Interview with Judith Coulie

Interview by Judith Coullie with Johan van Wyk, on his text, Man-Bitch.


  1. I am told that the term “man-bitch” is used to describe someone in the process of a sex change process.

Have you heard of this use of the term?  Comment on your use of the term in the title of this text.  (cf. p. 20; Not hyphenated on the front cover.  Why?)

I do not know this use of the term “man-bitch” to describe a sex-change. I would not have used it if I knew that that is what it signified. Originally the idea was to call the book Life is a bitch, then just Bitch, but while in Europe I saw that some famous feminist already monopolized the title. The title ManBitch derives from a passage in the book where the narrator is accused by one of his mistresses, Angel, of being a manbitch.

Therefore someone who cannot be trusted in love relationships. I’m not too sure about the English grammatical rules regarding hyphens. The title is ambiguous referring to a man who is a bitch and a man in relationship with women associated with the trade of selling their bodies. But the emphasis is on the former. The narrator is not someone to be trusted. Betrayal is one of the important themes of the book.

  1. How would you classify this text?  Is it autobiography, or memoir, or loosely autobiographical?  How does the generic classification influence or impact upon the writing process?

This is a difficult question, and I don’t have a ready answer for it. The idea was that the book should be about language, therefore poetry. It had to capture the poetry of Durban as a place, and poetry of the type of relationships described. Unfortunately, I failed miserably, and maybe I will give it a rewrite. The problem was transforming it from what Barthes called notations (detail description to evoke texture of “reality”) to a narrative. Maybe the original diary form worked better (although it included a lot of useless detail and information, which in the end can be interesting in its own right). Whether autobiographical? Yes and no. In the process of writing the book I’ve become aware of how slippery life is for someone trying to capture it, how different a text is which is based on notations to one based on memory. You could see the difference in the ending where there is a shift to the use of memory (it moves faster, is more like narrative rather than still life.)

Nevertheless it is great to indulge in the Romantic mythology by being confused as author with the narrator. I’ve discovered this Cuban author Juan Pedro Gutiérrez  who wrote Dirty Havana Trilogy during me recent visit to Germany. It is basically the same book as Manbitch, although better written. That discovery was quite a disappointment, as I wanted Manbitch to be a unique book. Gutiérrez, though, does not deal with the sadness of these types of relationships; its more about sex than love. The tone of Dirty Havana Trilogy is different – too much humor – but his (or the translator’s) use of language and narrative structure is brilliant.

  1. The narrative is quite strictly confined to your experiences during a very circumscribed period of about 4 years at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the new millennium.  Can you say why this period was especially significant?

Be careful of phrases like “your experiences”, don’t confuse me with the narrator. I crafted these experiences into text through a rather painful and slow process of distortion, fantasy, selection and ability to recall words for things. Yes, it has contact points with my life, but it is not my life. The point is that I wanted to write the post-apartheid text. I was a bit tired of the “disgrace” phenomena with all the moaning and groaning about the new South Africa. I wanted to develop a new style to express the beauty of the decay – something that is completely urban as I’m also really sick and tired of the haunting phantom of the farm novel. The farm novel is just so unreal that it can only function as allegory for infants.

The period of the turn of the century described in ManBitch is significant in that it allowed me to immerse myself in the abundance of decay and joyous tragedy, as Nietzsche would have called it, which marked South Africa at this time.

  1. Do you see yourself writing a more conventional autobiography at some point in the future, one which recounts your childhood and adolescence, your student days, your marriage and so on?

Yes, I’m thinking of it. Possibly as ego-text on the web. The beginnings are already there. I’ve had a very rich and beautiful life, thanks mainly to my parents. I would like to recount my youth in Welkom, in Salisbury (Harare) and Mozambique and the whole social situation of that period. It’s difficult though. Apartheid has basically destroyed my ability to remember and to communicate. So the text would have to derive from photographs and interviews.

