There is no way to escape the huge gravity of history, which pulls at everybody through specific identities, some of which are tied to nationhood. But growing up in Africa has imbued me with a healthy scepticism about the meaning of country and nation, where borders were often drawn up in an arbitrary way by colonial powers. It is dangerous, I think, to ascribe too much power to these ideas. Cultures are very different, but people are very similar, and fiction has the power to make that visible.
So I relate very strongly to Tolstoy’s statement. He himself was distinctly, unmistakably Russian, and yet saw the human kinship underneath all the surface business. And in fact I find myself aligned with Tolstoy in even deeper ways. For example, he was vegetarian and one of his most affecting pieces was written after a visit to the slaughterhouse. I also don’t eat meat, for exactly the same reasons, and when I read his words the intervening time and distance seem to fall away. It’s these currents of thinking and feeling that are part of the point of books, for me. Several of the faces I wear–my sexual or moral identity, say–bring me close to traditions that are perhaps far removed from me, culturally speaking. I write for people who might understand these common strands of humanity, not in order to explain my country to anybody.
—Damon Galgut was born in Pretoria in 1963. His most recent novel is In a Strange Room. He wrote his first novel, A Sinless Season, when he was seventeen. His other books include Small Circle of Beings, The Beautiful Screaming of Pigs, The Quarry, and The Impostor. The Good Doctor: A Novel, published in 2003, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Dublin/IMPAC Award and was published in eighteen countries. He lives in Cape Town.
2paragraphs gives special thanks to Anderson Tepper for curating our International Writers Interviews. Mr. Tepper is on the staff of Vanity Fair and is a Contributing Editor at Words Without Borders.