An Interview with Damon Galgut
Kianoosh Hashemzadeh

Damon Galgut is not your typical traveler. He prefers to journey solo, his favored method of transportation being his own two feet. His destinations are often locales where he knows no one. He travels not for pleasure, but out of a need to exorcise a feeling of ill ease, a sensibility he shares with the main character of his new novel In a Strange Room, which was short-listed for the 2010 Man Booker prize. This character is also named Damon, which, as the New York Times aptly observed, is “Nomad” spelled backwards. The novel follows our anti-hero through Lesotho, Galgut’s native South Africa, Germany, central Africa, and India. Damon assumes the role the titles suggest in each of the three sections: “The Follower,” “The Lover,” and “The Guardian.” In these different modes we observe Damon contemplating his solitude, a feeling that often spirals into intense moments of existential loneliness. Ultimately the novel is a quest, a seemingly endless journey toward feeling comfortable—or at least somewhat content—in one’s own head.
     This past November, Damon, who calls Cape Town home, was once again on the move, stopping in New York for a few brief days to promote the publication of In a Strange Room and his contribution to the Doctor Without Borders collection Writing on the Edge: Great Contemporary Writers on the Frontline of Crisis. We met at his hotel in Chelsea. Like any wise traveler, Damon carried a small day pack and wore comfortable, thick-soled shoes. At a café just a few blocks away, we settled down with coffee and tea and talked about, among other things, the new book, his practice of solitary travel, his self-financed production of Waiting for Godot, and his writing process.

Kianoosh Hashemzadeh: I know you prefer In a Strange Room, which is based on your own experiences, to be called fiction rather than memoir. So I’m curious to know your thoughts on memoir and why you might resist this label.

Damon Galgut: Memoir, as it happens, is a very popular form in South Africa right now, especially because there’s this sense of unspoken history that’s being reclaimed at the moment. It’s not that I’m resistant to it. We think we know what these categories mean, you know? Memoir or nonfiction is supposed to be “the truth,” whereas fiction, as we understand it, is “untruth.” But, in fact, on closer scrutiny the borders between those different genres are really quite porous and sometimes meaningless. For example, in a book of fiction, and it happens all the time, I might write about a real part of my background or use a real person that I knew. It’s quite commonly accepted to say that such and such an episode, or such and such a character, is based on someone I knew or something I lived through. And that’s not an issue. But if for some reason you go the other way around, it becomes an issue. If you write something that’s very clearly based on your own experience and then call it fiction, people scratch their heads and they’re really bemused.
     Let me tell you a little more of my reasoning. I’m sitting here with you, having this discussion, and I’m going to have a memory of this moment, which is made up of a whole tissue of disparate impressions—my temperature, the taste of the coffee, or the expression on your face, along with the words that I’m saying—but when I come to recall this moment later, I will also, if it’s part of a narrative, which is what a journey is—an ongoing narrative—I’m going to select certain elements of the memory and raise them to prominence, and I’m going to drop other elements out of sight completely. I’m going to forget all the irrelevant stuff and give it a core meaning, which is of my own construction. As a writer of fiction I contend that’s what you do whenever you’re constructing your narrative. You decide, at any given moment in your narrative, what’s important and what’s key to that scene, and you bring that into focus, and you let the background be background or, in fact, drop away completely.
     So what I’m saying, I guess, is that we’re constructing the story of our lives all the time, and memory, in the end, is no different than the telling of another kind of story. Proof of that, to some extent, if you could interview the people that I made these journeys with, their version of the journeys would bear very little resemblance to mine, except in the most superficial way. So what we think of as being true is really very, very subjective. It’s for that reason that I’m glad the stories are labeled as fiction. I like people to bump heads against that as they read and say this seems to be set up as fiction, but why is the character called Damon, and how much of this is real and how much isn’t, and if it’s real, why has it been called fiction?

KH: I’ve always been interested in why people seem to be almost obsessed with the idea of a true story.

