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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Diane Awerbuck, author of Cabin Fever and other stories, in conversation with Janet van Eeden

Diane Awerbuck - 2011-08-24

Untitled Document

Title: Cabin Fever and other stories
Author: Diane Awerbuck
Publisher: Umuzi
ISBN: 9781415201114

Short Review by Janet van Eeden

It’s no secret that I love the short-story genre. Nothing is more satisfying to me than being able to read a story from start to finish in one sitting. So it was with relish that I picked up this collection from award-winning writer Diane Awerbuck. I wasn’t disappointed.

The stories are set mostly in and around Cape Town, and Awerbuck uses a glitteringly bright precision to dissect her characters’ lives. They come from all walks of life, but each is given the same incisive treatment as their motivations and aspirations are probed by the author’s scalpel-sharp pen. Even the dream-like depths of the subconscious are exposed, as in “Mami Wata”, where a young woman’s fears about her partner’s fidelity are given monstrous form.

Awerbuck’s subject matter ranges far and wide. A romantic encounter on the steps of the Baxter Theatre exposes the deep need between two potential lovers; a pregnant woman contemplates her life with and without her drug-addict partner; a drunken stag night has consequences for a Kimberley wedding; a lonely librarian searches for meaning in her alienating neighbourhood; an aging twin brother and sister find eternal peace together in a visit to a morbid memorial.

The story which I found the most profound was “The Extra Lesson”. Awerbuck takes an unflinching look at an unfortunate American trend: the school shooting. In this story she examines the events from a teacher’s point of view in a school which could be anywhere. She depicts with masterly precision the pathos of the children caught in the crossfire and comes to grips with the mindset of the potential killers. This story dissects some of the dynamics involved in such a terrifying event. What intrigued me most was how the teacher/narrator uses a brief connection with one of the shooters during an extra lesson in the past to establish some sort of purchase with him in the present crisis. Awerbuck seems to say that youngsters driven to seek vendettas against their schoolmates are searching for affirmation of some kind. In this story, one of the characters gets the recognition he’s longing for and is appeased in a small way. It raises the question, “Who is the real victim in these incidents?”. “The Extra Lesson” is the most chilling story in this collection.

Awerbuck is a consummate story-teller with an unflinching eye for the minutiae which make up everyday life. Adding each precise detail to build up her palette, she paints the landscapes of her characters with hyperrealism. This collection is worthy of standing alongside the masters of the short-story genre and is deserving of international acclaim. 

  • A shortened version of this review first appeared in The Witness.


Q&A with Diane Awerbuck

Diane, it was such a pleasure to be introduced to your writing in this collection of short stories in Cabin Fever. I haven’t read your award-winning Gardening at Night yet, but I’ll make a point of reading it soon. Please could you tell the readers of LitNet whether you have always been a writer and when it was that you knew that writing was meant to be your vocation?

I think writers have a kind of inherent, long-term potential that’s released by some more immediate spark. It can be desperation; it can be frustration. Of course, tragedy differs – some of us suffer acne as teenagers; some of us must cross the continent with our dying children. The point is that an event or realisation sparks the urge to purge through words. Whether those words should be published is another matter altogether.

I am a teacher rather than a writer, but both professions are about the love of books. I taught high school history and English, and will probably go back to it. The Cabin Fever stories set in schools were generated by real events ... although I’m claiming poetic licence.

Very few writers can afford to make their talent their profession. Most of us have day jobs. We overwrite, edit, teach, assess, review. My own writing is a luxury, an aside.

I love the fact that your stories cover a vast range of subjects. There is no predicting what topic the next one will cover. Could you explain how you find your stories? Do you search for ideas actively or do they come upon you when you least expect them?

I get a lot of my direct dialogue from newspapers. There’s a consummate weirdness in humans that you can’t really imagine. I’m a pretty lazy writer. I have trouble populating entire universes in the way that someone like Lauren Beukes can. I tend just to expand on the existing conditions.

