An interview with Norma Kitson

by Richard Cumyn

Where Sixpence Lives, Norma Kitson's 1985 autobiography, reads like a finely crafted novel. Through her passionate eye we see everything there is to love and despise about her native land, South Africa. Her twenty-year struggle (1964-1984) to free her husband, human rights activist David Kitson, from a Pretoria jail is a model of endurance. Her road has been a hard one. Along it she has suffered family censure, the violent death of her sister, her own incarceration, attacks on her children, self-imposed exile in England, the long separation from her husband, and recently the serious illness of her son, Steven. Despite all this, she continued to work for and write about freedom -- freedom from oppression, want, ignorance -- with compassion and candid humour. It was a pleasure to correspond via email with Norma during the summer of 1997, I in Canada and she in Zimbabwe, and to ask her about her life and her writing. As you will read, she is generous and thoughtful in reply.

-- Richard Cumyn

Richard Cumyn: I would like to begin with a look at the genesis of the fiction writer, in particular the early influence of your father. In Where Sixpence Lives, you tell of his bedtime stories, thinly disguised fables about the struggle for freedom and equality in South Africa. How did these affect you as a budding storyteller?

Norma Kitson: My father was a laconic man who did not fit into the milieu of my mother's large omnipresent brash South African family. Looking back, I see that every spartan thing about him challenged the mores and values of the society we lived in. He was a nine-to-five worker all his life who never played the stock market and excluded himself from the hearty scotch-drinking circle of my eight uncles who speculated, imported, exported, discussed energetically what commodities were currently profitable to trade, constantly bemoaned the state of the labour market, acquired blocks of shares, diamonds and fur coats for their wives, flats, ranches and plots of ground and maintained a close, male-only conspiracy of rude jokes, business and, no doubt, women.

Everything about my father was gently posed against the gods of profit, appearances, racism, acquisition and privilege and he lived a simple, quiet, solitary life, as a non-practising homosexual, fitting very awkwardly into the role of father and family man. My parents divorced when we were young after which he became even more taciturn and reclusive.

He was a lonely intellectual (having had a classic education in Greek and Latin), given to odd, succinct remarks and asides rather than conversation. He was dark-skinned with black curly hair--there was always a query about his forebears from race-sensitive South Africans. Officially his family were said to be Sephardic Jews from Holland, but there are scores of Coloured (i.e. mixed-race) Crankos in South Africa. He had a library of Marxist literature, was a full-time voracious reader with an acute memory, a Bach, Tchaikowsky and opera lover, a leading yachtsman, a champion chess and bridge player. He had a dry, skewed humour and a broken laugh that told more of heartbreak than of jocularity.

I was named for his adored mother and perhaps this put him in a special relationship with me or it may have been because my mother said I resembled him and was forever bemoaning my looks--which did not meet her standards. Or perhaps it was because we shared the 18th of August--I was born on his 40th birthday.

I remember trailing or sitting behind him while he scraped down his yacht, polished his shoes, read his books--I even often watched him performing the terrifying ritual of his morning shave with a long-bladed cut-throat after which he would help me knot my convent tie--which he could do only by standing behind me, mimicking his own familiar tie-knotting twisting actions.

He had little child talk and was just as likely, in an aside, to ask me aged 5 or 6: 'Did you know the Greeks made an art of Rhetoric?' or to advise 'Don't get bogged down on who wrote Shakespeare.' He once said: 'Don't be fooled by idealised Utopia, will you?' I remember the words because 'idealised Utopia' sounded euphonic to my young ears and I remember repeating them, without the slightest understanding, in time to jumping with my skipping rope.

He would often come into the bedroom I shared with my sister, sit on my bed and weave wonderful stories. This was a side of him which was unusual but of course I accepted it as the norm as children do. The role of griot was so strange in such a man that I have never managed to fathom his purpose. He was not what you would call an affectionate man and certainly played no accepted fathering role with us, his four children.

He told stories mainly about liberation struggles, in Africa, India and Ireland. There were tales of Aborigines and criminals being sent from England to Australia. I was very young when I learned that wars were made for profit. I found, when I was older, that much Greek mythology was already known to me, and through his stories, he instilled into me a desire for democracy, justice and integrity. As my years unfolded I came to see that my father had passed a great deal of knowledge to me although I remember with little coherence any of his stories.

I ended up with strange bits and pieces of knowledge, for many years not knowing whether they were fact or fantasy, slowly realising that his stories were history, cleverly wrought lessons without a hint of pedagogy or lecturing. They affected my outlook on life, turned me into a fighter for freedom and justice against apartheid and, in my middle years, gave me the thought that perhaps I, too, like my strange infinitely knowledgeable father, could be a storyteller.

Cumyn: You have spent much of your life fighting for political causes. The battle to free your husband David from incarceration in South Africa dominated your life for twenty years. Is fiction writing a political act for you, an extension of the activist mode, or is something else happening when you sit down to write a story?

Kitson: When David was released from 20 years in jail, in 1984, he came to join me, Steven and Amandla in London. It was an incredibly hectic period. We were swamped with media requests, friends and people who wanted to meet David and he was asked to speak at meetings and on television programmes almost every day and night. One of us would accompany him. On one of these occasions I found myself in the quiet house and began writing the story of the gardener employed by my family in Bloemfontein when I was a child. (Jim was a highly educated black man who pretended to be dumb to keep his job. I found out about this when I was very small and kept his secret.) His story had always been in my mind somewhere and I think I always intended to write it. I was quite pleased with my work and sent it to my friend Professor Karl Miller, editor of The London Review of Books to get his opinion. After a couple of weeks I phoned him.

