Freedom never rests an interview with James Kilgore | by Andre Marais

by Mar 15, 2012Magazine

kilgoreKilgore’s remarkable debut novel We Are All Zimbabwean Now (2009) is a wonderful piece of fiction. It tells the story of an idealistic young American’s growing disenchantment with Mugabe. A member of the SLA (Symbionese Liberation Army, a US left-wing urban militant group), Kilgore fled a Federal explosives charge in 1975 and remained a fugitive for 27 years. Until US secret services captured him, he was in southern Africa spending most of his time as a political activist, researcher and teacher. In his latest novel, Freedom never rests, he creates a very believable political drama in the context of delivery protests in South Africa, with a strong-willed trade unionist as its main protagonist. Addressing these issues is somewhat of a rarity in current South African fiction. Amandla! had the chance to interview him. Freedom Never Rests, James Kilgore, Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2011
Andre Marais (AM): In this novel, you return back to Africa and Southern Africa, any reason for this?
James Kilgore (JK): I lived in southern Africa for 20 years. My kids were born in southern Africa. I met my wife in southern Africa. During my time in the region, I immersed myself in the political struggles of the day. When I was arrested and extradited to the US to serve six and a half years in prison, I felt as if I had been ripped away from my roots. Writing about southern Africa helped me to maintain an emotional connection to this place where my family and friends lived, where my comrades continued their struggles for popular power and the fabled better life for all.
What was the main inspiration for the novel?
In the introduction, I write about this. The moment of inspiration came when I was incarcerated at the Federal Detention Center in Dublin, California. As I got out of the shower, I peeked into the empty stall next to me. The shower was going full blast, spraying a thick stream of hot water, all going to waste. It would be a month before anyone came to rectify the situation. Every time I saw that water gushing out I thought of communities in South Africa that I had visited and researched, places where municipalities and private providers were squeezing every last cent out of the poorest water consumers. So that water was my initial spark, but then I thought beyond water, thought about people organising, trying to make sense out of the new dispensation in South Africa and attempting to figure out what their stance should be toward the new ruling party if it failed to deliver on its promises. These were complicated political and historical questions, issues of organisation, economics, ultimately part of the global struggle against the neoliberal order. So my story about water got bigger and bigger. Then I had to bring it down to the personal level, to develop characters who could play out the complexities of this political period. That’s where the lead character, ex–shop steward revolutionary, Monwabisi Radebe, was born, along with his tension-filled marriage to Constantia.
AM: Can you say a little about the setting of the Eastern Cape and the service delivery protest?
JK: I chose the Eastern Cape simply because it was the real heartland of the ruling party, the home of Madiba, Govan Mbeki and so many others. It was more symbolic than an attempt to portray the deepest details of the Eastern Cape. In reality, this story could have taken place in almost any part of South Africa. Service delivery protests are everywhere. People still have not reached the promised land of the RDP.
AM: What and whom are your major influences as a writer of political fiction?
JK: My models are somewhat little known these days: B. Traven and Victor Serge. Traven was a German fugitive who lived out his life in Mexico and wrote a series known as the ‘jungle novels’. They told the story of the rise and fall of the Mexican Revolution. Serge was a Bolshevik who became disenchanted with the Soviet Union. He spent time as a political prisoner in France and the Soviet Union and wrote most of his fiction while incarcerated.  Many of his manuscripts were destroyed by the authorities but his masterpiece, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, provides us with a shining sample of his potential and insight. Many others are  important for me as well, African writers like Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Sembène Ousmane. And I’m a big fan of less political authors like Zora Neale Hurston, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers and Armistead Maupin, who have such great insight into issues of race and gender.
AM: In your latest novel you seem to sketch some very convincing characters and believable scenarios – to what extent is your distance from the situation helpful on the one hand and a disadvantage on the other?
