On a hot Friday in a country that bears no name, an equally anonymous but seemingly all-powerful dictator sits for his portrait. In a terrible instant, his bodyguards fall dead from gunshot wounds, and the President himself is taken prisoner by masked gunmen. Surprisingly, however, the story that unfolds from this event is not the story of the President, nor is it, in a direct sense, the tale of the revolution that has risen up to engulf his regime. In Blood Kin, the riveting debut novel of Ceridwen Dovey, the focal characters are three of the President's underlings—a portrait painter, a chef, and a barber. Imprisoned together in the President's summer residence, each of the three learns to ply his trade for a new master, an enigmatic revolutionary known only as the Commander. As the new junta solidifies its power, each of the three men hopes for his release while confronting the possibility that he may be executed at a moment's notice. A thoughtful meditation on the corrupting influence of power, Dovey's novel is more directly concerned with those on the periphery of power. Blood Kin begins by examining the lives and motivations of history's ostensibly innocent bystanders and ends by suggesting that the innocent may not be so innocent after all.
A novel whose crisp, fast-moving narration belies its deep psychological ambitions, Blood Kin is narrated by a half-dozen voices. We come to know not only the inner thoughts of the President's three employees, but also those of three women: the portraitist's wife, the chef's daughter, and the fiancée of the barber's late brother. In each of these six voices, we see a different modulation of desire. The portraitist, slavishly in love with his pregnant wife, who has also been abducted by the revolutionaries, lives only to be reunited with her and with their unborn child. The barber, whose brother died a horrible death while resisting the President's oppressive regime, has dedicated himself to a vengeance that he may lack the fortitude to achieve. The chef, an older, self-absorbed man of sensuous appetites, coolly considers how to turn his abduction to his advantage. The portraitist's wife, completely indifferent to her husband's devotion, seeks a kind of freedom that comes from thinking solely of oneself. The chef's daughter, estranged from her father and saddled with the care of her mentally unbalanced mother, only wants to save her mother from being deinstitutionalized and be reunited with her mysterious lover. The barber's brother's fiancée, who had also labored to overthrow the President, is now married to the victorious Commander, but she learns quickly that she wants no part in being a ruler's wife. Instead, she finds herself irresistibly drawn to the barber, who closely resembles the man she once loved and who might possibly supply the force for yet another turn of the political wheel of fortune. Set amid the lavish corridors of wealth and power, Blood Kin looks at outwardly ordinary people and tells their extraordinary stories. A novel of passion, ambition, and revenge, it evinces a dark, brooding awareness that the people and institutions we call civilized stand only inches from barbarity.
Ceridwen Dovey spent her early childhood between South Africa and Australia. She attended high school in Australia, spent a year working in the U.K., then studied at Harvard University, where she earned a degree in social anthropology and directed the documentary film Aftertaste about wine farm workers in the new South Africa. She moved to Cape Town to pursue a master's degree in creative writing from the University of Cape Town, and is now a graduate student in anthropology at New York University. Blood Kin is her first novel.
Q. You were initially attracted to the medium of film, as shown by your documentary Aftertaste. What has now attracted you to the medium of the novel?
A. I'm still interested in both media—and while I started out exploring the creative uses of film, I was always interested in other forms of expression simultaneously. I grew up in a family where books, reading, and writing were at the center of our family culture, so I was steeped in that tradition. My father always suspected that I would give writing a go, but it took me a little while to find the nerve to do it—I like how Don DeLillo says he had to "grow into novelhood." I like the balance of the two forms: documentary filmmaking involves launching yourself out into the world, out of your comfort zone, into the lives of others, and demands incredible amounts of energy and stamina and passion for being out there and interacting with people and grounding your creative work in the realities of human life on earth. Fiction writing, on the other hand, is much more reclusive and intellectually demanding and self-sufficient, which can feel like a relief after the hurly-burly of filmmaking, but can also come to feel alienating and isolated. I think it would be dangerous to slip too much into fiction writing alone and to lose one's purchase on the world.
Q. One of the striking aspects of Blood Kin is its lack of culturally identifying features. You do not name the country where it takes place, and, apart from a few geographic features—it has a seacoast, it has vineyards—we do not know where in the world the novel's events are taking place. Why do you offer so few specifics?
