BY TARAH CHILDES
Cape Town-based Penny Busetto won the 2013 EU Literary Award for her debut novel, The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself .
How has winning the EU Literary Award impacted you if at all? Has it changed or shaped your identity as a writer at all?
It’s opened a lot of doors, given me more options, more possibilities than I have time to take up, so that now I find I have to be more selective. This is good and bad, I think.
Being in the public eye forces you to define yourself more clearly. There is an assumption that you have opinions on many topics, that your opinion counts. It’s a wonderful opportunity in a way to get to know yourself, but it’s risky too – the risk is that you create a persona, a mask, to offer the public to protect your inner life from scrutiny. I don’t wish to do that.
At the EU Literary Award ceremony last year, Jacana’s Maggie Davey, amongst others, commented on some of the challenges facing South African contemporary literary fiction. In your opinion, what does the South African literary scene lack that might ultimately lead to its reinvigoration.
Maggie’s comment that fiction is a kind of lying that tells a truth really resonated for me. I think there is a paradox about truth – we can’t get to it directly. Art and fiction try to reach towards it but it sort of hovers or shimmers behind the words, it evolves or emerges indirectly as we write and read. It’s only when we are thrown off balance, out of our complacency, that we can even begin to apprehend it. Writers need to be able to dare to write in unusual and dangerous ways to destabilize themselves and their readers .
Unfortunately many of our writers lack the self-confidence to do that. They feel they have felt they have to portray South Africa in particular rather stereotyped ways which to readers appear stuck and uninteresting. We might as well read non-fiction which already purports to know all the answers, and this is what Maggie says is happening — publishers are publishing more and more non-fiction. Perhaps this is why some of the more interesting writers have turned to science fiction or to setting their novels in other places, like Galgut and Beukes.
You are quite openly critical of modern psychiatry, and yet you named your lead character after Anna O, a patient whose treatment marked the beginning of psychoanalysis. Do you look more favourably upon psychology than psychiatry? What drew you to Anna O as an inspiration for the character of Anna P?
I’m deeply troubled by contemporary psychiatry, that is true. However I’m not against psychiatry. I believe there is a point at which mental functioning breaks down, and at moments of extreme crisis it is only the psychiatrist who is willing to step in. But I think that psychiatry tries to heal and manage mental distress often without examining its underlying assumptions about what it means to be a human being, and that is a problem.
By treating mental distress as if it were simply a result of chemical imbalances in the brain and body, and treating it as you would a disordered organ like the heart or liver, you exclude the question of meaning, of history. Mind, which is made up of memories and aspirations is being reduced to matter. And that is dangerous to my mind. As human beings we suffer from loneliness, and meaninglessness, and hope and the fear of death, and mourning – they are all part of who we are. Something is lost if we see them as merely symptoms of a disorder.
I am very interested in psychoanalysis and depth psychologies which explore the unconscious meanings of our actions. They account for so much of the human dimension. However I am bothered by the hubris of knowing in both psychiatry and psychology, the conviction that the individual person, the singular, can be known through general theories. Anna P, like Anna O, does not talk, yet the doctors think they can explain her. There is a problem of agency here.
You’re currently working towards an interdisciplinary doctorate in English and psychology. How do you balance your writing with other work?
With difficulty. I try not to divide up my world into segments but to live the various aspects as a fluid whole. I try to see my creative writing as another face of my academic work, and my personal life flows in and around them, finding symbolic expression in my writing. I am always trying to work out answers to real-life difficulties. That doesn’t mean that I am writing about the events of my life, but that the underlying issues will find expression and resolution in these other forms of writing.
In the novel men are depicted as exceptionally predatory: cruel and unfeeling almost to an unrealistic extent. Is this Anna’s view of them or are you commenting on the role of men as related to trauma in a broader sense?
