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Crime Beat

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Diale Tlholwe between two worlds

Towards the end of last year Diale Tlholwe hit the crime fiction scene with his private investigator Thabang Maje being drawn into some mysterious goings-on in a remote village. His book Ancient Rites (Kwela) was well received and in May he’ll be among the crime writers featured at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. Somewhat belatedly we have to admit, but some of the delay is due to a snailmail situation, Crime Beat caught up with Tlholwe for a chat.

Crime Beat: Ancient Rites starts with a jaded urban PI Thabang Maje heading for the deep rural areas. Why did you decided to set the story in a timeless landscape among people with strong ties to the land and the past?

Diale Tlholwe: The setting was not really planned. Thabang Maje was merely supposed to stay only a day or two in the rural areas but while writing new ideas surfaced as I remembered the two years I had spent in a place very much like Marakong. I also felt that such places and people are rarely represented in our literature. The jaded urbanized detective seemed like the perfect person to go there. Like many urban people who are rootless the rural areas are attractive and tempting. Many urban people have this yearning for them and look at them maybe too romantically as places that may renew them.

I suppose that is why we have this situation where rural people are flocking to the cities while city born and bred people are dreaming of settling in the rural areas and are building homes there. This is where the missing teacher comes in. Her attachment to the land and the old traditions is what is also fascinating about a lot of people in this country though it is something very rarely spoken about though most people both in the rural areas and the cities have the same attachments. The contrast between the rural folk and Thabang also appealed to me. The seeming fatalism of the rural folk and Thabang’s refusal to leave matters alone. Also his reluctance to believe in what the villagers believed in. I’ve been always interested in the people who after centuries of ridicule and even persecution by the colonialists and even by their own have never abandoned the old beliefs or traditions. And the fact that many are highly educated well read and well traveled. And those who are ‘coming out of the closet’ so to speak.

The next thing was the constant ambivalence of many people regarding religion. The way most people have one foot in one culture and another foot in a different culture I think leads to interesting possibilities in writing crime fiction. I thought Thabang fitted this picture perfectly of the typical urbanized person who is however not sure of the truth of these matters. While he often ridicules them he does not dismiss them altogether. The setting is also unchanging while the city bred Thabang is a product of the ever changing city. The patience of the rural folk is also indicative of the ancient landscape that has remained almost unchanged over a very long time. On the other hand Thabang is filled with the city impatience to get things done.

Crime Beat: There is much in Ancient Rites which is new to the typical SA crime novel in English. There’s the setting for one thing, the sense of a supernatural world for another. In fact the book’s reality seems to slip between the ‘real’ world and the world of the ‘spirits’. It’s a fascinating theme, what led you to it?

Diale Tlholwe: The supernatural is always with us in this country. It does not matter what the particular religion someone professes in many situation one is often confronted with this ‘slip’.

Between the ‘real’ world and the world of ‘spirits’. I suppose the person who one said that sometimes the theme of your novel chooses you was right. I have been deeply interested in traditional belief systems for some time now – but not in a sustained or systematic way.

So it was natural for me to try and explore this theme. I had not started out to make it central in the novel but as I was writing it somehow became important and I ran with it. The memories of that time I had spent in the rural areas came vividly back to me. I remembered attending some of these ceremonies. Things that I had thought I had forgotten were back with me once again and had a meaning they had not had when they were actually happening all those years ago. References to this tradition were suddenly on all sides of me. It seemed as if I could not get away from it. It was the old story of you getting diabetes and suddenly everyone you know has suffered from diabetes or had been cured of it or had died of it. So in a way the book wrote itself.

Crime Beat: Thabang is a man of the city. In the village he is without any reference points. He is a man facing an illogical would. You clearly wanted this contrast?

