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Ken Barris

By Posted on 14 10 m read 2K views

I met Ken Barris last summer when I did a reading at A Touch of Madness in Cape Town, South Africa. He read for the open-mic portion of the evening. His reading was outstanding, and we got to talking about J.M. Coetzee’s DISGRACE, one of my favorites. He mentioned that his own book, which was due to be published, opened with a Coetzee quote, so I asked him to please send me a copy when it was out. Little did I know that this man had already published several novels and books of poetry; had won such prestigious prizes as the M-Net Book Prize, the Ingrid Jonker Prize, the Sydney Clouts Award, the Vita Award; and was shortlisted for the Noma and Sanlam Awards, as well as the Caine Prize.

I’m so happy to give Ken a chance to find a larger audience for his newest book, which is both poetic and provocative. WHAT KIND OF CHILD (Kwela Books, 2006) tells the story of three very different people living in Cape Town: Bernal Diaz, a dying tattoo artist who wants to leave something of himself behind before he goes; Luke Turner, a womanizing journalist who agrees to offer his body as a canvas for Diaz’s life story; and Malibongwe Kwetani, who struggles for survival in the townships with his mother who has little emotional space left for him.

What you will notice first in this book is the language, and how Ken can find, and stay with, the most complicated emotions of his characters. Here is the character, Diaz, waking up in the morning:

The light is dull and cold. It is early morning, he surmises, but in which city? He has lived in many cities. As he fits his teeth, the details come back: his name, his occupation, the name of the street in which he lives. He is grateful for the return of this small power (p. 90).

Time to meet Ken Barris and learn about a writer’s life in Cape Town and some of the layers of meaning in WHAT KIND OF CHILD.


First of all, I want to say how much I loved the words and rhythms and images and care you put into every single sentence. Your poetry background really shows. I also started in poetry, and one of the hardest things for me was to learn to write less condensed stories, to let the story breathe. Can you tell me how you shift your writing between the two forms – poem and novel?

I don’t believe I shift my writing between these two forms – they’re such different spaces, different landscapes, to work in that I can’t help developing a separate focus for each medium. Writing poetry is more spontaneous for me, less conscious. The poems I write don’t require conceptualisation and detailed planning, and I experience more liberty in poetry to compress statement and elide rational connections. When I write a novel, I need to think things through for a long time, and work out a framework out of which the more intuitive and surprising elements might emerge. It’s more complicated than that though, because I’m constantly revisiting that framework as I write – more cartilage than bone, so to speak – to accomodate what intuition has delivered unexpectedly.

Silence envelops them. It is a rich silence. To her it feels like the first few drags of a cigarette, when the smoke still tastes clean as paper, filled with oblique promise. And then it grows unpleasant, because there is too much of it. The best way to divert a silence like this, she feels, is to barge into it and say something obvious. But she is cautious about the way Luke Turner might react to her, and takes out a cigarette instead (p. 16).

Now, your novel opens with a quote from J.M. Coetzee’s DISGRACE: What kind of child can seed like that give life to, seed driven into the woman not in love but in hatred…. Both your book and his deal with what happens to children conceived through rape. Did Coetzee’s book influence yours?

Yes, in one sense: it asked a complex question to which I wanted to respond in a complex way. You can read this question at a narrative level – who is this child of rape? – and then you answer it at a narrative level. But of course you can read it as an allegory of postcolonial birth as well, and then answer it thematically. And the only thing complex enough to answer this complex question, I felt, was a novel.

She tells him that her bitterness, her hatred, is too great. It spills over onto Malibongwe, it always has. Now, when it is too late to change, she can see it burn her child, eating at him like a caustic fluid. This is exactly what she cannot forgive: the policemean has poisoned her love for the boy (p. 169).

One of the scenes I found most unforgettable was when Malibongwe’s mother, who’d never fully attached to her son, felt – through the fear of losing him – that connection she hadn’t been able to make until then. What did you learn in writing about a child of rape and his mother?

I learnt mostly about writing outside my own world, ways of managing this intrusion into otherness that I hope at least are tactful.

Hunger makes Malibongwe light-headed, and his eyes glaze over with boredom. If he lets go, the stunted palm tree on the corner of the parking lot shifts away from itself, becoming double. If he lets his mind go blank, he can see little dots swarm in front of his eyes. Standing there, attempting to beg, Malibongwe becomes aware of times. Very few people are using the car park this morning, and so far, everyone has brushed him off. There is so much time in which nothing happens. Much of his life is nothing but waiting (p. 186).

