The Booker Prize-winning author on why he worries about the country’s future being shaped by religious nationalism, the labels of a gay and South African writer, and much more

South African author Damon Galgut (60) writes novels, plays and short stories. He won the 2021 Booker Prize for his latest novel, and ninth book, The Promise, which tells the story of an Afrikaner family’s decline over four decades. In this interview, conducted at Kolkata Literary Meet, Galgut talks about his writing, and about being Jewish, South African and gay. Edited excerpts:

You seem to be someone who really enjoys their own company. When you are at a literature festival, does it seem like an occupational hazard or something that you look forward to?

It’s a little bit of both, to be honest. One of the things that happens when you win a prize like the Booker is that your private life gets erased. That’s an exaggeration perhaps. I am a low-key and private person. That has not really been possible the last couple of years. On the other hand, if you throw yourself into it, there is a lot to be enjoyed. I do like the company of other writers, and literature festivals make it possible to meet people whose work I admire, and to have actual conversations with them.

When you say that your private life has been affected, do you mean that your partner doesn’t want to travel with you because it is annoying to have people ask you for selfies and photographs?

(Laughs) I don’t have a partner. If I had one, I would probably insist that he travel with me wherever I went.

Now that our readers know you are available, perhaps at the next festival, instead of approaching you for autographs, someone might come up with a pick-up line.

It hasn’t happened yet, and I don’t think an interview is going to change that. Quite honestly, I think if I were a straight man, I’d be having an endless festival. Most readers of novels are middle-aged women. If I were inclined that way, my life would be a lot more fun.

How do you feel when you are described as a gay writer or a South African writer? Do these labels seem limiting or affirming to you?

To me, these two labels are different from each other. In some respects, being introduced as a gay writer is limiting not because I reject the label but because it sets up certain expectations of the subject matter that I write about. I often write about being gay in a very oblique way, so I am not really planting my flag on that particular hill though I am a gay man. I haven’t used my writing as a vehicle for championing gay rights, but I have conversations with young people who need support. There are a lot of other writers who write explicitly about gay life, gay sex, alternative sexual identities way better than I have covered.

I am much more interested in repressed gay interaction. In my novel The Good Doctor (2003), for instance, you could see the relationship between the older doctor Frank and the younger doctor Lawrence as a submerged gay relationship. That is one way of reading the book. The conventional notion of a plot is that someone does something decisive and something happens as a result. But what if you don’t do something decisive? That refusal to act is an action in itself, and it does set things in motion. You could call it the “un-plot”.

My interest in this probably comes from years of repression while growing up under apartheid, which was a very patriarchal system; homosexuality was illegal. I grew up with a profound sense of shame and the need for secrecy. That changed in 1994. It was too late for me because I had already internalized self-loathing and homophobia. I have been public about being gay, but never quite at ease with my sexuality. As for being a South African writer, that is harder to shrug off because it is very much a part of the fabric of my writing.

What is it like to be a South African writer at a time when South Africa has taken Israel to the International Court of Justice for the genocide in Palestine?

It is a rare moment of pride. In recent years, there’s not a great deal about being a South African writer that has made me proud because of government kleptocracy and ineptitude. The pride comes from knowing that our government finally took a moral stand on an issue that concerns a lot of people. I wish our government would apply the same morality to itself back home. The corruption is at a scale where we are on the verge of being a failed state. The government promises to investigate and reform itself but that has not happened yet.

Having engaged deeply with the history of apartheid in South Africa, what are your thoughts on the word ‘apartheid’ being used in the context of Israel?

I visited Israel once when I was in my early 20s and my political consciousness wasn’t particularly acute, but I did think that Israel resembled apartheid South Africa in many respects. I don’t know enough about daily life in Israel to know if the comparison fits but from the external descriptions that are available, the breaking up of oppressed people into small ghetto-like enclaves does seem a lot like South Africa during the apartheid.

What made you visit Israel in your 20s?

I went to work on a kibbutz in Israel because I was interested in the socialist project. I am, in fact, Jewish, technically speaking. My father is Jewish, and my mother converted to Judaism. I was officially converted to Judaism at the age of two. Although I wasn’t raised in the tradition, and I haven’t had a bar mitzvah, if I relate to any particular identity, it is the Jewish identity. Israel is a complicated place. It represents a sanctuary for Jewish people, should the world turn on them again like it did during the Second World War. I guess my Jewish identity is faint enough for me to not be Zionist. I find myself able to be critical of Israel. I do not regret having gone to Israel when I did as a younger person but I would not go now.

Damon Galgut: ‘My primary motivation in writing Arctic Summer was to immerse myself into discovering what went into writing A Passage to India’

Israel is often marketed as a haven for gay people to cover up its human rights violations, and activists increasingly use the word ‘pinkwashing’ to describe this phenomenon. As a gay person of Jewish heritage, how do you make sense of this?

