise a past support for apartheid, telling convoluted stories to keep up appearances. Others suffer from a crippling sense of guilt, or else carry on as if nothing has, in fact, changed. In between, many others are trying simply to get on with it as best they can.
It’s a complex situation and I’ve found that living abroad can be an excellent way to get to grips with it all. Observing from a different perspective, such as Singapore, can give clarity. From my desk in the Siglap district of the City-State, where much of my book was written, I’d gaze at the harsh white sunlight outside my window (so like South African sunlight!) and think lofty thoughts about the fact that the gap between rich and poor has widened in South Africa since the ANC came to power in 1994; there is corruption and rot at the centre of government; the education system has broken down. I wanted to squeeze all this into the scope of my book, and to show how the situation has affected individual choices and relationships – the way people see themselves, and act towards each other.
Luckily, perhaps, I think I failed to do all this. I say luckily because my Siglap musings led me to the conclusion I’m absolutely not interested in the kind of writing that delivers a clear moral theme or an uplifting message. That seems to be the antithesis of everything that’s attractive in literature. And anyway, on a personal level, too, the world feels to me like a place full of unanswered questions, where the ends don’t tie up neatly. Rather than dealing with some big abstract question, it’s so much more interesting to write about how ordinary people get on, find ways, create spaces for themselves.
And so I forgot about the lofty stuff and simply wrote the characters down – a young woman desperately trying to raise money to give her baby a good start; a teenager with a much older white policeman for a boyfriend; a household of backpackers trying to reinvent themselves for a new life in the UK.
I hope I’ve done them justice. And what I really wish I’d said to the person who asked the question at my launch was this: I don’t believe fiction necessarily has to show the world the evils of racism, or tell readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life. It just has to be there – for the fierce pleasure taken in doing it, and the different kind of pleasure that’s taken in reading something durable and made to last. Will my book pass muster in this regard? That’s for you, the reader, to decide.
The Chameleon House is published in paperback by Modjaji Books, South Africa, or you can buy it from Amazon here.