Damon Galgut is a South African playwright and novelist. His first novel was published when he was just 17. Since then he has written nine books, including a short story collection. He’s been shortlisted three times for the Booker Prize and won in 2021 for his ninth book, The Promise. A participant in the online segment of the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2022, Galgut spoke to Scroll.in about his books and winning The Booker Prize. Excerpts from the interview:
You wrote A Sinless Season as a 17-year-old – a very early start to a writing career. What was that like?
I actually wrote A Sinless Season at the age of 16, but the book was published only a year or so later. It was my Afrikaans teacher who encouraged me to write the book and guided me through the process. At the time I knew nothing about publishing. My teacher submitted the manuscript to local publishers and it subsequently got picked up by Penguin US and UK.
The book hasn’t been in print for a while, and I haven’t allowed publishers to reissue it. I’m not concerned about its subject matter, but it’s just a book that I’m not very proud of – I think it still shows a writer in development. I did not like how my young age became the talking point of the novel – that’s not the best way to get started on a writing career.
However, those around me were very pleased and supportive. I did not come from a bookish environment and even though my father initially thought of writing more as a hobby than a vocation, I guess I always knew I wanted to be a writer.
What made you decide to write about violence and abuse within families in Small Circle of Beings?
Well, the titular novella is essentially a story of my own childhood. I was diagnosed with lymphoma when I was six years old, and it essentially broke up our family. The illness also exposed the irreconcilable differences between my parents. It was not the happiest time for our family.
Now of course, a lot of us associate families with warmth and comfort but it is also true that not everybody has the same experiences. As Leo Tolstoy had said, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In Small Circle of Beings, I simply wrote what I experienced, what I know.
Through Patrick in The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, you show that even the most terrifying childhood experiences can turn into something we are nostalgic for. How important is childhood when you create your characters?
We were all children once and whether we like it or not, childhood is an important part of who we are – if not the most important. What we experience in our childhood may become the foundation of our adult selves. We empathise with children, we know that they are vulnerable, and we try to relate to the common human qualities.
Quite simply, children make adults. I believe that our childhoods shape us in a very basic, fundamental kind of way. The way to understand anybody is also to understand their childhoods. When I write about a character’s childhood, I do so to understand them as adults, what makes them human.
The Quarry is probably your most atmospheric read. The sparse environment heightens the elements of crime and mystery in it. How important do you think the setting is for a novel?
I’m constantly criticised for the lack of action in my books but The Quarry is an exception. For me, the setting of the novel is very important. I really have to feel the environment, it should really stand out as an individual character. I prefer sparse environments because it allows you to strip down a story to its elements – it also adds a lot of possibilities.
The Good Doctor asks an age-old question – can the desire to be good be free from personal motives? Have you found an answer to this?
I have actually. Goodness is generally associated with love. You would do almost anything for love – love is an exception to the usual range of human behaviour. People can be altruistic and I say it with conviction. There have been moments in my own life where I have done something without expecting anything.
But that’s not to say I’m any kind of saint! I would say it’s the opposite. But if I can be capable of goodness then I think anyone can. I have a lot of hope for individual human beings but I only feel despair for human beings collectively. As a race, I don’t think we have done anything except damage.
Both Adam and Canning in The Impostor are enraptured by Canning’s wife, Baby. In a story that is otherwise dominated by white characters, why portray the woman as black? Were you actively constructing a metaphor for South Africa?
I think I made Baby a black woman a little too self-consciously, actually. I wrote the book in the wake of the first democratic elections in South Africa. The book was more willed into being than a natural birth.
Blackness was seen as something ugly, inferior but the elections changed that. There was a push in the opposite direction – blackness suddenly became sexy and attractive. There was a switch in aesthetic, blackness became a sex symbol. People thought it cool to cross the colour divide and take up black partners.
So I guess, Baby too, is seen as a trophy. However, she’s not as naïve. She’s after money. This was also a recognisable trend in South Africa – a moral shallowness, everyone concerned with their own gains.
In a Strange Room is partly autobiographical in nature. Yet instead of just addressing the protagonist as “I”, they are also addressed as “he” and “Damon”. What’s the idea behind this?
During the time of publication, I was pretty upfront about the autobiographical nature of In a Strange Room – these are my lived experiences as I remember them. The writings first appeared in The Paris Review as essays, and a decision had to be taken early on whether they would be published as memoir, fiction, or travel pieces. My editor decided to publish it as fiction and I was very happy to go along with it.
The “he”, “I”, “Damon” switch that happens is due to the fact that the real subject of the book is memory. I used “I” to write about those memories that took me back to the moments precisely as I remembered them, whereas “he” and “Damon” are used for memories that I was a little uncertain about or detached. I think if I wrote those stories now, I’d prefer to write them as third person accounts. I guess my point is that all memory is a kind of fiction. We tell the story of our lives from memories and it involves a fair amount of construction.
Why did you choose to chronicle EM Forster’s life in Arctic Summer?
I spent a lot of time in India between 1999 and 2018. I wrote The Good Doctor and The Impostor in Goa – I have travelled widely in India and the country has been very good to me. My interest in India led me to reread some passages from EM Forster’s A Passage to India. I was attracted to the idea of writing a book about writing a book. I wanted to express how difficult and torturing it can be to write a book, how much of your life it takes up.
When I read about Forster’s life, I realised he had a far more difficult process of writing A Passage to India than we are aware of. He had a writer’s block for about nine years or so and that is something I too struggle with greatly. I saw a lot of potential to express my own struggles with writing. I wanted to write about everything that went into the making of A Passage to India. I was merciless in my research and I put it all in the book and interpreted Forster’s life in my own way.
I came to Forster pretty late, in my 30s, and he does not even feature in my list of indispensable writers. Yet there’s something very enduring about the warmth which he writes about humanity. He’s an interesting figure. We are certainly not similar in our ways but I do understand a lot of his fears and consolations.
The most dominant emotion in your Booker Prize winner The Promise is that of guilt. Do white South Africans at large feel guilty for not having fulfilled the promises of post-apartheid era?
I don’t think white South Africans in general feel it is their responsibility to deliver justice to the victims of apartheid. If there’s any guilt, I’m assuming there is, it’s the collective guilt of how white people have been consistently privileged and empowered. I have always felt like Amor – ashamed of one’s relative power and privilege.
But oddly when power was transferred here, there was an assumption that it’s a state project to change South Africa – no one was willing to take up individual responsibility. The political power might have been handed over, but the economic power still remains with a chosen few. And they are mostly in the hands of white people – this has become a point of political friction.
The state has plundered the vaults of the country dry. The white population is a big part of the small fraction of South African taxpayers. They feel cheated when they see their money being squandered away. The South Africa under Nelson Mandela was one of hope and optimism but that is simply not the case anymore.
Which was your favourite book in the Booker Prize shortlist and who did you think had the best chance of winning?
I actually made a point of not reading any of them and I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that I still haven’t. I have read other books by Richard Powers, and he’s a remarkable literary craftsman. I have also read Anuk Arudpragasam’s first book, which I was very, very impressed by. I’ve been immensely dazed and distracted in the wake of the Booker Prize and I’m catching up with my reading now. I’ll read the shortlisted titles in due course.
Because he was familiar to me, I thought Richard Powers was the most serious contender. I had persuaded myself that I definitely would not get it! I knew I was a contender but the win still came as a pleasant surprise.