Q&A with Vivian de Klerk on her novel 'Not to Mention'

29 September 2020 - 12:50 By Mila de Villiers

Katy Ferreira, the protagonist in Vivian de Klerk's debut novel Not to Mention, is approaching the auspicious age of 21. Yet, unlike her peers, Katy is physically unable to leave her bed - be it to drink a libation to her natal day, or the basic task of walking to the bathroom. At 360kg, Katy's weight doesn't allow for her to leave the confines of her boudoir, with her widowed mother being complicit in Katy's incarnation as she continues to fuel her food addiction. 

By means of diary entries (three whole Croxley notebooks thereof) and cryptic crossword puzzles - compiled by Katy - De Klerk explores their noxious relationship, Katy's alienation from the outside world, and the injurious effects of family secrets.

Here De Klerk discusses the similarities she shares with Katy, the cathartic nature of writing Not to Mention, and how her background in academia proved both advantageous and challenging apropos penning a work of fiction. 

In the front matter of Not to Mention you observe the following: "This book is a work of fiction. It is based on a wide range of personal experiences and observations. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental."

What personal experiences and observations did you draw on as inspiration for the book?

As a teenager I had to manage my own puppy-fat, I endured a few barbed comments and veiled glances, and made a personal decision to keep the fat person inside me on a very tight leash from then on. It has not been easy. I have also encountered people from all walks of life who struggle with their weight and appearance in a society which judges obesity harshly, in a world where eating disorders are escalating alongside relentless marketing of unhealthy processed foods. Also, in my academic career in linguistics, I have focused extensively on the nature of hurtful and harmful words in English, who uses these powerful words, and to what effect.

Katy's abuse at the hands of her mother, Felicity, is explored throughout the book as it becomes clear that her mum fuels her food addiction. Yet it comes to light that Felicity herself had a fraught relationship with her own mum. Please comment on the complex nature of mother-daughter relationships in the novel, with an emphasis on guilt and PTSD.

Not to Mention is in effect, a message from a daughter to her mother, a roller-coaster ride of memories fraught with mixed emotions: love and humility at times, anguish and regret at other times, gratitude occasionally, mixed with growing anger as Katy explores her needless pain and suffering. It turns out that her mother, Felicity, also had a difficult relationship with her mother, founded on a need to be loved interwoven with guilt and shame. Katy explores the nature of her own ‘wrong-doing’, and the deep silences in both mother-daughter relationships, and she speculates about the unspoken words, and the unspeakable deeds which may have resulted in post-traumatic stress.

The format of the novel is unique in that it contains numerous cryptic crossword puzzle clues which serve as 'chapter headings' for Katy's diarised account of her past and present. Why did you decide on crossword puzzles and diary entries as narrative devices?

The crossword device worked for me in three ways: firstly, having the 70 answers in the grid served as a useful framework for the novel, because each word is a clue to an event, a memory, or a feeling and this enables Katy to elaborate a little more every time. The words in the puzzle are all linked to themes of Katy’s life: food and the delights of eating, heaviness and obesity - and the social ostracism that results, and religion (sin, penance, death and eternity). Secondly, the clues in the puzzle are all cryptic, and depend on hidden meanings and ambiguity. Throughout the novel Katy gives hints and suggestions about what might have happened, heightening the growing suspense, as she encourages her mother to work out what happened, and what the future holds for them both. Certain that eventually everything will fit together, because of the inevitable logic of a cryptic clue.

Thirdly, the neat square blocks of the puzzle remind me of Katy’s tiny square bedroom, her reinforced square bed on which she lies and writes, the square blocks of the parquet floor she stares at every day, and the small square window-frames which offer her a glimpse of the outside world.

The diary entries help Katy to give a chronological account of her slow undoing, and the dates also link nicely to the changing seasons outside her window, marking the inevitable passage of time.

For the first three quarters or so of the novel Katy reverts to strikethroughs whenever making her true feelings towards Felicity known, eg:

Katy's employment of strikethroughs.
Katy's employment of strikethroughs.
Image: Supplied (Picador Africa)

Yet towards the end of her diary Katy overtly writes that "[i]t’s time I did some straight talking", where after the resentment she holds for Felicity appear 'uncensored', eg: "Fucking hell, but you’ve been a bloody poes, haven’t you?" 

Why the initial strikethroughs, and what triggered Katy's eventual fortitude?

When Katy starts her diary she feels uncertain, experimenting with words, anxious to please her mother in case she eventually reads what she has written. Initially, when she ventures into some of the forbidden topics which her mother has refused to mention, she crosses out the offensive words she has written, cautious to ensure a good relationship with the one who feeds her. But as she slowly analyses what has happened to her and the situation she now finds herself in, she finds her own ‘voice’ and grows in confidence and resolve, realising that her diary holds the key to being heard, eventually.

Confined to her room, Katy's only company is that of The Herald, dictionaries, her Croxley notebooks, and the birds outside her window, which she identifies with help from her deceased dad's Robert's Birds of South Africa. Please detail Katy's interest in birds and what significance she attaches to them.

Birds are Katy’s link to her father and the outside world, and she delights in their unique calls, their distinctive plumage, and the brief encounters she has with the occasional dove or hoopoe that chances to fly past her window or even light upon the windowsill. The wild call of seagulls she hears triggers memories of the sea, the lonely cries of dikkops in the evening remind her of swimming in the river at high tide. She describes each bird carefully and lovingly – a useful diversion from her suffering and her constant obsession with food. Birds also help her track the changing seasons, and they occasionally hold ominous significance: the insistent sound of a crow tapping on her window, and the slow hooting of an owl.

Not to Mention isn't an easy read, as you introduce the reader to the psychological - and ultimately physical - harm Katy is subjected to. Passages describing the food she's fed by Felicity ("Today you’ve left me my usual four litres of fizzy cool-drink, a loaf of sliced bread, a jar of peanut butter, two packets of Simba chips ... some Flings ... a block of processed cheese and another one of butter ... four slabs of chocolate, a large red tube of plastic-wrapped pink polony ... and the Romany Creams") were particularly grim. Did you ever reach a point where you felt emotionally exhausted while writing the book?

No – in fact it was rather cathartic working my way into the character of Katy Ferreira, growing in my understanding of her pain and her suffering. It was important, for the sake of the truth, to dwell on the physical aspects of her life in some detail, since she would have dwelt on them constantly, trapped in her body on her bed, unable to move. I tried to balance the awful reality of those details with some delectable foody moments and meticulous descriptions of the mosquitos, spiders and birds she sees and hears. Katy’s passion for language, her wicked sense of humour and her indomitable spirit left me full of admiration and empathy for this huge character I had created.

And, finally, as Professor Emeritus of Linguistics at Rhodes, to what extent was it either a relief or a struggle to write a work of fiction sans abstracts, in-text referencing, a bibliography, and jargon?

It was a huge challenge to start again, to be totally anonymous, and to submit my novel without being able to rest on my ‘academic laurels’. But the actual process of writing fiction has been liberating: free from the need to demonstrate prior knowledge, to quote and reference, to use the passive voice and to be absolutely precise. I have delighted in inventing a story and making up characters from nowhere, giving them random names, and imagining scenarios and settings.