A. Blood Kin is a fable—if by fable we mean something that operates at an abstract level that speaks to abstract ideas such as power and its workings in the world, but doesn't necessarily have a real-life referent in the same way that an allegory does. As for why I chose to write a fable, I think it comes down to identity. If you think of the nature of good fiction writing, more often than not evocation of place has something to do with it—the kind of "thick description" that Clifford Geertz, the anthropologist, exhorted anthropologists to give in their ethnographies, or Ian McEwan's claim that the novel should be local, regional, a bottom-up process—and it's that kind of description of place that makes fiction believable and vivid and interesting. But for somebody like me and so many others in my generation, as global citizens, you feel you've been skimming the surface of many cultures but never actually embedding yourself for long enough in any particular one to give that kind of thick description, to have the right to say anything about the local. It's a horizontal rather than vertical experience of the world and of place. And so, to me, the form of a fable that allowed me to work at an abstract and not a specific level was the only form I felt justified in using.
Q. You are an anthropologist by training. How do you think this background influences you as a writer of fiction?
A. What led me to anthropology is the same thing that led me to writing fiction: the experience of living between three cultures in my twenty-seven years on earth—which is, in this globalized world, increasingly the norm. In anthropology much is made of liminal space—being at the margins of things, the way the anthropologist tries to insert herself into a culture yet also efface her presence in that culture—and participant observation, which is at the heart of carrying out fieldwork, involves switching between being an insider and an outsider. So in some ways I feel like I've been doing fieldwork all my life. It's less the formal anthropological training that influences my writing and more the kind of life experience that led me to have an anthropological impulse in the first place. Anthropology and creative writing have coupled naturally many times in the past—the anthropologists Edward Sapir, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Benjamin Lee Whorf, Gregory Bateson, Clifford Geertz all wrote poetry or prose, and initially studied literature, and had literary ambitions whether they realized them or not.
Q. Although it is undeniably a cerebral novel, Blood Kin is also very much a novel of the body. Anatomical structures, scars, and even the pores of your characters' skins are minutely described. Why this intense focus on the sheer physical truths of existence?
A. My aim was to create a fictional world that would rob the reader of his/her physical or geographical bearings, yet would still be eerily familiar. After finishing Blood Kin, I read John Updike's novel The Coup, which is set in the fictional African nation of Kush, and one of the things that struck me about it was how visceral—how haptic or embodied—his language is; how strong its appeal to my sense memories or pathways of nostalgia was. Though I would not presume to compare my writing to Updike's, I think the emphasis on bodily intimacy and the minutiae of bodily rituals in Blood Kin is meant to play a similar role to the fecundity of Updike's imagery in The Coup. Since both books are set in unfamiliar and therefore unsettling places, the language needs to be a counteracting force to ground the narrative and tether the reader—we don't know where we are, but we know we've felt the same things that the characters have, that our bodies and desires perhaps work in similar ways.
Q. Particularly noticeable on the subject of the body are your many finely detailed, convincing descriptions of the way the human body ages—not necessarily a topic one expects to be treated so minutely by an author in her mid-twenties. How have you come to be so interested in the aging process?
A. The descriptions of aging in the book are linked to the thematic exploration of power. It seems to me that desire for power and the abuse of power are really at a deep level about grasping for immortality, about shoring oneself up against one's own knowledge of being a finite creature. If you look at the cover of the book—the empty throne, lavishly decorated, surrounded by fallen jacaranda petals that will soon wilt—to me, this image speaks to the ephemeral nature of absolute power and the loneliness and sadness of the human condition: we have these few years on earth, and so many of the things we do to each other during those years are futile, and we search for all sorts of ways to put off acknowledging the death that is waiting for us all. I wanted the characters to be obsessed with these daily proofs they all get of the minute ways their bodies are failing them, as a kind of physical reminder of the senselessness of all the intrigues and hurt and pain they're involved in or causing.
