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 (

 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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An Emotional Road Map for the film adaptation of “The Afrikaner”​

Now that we have started working on the film adaptation of The Afrikaner, reviews of the novel like the one provided by fantasy author Cindy Vallar on her blog may contribute to the creation of an emotional road map for the film script. I have copied and pasted the review here below, highlighting in bold keywords indicative of the emotional terrain the main character of the story, 33-year old paleontologist Zoe du Plessis (“the Afrikaner” of the title), is treading upon. Let’s use this review as an opportunity to discuss Zoe’s journey into her African-cum-European psyche. We can think of it as a “rite of passage” into a new level of individual and collective awareness, together with all the mixed feelings that come with it. Thanks again to Cindy Vallar for providing further food for literary creativity.

“Devastated at the senseless death of her lover, South African paleontologist Zoe Du Plessis flees Johannesburg for her childhood home on the Cape. She risked her heart, only to discover that the warnings of her female ancestors weren’t absurd chimeras of previous firstborn daughters. To come to terms with both reality and her grief, she embarks on a journey of inner reflection that is intertwined with acceptance of the past, standing up for what she believes, and taking chances in spite of her own biasness in an ever-changing world in the aftermath of racial segregation.

This rite of passage is hers alone to make, but each step intersects with others in unforeseen ways. Andrè, her younger brother, wants to replace the white director of the family winery with a black man. Koma, an old Bushman and shaman, emerges from the vast nothingness of the desert to renew their acquaintance. Whether the deep sadness in his eyes is his own or a mirror of hers, a “thief of stories” warns that their destinies are intertwined. From the grave, her aunt and great aunt share a dark secret of the distant past that impacted their lives, while Dario Oldani, her co-worker and lover, compels her to go beyond the comforts of her research lab to continue his hunt for the birthplace of humans in the Kalahari. But navigating the unknown doesn’t come without risk.

The Afrikaner is a story of self-reflection, of coming to terms with the past, present, and the future. Dagnino’s poignant, compelling, you-are-there tale draws us so deep into Zoe’s world that we experience each and every emotion. Her vivid depictions of time and place transport us to the turbulence of South Africa, before, during, and after apartheid until we share both Zoe’s discomfort and love for the land of her birth. It is a haunting portrayal of devastating grief and rational resurgence; once read, neither Zoe nor her experiences are easily forgotten.” (Cindy Vallar,

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Add your review of the “Afrikaner” on Goodreads!

Here is a sample of readers’ comments from Goodreads:

“I could write pages and pages on how brilliantly this book depicts transcultural, racial, romantic and magical elements, all woven into an evocative story. But all I will say is if you have lived in South Africa you will love this book, as it will pull at the magic Mama Africa has left in you and if you haven’t ever visited South Africa you will fall in love” (Mommy Reads and Reviews)”

The Afrikaner is a perfect example for what I need for my Reading around the world challenge. It wasn’t just a story, but also a lesson.” (Jeannette Nikolova)

“There are layers on layers in The Afrikaner – steeped in the history and current political reality of South Africa, the struggle for balance in power, the faces of the people. Dagnino’s narrative is superb. Her skill at bringing the colours, the smells, the dust of the desert, the curving passes and lush green landscapes to the reader’s mind is expert. The Afrikaner is an exquisite read. I cannot recommend this literary work of excellence highly enough.” (Gia)

“Arianna Dagnino brings the Kalahari desert and the native Bushmen alive in vivid narrative. Readers will be fascinated by the Bushmen’s spiritual lifestyle and how it touches Zoe in her quest to fight her demons. ‘The Afrikaner’ is an enchanting, superbly written novel that will keep readers wanting for more. A very worthwhile read.” (Stefan Vucak)

“This novel is such a combination of the personal, social, cultural, where even international aspects of life become involved. And then it is such a pleasure to read, to follow Zoe’s emotional journey of self and cultural identity. Highly recommended” (Sue)