I understand that this book can and will be read as a feminist critique, but that was never my intention and I am not really interested in talking about it in this way. Anna is very clear about this – in the preface she says: “I began to understand that it doesn’t make much difference whether one is a man or a woman.” The particular nature of her trauma is sexual, but the book is more about betrayal and being used as an object; her subjectivity is denied. This is the true betrayal, and in this sense she is betrayed by all forms of authority. In this sense it is a critique of psychiatrists, policemen or anyone else who tries to examine her objectively and understand little of her phenomenological world. Unfortunately most authority is still male, but it could equally be female.
The novel is about Anna’s world – as told by herself. It is a subjective inner view based on the unique set of experiences that made up her life. There is no attempt to portray men, or anything else for that matter, objectively. Anna has been traumatised by men and thus she sees men in this way. She is unable to see them as they really are.
I loved how the weather and landscapes of Italy played a role in reflecting Anna’s state of being. Do you feel as though you have to experience a country, city or town before you write about it? How much does the landscape of place impact you?
Interesting question. No, I don’t think you have to experience a place before you can write about it. In fact this goes back to the question of reaching truth through lies. It’s paradoxical. I have never been to the island of Ponza where Anna lives, and I wrote most of the descriptions of it based on my walks on Table Mountain. There is a webcam situated in the public gardens looking down onto the little harbor in Ponza. It refreshes its image every 10 minutes. I sat at my desk in Cape Town watching the movements of the boats in the harbour, the ferries coming and going, the tourists in summer, the storms of winter. I had a great sense of skies and weather and light, particularly light.
How important is it for you to work and write within a community of other writers/thinkers/helpful critics?
I am quite reclusive and work alone for the most part. I think most writers do — it’s part of listening in to an inner voice. I can usually tell when my writing is bad – my breathing feels wrong. Other people’s opinions interfere with that sense and so when I am writing intensely I shy away from social contact.
But I find it really useful to be connected to the academic world, where people are always talking about literature and ideas and art. I don’t always take part, but I find the debate interesting and stimulating; it resonates with what I am doing. And I find the library at UCT extraordinary. I spend more time there than anywhere else.
You’ve described South Africa as feeling fractured, jagged and traumatic in comparison to Italy’s sense of continuity and rhythm, despite the presence of death and destruction. Do you still see things in this way?
I’m not sure. I haven’t been back to Italy for about seven years, and I now feel much more comfortable in South Africa. I know that the sense of history in Italy was greatly soothing for me at one time — the knowledge that in the little town where I lived in Tuscany there were written records for the market that is held in the main square every Saturday going back to 729 CE without interruption. Every Saturday, even during the great wars and pestilences that have swept across the peninsula in the last 1,300 years, simple people would lay out their wares, a few vegetables, some olives, earthenware bowls or lace, trusting that life would continue in spite of everything.
Stephen Watson, your master’s supervisor, advised you to abandon writing about hope in order to explore the full darkness of your writing. How difficult was this to do and do you think you fully achieved this?
I think art, true creativity, requires that you should leave your places of comfort and safety and allow yourself to fall into the abyss, into a place where you don’t know whether you will survive. You have to allow the world as you know it to fragment. Hope would be that it might recompose itself in a new and lovely shape. But you can’t count on it. I think that’s what Stephen was talking about. Did I manage that in my book? I certainly reached places I thought I would never come out of, and my book had two different endings right until the end – only at the very last minute did I choose to end it the way I did, and allow in a chink of light. The other version was much darker. I think this was the right decision, but I had to explore the darker version first.
Can you tell us anything about the book you’re currently working on? Will you continue to explore the themes of memory, identity and trauma?
I don’t like to talk about writing I am busy with – it gives it an existence outside of myself before it’s ready. If I could paint it, it would be a painting in oils, dark, almost pitch black, but not a flat black. A deep resonant black made up of all the colours possible, magentas and ochres and night blues. And in this there would be a fragment of light that would catch a single detail — a cheek, a sleeve. That is what I would like to write. For the moment it is all very tentative on the page and I need to protect it. I am still very interested in memory and identity, but trauma has lost its appeal right now.