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“In search of plausibility, of fictional truth, I had to put myself in that woman’s shoes.” Francois Smith on writing The Camp Whore, shortlisted for the 2018 Barry Ronge Fiction Prize

Published in the Sunday Times

Francois Smith lectures in literature and creative writing at the University of the Free State. His stories have appeared in the anthologies Bloots, Kosblik, Skarlakenkoors and Op die spoor van, and his translation of David Kramer: A Biography has been awarded a SALA Literary Prize. His debut novel, Kamphoer (2014), won the ATKV Prose Prize and the SALA for First-time Published Author. He holds a PhD in literature from the University of Cape Town.

The Camp Whore (originally Kamphoer in Afrikaans) was written as an assignment. I was freelancing as publishing editor. I helped other authors write their books, never having the time or the creative energy for my own. Then came the story that violently swished me into the writer’s chair.

A young girl was brutally raped in one of the Anglo-Boer War concentration camps and many years later – in another war in another country – encountered one of her rapists. This story, proclaimed to be true, was discovered by Nico Moolman, who self-published it as The Boer Whore. Tafelberg Publishers bought the rights to the story from Moolman. I regularly worked for them and they wanted an Afrikaans version of it.

Initially I thought they had a translation in mind but they wanted a brand-new novel and wanted me to write it. Me? Yes, they said, you have a ready-made plot, we’ll keep the wolf from the door for three months, and you’ve had years of practice on other people’s stories – what is the problem?

By all accounts my protagonist was a most remarkable woman who survived her ordeal through inner strength. But also decisive were a series of benefactors, among whom were two traditional Sotho healers who nursed her back to life and enabled her to find her way out of the ravages of war. I also had a marvellous ironic twist to work with in the sense that my heroine had escaped the South African war only to find herself in the midst of the greatest war of them all: World War 1, this time as a psychiatric nurse.

I had to consider how closely I was going to stick to the original version, which was in essence a story of revenge. What interested me from the outset, however, was not so much the historical truth of the story but the impenetrability of the encounter at the heart of this tale, namely that of the victim and the perpetrator coming face to face. This is what spurred my imagination, getting to grips with the complexities of that situation. What would happen if a woman had to meet her rapist?

Historical truth, I realised is in this regard as deceptive as fantasy, especially male fantasy. Historical research is the easy part of fiction writing. Writers do waste a lot of time on it, but eventually you have to venture on the treacherous roads to face the real dragon, something called fictional truth – or rather, the truth in fiction. The measure of this truth is not factuality but plausibility.

In search of plausibility, of fictional truth, I had to put myself in that woman’s shoes and walk in them from beginning to end. I had to stay true to that. I had to stay in her head and look through her eyes and I had to employ all my writerly wits to distinguish between her ways of seeing and mine.

From the outset I realised that for a man to attempt to imagine what is singularly a woman’s experience is an audacious endeavour. It was a realisation that at times almost petrified me, but this trepidation is typically what one feels when you have to move out of yourself towards the other. And that is eminently the task of the writer, this perpetual reaching out to the other.

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