My literary crush on Lionel Shriver resurfaced with a vengeance this week when BBC Radio 4 broadcast its excellent adaption of We Need to Talk About Kevin, followed by an interview with the author. This book is a favourite of mine, and I’ve not been swayed by the complaints I’ve heard from almost everyone I know that its subject matter is “too hard”. For those of you who haven’t read or heard of it, Kevin tells the chilling story of a woman who has failed, despite every good intention, to love her unlovable child. The vile Kevin takes a crossbow to school and massacres his schoolmates, and society blames his mother. The reason I remain in awe of Shriver’s achievement is the fact that the subject matter is hard, and that it is a remarkable imaginative feat to conjure up a Kevin and the family that made him. Imagine spending so many creative hours, months and years in the company of a monster. Imagine spending so much creative time painstakingly detailing the hideously ambivalent feelings of his mother despite not being a parent yourself. I stand in awe.
Aspiring writers are frequently fed the homily to “write what you know”. Shriver patently ignored this to write her novel. She admits in the interview that she did some research, but quickly grew bored with it, and just got on with the actual writing project. The essence of the broadcast interview is that psychoanalysts and therapists are using Shriver’s book to understand better relationships of abuse between children and parents. While this is a huge compliment for the author, and she is gracious about it, she is at pains to reiterate that the book is a work of fiction and not an academic text. She recalls a psychologist using the fact that Eva’s father has died to analyse her inability to relate to Kevin, and laughs, “She doesn’t have a father because I killed him off so I didn’t have another character to write about”.
While I find it inspiring that a novel can be so true, can pierce so accurately to the heart of things, that it can become a kind of handbook for practitioners, the main inspiration I take from Shriver’s writing is her fearless imagining of the dark side, her refusal to shun repellent characters and her imaginative leap into things unknown to her.
The novel I am writing is set in South Africa, because that is what I know, but also because my heart has a story to tell there. One of things that has been holding me back is my fear of writing a black protagonist. Now call me a product of apartheid, or call me what you will, but to me that seemed such a presumptuous act: assuming that I might have an inkling of what black experience in South Africa has been like, assuming that I have the right to try to write that. During my years at UCT, where I studied African Literature, we were taught by some that it is an act of colonialism to try appropriate someone’s experience. Each time I started this novel, I faltered because how could I write a novel set in South Africa without black characters? Was it not even more patronising to only represent black people from the white prism? How could I even begin to represent multiplicity if my novel’s perspective was white-only? Was that not racist in itself?
Those of you who read my last post will know that I have started the first few steps towards writing a black protagonist. It’s simultaneously terrifying and thrilling, and I am already more than a little in love with Lindiwe. Luckily for her and me it is not her job alone to hold up the foundations of the story; there are others. Listening to the adaption of Shriver’s book, however, reminded me that writing can be a bold act, and that’s what I aspire to: daring and fearless feats of imagination. I don’t have to write what I know.