The Spark: The Blacks of Cape Town

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Carol-Ann Davids and I both did the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town at about the same time, but while I skipped into the future with my dissertation/novel, Moxyland, to explore a neo-apartheid, she went back, in The Blacks of Cape Town, with its provocative title, to excavate the uncomfortable forbidden past and it’s knock-on effects on who we are now. 

As she describes it: Historian, Zara Black, is in an unfamiliar room in a country far from home, when she is awoken by music that evokes memories she has been trying to forget. It is this call from her father, seemingly from beyond the grave, that pushes Zara to start unraveling the mystery of her family and the act her father may have committed against the anti-apartheid movement decades earlier.

Here’s how a little distance helped her zoom-in on the subject matter she cared about most.

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The Spark: The Blacks of Cape Town by CA Davids

 Cape Town is the sort of place that falls between the cracks of neat definitions. Lodged as it is between the mountain and the ocean, it cannot be described in easy sentences or with a common consensus.

Or maybe that’s not quite correct: most will agree on the beauty of that flat mountain that holds the city in a collective gasp, or wonder at the oceans – the Atlantic to one side and the Indian to the other. Its beauty notwithstanding, the city is a hive of contradictions. Because beyond the tourist friendly vistas breathes another city, at once darker and more real. Circling the City Centre are the suburbs with its cropped hedges, and beyond that, government issued houses patch-worked with countless DIY extensions, and still beyond those, homes of iron and zinc running along the highway, un-writing brochures as tourists gape their way past.

Having been born in the city’s heart close to town, but raised in its ass in a peripheral suburb, I had always been aware of the myriad contradictions: extreme privilege and poverty, agitation and indifference, pretty and ugly, all staring the other down. The city that I knew, the one that I grew up in, rarely makes the headlines these days other than for what troubles it: gang land killings or other acts of unspeakable violence. What of the mundane? The boring details of life? The way ordinary people get on with it? And what about the ideas, creativity, music and political resistance that had formed me, in my bit of Cape Town?

I suppose then, it was never really a spark for me, but a slow burn for as long as I could remember.  To write yes. More than that, to do what the arts and literature do best: to make real by filling in the blanks, to give spirit and shape and heft to a place; to reach beyond the city’s beauty, glamourized gang violence and expected personalities to its undercurrents and nuances and fix that onto a page.

But things change. I moved to the USA, thirty minutes from New York, and my novel took a turn. I was far from home, equally mesmerized and overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the place I was in, the range of cereals to choose from in a supermarket, the curiosity about my race and accent, my own interest in the places around me … so the basis for the novel became a split narrative structure able to cross into both worlds. Conversations on trains, the nightly news, a questionnaire – everything flickered with possibility and fed the thing.

I lived in the States for two years and just as I was about to leave, people started speculating that a handsome young congressman might run for the presidency. That he was black was hardly a small detail. By the time Barack Obama was elected I was living in China, watching the often frenzied news coverage. It was impossible not to include this. My novel was very obviously about race too. Right in the beginning, in the dream stages of writing the book, I had imagined, fantasized really, of not mentioning race at all – to have postmodern characters devoid of such things, for whom race was entirely incidental. Perhaps this was so because I wanted to escape the obsessive race-based culture I had grown up in. But ultimately I knew that for me to approach a contemporary novel in this way was a cop-out, and frankly, dishonest.

Slowly, bit by bit the novel shaped around things I wanted and did not want to write about and when it came time to pick a title, The Blacks of Cape Town, sounded about right. 

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Follow Carol-Ann on Twitter: @ca_davids