Love Thy Neighbor: Talking with Yewande Omotoso

By

In The Woman Next Door (Picador, February 2017), Yewande Omotoso explores the worlds of two headstrong women nearing the end of their lives. Set in Cape Town, South Africa, Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbors who have an ongoing rivalry in the fictionalized suburb of Katterjin. Both are mean, prickly, and habitually sarcastic. Not only do they treat each other awfully, but they often direct their petty gripes towards those around them.

Omotoso—who was born in Barbados, grew up in Nigeria, and now resides in South Africa—illustrates how society disposes of women once they are no longer within the coveted child-bearing bracket. In her debut novel, Bom Boy (Modjadji Books, 2011), the author reflected on our response to neglect and abandonment through the protagonist Leke, a Nigerian boy adopted by a white couple in Cape Town. In her second offering, she satirizes our polite condescension towards the elderly, poking fun at how Hortensia’s caretakers and Marion’s family employ toddler talk when addressing them. You realize the extent to which we render this segment of the population invisible and powerless through our good intentions. Hortensia and Marion are far too interesting, accomplished, and complex for that kind of flattening. Both characters are also given the chance to introspect their lives. We see a grouchy Hortensia express regret over some of the choices she made during her marriage. A snooty Marion wrestles with the prejudice she inherited as a white woman living through segregation in South Africa.

Much of novel’s brilliance derives from the wit and subtlety with which Omotoso uses the personal to make a statement about the political. In the past, novels and books about post-apartheid South Africa have tended to coast through a laundry list of Big Topical Issues in the hopes of saying something important. And while some works have succeeded in this respect, many have fallen victim to glib stereotypes and neat solutions to the problems which continue to disadvantage many South Africans.

The Woman Next Door lets nobody off the hook though. Hortensia and Marion’s hypocrisies are scrutinized with humor, warmth, and clarity. And the end result is less Kumbaya than those of cynical disposition would expect. Omotoso isn’t rehashing the lazy platitudes borne out of Nelson Mandela’s sunny optimism for the country. But she isn’t totally hopeless about our future either.

I spoke to the writer, poet and full-time architect over Skype about Cape Town’s haunting beauty, mythologies about motherhood, and criticisms of African writers.

***

The Rumpus: In popular culture, we’re often given limited perceptions of the elderly. They’re depicted either as sages with extraordinary wisdom or embittered bigots who refuse to change their ways. What made you decide to center the novel on two women in their eighties?

Yewande Omotoso: I’m always interested in nuance when I write my characters. I knew from very early on that the story was going to be about these two women. I knew that they would be nearing the end of their lives, and that they would have lived full lives. But I also wanted there to be a sense of unhappiness or dissatisfaction. It was important for me that these women couldn’t just be one thing so the quality of the writing I was going for had to contain this nuance. I also tried to do the same with the themes I was looking at. On the surface, you can look at them and classify them accordingly. But at the end of the book, I wanted the reader not to be so certain of what the characters could be blamed for. As human beings, we’re complex and life is too complex.

Rumpus: I wanted to bring up the themes because The Woman Next Door explores some weighty political issues such as the redistribution of land, classism, racism, misogyny, and sexism among other things. Sometimes writers can find themselves becoming too polemical or preachy when they delve into these issues. Yet your critiques of these systems and structures didn’t come at the expense of the characters or their humanity. How do you manage to address these political themes while protecting the humanity of your characters?

Omotoso: The honest answer would be I don’t know! When I start a project, I work in a very felt, intuitive way. Each thing I write is personal even though it’s not evidently autobiographical. There’s a conversation between myself and the material as I write along. I don’t begin with a clear map of what’s going to happen. I’m not able to do that when I write a novel. I feel my way through the characters as well as writing scenes and dialogue. As I start to see that I’m arriving at a theme like prejudice, for example, then the story is going to play with stuff on the surface because prejudice is quite superficial.

Rumpus: As a character, Marion represents a new kind of challenge we’re faced with in South Africa. Nelson Mandela’s hopeful vision for the country has collapsed under the weight of frustration at the lack of social and economic transformation. Much of the wealth remains in the hands of a white elite who seem oblivious, if not apathetic, to the suffering around them. There’s a passage in the novel where Marion reflects on her attitude and behavior towards people of color but stops short of being critical of herself; instead she remarks that her shame is unproductive. Can you force introspection on those unwilling to do the work?