Diale Tlholwe: I wanted this contrast because it brings out clearly the contrast between the old and the modern. It also challenges Thabang’s own preconceptions and prejudices about this illogical world. He slowly appreciates that he has got to look at this illogical world according to its own terms instead of imposing his own points of reference on it. The rural folk have also got to realize that they also have to face the outside world eventually. The question is how to harmonize the two worlds or even if this is possible and desirable. The arguments are still raging on these things.

Crime Beat: There is an intriguing passage towards the end of the novel that is as much about language as it is about Thabang and our justice system. In fact it seems to summarise most of the books themes.
I held my gun in both hands and positioned my feet firmly on the ground. ‘Why, Mogae?’ I asked him. ‘She let you go.’
‘She…was…always…a lying…proud bitch.’
That was all I really needed. Even as I raised the gun I wondered why his last words sounded so much worse in English. Maybe if he had said it in Setswana I might have let him take his chances with a judge. Maybe.
I shot him twice in the chest, then I sat on a cold rock and waited for him to die. I looked into his confused eyes and debated with his diminishing soul the problems and paradoxes of good and evil, of loss and alienation, the pain of a possible rebirth and the burden of a threatened immortality. Then, when they lost their puzzlement and froze in the certainty of death, I stood up and left him lying there.

Firstly, you’ve written in English but no doubt would rather have written in Setswana. Secondly, Thabang has no hesitation in acting as judge and executioner. Do you feel the judicial system is out of place in some situations in South Africa? Or do you feel that the judicial system isn’t coping?

And finally, the passage says much about Thabang and our reaction to him. He has shot a man – albeit a man deserving punishment – yet it doesn’t diminish his humanity. In fact it leads him to contemplate the meaning and complexity of life. Was this a crucial scene for you?

Diale Tlholwe: I wondered if anyone would notice this. Yes, I would have liked to have it in Setswana. But the difficulties are many. I have been told the books in African languages are not popular and are difficult to get them published. One problem in writing in English is the difficulty of translation. Some very fine expressions can’t be put in English successfully without an active imagination. The other problems are those regarding the language purists who scare many people from using their own languages. What we need are more editors who can help out here. Editors who will live in the book and not simply look for the easiest, but sterile direct translation. I saw this with Ancient Rites when Setswana experts wanted to explain some of the expressions and words with flat unimaginative English substitutes when there were livelier alternatives. Hopefully things will change one day before its too late.

The judicial system in South Africa quite honestly perplexes a lot of people. It is as someone said a roll of the dice. It is a lengthy expensive process in which anything can happen. That I suppose is why so many complaints are never laid and a lot of disputes are sorted out independently of the judiciary. However Thabang surprised me.

This was indeed a crucial scene for me. Thabang has to live with himself afterwards. I don’t see him as someone who could just let this killing drift away without giving it some serious thought. What those thoughts are determines who he is and what has happened to him since arriving at this place. He might have laughed and boasted about it to everyone including Lesego.

Crime Beat: Are you working on another crime novel and will we be seeing more of Thabang?

Diale Tlholwe: I am busy working on another novel and yes Thabang will be in it. I had thought of giving him a rest but I then felt that he had been launched and with a proper story in his own urban environment he can go farther. People who have read the book liked him though some are angry with him for not saving Mamo’s life.


Recent comments:

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    April 6th, 2009 @18:30 #

    Bump! Interview with Diale Thlolwe here!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    April 6th, 2009 @18:37 #

    This is a fascinating interview, but it really should come with a spoiler warning for those of us who might still want to read the book!

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    April 6th, 2009 @20:51 #

    Read this at the start of the day from hell, but didn't have time for an intelligent comment (I had cracked a molar and was up early begging my dentist's receptionist for an emergency appointment). Fiona is right about the spoiler! But I loved reading this piece, and getting inside Diale's head for a little.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Mike Nicol</a>
    Mike Nicol
    April 7th, 2009 @06:59 #

    Apologies for spoiling the plotline but the Crime Beat chats are about trying to get to grips with the books and that means not being too bothered about giving the game away. Can't win them all I guess.


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