By Lauren Beukes for the Sunday Times
Lauren Beukes finds that Diane Awerbuck’s fiction cuts a little too close to home
THE literary feud is a grand tradition. It’s the MMA fighting of the MA graduate class. Byron versus Keats! Naipaul and Theroux! Coovadia and that other guy! Dorothy Parker vs the whole world! My favourite anecdote is about the time Norman Mailer punched Gore Vidal to the ground after a party and Vidal quipped, from the floor, “I see words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”
Which is why it’s so tragic that Diane Awerbuck point-blank refuses to let me start a feud with her, even though she has clearly slighted me very specifically in her wrenchingly beautiful novel, Home Remedies.
You see, there’s a line in the novel about how Saartjie Baartman is written about: “the usual plundered facts coated with a chatty feminist gloss, like lipstick” which is, arguably, a pretty fair critique of my out-of-print nonfiction Maverick: Extraordinary Women From South Africa’s Past, which includes a chapter on that tragically exploited woman.
“Oh, get over yourself, Beukes, it’s not about you,” she snaps, when I suggest this. And it’s true that I am clutching at any excuse for a fun, full-frontal literary feud. (Think of the publicity, I told her.) But that’s the thing about Diane Awerbuck’s work. It really does feel like it’s about you, even when she claims it’s not. It’s deeply personal, deeply intimate. It resonates.
Home Remedies is disguised as a domestic novel about a 30-something in Fish Hoek coming to terms with the grinding drudgery of new motherhood and her flailing career, observed with a brisk and biting wit and ridiculously gorgeous sentences.
But like all Awerbuck’s fiction, that’s just a cunning façade to get you to drop your guard. What she’s really interested in is the turmoil beneath and it breaks through the surface of the novel with a devastating left-right hook combo that will knock you on your back, breathless, reeling, and, unlike Vidal, with no space for a clever retort.
Because trauma is at the dark pounding heart of all Awerbuck’s stories (and not uncoincidentally, the subject of her PhD thesis). It’s the stories we tell ourselves about the bad stuff we have to deal with. “I’m interested in the way that the same awful things happen over and over and yet our reactions are different. Why are some people resilient and others not? Why is personality so important?”
In Cabin Fever, her book of short stories, she plays the puzzle out in a variety of configurations, from a teacher huddled under a desk during a school shooting, to a young woman confronting Mami Wata, the cannibal mermaid spirit.
The stories are tight and sharp, dealing with big, horrible events in small, personal, human ways. And maybe that does make her writing “domestic”. Because the ugly reality is that trauma is ordinary. Violence plays out every single day with tedious regularity.
“I always said I wouldn’t write about domestic minutiae,” she says. “I was silly enough back then to think that what happened outside the home was more important than what happened inside it. Ha.
“The world is the way it is because of how we are raised, and because of how we raise our children. Make no mistake about it. All of the important things – about acknowledgement, about love and service, about basic humility, about moral codes – are born there or die there.”
She’s full of spikes, Awerbuck, like Home Remedies‘ protagonist, Joanna Renfield, who is struggling to deal with motherhood and writing and her dreadful boss, a political showboater who is taking over the local history museum and claims a damned sisterhood with Baartman.
It’s a novel about excavating skeletons, the literal ones and the ghosts in our heads, the terrible randomness of our fears made real – and a wonderful, near-biblical storm of toads.
The writing swings between bright and cynical, ferocious and funny, full of nuanced observation underscored with jagged whimsy. “Because life is like that,” Awerbuck explains, “half pretty f***ing terrible, and half excruciatingly funny. There’s nothing weird about it. And you ought to be afraid of anyone who tells you that it’s only one or the other.”
I tell her the book nails the ambivalence of motherhood: the dread, claustrophobia, boredom, terror, sleeplessness and ultimately surrender – as well as the joy that comes through anyway, sometimes despite yourself. And that it’s ironic that she makes that particular act look easy. When she launched Cabin Fever,I was envious of the way she bounced her new baby on her knee while effortlessly fielding difficult questions from the audience.
She scoffs at the thought. “Writing about my strange new sleepless world amplified the work I had done on trauma and narrative therapy – the katabatic journey.”
The journey Home Remedies takes us on turns very katabatic, and some have found the ending shocking. “It’s meant to jar the reader. That is the point. Life is random, and I am interested in verisimilitude. You never have to deal with it, until you do.”
Awerbuck talks about gang structures mimicking and perverting the idea of belonging, purpose and identity and how we ape brutality, “following some interior directive about how to be Evil with a capital E. You see it in rapists, in school shooters, in library arsonists. They have no idea how to be creative. That’s our challenge, here and everywhere: how to do things differently – better! – when we’ve grown up with the same soulless messages about what’s worth having, what’s worth fighting for, what’s real.”
Which is also why she made Baartman so central to the story. “Ag, I’m just so sick of the grandstanding. Saartjie Baartman is not a symbol. She is a dead woman who once suffered in a series of cruel systems. The best way we can remember her is by not letting it happen again.
Here’s an idea: instead of talking at the unemployed masses you’ve bussed in to listen to another speech about how much you’re doing for the poor in this country, let’s take that money and actually fund shelters for survivors of abuse; successfully prosecute the stupid or evil people who think they can get away with it; incentivise education for girl-children so that they stand a chance.”
Awerbuck has no time to pick a feud with me, she’s too busy challenging who we are, interrogating South Africa. It’s the kind of novel that cuts to the nerves of the world; fiercely political in the most personal way. And how can you not take that to heart? How is that not about you?
Home Remedies is published by Umuzi, Exclusive Books R226.
- Home Remedies and The Shining Girls are published by Umuzi