Omotoso: I’m torn when I have these conversations because I’m not interested in aspersing the good neuroses of people who aren’t prepared to talk about their shame. I think something like white guilt gets in the way of things because you have to make someone feel good about themselves before discussing race. It doesn’t get us anywhere. How do you make it okay for people to admit to the ways in which they’ve dehumanized certain people? It’s a difficult thing. We know who the victims of apartheid were. That’s not even a question. But every South African from that time was injured in some way. It’s the same with gender. Patriarchy has been the source of so much degradation for women. However, if you look at messages about masculinity in our culture, you’ll understand that men are victims, too—benefiting victims, that is. I find these things difficult to talk about because I don’t want to be the person saying, “Let’s take care of all the men!” I’m not sure how one does it but the book became a small attempt of how these women work through it.

Rumpus: I think you sustained that balance throughout the novel. While you don’t shy away from confronting how white South Africans were complicit in upholding apartheid, you also reveal what it took away from them as human beings. That being, the ability to see the world and people in full. Again, this isn’t to be compared to the oppression suffered by black South Africans. But I often find myself taken aback by the narrow worldview that a generation of white South Africans have.

Omotoso: In South Africa, there’s all the horror of being racist and nobody wanting to own up to it. I wanted to show writing about prejudice in seemingly small and seemingly banal domestic details. I wanted it to be small but injurious and deserving of its own hearing. Marion is racist but she’s racist in a particular way. I wanted to look at that.

Rumpus: Was there any reason why you chose Cape Town as the setting for The Woman Next Door?

Omotoso: Cape Town is special. [Laughs] I came to Cape Town as a twelve-year-old so I’ve essentially lived there for the bulk of my life. I live in Johannesburg now but over the years, Cape Town has annoyed me more and more. I had to question why that annoyance was there. I had to look at it carefully. It’s become a common conversation among people I know: what’s wrong with Cape Town? One of things that is so disturbing about Cape Town is that in some parts, it’s so aesthetically beautiful. Then, in other parts, it’s so debased and symbolic of the inhumanity of our country’s history.

I always think Cape Town finds a way to resist change. There’s a metaphor I like to use which I got from my dad (Nigerian writer and intellectual Kole Omotoso). When people want change, they don’t knock down the building, they just redecorate the surface. We’re always working in that structure in South Africa. We’re never breaking it down. I’m not necessarily one for destroying and razing stuff to the ground though there are times where that could be relevant. But Cape Town, geographically, is the apartheid city. A black person in Cape Town is still a visitor. I find that deeply disturbing and I wanted to try write about that darkness because in a way, some Capetonians don’t see it.

Rumpus: As readers, we’re immediately acquainted with Hortensia and Marion’s lives and backstories without feeling overwhelmed or lost. How did you approach plotting and pacing in the novel?

Omotoso: I tend to write and write until I’ve put everything all out. I’ll then look at the material and order it. What helped me after I had collected the raw material of the story was thinking about characters, scenes, dialogue, and tone. Then I’ll start to place everything. This has some intuitivity to it but it’s more about looking at craft and how story works because I’m going in and out of the present, and back and forth between their histories. What helped me a lot was watching film. I’d watch movies recommended to me and study the beats of the film. I would do this in quite an anal way. I’d watch a movie four or five times, study how the story moved, and when the beat hit. Then I’d return to my material, write out a scene several times until I found the beat. I enjoy doing that because in the beginning stages, the novel is still raw and dreamy and unconscious. I like it when I enter a phase where I can be a little more deliberate with the writing.

Rumpus: I recall asking Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, 2016 Caine Prize Winner, whether his background as a filmmaker helped him organize his short stories better. It was a clumsy and obvious question to ask but I’ll cheekily extend it to you because I know you’re a full-time architect. Does your background in architecture help you map out your stories better?

Omotoso: I often get asked that question and I think it’s difficult to answer with certainty because I don’t have any experience of writing outside of architecture. I do think that there are a number of details which architects need to think of. This includes structure, the tint of wood you’d like to use, or the curtains you’re going to decorate a room with. Storytelling involves the same kind of decision-making. They may not always feel like decisions because the story moves constantly. But you have to think about the details and lives of the characters to give them form. I enjoy looking for similarities and differences between architecture and writing. Architecture is not as solitary. When you’re writing a novel, you’re alone with your ideas. With a building, you have to get things done quickly. The bulk of time is spent with builders, contractors, and clients. With producing a book, there’s a bulk of time where I’m by myself.

Rumpus: Hortensia and Marion’s dialogue not only propels the narrative forward but it’s also very funny and sharp. There’s a lot of one-upmanship between these two women. You never know who’s going to have the upper hand which makes them a comic duo of sorts. How much were you guided by the dialogue?

Omotoso: Dialogue was very important. This might sound cliché but it became important because these two women had to talk. I’d say the primary arc of the story is their relationship and moving through their relationship. I had to look carefully at the issues they had and the tone of their conversations. Dialogue presented itself as something that would be important. I don’t think I knew that when I first started writing the novel. I don’t pre-plot so after some time, I quickly realized they needed to be in the same house. It was almost like an experiment to see whether this thing could happen, and whether they would talk or resist.

