Tuesday, September 24, 2019

#81 Inside the Emotion of Fiction: THE AFRIKANER by Arianna Dagnino

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****Arianna Dagnino’s THE AFRIKANER is #81 in the never-ending series called INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific excerpt from a fiction genre and how that fiction writer wrote that specific excerpt.  All INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION links are at the end of this piece. 
Name of fiction work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? “The Afrikaner”. Initially, it was simply called “Zoe,” like the name of the main female character. Later on, I thought of it as “Fossils” (Zoe is a paleontologist): I found it poetic.

Has this been published? And it is totally fine if the answer is no. If yes, what publisher and what publication date? It was published by Guernica Editions (Toronto) in April 2019.

What is the date you began writing this piece of fiction and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? I started writing this book in the year 2000, when I was still in South Africa working as an international reporter for the Italian press. I kept writing it and finished it in Australia, where my husband and I moved after our two children were born.  I then rewrote it when we moved to Canada and after I completed my PhD in Comparative Literature.
Where did you do most of your writing for this fiction work? And please describe in detail.  I wrote most of it on a small desk in my home studio but also at several public libraries and coffee shops, both in Adelaide and Vancouver. 

What were your writing habits while writing this work- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? I like taking initial notes with pen and paper, wherever I am. But for the real writing I need to be in front of my laptop. I love writing early in the morning, from 5.00 am onwards. I like having coffee or tea by my side. No music, though – too distracting.

What is the summary of this specific fiction work? Zoe Du Plessis’s story unfolds against the backdrop of 1996 South Africa, caught in the turmoil of the transition from the Apartheid regime to the first democratically elected black government. A paleoanthropologist at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, her world collapses when her lover and colleague, Dario Oldani, is killed during a fatal carjacking.

     Clinging to her late companion’s memory, Zoe sets off to the merciless Kalahari Desert to continue his fieldwork. It’s the beginning of an inner journey during which she gets to come to terms with a growing sense of guilt for having been raised as a privileged white Afrikaner while also confronting a secret that has hung over her family for generations. During a brief visit back home, Zoe meets an unlikely lover in Kurt, a legendary South African writer with a troubled past. The conclusion spirals the reader into a new perspective, where atonement seems to be inextricably linked to an act of creative imagination.

Can you give the reader just enough information for them to understand what is going on in the excerpt? The excerpt is taken from Chapter 1 of the book (right after the “Prologue”), when Zoe, whose lover has just been killed in a car-hijacking, leaves Johannesburg in grief and crosses the hot plains of the Karoo to reach the family wine estate in the Cape. There in the Karoo, she meets again Koma the Bushman shaman, who will be a key player in her journey of atonement and self-discovery.

Please include just one excerpt and include page numbers as reference. This one excerpt can be as short or as long as you prefer.

Chapter 1
An Encounter in the Karoo

Nothingness. She has been driving for hours on end across this nothingness. When she pulls to the side of the road and turns off the engine, the sun has already begun its red descent into the horizon. She steps out into the dry heat. The stony expanse of the Karoo stretches out for kilometres on end—illusory and timeless, like a de Chirico landscape. The stillness is broken only by the hushed breathing of the radiator. She walks away from the vehicle, oblivious to the scratches on her legs as she makes her way through the thorny bushes and the sharp yellow grass. She goes deep into her imaginary canvas, then stops. The sound of her footsteps fades out. There remains only silence. Deep, primordial silence. That’s all she is aching for.
Goeiemôre, Zoe.”
She flinches. She has been sitting on her solitary rock for
quite a while now, watching the sky veer into blood orange, and hasn’t heard any footsteps. The initial fright turns quickly into disbelief: that voice! Could it really be him?
She turns and there, a few steps from her, stands the shortest of men—no taller than a metre and a half. His dark olive skin is wrinkled and shrivelled like a walnut shell. Under the visor of a battered baseball cap, she makes out the slants of his eyes and, out of the shade, his slightly restrained, dignified smile.
She jumps up to greet him.
“Koma! Ek sien jou!”
The old Bushman comes up to her with light steps and
clasps her hands in his.
“I see you too, Mejuffrou.
Startled by the dream-like apparition, she briefly looks
past Koma, trying to figure out where he may have come from. All she can see is a boundless stretch of bare country.
Oom, what are you doing here?”
“I visited friends living on a farm over there,” he says pointing to the east with his arm stretched out, the back of his hand facing up.
Her memory brings her back to 1986.