Q. Blood Kin has a lot to say about power, and it also has quite a bit to say about sex. How do these two concepts link up or play off each other in your mind
A. I think to answer this I would like to quote the chef: "Having been failed by my own flesh, and those of my flesh, what else can an old man turn to except power to shore himself up, or at least proximity to power? We all know power and desire couple effortlessly."
And I would also like to point to Foucault who would say that even the very construction of knowledge or desire is an exercise of power, and we are born into a discursive era that defines the very subjectivities (and hence the desires) that are open to us.
Q. The three men around whom you construct your novel are each strongly identified with a different physical sense. Whereas the skills of the Barber are essentially tactile, the Portraitist deals with vision, and the Chef is concerned with taste. Did you intend to organize your narrative along these lines of sensory perception, and, if so, what happened to smell and hearing?
A. Yes, absolutely—and while the last two senses are not represented in the same way by any specific character, they are very much present, and as senses are exercised by all of the characters in the book as a way of binding them together in a web of complicity. The characters most often use smell and hearing in devious or dishonest ways, in order to spy or inform or eavesdrop or pick up hints or stick their noses (literally) in other people's intrigues. The portraitist has his first inkling of the President's wrongdoing when he stands on his bed in the dark and hears the voices from below floating up through the air vent. The chef has to creep up on the abalone so that they don't hear him coming in for the death blow. The barber's brother's fiancée thinks back to the fishy smell of her ex-lover with disgust. The sea snails or lobsters scream their death rattle as they're boiled. The portraitist stands over the toilet bowl after his wife has been to the bathroom and inhales like a dog. The portraitist's wife's father sniffs her like a suspicious dog around a lamppost, trying to figure out if he was truly the father. And the chef tells the Commander that his wife comes home smelling of the barber.
Q. Part One of Blood Kin is set aside for male narrators. Their voices are then supplanted by those of women in Part Two, only to reassert themselves in the brief but climactic Part Three. What commentary is implicit in your configuration of masculine and feminine voices?
A. The women are crucial to understanding the men not just as political pawns, but as individuals who have agency and independence in their personal lives who have made conscious decisions that have led to other people being hurt or have been hurt by other people's conscious decisions. I use gender to get at the contradictions of power: individuals can have a moral cause but no personal morality; they can be politically ethical but behave in unethical ways to the people closest to them. Or they can behave impeccably at a personal level and then commit egregious harm at a political level. The female characters remind us of what is at stake, in a sense.
If the women didn't feature in the novel as characters in their own right who speak in their own voices, it would be too easy to oversimplify the relationships and have the women stuck in the position of victims, waiting virtuously for their men in the shadows. The women in the novel are not all victims. Some of them are more ruthless or cruel than the men and they're caught up in all sorts of cycles of power, perhaps less explicitly political than the men but damaging nonetheless.
Q. The figures who have influenced your writing—Borges, Updike, and Ariel Dorfman to name a few—are myriad, yet your style is distinct. How have you been able to absorb so much while maintaining a unique and independent voice?
A. I think for most authors, although when you're physically writing you're alone, it's sort of like being on a team. When you feel your energy is lagging or your inspiration is failing, you go back to the literature, to the authors who have surrounded you your whole life, and find great sustenance from them. You read so much over the course of your life and in the midst of your writing that it's impossible to sort out the influences, and I think it could be quite a dangerous thing to do. Trying to figure out where your own style comes from might be a little bit too much like a centipede trying to figure out which foot he puts first. It could lead to a state of paralyzed self-consciousness. I think every book you read becomes a part of you, but in invisible ways—just as the food we eat becomes us but we could never point to a particular cell and know what meal formed it—we are what we read in the same way that we are what we eat: something goes in and then undergoes an organic process that sustains us and transforms us, but that process is necessarily unconscious and out of sight.
Siri Hustvedt describes this so well: "Reading is the avenue to writing, and after a while, the sheer bulk of influences begins to eliminate the question of influence. . . . Books we respond to become us . . . nobody really writes alone."
Q. There's a lot of conspicuously bad parenting in Blood Kin, and the book's title would indicate that it is, in some sense, about families. What relationship do you observe between familial and broader social dysfunctions?
