portrait Brenda Eisenberg

interviewed by Ryan Gleason

Published in Issue No. 158 ~ July, 2010

Brenda Eisenberg’s “High Stakes Stuff” is one of the featured macro-fiction pieces for this July issue of Pif (https://www.pifmagazine.com/2010/07/high-stakes/).  The work is only a portion of her novel in development, Prayer for a Safe Journey.  Our Pif excerpt is the story of a petty theft spurring an impromptu police interrogation of a gang of children; all set in the midst of the political strife and racial tensions of South African apartheid.  Brenda’s own personal experiences as a young woman living in South Africa during apartheid inform the racial, religious, and overall emotional tensions of her project.  I maintained an email correspondence with Brenda in order to get a better sense of the historical realities that framed the writing of her novel.  Issues I encouraged her to discuss included some personal reflections on South Africa, perceptions of Judaism in South Africa (a central theme of the novel), and South Africa’s struggles given its widespread diversity of people and languages.  The following is an interview between the two of us; her answers reveal the complexity of understanding personal and cultural history in an ever-shifting world.


RG: So, what is the current status of the novel?

BE: I started writing this novel at the end of 2006 and I’m currently working on a fourth draft. The feedback on my third draft pointed to some fairly substantial gaps in the flow of the narrative, so this 4th draft is about filling those gaps and rebalancing the novel as a whole.


RG: How would you characterize your work’s overall setting?

BE: The novel is set in 1980s South Africa, the last decade of apartheid. Resistance to apartheid was particularly fierce at this time and there were many violent uprisings in the townships and demonstrations amongst the student population. Conscription to the army was compulsory for all white men of school-leaving age and the South African Defence Force had a reputation for brutal treatment of conscripts in training (which then transferred into brutal military action). The only way to delay conscription was to keep on studying in higher education, which is what my protagonist does.


RG: What motivated you to tell this story?

BE: This feels like an important story to write.  For one thing, it offers a fresh angle on the apartheid story, through the eyes of a young orthodox Jew. But also, it looks at powerlessness in the face of a system you feel you can’t change and how young people turn to extreme solutions when they experience that impotence. Extreme religious practices are particularly attractive to a certain type of young person, and my protagonist, Eli, is someone who craves a sense of belonging and needs to be insulated from some of the more terrifying aspects of life.


RG: Would you elaborate on the development of your main character, Eli?

BE: At the start of the novel Eli Adler is living in dread of his army call-up. His friend Bernie has died during basic training and to make matters worse, Eli’s twin brother Gabriel (always his closest companion) has turned away from him.

Eli is a law student at Wits University in Johannesburg, and orthodox Jews are active on campus, trying to encourage assimilated students back into the fold.  Eli is initially skeptical but gradually, he’s drawn in.  The sense of belonging and the reassuringly clear parameters of Jewish Law go some way to filling the gap left by Bernie’s death and Gabriel’s departure.

Eli is now eager to prove his commitment to Judaism and rebuild a sense of family, so he rushes into marriage with the young, also newly-orthodox Ilana. But her family is secular and Eli becomes frustrated with what he sees as their complacency.

By now Eli has taken up a job as an articled clerk (which means he is still temporarily exempt from the army), but his growing obsession with intricate religious laws puts him on a collision course with others, both at work and at home.


RG: How does this particular excerpt fit in with the rest of the novel?

BE: This excerpt occurs two-thirds of the way through the novel. Eli has volunteered to spend a week in the remote semi-desert area called the Karoo, as part of a project that renovates neglected Jewish cemeteries. It’s a mitzvah, a good deed, to undertake such projects. While there, he witnesses the local cops meting out rough justice against a group of township kids who are accused of stealing chocolate from the local shop. This episode throws into relief Eli’s helplessness when faced with the big moral challenges of apartheid South Africa.


RG: Your excerpt takes place in the Karoo.  Can you give our readers a sense of that environment?

BE: The Karoo is an extraordinary region of South Africa. It’s a vast semi-desert area in the interior of the country with a beautiful, desolate landscape. The settlements are far apart, and tiny. In the first half of the 20th century these small towns had a Jewish presence through peddlers and shopkeepers who served the local farmers. So you’ll find vestiges of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in the most far-flung of areas. It’s hard to imagine how tough it would’ve been for immigrants from the shtetls of Eastern Europe to adapt to this landscape. My own grandparents made that journey and my father grew up in a Karoo town called Aberdeen (a Scottish missionary would’ve had something to do with that name). I’ve always found these remnants of Jewish communities very evocative.

