Sunday Times Alan Paton Award: In Context – Shaun Viljoen on Richard Rive: A Partial Biography
May 26th, 2014
By Michele Magwood for The Sunday Times
Shaun Viljoen discusses Richard Rive: A Partial Biography:
How does your study of Richard Rive’s life illuminate truths in the South Africa of today?
One of the reasons I undertook the research was because there was at the time, five years into democracy, a stark contrast between the non-racial discourse of the new constitution, and the mindset and behaviour of numerous South Africans who seemed, ironically, to be asserting hyper-racialised perceptions of their fellow citizens.
Did Rive’s strident, considered non-racialism have anything to teach us about how we think about our contemporary ideas of “race” and what we now mean by non-racialism?
I was also interested in his life as a gay man, and how his queer sexuality is refracted through his work and what this means for queer lives now.
What prompted you to write the book?
It started as a doctoral thesis at the University of the Witwatersrand, which I turned into a book by strengthening the narrative line, at the same time trying to maintain and extend the scholarly aspects of the work – digging for detail of a life. It feels appropriate then that this is a Wits Press publication – what feels like a “Cape” project was really conceived of and half completed in Johannesburg.
Why do you call it “a partial biography”?
Three reasons: 1. The more I tried to capture the multiple dimensions of this larger than life character called Richard Moore Rive – black South African writer and intellectual during apartheid, a novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, teacher, political activist, sportsman, sports administrator, son, brother, friend, colleague, homosexual – the more he eluded me. Especially his wit. Many remember him for his unforgettable stories, his clever, epigrammatic witticisms that were much like Oscar Wilde’s. He made people laugh, or cringe, but they always remembered him and his stories. 2. It is also partial in the sense of “patial to”. The work is empathetic to Rive’s ideas of non-racialism and also to his dilemmas as a gay man when it was not easy, for most, to live openly as gay without putting your life at some kind of risk. 3. The narrative is structured in many places as an understated collage, as parts put together in conversation to try and yield insights, especially into his inner life, about which he was persistently silent. I wanted a book that amalgamated numerous “takes” on the man.
It seems Rive was a multi-faceted character, described as both “an enigmatic closed book and a supreme show-off”. How would you sum him up?
He was a show-off and he was also cruel to certain people he disliked or despised. But he was also kind, supportive, insecure, and inspirational to very many students, budding writers and sports persons, friends and colleagues. He was also very troubled, I believe, by his strained relationship with his fair-skinned siblings and his mother. Basil Appollis, in his superb, touching one-man play about Rive currently doing the rounds, My Word, wonderfully captures both his large public persona but also this strained and tense inner life in his relationship with family.
How did Rive die?
He was stabbed to death by two young men, one of whom he had known for a few months and with whom he had been having a sexual relationship. They came to visit him with the intention of robbing him. He must have put up such fierce resistance to the attack, gauging by the bloody trail that was left behind in his Windsor Park house, called Lyndall, after Olive Schreiner’s heroine Lyndall in Story of an African Farm. Lyndall, of course, also dies tragically. I wish Rive had instead just let the men take the stuff they wanted; he might have still been alive today. What would he have been writing about today?
Where does his work stand in the canon of South African literature today?
Rive has proven quite persistent in our imagination about the past, even as he slips from view, as we become preoccupied with literature of our present. One reason he is so insistent in his presence is the popularity among younger readers and teachers of his novel ‘Buckingham Palace’, District Six, his best seller. It has sold almost 300 000 copies to date, according to New Africa Books. Maybe the past has more to tell us than we imagined in the optimism of the first decade or so of transition. What we think is new is still shot through with the old.