Q&A with author Litha Hermanus
Nal'ibali column No 7 Term 1 2020
Congratulations on publishing The Eyes of the Naked. After a multifaceted career that’s spanned everything from acting to air travel, what inspired you to write a book?
The book came to me gradually over the years as I read and studied the fabric of SA — in an academic sense, sure, but mainly in a people-watching wannabe novelist sort of way. It was after a lecture by Dr John Kani unlocked the mysteries of characterisation and plot for me, that I began growing the novel. Besides helping with the bank account, my places of employment served as creative fodder for the book.
Your novel explores ideas about masculinity in SA. Why do you feel it's an important issue to explore?
The theme is important because I had a father I loved but began to despise, alongside a mother who always commanded us to love him. And so I loved him and felt deep empathy. I came into manhood with no real life conversations with him. The absence of that kind of conversation, and what happens when you don’t have a mother who constantly shows you why you need to love a broken dad, are ideas I explored. The underlying question is: if you despise your father, are you more prone to turning out like him?
Your main character, Nakedi, asks himself what it might mean to be a good man in SA today. What does it mean to you?
Being a good man consists in not speaking for all men. Definitely! It's about having an existence centred around being a human who functions according to a decent conscience. So I don’t speak to what it is to be a good man in general. In fact, my novel is more about brokenness. If any man happens to read it and it leaves him with a sense of sadness couched in a glimmer of hope, and then prompts him to question what kind of manhood he is living out, I won't be mad. Even better if a woman or his child should read it and do the same.
The novel also tackles the issue of circumcision. Every culture has rituals or practices that mark a child's transition into adulthood and help to tell a powerful story about social status and responsibility. Is there a way for us to revisit some of these and shift their narrative while still respecting the practice?
Culture is both a static and kinetic force. There are some whose power or interests are invested in keeping it static, while there are those for whom the advantage lies in changing it. People will choose what works for them until a critical mass tips the scale, and a done thing becomes the done thing.
Is this where your intriguing title comes from?
I can see how that can be read that way, and that's a layer of meaning I submit to. The book’s original title was Violand (a combination of violent and land). A few people suggested I reconsider that, thank goodness! The title now speaks to the multiple [incidences of] violence that ARE SA, and how they strip us of our dignity, as well as what we could become if we worked more with a goal of genuine unity. In a sense, we are all in our best versions of the ‘emperor’s new clothes’. That's the nakedness.
Can books and storytelling, for both young and old, help us explore painful national topics and develop compassion for each other?
Yes, they have this capacity of stimulating epiphanies in people. Well-written stories (which I cross my fingers to the point of blood-constriction that mine is) matter in this regard. But epiphany, unfortunately, is always a highly solipsistic thing.
Your work at the Japanese Embassy must have taught you a great deal about cross-cultural interactions. Do you think that Nakedi's world in your novel will be accessible to global readers?
Prior to working for the Embassy of Japan in SA I lived in Japan for three years. Before that I was an international cabin attendant with our embattled airline. I have a fair sense of the world and its people. Although there are differences between us globally, humanity is an unavoidable constant. It is this quality I hope I’ve successfully tapped into in The Eyes of the Naked, such that names, places and cultural familiarity become secondary concerns.
Why is it important for local authors not to shy away from writing about unique and important issues in our own country?
It’s not a matter of shying away or gravitating towards for me. As a writer, certainly a novelist, you should write the concerns and contents of your heart. Outside of this, a writer is false.
Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access children's' stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org