By Tymon Smith for the Sunday Times
Adam Schwartzman was born in Joburg in 1973. After completing degrees in English literature and development studies at Oxford University, he held positions in the SA National Treasury, the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation.
He is the author of three books of poetry – The Good Life, The Dirty Life and Other Stories; Merrie Afrika!; and Book of Stones – as well as the anthology Ten South African Poets. He lives in Istanbul, Turkey, with his wife and daughter.
Eddie Signwriter is his first novel. Kwasi Edward Michael Dankwa – Eddie Signwriter to his clients – is a 20-year-old painter of murals and billboards in Accra, Ghana, who is buffeted by forces beyond his control. Struggling with a forbidden relationship, banished from school, held responsible for the death of a notable woman in the community, Eddie flees to Senegal and then to France, determined to find a new life among the immigrant communities of Paris.
This is your first novel. What prompted the story?
I went looking for a character and a story and Eddie came to me. I was travelling in West Africa. I knew I wanted to write about an illegal immigrant, a wandering outsider. In an earlier version of the book, the author turns up in Accra and invites the story to tell itself to him. In a way, this is what happened. I saw the sign boards across the city and knew I would write about a signwriter. One experience and observation led to the next. I don’t feel I chose the story, it chose me.
Do you think your work as a poet influenced your approach to the book?
Yes, very much, particularly with respect to language. The texture of the prose is still hugely important to me. I put as much time into the voice, the rhythm of each sentence, the arrangement of the images, the syntax, as I would a poem.
Why did you choose a Ghanaian character?
Ghana has always been an important place for me. It looms large in the history of the continent. When you think of it, you think of all the promise and idealism of Independence, and also the tragedy of Nkrumah and his vision. I’d wanted to go there for a long time before I actually did. Eddie is a Ghanian character, but the impetus for his creation is very much tied up with my South African story. At the time I was writing the book, almost 10 years starting from 1999, I was trying to shake off the identity that apartheid had given me, reinventing myself for myself, and entering into the life of the continent through my travelling, my writing and my work in development. I was on my own journey for freedom, which parallels and informs Eddie’s.
Did you ever feel that writing such a story from the perspective of a white writer may have proved difficult?
I don’t think of myself as a “white writer”. The only reason to do that would be if I let other people force me to think of myself in that way and I don’t. But that’s taken time. How could it not, given where we come from? That said, I’m not a Ghanian immigrant in Paris either. The challenge is really to write from outside of oneself and that’s an existential challenge for most writing. Is it possible to truly enter into the lives of other people? I think that, through compassion and empathy, you can. Or let me put that another way: I try to live my life believing that, through compassion and empathy, you can. That, for me, is the reason to write a book.
How do you fit in your writing with your day job (in development finance) and family life? What’s your process?
I don’t have a process, I just struggle to survive creatively. For me to be creative, I need to believe in myself, to find my own story credible, and that’s the real challenge. When that’s okay, I can write anywhere – airports and planes are great, but equally at 2am when my family is asleep.
How have you found the response to the book?
I’m still amazed that anyone read it at all. It’s lovely to discover that something you’ve thought about and carried around in yourself for so many years has been absorbed by somebody else into their own world. That’s what counts for me. A number of people went out of their way to say kind things about the book publicly and I’m grateful for that. Some people haven’t been so keen, and that’s fine, especially when the criticism is funny.
Is there one particular idea that you hope readers take away from the book?
There’s a lot going on in the book, but I’d settle for something very simple: just that somebody who had never thought to recognise the humanity in strange and threatening people could do so in Eddie, and take that out into their daily life.
What are you working on next?
Another novel. It’s about big dams, development and God.