“There have been deep historical traumas in the history of my country” – In Conversation With Penny Busetto

PENNY BUSETTO is an award winning South African author born in Durban. She moved to Italy when she was 17, where she studied and married, and returned to Cape Town in 1996. In 2013 she was awarded the European Union Literary Award for her debut novel, The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself, and the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize in 2014. Busetto is one of the finalist for the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature. She is currently pursuing her doctorate in English and psychology.

In this interview, Busetto discusses the creative process of her work and the themes that form the backdrop of her novel —Tope Salaudeen-Adégòkè for Saraba Magazine

SARABA: The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself is a remarkable debut. In fact, Prof. Craig Mackenzie noted in his remark during the ninth presentation of the UJ Prize for South African Writing in English, when the book won the prize, that it is unusual for a debut work to be so unblemished, so perfect. Could that be because it took you years to write to achieve such perfection?

PENNY BUSETTO: I don’t believe that the internal cohesion of The Story of Anna P, as Told by Herself came about because of the time it took me to write it but rather because of the way I wrote it. What I was trying to follow and express was a feeling rather than an idea, and I would know quickly when it felt wrong. When it was going well I would feel my breath grow deep and regular, and Anna’s voice would emerge slow and painful. It was never very important what she was saying; what was important was the underlying feelings of loss and grief and their slow transformation into a kind of tenuous hope.

SARABA: The setting alternates between Cape Town and Italy, where you have lived. Could we infer it is partly biographical?

PB: J.M. Coetzee states that all writing is autobiographical, and I agree with him to some extent. I can’t get outside of my own experiential world and so whatever I write will have the colours and flavours and smells of my inner world. But that doesn’t mean that my book is autobiographical in a straightforward or simplistic way. I have never visited the island where Anna P lives and most of the events of her life are fictional, but they interplay freely with small details from my life. For example, her walks on the island are descriptions of my own walks on Table Mountain. Her meeting with Ispettore Lupo is drawn from a frightening encounter I had many years ago with a policeman in Milan called Guardia Lupo. But unlike Anna P, I did not kill the real-life Guardia Lupo.

SARABA: Anna P hinges on memory and recollection, the strangeness of remembering. What’s unique that interested you in writing about it?

PB: Memory is a very unreliable record of the past. It shifts and moves and will not stay still. Particularly when there have been traumatic events in our lives, we push the memories of the events and anything associated with them out of consciousness and are left with holes in the meanings of our actions.

So often we say “I don’t know why I keep doing this.” But the feelings associated with these repressed memories remain, and we keep reenacting the event or putting ourselves in situations where the event is likely to re-occur in the hope of resolving the original trauma. Freud describes this as the repetition compulsion. Anna P, in her encounters with men, repeats her earlier experiences, she dissociates and becomes numb as she did as a child. There is a separation between her feelings and her actions. She submits passively to whatever the men desire, and can’t say no. She repeats the murder of her father endlessly and meaninglessly in new encounters with unknown men. I felt that as a South African writer, the question of dissociated memory was important. There have been deep historical traumas in the history of my country and these keep being repeated in the present over and over again.

South Africa has some of the highest statistics in the world for rape, incest and violence, which often seem inexplicable until we start looking at the unconscious meanings. The only way to break the cycle is to explore the memories, return the feeling to the action, and end the dissociation.

 

SARABA: Your knowledge of psychology and psychiatry informs the story line. Would the story still have been possible if you had no knowledge in the fields?

PB: Rather than the story being based on my knowledge of psychology and psychiatry, my reading in these disciplines grew along with the story. As I was writing The Story of Anna P, I read everything I could about trauma and memory and dissociative disorders, but the story would still have been possible without this knowledge. I needed to do the reading to verify that Anna’s behavior made sense in terms of current theoretical knowledge about these disorders.

SARABA: On the irresponsibility of Anna P’s father, is that symbolic of South Africa as a nation? Would it be reasonable to relate this to the discourse of the representation of maleness in South Africa?

PB: The book can be read on different levels. I was conscious as I was writing that my story had larger ramifications than just the story of Anna P, but I did not deliberately set out to write a social critique or feminist novel. In particular, I did not intend to write an account of South African maleness. On the most basic level I was writing the story of a very troubled woman. It is her singular story that I felt I needed to tell. I was grappling with her intimate feelings and world, and the most important thing to me was that the novel should work on this level. However, I never lost sight of the fact that there were parallel readings that were growing alongside Anna’s personal adventures, to do with abusive power and the way particularly women and children become objects of this power, which is systemic in South African society – it is part of the very air we breathe. Patricide or regicide often seem to be the only way out, both on the personal and on the societal level.

SARABA: You have hinted at the notion of trauma in your novel, that possible transferability of political traumas as expressed in your novel could be passed from generation to generation. Do you think it has been passed to the present generation and how well could it be justified in the present South Africa?

PB: I am very interested in the question of the inter-generational transmission of trauma, and have read a lot of the psychoanalytic studies done with second and third generation survivors of the holocaust. As I have already explained, memory is a problem with survivors of trauma who suppress it and do not allow it into consciousness. Their children grow up with these black, silent holes of fear and violence for which they have no explanation. They only know that they find themselves paralysed with inexplicable fears and the inability to act thoughtfully. They have no tools to explore the memories because the memories are not theirs, only the unnamable dread and horror and shame that their parents lived through. I see faces expressing fear and confusion and bewilderment all about me in South Africa. I see great brutality acted out mindlessly against the weak, particularly against women and children.