I would have to spend a significant period of time in Israel to have a strong grasp of these issues, but I am very suspicious of that idea whereby Israel believes it can redeem itself by being gay-friendly, gay-tolerant, or whatever term it chooses to distract people with. Being gay places you outside the system. Growing up under apartheid as a gay man, and having to live in secrecy, pushed me to deeply question all the values of that oppressive system.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu was one of the strongest voices against homophobia and transphobia in South Africa. Who are the people carrying on his legacy today?

It is a great pity that there is no iconic political figure holding a flag for gay rights in South Africa. The South African politician Jacob Zuma, who had previously apologised for his seriously homophobic remarks, has been making some new ones recently. He is campaigning for a party that wants to roll back gay marriage in South Africa. Despite our very progressive values, a lot of South Africans are still very patriarchal and that is saddening. I think being a black queer person is far more difficult than being a white queer person in South Africa.

Your interest in writing about submerged gay identity brings me to your engagement with the work of novelist EM Forster, which readers have noticed in your books Arctic Summer (2014) as well as The Promise. How did he come into your consciousness?

My interest in India predates my interest in Forster. It was my sense of connection to India that led me to re-read Forster’s novel A Passage to India (1924). My primary motivation in writing Arctic Summer was to immerse myself into discovering what went into writing A Passage to India. And Forster’s submerged gay identity was absolutely central to that. What Forster was unable to act upon in his private life seems to have flowered in his fiction.

Do you see Forster as a muse or an ancestor?

I suppose as a muse more than an ancestor. For him to be an ancestor, he would have to be bolder. He was frightened. That fear interested me because I had lived with it too. I was interested in how his life was shaped by his inability to act upon this aspect of his nature.

He did write Maurice (1971), didn’t he?

Yes, but it wasn’t published while he was alive. That had to do with his mother. He had a great longing to express these desires but also a great fear of exposing himself. I have to point out that his homosexuality placed him outside the strictures of Edwardian convention at that time, so he was able to take a detached view of the British Empire, denounce it and call for its end. Because he stood outside, he didn’t accept imperial values like straight British people.

Where did your interest in India come from?

I first came to India at the end of 1999 on a three-month trip. I was sure that I would never come back, so I tried to see as much as I could — Mumbai, Pune, Madurai, Chennai, Hampi, and Goa and Rajasthan. I fell in love with India so I came back six months later and stayed for a longer period. Goa was a sanctuary for me. I wrote a lot. It was a very happy time. I wish I could recreate it but the truth is that I have changed and Goa has changed.

Do you continue to practise yoga? What else do you turn to for sanity amidst the chaos?

I have slackened because life has been busy. My unkind friends would say that I gave up sanity some time ago. I don’t have spiritual beliefs. I wish I did, even of an esoteric kind. It does help people to have some beliefs. I am pretty despairing, not sure of what. These days, I have a home to return to in Cape Town. That’s comforting. This wasn’t the case for a long time, and I used to be existentially restless. I was unable to sit still. I see most spiritual philosophies as a form of distraction or denial rather than a source of comfort. Books, for me, are a great comfort. Reading is not a religion but a spiritual passion if you like.

You once wrote, “Of what use are novels?” Were you mocking your own work?

It is a real question for me. South Africa is a country full of people who are desperately struggling to survive. I am aware that novels are of no use to a large number of South Africans. They don’t feed or clothe you, and they don’t provide shelter. Apart from that, there are friends of mine who don’t read and they lead full healthy lives. But my own life would feel very diminished without novels. It is a luxury I hope never to be without.

Tell us about your next book, which is supposed to be a collection of short stories.

Yes, I am under contract to do a book of short stories. I undertook that because I already had half a collection ready. I have published various short stories, so I thought I would just sit down and write some more and it would be a straightforward undertaking. It hasn’t been so. It is a book of short stories about people who are away from home. I have this theory that people behave quite differently when they are away because they feel observed at home. When they are travelling, their morals and values shift. Their self-restraint melts away.

What has your experience of Kolkata been like? Where else are you going?

My experience of Kolkata has been shaped by the Kolkata Literary Meet, and I have had a very good time. I had come here before as a tourist and stayed with friends, but this time has been different. This city has a distinct character. I’d be hard put to say exactly in what ways but it is different from all the other Indian cities that I have been to. I will go to the Jaipur Literature Festival from here, and spend 10 days with a friend in Delhi before I go home.

Since I have come to India this time, your current regime has put me off considerably. Everything that I love about India and relate to — the tolerance, openness and inclusion — seems to have narrowed and dimmed considerably. I am very alarmed by what I hear and see. I grew up under white nationalism. Religious nationalism works on the same principles. It is no different. I worry about what has been happening here. I worry for my friends and everything I admire. It is far less inviting to come to a place where the future is shaped by such forces. But when I see ordinary Indians, I feel a sense of warmth and my old love for India is rekindled.

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