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  • What Glen Retief Knows

    By Oronte February 17, 2011 10:15 am UTC

    Writer Glen Retief grew up in a South African game park during the apartheid era but emigrated to the U.S. in 1994. Before landing in academia he worked as an instructor of homeless HIV-positive substance abusers, a needle exchange advocate, an English as a Second Language teacher, and a teacher of high school students with learning disabilities. He has lived in Cape Town, New York City, Tallahassee, London, Madrid, Guadalajara, and Richmond, Kentucky.

    He’s also lived in Miami, where we did our MFAs in creative writing together. Our cohort was a good one, in part because of its diversity; it included two Cuban-Americans, a Barbadian, a California hippie poet, a woman whose Kiwi granddad was beheaded by the Japanese, and of course Glen—a gay, white South African, raised in an English-Catholic household, who could speak Afrikaans and a bit of the click-language of the Xhosa and Zulus.

    We quickly became friends and, after the degree, continued to travel somewhat similar paths. Glen, however, went on to do a creative-writing PhD at Florida State, where he studied with the incomparable Bob Shacochis, and now he’s a professor himself at Susquehanna University in Pennsylvania’s Amish country. (Glen once wrote here at the blog about getting that job.)

    Some of Glen’s stories he told us about his childhood were published in an essay in The Virginia Quarterly Review, and his “The Chameleon’s Home Country” won the AWP Intro Journal Award for Creative Nonfiction. Now his full-length memoir,The Jack Bank(St. Martin’s) will be released in April, and he graciously agreed to some questions by e-mail at the end of January.

    Glen Retief’s writing has also appeared in Puerto del Sol; Fugue; The Massachusetts Review; The Greensboro Review; New Contrast, South Africa’s premier literary magazine; and Tribute, “a South African mass market glossy magazine roughly equivalent to Ebony or Essence.”

    For the recent Radio Free AWP program here at Inside Higher Ed he wrote and co-produced a podcast about taking American creative writing students to Africa.

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    Yissus, boffin, it’s kief to finally have you here. Howzit?

    Ja, well, no, fine, Oronte! That’s a favorite South African way of saying nothing at all. By the way, do you have the same accent coach as Leonardo DiCaprio?

    Seriously—lekker to be here! This is such a terrific blog—it’s an honor to be back.

    One of the pleasures of reading your memoir is immersion in what will be, I suspect, for many readers, an alien landscape as well as culture. Hey, you got pythons in your trees, warthogs playing in the sprinklers on your golf course, and lions prowling the schoolyard.

    What was that, lions? You’ll remember from Miami days I doze off every time someone mentions African wildlife, having seen so much of it growing up.

    Just kidding. Sort of. But I do have a whole essay on how much I hate portraits—literary or otherwise—of African wildernesses. So there are many ironies in my writing a book that provides the kind of pleasures you’re talking about.

    But yes, the Kruger National Park was an astounding place to grow up. It was so unbelievably beautiful—giant baobab trees it would take five people to encircle. Rose-mauve and tangerine-gold sunsets, behind rocky hillocks. Such an extraordinary variety of trees, birds, insects, lizards—sausage trees and umbrella thorns and bright yellow fever trees whose bark came off in your hand. You know, in North America for the most part we simply don’t have either the perils or the fecundity of the tropics. As a new immigrant in New York City, I went for a drive in the country the first time and thought, “Do all the trees here look like pines or maples?”

    I also was fascinated, here, by the concept of being allowed to hike without an armed guide in nature reserves. Where I grew up, dogs were not permitted, because baboon packs tear them to shreds. Tom Yssel, a family friend, had his leg shredded by a crocodile’s teeth—he spent my childhood swaying around on crutches, a living cautionary tale about getting on Mother Nature’s wrong side. When I was about nine, my mother almost got killed by a lioness. She was peeing behind a lala palm and the big cat just shot towards her from the left. I’ll still never know how my dad reacted so quickly, revving the Land Rover, tearing across the veld, and cutting the lioness off mere meters from my poor Mum. I know we get rattlesnakes, grizzlies, wolves, and so on over here. But even backpacking through the Everglades or the Adirondacks I can’t help feeling there’s something tame about the land. The risks of an alligator or panther attack are so miniscule. Nature seems to demur to humanity in a way it doesn’t back home.

    In the book you say—aware of this potential exoticism for American readers—“Not a single thing is strange or different to us [as children].” Do you feel…I don’t know, grateful as a writer to have these details to draw on, knowing you’re writing for a culture at a distance from the one you’re writing about? Or is there some part of you that still bridles at that difference, as you did when going to university in Cape Town (“built in the style of a medieval Oxford college”) where the rich kids come and go speaking of Venice, skiing, and Thai curries, and you felt like “Crocodile Dundee in his straw hat”?

