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Zoë Wicomb’s October Launched at The Book Lounge with Desiree Lewis

The launch last week of Zoë Wicomb’s latest novel, October, was a remarkable event. A fascinating dialogue between the author and UWC’s Head of Department (Women and Gender Studies), Desiree Lewis, commenced the evening. This was followed by a reading from the novel, after which a public Q&A session – where the use of ethnic terminology was debated, among other things – concluded events.

Nuruddin Farah and Zoë WicombOctoberDesiree Lewis commenced by reflecting on the concept and meaning of autobiography. She observed that this was one of the most autobiographical of Wicomb’s works. She observed some direct correspondences between the central character, Mercia, and the author who moved between Namaqualand and Scotland, and who works as a senior lecturer. “We all know that autobiography is itself a fiction that you can never pin down, it’s not just an author’s piece of life,” she said and commented on the critical and mocking references to autobiography in the book.

The author said the question reminded her of an occasion when she was presenting You Can’t Get Lost in Cape Town in Switzerland: a woman in the audience was hopping up and down, so eager was she to know how the author had lost so much weight. “Because the central character is fat,” said Wicomb, “she assumed that character was me and I had, in the mean time, been on a crash diet. Did I have any helpful tips?”

What struck Wicomb at the reception of her first book was the sense that people would read her writing as autobiography. “So I flirted with the autobiography! The fact is that in that book the girl’s mother is dead at the beginning of the book and alive at the end. I do not have a mother whom I have resurrected!”

Pondering the topic further, she said October was definitely not autobiography. “There are some really horrible things in it. I’d never do those things… though I wouldn’t put it past me.” One of the things that made it easier for Wicomb to write the book was to make Mercia unlike her. “I hope she’s not like me. I don’t like her very much, but the accidents of her condition (she is an academic) I used that not just because I don’t have to research what academics do, but because I wanted her to be a writer – not of fiction but of critical stuff.”

The conversation turned to the trope of “home”. Wicomb said she had wanted to title the novel Home, but no publisher would permit that, in particular, she commented wrily, as Marilynne Robinson’s Home and Toni Morrison’s Home had preceded hers!

She also covered the topic of originality, fiercely claiming that she was not “original”. She referred to Adam Small’s Kanna hy ko hystoe as a play about deracination, and the kind of people she writes about, the country in relation to the metropolis.

Those who attended were given much to contemplate. Those who bought the book, went home with an added insight into the heart and mind of the author, who is undoubtedly a tour de force.

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Liesl Jobson tweeted live from the event using the hashtag #livebooks

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