An Interview with Richard Mason
- By Joye Shepperd
- June 13, 2017
The South African novelist talks Apartheid, heroes, and a dark, mysterious forest.
Who Killed Piet Barol? is a tale set in South Africa in 1914. Germany has just declared war on France, and the Native Land Act has eliminated property rights for black South Africans, while allowing whites the privilege of domain. European whites are scrambling to stay out of the war and make the most of their fortunes. Title character Piet Barol travels from Cape Town to the edge of a magical forest full of monsters, leopards, and the mahogany trees prized by the Xhosa, who live nearby. But Piet’s bargain to enter the forest, purchase the trees, and save his business may cost everyone more than he expected.
Gwadana, the forest in the book, really does exist. How were you granted entry?
The forest certainly exists, though few white South Africans have heard of it. Every black South African has, and the legend endures that it’s a place of witchcraft and dark magic. As soon as I heard there was a forest no one visited, I knew I had to enter it — and I did, with the permission of the chief of Gwadana Village, and the protection of Gwadana’s witchdoctor.
When I asked for permission to enter the forest, the chief and his council looked — not quite amused, but not far from it. They were surprised that anyone should be crazy enough to do such a thing, and I had a sense that they were prepared to let me run a risk that might yield them interesting information. They cautioned me, but no one tried to deny me access.
What about the furniture made from the mahogany trees of Gwadana? Does any exist?
Well…Africa’s forests have been devastated for various reasons over centuries, and much fine wood has ended up as furniture. But the furniture in the book was made up — inspired by the carvings of the 17th-century Englishman Grinling Gibbons. Check out his amazing creations!
You manage to get everyone in — English, Dutch, fake French, two Indians, Xhosa, Zulu, and even baboons — seemingly the entire South African paradigm. How did you get inside all these heads? How did you know you’d done it well?
Two very different questions! And the second one, I suppose, is for you to decide. I knew, as a white South African who grew up under the Apartheid regime, that I’d need to go on a quest for lived experience if I was going to create fully three-dimensional black characters. Apartheid kept the races very successfully apart.
I thought I should be generous, and that generosity would lead me towards whatever experience I needed to have. So, with two Xhosa friends, and the community of Mtwaku, I helped build Lulutho — a center of green farming in the heart of the Eastern Cape. I lived under canvas for a year while we planted a forest of a thousand trees, built a teaching garden, taught permaculture classes, and installed the largest solar-powered water extraction facility in the country (I think), which is keeping thousands of human beings and their animals alive through the worst drought in a generation.
The experience was amazing and appalling, thrilling and miserable, in approximately equal measure. To see how it unfolded, watch this series of short films.
There are no obvious heroes in this story. Have we become a society that doesn’t believe in heroes anymore?
No one is a total hero, though we are all capable of heroism. Each of us is a curious combination of courage and cowardice, altruism and selfishness. We are all capable of heroic actions, but their consequences can be unknowable. I tried to build real characters in this story, to show human beings who were flawed and struggled against their flaws, as we all do.
It doesn’t seem to matter what god — Xhosa legends or the European variety — a man worships, the human condition is unchanged. All our gods seem to fail us from time to time. Have we made them too human?
I intentionally wrote this book in a way that permits a variety of different interpretations. You can read it as a Christian, as an atheist, and as a Xhosa steeped in a very different religion. I think we all make sense of the chaos around us in different ways, and I wanted to say something about that.
To answer the second part of your question: Human beings through the ages have made their gods too human, and much sorrow has resulted.
Joye Shepperd is senior features editor at the Washington Independent Review of Books.