So often when I see the faces of criminal perpetrators or corrupt politicians blatantly denying the obvious truth, they seem to be dissociated, emotionally unrelated. I believe it is a result of the trauma that has been inflicted over the generations. Until we begin to bring to consciousness the memories and trauma we will never get to the root of this violence in ourselves as a people.

SARABA: The idea of solitude stems from your novel but you have been able to make an interesting novel using different techniques. Do you think that there is a danger with living a life of hermitage?

PB: As human beings we are social creatures. We come into our humanity through other people. We are completely entangled and intertwined with others. From the moment of our conception we live in relationship and are shaped by it, first in our mother’s womb where we learn to know her voice and her emotions and later through language and in interpersonal relationships. Our social world becomes our inner world, and we cannot even begin to conceive of living separately from it. Our ability to think depends on others and the language we share. People are essential to the fulfillment of our human potential.

However sometimes this entanglement with other people becomes hurtful and abusive and the individual is forced into isolation in order to survive emotionally. I may withdraw emotionally and hide behind a mask, pretending to be who I am not; in more extreme cases I may withdraw physically to the confines of my room, or, in Anna P’s case, to an island. In all these cases the bonds with others are cut as a defense against fragmentation and annihilation. Is that dangerous? Perhaps yes. On one hand it saves the inner core of the person from overwhelming terror. On the other it cuts off the source of fresh relatedness and meaning, leaving the individual in an isolated world of repetitive activities.

This is where Anna P finds herself on the island. It is only when, unwillingly, she breaks her isolation and begins to relate to the child, Ugo, that things begin to change in her life.

SARABA: When a human being is stripped of memory and the value of ethical culture, do you think it is right to judge his or her actions?

PB: That’s an interesting question. Is Anna P responsible for her actions? Should she stand trial for the murder of Ispettore Lupo, even though she is acting out of some sort of unconscious compulsion, repeating the murder of her father as a child?

A few years ago I followed the trial in the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court of a man who was accused of murdering a prostitute after a night of drinking. A psychologist testified that he suffered from a dissociative disorder caused by a troubled and traumatic childhood, and should not be held responsible for his actions. The magistrate turned the argument down, and he was found guilty and sentenced to fourteen years imprisonment. In fact, the courts rule that we should be held responsible for our actions even though we may not have clear understanding of ourselves. It is only in the case of extreme mental illness that the law will rule that a person does not have the mental capacity to stand trial. The trouble is that none of us has a clear understanding of ourselves—we are all to some extent opaque to ourselves. This has a lot to do with the fact that we are so entangled with others that we think through language that comes from others. We are never just ourselves. Yet we expect, and are expected to be able to give an account of ourselves and be personally responsible for our thoughts and actions. Is that too complicated? It is perhaps part of the human condition that we are expected to accept guilt for crimes that we have not consciously or deliberately committed. The Greek myth of Oedipus teaches us much in this sense—on learning that he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus fled from his home so that his destiny could not come true. Yet he killed his father not knowing the man was his father, and married his mother and had children with her without knowing she was his mother. When he discovered the truth he tore his eyes out in horror and became a beggar, accepting guilt and remorse for his actions even though he had tried in every way to avoid the crimes.

SARABA: On sensuality. There is the leitmotif of lesbianism in the novel. You used the inability of Anna P to remember to perpetuate that. Could you speak a little more about that?

PB: The book is not about lesbianism or any kind of sexuality at all. Anna occasionally pays a woman to spend the night with her, but she specifies that what she needs is to be held and comforted when the pain of being alone grows too great for her to stand. She states very clearly that it doesn’t make any difference whether one is a man or a woman—it is not about sex, although of course there is that too in any human encounter. She is seeking closeness but fears it. The encounters with the men provide no closeness at all.

However, it is true that many readers have found Anna’s passiveness erotic. I find it difficult to understand this, but perhaps in this sense it verges on the pornographic, her seeming willingness to be treated as an object.

SARABA: Migration is becoming a trope in contemporary African writings and I have found that you are interested in it as well; should we expect your next work to venture more into such subjects?

PB: Yes, it is a topic that speaks deeply to me. People on the move in search of better lives where they can lay down new memories, but unconsciously weighted down by all the burdens and contradictions of their old lives. I have for some time been trying to write the story of a man who has been implicated in atrocities in his place of origin and who tries to put the past behind him and start afresh in a new country.

SARABA: What is your congratulatory message to Fiston Mujila, the winner of the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature?

PB: I first read Fiston’s book, Tram 83, a few months ago when the longlist was announced. I found the novel extraordinary, unlike anything I had ever read before. I wasn’t sure if it was poetry, jazz opera or something else that we will still have to find a name for. This was a seriously original voice, mournful, sarcastic and bitingly funny. At the same time, it was resoundingly African. At that point I put aside any ambitions I had of winning the Etisalat award—I knew Fiston’s book had to be the winner.

I am delighted that the judges had the wisdom and clarity of vision to select Tram 83 as the winner of the 2015 Etisalat Prize for Literature. Although I have already hugged him, I congratulate Fiston again and look forward to whatever he produces next. I am sure it will not be banal.


 

Art Illustration by Ibe Ananaba


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Saraba Magazine

Saraba is a literary magazine focused on the work of new writers in Nigeria and other parts of the African continent. Since 2009, we have published several issues of a magazine, editions of poetry chapbooks, and online-only work.

Saraba is a literary magazine focused on the work of new writers in Nigeria and other parts of the African continent. Since 2009, we have published several issues of a magazine, editions of poetry chapbooks, and online-only work.
Our ongoing Manuscript Project supports the publication of long-form fiction and nonfiction by ten new Nigerian writers.
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