  1. I’d like to ask more about this: experience of the passage of time is seldom as linear and as ordered as narrative usually implies.  At any one moment one may drift off, in one’s thoughts, into the past or into the future.  Yet your account seems to be quite strict in the disallowance of memories of other periods in your life – of people who were significant at other times.  Was this a conscious decision?  And if so, can you explain your thinking in this regard?  Or was it due to the fact (as is implied at times) that the narrative was composed from diary notes?

As said, I find it difficult to remember. Because of my views during the apartheid period I learned to live with silence. My mind was also pretty messed up by the military experience. I was in DB as a pacifist, and eventually only managed to escape by being classified a schizophrenic. It was a pretty horrible but interesting period. The problem was that I lost my ability to think coherently or to remember. I can only remember through note-taking. A further problem is that I do not like the narrative structure that comes through memory. It always seems to me to be fake, or wrong. I wish I could use mental tools like memory – then the different characters would have been rounded off.

  1. You say, “Time needs a battery, the battery of the imagination” (pp. 40-41).  Can you explain whether this has relevance for your understanding of the imperatives and conventions of autobiographical writing?

I suppose there are many post-structural implications to this remark, one being that memory is imagination. Regarding its imperatives for writing (autobiography). It has to do with the tension between what Freud called primary and secondary processes in the production of writing. When the battery is flat, then it is difficult to retrieve information which already became part of the secondary structure of the mind.

  1. A related question concerns the fact that unlike the vast majority of South African autobiographers who talk about their careers or their lives in politics, your tale concentrates almost exclusively upon your private life.  While we learn little about your professional life, you divulge intimacies which no other South African autobiographer has ever seen fit to recount before.  Can you explain?  I am interested in your thoughts about the kind of self that you wished to portray and your reasons for this, what you omitted and why.  Also, how do you see this text fitting in with the genre as practised by South Africans?

As said before my book was intended to be about language. A prominent question in my mind was whether it would not have been more effective if written in the third person. I did not want to portray a hero, I wanted to express the textures (when translated into words) of the area where I (and the narrator) live and the people encountered. I’m not a great reader of autobiographies for the very reason that it usually does not contain in-depth critical reflection on the self or poetry in language – it has become predictable and boring, unless you start delving into the textual contradictions and unearth the textual unconscious. The sexual to me is poetry – it is where the boundaries between all things living in real life and fantasy life disappears.

Regarding omissions, just go and read the original to see how much has been omitted from one version to the other. So how is it possible to express life in its full complexity? I know I should not distinguish between literature and autobiography. I don’t want to deny the literariness of autobiography, it is just that I see it as usually bad literature. I wanted to write a literary text that is subservient mainly to poetry in language. I was not concerned about facts – facts are lies as Aristotle already realized in his Poetics when he aligned poetry with philosophy rather than history. Other autobiographies are concerned with facts; Facts which are blinding lies.

  1. How does the text compare with autobiographies or memoirs written by other Afrikaners?  And have you had any response from Afrikaans readers?

There are some beautiful autobiographies and memoirs in Afrikaans. I’m thinking of especially M.E.R.’s My beskeie deel, but here again it is because of the skillful use of language. I would think the link is stronger with Afrikaans literature: authors like R.R. Ryger, Dan Roodt and Chris Pretorius who used to be active in theater. The book has not been reviewed by the Afrikaans press. Few cult followers have read it, but very little outside of Durban is known about the book. I quite like the slow ominous way in which it is inserting itself into the South African consciousness. Afrikaners generally blame me for not writing it in Afrikaans.

  1. Most of the women with whom the protagonist has have sexual relationships are prostitutes. The attempts to counter arguments that this must be an exploitative relationship (on the part of the paying john) by arguing that he is not a moral person.  Can you elaborate?  Also he argues to himself that the women are also exploitative (p. 38).  Could you comment on the gender politics which inform this narrative?

