Authors, What are you reading right now?

“It’s simply immense in scope, character development, historical reconstruction, poetic sensibility, human empathy. I consider it a sort of secular Bible for the creative writer. It belongs to another era but it still speaks to us, to all fundamental weaknesses and strengths as human beings.” Which book am I talking about? You can discover it by reading my interview with the “well-seasoned librarian” Dean Jones, originally published in his ongoing series on Medium, the platform with 120 million curious readers.

Read the interview originally published on Medium here (with pictures) or here below:

Name: Arianna Dagnino

Author of: “The Afrikaner. A Novel” (Guernica Editions, Toronto, 2019); “Jesus Christ Cyberstar” (Ipoc, 2009); “Transcultural Writers and Novels in the Age of Global Mobility” (Purdue University Press, 2015)

Can you tell me about your latest book “The Afrikaner”?

In a nutshell, The Afrikaner is an on-the-road tale set in newly post-apartheid South Africa and in the Kalahari Desert in Namibia that covers the terrains of race, love, historical guilt, and the tensions of a society “lost in transition.” The book is inspired by the five years (1996–2000) I spent in the southern African region as an international reporter for the Italian press.

The main character, Zoe du Plassis, 33, is a young female scientist (paleontologist) of Afrikaner descent. A conflicted woman struggling with group guilt and a dark family secret, after a fatal accident Zoe embarks on a field expedition into the hot plains of the Kalahari Desert in search of early human fossils. Her journey of atonement and self-discovery will lead her to memorable encounters with a troubled writer, a Bushman shaman, and a Border War veteran.

In reviewing the book for BC Book World, Alan Twigg wrote: “Art must be cathartic, original and memorable… North Americans have gleaned a deeper awareness of South Africa through Alan Paton’s ‘Cry the Beloved Country,’ Sir Laurens Jan van der Post, Nadine Gordimer and J.M. Coetzee. We’ve also seen ‘Invictus’ or ‘A Dry White Season’ or Richard Attenborough’s ‘Cry Freedom’ about Stephen Biko, the man that Nelson Mandela described as ‘the spark that lit a veld fire across South Africa.’ ‘The Afrikaner’ deserves its place in that pantheon.”

List of a few books you are currently reading?

Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of my lives; Jared Diamond’s Upheaval: turning points for nations in crisisand then a series of less renown but interesting writers (I like to discover new stuff beyond what big publishing houses are keen to promote with their powerful marketing machines): Richard Goodship’s The Camera Guy, Yigal Zur’sDeath in Shangri-La, Geoffrey Fox’s A Gift for the Sultan, Anca Cristofovici, Stela. Since I am working on the film script of my novel The Afrikaner, I am also reading Laura Brennan’s The Screening Room: Turning a Novel into a Screenplay and Ken Dancyger’s and Jeff Rush’s Alternative Scriptwriting.

What is one book you have read more than once?

Tolstoy’s War and Peace

Why? (If applicable). It’s simply immense in scope, character development, historical reconstruction, poetic sensibility, human empathy. I consider it a sort of secular Bible for the creative writer. It belongs to another era but it still speaks to us, to all fundamental weaknesses and strengths as human beings.

Do you have a “Guilty Secret” book that you have been reading for some time but have never finished?

I have so many of them! Just to mention a couple: Proust’s À la recherche, Joyce’s Ulysses, and Don de Lillo’s Underworld.

What was your favorite book as a child?

In different stages of childhood: Mary Walcott’s Little Women (Joe! Oh Joe!), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Zane Grey’s The Call of the Canyon. One can tell I belong to an “ancient” generation of writers…

Which writer do you most admire? Why?

J.M. Coetzee: Because I will never be able to write as he does: so neatly, so sparingly. All those perfectly-constructed, crystalline sentences — saying so much with so little.

Do you have a book that you have considered a “Life changer”?

Three books, actually (for three different reasons): Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Primo Levi’s If This is a Manand Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Have you ever read a famous book that you consider to be “Over Rated”? If so, which book and why?

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Tedious, navel-gazing, dull characters — a story that never picks up. The writing is damn good, no doubt. But what’s the real purpose of all this aesthetic effort and all those hours of dedicated reading? To me it’s just a waste of time on both sides: the author’s and the reader’s. After this book I doubt I would ever want to read anything else written by Franzen.

If you could invite up to 10 authors living or dead to dinner, who would you invite and what would you serve?

All dead writers: I find them more fascinating than the living bunch.

Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph ConradZelda FitzgeraldMark TwainRobert M. PirsigToni Morrison, Paul BowlesUrsula K. Le Guin, and Truman Capote. I would serve a hearty Italian meal and good red wine to ease/spark the conversation.

