Correspondence between Johan van Wyk and Ewa Macura
(Doctoral student at the University of Silesia) about interview.
i have read your interview; i like some of your answers; though i think you are contradicting yourself at times; and this playing safe by insisting on the narrator seems to undermine your desire to come out of it all as a real rebel and convention-buster; barthes formula that the author is dead is a tempting one but it turns against minority writers’ need to enter the canon (whatever canon is itself); one could say at the end of the day that what zaza wrote can be safely dissociated from her as a black woman and prostitute; i don’t really understand why you are saying it is not my life when it is; are you scared to own up to what is being portrayed in your novel? “beauty of decay” and “something completely urban” sound exactly like 19th century decadent movement; i don’t have the book at hand now but could quote from Huysmans on Moreau’s paintings of salome; i’m not really convinced about your inability to remember; it sounds a bit exaggerated though nice as a poetic creed; what is the narrative structure that comes through memory? not a linear one for sure though it seems to be what you are assuming; as a great fan of psychoanalysis you should perhaps be more fond of memory (the primal scene remembered and revisited through the dream and the symptom; through the unconscious); saying that a narrative structure that comes through memory is fake and wrong you undermine the only thing that can save psychoanalysis from harsh criticism; it doesn’t matter whether the primal scene is real or imagined; both have (i’m referring to Phelan) consequences for the psychic subject; what counts is that it reappears through memory; neither am i convinced that the sexual is poetry; how is it? if what lies behind it is your need to hold onto the young in fear of getting old then the claim sounds awfully dramatic and desperate; facts can be lies but a total refusal of facts leads to absolute relativism; was apartheid a fact? or not? that repression increased in the 60s, 70s and 80s is a fact or a lie? i have a headache today and that’s a bare fact too; the fact also was (and is) that women were (and are) inferior to men; but if this fact had not been brought up on the agenda some time ago we wouldn’t have women emancipation movement; facts can be used to undo dominant ideologies; you know that pretty well; imagine we were not able to question certain facts; it is by questioning them that social changes are feasible; we both understand the word prostitute and don’t need to explain its meaning; unless you mean something totally different, like “go and smile to people”, which i doubt; i don’t know when the word prostitute was first used; but if in the 19th century, then still before there were other words to describe a woman selling her body, like “harlot”; and what does it change really? and how is it reductive or what does it reduce? again you come very close to relativism; what the word prostitute refers to is precisely sex for money and not a definitive essence (now talking about essences you are being quite essentialist claiming that sex with a black woman is such a “different” experience); “the narrator” had “relationships with those women as human beings” still had to pay for having sex with them (?); quite human to let the money mediate between love (?); exchange economy in the purest form; writing about utopia as a pointless project? you have just smashed Marx with his utopias of socialism; another of your favourites; i wonder what your children will think one day of the “cozy boring life” you had with them, one you gave up in favour of the “real” tragedies in your country; not giving a shit that you had just created a tragedy for them; but an insignificant one when compared to the tragedies of the black prostitutes; how do you measure a tragedy? because you do seem to measure them; what is it? kilogram’s, miles, the number of tears? of unwanted sexual intercourses? sorry, but i find it rather pathetic and totally selfish; i’ll go now and help those who have more tragic tragedies; less tragic ones can manage by themselves; should i now plunge in a series of sexual encounters to save you from being a “conventional chauvinistic man”? will it make you feel better? better than others whom you seem to despise? why did you not stick to the “diversity and fecundity” of life; why did you give it up in the end? it is easy to theorise menstruation for a man; but have it once… sorry, but zaza’s book is not literature for me; neither her short stories; i simply don’t think they are good; what do you think is so literary about them? the stories told? is it merely stories that make literature? i don’t think her texts to be poetic in any way; where is the poetic of language in there? i have to go to bed now
As always it is great to see your intelligence at work. I was worried about the playing safe, saying what is conventional to say about the book, although here in South Africa it might be necessary as nobody read the book as-an-attempt-at-literature and I do see the literary as something much more important than the autobiographical. Yes, my living life did play a part – but what remains is the words on the page. Life can never be recaptured in its originality. Words and discourses are real, the essences of our state of being possessed. But they are not us – I am my interview and I’m also not it. There is something always escaping. Words can make us go to prison, but the prisoner is never equal to his act. I disagree about Zaza’s writing. Maybe I’m not objective enough, has been too immersed in the South African condition. The very naivety of her writing is beautiful. There is this strange relationship between life and literature. To me literature has to be written in blood. So although we cannot duplicate life itself unless we write biology, and even then we cannot rewrite life’s events determined by the time and space specificities.