DG: I guess it’s a useful compartment for people to have—that we actually know or that we can objectively grasp the true and the real as opposed to the imagined. In fact, as I say, those categories are far more fluid than we’d like to believe.

KH: I definitely agree. In In a Strange Room the narrative perspective shifts through first, second, and third person. I’m curious to know how that came to you. Was that how you remembered it, that the memory was more of you watching yourself doing those things? And do you think there is any particular reason why, in those moments, you ended up looking back on it feeling like you’re watching a film, observing yourself outside of yourself?

DG: My personality, I suppose, inclines me to a certain detachment even from my own experience. When I started writing it wasn’t with a conscious intent of splitting it between different voices. I wasn’t very clear about my intentions at all when I began. But almost from the first page, I embarked on the project with the general notion that I would pull back from the scene and look at these two figures moving in a landscape and then kind of move in. But, almost spontaneously, as it were, that switch to third, so the—what would be the word for it, I really don’t want to sound pretentious—the ontological reality of it, the lived experience of that switch, became absolutely apparent to me as true and real in the moment. At the same time I saw its literary possibilities. As a writer, I guess one doesn’t want to just be repeating the usual tropes that other writers have already laid down, so the chance to actually break out of the conventional approach to any kind of fiction is very tempting.
     And there is something in my own temperament that’s very drawn by the possibilities allowed by the switch. If you lock into a mode of telling, into a first-person perspective or a third-person perspective, you commit yourself to what becomes the defining border of the genre. It takes on a certain authority, a truth. But if you switch between first and third it’s very unsettling for the reader. Memory is a very unstable quantity. You can’t trust it. Go into any court building and watch a trial in progress and five people who have seen the same event have seen very different things. All of those people are telling the truth according to what they each believe. So this notion that memory is a reliable record of real events is just absurd … So I guess what the book is doing is pitching you into the kind of the unstable nature of memory itself. It’s pushing your face into the way memory doubles back on itself and corrects and is continually unsure of itself. It’s full of holes. I’ve tried to be honest in the telling where, if I don’t remember something, I try to reflect that—

KH: There’s a gap there or a hole?

DG: Right, exactly. You know, part of this is that—I believe it’s probably a highly contentious point—is that all consciousness is memory. What I think of as the present moment is actually the memory of something that has just happened. It’s that the gap is so tiny that we don’t register it.

KH: Time is constantly in motion. There’s no stagnant “here.”

DG: There’s this thing in the human psyche that wants to be in the present moment. You know, that’s what meditation is or the goal of the meditation is, to be in the present moment. But actually, we aren’t. We’re either throwing ourselves forward into some imaginary future or we’re recalling the past. I think it happens on a very small scale too. The words I’m speaking now, although I’m hearing my own voice—what I’m actually registering is the memory of the words just spoken, impressions I’ve just had. So what I’m trying to do with the book—I haven’t been very successful—but what I’m trying to do is go after the nature of consciousness itself, because if I had to distill this particular book to a sentence it would be that all consciousness is memory and memory is fiction.

KH: In the book, the writing itself is subtle and understated. You encourage readers to unearth these themes.

DG: I like to let readers do some of the work themselves. It’s a challenge, and not all readers like that challenge, to be honest. By far the strongest tradition in literature is that books should be providing some kind of answer rather than throwing up questions. It’s a convention, if that’s the right word, that I’ve always resisted, because it seems to me, if you provide answers—the usual forms of literary catharsis are a kind of answer, things tie up and all the elements of the plot are neatly knotted at the end—you might have a good experience when you’re reading that book, but when you close the book you basically have closed any moral problems that the book raised and that’s it. Whereas if people are disturbed and unsettled, things have been raised and not resolved, people have to carry that around and work it out some way.

KH: If a writer is creating a “closed narrative” as you were describing, it ends and readers don’t carry it with them, readers don’t get to participate as much in the reading process, but if things are left unsaid or things aren’t resolved it forces readers to engage with it.