Any advice for aspiring writers?/Artists

Anything goes. Find/make your own rules in order to get into that sacred space of creative imagination. And once you are in there, stick to it as much as you can, blocking out any possible distractions. Thus: forget about FB, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and all that time-wasting social media stuff. Go off the grid, head into the woods, or live by an ocean. Become a recluse, lead a monastic life, find your cave, or throw yourself into the thick shrubs of urban life. But live: live harshly, widely, intensely. Talk to people: real people (not digital avatars or celebrities). Travel. Love. Suffer. And write, write, write, whenever you can, wherever you are. Live in your characters’ heads. Talk to them, talk like they would do. Hate them, love them, suffer with them, for them. And then deliver. Never leave a page, a chapter, a manuscript unfinished. And then start editing, rewriting, editing — until exhaustion, until you have no regrets. Until you will be able — and have the right — to say: “I did my best. Let’s see what you think of my work”.

About Arianna Dagnino:

In her career as an international reporter, literary translator and academic researcher, Arianna Dagnino has lived in many countries, including a five-year stint in South Africa. The author of several books on the impact of global mobility, science, and new technologies, she holds a Ph.D. from the University of South Australia and currently teaches at the University of British Columbia. Her latest novel, “The Afrikaner” (Guernica, Toronto, 2019) is an on-the-road adventure story that covers the terrains of race, love, white guilt, science, shamanism, and cultural survival.

Links/Websites:

“The Afrikaner”: Blog

YouTube Book trailer of “The Afrikaner”:

The Afrikaner: Book review 1:

The Afrikaner Book review 2:

Interview: “Writer Heads to South Africa for new Novel.”

Read the interview on Medium here: https://medium.com/authors-what-are-you-reading/what-are-you-reading-right-now-with-arianna-dagnino-75bd82bbb052

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How do South African and Canadian Readers React to “The Afrikaner”?

As an Italian writer who has published her South African-based novel The Afrikaner  while living in Canada (Guernica Editions, Toronto, 2019), I am particularly eager to receive feedback from South African and Canadian readers. Thus, I am grateful to fiction editor Tracy Buenk from Durban, South Africa and independent writer Vernice Shostal from British Columbia for their thoughtful feedback.

“Landscapes and characters come to life in the detailed descriptions and fast-paced story of The Afrikaner. For me, the greatest achievement of this novel is Arianna Dagnino’s excellent grasp of the complex relationship between the South African cultures. A memorable and moving book” (Tracy Buenk, Fiction Editing | Reader’s Reports, )

“I found The Afrikaner an amazing work of fiction and perhaps some non-fiction, which took a look at contemporary issues in the new South Africa. The personal life of the character, Zoey, and the people she is associated with, leave the reader with a feeling of hope toward a humanitarian consciousness and resolving past issues, including her own past superstitions; however, perhaps, like First Nation people in Canada, who were also betrayed by colonialism, the novel showed that not all black South Africans are able to quickly forgive the past. The imagery in the novel presents the country of South Africa as a living, breathing soul, albeit a parched and harried one” (Vernice Shostal, independent writer)

The Afrikaner: https://blogs.ubc.ca/afrikaner/
https://www.guernicaeditions.com/title/9781771833578

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From Fellow Writer to Fellow Writer: “Discomfort” and “Trust”

It is always a special honour to receive the appreciation of a fellow writer for one’s work.

The Canadian writer Chantal Garand, author of the novel Natalia Z. (Annika Parance Editeur, Montréal, 2018), which will also appear in Norwegian translation in 2020, has agreed to let me publish the letter she sent me after having read my novel The Afrikaner.

Two words stand out in Chantal’s comments: “discomfort” and “trust”. In my view, these two words encapsulate what writing is all about.

Chantal has written her letter in French, the language in which she creatively writes, although her English is as good. I have provided an English translation of the text (original French text follows).

Dear Arianna,

I have just finished reading “The Afrikaner” and I want to express the pleasure I had in reading your novel. The characters’ stories are captivating and skillfully express the torments and dilemmas experienced by South Africans in the post-apartheid period. I lived 4 years in South Africa, always with the impression of living in a cocoon, totally excluded from what the different layers/cultures of this troubled society are going through. I’ve never been able to penetrate people’s souls like you have.

Your novel shows admirable sensitivity and evocative power. Having so finely described the discomfort that is palpable among South Africans, I can tell you did not waste your time during your stay in this country. You have certainly succeeded in connecting with people who have trusted you enough to let you explore what they are trying to understand themselves. Congratulations, your novel is a great success and has the merit of not making easy judgments.