I’m not scared to own up to what is being portrayed in the novel. The life I lived is far more extreme than the novel – its only that I do not have the talent to say it or to capture it in its full complexity. For the sake of literature a lot had to be cut and the chaos rearranged.
Yes I’m close to the decadents and especially Nietzsche. I don’t care if it belongs to the nineteenth century. I’m a romantic. Sorry about all the “I’s”
I really don’t remember things. It is a biological problem. What I said about memory and writing is really based on my own experience. Some people have great memories – but many books fall flat because of this narrative memory structure. I’ve tried to write conventional autobiography, but it always disappoint. I don’t know why. Maybe because memory is tied up with thinking – and I struggle to think. Maybe a memory of something is preventing me to remember and think and that is why I’m so stupid that I cannot really unravel my own contradictions.
The claim about fear of getting old is desperate and dramatic. I rather die than accept that I’m getting old. I want to die. I’ve told you many times.
If sex is not poetry what is it then?
Apartheid was a fiction, like communism in Poland. All politics are fictions. Bad fictions being imposed on the incomprehensible world. One rebels against it as it is fiction and in this way one participate in the fiction. And the complexity of the fiction in itself is another trap. We can change it because it is not fact, but fiction? Being a woman or a man is also a fiction, or a prostitute.
I have to run to a meeting. I’ll respond to the rest later today.
it’s true (or so it seems to me though i am confused myself) that life cannot be recaptured in its originality; there is a beautiful passage in the book by Phelan i ordered for you entitled “The Adventures of Words” (beautiful piece of creative writing in a critical book) that talks about the inadequacy of words; again you seem to be contradicting yourself; because why cannot life be recaptured? because of the inadequacy of words and this claim is so immaterial that it cannot be theorised in a convincing way; i very often have such a feeling of words floating somewhere between what is happening but never really able to trace and fix that which is happening; words seem to miss very often that which is outside (though poststructuralist claiming that there is nothing outside language would object and i wouldn’t be able to find any sustainable argument to argue against); but if you acknowledge inadequacy of words then you can’t say that words and discourses are real; again i find Phelan very relevant; language (words) is representational; it does re-present; but as she says, representation works according to two laws: it always conveys more than it intends and it is never totalising; there is always excess that allows for multiple and resistant readings possible; hence the inadequacy of words; they can’t capture the “real” (whatever it is); maybe they are the real’s other? it is all very fine but again can be very dizzying and may often be abused; they give you the right to disown what you say and take no responsibility for what you say; i’m not what my words say always empowers those holding power and further disempowers those who don’t have it; or maybe i’m wrong;
right, we cannot rewrite life; words always alter the real as they re-present it; whether they are therefore more real or less real than the real seems to be unresolvable; but they do seem to be somewhere beyond, outside, beside, the real; there is, indeed, always something escaping; yet this is a very political claim;
i would really like to see a romantic in you;
i still don’t know what you mean by the memory narrative structure; do we exist outside memory at all? even if you have problems with remembering it is memory in the end that made your book possible; if you had suffered form amnesia would manbitch ever come into being? let me refer to Phelan again (i’m sorry i keep referring to her all the time but i simply find her ideas so convincing); she talks about the ontology of performance (broadly understood); performance is elusive; it exists in the present only; it escapes the economy of reproduction so much valued in contemporary culture: “performance occurs over a time which will not be repeated. it can be performed again but this repetition marks it as “different”. the document of the performance then is only a spur to memory , an encouragement of memory to become present”; but then all life, the real is as well performative; it can therefore be only repeated from the past as “different”; the present keeps moving to the past; there is no present actually; the moment i say something it already belongs to the past; and the future has not happened yet; as she further says: “the forgetting (or stealing) of the object is a fundamental energy of its descriptive recovering. the description itself does not reproduce the object, it rather helps us to restage and restate the effort to remember what is lost. the descriptions remind us how loss acquires meaning and generates recovery – not only of and for the object but for the one who remembers. the disappearance of the object is fundamental to performance; it rehearses and repeats the disappearance of the subject who longs always to be remembered”;