In general, writers have a lot going on in the subconscious, even while they’re washing dishes or pacing the floor with a teething baby. Things happen backstage; the messages twitch at the curtain when you’re ready to work with them.

I see that you are working on a new novel. Do you have a favourite between the genre of short stories and that of novels? Could you tell me what it is that appeals to you about each genre and how you approach the different mediums?

Short stories are sonnets – balanced, precise, revelatory. Novels have more room to manoeuvre, but are flabbier and less interesting stylistically as a result. They’re also more of an emotional investment in terms of the amount of thinking time you have to dedicate to them.

I prefer the hundred-metre dash, myself. I’m not built for endurance. Having said that, I’m in the process of warming up for another novel. Wish me luck.

The bio on the back of the novel states that you are a teacher of aesthetics, history and English. Where do you teach and how does teaching feed into your writing? 

I was at Rustenburg High School for Girls in Cape Town, Cedar House, and the film school AFDA.

The kids just provide this great feedback. They force me to reconsider what I think I know, and why. I like that challenge, and I like the fact that I can pass on some kind of love of ideas. That appreciation of what it means to be human gets very thin on the ground these days – not just in South Africa, but wherever materialism is celebrated as achievement and an end in itself.

Obviously, “Dead Poets moments” are few. Mostly teaching is about finding new and interesting ways to chew through appalling set texts and the rules of grammar while the lions growl and you crack the whip. But this discipline helps people in other ways too.

I was intrigued to read that the title of your PhD is “The Spirit and the Letter: Trauma, Warblogs and the Public Sphere”. This thesis will cover fascinating ground. Is the PhD in English or a marriage of English and history? Could you tell me about the inspiration for this title? And I’m intrigued to see that you are examining warblogs. Are these a modern phenomenon and which wars in particular do these cover?

Warblogs are obviously internet-based; they emerged in the first war in Iraq in the early nineties.

I looked at the civilian narratives coming out of Lebanon during the conflict with Israel in 2006. It was triggered by a course at UCT, “Narrative, Trauma and Forgiveness”, run by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and Chris van der Merwe, two awe-inspiring writers and teachers. The thesis was in the School of Languages and Literatures, but dabbled in psychology and “new” media. I fell into it after reading a few of the blogs and thought that they said far more important things to me than any mainstream reportage. The bloggers were conducting their own narrative therapy: I’m calling it the katabatic (descent-and-return) journey, based on more literary antecedents. I’m currently converting the doctorate into readable form for the publishers.

In terms of the title, the spirit of a thing is its general intention; the letter is its literal denotation. The blogs, of course, are also letters. The communications leave a kind of ghostly trail in the ether of the blogosphere. They are evidence of the esprit de corps of the people who wrote them. I like a good quadruple pun.

One of the stories I found the most compelling was “The Extra Lesson”. I’ve been intrigued by the phenomenon of school shootings for some time and watched films such as Bowling for Columbine and read Jodi Picoult’s novel Nineteen Minutes with great interest. What I wondered was whether you saw such occurrences as being essentially society’s fault, either by allowing bullies to dominate certain children in class situations or by overlooking the needs of these same youngsters through a lack of some sort in their social situations?  

One thing that has been brought home to me very strongly is that looking for reasons is pointless. It happens: young, violent men will always be with us. The only way to fight this properly is to get more disciplined about child-rearing and citizenship, and by that I mean a rethink about parenting, the maintenance of decent schools and then compulsory travel and community service after that. A few months in an African refugee camp would go a long way towards giving the spoiled offspring of inept parents a look at what real suffering is. There’s a real yearning for leadership, for order, for responsibility and self-respect.
I read that you are working on a new novel. Would you like to give the readers of LitNet some idea of what the novel is about and when we can expect to see it on the shelves?

I’m working on a novel about Saartjie Baartman – specifically, her revenge. She’s been forced into every needy, greedy, New-Age niche there is: everyone wants to own her in the guise of “giving her a voice”. I want to investigate this greed, this need, this irony. The novel is due out in 2012.