DG: I’ve always taken it as a compliment when people tell me they’re disturbed by my work because it means they’ve been left with things unresolved. But we, as readers, don’t like it; we like to be passive in the reading process.

KH: I’ve read that you’ve been called “the master of unease.” Is that a term you embrace?

DG: Well, you know, people call you all kinds of things. Unease is something I relate to. I do consciously try to project my own psychological landscape, so unease is a strong element. Whether I’m a master of that or anything I really can’t say. I don’t feel like I am.

KH: Your interest in memory is so compelling, considering the history of South Africa. I know you’ve said that your books are not political per se, but do you think your attraction to memory is in some way inspired by the history of South Africa?

DG: Not in a conscious way. There is a big project underway in South Africa, I think, to reclaim buried memory because so many people were not allowed to tell their stories. The lid has come off and there’s this upwelling of memory being reclaimed. But, you know, I’m a white male and an extremely privileged person. Fifteen years ago in South Africa, without the slightest effort on my part, I would have been born into the top echelons of a hierarchy that I did not make or want. But my privileges would have been natural to me. That’s all changed, obviously. So this national project of memory, if I can call it that, doesn’t really want my input. The recollections of white males are not what need be reclaimed in South Africa. We’ve had our time and we should be put in our place. You know, I have sympathy with that point of view and I understand exactly where it’s coming from, historically speaking. What I’m saying, I guess, is that my project is slightly different. I’m after memory not because I believe my lost memories are of any importance to my country. It’s more in the nature of a grabbing off to the essence of consciousness itself, if that doesn’t sound too overblown. I’m doing something quite unfashionable in South African terms, really. Right now, history and politics are paramount.

KH: It’s not necessarily fair, when you think about it, that writers from certain countries are expected to write about those places and the politics of those places.

DG: If I wasn’t born in South Africa, if I’d been born in a country whose recent history was more placid than South Africa’s, I think I would be a very different kind of writer. My subjects would have maybe been far smaller, more limited. But there is a kind of expectation of South African writers that we should in some way be accounting for this awful history we’ve been through. And yes, it does feel unfair because I didn’t make the history, after all; why should I be speaking for it?

KH: On the same count, there’s something about the narrator’s condition in In a Strange Room that I feel speaks to the emotional climate in South Africa. He seems like an exile to me at times, which is interesting because he’s just traveling, he’s not an exile. But that feeling of not belonging is there quite strongly.

DG: It’s not something I can comment on with much objectivity. I do know that some of the South African reviews have said, kind of to my surprise, that I’m expressing something essentially South African in this book. If anything, I was trying to do the opposite, but I guess if you are digging into the stuff of your own psyche you’re going to be laying out whatever’s in there, and I am South African. It’s part of me, it’s part of who I am. It’s more in the relation to other people, other travelers, that the Damon character realizes he’s not like them. In other words, the definition of being South African is a negative definition.

KH: Defining yourself by what you’re not.

DG: Right, exactly.

KH: You mentioned that you didn’t write the sections of the book as short stories, but in the Paris Review they appeared separately. Do you think it’s better to read them all together?

DG: You can read them individually, but I think they’re diminished by being read on their own. They’re meant to resonate off of one another. One journey does reflect on the next one.

KH: Was it difficult to decide on the order? Or is that the order in which you wrote them?

DG: It’s the order, firstly, in which they happened, and secondly, the order in which they were written. There’s a certain integrity to the way it developed, so there was no point in fiddling with it. Damon ages as well and he doesn’t learn much, but he does learn a little as he goes along.

KH: In the second section, when he meets up with other travelers, his idea of traveling is not so much “I’m on holiday and traveling.” It has an unusual feel. His thoughts about it are different and his feelings about it are different.

DG: Well, I guess he travels not so much out of curiosity but out of unhappiness, the inability to sit still in one place. But, you know, if you look at travel writing, travel memoirs of various sorts, it’s not an uncommon mood. A lot of people—

KH: Get on the move—

DG: —because they can’t stay in one place. Very often it’s a form of unhappiness, of disease.

