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Author Podcast: Lynette Brasfield


BookBuffet interviews Lynette Brasfield, the author of Nature Lessons (St. Martins Press) a novel set in her homeland South Africa during aprtheid that works on many levels: as a mother-daughter story, a political story, as a story about mental illness, illuminating the fragile balance between truth and fiction.


June 01, 2003

The Author

I first met Lynette Brasfield in Los Angles at the Los Angles Times Festival of Books in 2002 where I was an exhibitor. She possesses an easy, friendly manner and we quickly engaged in a literary conversation, a discussion on book groups, her roots and her work.

Lynette was born in South Africa, but has lived in the United States for many years, and has now become an American. In her first novel, Nature Lessons, just published by St. Martin's Press in May, she revisits South Africa, going back as an adult to reconcile with the country of her childhood  and with her mother. Nature Lessons is fiction, but is based on many personal levels: as a mother-daughter experience, a reflection on the political landscape, and her own challenge of coming to terms with a family member with mental illness. But it reads, not as a memoir, rather more of a mystery as we try to grasp what is real, what is caught in the web of political and psychological darkness.


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BB: Please tell us about how the objective reality in the novel echoes the subjective reality. 

LB: As the novel evolved, the paranoia of the mother and the paranoia of the country intertwined and began to inform the mother-daughter relationship; I grew fascinated by the shadowy line between sanity and insanity, paranoia and real persecution.

BB: Is there any implication that the mother would not have become paranoid if she had lived in a different society? 

LB: I wanted readers to be unsure, because one of the things that interests me is how hard it is to make your case when you're part of a persecuted minority—your fears might not seem rational even when they are. It's interesting: mental health professionals agree that fears of a paranoid schizophrenic—which I believe my mother was—often grow from a kernel of truth.

BB: There's also a process of denial both by the subject and people around them. Relatives may not want to admit there is a problem as it might ultimately affect them too.

LB: You tend to think that you're going to be okay; you think "it's not going to happen to me", but the frightening thing is that you will be judged accordingly. In the book, Kate will be judged no matter what she does. If she fears the government for example, then people would automatically assume that she's just like her mother and she might get locked up because of it. It makes you become very conscious of your own behavior. 

BB: Has writing been a cathartic process for you both in terms of leaving South Africa and in coming to terms with your mother?

LB: There are two different ways in which it's been cathartic. One, I was able to describe what it was like to grow up white in South Africa—and that not all whites were racist by any means. With regard to the mother-daughter relationship, my character went back to South Africa and faced her past, which I did not do. I did not go home for thirteen years, and my mother died. So while writing the novel I went through many emotions and was able to put my actions, and my mother's actions, into some kind of perspective through the prism of fiction. I feel lots of guilt still, but I've come to better terms with the reality of who my mother was and who I was/am through this process.

BB: Kate's sense of guilt and responsibility seems to draw her back to South Africa, yet ultimately she will be returning to America. Why is that? 

LB: I think Kate returns to America because she has come to terms with her relationship with South Africa, and with her relationship with her mother. Also, returning to the question of responsibility, how much responsibility do you owe to a country that is troubled and a parent who is troubled? I think the conclusion that Kate comes to, is you make sure they are okay. You give them everything you can and then there's a point at which your own life is important too, because you have your own relationships and need to move forward.

BB: There's a wonderful series of passages where Kate takes very much to heart her teacher's nature lesson, "Suits, Spines and Spikes," on how animals protect themselves from predators. This becomes both a means of coping and a metaphor throughout her life. Can you expand on this?

LB: I wrote a short story  called "Suits and Spines and Spikes" that grew into this novel. The story distilled the essence of a mother-child relationship described in Nature Lessons. Essentially, the young child adopts the defensive mechanisms of wild animals to protect herself emotionally from her mother's delusions. Young Kate camouflages her feelings and thoughts like a chameloen, or behaves in a hostile fashion like a porcupine, or runs away like an impala from a lion when faced with strong emotion. When she's older, these same defensive mechanisms destroy her romantic relationships. As she says, "it was as if the moon had disappeared, and the tides, not noticing, continued to ebb and flow." She has to learn to adapt.

BB: So was the animal imagery throughout the novel intentional?

LB: Imagery has a way of bubbling up from the unconscious. When I saw certain patterns in the book, I went back and shaped them, but only up to a point.

BB: I found a singsong quality in the novel in places that made me think of native African languages. Is this something you were trying to achieve?

LB: Voice is an interesting thing. People say I have a distinctive voice, but it's not something I'm aware of. I simply write what I want to write, and the voice comes out of that. I suppose it's an amalgam of my own past reading—British authors and folktales from all over the world.

BB: Is it difficult to write as two first-person narrators?

LB: Thanks for referring to two first-person narrators—that's exactly the way I intended it to be read, not as an adult having flashbacks about her childhood. The adult and child are distinct; they are on parallel tracks. At the end there's a sense of reconcilation and hope as the two "selves" integrate.

The other aspect of the book that is important to me is the issue of 'what you see depends on who you are'. I wanted to explore the different ways we all see the world depending on our culture, history, country of birth, etc. For example, the stars: in the Northern Hemisphere people will point to Orion's belt, but the Tswana in the Southern Hemisphere will see three zebra in that same constellation. That's in part because of different cultures, but it's also because the stars literally seem to be arranged differently depending on whether you view them from the south or north.

BB: Throughout history there's been two schools of thought pertaining to artists: one holds that artists have a moral responsibility to create works speaking against oppression and evil, the other is that the artist's foremost responsibility is to art itself. What do you believe?

LB: I believe art comes first. You have to feel something very strongly and you have to be true to your own instincts and desires in order to write. If you do this, the writing will reflect feelings, which are naturally born of opinion and of intense experience, which may be political, cultural, or societal. I set out to write a novel with a mother-daughter theme, and the South African setting created another creature.

What I'm really glad about is that all the levels of the book are really reaching people. It's a fairly simply written book and I was worried that people would just read it on one level. There is a lot of my personal thoughts and philosophies in the book, so the fact that some people are reacting to it as a story about South Africa and apartheid, some as a story about mental illness, means that it is reaching all different levels. Different parts resonate with different people and I love that. I've always believed that art is the thing that happens when the reader and the writer are in combination. So art reinvents itself every time somebody looks at a painting, every time somebody reads a book.

BB: Please tell us about your next book.

LB: My new novel is called Anyhow in a Corner, which is a quote from the poem "Musee des Beaux Artes" by W.H. Auden. I'm fascinated by the juxtaposition between the horrifying and the mundane, and how we decide what to concern ourselves with, given all the issues that confront us in the world and the demands of our own day-to-day lives. Anyhow in a Corner is written in three voices, two female and one male, and is partly set in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, during the War of Liberation. 

BB: Please would you give us your view on the usefulness of writing courses? 

LB: I wrote my first stories when I was twe;ve. After that I did not write anything fictional until I was forty-four, three years ago. I had been in PR, so I had a great deal of practice writing and being creative. I took an online class through UCLA Extension and started writing short stories, most of which were rejected by literary magazines several times over. Went to UCI Extension, took another class, and made some friends who have been readers for me. Finally began to do a MFA which I didn't complete. You don't need an MFA to write, though it does help give one focus and discipline. The important thing is to learn all you can about your craft, then forget everything you learned and write from the heart. And only listen to the critques of those who love your work.

Win 10 Free copies of Lynette Brasfield's Nature Lessons for your book group! Join anytime between June 1 and June 30, 2003, and you will be entered into a random drawing. Winner will be notified by e-mail by July 15, 2003.



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