    Obviously as late as 2003, when I published that “Kitsch” essay, part of me was still bridling at the romanticization of the African savannah. But of course there are tremendous advantages, as a writer, to having grown up in this kind of extraordinary setting. Like every human being I’m full of shit. I want to turn on the exoticism when it suits me and then, at other times, be as bland as—help me here, Oronte…

    Your call, pal.

    …the white middle-class suburban writer of yet another dissertation on the instability of gendered performance in Shakespeare.

    If being exotic helps me sell books, I enthusiastically embrace my inner Other. If it means having 20 students from my colleague’s class on the Immigration Experience lining up to interview me for a term paper about where I come from, then I hate it!

    In fact readers of your memoir will find much that’s familiar—a loving family (dad’s a programmer), bookish awkwardness, mac and cheese for lunch, sadistic boy scouts (don’t get me started), the Bee Gees, Matlock. I’m sorry about Matlock.

    That’s okay, Oronte. Matlock and me were good together, once—know what I mean?

    I certainly do. Heh heh. Wait, what are we talking about?

    Yeah, that bookish awkwardness is going to be there in just about every literary memoir, isn’t it? Probably a bit of Lord of the Flies, too, at least in memoirs by men, given we writer-types usually aren’t the ones who shine on the sports field or in the party scene. And so we get the familiar roughing up. But I think you’re wrong about the mac and cheese. You haven’t eaten it until you’ve had it South African style, baked for an hour and a half, with four cups of milk, half a dozen eggs, tomato, onion, big spoonfuls of mustard. You’ll need to wash it down with Lipitor, but it’ll be worth it—quiche on steroids.

    You were, for a while as a boy, an English-Catholic soutpiel in an Afrikaner town. Can you explain the term and the effect this difference had on you? It’s not mentioned in the book, but after all I thought you told us one of your ancestors was a famous Boer massacred by Zulus….

    Well, a soutpiel is a salt dick, a guy standing with one foot in England and another in South Africa and his penis dangling down into the brackish Atlantic. That was a stereotype of the English—not really being committed to South Africa—and of course it fit me—and our family—pretty well. Hence our doing this interview in the United States. In the book I describe my aunt, who put up Union Jacks and tried to get us to say “che-uh” (chair) instead of “che.” My dad listened to the BBC to evade apartheid censorship, and all the books and magazines we read came from the West—C.S. Lewis, National Geographic, the Hardy Boys. The Afrikaners, by contrast, read Trompie and Huisgenoot. The effect of this difference? I learned the language pretty quickly, at age seven when we moved there. But the cultural difference added to my isolation, which I think at heart stemmed more from gender-role differences—say, my preferring rope-skipping to rugby—than ethnicity.

    But as a kid all these distinctions got twirled up in each other, as happens when you’re a kid, and so my girlish way of throwing a tennis ball got blamed on my being English.

    You’re right about my ancestor—or, at least, he’s a semi-ancestor; we’re both rooted to the same family tree. I provided the village Afrikaners with no end of amusement, sharing a surname with a Boer martyr. But what happened was that my paternal grandfather, the pedophile dandy from chapter four, married into English culture, bequeathing us the Boer name. His attraction to the cosmopolitan would have drawn him to my grandmother, a bookish and relatively wealthy Englishwoman.

    The theme of double-consciousness plays out in many ways in your book, which is after all a nonfiction künstlerroman, or artistic coming-of-age story, fueled by dawning awareness of political, sexual, and racial difference. At one point you mention Stephen Dedalus, “alienated from culture, religion, and even family.” How do you understand Joyce’s notion, “Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”?

    The Dedalus reference is in the context of my memory of being 19 years old and infatuated with the romance of the lone artist armed only with the integrity of his “silence, exile, and cunning.” Today the sentence you quote seems to me troublingly arrogant—who am I to forge someone else’s conscience, let alone the conscience of a whole race? And yet, and yet—there is a way in which great writing—hopefully in its own small way, my book, too—creates a conscience for a society, holds up a mirror.

    One of the best images in the book, comic and lovely, is of you, your siblings, and cousins “gather[ing] whole armfuls of rhino dung, which smells of dry leaves, and grass and has the consistency of caked dirt…the five of us sit like kings and queens on our throne of feces….” As the story proceeds, that image of natural innocence takes on symbolic weight, where white children, privileged—admittedly to varying degrees—perch atop a rotten political system. How, in a minority white society, were children educated about their places in the system and trained to play expected roles?