KH: Many of the characters, including Damon, spend a lot of time walking in the book. In your daily life, you walk quite a bit, right?

DG: I do. That started in my teenage years. We had a very troubled atmosphere at home when I was growing up. Well, without going into details, I used to break out by taking myself on long walks. It became connected quite early on with my writing. I used to think about what I wanted to write when I was moving. And it’s still got that element for me. The rhythm of walking is connected to thinking and to a certain kind of introspection. When I walk I don’t really register what’s around, it’s more inside.

KH: So it’s more interior. That’s still part of your writing process?

DG: I still walk a lot. I do own a car. I’ve got this jalopy that gets me around Cape Town—it wouldn’t get me much farther. If I need to go somewhere and if it’s in walking distance, I prefer to do it on foot.

KH: You’ve mentioned that you used to go to India to write, but I’m not sure if you still do that, considering section three of the book, “The Guardian.” Is that still a quiet and tranquil space for you?

DG: Part of the attraction of going to India is that nobody knew me there. I was completely anonymous. There were other attractions, but that was central to it. That’s not the case anymore. You go back to the same place too many times and you do get to know people and you set up some kind of social existence, which is what I was trying to get away from. I need to discover a new place.

KH: What was it about India that appealed to you?

DG: It’s a sensory invasion visually. Tastewise, smells, just the sensual, tactile reality of it. It doesn’t hold back. It breaks in. Sometimes it’s not welcome. You see things in India that can be very disturbing. You see sights there you really would rather you hadn’t seen. On another level, an amoral level, that’s very stimulating. It fires up the writerly part of my brain, if it is actually part of my brain.

KH: Any idea of what the new place might be?

DG: It needs to be warm. That’s very important.

KH: You were by the sea when you were in India. Is that something you’re looking for in a new place?

DG: It is important. I’ve spent time in the mountains in northern India and, although I’m fascinated by them, it doesn’t produce the same feeling of, what’s the word, of rest and seclusion. There’s something oppressive about mountains for me. I’m not big on swimming, but I enjoy walking along the beach—and there are endless beaches you can walk on.

KH: Do you construct plots during your walking time or are you the kind of writer who discovers where the story will go while you’re writing?

DG: It’s a bit of a mixture of those things. I struggle with writing a great deal of the time. It’s not that it just falls out of me. There’s a lot of problem solving involved. It may be practical problems of logic or it may be what happens in a plot—how to move things from one point to the next—or it may be a matter of finding the right tone or the right voice for a particular sequence. Sometimes those things come to you in the moment of writing and sometimes those things come when you’re reflecting as you’re writing. So there’s no easy answer to that.

KH: Do you work with pen and paper? A computer?

DG: I’m really, really old-fashioned and probably kind of backward. I work longhand with a fountain pen in a notebook, and I’ll do that for four or five drafts before I’ll put it in the computer. They make these marvelous hand-bound notebooks in India and I always bring back a stack of them to work in. I’m a bit of a Luddite with technology. I don’t have a television. I do have a computer, but I use it as a sophisticated typewriter.

KH: If there’s a bit of research that you need to do while you’re writing, do you keep writing and look it up later? Are you interacting with technology in any way while you’re writing?

DG: I guess it depends on the technical requirements of the scene you’re writing. I’ve always shrunk away from subjects that require too much research, I guess because by implication if you have to research it, you don’t know your subject in the first place. But I am at the moment, for the first time, playing with an idea that does require research. What I’m doing right now is trying to research things to the point where I can actually sketch out a first draft, and if I can do that, my thinking goes, I will know what I don’t know. I’ll know how to sharpen the lens.

KH: Are you comfortable talking about the topic of your research or do you like to keep it under wraps?

