In the lead up to its launch, we caught up with South African author Eben Venter to have a chat about his dark discussion of masculinity, Wolf, Wolf. The protagonist, Mattheüs Duiker has plans for a take-away restaurant near his home in Cape Town, South Africa, that will set him up for life. It won’t just provide him with financial stability, but it will hopefully cement the respect from his father that he’s unwittingly sought all his life. His father’s identity is steeped in leather furniture, bloody steaks and old whiskey, whereas Mattheüs spends his nights in the comfort of Internet pornography. Even on his deathbed, Pa never could reconcile his religious convictions with Mattie’s homosexuality, and Wolf, Wolf leaves the reader to contemplate society’s proclivity for destructive and reductive bigotry. Wolf, Wolf is tense, insightful and raw.
Thank you for giving me something very unexpected in Wolf, Wolf. I normally read a lot of fluffy stories, so this was much more hard-hitting than I’m used to, but I certainly feel richer for having experienced it.
Thank you! [laughs] I guess it’s not too fluffy, this one.
Now this is one of the first few of yours to be published in English-
It’s actually my third novel that’s been published in English, but my first to be published here in Australia, and in the UK.
Many of the themes are universal; pornography addiction, homophobia, inter-generational disconnect – in publishing Wolf, Wolf here and in the UK what did you hope to capture of the experience of South Africa, specifically?
First of all, I situated the story in an urban environment: Cape Town, very much a city of the late 20th century and early 21st century and I did think, as well, that these themes that I wrote about in my book were universal, even though the setting was Cape Town. The themes you’ve mentioned are universal, but I especially wanted to capture the father-child relationship. I think that aspect of Wolf, Wolf is something that a lot of people relate to, and it’s often a very complex relationship, and one that I wanted to explore.
Certainly. After reading Wolf, Wolf, I was prompted to get on the phone to talk with my own father.
I hope that these motifs will also address readers here in Australia, and I think they will to a certain extent. I’ve spoken to readers here and they seem to be drawn to the depiction of the father-son relationship.
Are you worried that because of homophobia, Wolf, Wolf will be relegated to “gay fiction”, rather than just “fiction”?
Yeah, I wouldn’t like that. I think a good book is a good book, and it shouldn’t be tagged and affixed with a certain category or label. If people want to read it as a gay or queer novel, then it’s up to them. Once you’ve written your book, and it’s been published, it becomes anyone’s right to make it into whatever they want to, but I think, at least certainly in South Africa, where it’s received a very wide distribution amongst a varied readership, which I’ve built up over many years, certainly there were gay women and men who read it, but also straight people. The feedback I received from all these people was good – many said that it moved them, even if it made them uncomfortable. I think that’s an aspect to my writing. It makes people uncomfortable.
It’s very visceral. It’s very in-your-face. It captured wonderfully the experience of being a young person, with a constant connection to social media. I loved the way you expressed how a pornography addiction can manifest in the same way as a drug addiction.
Yeah, it can be like that. I did a lot of research, especially from this one guy called Norman Doidge, and he just happens to be in Australia at the moment. He wrote a book on the plasticity of the brain, and there is a section in that book on how a segment of the brain slowly changes when a person obsessively watches pornography. I tried to bring that into the open by writing about it in the most detailed and visceral fashion that I could. Then, of course, because the brain has this plasticity, it can also change back. It’s not fixed.
And so you think this is something that should be talked about more in the public sphere?
Yeah, I think so. Why not? Everybody either watches, has watched or has stumbled across a porn site, but they don’t – especially in South Africa where people are generally a little bit more conservative – people don’t acknowledge it, you know? So why not talk about it? I feel that this is the first time that porn has been written about so openly, in such a fashion in a novel.
You’ve worked as a cook, like Mattheüs, and you’ve also had a lot to do with schools and universities, like Jack. How much of the characters’ experiences are autobiographical?
I always draw on my own life experiences and I keep journals. I write down things that I’ve witnessed or things that I’ve experienced myself – for example, my own experience with pornography. Over the years I’ve made notes about that. And so I use that in building a character, and then of course you fictionalise, you add and you subtract, and notes that I’ve made on myself, and maybe three other people are combined, and then it’s all worked into one character. And that’s how I work.
It seems like the problematic cultural manifestations of “masculinity” are key to a lot of the grief in Wolf, Wolf. Do you personally see a way forward in this area?
In Australia, a lot of men are gay, or married with children, or single, and they’ve become emancipated and free and easy and open about themselves and about their emotions and about being physical with other men or with their sons without it necessarily being sexual. I’ve seen and experienced these men in South Africa as well, but because I don’t live there permanently, I don’t have that constant opportunity to observe. I think men are moving on, or at least some men. I do frown upon some men in politics at the moment, but I won’t mention names [laughs].
Your next novel is going to be written in English. Does that uproot your brain, slightly? Does it make your writing different?
I’m actually busy with that right now. I think it does make my writing different. I like words. I studied classical languages at university, so I constantly go back to the root of a word. Say, for instance, “bugger”, which is a word I looked up this morning, which comes from the Old French, “bougre”, so when I compose or write my story now in English, it is like a new exploration of the English language for me. I did it with Afrikaans, and now I’ll do it with English. My text will probably look different from that of a person whose mother tongue is English, but I hope that it will take on its own character, and in that way be interesting for the reader.
In Wolf, Wolf, Benjamin’s bigotry is more obvious, whereas that of Jack and Mattheüs seems more subtle. You hint at a wealth-based elitism in Mattheüs, and Jack doesn’t hold anything back in his public conversations on social media. What do you see as the form of bigotry that might be a problem for a younger generation?
Younger people might not understand the religious context of Benjamin’s ideas. He subscribes to a whole lot of very lofty moral principles. When his will is read, that’s when his son Matt, to his great surprise and disappointment, discovers that his father went for these moral principles instead of love. I don’t know if people who grew up completely non-religious will understand as easily as people who did grow up in a similar religious context.
Here at Pop Culture-y, we’re a pop culture website and we love talking about the latest books, movies, plays and comics. What media do you consume, and what media would you like to make people aware of?
I actually like graphic novels very much. I would like to see one of my books turned into a graphic novel. They can be beautiful sometimes, combining art and text. I still like the printed novel. I don’t have a Kindle. Wolf, Wolf has been printed in the UK as a physical copy, and the whole book has been so beautifully produced, with the ochre cover on the outside and the pink inner sleeves. I don’t think you can get such a beautifully produced product with a lot of detail paid to every single aspect of it – the colour of the paper, the typeface, and the tiny little wolf icons that separate one chapter from the next – on a Kindle. I don’t think you can ever get that same detail on a digital copy. It’s a bit like the old LP sleeves, which were beautifully produced. If you think of Sticky Fingers, by the Rolling Stones. That cover was designed by Andy Warhol, I mean it was a total work of art, the whole product. It’s remembered by you and me to this day, whereas a digital track or album that’s released on the Internet couldn’t possibly have that echo.
Definitely. My books are my prized possessions.
Yeah. And since digital books have come about there has been a new impetus to produce the most beautiful books possible. Every year, at the end of the year, The New York Times releases the 10 most beautiful covers of the year, so there is that appreciation that continues in spite of our digital age.
I found it interesting that even though Benjamin didn’t read, he saw books as important, and also important to collect.
Yeah, yeah. It was kind of like a status symbol for him.
Thank you so much for taking time out to chat with me.
It’s a pleasure.
Wolf, Wolf was originally published in Afrikaans in 2013. It was released in English by Scribe Publications on the 28th of January, 2015 in the UK and Australia.