Curse of the South African writer | Booker-winning author Damon Galgut on feeling the weight of history when penning books

We are all creatures of history, because we’re all products of our time and place, says the author 

Updated - February 03, 2024 11:17 am IST

Published - January 26, 2024 09:45 am IST

South African author Damon Galgut.

South African author Damon Galgut. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Damon Galgut is in India for the first time since his book, The Promise, won The Booker Prize in 2021. But the 60-year-old South African playwright and author is no stranger to the country and had once described his relationship with India as an “ongoing” one. Ahead of the 17th edition of the Jaipur Literature Festival, where he will be a speaker, Galgut discusses how India has changed for him, his dislike of the term “political”, and his craft as a South African writer. Excerpts from an email interview:

You’ve said that you knew from a very young age that you were a writer. Were the act of writing and the awareness of the world and its political ramifications connected in any way?

I did indeed feel from an early age that writing was my destiny, but I only developed a political awareness in my 20s, specifically when I went to University during the State of Emergency in the late 1980s. My first and second books had nothing to do with South African political realities. As a young person I believed that literature (and ‘art’ in general) was above such tawdry stuff. It took me some time to realise that the tawdry stuff is precisely what our human world is made of.

So many of your books explore themes of identity and loneliness, and the human condition. What draws you to these ideas?

There’s a mystery to why certain subjects pull you as a writer. These are questions that preoccupy me personally, so it’s perhaps natural that I’d want to look at them on the page. Sorry not to be more forthcoming, but it’s maybe best not to examine your own motives too closely. That mystery is an essential element of the process.

To keep both, the emotional depth and the exploration of the larger, more political, themes — is that something that poses a challenge?

I don’t like terms such as ‘political’, because they suggest something separate from human life. Perhaps it makes more sense to think of ourselves as creatures of history, because we’re all products of our time and place. To look at any person — their situation and being – you are also in some sense looking at when and where they live. That’s unavoidable. Even novels that aren’t aware of their larger historical context are taking it into account, perhaps unconsciously.

So, I guess I’m trying to write about people as fully and as accurately as I can. That means I also try to account for the moment in which they’re living. In South Africa, the presence of history is very palpable. As William Faulkner observed, the past isn’t past yet.

You’ve described your connection with India as an “ongoing, kind of obsessive relationship” — something that inspired you and led you to write ‘Arctic Summer’ (2014). What draws you to this country?

Honestly, I don’t really understand my connection to India. For many years I kept returning, and I spent many happy months writing two novels (The Good Doctor and The Impostor) in Goa. I have some close friends too and have tried to understand the history of India a little. I have always been dazzled and amazed by the inventiveness and warmth and openness of its people. And I love the food!

But I have to say that my relationship with India has cooled in recent years. This is my first visit in a long while. Part of what always drew me was its inclusiveness and tolerance, a broad and accepting vision that has, alas, considerably dimmed and narrowed, at least in my perception. I grew up under white nationalism and I know that any kind of nationalism promises to take you forward while it actually carries you backward. But I have faith that India will outlast this current moment and find its generous heart again.

‘The Promise’ is so much about the passage of time and its impact on both the land and people. Do you feel the weight of responsibility; to pick subjects, ideas that need a voice? Or is there not one without the other?

This is the curse of the South African writer, I suppose. Most of us would like to write without that sense of responsibility weighing us down. But… history makes itself felt. I don’t go around trying to speak for the voiceless, but it’s impossible to create a South African character without thinking about their race and class. And of course many people don’t have a voice precisely because of those factors. You can’t turn away from them.

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