I don’t really use the word prostitute in the text.  The word prostitute is a euphemism meaning nothing really. It belongs to the class of words which became prominent with the emergence of nineteenth century sociology and criminology and the universal drive then to classify. It is one of those reductive things. Sex for money is an act rather than a definitive essence. The narrator loved dearly all the women he was involved with in the text: the money part is a side issue and linked to the general poverty described – he had relationships with them as human beings and not as prostitutes. If there are exploitive facets to these then it is because that is part of the world described. It is certainly not a utopia. That would have been very boring and pointless to write about.Yes, the question of morality is important – as said in the text, I consider morality as part of a drive to persecute: moral people usually cannot deal with the contradictions inside themselves and then they look for easy scapegoats by using very reductive and simplistic analyses of things. That is why literature is important – to counter simplistic discourses.

Gender? I believe the narrator is really, at the end of the day to use a stock phrase, only interested in the human and the exchanges between human beings, and he himself is only human: one prone to betrayal and avoiding his responsibilities, seeking self-satisfaction, but getting tied up in the problems of people he encounters, falling in love with them, getting involved in their legal and financial battles. Somehow I think that indicates a type of reluctant commitment – better than if he had withdrawn to the suburbs to live a cozy boring life, not knowing the real extent of the tragedy of this “country,” and having no story to tell. But maybe I’m lying. He is intensely involved. He is highly moral and he loves women – or then again this might be a play by the unconscious – all these things might mean the opposite.

10.The narrator wanted Angel to give up “this life of bitching” (p. 18) and that what he wants is a woman who will stay with him and who will not demand payment for sex (p. 20).  Can you comment on the ambivalence or even paradox which seems to be inherent in the desire motivating the relationships with these women?

I suppose you are touching on one of those ambivalent moments in the text where the narrator reverts to being this conventional chauvinistic man driven by those crazy human impulses of love and the need to care for someone as against someone able to live with the diversity and fecundity of life – “the abundance”, as a Zulu informant to the nineteenth century missionary Callaway formulated it in anticipation of Nietzsche. Life is tragic, but good. I don’t know. The question relates to closure. Is there a conclusion to this text? It ends with the letter Z., an abbreviation for a name – pointing to the end of the alphabet.

It ends with sex while menstruating, but also with an a-sexual character. The menstruation and a-sexuality point to abundance, which is blood and violence – but that is already inscribed by the way God wrote the world. Menstruation is a reminder of the abundance of life. It signifies that there is more than we can cope with – but also of the absurdity of life. Lots of things the creator did not think through when creating the world, or he/she certainly did not think in the way humans think.

11.Are there any other autobiographies or even fictionalised life stories which were a role model or even just an inspiration to you?

No, not really. Literature, yes. The German writer, Peter Handke. Then the clarity of Georges Bataille’s style when dealing with the erotic. As I said, I’ve just discovered Juan Pedro Gutiérrez, which is unfortunately like a mirror text. It just kills me. I’ve worked so hard at this, thinking I’m doing something different and then I discover this book by accident in a German bookshop, and it is as if I’m reading this thing I wrote myself, except much better.

12.Can you comment on the choice of prose narrative as the medium, as opposed to poetry or drama?

The long poem “Staatsgreep” with which my previous volume of poetry, Oë in ‘n kas,  ends was a preliminary study for ManBitch. I have always been interested in epic poetry since doing classics at Wits as a student. This poem was also inspired by a very interesting nineteenth century study of multiple personality and the unconscious by Morton Prince, The hunt for the real Miss Beauchamp (I’m not sure of the exact title).

In this text he wrote about a memoir written by the unconscious of the patient (when she was in a state of not being “herself” – now, the unconscious is very attentive to detail, the things not notedby the conscious.

As poetry people did not really understand “Staatsgreep” and its listing of detail leading nowhere, and it was received rather bluntly. So I thought that my next project would need more narrative fleshing out. In ManBitch I did not always succeed in marrying detail to narrative. I have to think this text through again – to make it move faster and to intensify the poetic effects of the prose. With regard to drama:  I was working on a drama about a professor living with this traumatized schizophrenic girl who discovered she has AIDS when it was traced in her three-year old child – It is the same person that the character Z was based on in ManBitch.

