Gangs, violence and beautiful Cape Town. Meet Margie Orford!

– Unless they are trying to kill you, South Africans are the nicest people.
Margie Orford talks South African crime, Blade Runner, gang violence, the future of Clare Hart and Redwaan Faizal. And hands out some solid Cape Town tips!

Margie Orford recently visited Norway for the release of Pappas pike, the translation of her excellent 2011 crime novel Daddy’s Girl. Born in London, Margie Orford grew up in Namibia, and now calls Cape Town home. She was a Fulbright Scholar, is the Executive Vice-President of South African PEN the patron of Rape Crisis, and has been one of the most prolific crime writers emerging from the beautiful, dramatic and interesting South Africa in recent years. We sent Margie Orford a couple of questions about her writing, South African movies and books, the marvellous Cape Town and the ugly violence. Here we go:

Hi Margie! Hope you enjoyed your time in Norway and that your trip back home was ok. What are you writing on nowadays?
— I loved being in Norway. The Crime Festival was my third visit and for me it’s been like visiting Narnia. The snow is magical (we don’t get any in Cape Town) and it gives me this childish bubble of excitement to see the whole world veiled in white. I also find the law-abiding civility of Oslo so exotic. It amazes me every time I cross a road to see the cars slow down for pedestrians. I have to confess to finding the price of a glass of wine pretty exotic too. Right now I am writing the sixth book in my crime series. I have spent so much time with my lead characters, Clare Hart and Riedwaan Faizal, that this book feels like a way of writing more deeply into them – they have spent as many years as I have up close to some of the worst forms of violence and it has taken its toll on them and on me. Extreme violence is an every day reality in South Africa in a way that it is not in Scandinavia so this book – provisionally titled Zero at the Bone (a line from an Emily Dickinsin poem) will be a more psychological thriller than the previous books. The experience of violence changes one – its an alchemical process, I think – and I want to write about what those changes are and how one makes peace with what one has seen. One can, I have learned the hard way, never ‘un-see’ or ‘un-feel’ things no matter one wishes one there was a delete button in one’s heart.

Your book Daddy’s Girl (Flink pike in Norwegian) is out in Norway now, how would you describe the book and its content in a couple of sentences?
— The book is about fatherhood and the plot is – on the surface – simple: Yasmin, a six year old ballet dancer disappears and her father, police Captain Riedwaan Faizal is the prime suspect as he is locked into a bitter custody dispute with his ex-wife. He turns to Clare Hart, a profiler and investigative journalist who has specialized in femicide, to help him find her. She does – both of them know that if you don’t find a missing child within 72 hours the chance of finding her alive are minimal.

It is sometime painful to read your books because of the violence towards kids and women, where do you get inspiration from for your plots/stories?
– South Africa is a complicated society – in Daddy’s Girl I took a familiar crime story narrative but placed in a society that, in my view, is often feral. A society that all to often preys on the vulnerable if one’s vigilance slips for just a moment. So the predator is not some lone psycho – it is a society that is predatory. It was frightening to research and write. It is, I have been told, frightening to read but there is hope in both the strength of the little girl and Clare Hart’s courage and intelligence. I am – or I was – an investigative journalist so I have spent a lot of time researching the world I write about. The notorious Cape Number gangs play a central part in this novel. At the time I was working in a maximum security prison – teaching creative writing to some extremely violent prisoners – many of them with several life sentences. Here is a piece I wrote about that experience. But most of the work – as a journalist and as a novelist – has been an attempt to understand violence – really look at what it is and how it affects people – and to understand the extraordinary resilience in people. To find what it is that enables people to pick up their lives after trauma – how they find a way back to eating, talking, holding their children and even back to making love again.

Compared to Nordic crime, where the violence is often exaggerated just for the sake of violence, South African crime fiction and movies seems to be more of a reflection of a violent society. Why is it like that?
– I winnow out the worst, that is what it feels like. There is no way I could write about some of the things I have seen, certainly not in a novel. Our newspapers are so lurid, so many of the crimes – especially against women and children – so extreme that what one needs to do is to distil things down into something comprehensible, something that can be shaped by aesthetics into meaning again. Violence shatters language, it shatters social cohesion, so writing about it in fiction is a way of restoring language and community, in a strange way. Norway – apart from the horror of the massacre at Utøya – is a very peaceful country, something that, as an outsider, takes a great deal of effort and restraint on the part of all its citizens. South Africa – which has such a violent past – is trying to find its way towards a social contract that is built on compassion rather than dominance, but there is no point, it seems to me, in not representing in fiction what that violence looks like. The only way to make it go away is to look at it and understand it.

What are your favorite South African crime novels?
– Deon Meyer’s Devil’s Peak And – this is not a crime novel in the usual sense – JM Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace.

What are your favorite South African movies?
– You have to watch Tsotsi. And my favourite, Jerusalema. A movie about gangs who hijacked buildings in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Whole buildings. It was all based on fact – I know because a lawyer friend of mine worked on some of the cases back then. There’s a new film out too – Four Corners – which, although the plotting is flawed at times, gives the viewer a great insight into the Cape Flats – the poor, hard ganglands outside Cape Town.
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We have read lots of tabloid stories on the Oscar Pistorius aka Blade Runner trial, what is your take on the trial?
– Oscar Pistorius fired four bullets into a locked door and he knew there was a human being hiding on the other side of that door. I cannot imagine we will ever know if it was intentional femicide – the murder of his girlfriend – or not. What we do know (and Pistorius knew it too – he took the test to get a gun licence) is that there is no justifiable legal reason for shooting. Under South African law you may only shoot in self-defence if an armed attacker is coming at you. But if you want more detail, here it is.

And finally: what are your favorite things to do in Cape Town? We need some insider tips for our next trip!
– Cape Town! Best place for a holiday – and remember that, unless they are trying to kill you, South Africans are the nicest people. Best things to do:
Bakhoven Beach is Cape Town’s best kept secret. There are more famous beaches – Camps Bay and Clifton – but this is the place locals go and swim and take a bottle of champagne or two for sunset
Olympia Café in Kalk Bay for breakfast or dinner, and a walk around the little stone harbour.
Climbing Lion’s Head at full moon – a real value for effort climb with spectacular views.
The Cable Car, of course – up Table Mountain but make the effort to walk along the top to McClear’s Beacon – you will escape the tourists and the views are really breathtaking.
The Green Room in Kommetjie. Genuine surfer’s restaurant – so expect much happiness but not the most intellectual of conversations. Then drive on to Cape Point and back through Simon’s Town – and stop at the Olympia (see above) for dinner.
The Book Lounge in Roeland Street – best bookstore in Africa, great coffee.
The Kitchen in Woodstock – try their Love Sandwiches – and the galleries around there for very interesting contemporary art – The Michael Stevenson and the Goodman will give you a place to start.
Societi Bistro in Orange Street for very good food and wine.
…and just walk – Cape Town is an old city and, like all cities designed before cars, you get to know it best by exploring on foot – the Bo Kaap, Greenmarket Square, the Company Gardens – there are cafes and bars everywhere and it is a working city so – as long as you don’t wear socks and sandals – you wont look like a tourist.