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Hard-earned Swagger and Confidence at the Launch of Jaco van Schalkwyk’s The Alibi Club

 
The Alibi ClubDie Alibi KlubWhen Jaco van Schalkwyk and Melt Myburgh first met, they were both at the University of Stellenbosch in a creative writing class under the mentorship of Marlene van Niekerk and Willem Anker. “It was the complete and coherent and total destruction of anything I’ve ever made,” Van Schalkwyk said.

Myburgh remembered the state Van Schalkwyk was in after that first class, after Van Niekerk told him he was writing in the wrong language – Afrikaans. That evening as Van Schalkwyk drove from Stellenbosch to Cape Town he hit a deer. “Were I a year younger I would have committed suicide,” he said.

Years later Van Schalkwyk would write Die Alibi Klub, first in Afrikaans, then tackling the daunting challenge of translating his prose into English as The Alibi Club.

Van Schalkwyk and Myburgh were in conversation at the launch of The Alibi Club at David Krut Bookshop.

Van Schalkwyk insists that first creative writing class was a pivotal moment in his life. After hitting the deer he went home and, down in the dumps, remembered what he had learned in primary school: “Bennie skop die bal. Die bal is rond.” (Bennie kicks the ball. The ball is round.) He realised then that he should treat language as a logical, coherent thing. That is why, he said, you’ll find no floral descriptions in his book.

And publishing The Alibi Club has been another turning point for Van Schalkwyk.

Myburgh asked the debut novelist about writing American Afrikaans, or as he called it, “Afrikaans met ’n drôl” (Afrikaans with a drawl).

Van Schalkwyk said he always admired the great Americans authors like Ernest Hemingway, whose prose held “real swagger”. Van Schalkwyk appreciates the highly confident, never questioning, and completely vulnerable aspects of American prose. Closer to home, Van Schalkwyk said he drew inspiration from Herman Charles Bosman and Eugène Marais for the way they could “put a knife into a story”. Van Schalkwyk said Bosman and Marais have taught him to be brave and to respect the reader enough to “challenge and completely destroy them”.

“Confidence is the thing,” Van Schalkwyk said . “What I found in that course is confidence, what I found in America is confidence.”

The Alibi Club is set in New York at a dive bar called The Alibi between 1998 and 2007. Van Schalkwyk said he decided to keep the characters’ real names, because his grandmother taught him “jy noem ’n ding op sy naam” (you call a spade a spade). Van Schalkwyk decided during the writing process to avoid being a silent witness or a “fly on the wall”. Instead, he wanted to be a responsible participant in the creation of the text and the story as it unfolded.

The Alibi Club is fiction, said Van Schalkwyk, but he hoped that keeping the characters’ real names would somehow transcend that fiction to create a codex for specific people in a specific neighbourhood at a very difficult time in the world’s history books. “I wanted to be quite honest in my approach to fiction. I question fiction and I used to read mostly non-fiction,” he said.

“I’m used to artmaking in that I don’t understand what I’m doing until the work reflects the possibilities of what I could be doing.” Van Schalkwyk said he wanted to make fiction, to find a test for fiction in order to answer the questions: “When is fiction valid and how does it function?”

Myburgh asked Van Schalkwyk how his background as a visual artist influenced his writing.

Van Schalkwyk answered the question by making reference to Niggie by Ingrid Winterbach, who also began her career as a visual artist. “If you’re writing about something you must be able to describe the scene,” he said. He called this the “architecture of the scene” – to describe the geography of the space, but also to change that space into action. “In the writing process you’re not just depicting, but also activating,” he said.
 

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Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:


 

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