Nadia Davids’ first venture as a novelist is the lucid and insightful An Imperfect Blessing, which explores the complex and often painful worlds of a Cape Town in transition.
A cast of variously aged members of the Dawood family — residing in Walmer Estate and Observatory, but also rooted in the District Six of old —struggles to find their identity in an ever changing and tumultuous South African society. There is young Alia, a teenager with common teenage girl problems, but played out in a racially tense society. There is her older sister Nasreen, fighting for a voice as a young woman and a freedom fighter. Their parents, Zarina and Adam struggle to create a new and safe home for their daughters, while fearfully accepting a lost past and with it a destroyed heritage. Waleed, Adam’s brother and the girl’s beloved “cool” uncle, an intellectual and rebel, finds himself unable at times to let go of the old and usher in the new, even as he preaches revolution and flaunts his white girlfriend before his older and less progressive (to put it mildly) mother, Fozia.
The narrative zigzags between 1986 and 1993, placing the characters in two times at once: the apex of revolution and violence in South Africa, shortly before Mandela’s release in 1990, and the year on the cusp of the beginning of democracy, ending shortly after the election in ’94. Writing in this way, Davids creates a wholesale understanding of what forms the characters, the past that shaped them and the society they have grown from. We see the struggle of a nation to find freedom, but we see it on an individual and familial scale across past and present, making it a personalized experience of these difficult years in our history.
Davids and I meet at the lovely District Café in Woodstock. One of the guiding themes of our conversation is time: “The boundary between past and present is terribly artificial,” says Davids. “These lines get drawn in particular ways and we’re expected to think that something has transitioned when in fact history is present in every moment.” The use of multiple times and voices in the novel recreates this conflict. The past bleeds into the present and the present speak backs to what happened in the past. But writing in this way poses a unique problem in construction: “I did struggle with what to do with the sections from the ’80s, you know, like should they all be grouped together, or should they interface with each other? But what I realised was that the ’80s sections try to carefully peel back some layers within the family and to reveal some of the complications of how people perceive each other.” Placing these sections so close emphasises this “peeling back” revealing intimately the life of the Dawoods in Cape Town.
Of course, it is not just Cape Town that we get but Cape Town at its most turbulent, it’s most “charged”. It was a time that was “both deeply, deeply optimistic and incredibly turbulent, and it’s rare to have those kinds of ways of being in the world coalesce.” The novel vividly depicts the world and ways of being in it: “I wanted to think about what that time was like… how it continues to rub against the past.” The question of history is never far from Davids’ mind then, but it is birthed out of, first and foremost, the question of experience and an understanding of how people feel and interact.
The language of the novel demonstrates beautifully these interactions with code-switching and slang featuring prominently. The character Adam notes how he would speak in different ways for different customers in his shop – Jews, whites, coloureds, Indians – and this exemplifies Nadia’s technique. “Those are conglomerate moments of growing up in Cape Town,” she says, “you see that happening all the time and it coalesces and finds its moment in a particular character.” However, this “fluidity of language” is a double-edged sword: “often language is the thing that can create some kind of camaraderie and familiarity between people… [but] it can be deeply uncomfortable, especially when you have privilege and power operating in a certain way.” What we end up with in An Imperfect Blessing then is a tension that repeats itself – through a story about our history, an experience of characters and an exploration of language – the turbulence of apartheid is shown to be like a pebble hitting the surface of water, the ripples affecting nearly every aspect of life.
The novel’s publication may seem serendipitous as well, with its release so soon after the tragic passing of Nelson Mandela and so close to Freedom Day and a celebration of 20 years of democracy, but it is, in truth, “just a happy coincidence”. Davids had been working on the novel since 2008 and found it a way of “bringing home into [her] everyday life.” It was born out of a feeling of “nostalgia and a kind of longing to be home” but also out of conversations about South Africa and a realisation about the “absurdity of the country.” After success as a playwright (having written acclaimed works such as At Her Feet), she’d hoped to explore “writing across a number of different forms” and found in this case that a lengthier work would be better, “because some stories are better suited to certain formats and often it’s the story that decides that.”
As a process though, storytelling is for Davids never fully divorced from the theatre; her mind seems to work on the level of sound and appearance even when writing characters for a book: “I hear a character first, I hear how they speak first, and once I know how they speak and I know the rhythms of their speech and the kind of words they use… then I know who they are. The next thing is, I want to know how they’re dressed and how they present themselves to the world… it does have a very theatrical element.”
After all this though, Davids admits that “it comes down to it being something that I want to read”. It is a novel which engages with the past, explores the personal, and experiments with the form. “I like to read different kinds of writing,” she says, “and I wanted to have that in the novel as well, to have different kinds of writing.”
An engaging and enjoyable read, the complexity and thoroughness of An Imperfect Blessing bodes well for the future of writing in and of South Africa, and for Davids too. It’s safe to say that it is a definitive success, a story we can, and should, all read and relate to.
Photograph: John Gutierrez