The Spark: Up Against the Night

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The Spark is a series of guest blogs highlighting new African fiction with authors writing about what lit up this book in their heads.

Justin Cartwright is the author of Up Against the Night and more than 16 other novels and multiple works of nonfiction. He has been publishing since the 1970s. His latest novel, Up Against the Night, was published in August of this year. Born in Cape Town and raised in Johannesburg, Justin now lives in London.

Here is Justin on his latest novel.

The Spark for Up Against the Night by Justin Cartwright:

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A few years ago I found myself in the middle of an argument about John Coetzee and his departure for Australia. Some of the people there that evening at Franschhoek thought that Coetzee was somehow culpable for leaving the country, a country which made him and gave him his material and now spurned it.  I think I said that evening that Disgrace was a farewell note to South Africa.

It may be self-seeking, but it seems to me absolutely clear that a writer should live wherever he or she wants to. In my case I have lived in England for many years. I am not often recognised as a South African by accent. But most days I wake up and think of South Africa in some way or another. There is unquestionably a part of me which is still South African. I remember a piece by Coetzee saying that his loyalty was still to a small group of Afrikaners in the Karoo. That is how he identified himself, even if his Afrikaans is far from perfect.

In my new book – despite a quote which I did not actually make, namely that the Afrikaners were going “to go ape” when they read my book – I have been fascinated by the adaptations Afrikaners have made; I have attempted to understand the dilemma of Afrikaners, doubly excluded. I am also profoundly aware of what Afrikaners have contributed to their country.

But I don’t feel any obligation to write for the home team or for the Brit team; what I do is to try to write well, without cliché, whether I am writing about South Africa or about England. My only restraint is an aesthetic one – in creating these fictions I try to capture speech and attitudes and appearance that are freshly and accurately rendered. As a novelist your task is to produce a facsimile of life, one that the reader can immerse him or herself in. Good fiction is miraculously able to spark an understanding of a place and a time and a world in a way that is unrivalled. Fiction can give you the sense that although you may never before have heard a particular figure of speech, it can strike you powerfully and indelibly and goes on in a small but cumulative way, to open your mind.

In Up Against the Night I have tried to convey my own feelings for South Africa, with its beauty and its endless history of violence as well as the poverty and deprivation of the many, a sort of reproach.

My friend Van Zyl Slabbert told me many years ago that the country had plenty of good laws, but what it lacked was able, educated and honest people to carry them out. It struck me at the time as profound. These things I have incorporated into my fiction. It seems to me that slogans are no longer required.