The Historical Roots of a Landscape: A Dialogue with Bridget Pitt
Bridget Pitt is a South African author and environmental activist who has published poetry, short fiction, non-fiction and three novels (Unbroken Wing, Kwela, 1998; The Unseen Leopard, Human & Rousseau, 2010; Notes from the Lost Property Department, Penguin, 2015). Two were long-listed for the Sunday Times Literary Awards. Her second novel was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize (2011) and the Wole Soyinka African Literature Award (2012). She has recently co-authored a memoir of the spiritual wilderness guide, Sicelo Mbatha (Black Lion: Alive in the Wilderness, Jonathan Ball, 2021). Her short fiction has received a Commonwealth Prize nomination and has been published in anthologies in South Africa, Canada, and the United Kingdom.
BY KRIS VAN DER BIJL
This conversation took place in South Africa, via email.
Kris: Your novel, Eye Brother Horn, begins with an epigraph of descriptions by indigenous people of the first white men to visit Zululand. They come from the diary of the English traveler Henry Francis Fynn, but they are not exactly his words. They are transcriptions of the indigenous people’s own thoughts by Fynn, and he is the kind of outsider being addressed. Without even touching on the content, one is drawn to writing (and thinking) for another. Perhaps we can start our conversation with this beginning. What led you to write about these thoughts from people in Southern Africa’s past?
Bridget: South Africa is a highly contested society, with many people crafting different narratives to explain themselves to themselves, to account for who they are and how they got here. Our stories about ourselves present a fractured image of our past and present, and perhaps one can only approach a true understanding of who we are by contemplating the diversity of this shifting kaleidoscope of self- and other-representation. In her book reflecting on “the possibility of life in the capitalist ruins,” Anna Tsing speaks about “contaminated diversities”, about how these can only be told through a “rush of troubled stories”. I love that phrase because it so beautifully encapsulates the slippery complexity of history in a society such as ours. For this novel I drew heavily on diaries, including that of Henry Francis Fynn, because it is in these diaries that we find the stories that people tell themselves to try to make sense of who they are, where they are, and what they were doing in a land so alien to them. And how they find the moral justification (or not) to be part of a colonization project that is so intrinsically unjust.
Kris: I suppose your narrative framework—having the novel focalised through two twins—feeds into this kaleidoscope. Daniel and Moses, white and black respectively, struggle to make sense of who they are in the landscapes that they occupy together. These landscapes are occupied by human and non-human beings, and they do verbalize their existences throughout your novel. Whether it is through the pain that Daniel feels while hunting, or through the background bird-song, there is definitely a sense of numerous beings populating this text. Numerous stakes come with this. Considering your other works alongside this text, can I say that the past’s influence on the present is something that you’re interested in writing?
“I believe that it’s valuable to understand the historical roots of this system, and to understand that it is not the presence of humans that threatens the planet, but an economic system which disproportionately benefits a small group while causing massive destruction.“
Bridget: This is the first time I have written a historical novel. But the older I get, the more I realise that our past lives with us, whether it’s your personal history, the history of a nation, global history, or the history of existence. History has so much to teach us, and we ignore its lessons at our peril. Before we had writing, insights gained from the past were told and retold through myths and fables. Perhaps novels are a contemporary way to keep alive stories of the past, and to reflect on what the past can tell us about the present. The way you tell a story tells as much as what the story is, hence a historical novel written by a contemporary author offers different insights from a novel written in that period of history.
Kris: It seems to return to the idea of connections. Our present (whatever this may mean) is connected to our past. Our futures are in part determined by them. It feels natural, then, for Daniel’s connection to the rhino to eventually come into the light later on in his life. Despite how much some of the adults try, this is not something that can be kept. History, excuse the cliche, always prevails. But there is a slight difference with your text. You include an animal in this cliche. Might this also be something done by contemporary authors?