memory is tied to thinking; and the other way round; i don’t think you are stupid;
i’m not saying that sex is not poetry; it can be; but can be not; sexual abuse is not poetry; rape is not poetry; unless you have some other definition of poetry itself; what i’m saying is that poetry is also other things not only sex; what i disagree about is the equation you seem to put between sex and poetry; they may converge but they don’t do so at all times;
i don’t understand your understanding of the word “fiction”; communism was not a fiction; queuing in shops to buy a piece of meat was not a fiction; not being allowed to travel to western countries was not a fiction; if fiction is discourse for you then i see your point; but the discourse thus understood does not account for what was going on; even if such a fiction as you call it remains on the discursive level then it does translate itself into occurrences and facts you can’t deny (there are people saying that concentration camps are a fiction and propaganda, but go to auschwitz); even if it is just something imposed upon the world there are always consequences of such an imposition which produce facts that can’t be denied;
being a man or a woman can be a fiction (a case used by feminists in the constructivist tradition; very rightly of course because it allowed to question the constructedness of femininity for example); but i don’t believe that all is constructed in discourse (again a poststructuralist stance); i would hardly see menstruation as fiction for instance; there are things irreducible to discourse, or fiction; and let me quote somebody else this time: “The commitment to the primacy of the discursive (or what you call fiction) cannot account for the continuities and solidities in social life and political conflict, nor for the ways in which social divisions and inequalities do influence and determine the course of events”; that is why you can’t relegate everything to fiction;
your rejection of the word prostitute seems to be political correctness in its most absurd form; what is fiction for you? the word prostitute itself or the act of selling one’s body? if the former, then it’s quite stupid; there are plenty of words to describe a woman selling herself (you are fond of using them yourself); and an exchange of one word for another does nothing to the phenomenon itself; even if you reject the word itself, you are still left with the act of selling one’s body; the rejection of the name is a weak and paranoid form of being politically correct as there is still that which the word referred to; and what will you do with that? you can call a prostitute whatever you like but you can’t deny the act itself; don’t you see it? what i would call fiction would be the 19th century medical discourse that explained prostitution in terms of some inborn female tendency which made women prone to prostitution unlike men; this is fiction; but you, paying a prostitute for sex is not fiction;
i’m not sure if life can never be recaptured in its originality; the fact that the text is more than what was creates an excess that does justice to this originality;
i’m not saying that zaza’s book is not important; it is probably in the context of south africa; but for somebody out of this context, there isn’t much left; you are well-read Johan and should know what i’m talking about; naivety doesn’t make good literature to either; unless it is stylised as a poetic device;
that words are not us is also playing safe; very comfortable; you can always excuse yourself with such an argument;
what does it mean literature has to be written in blood?
and i don’t believe in your desire to die; if you wanted to die you would commit a suicide.
i’ll write again in the afternoon;
I’m receiving your emails in a very strange way, some written earlier come later.
A strange thing about my relationship with women is that it is usually left to them to determine what they want with me. Very few actually realized that. It is something I’ve consciously decided on at some vague point in my life: I’ve decided to give others the benefit of the doubt in nearly everything, but then they have to carry the responsibility of their truths.
I find this exchange very interesting and wish I could transform it into narrative for my next book The Mumbling Thoughts of an Evil Man. Or, but I’m too scared that you will show me up completely, to add it to the interview as a way of developing debate.Any case what further clarity is needed in our apparent contradictions?