“The author has chosen to let us experience [the …] sudden, post-apartheid changes through the eyes and feelings of an Afrikaner, an intelligent and sensitive young woman whose mother tongue is Afrikaans, who is acutely aware of the history that produced this new tribe (a mix of Dutch-origin farmers—”Boers”— French Huguenots and others), and who, like other Afrikaners, is trying to cope with the new demands of other, far more ancient tribes, including Xhosa, Zulu and San.” (Geoffrey Fox)

“This is a superb novel, immense in its range and subject. Brave in its use of the science of palaeontology to be a simile for the more recent political struggle in South Africa, its people and tribes that live in that culture and inhabit the land.” (Richard)

“This book was truly beautiful, lyrical, and compelling, and this is a story brimming with character and place. Arianna Dagnino writes in a way that is attractive and hard to dismiss. The Afrikaner is quite a reading experience, and one I would gladly recommend to others.” (J.D. De Hart)

“The author’s abundant life experience, great imagination, and profound knowledge help create vivid characters and write a terrific novel, which also proves my belief that an author can create fascinating stories beyond her or his own culture” (Zoë S. Roy)

“This story pulls you in from the first page as Zoe’s boyfriend is killed in a senseless act of violence in South Africa. Zoe is dealing with grief and deeply searching in both her personal and professional life. As a paleoanthropologist she is obsessed with discovering human fossils. At the same time she is uncovering family secrets through the reading of her aunts diary. Somehow the author is able to weave all of this together and also give you a glimpse into to the culture, politics and beauty of Africa. Her writing is descriptive and introspective. I found myself underlining and re-reading beautiful sentences throughout the book.” (Tonja)

“I loved the setting as well as the sheer brilliance of the main character. Most of all I loved the description of the people and the land.” (Lalaa)

“Wise in the ways of paleoanthropology, viticulture, history, and the complex choreography of Boer, English, Zulu, Xhosa, Bushmen, and others, Arianna Dagnino’s novel fulfills its protagonist’s vision of art: ‘Imagination in motion.’” (Steven)

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“The Afrikaner” by Arianna Dagnino: Colonialism, Reconciliation & Transcultural Literature

Dr. Arianna Dagnino, Sessional Lecturer of Italian Studies at UBC, speaks about colonial history, collective guilt, reconciliation and transcultural issues in her latest fiction novel “The Afrikaner.”

Tell us about The Afrikaner.

The Afrikaner is a South African odyssey set in the year 1996 during the critical transitionary period between the apartheid to the first democratically elected Black government. Its main character, a young woman named Zoe du Plessis, is a paleontologist of Afrikaner descent. Through Zoe’s story and the way she confronts her Afrikaner heritage and sense of “group guilt”, the book talks about South Africa as a whole — with its Black and White communities, and all that stands in between.

Confronting her family’s secret rooted in the colonial history of the country, Zoe embarks on a scientific expedition to the hot plains of the Kalahari Desert. It is the beginning of an inner journey that will lead her to meaningful encounters with a Bushmen tribe, a troubled writer, a former fighter in the Border War, and the secret diaries of her female ancestors.

See the whole interview here:

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Postcolonial Writing Revisited

“The Hubris of Public and Personal History in The Afrikaner by Arianna Dagnino” – A Review by Hollay Ghadery

“Zoe’s stagnancy is a fascinating reflection of the seeming impossibility of finding closure amidst the disparate beliefs and attitudes in post-colonial West Africa. It’s hard to forgive. It’s hard to forget. It can feel impossible to move forward,” writes Hollay Ghadery in her thoughtful and thought-provoking review of “The Afrikaner”, which she finds “as surprising as any contemporary post-colonial novel I could imagine.” You can read the whole review here:

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“The Afrikaner” like “Gone with the Wind”: A New Blockbuster?

