There’s a whole lot of things I’ve been thinking in relation to the final uzwi comment here. So much that I’m not sure where to start so I’ll start from the bottom, with the idea that you are ‘desperate to preserve your experience one moment, and desperate to get free of it the next’. In my current writing this is my central problem. I live so much in the moment and have such a spontaneous response to life that I struggle to write about what has happened – even if only a week ago – because of the sheer exhaustion in the present. I had an extraordinarily rich writing time in Angola this year, where I was travelling alone for three months across the country, and while I delighted in the writing (I filled three notebooks of 200 pages each, and even more hundreds of pages on my laptop) at the time, now that I am here in Johannesburg looking at the material, revisiting it, I wonder about the Angola before this trip. What about last year’s Angola? And the Angola the year before? What about the Angola of 1998? I feel my memories of certain intense times in the late nineties slipping through my fists, even if I clench them so hard they might manage to retain water. It all slips away. Perhaps not even the memories – for they are always there, even though they change & I have lots of notes from those days too – but the feeling that accompanied that period has gone. Naivety has been replaced with cynicism. I want to go back, I want to go back, but I yearn to forget it all and never remember those days ever again. So even when I return to my notes, I struggle to believe them, to take them (as) seriously (as I feel I should).
I’m very attracted to the idea (further up in uzwi) that you just shoot and shoot and shoot and then do the cutting. This is what J does with his films. Shoots hours and hours and hours and then tries to find the narrative. I think this is what I try to do too. Amass material and then make sense of it. It is, and this is very telling, the exact opposite of what a lot of journalists do. Many reporters these days decide what the story is, even write the script before they arrive in country X or village Y, and then get the material to match their preconceived ideas. It’s the main reason I reject and loathe so much journalism. Even the less crude among the media are very much sold on their own notions of what is and go out to confirm that.
What I like to do is to simply let go and see what happens. During my recent travels I would wander away from wherever it was I was staying and just wait and see who began to talk to me, who offered me into their home, and who waved at me on the street. And then I would let their lead take me, and so I followed an old lady through a large city and a huge sprawling market to her home (a small hut) where she cooked me dinner in soapy water. I didn’t ask her much, but let her ask me questions, turning the journalistic process on its head. If she told me to sit and stay, I sat and stayed. If she told me to eat, I ate. If she told me to smoke, I smoked. I surrendered myself to her. And I did this over and over again for three months.
But I’m not – at the moment anyway – turning this into fiction. I’m writing it as it is. I’m writing what happened. Reportage you might call it. But I hope in some ways you won’t. Because I notice that if novelists write fact, no one minds if it’s fiction and draws on imagination; if journalists write fact, and also draw on imagination and let their minds wander, people stamp their feet and shout That’s Not True.
As a South African theatre director said to me the other night, Ethics get in the way of everything. Or did he say I hate ethics, stay away from ethics? Something like that. And the longer I live, and the more I write, the more I agree with this. Ethics – whatever they are – get in the way. They get in the way of beauty, and in the way of honesty, and humour and knowledge. I’m pushing in the other direction, so far from where I came, and I’m hoping I can be as brave as he is, as he appeared to be, that South African director.
I think all I can try to do is write ‘found material’ into an ‘arrangement’ and then hope that ‘after a lot more operations, the found material ends up as a thematically driven narrative’. Somehow that makes it sound quite easy, though I know it’s not. But it makes it sound possible, achievable.