Bridget: There have been historical texts that explore connections with animals; Moby Dick and White Fang are obvious examples. But I think that the challenges of our time compel contemporary authors to explore this connection more consciously. We live in an era where most humans are alienated from the natural world by technology and urbanization. Connection with animals which are domestic pets and entirely dependent on us is materially different from connection with wild animals, particularly with dangerous animals which could kill us if they chose to. Our alienation, and an arrogant mindset that decrees that nature’s only purpose is to serve us, has contributed to creating a consumerist lifestyle which threatens to destroy the planet. We are beginning to understand the costs of this environmentally, but I think people are also recognising that we have a deep spiritual and emotional need for connection with wild animals.
Kris: Part of your novel suggests that colonialism played a role in this alienation, which is true. It is Sir Roland who is receiving the immediate economic benefits of his sugar farm. His wealth comes with a certain attitude towards nature. It might tell us what he sees nature as. One can say that it is not just the land. It is also how he views the indigenous inhabitants. Moses really suffers from Sir Roland’s biases. These are undoubtedly biases that still affect how Southern Africa views land, and the people inhabiting it. This, too, is perhaps a connection that we need to see.
Bridget: Colonialism played a major part, but colonialism itself was driven by a worldview that seeks to commodify every living thing—human, plant and animal—as well as mineral resources. This worldview enabled and was strengthened by capitalism and colonial expansion. There are strong economic drivers, but also spiritual ones, going back perhaps to the eradication of paganism by Christian authorities in Europe and beyond. The missionaries were resolved to sever any spiritual connections to land. Colonialism enabled a particularly aggressive form of alienation from the land, because the settlers came without any of the attachments they might have had to the plants and animals in their home country. And indigenous people were dispossessed and removed from their ancestral lands. What is of particular contemporary relevance is how this is playing out in post colonial Africa, where local communities are often pitted against mining companies or oil companies (foreign owned but with vested interests held by local business and government) which are destroying their lands, forests, and waters. We’ve seen this in the Niger Delta and in South Africa, as well as other countries.
Kris: Perhaps we can talk more about what you mention about missionaries here, particularly about how Reverend Whitaker fits into this role. Although he plays his part in what the novel suggests about the colonial project, he is not the worst player. He certainly does not treat Moses with the same level of physical brutality as others. He places, at least in my reading, more pressure on his spiritual connections. Reverend Whitaker does “sever any spiritual connections” that Moses might possess towards the land and towards his own culture. He also encourages Moses to be some kind of spiritual savior. From a young age, Moses is encouraged to grow up to become a priest that can help the missionaries in their project. It’s almost like Moses is being brought up to be a one-sided, the colonially-beneficial side, version of his biblical namesake.
Bridget: I was fascinated by the accounts and diaries of the missionaries, because there was such a range in attitudes. Some, like Bishop Colenso, began to doubt aspects of Christian dogma, and to champion the cause of the Zulu against colonial oppression to the point of being ex-communicated by some clergy in the South African Anglican church. Some missionaries went to great lengths to understand local languages, cultural practices and beliefs; others were dismissive and disrespectful, and believed that eradicating these was essential for the spread of Christianity. Unlike Sir Roland, I think Reverend Whitaker does love Moses, and believes that his only chance to escape damnation is to repudiate all connections to his birth culture. But this belief itself is steeped in Western arrogance. Missionaries were also under pressure from the authorities to supply subjects who were compliant with British authority and willing to labor for the colony for little reward.
Kris: Beliefs “steeped in Western arrogance” certainly left their mark. It goes without saying that they are still felt today. I suppose, if anything, Eye Brother Horn reminds us that what happened in the past is still relevant today.
Bridget: They are still felt today, so much so that scientists and economists have named our current era the Capitalocene — a distinct geological epoch in which the capitalist formula of commodification and consumption of natural resources has degraded the planet’s biophysical environment to the point of threatening the ongoing survival of humanity. I believe that it’s valuable to understand the historical roots of this system, and to understand that it is not the presence of humans that threatens the planet, but an economic system which disproportionately benefits a small group while causing massive destruction. If we don’t understand this and shift this socio-economic system, we will keep perpetuating social injustice and environmental catastrophe.
Kris Van der Bijl is currently reading for a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. His interests lie in African Literature in English. He writes short stories, poetry, book reviews and interviews. His writings have been published in the likes of Brittle Paper, LitNet, Lucky Jefferson and JA Magazine. He hopes to one day be called up-and-coming.