    White South African life provided a rigorous and thorough preparation for playing the role of a racial master. Of course in my book I talk about black people being servants and gardeners: this is stuff Americans know about from TV and movies, the maid bringing cookies and lemonade on a tray, the old black man—“the boy”—keeping the whites-only municipal pool turquoise and glistening. Less notorious on this side of the Atlantic is the role of the apartheid educational system. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say my old schools were like nothing you or your readers would likely recognize.

    The curriculum was shaped by an educational philosophy known as Christian National education. For “Christian” here, read “Afrikaner Calvinist”; for “National” read “Afrikaner Nationalist.” So as a young Catholic, I was taught in Moral Preparedness class that Catholics worshiped Mary and were going to hell and that the Pope was likely the antichrist. I was told Israelis understood the Afrikaner, but that European and American Jews ruled the economic world in their mysterious cabals and wanted to make money by promoting racial impurity. Communists encoded messages attacking the nuclear family on pop records, which was why we should avoid pop music. You get the picture. It was all very vivid and magical and larger than life—like maybe a Christian school in Mississippi run by demon-exorcising rattlesnake handlers, except that this was more or less the national government.

    We also received military training from a young age: lots of marching, some shooting, leopard crawl, map-reading, bush survival etc. Propaganda about the need to be tough and manly so as to be able to defend a tiny white race against what were perceived as millions of black sub-Saharan Africans wanting to chase us into the sea.

    In fact, the jack bank is both a human invention toward this end, and a metaphor for life in your book. Can you briefly explain your title?

    “Jack” is South African slang for a beating or paddling. One jack would be one blow, on the backside or elsewhere—hands, fingertips, wherever. Although technically corporal punishment was only meant to be administered by a school principal, no one bothered to follow this rule. Male teachers routinely flogged kids for mistakes on tests and quizzes, or for talking in class. And in state boarding schools, the prefect system—modeled on English public schools—meant that 17-year-olds had effective carte blanche to beat the living daylights out of younger lads, in the name of maintaining discipline in the hallways and dormitories.

    Literally, the “jack bank” is an invention of one particularly sadistic prefect, whom I call John. I say invention, but it reappeared at various points in my boarding school career, so perhaps he got the idea from elsewhere. You could volunteer for thrashings ahead of time and then make a “deposit” in this bank—he’d write down the number, four, six, whatever, in a ledger. Then you’d earn interest, and when you later did something wrong, as everybody always did, you could withdraw beatings and get off scot free.

    In boarding school, this became a kind of machismo thing, like those Mexican cantinas where they bring electrodes for you to hold onto, with free beers for the patron who gets up highest on the torture dial. Boys competed to see how much pain and punishment they take. But in the book I reinterpret this experience. It seems to me hardly a coincidence that white boys were being so encouraged to line up for thrashings, in a country which relied on violent suppression of the black majority in order to maintain white power. Die by the jack bank, live by the jack bank, as Jesus might have said.

    I also, as you say, use the jack bank as a metaphor for life. It seems to me just that, as in the old proverb, “As Ye Sow, So Shall Ye Reap.” Deposit violence in a jack bank—beat someone into submission—and that beating will earn interest and come back down on you one day, magnified.

    Gore Vidal says, "[A] memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked." Yet there’s clearly overlap these days in content, marketing, and reader expectation, which you acknowledge with a longish author’s note at the end that explains your methods, which include “spic[ing] up individual moments.” In our Freysian world of trumped-up memories, how do you navigate the space between impressionistic feeling and the data of the world?

    An important question, albeit a familiar one. When you write a novel, everyone wants to know what’s real in it. When you write a memoir, everyone asks you what you made up or got wrong.

    I suggest to my students three ground rules: 1. The core incidents should be remembered, not invented; 2. The dialogue and details you re-imagine—for there is no writing a memoir without imaginative reconstruction of the past—should be done in good faith, should be reasonable guesswork; 3. In the post-James Frey publishing scene, you have to let readers know what liberties you’ve allowed yourself.