The prostitute bit, again. What my readers don’t really understand is that Mbali, Luisa, Zaza (Zodwa), and Z. were not really prostitutes. Three of them actually lived with me. They did not sell sex to me, but I cared and looked after them, and maybe that is why I always get angry when people refer to them as prostitutes. It is so reductive. I don’t recognize the people I lived with in that word.If exchange is what defines prostitutes, then all beings are prostitutes. I responded to this once with the argument that I hate prostitution, not because money is exchanged, but because it implies a selling of the soul, and that is really what is repulsive to me.
Regarding Marx. He is important to understand capitalism and how money determines and define us. But I’ve turned to Nietzsche. I don’t want to have a whole world to conform to some type of utopian idea. That was also the case with Apartheid. It was the imposition of an utopian idea. And also post apartheid – it is the imposition of an idea (and increasingly it is coming to point to a worse situation than under apartheid). The suffering under these impositions of half-truths (fictions) cannot be denied, but the point is: if you want to understand these sufferings don’t go and read the factual books, the histories of these epochs – go and read the novels and the poetry and you would be closer to the truth and the “real”. That is why literature which is so complex (everything is in it: psychology, sociology, etc) is so important. Literature is maybe the highest form of the real?
Could we divide the real into various levels. The most primitive form of the real is life which is always a flux and difficult to pin down; the second level, and more real level, is the reflections on life in the various disciplines. It is more real in the sense that it is transindividual and in durable material form/ Of this I would place literature as the most advanced form of the real.
And literature I don’t define in terms of devices like the formalists, but as a type of complex interaction with the first level of the real. It is the complexity in the relation with that level that defines it: Zaza’s life story for instance is far more complex than a sociological article on child abuse in South Africa, and that is why I define it as significant literature. Literature in the end is a reflection of the relationship between life and death, ego and its struggles against the underworld: it is our initiation to the underworld (read James Hillman Dreams and the Underworld).
You touch a sore point when referring to my children. I had a difficult decision to make. Should I continue with a life which was a lie, in which I betrayed myself everyday, where I felt like a sleepwalker, or do I change it and get as much as possible out of it before death overtakes me. The main problem was and is that I need my freedom to be a writer and an artist. I know you will find it disgusting, but that is the way it is.
On memory and observing. Much of the book was written from the point of view of observing and note-taking. The last few page were memory-based. Go and look at it. It is very different.
your approach to women in relationships is strange indeed; very appealing on one hand; if it leaves the initiative to women; on the other, it renders you a bit indifferent and unwilling to fight for what you like and love; and frees you from any responsibility too; for a relationship to work both people should be ready to bear responsibility; leaving it to one part only is really cruel; and playing safe again; i guess you have reasons for such a stance; was it because your initiatives came to nothing and you no longer see a reason to take up such a position; i’m not criticizing you; i do see you may have reasons;
i don’t mind if you use this exchange of ours in your review; don’t feel scared because you make me into an intellectually aggressive monster; if don’t agree with what you will add to the interview, we can still have an interesting debate;; i really didn’t mean to show you up; you are a very intelligent person to me; otherwise i wouldn’t have “messed up with you”; i am taking your intelligence to foster mine; it helps me to better understand certain things and be able to express them; there are so many things i feel and cannot express in any way;
again about prostitutes; your books makes it clear they were prostitutes; that you didn’t see them as such is because you loved them; so who were they and what were they doing for their living? what were they doing before you met them? one of your arguments to one of them was that you don’t want a girlfriend whom you will have to pay for sex; if they were having sex for money while being with you it was something you agreed on; or something your love could handle; i understand you don’t want them to be called prostitutes because they were with you; and at those particular times they meant a lot to you; and what are they doing now?
