South Africa

DAILY MAVERICK WEBINAR

It’s artistry to write deplorable characters, says Booker Prize winner Damon Galgut

Damon Galgut wins 2021 Booker Prize for "The Promise". Image: The Booker Prize

This year’s Booker Prize winner, Damon Galgut, discussed with Marianne Thamm why he made some of the characters in his book ‘The Promise’ unlikeable and why he wrote the black characters the way he did.

‘It was an artistry to make characters who are deplorable, it makes the story more compelling,” said Damon Galgut, the 2021 Booker Prize winner from Pretoria, during Daily Maverick’s webinar on Wednesday. 

Galgut was responding to a question from a viewer about his award-winning novel The Promise and why he made the characters unlikeable. 

“I didn’t want to make the characters too saintly because that’s not true [of how people are],” said Galgut.

The Promise is Galgut’s ninth book, which starts in 1986 and revisits a family over the course of four funerals, each in a different decade and at a different point in South Africa’s journey.

Galgut got the idea for the book from a friend, who is the only surviving member of his family. Writing The Promise this way, through surviving family members at funerals, appealed to Galgut because he has “a vaguely theatrical background”. 

“I thought that would be an unusual approach of telling the story, which I liked, because when I was trying to tell the story I was in the mindset of how films are made,” said Galgut.  

But Galgut also liked this structure for the book because he has an “innate frustration with writing with a particular voice”.

“Writing in the first person is limiting because you can’t move outside of it; it was frustrating and I wasn’t enjoying it,” said Galgut. 

Daily Maverick’s Marianne Thamm, hosting the webinar, said that the way that the book has been written “explodes the physics of writing”.  

Maya Jasanoff, the chair of the Booker Prize judges, said that the book was “a real master of form and pushes the form in new ways, that has an incredible originality and fluidity of voice, and a book that’s really dense with historical and metaphorical significance”. 

At the heart of The Promise is the promise made to the Swart family’s housekeeper, Salome, which was a piece of land.

Although many book reviewers have praised the book, Galgut has been criticised for how he wrote Salome. 

“What’s been a general comment has been that I didn’t allow the mobile narrator to go into the black characters, but it made sense in the South African context because a figure like [Salome] has no voice.

“The idea was to make her silence a presence. For some people, they want books to wrap things up, but my intention is to leave people disturbed,” said Galgut.

As to whether Galgut, a white man, should be writing fictional black characters, Galgut’s response was, “That’s the premise of fiction. It’s about imagining we’re someone else. I don’t want to be judged about trying to imagine someone else, but rather judge me on how well I do it.”

Galgut said he was surprised by how “sensitive” international readers were. Elaborating on this, he said: “We, as South Africans, are used to a certain kind of roughness that plays out in our lives. South Africans use humour as self-defence and that allowed me to use the narrator to add humour about dark things.”

Galgut said that “it was astonishing how people haven’t picked up the humour in the book”, but that he was pleasantly surprised that “something so localised” has been well-received everywhere.

Viewers said they loved the details in the book, and Thamm asked whether they were from Galgut’s own life. He said some details were indeed from his life, such as visiting family farms in Muldersdrift as a child, or things he had seen and remembered.

In closing, Galgut said that book writing was not sufficiently valued in South Africa. The West is often reluctant to publish African stories, but we shouldn’t be relying on it to do so, said Galgut.

Galgut suggested the government could help make it easier for South Africans to publish books by subsidising the costs of publishing.

Galgut is the third South African to win the Booker Prize. Nadine Gordimer won the prize in 1974 for her book The Conservationist. JM Coetzee won it twice: in 1983 for Life & Times of Michael K, and in 1999 for Disgrace. DM

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