    The rest is up for grabs. Memoirists have different rules about whether or not it’s permissible to play with sequence, combine characters, leave minor people out of scenes, embellish slightly for dramatic effect, and so on. Again, just let your readers know what you’ve done. Lay audiences need to beware: memoir isn’t nonfiction. Even in the most careful memoirs—mine not among them—there are multiple levels of unreliability. Neurologists teach us memory is much more fluid and plastic than we realize, and every time we access a recollection we change it. Imagine now you’re trying to dream up a coherent literary narrative from the shards of recollection: well, whatever you’re left with certainly isn’t a court affidavit or news report. I’m with Gore Vidal—there isn’t any need to fact-check a memoir if it’s a good faith representation of memory. But the last thing anyone wants, probably, is to be called a liar, which is why I did make an effort to fact-check mine, as best as I could given the rather difficult circumstances. I discovered both stunning errors—I’d misremembered my best friend’s date at the high school prom—and amazing successes, like precisely recalling the route from the Skukuza tourist campground to the VIP cottage.

    I should add: while memoir isn’t nonfiction, it obviously isn’t fiction either. At the point you’re imagining things that clearly just didn’t happen to you, you’ve overstepped the boundary.

    By coincidence, there’s a review (of sorts) in the Times today, called “The Problem with Memoirs.” The problem, according to the author, is: “Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually everyone who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an underprivileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s, not to mention the ‘50s, ‘40s or ‘30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.” He voices his crabby protest, he says, because, “We don’t have that many trees left.” Your own memoir aside for the moment, which literary memoirs do you value, and why?

    Methinks Genzlinger is taking his bad memoir collection here too, well, personally. Write a bad poem or novel, and you’re just an incompetent writer. Write a bad memoir, and you’re “disgorging” your life, “oversharing,” being a morally suspect exhibitionist. Conversely, write a good memoir and you become a personal hero, a role model for having triumphed over adversity and drawn wisdom from such traumatic life experience!

    But most of the challenge in writing a good memoir isn’t in fact personal or psychological, it’s literary and technical. True, memoir is social testimony, which is why many of us are drawn to the genre—we want our stories to have that weight and perhaps to have a greater impact on real-world people’s decisions than they would if labeled fiction. (“I don’t think we’ll be sending our effeminate son, Danny, to military boarding school, darling. I just read a memoir called The Jack Bank.”) But what Genzlinger calls for and commends in memoir, the ability to find something significant in one’s life experience, is a function of literary skill rather than psychological maturity. So in discussing memoir, we should calibrate our tone and vocabulary accordingly and talk about narrative success and failure rather than trotting out the seven deadly sins.

    Literary memoir is wonderful. I adore Angela’s Ashes for its vivid and utterly compelling child’s voice. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight is a beautiful immersion into a very similar world to the one I write about. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is a great example of the collage memoir—prose poetry, fragments of mock screenplays, letters all pasted together to give an impression of a life. Fierce Attachments may be my favorite memoir of all time—prose so clear and sharp you feel like someone’s slicing your brain matter. My favorite anti-memoir is Lauren Slater’s Lying—although Dave Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius comes a close second.

    Your memoir is set in a time and place of great historical importance, yet by its very nature is personal. How does a writer keep the narrator-self from seeming self-absorbed in a world of misery? You write, for instance, “If the punishments inflicted on me in childhood are due to my racial sensibility, then there are, or so my unconscious adolescent logic concludes, forty million black South Africans who share my [my emphasis] suffering.”

    In the sentence you quote, the key literary technique is clear. The important words are “or so my unconscious adolescent logic concludes,” which signal a distance between the 18-year-old narrator-self, who is indeed “self-absorbed in a world of misery,” and the later narrator-self who is aware of that self-absorption and is making it into the story. Memoirs seem self-absorbed when that retrospective perspective isn’t successfully developed—a technical problem with nonfiction narration that nevertheless creates the impression that the narrator-self is morally flawed.

    This can make teaching a memoir workshop a bit of a nightmare. Instead of saying, “The lack of retrospective reflection in this paragraph makes it seem as though you’re endorsing the 18-year-old narrator’s arrogant perspective,” students say, “You’re such a fucking jerk in this paragraph. Who the hell do you think are?” Sometimes, of course, the narrator-self genuinely isn’t self-aware of the personality flaw, and the personal distaste is appropriate. But more often than not a writing problem is creating the impression of a personality problem—one of the perils of working in this genre.

    The letter from your publisher’s publicity department that came with the advance uncorrected proofs got me thinking about this issue originally. It reads in part, “A mesmerizing, powerful, and deeply-moving memoir about one coming-of-age against a backdrop of a continent in transition….” That phrase “against a backdrop of a continent” unconsciously echoes Chinua Achebe’s bitter complaint about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which he says, “A Conrad student informed me in Scotland that Africa is merely a setting for the disintegration of the mind of Mr. Kurtz. […] Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?”