Chantal Garand

Chère Arianna,

Je viens de terminer la lecture de The Afrikaner et je veux vous exprimer le plaisir que j’ai eu à lire votre roman. L’histoire des personnages est captivante et est habilement intégrée aux tourments et dilemmes ressentis par les sud-aficains en période post-apartheid. J’ai vécu 4 ans en Afrique du Sud, toujours avec l’impression de vivre dans un cocon, totalement exclue de ce que vivent les différentes couches/cultures de cette population troublée. Je n’ai jamais réussi à pénétrer l’âme des gens comme vous l’avez fait.

Votre roman démontre une sensibilité et une force d’évocation admirables. Pour avoir si finement décrit l’inconfort qui est palpable chez les sud-aficains, je constate que vous n’avez pas perdu votre temps pendant votre séjour dans ce pays. Vous avez certainement réussi à vous lier avec des gens qui vous ont fait suffisamment confiance pour vous laisser explorer ce qu’ils tentent eux-même de comprendre. Bravo, votre roman est une belle réussite et a le mérite de ne pas porter de jugement facile.

Chantal Garand

Arianna Dagnino, “The Afrikaner” (Guernica Editions, Toronto, 2019): https://www.amazon.com/Afrikaner-Essential-Prose-Arianna-Dagnino/dp/1771833572

Chantal Garand, “Natalia Z.” (Annika Parance, Montréal, 2018): https://www.apediteur.com/litterature/livre/natalia-z

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Universal themes in a unique setting: An Interview on “The Afrikaner”​ by Victor Van Der Merwe

“When it comes to societies like South Africa, there is always something that will contradict your preconceived notions,” says Arianna Dagnino, author of “The Afrikaner,” published by Guernica Editions (Toronto) in 2019.

“I think what is happening now in the Western world is something that has already happened in South Africa,” says Dagnino, who spent five years in the then newly democratic South Africa and can write about that time with great ease.

This is how journalist Victor Van Der Merwe starts our interview on my South African-based novel “The Afrikaner.” The interview was published in the October issue of the magazine “The Source” (Volume 20, Issue 06 – October 8–22, 2019).

You can read the rest of the interview here below or at this link:

The novel is set in the South Africa of 1996. The book follows Zoe du Plessis, a paleontologist of Afrikaner descent, struggling with white group guilt, a dark family secret and the recent loss of a lover and colleague. The Afrikaner begins as Zoe embarks on a journey of self-discovery and atonement, while on a field expedition into the hot plains of the Kalahari Desert. She is there in search of early human fossils.

Witness to transition

Dagnino was born in Italy but has traveled as far as London, Boston and Moscow for work and studies. In 1996, Dagnino and her husband moved to South Africa to become international correspondents who wrote for the Italian press. Aside from the wire service, she and her husband were the only two Italian reporters in the country.

“It was the right time to be there (South Africa),” says Dagnino. “All the foreign correspondents from the UK, the US, from all over Europe, they were all interested in what was happening there. It was a very dramatic moment of transition for the country, so everyone wanted to witness what was happening and report about it.”

As a former travel writer for an Italian magazine, she was mostly prepared for what to expect when arriving in Africa, but there were still facets of South African life that surprised her.

“What really surprised me was that most of the white people in South Africa had never visited a township,” says Dagnino. “So, the first thing I did as a reporter, I went into the Soweto township to see how people lived there.”

Dagnino says she ended up being the person that told white South Africans about how people live in Soweto, one of South Africa’s most famous townships. The class distinction even within a township like Soweto was another big surprise.

“It was a real city. It wasn’t a squatter camp like the Favelas in Brazil. There were people there who were very poor, but there were also people who were very rich. Some people had mansions and big cars in Soweto,” she says.

Moving to Canada

In 2000, Dagnino and her husband left South Africa and moved to Australia where she received her PhD in Comparative Literature and Sociology. After a few years of living in Australia, Dagnino and her family again faced the choice of a new destination. The couple applied for Canadian permanent residency at the same time they applied for Australian permanent residency. After Dagnino received her PhD, they figured, why not give Canada a try?

“We wanted to offer our kids the opportunity to experience being raised in an English-speaking country,” she says. “We felt it was important for them to be raised in a place that would give them a lot more opportunities.”

It was in Canada, where Dagnino started and finished the novel The Afrikaner. Although the story takes place in a very remote corner of the world and is set in a very specific time of South Africa’s history, Dagnino still feels everyone can take something from the theme of the book.

“I think the theme is very universal,” she says. “I think it is important for people to understand that they need to address certain issues related to racial divisions.”