DG: I’ve got a superstition about work in progress, I’m afraid. I think if you talk about it you jinx it so I’d rather not. I know all kinds of people who’d love to be writers, but they talk so much about what they want to write, they never actually write it.

KH: In Cape Town is there a literary scene that you see yourself a part of or do you shy away from that type of thing?

DG: I keep to myself a great deal of the time. There are quite a number of writers in Cape Town. A “scene” might be overstating the case, but there’s quite a lot happening.

KH: Are there any contemporary writers in South Africa you’re excited about?

DG: There’s a young new writer called Alistair Morgan. His first novel has been published in the UK, but here it hasn’t found an American publisher, unfortunately. American publishers want redemption from his novel and he’s not big on redemption. I think he’s pretty impressive. I don’t think he’s capable of writing redemption. He happens to be my next-door neighbor, but that’s just by pure chance.

KH: Do you find that you show people your work or do you keep it to yourself?

DG: I don’t. Well, I do at a certain point, but I need to take it as far as I can on my own before I’ll hand it over to someone. It can throw you totally.

KH: You don’t read while you write either?

DG: I do, no, I do these days. When I was younger I tried not to because it can throw you very badly off your own voice. These days I do, unless it’s a writer with such a strong style that I think OK, no, this is going to hijack my head.

KH: What are the most recent books you’ve read?

DG: Well, at the moment, the books I’m reading are really related to research. They’re not books I would have picked up in the normal course of things. I’m reading around the Raj in British history. I’ve also been asked to write an introduction to The Outsider, so I’m reading a biography of Camus at the moment. Who did I last read for pleasure and enjoyment? Samuel Beckett’s letters—or the first volume of them, so I’ve got another four volumes to go.

KH: This summer I worked a bit with Barney Rosset. I was cataloging some of his correspondence, which included some of his Samuel Beckett letters. It was really amazing and, well, Barney, of course, is a captivating person.

DG: Oh, really? Well, I know Kent [Carroll] had those connections to Beckett as well because he and Barney used to work together. I was totally floored to discover that Kent knew Beckett so well that he referred to him as “Sam.” “Sam wasn’t one for small talk,” he said. I’m sure!

KH: It seems, from my position, when I think about that world—the New York publishing world in the sixties—that it’s just changed so much. I’m nostalgic for that period.

DG: I’m also nostalgic for it even though I never lived through it!

KH: Exactly!

DG: Well, I feel as if I did in some shape or form.

KH: You recently self-financed a production of Waiting for Godot. How did that go? What was your involvement?

DG: I wanted to do this project for years because it’s a play I love. But I also, very specifically, wanted to do it with particular actors from Cape Town. So I spoke to these guys and said, “Are you up for it?” and they all were. I finally took the plunge early this year. We had a three-week run at a Cape Town theater. The directing part of it was pure bliss. I loved doing that. The production side of it was unmitigated hell and I’ll never do it again! I actually got an ulcer, and I think it shaved about ten years off my life. I was responsible for everything—from printing programs to renting rehearsal space to negotiating salaries to finding the props. It was the fullest full-time job I’ve ever had.

KH: How long did you work on the project?

DG: Preproduction stuff was two months before we started rehearsing, and I was still winding things up a couple of weeks after we were done. Even while we were working—I was directing during the day, but before going into rehearsal and at night after rehearsal, you’d be phoning to see, well, has that been done?

KH: The job that never ends! But you would do it again?

DG: I’d do it again if someone brought me a big bag of cash! It’s not the cash actually; I didn’t mind putting up my own money. I want someone to make those phone calls and sort out the business side of things.

KH: You also studied drama. In what capacity did you study drama? Did you act?

DG: The University of Cape Town—well, now I’m not sure because I think they’ve restructured—but they offered what was called a performance diploma in speech and drama. It’s not actually a degree. It is what it says it is—it’s a diploma, so that’s my only qualification to date, this utterly useless diploma. It’s a three-year course. I think they’ve changed it now. You can specialize in directing or lighting or something more behind-the-scenes, but I studied to be an actor and that’s what I ended up teaching for eight years on and off after. I never really had aspirations to be an actor, it’s not something I wanted to do, but I started out writing plays and I had this notion that studying acting would help me write better plays. In fact, it totally killed the desire to ever do that ever again. I stopped the plays and I kept on with the novels.

