Interview with South African novelist and playwright Jane Taylor, part 3 of 3

Below is the last bit of my interview with the lovely Jane Taylor. You can read part 1 here and part 2 here

LV = Literary Vittles

Jane = Jane Taylor

LV: The next thing I was going to ask was about your relationship with South Africa and the United States. Because obviously you began in South Africa but now you have held positions at Oxford, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern. How do you navigate that divide? How has being in two different countries impacted you?

Jane: I think it’s probably ruined me forever! There are so many kinds of inquiry that I can’t ask anywhere in South Africa, but there are so many kinds of inquiry that I can’t ask anywhere but Chicago, not even the United States. There is something so distinctive about the habits of political wrangling and the volleying commitment to the political in Chicago that I really love, and its defense of public space. There are many aspects of Chicago, its defense of the working class story, and its radical theatrical experimentalism. Chicago is a crazy city for small theatres. It allows anything to happen inside a room with a few seats at a corner theatre. Many of the great cities of the world have lavish theatrical environments. Chicago has a lavish theatrical environment, but it also has broom cupboards that it understands are experimental environments and I love that about it.

LV: Yes, I just went to a Second City performance a couple of weeks ago.

Jane: I’ve never been you know, how was it?

LV: It’s a comedic improv group, I think there are 5 or 6 of them. It’s a mixture of improvisation and pre-scripted scenes and practices. It was very interesting. It’s very much a dialogue with the audience, and they perform scenes that the audience wants to see, and vice versa.

Jane: That always strikes me as such extraordinarily risky business, and it’s really mysterious to me that people will take that on. It’s marvelous, did you love it?

LV: Oh I loved it yes, it was very entertaining.

Jane: Was it very political?

LV: Extremely. There was one black actor who was Barack Obama pretty much throughout the entire thing. It was quite funny, he had to field insults and challenges from the other actors.

Jane: Were they resentful of his automatic celebrity?

LV: Well, you know, because of his physical appearance he had the unique ability to play not only Barack Obama, but a number of other celebrities and political figures. I was thinking about that, reflecting on that—they couldn’t have done half the skits they did if he weren’t a member of the cast.

Jane: That’s so interesting! We work with a puppet troupe who are largely black performers, but because of puppetry, they can be any color they want to be, or any gender they want to be. There’s something very porous and flexible about experiments with the self that can be undertaken inside puppetry that you don’t get saddled with your biological identity. For some people I think that’s pretty thrilling and liberating, that you can mess around with who you are.

LV: I think in American film particularly, there have been some experiments with that. But it’s not as common, and when it is done, it’s usually heralded as a great experiment. I’m just thinking of Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan, and how her performance was held up as a model because that is so rarely done.

Jane: I didn’t see that, how was it?

LV: I actually haven’t seen it, I’ve only seen clips from it, but I’m very aware of the movie itself because of all the hype it created.

Jane: I think it was easier at some stage, certainly in theatre than on film because one is so close to the dissembling around makeup and all those things. I have to say, even something like a trans-generational performance, I don’t know if you saw Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover? For the bulk of the movie, he played him as a man in his 70s, and it’s an absolutely astounding performance!

LV: Ok, I must see it then.

Jane: So interesting to watch. You have to take him so seriously. He always works harder than he needs to, and that’s pretty remarkable. It’s really shocking to see him embody this aging being who’s frail and vulnerable. It’s rather beautiful.

LV: The most dramatic one that I can remember that I really enjoyed was Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, and she follows her through the trajectory of her career, and plays her both as a 20-year-old girl and a 70-year-old woman.

Jane: To find ways of inhabiting that other’s body, and that other’s subjectivity, I think there are a couple of different ways of think about that. Race, gender, and age are all kind of natural thresholds, and it’s pretty exciting when you see someone really doing the work of understanding what it is to be transported out of yourself in that way.

LV: Do you think that literature can be a good conduit for that sort of thing?

Jane: I’ve just been teaching a Midwest faculty seminar on J. M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. I’ve been thinking about Coetzee quite distinctively, and he constructs some very bizarre experiments in which he uses a kind of focalizing point of view where he’s very close to someone but he doesn’t enter into the first person. For example, Disgrace starts out clearly in the third person, so there’s nothing that happens that isn’t seen in that point of view. But in the last third, it switches to the first person. Yet the first person section is harder to comprehend than the third person section that preceded it. I think there have been some marvelous experiments trying to understand what fiction can do, and how fiction can help us to get inside of someone else. The natural expectation that a first-person narrative is necessarily going to get you closer to a subject than a third-person narrative—maybe it’s not true. Maybe others understand us better than we understand ourselves. When you are in control of the narrative, you are full of your own self-delusions. Whereas if someone else is watching you, they’re aware of the mists coming off of your skin the whole time, and they can see the ways in which one lies to oneself. I think that they both offer up intriguing experiments to think with.

LV: Well this has been fantastic.

Jane: I’m delighted, it’s been so nice to talk to you.

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