Dagnino hopes everyone who reads her book takes away the idea that we should not be so quick to judge.

“Societies are very complex and South Africa’s society is one of the most complex I have experienced,” she says. “It is very challenging. It isn’t black and white, there are many shades of grey and we need to take into consideration these shades of grey before creating our perception, before making judgements.”

Dagnino currently teaches at UBC.

Full interview here: http://thelasource.com/en/2019/10/07/universal-themes-in-a-unique-setting/

For more information on Arianna Dagnino and her novel “The Afrikaner” go to:

Hate, Love, Guilt and Redemption under African Skies

Arianna Dagnino

https://blogs.ubc.ca/ariannadagnino/

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Science in Fiction or Fiction in Science?

How much science can there be in fiction and, at the same time, how much fiction (that is, creative imagination) can there be in science?

A new – rather controversial – study conducted by Australian scientists on mitochondrial DNA claims that the birthplace of modern humans might be in Botswana. This would confirm recent theories that the cradle of modern humanity lies in Southern Africa rather than in Eastern Africa.

This is also what paleoanthropologist Zoe du Plessis, the main character of my novel “The Afrikaner” (Guernica, Toronto, 2019), tries to prove with her fieldwork in the Desert of the Kalahari at the border between northern Namibia and southern Botswana.

References:

The birthplace of modern humans might be in Botswana” (Australia Science)

Ancestral home of modern humans is in Botswana, study finds” (The Guardian)

Controversial new study pinpoints where all modern humans arose” (National Geographic)

Humanity’s birthplace: why everyone alive today can call northern Botswana home” (Phys.org)

The Afrikaner. A Novel” (Guernica Editions, Toronto, 2019)

 

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Surrey’s Writers International Conference

If you happen to be in Surrey at the Writers International Conference this Saturday, come to have a chat at my desk, where I will be signing copies of the Afrikaner from 5.30 pm to 7.00 pm.

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“The Afrikaner” has landed in New York

Thanks to author Judith Reveal for her ravishing review in the “New York Journal of Books.” “Arianna Dagnino is to be complimented on her storytelling ability. She describes the beauty of South Africa through the careful choice of words, providing a cultural education for her readers.” (Judith Reveal) Read the whole review here: https://lnkd.in/erfBBRN

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NANAIMO! Oct 24th!

If you ever happen to be on Vancouver Island on October 24th, please join us for a book reading-cum-discussion on “The Afrikaner” at the “White Rabbit” in Nanaimo, from 6.30 pm to 8.00. The event is part of “Portfolio, “a reading series put forth by students at VIU (Vancouver Island University) in Nanaimo. It will be nice to spend the evening with some creative-minded students, fellow writers, avid – and not so avid – readers! The venue, the White Rabbit Coffee Co, is quickly becoming the literary centre of Nanaimo. hashtagtheafrikanernovel hashtagtheafrikanerbook hashtagreading hashtagcreativewriting

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An outsider shining a light on South Africa’s past: Does she succeed?

Johannesburg – Kuba masks

“It’s always interesting to see ourselves, as South Africans, reflected through another’s gaze as author Arianna Dagnino does in The Afrikaner. A multi-cultural author with roots in Italy and now resident in Canada, this novel is based on time she spent in this part of the world.” This is how the South African poet and writer Arja Salafranca starts her review of the Afrikaner (Guernica Editions, Toronto, 2019), wondering whether an outsider can actually “shine a light on some of our stories” (Italics is mine). While answering this main question, Arja Salafranca highlights the main theme running through Zoe’s (the Afrikaner of the title) story: “The theme of past and future, of searching for meaning in a past, even while that past might feel redundant […]. Palaeontology serves as a metaphor – Zoe excavating her past and her past guilt as thoroughly as she excavates the sands in the Kalahari.” The answer to her initial question seems to lie in the way Arja reads the function of palaeontology in The Afrikaner: “The story is beguiling – with its elements of palaeontology, the deep need to find out more about our origins, mingled with the newness of the country where the people who have been separated for years are now circling each other with a mixture of hope and confusion […] ” The book works as a love story, an exploration both within and without, and as a paean to a time in our country’s history when we were emerging into something new, with problems that still tentacle our present.”

I thank Arja Salfranca for her review, which you can read in full at this link: http://www.brucedennill.co.za/book-review-the-afrikaner-filled-by-emptiness-or-looking-at-the-present-from-the-past/

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Inside the Emotion of Fiction

Thanks to Chris Rice Cooper for her beautiful interview on The Afrikaner, in which much is revealed about the emotional elements involved in a writer’s creative process.

Find it here an abridged version.

