By Edward Nawotka
The year 2011 marks the end of a busy decade for Boston-based novelist David Schmahmann. It was a period that he spent thinking, exploring and writing a great deal about his birthplace…South Africa. The decade was bookended by the publication of two seminal books about the country: 2001′s John Gardner Book Award-winning Empire Settings, a drama about the relationship between a wealthy white South African teenage boy who falls in love with a black domestic servant during Apartheid, and a new, just released novel, Ivory from Paradise.
Ivory from Paradise is a entrancing saga of a South African family’s fight over the ownership of priceless elephant tusks given to Nathaniel Isaacs, one of the first Europeans to set foot in South Africa, by King Shaka – the legendary leader of the Zulu nation, which were prized pieces in a family art collection. When the family matriarch dies, her children return to Durban (Schmahmann’s own childhood home) where they uncover some unsettling truths about their own history and the provenance of the tusks – all of which force them to come to terms with their romance of the past and the reality of the present.
Schmahmann calls Ivory from Paradise a “companion piece” to Empire Settings. “This new novel is set in a different decade and an attempt to look back and place in context how South Africa was and people remember it against how it is today and how it really is. The ‘paradise’ of the title is in many ways the idealized memories of the past and King Shaka that produced the Zulu people and their legends. But really, this is a story of disillusionment – or depending on your point of view, major liberation.”
He says that the decade between the two novels gave him important time to reflect: “When you get to the United States you feel an enormous sense of joy and wanting to integrate. Yet, as I get older and time passes, I realized my heart is South African and I have huge curiosity about South Africa.”
This curiosity led him to explore his relationship and all the conflicted feelings associated with growing up in the country that is so often misunderstood by outsiders. “What’s vexing for a white South African is that many of us see our youth in South Africa in the 1960s as a magical time,” he says. “It was safe, insular, predictable and white life was very good. There was an old world decency there…but while you might view them as golden years, you have to catch yourself and understand there was an enormous price that we didn’t pay. The economy was sustained by cheap black labor. In Ivory from Paradise, a lot of the things that we cherish from the past are revealed as not fully authentic.”
Throughout the narrative, Schmahmann uses South Africa’s history, and in particular that of the Zulu nation, as a touchstone. Some of the whites at the heart of the story believe their legacy is one of having brought civilization to an untamed world. Others feel shame. But Schmahmann is quick to underscore that he has not written a history lesson: “One of the characters in my novel, Eben, says you can’t go back and reengineer history and reallocate blame and things based on who was right and wrong historically, it doesn’t work that way.” In this way he blows apart the commonplace – often Manichean – view people have of South Africa and its story.
Today, Schmahmann knows that when he returns, he can never quite recapture the past. In fact, he says that one the few regrets he has is that he didn’t get to know the country and its people better in his youth: “When we were growing up in South Africa, we were pleased to have an amusement park called South Africa all around us, but that was just out of reach. The truth is, we might as well have been in New Zealand.”
This experience was underscored by a recent trip back: “When I went to Durban last in April, my travel agent put me in a boutique hotel, when I got there I realized it was the home where childhood friends had lived, a beautiful old colonial home turned into a hotel. Now, there are electrified fences, guards and rapid response security. I realized how in the old Apartheid days that it was an island and outside the gates was a monstrous system that enabled our safety.”
Despite his interest in the country Schmahmann says he’d never return to living in South Africa, and even points out that so many of his old classmates from school had emigrated and they hold their reunions in the US. “Some people want to live in the past and yearn for the old days, but my past doesn’t exist – there has been such a sea change, the street names are different, the atmosphere is different.”
But, in many ways, his books exist to reconcile the South Africa of the past with that of the present. “Ivory from Paradise is a book about South Africa but it’s really about people’s own idealization of their own past, of wanting to see things a particular way, and how breathtaking events can make them revise what they see and remember,” says Schmahmann, adding. “This can be painful, but if you embrace it, it can also be liberating.”
Ivory from Paradise, Empire Settings and Schmahmann’s 2009 legal drama Nibble & Kuhn are all published in the United States by Academy Chicago. Several of these titles are also available in Dutch from Sirene in the Netherlands.
You can learn more about Schmahmann and his work, including his soon-to-be-published novel about a man who falls for a Bangkok bar girl, The Double Life of Alfred Buber, on his web site.