In his ravishing review of “The Afrikaner” on John Harte compares the novel to “Gone with the Wind”. Could the book really become a new blockbuster? We are working on it! Read the whole review here:

“Is this novel another ‘Gone with the Wind?’ I think so. The author’s Scarlett O’Hara-type heroine, Zoe, despairs when her lover is killed by black gangs in downtown Johannesburg after it has reverted to the jungle in post-Nelson Mandela South Africa. Arianna Dagnino’s sensitive identification and portrayal of all the racial groups in this troubled multicultural land is written with the same passion as Margaret Mitchell devoted to her panoramic story of the pioneering days in America.

Unfortunately, the equally hardy and courageous pioneers in South Africa have had a bad press as a consequence of UN sanctions and the tabloid and TV distortions and exaggerations that destroyed its economy and created large-scale unemployment of about 48 percent of the population. The Nationalist Government were victims of circumstances they were struggling mindlessly to control – the in-migration of millions of rural blacks into the cities for food, employment, medical care and shelter that was unavailable. No one from outside lifted a finger to help them prevent the mass migrants turning into marauding gangs that would destroy the cities.

The tormented author immersed herself in the history of the Afrikaans people of the Dutch Reform Church, from victimization, first by Spanish Catholics in the Netherlands, their flight by ship to the Cape, their victimization by the English who had got there before them, their trek to the interior in ox-wagons, and their battles with the black tribes from the north. After settlement in the “Promised Land,” came the two destructive Boer Wars for survival against the British. Now they see the country they love destroyed by weak, corrupt, or non-existent leadership.

I lived in Johannesburg and Kwa-Zulu Natal for ten years, and was drawn back again for another two, before despairing for the country like Zoe. It is not difficult to feel compassion for all the racial groups struggling to survive there against gang warfare, and author Arianna displays the same love for the magnetic San people of the Kalahari, today’s black Africans, and the white Afrikaner people. If I were a dedicated film producer like the late David O. Selznick, I would obtain the Film and TV Rights of The Afrikaner before anyone else snaps them up, and turn it into another ‘Gone with the Wind.'”

– John Harte, a valid buyer.


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A writer needs to live intensely, harshly, wildly

I absolutely loved doing this interview with Allan Hudson @ South Branch Scribbler. The 4Q format he developed allows to dig into what leads a writer to write the way s/he does. I am grateful for Allan’s attention towards and appreciation of my work. Find the whole interview here.

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Audiobook Project – Chapter 1 –

With Los Angeles-based, South African-born actor Dennis Kleinman (, we have started working on an audiobook version of The Afrikaner.

Obviously, we will need funds to accomplish our task. I was thus thinking of trying to initiate a crowdfunding campaign with Kickstarter or  Go Fund Me.

Any suggestions re the best way to go about it?

You can listen to an excerpt from Chapter 1 read by Dennis here:




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Reading Conrad in the Desert

“In the desert, in prison or out at sea, Conrad can be a good companion. I found in his pages a way to exorcise, at least in part, the darkest moments of my life” (The Afrikaner”). “There are several subplots that unfold over the 240 pages of Arianna Dagnino’s “The Afrikaner,” not the least of which is racism, and the scar it has left on white/black relationships after apartheid was abolished. Ms. Dagnino’s writing is authoritative and a pleasure to read. The pacing of the novel may be considered “slow” by some, but for me, this is modern literature at its best. As an aside, at one point in the story, Zoe [the main character, a female paleontologist] is gifted by Kurt [the troubled writer] a book to read in the desert: Conrad’s ‘The Secret Sharer,’ which blew me away because I was thinking at the time what a Conradian story ‘The Afrikaner’ is.” Read the whole interview of “The Afrikaner” by author James Fisher here:


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Paleontology, intellectual disagreements and the lure of Africa

“I have never understood the lure of Africa; at the end of this novel, I did. […] landscape descriptions are exquisite and closely observed. At the end, I felt I had been there, in these intense, parched African places, tasted the food, smelled the wind and the sea.”

See the whole review of Arianna Dagnino’s “The Afrikaner” by Monika Ullmann here.

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