A. There's a kind of dissonance that growing up in apartheid South Africa made me aware of from a very young age. I saw firsthand how complicated wrongdoing can be at a familial level. Both sets of my grandparents had very different political beliefs from my parents and there was a lot of conflict over that. My grandparents couldn't see what was wrong with apartheid. These were people I knew as warm, wonderful, kind, loving people but they had political beliefs that I found very difficult to reconcile with the kinds of people I knew them to be. So this rift between personal attachments and political positions has always been interesting to me. When it's family, you can't walk away. You have obligations and responsibilities, so we are all always caught in familial webs that are impossibly complicated and difficult but they're webs we can't walk away from. It's not all morbid, though. Part of the wonder of human beings is our incredible ability to adapt and change, to transform from one generation to the next. And, as the chef's daughter thinks to herself, perhaps the wiping clean of each generation's memories is essential to the survival of our species: that each child born into a family starts with a clean slate, in a sense, and while it's exhausting to think of all the knowledge that has to be re-learned by each generation, it's also this aspect of being human that allows for the possibility of change. As she says, we're always one generation away from barbarism, but the flipside of that is that barbarians are only one generation away from civilization..
Q. Imagine that the time is centuries from now and some anthropologist of the future is trying to work out the cultural significance of Blood Kin. What would you like for her to know about the book and the woman who wrote it?
A. The beauty of the form of a fable is that it is designed to be timeless, to have a mythical element that one hopes makes it always comprehensible and interesting to anybody of our species, no matter what era they live in. Allegories eventually become fables when the readership no longer can link the story in the book to a real-life referent. So, if centuries from now somebody reads Animal Farm and doesn't get the link to Stalinism, the book has morphed from allegory into fable: it is no longer a commentary on a particular abusive political system, but on the nature of all abusive political systems. It may not be interpreted the way that the author intended, but that doesn't mean that it has lost any of its power or worth as a text that tells us things about our kind. My hope would be that the anthropologist who reads Blood Kin centuries from now gets as much from it as a reader in this time and place without knowing anything about me or about the time in which it was written.
- Throughout the course of Blood Kin, not a single character is given a name. What effects are created by the anonymity of Dovey's characters?
- The two characters who arguably wield the greatest authority in the lives of Dovey's narrators—the President and the Commander—are sketched only through the sometimes limited viewpoints of other characters. Why do you think Dovey chose to present them from this degree of narrative distance? How would the novel be different if the President's and the Commander's perspectives had been included?
- Dovey is both sparing and selective in the specific facts she relates about the President's authoritarian reign. How does she assemble these relatively few details to create a convincing portrait of evil?
- Do you find differences between the characters of the Commander and the President, or do you share the barber's ultimate conclusion that seekers of power "are all the same"
- In this novel of political cataclysm, Dovey chooses to present only a few suggestions as to the way the revolution is experienced by the nation at large, choosing instead to focus on its impact on her half-dozen narrators. How did you respond to this choice of emphasis?
- How do sexual and political betrayals complement each other in Blood Kin?
- How does the profession of each of the President's three featured underlings—the portraitist, the chef, and the barber—dovetail with that character's personality?
- In the society depicted in Blood Kin, men hold most, though by no means all of the official power. What devices do the novel's women use to maintain their share of control?
- Suppose that you are a director working on a film version of Blood Kin. What scene would you most look forward to shooting? What techniques would you use to convey the scene's emotive power?
- In Blood Kin, seemingly harmless people are drawn into webs of intrigue and situations that undermine their morality. The corruption of the President infects not only his supporters but also his enemies. In a guilty society such as the one presented in the novel, what ways exist, if any, of preserving an innocent or essentially "clean" character?
- After the revolution, the barber's brother's fiancée is suddenly her nation's first lady, yet she takes no pleasure from this turn of events. Why is she so reluctant to embrace her new status?
- The portraitist's wife, one of the novel's most cynical characters, believes that as people get older they stop caring about life because there are no more mysteries to solve. Is she correct that it is primarily curiosity that sustains human beings through life? What aspects of existence does she ignore or undervalue?
- The chef's daughter cannot make up her mind whether it is a shame or a blessing that knowledge and memories are not passed on genetically to new generations. Would we be better or worse off if we were born with the knowledge of prior generations?