Your book features three separate storylines and each was compelling enough to merit its own book. Combining those storylines into one probably cost you commercially because it makes for a more layered reading, and people like to be spoon-fed these days. Can you talk to me about what you could accomplish by telling their three stories together in one book that would be lacking if you’d told those three stories in three separate books?

I see a novel as a formal composition more than as a chronicle of events working towards a final point. Both Luke and Malibongwe in the novel are children of rape, but one is born to a white mother who is not exactly rich but has enough to get by; the other is born to a black mother and lives on the streets. I wanted to contrast their worlds, play them against each other. Luke suffers from too much choice and no commitment because he has economic freedom and privilege. Malibongwe lives in a world of iron necessity, in which his only choice is to survive, or fail to survive. It’s no accident that their worlds intersect at such meagre and random intervals – this is what happens in a city like Cape Town, where the rich north and the poor south happen to be close neighbours. So these are two voices that start off from related positions, but cannot find any harmony.

The third voice is that of Bernal Diaz, the 500 year old conquistador and veteran of Cortes’s conquest of the Mexicans, now a tattoo artist working in a shabby part of Cape Town. His role in the novel is to tattoo images of his experience as a coloniser all over Luke’s skin, filling up the vacuum left by Luke’s refusal to shape an identity. What connects these characters – what connects these voices in the composition – is that they’re all parables of colonisation.

His mouth twists into a bitter, relieved smile: he will die soon. He can let the shop go, let his tools rust to scrap. The anxiety dissipates, only to be replaced by a darker concern: what will he leave behind, what monument? He has no sons to bear his name, no daughters to fill the world with children (p. 50).

Diaz is also probably an ironic gesture on my part towards the South African literary canon, which has focused in a very enclosed way on the problems of apartheid. I wanted to suggest in an oblique way that there have been other colonial tragedies, rich both in difference and similarity to ours.

When he tattoos people, he seldom comes to know them. They are chiefly surfaces to be engraved, though he does react to the personality manifested in the skin itself. Some people are messy, or in other ways repulsive. Certain people are clean and hard, suggesting a nobility of mind, or clean and soft, which denotes at least a fluency of manner. This braille, he knows, can reveal the content of a soul, though only to a limited degree. It is different when there are many tattoos to be done, with a large surface to cover (p. 49).

Would you talk a little bit about your views of South Africa’s history and what you see as the effects of colonialism today? I realize that’s a gargantuan question, and I’m not asking for a dissertation, just a few of your thoughts. Also, if there are writers or historians or politicians who you feel express your views, would you name some names?

There was a thread of political opinion which regarded apartheid as colonialism of a special kind. Now that the apartheid system has been formally dismantled, it’s tempting to think that the political process is healthy, and get seduced by “rainbow nation” imagery. This was a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to capture the dream of a genuinely liberated society. However, the economic aftermath of this history is present everywhere you go in South Africa, still ramifying forcefully into so many aspects of common life.

A second aspect of colonialism, and a more subtle form of it, can be found in the imbalances of economic power between industrialised and developing or third world nations. The US and European Union preach a gospel of free trade, but vigorously control and protect access to their economies, so restricting free global trade for countries living on the margins.

Thirdly, agricultural subsidies in Europe and the US enable Western agribusiness to sell produce to developing countries at prices that can’t be matched by local producers. This perpetuates a dependency on aid rather than reliance on mutual trade. I would say that colonialism today might not lead to direct political control, but remains predatorial in economic and also cultural forms. I can’t really identify any particular writers or thinkers who have influenced my understanding.

His ribcage on the left is still unmarked and his arms remain bare. he knows this geography well, the unmarked flesh is garish and colourless by contrast. Each single image is well done, but the assembly, the total iconography, is a mess (p. 96).

Your novel has a couple of writers in it – Luke’s mother and grandfather – and I was very interested in your descriptions of their work and their writing process.

I found the style pompous, and the way my grandfather dissected his own family annoyed me. He behaved as if he had invented us, and could therefore say what he liked about this group of fictitious characters. It would be fair to say that Arthur Turner was ruthless and selfish. He had all the egoism, the narcissism of a great writer, though he lacked the talent (p. 69).

Luke watches his mother write. She doesn’t know that her face falls slack when she concentrates. It makes her face look loose, badly attached. She has been writing a book as long as he can remember. It is the same book (p. 73).

Can you describe something of your writing process, how it might be described by a member of your family?

