|Biographical notes by Regan Books (imprint of HarperCollins), New York
Describing the generation of South African authors of which he is internationally most widely known, Etienne van Heerden quotes American writer Philip Roth: “Actuality was outdoing our talents.”
Van Heerden, born in 1954, debuted in a time when he and other young South African writers saw themselves as New Journalists, filling the silences of a censored socio-political space with their fictions.
His first book, a youth novel (Matoli), which uses a farm setting as a microcosm of South Africa’s racial tensions, was published in 1978, while Van Heerden was still a postgraduate law student. In the novel, whose title is the name of the young black boy who steals the rifle of the owner’s son in a symbolic act of transfer of power, Van Heerden predicted the regime changes of later years to younger readers.
With childhood nanny Annie Steyn on the farm, 1956. Her family worked for the Van Heerdens for four generations.
Visiting the ancestral grounds, 1984.
It was the first Afrikaans youth novel touching on racial issues, he explains, and points to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies as a major inspiration for this first book of his.
His next work of fiction was the short story collection My Kubaan (My Cuban) (1983), in which the title story explores the complex and eroticised relationship between the captor, a South African paratrooper, and the captive, a Cuban soldier.
The setting is the border between Namibia and Angola, which was, in the eighties, a flashpoint of battle between South Africa’s Apartheid forces (covertly supported by the USA) and Fidel Castro’s soldiers, aided by the Marxist MPLA.
Van Heerden, born blind in the right eye, wasn’t called up for combat duty, but served as a dog handler, showing his Alsation, Caesar, at major festivals, urging him to jump through hoops of fire, which is an apt description, he says, of the risks that writing carries.
Van Heerden’s first international breakthrough came in 1987 with the publication of his novel Toorberg, which was also published in English in several countries, including the USA, under the title Ancestral Voices, and translated into ten languages in all. Toorberg won all the major literary awards in South Africa, establishing its author as the leading novelist of his generation.
Van Heerden went on to publish several other novels. Die swye van Mario Salviati (The Long Silence of Mario Salviati) (2001) proved to be an international bestseller, being bought by English, Greek, French, Dutch, German and Russian publishers.
Van Heerden was born six years after the official advent of Apartheid and his novel Kikoejoe (Kikuyu) describes the childhood years of the protagonist living through the period when the Winds of Change were blowing over Africa.
During the eighties he was member of a group of Afrikaans writers who secretly met with the banned ANC and exiled writers at the now famous Victoria Falls Writers’ Conference held in Zimbabwe, just north of South Africa.
Six years later Nelson Mandela became the first president of the new democratic South Africa, and Van Heerden is seen as one of the members of a generation of Afrikaans writers, intellectuals and musicians who contributed significantly to opening up the Afrikaner psyche to change.
Van Heerden confides that his mother was a mathematics teacher and English speaking, representing an easier, more relaxed and liberal South African attitude. His father, a merino stud breeder, farmed the family farm in the Karoo, the oldest family farm in the line of a direct patriarchal lineage in the Eastern Cape. He was Afrikaans speaking, and Van Heerden was brought up in Afrikaans, with Tuesdays being the day for speaking English at home, and for reading comics ordered from London, he says.
Van Heerden’s major works are historical novels, either looking back at the distant past, reinventing the events, or documenting contemporary history. Casspirs and Camparis, for example, is a satirical novel set in the eighties in South Africa, in a time of great turmoil and excitement. (Casspirs were armoured vehicles used for riot control during township protests.) The novel ends with Mandela’s release and the promise of new times. In some of his historical novels (such as Thirty Nights in Amsterdam) he also explores Karoo mythology and folkore.
He talks of the unpredictability of the past, and sees his task as voicing the silences, continually reimagining the past, when so much of life used to be buried under military power and censorship.
“My generation of writers saw themselves as alternative historians, urged by circumstances to lay bare the true currents of power, and the disparities between the possessors and the dispossessed,” he explains. “We wrote against canonised Apartheid history.”
With his elder brother, Johann, his father, Gerrie, and his mother, Doreen, at the Doornbosch homestead.
He quotes an important saying: “If you don’t take out that which is within you, that which is within you will destroy you, but if you take out that which is within you, that which is within you will save you.”
Van Heerden also wrote and staged satirical cabarets in the Dutch and German tradition, which was a very effective method of protesting, he explains, during the difficult eighties.
