Jonathan Lee, Catapult editor-in-chief and author of High Dive, spoke with Damian Barr, author of the memoir Maggie & Me and host of the Literary Salon at the Savoy in London, about his new novel You Will Be Safe Here (Bloomsbury 2019). You Will Be Safe Here is Barr’s fiction debut and is inspired by real events, set in South Africa during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) and in the 21st century at a brutal wilderness camp for teenage boys. Probing the legacy of violence across time and space, and our will to survive, You Will Be Safe Here reveals a hidden colonial history and a dark contemporary secret.
JONATHAN LEE: Why South Africa, and why fiction?
DAMIAN BARR: I wasn’t casting around for a novel idea. One day I saw a picture of a boy in the newspaper who looked just like a boy who’d come to my primary school in Scotland from South Africa in 1984. That boy returned to South Africa, and we lost touch. I didn’t realize how much I’d wondered about him until I saw his face in the paper in 2011. Only it wasn’t him — he’d be a man now.
But this boy, Raymond Buys, looked exactly like my lost friend. Raymond, who had learning difficulties and had been expelled from school, was sent by his mother and stepfather to Echo Game Safari Rangers Camp, which promised to “make men out of boys.” There he was tortured and killed by the former soldier — a known white supremacist — who ran the camp and some of the other boys.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Raymond. I had to know who he was, why his family sent him there, what really happened, and why. Then, when I realized other boys had died there and that there is a network of such camps across South Africa, I thought I might do some journalism about it. Following the case online I couldn’t get all the answers I wanted. I had to go to South Africa in search of answers and also better questions. I realized nether side — the mother who felt responsible for her son’s murder and the men who killed him — were going to give me the “truth.” They each had their own truths. To get at the real truth, I would have to imagine — so it became a novel.
I’m interested in what the initial seed or itch was for You Will Be Safe Here and to what extent the structure of the book — a narrative in two parts — was an aspect of that first impulse?
Meeting Raymond’s mother and encountering some of the people involved in his death is what lead me back to 1900 and the Boer Wars — the first camps and the realization that Britain invented the concentration camp there. Initially I was telling a contemporary story. It was only when I learned of the history of camps in South Africa and connected this with Apartheid that I understood what is happening now is a consequence of what happened then.
There is a national memory of trauma in such camps which normalizes them now. Also, the contemporary camps aren’t training safari guides: these boys are being trained to guard white farms. Post-1994, a myth has sprung up that there is white genocide happening in South Africa. This lie is an ideological touchstone for right-wing terrorists worldwide, including Anders Brevik and the Christchurch shooter. And it’s an argument made by the Brexit forces — no coincidence that Aaron Banks owns a “diamond mine” in South Africa or that Donald Trump tweeted about the supposed genocide or that Katie Hopkins was deported from South Africa for trying to make propaganda about it. These facts — from 1900 and now — are facts. They are not versions of history. It’s up to us to decide what they mean and how we feel, but we can’t pretend they’re not real. History repeats itself if we don’t acknowledge it, especially the darkest chapters.
It all comes from fear, and I wanted to explore the real fears of the seemingly good and seemingly bad characters. To show them making choices and to force the reader to wonder what they would do to save their child, their home, their country. I wanted to humanize them. These people who are doing these terrible things often think they’re doing good or working for a greater good. Which makes it tragic, really. It was scary getting into those very dark minds because they’re certain of their worldview and their superiority. Certainty is very attractive, it’s comforting and offers answers. And we see this again now with Brexit and with Trump.
While reading your novel, a Zadie Smith quote occurred to me: “Every moment happens twice: inside and outside, and they are two different histories.” It seems to me that your novel is interested in exploring that tension between inner and outer histories. “You’re digging for history,” one character tells another at one point. And I loved another history-related line that landed almost as an accusation, elsewhere in the book: “Her father only cared about history.”
History is not a constant. It is constantly renegotiated. Because the novel covers a sweep of 120 years we see events and experiences accrete. We see lies (for example, that the British poisoned the meat rations in 1901) get promoted to truth and truth be tarnished as lies (that more women and children died in the camps then soldiers died in the war). Dramatic irony happens in the space between competing truths. There are direct plot connections but I’ve also left a lot of space for the reader in this book. I’m not rushing to conclusions.
How important was research in — as you put it in your Acknowledgements — “bringing a forgotten history to life”? And how much in the end had to be trusted in the end to the other key elements of creative reincarnation — imagination, and intuition?
The accounts gathered by Emily Hobhouse, an Englishwoman who travelled to South Africa in 1901, are invaluable for details on the British scorched-earth policy and the camps. But I also spent time with Raymond’s mother and she was generous to let me in, given that she was pilloried in the media. I felt a great sense of responsibility to get my facts right and to be fair. Although some of the book is inspired by real events, I am also telling a story. The book took five years, and most of that was research. The distant past is easier to do — there is more of it. The recent past is harder to see. Once I’d got all that right I could see the spaces for my imagination to be free.
Was cultural appropriation a concern for you?
Having seen the ongoing effects of colonization in South Africa, it was vital to me that I not ride in and take over the story or act as a white rescuer. Writers must be free to tell the stories they need to tell. Else we’d only have memoir. But with such wild freedom comes huge responsibility. First, am I telling a story someone else is better placed to tell — am I silencing a voice or putting someone out of a job? Very little has been written about the women and children in the camps. After I’d named my characters, I found almost identical names on the memorial at the Anglo-Boer War Museum in South Africa, on a slab of marble that feels cold even in midday sun. I could almost hear Sarah and Fred. And as for Willem — the boy in my contemporary story — he’s a lot like me, and if I’d been born into his world I would have been sent to such a camp.