While in Europe, Z discovered this drama on the computer and, in anger and not aware that literature is not life, deleted it. A lot of precise detail went missing. It is impossible to recover. I would love to write a drama on these topics.When in Europe last year I had to develop a short piece from the ManBitch material to read in Poland and Britain. Back in South Africa I decided to record it on CD and distribute it. The CD is called “My name is Angel” and it is still available at Ike’s bookshop. I think it is quite interesting. Especially when compared to the full text. The use of voice gives it that extra eerie dimension.

Incidentally Z is in process of completing her life story called Death, the only way out. It is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever read. It should be compulsory reading to all politicians and all South Africans when it appears.

13.Can you comment on the role of race in your memoirs?  Did you wish to depict race in a certain way? What is the significance, in terms of the self-portrayal which you sought to achieve, of your narrator’s whiteness, and of being an Afrikaner?  And can you comment on your aims in the depiction of the race of his lovers in this tale?

Another very complicated question. I grew up in working class surroundings. My parents were not really religious or political when I was young – or they certainly did not discuss it with us. I remember my father as being a very reasonable and fair person. There was this ambiguous thing: treat Africans fairly, but don’t mix with them and don’t allow them to know that they are your equals. At first, when I was very young, I think South Africans were pretty innocent and really unaware. As the repression increased in Sixties, Seventies and Eighties everything became much more political – it was pushed to consciousness. But by that time it was already embedded in me that human beings are human beings, and this was further endorsed by reading the Sestigers (especially Adam Small – one of those most underrated South African authors), the struggle against censorship and the reading of black consciousness material. I’m not really sure whether I’m really white anymore. I’m a South African, a person from the Point or Marine Parade in Durban. I’m proud of the way people live together there: rich, poor, white, and the full spectrum of black.

I tried to keep race out of the text itself and avoid words like “black” and “white.” In some places I know it still crept in like the unconscious always does.

Lewis Nkosi called me a racist before he left. And I refused to deny it. I am who I am – take it or leave it. I don’t go around accusing people of what they are. I just cannot do it, because I really don’t know and cannot know what they are. Close reading of the text in ManBitch would  clarify the issue in terms of the narrator and implied author.

Regarding the women. I’m attracted to the blackness of skin, the beauty of the African body – and ironically what I see as the cleanliness, the hygienic and healthy quality of the African body. Am I crazy or obsessed?

Basically I’m also very interested in that raw intelligence of African women. But, then that is maybe not the narrator of the book. I don’t know how the narrator expresses/justifies the obsession. He doesn’t as far as I know. It is just something that is. There is not an aversion to white women as a reference to Poland at the end of the book shows. In the end race is not important.

14.Would it be possible, in your opinion, to depict contemporary South Africa in a fictional work without specifying the racial classification of the characters therein?  What I am asking, is whether democratic South Africa has now got beyond such labels and groupings?

That is what I would have liked to have done, but did not succeed. We should move beyond the labels or just be much less sensitive about it. Be open about our prejudices rather than repressing them all the time.

The way Gutiérrez has done it in his book. Repressing prejudice means that it will return in a socially destructive way.

I think that books by Zaza Khuzwayo (Never been at home)and Zinhle Mdakane (forthcoming Death, the only way out) will go a long way in destroying racism. I think these texts point to the beginning of the post-apartheid literature – our birth as human beings: and it is great that they are written by the people of the margins – those struggling to survive, sometimes by selling their bodies.

15.The tenses shift quite erratically throughout the narrative.  Were you trying to achieve a particular effect?  And if so, what was it?

That betrays the process of taking notes – sometimes noting things happening at the moment and sometimes remembering things from a week before. Chapters on particular women are either predominantly in the present tense or past – depending on how final the relationship between the narrator and a particular woman was, although he could not repress any completely, I would imagine. It has to do with wish-fulfillment.

16.The book is self-published.  Can you tell us something about your efforts to get it published and why you decided to publish it yourself?  Why was publication necessary?

I did submit versions of the text to various Afrikaans publishers. I don’t think any of them even forwarded it to outside referees. was then interested, but they went bankrupt before being established. I did send it to an agent in London by email. She said it has to be a success in South Africa first. I sent a copy to Natal University Press, but never received a reply. Maybe it never reached them. Another email copy went to David Philip.