Although one of Van Heerden’s early books, Om te awol (To awol)(1984), was an anti-military novella, he never left South Africa permanently, and now teaches at the University of Cape Town, where he is the Hofmeyr Professor in the School of Languages and Literatures, and chairs the Afrikaans and Netherlandic Studies section. In addition, he contributes to UCT’s MA Creative Writing programme.
Of his generation of writers, Van Heerden has won the most literary awards in his native country. He regularly teaches at universities in Europe, and has been Writer in Residence at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands and the University of Antwerp in Belgium. He regularly reads his fiction at events such as the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, the Winter Nights Festival in the Hague, Netherlands, the Time of the Writer Festival in Berlin, Germany, the Zimbabwe Book Fair, and other international festivals and events.
He was a member of the University of Iowa’s prestigious International Writing Program in 1990, and has been back on visits to that university, of which he is an Honorary Fellow in Writing.
Van Heerden initially studied law, and was admitted to the South African Side Bar as an attorney. He freelanced as a deputy sheriff for the Civil Court, and moved about in the townships around Cape Town, serving civil summonses and learning a great deal about life in an oppressed community. As an articled clerk in Bellville, his clients were mostly from the black and coloured crime-ridden communities around Cape Town.
Van Heerden also lectured Legal Practice at the Peninsula Technikon and spent two “glorious years” in advertising. His advertising career led to his novel Casspirs and Camparis.
In his historical novels, Van Heerden explores Karoo mythology and folkore.
At age thirty, with the birth of his elder daughter, Van Heerden left the eight-in-the-morning-to-five-the-next-morning routine of a budding Cape Town advertising agency, and together with his wife, baby daughter and an enormous Labrador trekked to the remote University of Zululand, in the subtropical region of northern KwaZulu-Natal, south of Mozambique, where he started out on his academic career as a specialist in literature.
In 1987 author André P Brink offered Van Heerden a position at Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape, and here he finally settled into a career of writing and teaching.
His current activities at the University of Cape Town include the supervision of Creative Writing, where he has led a generation of young English and Afrikaans authors to published status, and the lecturing of courses in Literary Theory, Media Studies, and South African and Dutch Literature.
His PhD, published, was a study on engagement and postmodernism (Rhodes University). His research interests include internet and web theory and historiography and fiction, on which he has published in journals internationally. In 2012 the University of the Free State awarded him a DLitt honoris causa.
Van Heerden has published two collections of poetry, two collections of short stories, a collection of cabaret songs, theoretical and academic work, and a number of novels. His activities span a wide range — he was a syndicated columnist in three major Afrikaans dailies which are published countrywide in South Africa, had his own programme insert on satellite television, and is the founder-editor of LitNet, one of the few South African internet start-ups to survive the dot.bomb meltdown in South Africa.
Stellenbosch is surrounded by vineyards and mountains, with occasional snowfall.
LitNet, whose stated aim is to “voice South African culture”, is a multilingual space for rigorous cultural debate and new writing, with established South African authors and many new voices participating. According to the latest surveys, the site has been drawing more than 600 000 page impressions per month.
Van Heerden serves on the board of NB Publishers, which includes Kwela, Pharos, Tafelberg and Human & Rousseau Publishers, among others.
Van Heerden is married to Kaia, a practising medical doctor, and has two daughters, Imke and Menán.
His German-speaking wife’s family lives in Europe, and the Van Heerden family regularly spend holidays in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands.
Van Heerden lives in Stellenbosch, the oldest town in South Africa, in the home in which he spent his high school and university years after the early death of his father and the traumatic loss of the family farm. Situated as it is amidst high mountain ranges and verdant vineyards, Stellenbosch is internationally known for its beautiful setting, and Van Heerden loves to cycle and walk in the mountains.
Although he lives in the Western Cape, he periodically returns, in his writing, to the Karoo of his childhood. This arid and mythological part of South Africa’s deep interior is his own “landscape of the mind,” he says.
The “Murderer’s Karoo”, Van Heerden’s “Landscape of the Mind”, and the background to many of his novels.
He writes in Afrikaans, and points out that more than half of Afrikaans speakers are not white Afrikaners, but so-called coloured South Africans, descendants of slaves from the East and the Khoisan peoples of southern Africa.
Having survived a quadruple coronary bypass at the age of 47, Van Heerden still lives passionately and refers to the operation as “a character-building experience”.
“Hypercholesterolaemia,” he smiles, “is a genetic Calvinist disease, visited on white Afrikaans males. It’s the sins of the fathers flowing in our veins.”