I felt I had to make the world aware of what these places really are to save even one boy from the same fate. After that, it’s about research and getting it right which also means acknowledging your privilege and limits. I spoke to South African author Gillian Slovo about it and she said, “Good, I’m glad you’re writing this because you don’t have a horse in the race.” I also had two other South African writers read the manuscript, and my brilliant editor, Alexa Von Hirschberg, is South African. I’m not claiming to tell the whole story or only one point of view. I aimed to uncover a hidden history and show its corrosive influence now.
White in South Africa is as diverse and disputed a category of identity as black. Then and now, black workers — by which I mean, the exploited labor of people of color — are central to the lives of Sarah and also of the contemporary characters. I show these people and their lives and stories pushed to the margins. In this way, I call the characters to account for their racism rather than commit an act of elision. And I chose to make the most powerful character in the novel, the judge, a black woman.
To what extent, as this book took shape, were you interested in exploring landscape, and the ways in which landscape acts as connective tissue for the narrative strands?
South Africa is Eden in many ways. The characters then and now feel lucky to live in such a dramatically varied and beautiful land. They are all aware of the spell the light and space cast, and it’s worth fighting for. I was dazzled by it when I was there. A strand of the story explores this idea of who this beauty belongs to — the Boers think it belongs to them, then the English think it’s theirs, and on the pendulum swings. I cast my eye further back and challenge the idea that this land was empty until the Dutch arrived and civilized it. It’s not called the cradle of civilization for nothing.
Can we talk a little bit — for readers who aren’t yet familiar with it — about how and why the Second Boer War has sometimes been characterized (mischaracterized, your novel suggests) as “the last gentlemen’s war”?
Because it was done in the name of Queen Victoria. Men on horseback in lovely scarlet uniforms. Acts of derring-do against the savage natives and wild Boers. Conan Doyle was there — writing anti-Boer propaganda: he circulated the horrific pic of Lizzie van Zyl, and said the death rate was because Boer women were bad mothers. Churchill was a war reporter there and dined out on his escapades ever after. And Queen Victoria died while the war raged so that act of mourning became part of the story. And of course there is the revolting Kipling anthem.
Do you see any links between this novel and your first book, the memoir Maggie & Me? It seems to me both may be interested in the very personal effects of quite impersonal political actions — and both books also engage, I think, with notions of vulnerability and outsider status?
I think I’ll always be writing about mothers and sons and survival and the struggle to be oneself. Those themes leap from the pages of both of my books. Jeanette Winterson said, we always bleed from the same wound. I am staunching myself with stories. First memoir, now fiction, and who knows what next — Maggie & Me is being adapted for TV by Andrea Gibb, who writes Call the Midwife. But, real or inspired by real events, or totally imagined, they have to feel true to me. And urgent. I’d never do a Matisse and just take a line for a walk, see where a random idea might lead. I need a burning reason, a sense that I need to tell this story and can’t have rest until I do. It’s a truism that the personal is political. It’s more vital than ever that we see this now and accept that the person can’t exist, or exist as they need to, without engaging in political struggle and always fighting for others to share that hard-won freedom. Vigilance, resistance, persistence.
How important have writer mentors like Diana Athill been in forming your artistic sensibility?
Diana was my first reader for Maggie & Me and You Will Be Safe Here. She edited Jean Rhys, V.S. Naipaul, and Molly Keane, among other writers I admire, so it was a privilege and also intimidating to have her “beady” eye cast over my words.
In both books I was processing trauma — my own in memoir, and in fiction that of the women and children in the British camps and the boys in the contemporary camps. So early drafts were relentlessly dark. Diana told me, “Give them more love.” Not to brighten things up but to show what was lost or fought for, and to heighten the contrast. In You Will Be Safe Here, this meant writing the love story of Sarah and her husband Samuel, who left her and their son Fred on their farm to go fight. For me, this was my mom and dad and sister before all the abuse and awfulness that followed their divorce. The reader can hold those memories close as the characters face the greatest adversity. As an editor and writer, Diana always impressed upon me the value of editing. And David Nicholls, another reader, of voice. So I spent a year reading the book aloud and hearing it new. South African writers Margie Orford and Zee Cube read it and drew my attention to inaccuracies and assumptions, especially regarding language, which is perhaps more politicized there than anywhere else.
Have you met any readers on your book tour travels who have changed or bolstered your perceptions of the world of your novel and its roots in history?
People are as surprised as I was by what they didn’t know — the hidden history of the Boer Wars. But there is always one person determined to defend Britain. I listen and I hear the fear about Britain’s loss of status in the world. And a human fear that to admit the crimes of the past is somehow to be guilty or handwringing in the present. But the opposite is true. Britain cannot move forward into the future, whether Brexit happens or not, without fully acknowledging our past. Empire is the dark heart of this. Glossing the past with nostalgia for railways and other machinery of empire is dishonest and does us no favors now. You Will Be Safe Here doesn’t take sides — it simply shows there were and are sides. It sheds light on one hidden history but there so many stories still to be told. And we need to make room for all those stories.
What’s amazing is that the Boer War was not that long ago — for some older readers, their grandparents were fighting for survival in these camps. I’ve met the great-granddaughter of a woman who survived Bloemfontein, where You Will Be Safe Here is set, and a man who fought on commando. That same woman’s cousin had been put in one of contemporary camps very recently but survived. These stories, then and now, are not being told — this history is not taught in our schools. Instead, we offer to glory in the world wars. It’s so moving seeing people validated by having part of their story told in fiction. It’s empowering for them and for me. Fiction is a mirror held up to life — not everyone likes what they see and nor should they.