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Sun February 24, 2013
Author Interviews

Historical Fiction Gets Personal in 'Philida'

Originally published on Sun February 24, 2013 4:44 pm

André Brink is one of the most well-known anti-apartheid writers in South Africa. His latest novel Philida, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is set in 1832 in the South African Cape, just two years before emancipation.

The title character lodges a complaint against her master, Francois Brink, who is also the father of her four children. He'd promised her freedom, but then backs out and marries a wealthy white woman.

While the writing may be fiction, Brink says it's based on historical records; Francois Brink is a forebear of his. This made writing from the perspective of Philida and other non-white characters particularly challenging, because as Brink tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered, "power relations are at play as well."

Brink says, however, he feels it was worth the challenge.

"I owed this one to Philida," he says.


Interview Highlights

On using historical documents as a basis for the story

"In dealing with documents from those days, one has to make very sure that you tune your ear in to the little things that were actually said during a trial or during a hearing like this, and the things that are inferred, the things that might've been smoothed out by the court interpreter who would try to smarten up the language and make it the acceptable current language of the Dutch at the Cape early in the 18th century."

On writing in the voice of a black slave woman, as a white man

"I was very daunted about the whole undertaking, knowing, first of all, how almost impossible it is for a white man to write about, and to imagine himself, into the life of a black woman. All the more so if that woman is a slave. I think part of a writer's job is to be able to imagine her or himself into the skin of somebody else. That is normal. You can't pretend to be a writer if you can't do that, if you're not prepared to try. But power relations are at play as well. So it took a lot of bloody cheek to dare this."

"If I speak with a character's voice it is because that character's become so much part of me that ... I think I have the right then to imagine myself into the skin, into the life, into the dreams, into the experience of the particular character that I've chosen."

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Coming up, Three-Minute Fiction, and we talk with blues musician, Corey Harris.

Now, Andre Brink is one of the best-known writers of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. His latest novel, "Philida," is about a slave woman on the South African Cape just two years before the emancipation of slaves there.

She's forced into a complicated relationship with her master, Francois Brink, who fathers her four children. Ultimately, he breaks the promise he made to free her. But the twist is that the character of Francois Brink is, in reality, a distant forebear of the author, Andre Brink.

ANDRE BRINK: We meet her when she's on her way to lodge a complaint with a slave protector against her direct master, which is a young man, Francois Brink. He and his father had been keeping this young woman as a slave. It is now on the eve of the liberation of slaves in South Africa, so the situation is rather fluid and even precarious.

LYDEN: Andre Brink, you have Philida launching a complaint with the so-called slave protector against a Francois Brink. Now, this Francois Brink, he's a forebear of yours, right?

BRINK: Oh, yes. Yes. To be absolutely finicky about it, he was the brother of my direct forebear in that particular generation.

LYDEN: In this book, you've reimagined everyone's language. Philida is complaining because they are threatening to sell her because Francois is meant to marry a white woman, but you were able to look at some of the records of what these people actually said, right?

BRINK: Yes. Although in dealing with documents from those days, one has to make very sure that you tune your ear in to the little things that were actually said during a trial or during a hearing like this and the things that are inferred, the things that might've been smoothed out by the court interpreter who would try to smarten up the language and make it the acceptable current language of the Dutch at the Cape early - in the 18th century.

LYDEN: Tell me how tangled the relationship between Philida and Francois is in the novel.

BRINK: It is extremely tangled, because initially, it was practically a rape. But both of them became, in one way or another - in one measure or another - infatuated with the other. They developed between them a real love relationship, which meant that it came as a shock to both of them - to Francois as much as to Philida - when his father, Cornelius, decided that he had to do the decent thing and marry his son off to a rich white girl, not a slave.

LYDEN: Let's read from the latter part of your book where Philida, really, is on the brink of freedom. The end of slavery has been declared, and she can kind of see the future from here, at least.

BRINK: (Reading) Of course, one also gets used to it. If you learn to think this is what it is to be a slave, just this and nothing more. This, that everything is decided for you from out there. You've just got to listen and do as they tell you. No matter if it is a piece of knitting you've got to unravel and knit again or to kneel when some boss want to beat you, you don't say no. You don't ask questions. You just do what they tell you.

But far at the back of your head, you think: Soon, there must come a day when I can say for myself this and that, I shall do; this and that, I shall not do. But such a day never come until that Monday, when the people come running up and down the street and singing and dancing and kicking up dust and the sky stayed just as blue as it always was, a blue Monday, as they say. And from now on, blue will be my color.

LYDEN: Andre Brink, you have written many, many novels taking a stance against apartheid. You are one of South Africa's foremost and most celebrated novelists. I also would, though, like to ask you about what it was like to write in Philida's voice, a young black woman's voice. And you've taken some criticism for that.

BRINK: I was very daunted about the whole undertaking, knowing, first of all, how almost impossible it is for a white man to write about and to imagine himself into the life of a black woman, all the more so if that woman is a slave. I think part of a writer's job is to be able to imagine her or himself into the skin of somebody else. That is normal. You can't pretend to be a writer if you can't do that, if you're not prepared to try.

But power relations are at play as well. So it took a lot of bloody cheek to dare this. If I speak with a character's voice, it is because that character has become so much part of me that I can - I think I have the right then to imagine myself into the skin, into the life, into the dreams, into the experience of the particular character that I've chosen. And that was the challenge, but I also knew that I owed this one to Philida.

LYDEN: Andre Brink, it's been a great pleasure talking to you and reading this book which is called "Philida." And thank you very much for joining us from Cape Town.

BRINK: Thank you very much, indeed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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