I don’t think they opened it. The Afrikaans publishers want it to be in Afrikaans otherwise they are not interested.

The English publishers don’t really exist.

I could have been a millionaire today if the book was published when that scandalous article in the Sunday Times appeared I’m very unlucky. So I’ve missed my chance of becoming this rich decadent sugar daddy.

Well, then I thought why not print a hundred copies and have a little launch around the book. The book is basically known to people in Durban. People from other cities are not aware of its existence.

Interestingly it is translated into Polish and might be published there soon. I will possibly become famous in Poland first.

I think there could be a conspiracy. I sent review copies to the Weekly Mail, but they always seem to boycott everything I do. I don’t fit the stereotypes they are promoting – it confuses their readers. I get very angry, for instance, when they don’t review an important text like Zaza’s (possibly due to a prejudice against self-published work). The same with the other newspapers. Maybe, I’m enemy number one, someone not to be mentioned.

17.Who was your intended readership?  Did you write with a specific reader, or readers, or even type of reader, in mind?

I love cult followings – young South Africans, young people generally. I find it very difficult to accept that I’m getting older. It is nice when the women of the Point actually read the book and identify with it, or students who feel that it describes a world that they know. I never really thought about readers. I’m the main reader myself and am really critical when I feel I have not achieved the poetic affects I wanted to. It worries me a lot.

18.To those of us who know you, some of the individuals depicted are recognisable, even if you have given them pseudonyms.  Is the identity of many or most of the individuals represented in your narrative obscured by the use of pseudonyms?  Of those for whom you did not disguise their extra-textual identity, why did you feel empowered not to do so?

I find it difficult to mess around with the material supplied by the world – because it is imbued with so much poetry. The imagination cannot compete. Can Charity really be replaced by Beauty (as words in the text), or Zaza by Zodwa? Sometimes there were striking changes such as Z. for Zinhle. Mbali, I could not change. She was dead already and cannot object. And the power of the word meaning flower in Zulu and her negative reaction to flowers in the text is just so important (textually). Neither could I change the name of Angel (although she spells it Engel). The women on which these characters are based really hate being recognizable in texts or being photographed. They are very private.

Literature is my religion, it is, at the end of the day what determines my decisions.

19.Can you elaborate on the issue of the truth-telling imperatives and conventions in autobiography?

Do you see this narrative as a kind of confession?  If so, to whom are you confessing and why?  If not, can you explain your need or desire to be so explicit and so open with your readers?

I think I answered by saying that literature is truer than history. I was not compelled to write facts.

The book is firstly an attempt to be good literature. Could it be the confession of a narrator? Or must a narrator always refer to somebody outside of the text? If there are points of similarity with the life of somebody outside of the text then it is only because life itself is so poetic.

20.Have there been any repercussions regarding the revelations of some very personal details of the lives of some of the people with whom you interacted?

I suppose so. A cousin threatened to kill me. She has not read the book. People were a bit funny after the newspaper article. At airports and cafés and restaurants I was suddenly greeted by very friendly Africans, while whites tended to be very angry and Indians somewhere in-between. This racial divide in the reactions was very interesting. I think the book, or the newspaper article, made professors and workers, white and black, all equal at a deep level. How could a professor destroy the conventional class and race barriers in this way? I suppose that was unconsciously on people’s minds. For me it is just a book.

21.Some reviewers have criticised Man-Bitch for being poorly edited.  What are your thoughts in this regard?

Yes, I have to agree. I hope to make changes. It went through the hands of at least three English-speaking proofreaders. This is important as I’m striving for absolute clarity in style.

I did not have the time to do a decent job of it – and my attention was badly divided between work at UDW and completing the text.

22.What prompted you to write the book?

After living with Mbali for about a year I suddenly realized here is important material for a book and I should start taking notes.

23.The narrator asks, early on, whether he “could disappear into the filthy sidewalks” (p. 9), along with the street children, the drunks, the whores, the disabled derelicts.  Is this book an attempt to answer in the negative?

