Barry Ronge Fiction Prize shortlist: Yewande Omotoso on the origins of her novel The Woman Next Door
Published in the Sunday Times
Yewande Omotoso discusses her book The Woman Next Door shortlisted for the 2017 Sunday Times Literary Awards. Plus an extract.
The Woman Next Door
Yewande Omotoso (Chatto & Windus/PRH)
I started thinking about The Woman Next Door in 2012. My grandfather passed away and I travelled with my family to Barbados for the funeral. My grandmother and I shared a bed. I remember spending time with her and thinking of her and my granddad, thinking of what it might be like to have lived with someone for over 60 years and then suddenly they aren’t there. This was the catalyst, although the final story has almost nothing to do with my grandparents. Instead it became a meditation on what it is to be old – from the start I knew my characters would be octogenarians – and to have more life behind you than you have ahead. I kept pulling at this thread and my characters began to emerge. Not only had they lived long but I realised they were people who were unfulfilled. This lack of satisfaction was further confounded by their considerable wealth and career successes.
With characters, there are a few things that arrive whole and clear in the imagination and endure through the process of writing, there are other things that are present but get pruned and still there is much that one must mine for. I first envisaged Hortensia and initially I paid attention to the failed love story. I knew there would be infidelity but I imagined her as someone who, instead of leaving, had stayed and grown harder. I saw her trailing her husband and his lover, watching them have sex, I saw her 80-something-year-old self as callous but for a valid reason – she is broken-hearted. Hortensia begged for a combatant and so Marion arrived. Through her I was interested in looking at what it is like to have lived through apartheid as a white South African and have done nothing – not even in the privacy of your own thoughts – to resist it. This is Marion.
Cape Town was always the site. A precious corner of Constantia that I would invent. This provided the opportunity to, however subtly, consider the violence in Cape Town’s history which, I feel, is mostly sanitised. So I wanted to have a very quiet sense of horror about this perfect place.
My intent was to conduct an experiment into our own humanity borne through an understanding that we couldn’t come to grips with ourselves without spending considerable time in the mire, without upsetting one another, without looking at the things we’d rather ignore. I’ve had a chance to engage with a few readers who have commented that they found the protagonists “unlikeable”. Apart from my aversion to that way of categorising people (in books and in life) I instead have a different relationship to Hortensia and Marion. I feel cautioned by their hard lessons and heartened by the minuscule steps they take to move even just an inch from the rigid positions they’ve held onto – like rafts – all their lives. In them I see myself as well as the possibility, even with no sensible map, of hope.
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Once a month a Katterijn Committee meeting was held. As far as Hortensia understood it, the committee had been started by a woman named Marion Agostino who also happened to be her neighbour, a nasty woman who Hortensia did not like. But then again Hortensia did not like most people. She had stumbled upon the meetings by accident, soon after she arrived in Katterijn. No one had thought to mention that by rights as an owner she was entitled to while away time with the other committee members. The information was let slip. At the time Hortensia had felt that the initial omission was not forgetfulness but deliberate, and it was easy enough to assume that the slight was based on skin colour. Armed with the knowledge, Hortensia had taken the short trip to Marion’s and pressed the buzzer on her intercom.
‘It’s Hortensia James from next door.’
She had not been offended by the absence of any show of welcome from her neighbour or the other residents. They had not come to Katterijn to make friends, something both she and Peter had managed without for the bulk of their lives.
‘Wait, I’ll call my madam,’ a disembodied voice said.
Hortensia leaned her shoulder against the wall.
‘Hello?’ That must be Marion.
‘It’s Hortensia. From next door.’
This was the moment when Hortensia understood she would not be invited in. The slight annoyed her briefly, but she waved it away as unimportant.
‘I’ll be attending the meetings.’ It mustn’t sound like she was asking permission. ‘The committee meetings.’
‘Hmmm, I hadn’t realised you were owners.’
Hortensia still listening at the buzzer like a beggar. ‘Yes, well we are.’
‘Oh, well I was confused. And…’ Hortensia could almost hear Marion
searching for another gear. ‘…is that gentleman your husband?’ She wasn’t asking so much as scolding.
‘Who, Peter? Yes.’ Again this hadn’t surprised Hortensia. She’d fallen in love with a white man in 1950’s London. They had been asked on many occasions to verify their courtship, to affirm that they were attached, to validate their love. Within a year of being together they were practiced at it. ‘Yes, Peter is my husband.’
In the silence Hortensia supposed Marion was thinking, inching towards her next move, preparing another strike, but instead she heard a sigh and almost missed the details of the upcoming meeting. Marion even threw in a dress code as a parting gift.
‘We dress for our meetings, Mrs. James. We follow rigorous decorum.’ As if she thought dignity was something Hortensia required schooling in.
The meetings seemed to have been created for the purpose of policing the neighbourhood; keeping an eye out “for elements”, the community librarian had explained to Hortensia. Foolishness she’d thought, and soon been vindicated after attending a few sessions. The meetings were a show of a significance that did not exist. Old women, with their wigs, their painted nails, their lipsticks seeping down whistle lines; scared and old rich white women pretending, in the larger scheme of life, that they were important. Hortensia attended because the women were amusing, nattering on in earnest about matters that didn’t matter. She enjoyed to think she was laughing at them. But really it passed the time, took her mind off whatever else there was.
There were times, however, when the meetings moved from amusing to offensive. Once, a black couple moved into Katterijn, renting a duplex not on the Avenue but off one of the minor roads. They had two children. A neighbour, an old man, green at the gills and one-toothed, complained that the children ought not to bother his postbox. The matter was raised in committee. He claimed that the children were assaulting his postbox, messing with it. How did he know this, had he seen it. No, he had smelt it when he climbed down his stoep to collect the mail. He knew the smell of brown children. Could this botheration come to an end, he pleaded. Hortensia had cursed him, walked out of that meeting. And as if the Heavens had heard the man’s plea, the botheration came to an end – he died.
- The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
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