Gerald Kraak Award Shortlist: A Dialogue with Beyers de Vos

Beyers de Vos is a writer and journalist based in Cape Town, South Africa. His first novel, Talion, will be published in 2018.

This conversation took place in a green bedroom in the cold sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and a balcony beneath Table Mountain, Cape Town, South Africa by email. 

Gaamangwe: Once again, congratulations for being shortlisted for the Gerald Kraak Award. What does it mean to you to be shortlisted?

Beyers: It is, of course, a great honour to be shortlisted, and very unexpected. There is something about having your work recognised like this that is amazingly powerful for your confidence as a writer. You are always doubting whether your work should be out there, so this kind of recognition provides you with the audacity you need to keep writing. This particular piece I am very excited about because of all the things I’ve written, this is a story I am particularly close to, and one that I’ve always felt deserved to be read. Not for me, but because the subject of the story was so brave in sharing it. So for it to finally be published is a momentous thing.

Gaamangwe: I was deeply shifted by your story, and the bravery of the subject. I remember after reading and crying, I had to take a walk, to allow my spirit to swim in the searing bravery of Peter* and his experiences. What drew you to this story? Why was it important for you to tell this story?

Beyers: Well, I found this particular story by chance. What drew me was Pride Shelter—the LGBTI homeless shelter in Cape Town. I heard about it through friends of mine while researching another story. This led me to the shelter, where I met Peter. He was so open and honest about what had happened to him that I ended up changing the focus of my piece. For someone to trust you like that—to be that willing to talk about their trauma with you, it’s a deeply intimate and privileged position, and it consumed me. It was a difficult story to confront, which in my experience means it is absolutely necessary to do so. It’s a story that has an urgency about it, a cathartic element—Peter wanted and needed to talk about what had happened to him. At first it was a story I wanted to tell to create awareness around the shelter. About this one corner of the world that provided a haven to vulnerable people, but of course it became about more than that. It became about all the ways this person—and so many people like him— are failed by the system and the communities they belong to. I am still grappling with that.

Gaamangwe: I think a lot about this; the collective roles of humans in the enabling and creation of painful, traumatizing experiences for minorities. We have created two worlds, one world for the majority, and another world for the minority, where dehumanization and violence thrives.

Did you have any illumination about the holistic ways that we as society actually fail LGBTI individuals? The intricate ways that we have created this system that fails others, and the intricate ways that we maintain it? And lastly, on a personal level, what were the most difficulty aspects to confront?

Beyers: That is a very complex and diverse question, one that has different answers in different places. There are many places across the world that practise systematic and codified discrimination against minorities. In South Africa we are fortunate that, at least on paper, minorities are protected. This doesn’t mean that the system still hasn’t failed them; it’s a system that can be very apathetic and is still not equipped to deal with the specific needs of LGBTI people. A system, as Peter’s story shows, operated and maintained by homophobes. I cannot begin to understand the complexities and subtleties of this system and what kind of corrective action should be taken, beyond the belief that homophobia needs to be exposed—dragged into the light and destroyed, and if government won’t do it then civil society must. Whatever role the writer can play in that, they must do everything they can to tell stories that combat homophobia.

Access is the main problem, I think. Access to education, access to healthcare, access to safe spaces. Hatred comes from ignorance and the most powerful way to counteract that is through education. Tolerance is something we have to be taught. We have a failure of education about LGBTI issues in South Africa, which creates a spiral that tacitly aids and even encourages oppression against minorities. This is not even taking into account the reality of those systems—both official and unofficial—that actively teaches homophobia.

On a personal level, what was most difficult to confront was that it was happening on my own doorstep. That I had been largely blind to it. I had to confront my own privilege as a member of the LGBTI community—how do I reconcile my own relatively discrimination-free experience as a gay man with someone whose experience is so rife with discrimination? What is my role in the system? How do I correct the inequality that exists between us? Is writing about it enough—is telling the story enough? I’m not sure I’ve answered any of those questions yet.

Gaamangwe: I think that writing the story is very important, because as you mentioned accessibility is a huge problem. There are far too many of us who are largely blind to it. So this story is the beginning of bridging the gap, making LGBTI experiences accessible. Because with awareness, hopefully comes proactiveness to change those basic but paramount necessities.

I understand and resonate with your feelings about reconciling the discrepancy that exists between you and Peter. I have the same feelings every time I connect with another woman who faces far more violence and oppression. What do you think in your case enabled this discrepancy? As in, what in your reality has facilitated a discrimination-free experience?

Beyers: I think in my case what facilitated that experience was my family’s relative wealth, and the privilege that comes with that. As well as the inherent privilege that comes from being a white man, both within and without the LGBTI community. I grew up in a very liberal household, and was sent to liberal schools and universities. Yes, I have encountered homophobia and bullying, and I don’t doubt that I’ve been discriminated against. But nothing compared to the institutionalised marginalisation that comes with poverty, or within communities less tolerant than the ones I had access to growing up, and still do. It has made it easier for me to be gay, I think. And I try never to take that for granted.

Gaamangwe: Accessibility to alternative understandings of human sexuality is so paramount in marginalized communities. Vigorous education, a lot of unlearning and relearning is vital. Yet the very state of marginalized communities makes it difficult to actually create platforms that combat this. You know, hierarchy of needs.

This is why centres like Pride centres are so important. Safe spaces for recuperating, introspection and healing. I hope that one day, centres like this can exists everywhere in Africa and the world (although the bigger picture is that we get to a space where we never have to need them). 

But you know looking at how vast and interconnected the issues that Peter faced, I also think about how effective these spaces are? I felt sad that he still needed to leave soon even though he still didn’t actually have a plan on what to do after. Doesn’t that feeds into the cycle, that possibly without any other choice, he might go back to the abusive environment he left before? I think a lot about creating spaces that equip survivors of any violence, but I think we need to think beyond just emotionally support but also financial support.

Beyers: Yes, I do agree. The system isn’t perfect, and long term support is still lacking. I do think what Pride Shelter does – putting survivors in touch with groups that can assist them, with healthcare facilities, with rehabilitation options, is all they can do with the resources they have as a private institution. They have a policy which says that people who live there need to be out during the day looking for work, and they actively encourage people to seek out employment in order to make sure they land on their feet. But there is limited space and they cannot shelter people forever; I think what’s missing are the necessary state services that need to take over the process once places like Pride Shelter no longer can, and make sure that the support that Pride Shelter provided is continued and reinforced. This is the government’s responsibility.

Gaamangwe: Wonderful. Thank you for joining me in this important dialogue.

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