    You’ve got to love the book marketers! Pick your exaggeration in that clump of purple prose. Yes, an entire continent as a backdrop—a bit much. But also—a continent in transition? Well, no. Just one or two countries at the southern tip of it, maybe—the rest of the continent had its major transition, from colonialism to independence, ten years before I was born.

    While the publisher shows some things to me ahead of time so I can veto them—the book cover, for example—most of this stuff, like the letter in question, just gets done over my head, which is fine by me, since I don’t have a clue how to market books, only how to write them.

    In defense of St. Martin’s Press—nothing in that marketing hype was more campy and overblown than the James Joyce quote you asked me to interpret a few minutes ago!

    In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein writes, “They admitted that Hemingway was yellow…like the flat-boat men on the Mississippi River as described by Mark Twain. But what a book, they both agreed, would be the real story of Hemingway, not those he writes but the confessions of the real Ernest Hemingway.”

    You could never be accused of being afraid to portray yourself in unflattering, even self-excoriating ways, from showing that violence is exciting when you’re on the giving end of it, to “happily play[ing] the expert,” to acting the role of “slum tourist” in Soweto. What’s the role of the confessional in creative nonfiction? How much is the form about using process for healing?

    I’d have to be a dull memoirist to deny the therapeutic-confessional element inherent to the form. Memoir-writing and psychotherapy share one important goal, namely to tell a story from a life, and thereby discover or construct a larger meaning or significance. But the projects part ways on the issue of audience. In the counseling arena, the audience for the story is just the therapist and client. In a memoir, the audience is the whole world, and that brings with it all manner of responsibilities, from the need for artfulness and lyricism, to the concern with whether or not one’s loved ones are going to be hurt by the act of self-revelation, to the already-mentioned element of social testimony.

    I’m actually sorry to hear the memoir struck you as self-excoriating, in parts. I think memoir works best—is most fun for the reader—when it avoids the dual pitfalls of self-righteousness and self-flagellation. See, both of these impulses interfere with the dialectic of self-exploration at the heart of autobiographical writing.

    Never mind, it's just my hairshirt gets all..bunched up. Listen, your book is the only book I’ve read this year to mention not only shaved but painted testicles.

    As I recall, those testicles were well worth mentioning. Hang on—this is a serious question, isn’t it? You’re asking me about symbolism, metaphor. Forget the throne of dung and the soul’s smithy. Paint, balls— künstlerroman—artistic coming-of-age of a sexual outlaw—eros and the poetic muse. You have the whole book right there, dangling in the summer breeze. Oronte—lovely!

    Balls, alright. In your memoir, your self-portrayal as a dreamy and sensitive child, the topic of boarding school violence, the theme of dawning awareness of difference, all come together as you are coming out in young adulthood. In fact, you’re tapped to help draft language for a clause on gay and lesbian rights in South Africa’s new constitution at the end of apartheid. How has codifying those human rights helped people in everyday life?

    So many ways. Relationships between people of different nationalities, allowed to flourish under immigration law. (See my 2001 essay on the very different picture in the USA.) We are talking about real suffering here, when people who love each other are kept apart. People allowed to take care of each other—allowed to visit each other in hospital, bequeath their pension benefits to each other, and so forth, which in turn avoids poverty and homelessness. A recent study by two New York Times finance writers put the lifelong cost in this country, for average gay couples, of state discrimination at around $200,000. That’s a lot of apples when you’re in your old age. Artistic and intellectual freedom: a gay play was staged in my home town municipal hall, against the wishes of the homophobic town council, as a result of this constitutional clause. Then there’s the intangibles, too—just the bounce in people’s step from feeling like first-class citizens.

    Of course there’s still intense discrimination against lesbian, gay, and especially trans people. There’s so-called corrective rape—trying to make lesbians straight by sexually violating them. There’s bashing; people are fired from jobs. But it’s silly to say laws don’t matter.

    Finally, Nelson Mandela, 92, was admitted to the hospital this week for an “acute respiratory infection.” Say a few words on what he’s meant to you?

    A man on a stage at a student conference, when I was 21 years old, waving his finger sternly at me and the other audience members, and saying, “You young people have no idea how the world really works. I am very glad it isn’t you sitting down and negotiating with the regime.” An angry silence in the crowd—we all but booed him for being an Uncle Tom and selling out the revolution. But we were wrong, and he was right. Madiba—sala kahle, be well.

    Many thanks, old friend, and the very best of luck with the new book!

    ***

    Buy Glen Retief’s memoir, The Jack Bank, here. It’s well worth a read!

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