She is a graduate student spending the summer in Schmidtsdrift. The Army has chosen the nearby military base to relocate the Bushmen soldiers who fought in the frontier wars in Namibia. They have been brought here with their families, away from the public eye. There are about 4,000 of them, making it the largest San community left in Africa, and Zoe got permission to study their customs and way of life. On the very first day of her stay, the Base Captain introduces her to Koma, the !Kung shaman, one of the best trackers in the South African Army.
“Still at the camp, Koma?”
Ja, too old to work on a plaas.
How old is he? Fifty, sixty? Even he couldn’t tell.
“You might be too old to work on a farm, Oom, but you don’t seem too old to go on foot across the Karoo. When did you leave?”
“Three days ago. It will take me another four days to be back,” he says as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
“I can give you a ride.”
Nee. Walking is good. It has taken me back to the lost days, when I was a young hunter.”
As he talks, Koma lets his eyes roam across the landscape.
For a while, they share the stillness of the place, drawn by the same sense of wonder, the same urge of wandering. Eventually, with his gaze still fixed into the horizon, the old shaman says:
“Your heart is aching.”
She is taken aback. Startled by the oddness of their encounter, Zoe has momentarily forgotten the cause of her flight. She keeps quiet, looking down at the dust on her boots, forced back into reality. She is trying to answer but something is lodged in her throat.
“The arrows of sorrow hit me hard this time,” she manages to say at last.
Another long spell of silence. Zoe glances at the old man but can make out only his profile in the naked light of the veld.
“At times, we need to be like the weed, which bends in the wind,” Koma eventually says.
She sits back on her rock. There is no point in asking him to elaborate: The old shaman would look away, pretending not to have heard her. Besides, she doesn’t want to plead for clarity.
She would rather hush her mind a little longer.
Instinctively, she finds herself following the old man’s gaze, as the sun heads toward its daily death.
After a long while she stands up and walks to the car. She pulls from her backpack three packages of biltong she bought for the trip and takes the bottle of water lying on the passenger seat; then goes back to Koma and hands him the dried meat and the water.
“They will come in handy.”
The old man slips the offerings in his knapsack. “Oom, how come our paths have crossed here, in the
middle of a desert?”
“The magic is in every moment of life, Mejuffrou. I
thought you took note of this in the little book you used to carry everywhere.”
Koma clasps her hands, then goes on his way without turning around.
She watches him walk away, a small dark figure against a scarlet backdrop, the pace slow and measured. He is still wearing his old uniform, all patched and worn-out, and a pair of sandals made from truck tires.
Totsiens, Oom,” she finally says, still feeling the bushman’s dry and nervous strength around her wrists.
She moves towards the car. The light is fast draining from the sky. If she sits tight, she will be in Bloemfontein before dark settles in.

Why is this excerpt so emotional for you as a writer to write? And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific excerpt? In one of my trips to Namibia as a reporter, I had a chance to meet with a Bushman shaman. Regular communication between us was rather complicated: I would ask him a question in English and the ranger who accompanied me there would translate it into Afrikaans, the language that the shaman had learned during his time as a tracker in the South African Defence Forces. 

The answer arrived through the same laborious path. Thus, most of the time we shared the silence of the desert. Soon I realized how much the old shaman could “tell me” with his simple gestures and facial expressions. In this passage I tried to recreate that emotional space, that sense of being suspended between reality and some other plane of existence and meaning.

Were there any deletions from this excerpt that you can share with us? And can you please include a photo of your marked up rough drafts of this excerpt. I rewrote these pages many times, adding, deleting or changing things, reworking the wording of the dialogues. Please see below photo with an example of one of my multiple marked up rough drafts

Other works you have published?
In English, I have published a creative nonfiction which constitutes the first part of my book Transcultural Writers and Novels in the Age of Global Mobility (Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, 2015), and 
Jesus Christ Cyberstar, freely inspired by the 1970 Broadway’s first rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar: in it, I compare certain values of the digital age (at least in its early period) with those of the Christianity of the origins. 

Anything you would like to add? Many early readers told me that being highly visual and with a captivating plotline, The Afrikaner could become a great movie.  I have now started working on a film script together with Ernest Mathijs, my colleague and Professor of Film Studies at UBC. I would like to find a way to involve my readers in this process of transforming a novel into a script. 

           For example, since I will have to cut a lot to reduce a 280-page story into a 120-page script, I would be curious to see which characters and scenes they would keep and which ones they would delete and then compare the results with what Ernest and I have come up with. I am also working on an audiobook version of The Afrikaner with Los Angeles-based, South African actor Dennis Kleinman (www.aworldvoice.com).
       If The Afrikaner were made into a film I’d choose Jessica Chastain or Charlize Theron (she is South African) as Zoe Du Plessis.  I’d see actor Craig Greer in the role of Zoe’s brother André du Plessis.  I see Neil Sandilands portraying Kurt van der Merwe.

          In her career as an international reporter, literary translator and academic researcher, Arianna Dagnino has lived in many countries, including a five-year stint in South Africa. 

          The author of several books on the impact of global mobility, science and new technologies, she holds a PhD from the University of South Australia and currently teaches at the University of British Columbia.



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