JK: I don’t think distance helped at all. I spent hours and hours trying to think myself back into South Africa, back into the times and situations I experienced, trying to remember sights, smells, peoples’ sense of humor and irony, the rhythms of their speech. I believe I could have written a better book if I had been able to go to South Africa and write it, but I couldn’t. I was in prison. I had to try to compensate by being meticulous with the things I could research, the details of the political context.
AM: While your novel exposes the bitter betrayals and collusion between a new, deeply flawed political elite and multinationals, it also tells the story of a rebirth of grassroots activism. Can you say a little about this?
JK: That’s what the title is all about – freedom never rests. Freedom is something that changes over time. It’s not a static concept. Elections, for example, seem to be the ultimate victory for the freedom struggle, but after awhile, they lose their power. Electing people who genuinely serve the popular interest becomes harder and harder. So I’m trying to probe how complicated this struggle for democracy really is and yet despite such complications people like my lead character, Monwabisi Radebe, remain true to their ideals. Still while he was a man of principle, Monwabisi couldn’t quite figure out how to be effective in the new order. Should he remain true to the party? Should he help others who want to forge an alternative? Or should he just try to do the best he can for his wife and family? Very difficult questions which confronted and continue to confront everyone who sincerely believes in the importance of a democracy that includes economic justice and grassroots political power.
AM: I would describe both as optimistic works, which is different from a lot of the angst ridden political fiction coming out of South Africa at present. How much SA fiction do you read and did you deliberately set out to give your work an optimistic spin?
JK: I guess I remain an optimist. I’ve lived through three failed revolutions –  the US social movements in the sixties and seventies, Zimbabwe in the eighties, and South Africa post-1994  (which we can call a success in some way at the political level but definitely a failure as a revolutionary project ). I still maintain belief in the old adage ‘every cook can govern’, belief in the power of workers, rural people, the ‘povho’ to eventually create a society different from anything we’ve experienced to date.
I read J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace when I was in prison and it made me very angry. He’s a great writer in terms of all the elements of the craft – character, the power of his language and all that. I could never pretend to have his level of skill. But I asked myself: Why, out of all the tragedies of the South African situation, did he have to pick the alienation of a white academic to try to explain what happened post-1994? This US writing guru John Gardner, who is fairly moderate in many ways, once said that the task of the genuine fiction writer is to tackle the big questions of the day, the questions that are vital to society. Coetzee ran away from this.
I did try to tackle some of these big questions in Freedom Never Rests. For me those were things like: What form does democracy take? How must people organise themselves in order to reverse the inequality and racism of apartheid? Will elections suffice? Will a TRC suffice? Will a traditional political party be enough to carry out a fully fledged transition to democracy? And, in the era of neoliberalism, how can workers and poor people fight back? These are big questions that people in their daily lives are grappling with as they try to gain access to basic necessities that the rich and powerful have no interest in providing. So I have an optimistic slant in that I try to show people constantly engaging with these questions. But I’m also not trying to pretend that there are easy answers or formulas we can apply. And my characters, even the ones I love, like Monwabisi, Florence Matshaka and Mama Mehlo, don’t live happily ever after. But as they used to say in the black freedom struggle in the US, they keep on keepin’ on.
AM: How much writing did you do in prison?
JK: A lot. I came out with manuscripts of eight novels. Some handwritten, some written on typewriters. I also wrote a screenplay of my first novel, a few dozen poems and a couple dozen short stories. I’ve been out for two and a half years and I’m still ploughing through that material and trying to get more of it ready. My third novel, which is a murder mystery, involving the killing of an undocumented Zimbabwean woman in California, features a crime-solving team which includes some white ex-prisoners and a black South African woman. The characters bring together different strands of my own life and speak to the potentials for solidarity amongst the marginalised in this era.
AM: What’s your take on the Occupy Wall Street protests?
JK: They are a wonderful breath of fresh air in that they have raised the issue of economic and social inequality in the US and around the world in a way that nothing has done in a long time. I admire the occupiers, despite the limitations of their movement in terms of class and race.
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