If only I could subscribe to the utopian notion of unity with all people, whether within or across national boundaries! I can’t conceive of writing without also addressing social, cultural and national distinctions; my fictions try to show how these surface in everyday interactions, in spite of our cherished liberal-humanist beliefs. The challenge is to capture marginal voices, thus not only a matter of my voice but, rather, one of polyphony, the many different, even contradictory, voices that engage with each other. My fictions are primarily set in South Africa, a country still divided like any other by race, class and economics, and my project includes the recovery of minor, neglected or disparaged peoples and events. As such, they are culturally and historically specific, and I simply do not know whether, or to what extent, the specificity is transcended. But if it is the word ‘unity’ that I rail against, have I not as a reader felt a surge of fellow-feeling in encounters with foreign fictions? So let me raise here a flag for translators, those often-overlooked magicians whose business it is to beat down national boundaries and feed our imaginations with worlds of difference.
I squirm at the question ‘who do you write for?’ I suspect it of nudging me into the nauseating reply of ‘for my people, my kind.’ No, I say without hesitation. I write for nobody, since the process of writing – of struggling not only for words but also with how to shape fragments or inchoate ideas into a story – precludes the question of reason or readership. Not even for myself do I write: an impossibility, since in confronting the blank page there seems to be no pre-existing self. (The self I know would rather slouch in a hammock, sipping something or other.) Rather, eerily, in that process of forging a narrative, of discovering what I am writing, a strange self seems to wonder at the text that is painstakingly being formed. If writing is something you do, have to do, it seems to balk at being harnessed to a prepositional phrase like ‘for…’.
—Zoë Wicomb is a South African writer and a 2013 recipient of the Donald Windham Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prize. Her books include Playing in the Light, David’s Story, You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town, The One That Got Away: Short Stories, and October (to be published in 2014).
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.