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Sam’s story brought to life

Your students will be swept away by renowned South African actor Clive Scott’s professional readings. Enjoy chapters and excerpts from The Native Commissioner, together with several complete audio lessons if you order the accompanying Educator’s Audio Disc.

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Freeing our children from the burden of guilt:
A Q&A with Shaun Johnson

Author Shaun Johnson shares his ideas on what students might gain from reading The Native Commissioner novel, what it was like to write, how autobiographical it is, and what he meant when he said one of the novel's themes was “this generation absolving the next one from guilt”.

English Experience: How does it feel to know that your novel has been listed as a set work?

Shaun Johnson: The book has had an extremely fortunate run and a wonderful reception right from the time of its launch, but the news that it has been chosen as a set work is the best thing that has happened. It has given The Native Commissioner another life, in a way.

EE: How do you think high school students will respond to it?

SJ: I would expect there will be a range of responses, which is as it should be in such a diverse country, but I hope it will at least bring alive for them the complexity of a little-discussed aspect and period of South Africa’s history.

EE: What would you like them to gain from the novel as a person labelled ‘South African’ (born here or migrant)?

SJ: Among other things that, as Mr Mandela has said, history is not just about the ‘kings and generals’, but also about ordinary people trying to do their best in extraordinary situations.

EE: and as a youngster with their own family issues?

SJ: That speaking honestly and openly within a family is the best way of confronting the unavoidable and sometimes unbearable difficulties of life.

EE: and as a scholar about to enter the workforce or start a career?

SJ: That no job is worth doing if it is in conflict with your own principles and beliefs.

EE: What message do you have for children/young adults desperate for jobs?

SJ: That if they choose a field about which they are passionate, even if they have to start in the lowliest of roles, they will eventually succeed.

EE: You have said the novel represents a move to write about ordinary people. Given that, how do you situate the novel within the context of South African literature and what do you think about the state of South African literature at present?

SJ: I think it is up to academics more qualified than I am to give the novel a place in South African literature, whatever place that might be. At its most simple, I suppose it falls into the category of novels set in a specific historical past, which are using the freedoms of fiction to try to understand that past better. JM Coetzee kindly said of The Native Commissioner that it is “a welcome step toward the reconstitution of the South African past”, and I appreciate that assessment. Regarding the state of literature in our country at the moment, I think we are living through the most exciting phase in a long time, with a whole new generation of writers at work and a vast choice of new novels of every type.

EE: You have also said that a theme of the novel is “this generation absolving the next one from guilt” — could you elaborate on this?

SJ: This is a very personal feeling that I was trying to explore as one layer of the novel — whether the conscious actions of individuals of my generation (which has lived through apartheid and its aftermath) might free our children from the burden of guilt about a past in which they played no part. I had my young daughter in mind.

EE: How long did it take you to write the novel?

SJ: I worked on it, very much part-time, for about two years from 2004 to 2006, I think, but I guess I had been thinking about the themes and the story for a lifetime.

EE: Were there any other novels (local or international) that influenced its writing?

SJ: I have been an avid reader of literary fiction all my adult life — it is one of my greatest joys to read the good writing of others — and so I have been influenced by any number of writers and books, South African and otherwise. But in The Native Commissioner I strove for my own voice and style, and so any similarities to the work of others will have been unintentional!

EE: Where did you begin with researching the novel?

SJ: With papers relating to my father’s life that my late mother had given to me. I fictionalised and rather embellished this process in the novel, as a narrative device.

EE: What criticism have you received about either the content or the style of the novel?

SJ: I was fortunate in that The Native Commissioner received only two negative reviews out of the dozens that were published around the world. These critics found aspects of the novel unconvincing or implausible, which is of course their right, and, indeed, that of any reader. There is no such thing as a perfect novel and I am mindful that this was my first foray into fiction, so no doubt it could have been improved. Hopefully these improvements will come with practice.

EE: Do you see this novel as a film or a play?

SJ: I would have loved to see it adapted for the cinema or theatre, but, sadly, I haven’t received any calls on the subject! I guess it would fall into the category of ‘books that are difficult to film’, because it is more about atmosphere than action, but properly done I do think it could be compelling.

EE: In the novel, George Jameson demonstrates his ease with various languages. Do you speak any other languages?

SJ: I am very comfortable in Afrikaans, and sometimes enjoy reading Afrikaans novels in their original form rather than in translation. One of my great regrets is that, having spent my early years in the Transkei, where I learned to speak Xhosa before English, I did not maintain my facility in the language when our family moved elsewhere. I’m very pleased that my daughter is learning Afrikaans and Xhosa at her primary school.

EE: Why are you hesitant to call this novel autobiographical?

SJ: Because that would imply that everything in it is ‘true’ in the sense that it actually happened that way, which is most definitely not the case. I’ve been quite clear in saying that the ‘DNA’ for the story and the characters comes from my own exploration of the life of the father I never really knew, but I felt that the story would be told much more powerfully and readably if I was free to utilise the elements of fictionalisation and imagination.

EE: Do you blame your father or bear any resentment towards him for any decision he made?

SJ: I am at peace with him now.

EE: Why were you never told of your father's suicide?

SJ: It was not that we weren’t told of it, but that my family’s coping mechanism at that time, and in our cultural context, was never to discuss it.

EE: How does the family view this novel?

SJ: My brothers were a little alarmed when I first told them what I was doing, but they helped and encouraged me and I think are now pleased that I did it.

EE: Is another book or poetry perhaps imminent?

SJ: I am quite far advanced on a second novel, which deals with a very different character and very different period. I hope it will be read with enjoyment by people who don’t know anything about The Native Commissioner, but there will be rewarding connections and echoes for those who do. That’s if it turns out the way I think it will at the moment … fiction takes on a life of its own and can end up taking a writer to places they’d never imagined.

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