'What d'you want to DO with it?' he asked.

I was thrown into embarrassment, inadequacy and shame.

'I thought you could help me with commas or something.'

'Well,' he said, 'if you haven't already submitted it anywhere, we'd like to print it.'

Obviously I was stunned and thought it probably a fluke so that night I sat down and wrote 'Smoking', the story of my detention and sent it to him asking: 'Do you prefer this?'

He did and he published it with my photograph on the front cover of LRB (2 March 1985). I submitted 'Jim' to a short story competition run by five newspapers and won a prize. Both stories are in my autobiography.

I don't sit down to write political stories. Memories and their plots come and haunt me and I find the theme is usually racism. I found very early that if you tap a racist he/she feels aggression against everyone except their own kind. I suppose I was fascinated at one point to discover that racism wasn't just a white/black thing. In my family stories, Jews are racist against Jews (German, Polish, Russian--as well as against most other races and nations of course).

"I suppose I cannot separate my writing from my politics. I'm a better raconteur than writer and love telling my stories."

One of my earliest influences was Herman Charles Bosman. (I helped Lionel Abrahams by typing up his first collection from very old weekly newspapers) and I loved the way he wrote so subtly about his own people, the Afrikaners, and exposed so warmly and humourously the way racism was built into their bones. I haven't tried to emulate him -- he just got into my bones too.

Being a South African, racism and politics were the bread and butter of living. I find many stories dealing with 'I went to the beach. . . . we had a braai. . . .I met him at a party. . . ' etc, are really working very hard to dodge the issues that were really in front of the writer. Have you read Bryce Courtenay's The Power of One? Well, my latest effort is a textbook, Creative Writing -- a handbook which will be launched in August at the Zimbabwe International Bookfair. One could suppose that would have to be well away from my constant theme--but even that is full of anti-racist examples. I suppose I cannot separate my writing from my politics. I'm a better raconteur than writer and love telling my stories.

Cumyn: What about the negatives in life: grief, loss, exile, injustice? What role do painful feelings and circumstances play in your writing?

Kitson: When I was little I tagged along with my brother Ronnie's all-male roaring gang of 9-year-olds. Two years their junior, I was terrified of their knife fights, of spiders in the martingulu bushes, the fierce dogs in the houses they broke into to steal cokes from strange fridges and of the groups of drunken black men who gathered, drinking skokiaan, in Overport Drive. One day my brother said: 'You can't come along with us if you skitsy. You frightened of everything. Even when I take you to the bio. Anycase, the'blood' there's just tomato sauce.'

Not wanting to be banished from the only social life and excitement available, I had to practise not looking scared and was able, with some success, to stare blankly unconcerned while inside I was shaking and trembling with terror. This has always, I think, stood me in good stead.

During my incarceration under the 90-Day Law in solitary confinement at the Fort in Johannesburg, being interrogated by the Beast of Compol (Swanepoel): in all the 20 years of palpable fear for David's life and having to go through the routines of raising our two children, being broke in freezing London, the terrible murder of my beloved sister, and now, with my son ekeing out painfully the last few weeks of his life, I am able somehow, to don a public face, to appear normal and accomplish the daily round.

In my writing about the negatives in my life, I am unable properly to express this temporary emotional hiding--I am known as 'a tough cookie'--yet give full expression to it in private which is cathartic. In writing, I have unconsciously reached for threads of humour to give expression to the horrors. I do not like heavy drama laid on with a shovel. Yet that is how I feel. Life has shovelled me a tremendous overdose. I must have sinned in a past life or, in African tradition, be paying the debts of my forebears.

Cumyn: What advice do you give your students about using memories and depicting events which are heartbreaking?

Kitson: In writing workshops, I give four basic golden rules:

KISS--keep it short and simple.

DRY--don't repeat yourself.

SHOW, DON'T TELL--don't say 'she's pretty'. Tell us what you mean by pretty.

BE THERE. 'Be there' is the key to writing about memories and especially in depicting heartbreaking events. When writing about an event, I say, cast your mind back and recall it in detail. Relive the situation in your mind and build in all the components to make the writing immediate and believable. Sit or lie comfortably and recall an episode from your past.

Take time to 'see' the details in filmic images--as if on a television screen--what were the characters wearing. See the colours. Hear the words. Feel the feelings. What was the weather like? Was there music playing? Was it hot/cold?

Find your triggers to past memories.

I have a number of triggers. Whenever I see a building with pipes on the outside I flash back to my son--who has a very ready wit--and remember him saying: 'That's the colostomy school of architecture' and this memory will trigger a whole series of other incidents which happened during the 1960s. Whenever I listen to a story that begins 'Once upon a time ...' I flash back to my daughter, as a toddler, saying at the end of the stories she told me: 'And they lived happily ever after. And then they had a baby.'

Proust dipped a madeleine into his cup of tea and the gesture evoked for him detailed memories of his childhood (Remembrance of Things Past)

Doris Lessing says, in African Laughter: 'All writers know the state of trying to remember what actually happened, rather than what was invented, or half invented, a meld of truth and fiction. It is possible to remember, but only by sitting quietly for hours or sometimes for days, and dragging facts out of one's memory. That means thinking yourself back into that scene, that car, that bedroom. Thus you create parallel truths: what really happened, what did not happen.'

In fact, I would say, the key to good writing is being able to recall events, characters and images in detail and then use them in your fictions and autobiography. In the case of heartbreaking memories, this serves another important function: it is probably the best psychotherapy you'll ever get.

Read Norma Kitson's story in BMR

Her updated autobiography, Exiled, is also available online at

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