My kids would probably see me typing away or staring vaguely at the computer screen, or doing nothing in particular. They might even conclude that writing is the ideal job for a really lazy person. That’s a good model of the process for me, because much of my writing takes place invisibly, even to myself. I begin with a great deal of hesitancy, shopping around mentally and imaginatively for a subject, working off vague and suggestive images. Eventually I move to writing up scenarios or starting off a chapter, listening for a viable narrative voice or building up some or other character. In the background, there is a great deal of unconscious problem-solving going on – I might have nearly a year of false starts, leading to more consolidated visualisation and planning. Then when things settle down in my mind, I write quickly and productively.

Tell me about the writer’s life in Cape Town.

There is so much to write about after apartheid, there are so many talented young writers being published every year – things have never been better and healthier – even more media space and public attention for writing than before.

Who are you reading these days?

Mostly South African writers at the moment, such as Ivan Vladislavic, Zakes Mda, Paswane Mpe, Dawn Garisch, K. Sello Duiker and others.

And what are you working on?

I’m researching the life of a particularly interesting South African artist, with a view to writing a biographical novel about him.

Can’t wait to read it! Ken, it was an honor to read with you in Cape Town, and I thank you for taking the time for LitPark.

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  • Ric Marion
    May 16, 2007

    Great interview, Susan. Other lands, other voices.


  • Carolyn Burns Bass
    May 16, 2007

    Bravo, Susan. Many of my favorite books are about foreign cultures. WHAT KIND OF CHILD sounds fascinating — I can’t wait to read it. Sadly, I probably would never have heard of Ken Barris had you not interviewed him here. Many thanks to the both of you.

  • LaurenBaratz-Logsted
    May 16, 2007

    The book sounds terrific – great interview!

  • Robin Slick
    May 16, 2007

    I love the premise of this book and the characters. Add another one to my must buy list. Great interview, Susan and Ken, and the accompanying photos are a bit of a reality check, huh.

    (said the woman who just guiltily closed a catalogue advertising custom french patio doors. Gah!)

  • Anneliese
    May 16, 2007

    “…because much of my writing takes place invisibly, even to myself. I begin with a great deal of hesitancy, shopping around mentally and imaginatively for a subject, working off vague and suggestive images.”

    Nice description, as well as the terms Ken Barris used to describe his writing: “spaces,” “landscape,” “composition.”

    The technical aspects of writing, as well as the creative process, make for interesting reading. Writers have different ways of looking at the same thing. Lots of good stuff here.

    Thanks for the interview!

  • Pia
    May 17, 2007

    There is so much to understand about South Africa through fiction and poetry, and photography. Ken’s writing is beautiful, as is your interview. Thank you Sue.

  • n.l. belardes
    May 17, 2007

    I recently had a manager from South Africa. He was nearly 7-ft tall, a giant, and spoke often about his home country. He sailed a lot and told the most interesting tales.

    You meet people, whether writers, people you work with, or a particular book, and you discover another side of life. You slice into it because you’re never there, and it’s a world of discovery. Great interview.

  • Jody Reale
    May 17, 2007

    I’m grateful that I always end up “meeting” people who introduce me to literature that I never would have discovered on my own. Thanks, Susan, Ken, and all of the other great voices here.

  • Ken Barris
    May 18, 2007

    Sue, this is a great way to present a book, allowing both the writer and the text to speak – while still asking good critical questions! I enjoyed talking to you, even though it was from 10,000 miles away.


  • Susan Henderson
    May 18, 2007

    Thanks, Ken. It was great to have you. I’ll keep spreading the word about your book!

  • Andie
    May 18, 2007

    Hi there

    Very interesting interview.

    Just a note to let you know that Phaswane Mpe’s name is missing an h.

    Best wishes

  • Liesl
    May 24, 2007

    “I learnt mostly about writing outside my own world, ways of managing this intrusion into otherness that I hope at least are tactful.”

    For me, this is the supreme challenge as a white South African writer when venturing into our complex and loaded society. It’s Ken’s honesty and compassion that I find most appealing in his poetry and fiction. I am also privileged to belong to a critique group with him and benefit from this honesty coupled with his kindly insights.

    Great interview, Sue. Thanks for bringing the literature from our country to the attention of a wider audience.

  • Susan Henderson
    May 24, 2007

    Liesl! So nice to see you here!

  • nicola rowley
    November 27, 2008

    Ken Barris was my English teacher about 20 years ago! I remember him sharing his thoughts to me about his first novel which he was in the process of writing. I feel very inspired after reading this interview and will certainly read his latest novel.

Susan Henderson