it is not the exchange itself that defines prostitution; obviously, if that was so we could all be called prostitutes; there always is some economy in every relationship; you give and get something; but if money is the mediator of such an exchange then what? prostitution (or whatever you call it) refers to getting money for offering sex; ok, let’s forget the word prostitution for a moment; what is the act of selling one’s body then? it can be seen as selling one’s soul but only when a woman is forced (by whatever reasons) to sell herself; but there are women who do it because they simply enjoy it; without really being forced to it; there are women who sleep their career; going to bed with the boss to get a promotion; it’s also prostitution; the payment is not money but other profits; i don’t think these women sell their souls really; i agree it is really tragic and means ultimately selling your soul more than the body itself when this is the only option for you left; there are more and more women in poland now forced into prostituting themselves because they have no other alternative; there was a talkshow some time ago on tv; with women who in an act of desperation went onto the streets to support their children; single mothers in all cases; and this is tragic; but why didn’t your girlfriends take the chance you were giving them? why none of these relationships never worked in the end? are they back on the streets now? i was not telling you didn’t have feelings for these women; your view on prostitution as selling the soul is idealist and both is and is not the case; and i’m not judging you on the account of having relationships with these women; you still don’t see what i’m driving at; i’m not moralising; you misunderstand me; by rejecting the word prostitute you are precisely crediting this word with only negative and most tragic connotations; i have no need to reject it so firmly as you do; objecting to the word you trap yourself betraying the most traditional (mis)conceptions that you want so desperately to give up; do you see my point? and this is why, also, i wouldn’t hesitate to go into prostitution if i had to; i’d rather prostitute myself than beg for instance;
i guess i agree with your idea of factual books and literature; yet both use manipulation though with different ends in mid perhaps; another thing is i don’t believe there is such a thing as freedom at all; it’s only our wishful thinking; to attain freedom would necessarily mean your annihilation and because for some reasons we strive to live we compromise this freedom to lesser or greater extent;
i don’t know about you classification of the real; i don’t know what the real is; the word real has been tossed and shuffled so much that i’m not sure whether it means anything any longer; though it is part of our vocabularies and we use it with lesser or greater consciousness of what it means, or might mean; for me it’s an exceedingly slippery term; and i’m really confused;
i dislike the word canon; i don’t know what the criteria are to describe good literature and bad literature; but if i read a harlequin romance and angela crater for example i have no doubt to say which is good to me and which isn’t; i don’t see zaza’s stories as good; there is no literariness (whatever it is), no poetry that would make it good to me; i don’t define literature in terms of formalist devices; it was just an example to tell you that i see nothing appealing in the naivety of her writing; ok, literature is about the interactions between the two levels (if we agree on this classification); but still, this interaction can be more or less appealing, more or less poetic; and it is probably the quality of this interaction that makes good literature; i don’t say zaza’s story is worse than sociology; still, it doesn’t make good literature to me; literature is more than the stories themselves; it is what and how these are made into that makes them literary; literature may be about the relationship between the ego and the underworld; but there are texts that portray this relationship in a more interesting way while others in a less interesting one;
indeed, perhaps i will understand more of it all once i’m in SA;
i do understand your motivation behind giving up your way of life; the point is that i, myself, am torn between such two worlds and cannot cope with that; on one hand, there is this need to oppose everything and turn on all conventions, even though i have my own values and try to stick to them; on the other there are my parents whom i love dearly and wouldn’t like to hurt (it is probably never possible to renounce that which formed you; perhaps only by inflicting an unbearable pain onto yourself); i seem to be dangling somewhere between the two and it sometimes exhausts me; but choosing one of them would always mean a complete loss of the other; and i’m not able to face that;
it’s easy for me to point out all your contradictions and say how they drive me crazy; but this is because i exist in such contradictions myself and am well aware of them;
I t was good for me to hear your voice on the phone last night.
Just before phoning you I was at an interesting therapy session. The evening was dominated by this heavy psychotic loner (quite a handsome guy), who was abused as a child, or so he says. What was strange is that I saw so much of myself in his pathology – what you have rightly identified by now: the strange contradiction of the inability to feel for others while I feel deeply for them. It is driving me crazy. My emotions got stunted through various things that happened to me in my life – most relating to the inhuman politics in South Africa. The fact that one could not really verbalize one’s opposition to the system without the risk of becoming a complete outcast, and that is what happened to me. I could never find a real sense of community amongst white South Africans outside of the literary and art circles. Worse throughout my adolescent years and my twenties I could never communicate with women about sexuality and love, although it was all that was on my mind, due to this totalizing taboo of sexuality that exists in the country and all the repressive mythologies around it.
