By Tymon Smith for the Sunday Times:
Hugh Lewin talks to Tymon Smith about betrayal, bitterness and understanding
Hugh Lewin is the author of Bandiet out of Jail, winner of the 2003 Olive Schreiner Prize. He worked for the Natal Witness, Drum and Golden City Post. After serving the full term of his seven-year sentence for sabotage activities against the apartheid state, he left South Africa on a “permanent departure permit” in December 1971. Ten years in exile in London were followed by 10 years in Zimbabwe. He returned to SA in 1992 and became director of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism. He works as a freelance media trainer.
Stones Against the Mirror is a brave and moving memoir, which is both a family history and a story of friendship and betrayal between people caught up in the wrenching forces of the struggle. It is framed as a journey between two railway stations. The departure is from Joburg’s Park Station and the destination is York Station in Britain. It is an actual journey and the arrival at York is a real event, but it is also a symbolic journey in which Lewin describes his progress towards a meeting with Adrian Leftwich, the man who betrayed him to the Security Police in 1964.
What prompted you to write the book and how long did it take?
My first book, Bandiet, was about prison, recording the physical realities of my seven years in jail as a political prisoner. It was a very personal book but I wrote it quickly and the act of writing was another kind of release. Writing Stones Against the Mirror was completely different. I found that I was tracking an intensely private journey of reconciliation, between me and the close friend, Adrian, who more than 40 years before had betrayed me and others in the protest sabotage group we belonged to. I needed to look not just at my own history but also at betrayal – and this meant both sides of betrayal, because what I discovered was that betrayal is many sided and creates its own kind of prison, of the mind, of both betrayed and betrayer. It took a long time to write.
Was it difficult to write about your relationship with Adrian, and how did it affect you?
I discovered that I had become enmeshed in the guilt of my friend, and that I remained imprisoned in a different sense. As I write: “Bitterness has clung to me like armour. I do not know how I will feel without it, but I can no longer be the guardian of my friend’s guilt.”
This book wasn’t easy. It is easier to write about other people, out there, than it is to write about myself, in here. So much ambiguity, complexity. I became fascinated – obsessed, I guess – by the idea of coming to understand both the betrayer and the betrayed. Betrayal, I discovered, can only happen between people who are very close to each other. So this journey was not about me “forgiving” my friend. I couldn’t assume that I had the right to forgive anyone. My search was to discover why I’ve needed, these 40-odd years, to hold on to my bitterness. I’ve been able to let go of some of it, but not all. And I don’t have an answer to that.
How did you arrive at the structure of the book, and what did it allow you to do?
Two devices emerged in the early stages of writing and later imposed themselves. Firstly, the simple idea of the journey, from Park Station in Joburg, where the ARM bomb exploded, to York in the UK, where Adrian lives and where I went to meet him for the first time in so many years. A useful mechanism for moving the text along. And the mirror image. The mirror of my life, my imagination. Maybe also an image of my own story, which I had to shatter before I could come to any real understanding. Hence the stones, the rocks of recollection you hurl against the mirror and the pieces shatter around you. Beware, they are sharp. Pick them up carefully or they may make you bleed.
I write in the book: “Sometimes the meetings we seek to avoid come seeking us.” The experience of writing Stones was like this for me. I thought I would write a straightforward memoir. But three versions later – and about five years after I first started writing – I realised I had been taken over by the journey. There were times I nearly stopped. It was too intense. I found I was writing about myself in a way that I had never done before. Previously, I could hide behind my persona as an ex-political prisoner. But in Stones there was nowhere to hide. I had to come to terms with my own complicity and engage with what I call “my cloak of immunity” as a white South African. It’s hard for me now to express the process in public. Let me quote again from the book: “I am the storyteller, trying to describe my own mythologies. In so doing I trespass on the stories of others.”
How did Adrian feel about the book, and what is your relationship like now?
I would never wish to speak for Adrian and have no right to do so. But he read the manuscript at various stages and we talked about many aspects of our shared story and our different perspectives on it, as friends do. In the end, that’s all that matters.
What are you working on now?
I’m returning to children’s books. I started writing books for children about 30 years ago when my daughters were young and we were in exile. I needed to explain where we came from. Now I have two beautiful grandsons who were born in South Africa. It’s time I wrote something for them too. Writing children’s books is the closest I can get to writing poetry, which I love. It’s incredibly demanding. Children are blessed with rigorous honesty and perception. As a writer, you have to honour that.