KH: It’s interesting, though, thinking about the third-person shifts. Maybe this has some sort of correlation with your acting background—visualizing yourself in that way as a character.

DG: That’s an interesting idea; I’ve never thought of it that way. It certainly is part of the actor’s, and definitely the director’s, approach to a theatrical project. You’ve got to be in it and out of it at the same time. You’ve got to relate to the character in a really intimate first-person way and at the same time you have to know where you’re fitting it into the larger drama. On a technical level you’ve got to know when you come in and when you go out, and know what kind of impression you’re making and what direction you’re facing. Maybe I owe more to the drama school than I’ve acknowledged!

KH: I know you’re going to a Doctors Without Borders event tonight. Could you tell me a little bit more about your involvement with Doctors Without Borders [DWB]?

DG: Well, my interactions with DWB are as a writer. They approached about ten or twelve writers some years ago and invited us to any of their operations around the world to write a story on it. We could choose where we wanted to go. Martin Amis went to Colombia. Hari Kunzru went to Assam in India. I was supposed to go to Somalia—that’s what I chose—but a couple of days before we left, the situation there became so unstable that it was considered too dangerous. So at the last minute I switched to northern Uganda, where there’s this insurgency going on. I was very happy to contribute in that way and I was really pleased to be approached. I’d be lying if I said activism is a normal part of my life. I’m generally quite a secluded person, and the cause has to approach me rather than me going to the cause. I’m pretty quiet. Godot was a total exception for me—I kind of stepped out of my usual confines. Partly, I needed to do that. I spent too many years being by myself, not engaging with the world, and it was a real shock to the system to deal with the world.

KH: So in Uganda your role was mainly to observe?

DG: Sure. I stayed with them and I wrote the piece. As I said, I was happy to. I know humanitarian work is a highly contentious issue and I’m troubled by lots of questions related to it as well. It’s hard to go there and see them just patching terrible physical injuries to children and not feel that it’s a really important thing to be doing.

KH: The piece that you wrote is part of a collection that DWB published?

DG: Yes, it’s called Writers on the Edge. It’s just come out. The guy behind the project is a photographer called Tom Craig, and he liaised with DWB to get the whole thing together. He went on all the trips. He’s the only consistent element to it. His photographs are the mainstay of the book and they’re really vivid.

KH: With the Booker nomination and your travels here, you’re sort of being forced out of your home again. Are you embracing it?

DG: Embracing’s not the word. I’m resigned to it! It’s not conducive to work. So I need to clear the decks and get down to a new book, but I’ve got some more traveling to do before that. I’m going to Sri Lanka in January and Australia in March. After that, I’m saying no to everything and staying in my room.

KH: Are your trips to Sri Lanka and Australia also for your book?

DG: Well, they’re writers’ festivals, so yes. I’m not averse to going to these festivals; they treat you very nicely, and you have the illusion that you’re important for a moment. And you also get to rub against other writers, which oddly never happens in the course of things. It’s nice to know the people that are doing this kind of crazy thing. But there are some people who just go from festival to festival as writers, and I don’t know how they can function. The book makes clear that traveling for me is mostly a solitary activity. This kind of traveling is anything but solitary. As I say in the book, I’ve changed “as middle age struck.” I’m far more, what’s the word, sociable, than I used to be. If we’d been sitting down for this conversation ten years ago, I think you’d have struggled to get much out of me.

Kianoosh Hashemzadeh’s writing has appeared in Brevity, Fifth Wednesday, Brooklyn Rail, MELUS, and Assembly Journal. She is an editorial assistant at Conjunctions and lives in Brooklyn.