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Vancouver writer heads to South Africa for new novel

Author Arianna Dagnino has set her new novel The Afrikaner in South Africa circa 1996.
Author Arianna Dagnino has set her new novel The Afrikaner in South Africa circa 1996. - Guernica Editions

 


Writer Arianna Dagnino’s new novel The Afrikaner follows the story of woman trying to rebuild her life after a tragedy.

The story is set during the end of Apartheid in South Africa.

We got the UBC lecturer and translator to take some time to answer a few questions.

Q: I have seen your new novel The Afrikaner described as a transcultural novel. What does that mean?

A: Broadly speaking, transcultural novels capture the interplay between cultures and, like their authors, are rooted in a complex mix of linguistic and cultural declinations. They tend to undermine habitual classifications of literary texts in terms of national, regional or ethnic literatures.

Q: What was it about South Africa in the mid-90s that attracted you as a storyteller?

A: The Afrikaner is set in South Africa in the year 1996, during the transition period from the apartheid regime to the first democratically elected black government. My husband and I were there, in that particular moment in time (between 1996 and 2000), covering the news for the Italian press. Despite the dramatic tensions and racial inequalities that still ran through the country, for Nelson Mandela’s South Africa it was a time full of hope as it started healing its wounds. On a more personal and professional level, for us it was also a humbling experience. The social, cultural and political complexities of South Africa were and still are mind-bending. Trying to understand them requires intellectual honesty and historical perspective. In my book I wanted to depict the contradictions and tensions but also the thriving richness and human warmth of a country that boasts eleven official languages and acknowledges a multitude of ethnic, tribal and religious entities.

Even more than that, I wanted to explore what it means — both at an individual and collective level — to find yourself on the wrong side of history and what kind of coping behaviours you would be led to adopt once the whole world has shamed your people for their wrong doing.

Q: What from your daily work did you bring to/apply to this story?

A: Hopefully, from my journalist work I have brought a concise way of writing and the importance of finding good stories that resonate with the reader. From my work as a researcher and literary translator I have brought a never-ending curiosity for historical and socio-cultural depth and a passion for ethnographic work in the field — whether it means to be among a San tribe in the Kalahari Desert or among a group of paleontologists in the Sterfkontein Caves.

Q: You have moved between non-fiction and fiction books. What world do you most enjoy?

A: I find it hard to think in binaries. I prefer the world of confluences, interplays and amalgamations. I am aware of the fact that my non-fiction works contemplate elements of creativity as much as my fictions include factual data and impressions obtained through lived experience. I guess our digital modern times urge us to confront the loss of any clear-cut distinction between facts and fiction, living and writing, the works of the imagination and the realities of life. It is as if all of us, as writers or readers, were nothing but the main characters of our own narratives, lost in a constant play between virtuality and imagination, between the fictions that we read or write and the lives that we imagine as real.

Q: As someone who speaks a handful of languages what language do you write in and do the others ever get in the way?

A: I started my writing career in Italian, then gradually switched to English. I now write directly in English, although there is no doubt that sometimes my native language and the other idioms I have learned in my wandering life tend to get in the way. But I don’t mind that. Actually, as the Italian bilingual writer Francesca Duranti told me during an interview, I like to “infuse a little scent of basil” into my English writing.

Q: What kind of woman is your protagonist Zoe? What do you really like about her?

A: Zoe is a young scientist (a paleoanthropologist) of Afrikaner descent in her mid-30s living in a society, and working in a field, still male-dominated. I like her stamina, her independence, but also her handicaps, torn conscience, social awkwardness and feelings of inadequacy. Most of all, I like her selfless way of listening. In our high-tech, self-referential world, we are losing this capacity to fully listen when others open up to us.

Q: While Zoe is at the centre of the story it really seems like the landscape is also a character. Do you see that as true?

A: Absolutely. My encounters with Bushmen culture in Africa and then with Aboriginal culture in Australia have taught me much in this regard. The landscape is a living, sentient organism: we just need to relearn how to tune in and it will speak to us again.

Q: What was the last book you read and enjoyed and why?

A: L’archipel d’une autre vie by Andreï Makine. I’ve read it in French, it will be coming out in English in July 2019 with the title The Archipelago of Another Life. It has all the elements I like to find in a book: a poetic use of the language, an attention to the storytelling element able to keep the author’s ego at bay,  character development, originality, a chance to encounter alternative ways of thinking, feeling, or reacting to our shared human — and beyond the human — condition.

Q: How long have you been in Vancouver?

A: My husband and I moved from Australia to Vancouver six years ago with our children. I got the news that Guernica would publish The Afrikaner on the day when we became citizens of a country that we can now proudly call home.

Q: Are you working on anything new at the moment?

A: I am working on transposing The Afrikaner into a film script. Most of my early readers told me that this book would make a good movie. Actually, even the way in which I wrote the book has a cinematographic element: I would sit at my desk, go deep into my imaginary cave and watch scene after scene scroll in front of my eyes on its walls. All I had to do was capture what I saw and heard on the page. Easier said than done, obviously … The editing process has been time-consuming, like it happens with film post-production.

My three big passions have always been books (whether I read or write them), movies and languages (the doors to other cultures). I have a feeling that multicultural, polyglot Vancouver may be the right place to take my first steps into the movie industry and, who knows, perhaps find a chance to leave my little trail along the way.

I am also working on a new novel, this time set between Vancouver (as it is now, in the present time) and my hometown, the harbour city of Genoa (as it was in the late 18th century, in the aftermath of the French Revolution and at the height of the Haskalah intellectual movement).

Dgee@postmedia.com

twitter.com/dana_gee

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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