Name of fiction work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? “The Afrikaner”. Initially, it was simply called “Zoe,” like the name of the main female character. Later on, I thought of it as “Fossils” (Zoe is a paleontologist): I found it poetic.

Has this been published? And it is totally fine if the answer is no. If yes, what publisher and what publication date? It was published by Guernica Editions (Toronto) in April 2019.

What is the date you began writing this piece of fiction and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? I started writing this book in the year 2000, when I was still in South Africa working as an international reporter for the Italian press. I kept writing it and finished it in Australia, where my husband and I moved after our two children were born.  I then rewrote it when we moved to Canada and after I completed my PhD in Comparative Literature.

Where did you do most of your writing for this fiction work? And please describe in detail.  I wrote most of it on a small desk in my home studio but also at several public libraries and coffee shops, both in Adelaide and Vancouver.

What were your writing habits while writing this work- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? I like taking initial notes with pen and paper, wherever I am. But for the real writing I need to be in front of my laptop. I love writing early in the morning, from 5.00 am onwards. I like having coffee or tea by my side. No music, though – too distracting.

What is the summary of this specific fiction work?Zoe Du Plessis’s story unfolds against the backdrop of 1996 South Africa, caught in the turmoil of the transition from the Apartheid regime to the first democratically elected black government. A paleoanthropologist at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, her world collapses when her lover and colleague, Dario Oldani, is killed during a fatal carjacking.

Clinging to her late companion’s memory, Zoe sets off to the merciless Kalahari Desert to continue his fieldwork. It’s the beginning of an inner journey during which she gets to come to terms with a growing sense of guilt for having been raised as a privileged white Afrikaner while also confronting a secret that has hung over her family for generations. During a brief visit back home, Zoe meets an unlikely lover in Kurt, a legendary South African writer with a troubled past. The conclusion spirals the reader into a new perspective, where atonement seems to be inextricably linked to an act of creative imagination.

Can you give the reader just enough information for them to understand what is going on in the excerpt? The excerpt is taken from Chapter 1 of the book (right after the “Prologue”), when Zoe, whose lover has just been killed in a car-hijacking, leaves Johannesburg in grief and crosses the hot plains of the Karoo to reach the family wine estate in the Cape. There in the Karoo, she meets again Koma the Bushman shaman, who will be a key player in her journey of atonement and self-discovery.

Why is this excerpt so emotional for you as a writer to write? And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific excerpt? In one of my trips to Namibia as a reporter, I had a chance to meet with a Bushman shaman. Regular communication between us was rather complicated: I would ask him a question in English and the ranger who accompanied me there would translate it into Afrikaans, the language that the shaman had learned during his time as a tracker in the South African Defence Forces. The answer arrived through the same laborious path. Thus, most of the time we shared the silence of the desert. Soon I realized how much the old shaman could “tell me” with his simple gestures and facial expressions. In this passage I tried to recreate that emotional space, that sense of being suspended between reality and some other plane of existence and meaning.

Were there any deletions from this excerpt that you can share with us? And can you please include a photo of your marked up rough drafts of this excerpt. I rewrote these pages many times, adding, deleting or changing things, reworking the wording of the dialogues.

Other works you have published? In English, I have published a creative nonfiction which constitutes the first part of my book Transcultural Writers and Novels in the Age of Global Mobility (Purdue University Press, West Lafayette, 2015), and Jesus Christ Cyberstar, freely inspired by the 1970 Broadway’s first rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar: in it, I compare certain values of the digital age (at least in its early period) with those of the Christianity of the origins.

Anything you would like to add? Many early readers told me that being highly visual and with a captivating plotline, The Afrikanercould become a great movie.  I have now started working on a film script together with Ernest Mathijs, my colleague and Professor of Film Studies at UBC. I would like to find a way to involve my readers in this process of transforming a novel into a script.   For example, since I will have to cut a lot to reduce a 280-page story into a 120-page script, I would be curious to see which characters and scenes they would keep and which ones they would delete and then compare the results with what Ernest and I have come up with. I am also working on an audiobook version of The Afrikaner with Los Angeles-based, South African actor Dennis Kleinman (www.aworldvoice.com).

 If The Afrikaner were made into a film which actors would you choose for the main roles?

If The Afrikaner were made into a film I’d choose Charlize Theron (she is South African) or, alternatively, Jessica Chastain (she is red-headed) as Zoe Du Plessis.  I’d see actor Craig Greer in the role of Zoe’s brother André du Plessis and Neil Sandilands portraying Kurt van der Merwe.

This interview was originally published on Chris Rice Cooper’s blog. You can access the full interview and the related photos here.

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