“I had no doubt, from a much earlier age than my first publication, that I was a writer,” says Damon Galgut. The Booker Prize-winning author of The Promise is 58, but published his first novel, A Sinless Season, at just 17. “I think it was the third or fourth novel I’d written at that point,” he says. “The others were truly dire, and not publishable, but I was very determined.”
We’re chatting by video call between wintry London and the much warmer climes of Cape Town, where the South African is in a tee-shirt in a small room surrounded by CDs. Winning the award is having a huge impact on his day-to-day life, he admits: “I’m used to spending many, many hours on my own." Being in demand has made that impossible. "Writers need a lot of empty time.”
Galgut’s Booker win comes after being twice previously nominated, for The Good Doctor (2003) and 2010’s In a Strange Room. And now, “my very limited ambition in the next year or two is simply to write another book – that feels incredibly daunting in itself.” He has accepted “or become resigned”, he notes, “to the fact that I’m a slower writer than most.”
“It’s not that I'm being inactive,” he adds. “A lot of the time, I’m starting books that peter out, trying ideas out that just don’t fit. There’s a lot of frustration and lost energy in my attempts to get going on new projects.”
As a gay man, he recalls it as suffocatingly conservative, “extremely pious, judgmental, hypocritical, and violent. “The ideological underpinnings of apartheid were very closely connected to a Calvinist mindset,” he says. “We were told when I was growing up that if the white nationalist government in Pretoria fell, and we had majority rule in this country, that basically we were the last Christian bastion in Africa, and once that was swept away, the West would fold. So we were standing between Russia and the fall of the West. It sounds absolutely ridiculous in retrospect…”
Galgut was 12 at the time of the Soweto Uprising in 1976, when 20,000 students protested against the imposition of the Afrikaans language in schools by the ruling National Party. Hundreds of protesters were killed by the police. Yet what was happening filtered through only as a sense of fear from the adults around him. “At school, we were taught drills about how to hide under the desks in case of attack. But no one was really clear about where it could be coming from, not amongst the children,” he says. “It was really in the last years of my high school, the two years that I was conscripted into the military, and then most particularly in my university years, that some kind of political conscience and awareness came to the full with me.”
He took part in university protests, and recalls being “hit over the head with a quirt [a whiplike baton] by riot police. I ran for what felt like my life, though I don’t think they would have ever taken the lives of white kids… I think by my early 20s, I was quite aware of the inverted world that I belonged to.”
This seeps into The Promise. Galgut employs a dazzling multi-perspective narrative voice, which shifts sublimely from third to first person, viewing the world of the novel from any angle, through the eyes of its characters, alive or dead or unconscious, human or animal. Galgut had the idea while working on a film script to mirror the mobile way that a camera can be used to tell a story, but he takes it much further.
Yet that inverted world shows itself in the way that the narration deliberately avoids the perspective of Salome, and the fact that the younger Swart daughter, Amor, becomes invisible when “the promise” – or at least her memory of it – is made by her father to her dying mother: “I was like a Black woman to them.”
It’s a theme that chimes with Galgut’s Booker acceptance speech in which he talked about it being a great year for African writing and how he’d like to accept the award on behalf of “all the stories told and untold, the writers heard and unheard from the remarkable continent that I’m part of”.
That sense of the untold and unheard is significant. Galgut was joined on the Booker shortlist by the Somali-born novelist Nadifa Mohamed, for The Fortune Men, while the Nobel Prize for Literature went to Tanzanian-born Abdulrazak Gurnah, yet both are British citizens, living and working in the UK. Galgut, who has given writing workshops in various countries in Africa, thinks there is much work still to be done. “I was hoping to crystallise thinking a little bit around the idea that African writing is worth paying attention to, because clearly there is an innate resistance in western publishing to African stories.” It shouldn’t be an obligation, he adds. “Africa should be providing it, for its own writers, and we fail rather miserably in that respect.”
Does being a South African writer feel freighted with the burden of being a novelist in momentous times? “There is a certain weight of expectation placed on you by history,” Galgut says, quoting William Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
I wonder what he makes of the rise of radical left-wing politician Julius Malema, whose Economic Freedom Fighters advocate the nationalisation of all South African land, banks and mineral rights. They continue to make electoral progress (winning just over 10 per cent of the vote in the 2019 general election), and Malema, as Ariel Levy wrote in The New Yorker, has said: “We are not calling for the slaughtering of white people, at least for now… But, white minority, be warned: we will take our land – it doesn’t matter how.”
“I find him an alarming figure, but probably an inevitable one,” Galgut says. “They do have a political vision, in the sense that what they’re proposing would put all South Africans on an equal footing, if all land was nationalised… We would all overnight be reduced to a kind of equality, but it may be an equality of hopelessness… Our economy is halfway wrecked, but I think the EFF coming to power would probably wreck it very, very fast and maybe permanently.”
For now, there is at least the relief of living in a country that is “hugely more welcoming” to its LGBT community, he says, although “I’m living in an area where people don’t look twice at two people of the same gender holding hands in the street. But you need only travel about 20 kilometres to a different part of Cape Town where if you behave in that way, you’re still quite likely to be killed. Society lags behind the laws here. It always does. So we’re still in a process of transformation.”
He’s been single “for a very long time, quite consciously,” he says. “I think if I had to meet someone now that I actually wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I may not have the ability to do so, I’m so sort of entrenched in my own selfish habits that I think it would be hard to remodel myself.”
They include his reading habits. “I read all the time, pretty much. A lot of my reading seems to get done in the small hours, as I suffer a fair bit of insomnia.
“I am always amazed by students who aren’t interested in reading but think they can write. I mean, why would you even want to be doing this, if you’re not obsessed with the results? I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think books are the most marvellous things in the world.”
After his teenage interest in Tolkien and Agatha Christie, he says, “My excitement in reading really got stirred in my late teens, and early twenties. J.M. Coetzee was a fairly explosive mental encounter for me. William Faulkner was a very powerful influence. I loved Patrick White’s writing, I still do. Samuel Beckett was also another writer who kind of took the top of my head off when I first ran into him.” He does have a confession, though. “Some of the books that have excited me most I’m afraid to go back and reread, in case they excite me less.” He generally reads “retrospectively”, allowing “the dust to settle” a little, to escape the buzz around new books that makes it hard to “separate exaggerated praise from truly objective accomplishments”.
He believes novels will survive the impact of YouTube, TikTok and Twitter. “Modern technology is providing alternative forms of storytelling, which clearly are arresting the attention. But still, storytelling in the form of language, especially language used well, offers pleasures that other forms of storytelling don’t. So I have faith that novels will survive.
“One of the deep pleasures of reading is that it pushes back against the shortening of concentration, and allows you to immerse yourself in the much deeper, more challenging experience of having to concentrate, invest your brain for a much longer period of time. There are rewards in that which other things just don’t offer.”