As a form of therapy I suppose yes. But the narrator who is confused with me is so much part of that area that he and I will always be associated with it and the people. I love the place intensely. When I was in Europe recently I really missed the noise of people from the streets and just the life and the buzz.

24.Was the act of writing, the writing process, therapeutic?  Can you elaborate?

I don’t know. Can I as author ever really be forgiven for the way I treated Mbali or my own family and the other nonsense in my life? Does literature give me the right to do this? These are difficult questions. With people beginning to die around us, these are questions for all white South Africans to answer, and especially those in power and those great financial institutions which daily are laying off people. They have a lot of answering to do. With the lifting of sanctions, the internal South African market, that is the South African people, have become expendable for those who govern financially and politically. So why should they care? The anti-apartheid struggle has come to show it’s real face. It was a struggle by finance to rationalize this society for the benefit of the few who export and those who manage it.

25.Comment on the dedication: “This book is more real than the truth as lies always are”. Where do you see lies in this book?  What are lies and what is truth?  What is “real”?

Difficult question. Let’s leave it for the philosophers, starting with the Socratic view of the “real”.

26.Stanley (1992:96) argues that the critical reader of autobiography is likely “to embrace anti-realist principles but then also slip into quasi-realist readings of autobiographical writings”.  To what extent, and in what ways, did your extensive knowledge of contemporary theories infuse the way you approached the process of self-representation?  Do you find a similar confusion or ambiguity in your own conception of the autobiographical act?

I did not really think about the theories, their relevance just became apparent as the the text unfolded. The “real” would be in the unconscious of the text, and when it becomes conscious it slips into the unconscious again. It was not a text about reality in the nineteenth century sense of the term. The texture of things and details and events were co-players in a game, but their reality can never be determined, except in a philosophical sense where ideas become more real than the world.

27.Why did you write in English when Afrikaans is your mother tongue?

I want to enter the international literary arena.

28.Comment on the differing conceptions of self in non-Westernised and Westernised cultures: relational self versus individualism and say something about the ways in which you sought to depict self in the book.

I’m not so sure whether it is valid to say that there are differing conceptions of the world by Westerners and non-Westerners. If there were a difference it would have to be very carefully formulated. Apart from skin colour and money my experience is that people are very much the same. Some are just much harder hit by the tragedy of the world, while others are so affluent and unaware of what is going on that they are close to non-existence. I did not seek to depict the self of the narrator in any particular way except using the notational approach for gathering material. I must still learn how to create characters with thoughts and internal lives.

29.Can you say something about the suffusions of culture and history in the apparently self-evident genre of autobiography?

Not really. Not about culture. History, yes. History is very much present, but in a more intensive way than in history books itself. I’m referring to literature now, and not to autobiography. Autobiography, like history, tends to be swamped by irrelevant information and in the end is not historical or autobiographical at all.

30.If (and this is what I hold) self is a question, not an answer, what questions have you explored in this book?  Are there other questions about yourself which you have not raised?  And if so, why?

The question of betrayal is the main one, and the relationship between love and sexuality another. The questions I still have to ask relate to evil. What is evil and to what extent is its source the good intentions of human beings? What is its relationship to language (not literature, but the other disciplines) and science? What is responsibility and what are the limits of responsibility when it comes to writing literature?

31.At one point, early in the narrative (p. 9), when you recount Mbali’s impending admittance to the hospital for those with pneumonia, AIDS, leprosy, TB, cancer and schizophrenia, you ask, “Is our country becoming a concentration camp without fences?”  Did you intend that your memoirs would answer this question?

The question is the answer.

32.Further reading: Please give me a list of your fictional and poetic publications.

  • 1976, Deur die oog van die luiperd, Kaapstad, Human & Rousseau.
  • 1978, Heldedade kom nie dikwels voor nie, Johannesburg, Perskor.
  • 1981, Bome gaan dood om jou, Kaapstad,Human & Rousseau.
  • 1996, Oë in ’n kas, Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau.

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