The types of relationships I had with the women and something about them Somehow my book did not make that clear.
My first relationship with a black woman was with L. M., an academic. Lecturer in African Languages. She was an absolutely stunning person in all ways, but extremely professional. Her career came before everything else and she lived far away, so it was difficult for her to find space for me in her busy professional life. She had to look after a child of her own and professionalism was therefore very important to her. This was my first relationship outside marriage (after thirteen years of married life). That is where my life changed. I realized that I was getting older, there was no more real meaning in my life and I felt empty. When it became apparent that it was going to be difficult to get her to come and stay with me, and that I will be alone during one Christmas I decided that it was a pointless relationship. I was extremely lonely. Living in my new flat in this area where there was life around all the time. My friend and me went to have a drink at a sidewalk cafe at about two o’clock one night. A woman came to sit with us. I discovered that this side-walk cafe was a place where one could meet people very easily. My friend did not like the place. He had a mortal fear of anything unhygienic. So I went back there about a week later and met Mbali there. She came into town once a week from the outskirts of the city to earn money to look after her child, and she desperately wanted to attend some MBA type of course to help her find a job. So I took her out. I was so overwhelmed by her beauty that I was pretty impotent the first night, and from then on when I wanted sex with her she would always say later. She needed love intensely, to be embraced, but disliked sex intensely. This was the beginning of a two-year relationship. We made love on rare occasions. She was highly intelligent. I paid for her studies, provided food and a roof, and some money for her child sometimes and for clothes. After a year she became seriously ill. I asked her if she has AIDS. She always denied it. The doctors could not quite determine what it was, until she became so weak she had to go back to her mother’s place and eventually ended up in hospital. They found out that she had TB of the stomach (not that common). She recovered and the rest of the story I think you know from the book.
Angel. I suppose she was a real prostitute. And there was a regular exchange of money for sex. But she infatuated me. And later I think I came to mean quite a lot for her, but it was too late. We broke up because she didn’t want to stop prostitution.
Then I met Luisa. She is pretty middle-class or high-class even. Knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. She was pretty bright. Too materialistic for me and had no understanding for things like literature and art. She once threatened to throw all my books through the window. No taste and she wanted to impose that tastelessness on everybody around. Not quite true. She had good dress taste. Refused to go to clubs with me unless I’m immaculately dressed, hair combed, etc. I got pretty close to her children. Again she was this professional person. She started shops in Maputu and did not have time for me anymore. There was also her miscarriage of my baby in an accident. That was pretty traumatic. She could not cope with South Africa. That was basically the story.
Then I met Zaza. I was and still is pretty close to her. Although she is like a sister to me these days. She could not end her relationships with other men at that stage. That is why we broke up.
Then Z. or Zinhle. I’m pretty worried about her. I think she is going to commit suicide when her child dies of AIDS (he is three years old.)She was/is freelance model. She ABSOLUTELY hated sex. I was pretty close to her. I don’t know where she is at the moment. We broke up because it was difficult to be with someone who wouldn’t even allow one to touch her.
There were several other encounters which went nowhere
I suppose the real is a mixture of things: first what is conventionally decided as real (although I find it difficult to accept things like the existence of a God), then it is the material world as we encounter it and name it and then the events that happen in this material world, and the way it is socially and individually experienced and talked about. When we want to generalise about this I find literature to be far more comprehensive and complex than the microscopic forms of reduction in other social sciences.
I suppose you haven’t had a copy of the final production of Zaza’s book, and that you have not read it to the end? I would like to develop your critique of the book as I busy writing an article about this book and type of writing and your ideas would be interesting.
I’m going to look at our correspondence, cut out the more personal things, send it back to you to check and then submit it to the editors of the journal if its okay with you. as many interesting things were touched upon. Off course it would give my critics a lot of ammunition. I’m too old to care.