Rumpus: Throughout the novel, I kept on thinking about how society grants no freedom or imagination to the role of motherhood. I know you wrote a poem called “Death Wish” which touched on our narrow perceptions of motherhood. Could you talk more about that?

Omotoso: I’m obsessed with motherhood. I’m obsessed in a perfectly acceptable way, I suppose. Motherhood is interesting to me because of all the myths around it. More and more, I find myself around a lot of mothers though I’m not one myself. I observe them and I think mothering is a big aspect of our society. My obsessions are based on how we define something according to what it’s not. To society, motherhood is not about irritation, annoyance, jealousy, or depression because those things would be considered part of bad mothering. Instead we have this straightjacket for categorizing motherhood. What happens to women is rather than being human and experiencing the full spectrum of emotion that comes with motherhood, your role is pathologized. You’re only ever allowed to experience motherhood as something kind and soft. There’s something sick about how we do motherhood. It’s actually sad to me.

Rumpus: Do you think society is more lenient when it comes to fatherhood?

Omotoso: Fatherhood might be pathologized in some ways but we don’t do it to the same degree as motherhood. I’m challenging myself a bit because I have a father and daughter story which I’m writing at the moment so I’m looking at that perspective as well. But yes, I think you’re absolutely right. There is more ease when it comes to fatherhood. Really, if you want one word for it, it’s patriarchy. It’s the set-up. We’re doomed from the beginning!

Rumpus: Much of the novel focuses on what it means to inhabit an older body. There are moments in the book where you use Hortensia and Marion to give a visceral sense of how the “aged” female body moves in the world and what physical and psychological obstacles it encounters. What motivated you to use the body to say something about aging?

Omotoso: I wrote the story when I was spending time with my grandmother. My grandfather had just passed away and I was thinking about what it must feel like to have the bulk of your life behind you. The story isn’t so much about my grandmother but I came to it through an older person who I had love and respect for. I’m interested in the experience of having a body and moving through the story with whatever that body happens to be. We live in a world where the bodies we have determine so much. It was important that my characters gave a sense of the experiences of their bodies, particularly being in their eighties.

When I was doing my research, I tried to work out what Hortensia and Marion’s sex lives would be like. I didn’t write anything raunchy but I would’ve liked to because there’s a myth that certain people are entitled to have sex. Our understanding of who gets to have sex is determined by the kind of body you have, what age you are, where you’re from, and your beliefs. So I tried to have some degree of sensuality from time to time: a sense of their bodies, a sense of what they missed. I remember visiting a friend of mine and her mother turned to us and said, “Have sex everyday!” She said that because she knew how responses to her body had changed over the years.

Rumpus: Every year, there seems to be a fresh batch of concerns lodged against African literature. First, it was the abundance of “poverty porn” stories. Then it was the dislike of conflict and civil war novels. Now it is the child narrator and immigrant tales set in cities abroad. Masande Ntshanga, author of The Reactive, had an interview with the literary magazine Saraba, where he said these complaints suggested that African novels weren’t being engaged with closely as there’s a lumping of certain writers and works based on “topological reading” and “sociological determinism imposed on it by the West.” Do these criticisms affect what you choose to write about?

Omotoso: To be succinct, no they don’t. I’m clear that writing is my project and hopefully when you write, you’ll have people engage with the text which then becomes their project. Sometimes when the two projects meet, you can have an interesting conversation with insightful critique. I’m not opposed to that. But those criticisms don’t bother me because it isn’t my business to think about the critiques on African writers. It doesn’t bother me because I don’t feel that it’s my thing to be bothered by. It is problematic definitely and I agree with what Masande said. My main problem with those critiques is who is anybody to tell anyone what to write about? There’s no basis for it but people do it anyway so I don’t think it needs to be paid much mind. I find these conversations strange because they’re based on a lot of assumptions. People make statements without having read enough literature coming from this continent over time. We love to pretend like this is an easy pot of material but this is a large continent with a history of creativity and creative literature.

Rumpus: Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?

Omotoso: Yes, I’m working on a manuscript about divorced parents trying to speak to their adult daughter. At the time, neither have spoken to her for a year and a half. It’s a book about a failed family and how and why this failure has happened. It’s also a book about art and other ideas which I’m hoping I can pull off.

***

Author photograph © Victor Dlamini.


Khanya Mtshali is a writer and journalist from Johannesburg, South Africa. She has an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Guernica, Bookforum.com, AERODOME, The Architect’s Newspaper, and The Daily Maverick. More from this author →