The Karoo


RG: What do you remember life to be like in South Africa during the novel’s time period?

BE: The novel is set in the 1980s, when resistance to apartheid was really gathering momentum. In 1985 the government declared a State of Emergency – thousands of people were detained without trial, political meetings were banned and curfews were imposed in the townships. At the time I lived in a student residence at Wits University (a prominent mixed-race university, and highly politicised) and I can remember arriving at breakfast to discover that fellow-students had been taken away by police during the night. Some of them had to face solitary confinement or torture, and they had no legal recourse.

While all of this was happening in the townships, life in the white suburbs was going on pretty much as normal and because the press coverage was so flimsy many people were largely unaware of the ferocity of the resistance – and the ferocity of the state response to it. As a student at Wits University, Eli is well aware of what’s going on, but his response to these circumstances is to take refuge in the rules of orthodoxy. During the course of the novel he clashes with others who deplore what they consider to be his head-in-the-sand approach.


RG: Your excerpt is very interested in relating language divides between people.  There seems to be a sort of binary between those who understand and those who don’t, or, the words shared between people but kept from others.  Would you elaborate?

BE: As you’d imagine, language was highly political in SA during the apartheid years. The two official languages were English and Afrikaans, but Afrikaans was the language of the ruling party. In this piece the cops don’t speak English, partly because their grasp of English is poor, but it’s also a way of saying, we are in charge and we are not going to make the effort to speak your language. Today there are eleven official languages in SA (nine African languages, plus English and Afrikaans)!


RG: You’ve made some conscious decisions about what words to translate from Afrikaans to English in your piece and which words to not.  Can you talk about the decision making behind your translations?

BE: In making decisions about translations, I was aiming for a balance: I wanted to leave some things untranslated, so that the reader experiences a sense of the characters’ frustration of being on the outside, but not so much so that it would make the piece unsatisfying to read.

There are some words in this piece that have entered English usage in SA, either because they describe something culturally specific (eg sjambok is a type of whip) or because they are evocative (eg boendoe, pronounced ‘boondoo’, is a local version of ‘boondocks’).


RG: I’m eager to get a better sense of what brought you to writing.  Will you detail that process?

BE: I’ve wanted to be a writer since the age of six, but by my mid-thirties I was in a demanding full-time job, and I realised that if I was serious about writing I would have to make a change, so I quit my job and began working from home as a freelance business consultant. I used to commute for two hours a day and I told myself that I would spend at least that amount of daily time on writing. Things haven’t turned out quite as neatly as that, but I still try to maintain a regular writing routine, alongside my freelance work.

In 2006 I won an Asham Award for a short story entitled Under the Black Hat, which is published as part of a Bloomsbury anthology (Is This What You Want, Ed Kate Pullinger, Bloomsbury, 2006).  That was a really positive moment: firstly, it gave me much-needed encouragement; secondly, it was the first piece of writing I’d done on a Jewish theme and it triggered the idea for this novel. Before then it had never occurred to me that this could be a compelling subject for a novel.


RG: How would you characterize your own experiences growing up within Jewish South Africa?

BE: I was brought up within the orthodox Jewish community of SA, although my family were what we would call ‘traditional’ rather than strictly orthodox. We had a strong sense of cultural identification, we went to synagogue regularly and observed the Jewish festivals but unlike Eli, we weren’t strictly observant. In my teens, and again at university, I had periods where I immersed myself in Judaism and thought about taking a religious path – in fact, several of my close friends did exactly that. There’s much in Judaism that I find profound but ultimately the world of orthodoxy felt too circumscribed for me.


RG: Can you sketch out the historical context of the Jewish community in South Africa?

BE: The Jewish community in South Africa is made up mainly of Lithuanian Jews who went over during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to escape persecution by the Tsars.  In many cases they arrived with nothing and the only opportunities open to them were those that the indigenous whites were not keen to take up. This is why they landed up in these godforsaken places. But on the whole, Jews in South Africa enjoyed the privileges associated with being white under apartheid. They enjoyed freedom to practice their religion and ultimately the community became very prosperous.


RG: What is the relationship like between the Afrikaners, the white majority, and Jews?

BE: The Afrikaners are the descendants of the Dutch settlers who arrived in the 17th Century, and they regard themselves as the true pioneers of SA.  In the early 20th century the Afrikaners became marginalised under British colonial rule but in 1948 the Afrikaner National Party came to power and the country came under their control.

There’s a really strange anomaly in the relationship between Afrikaners and Jews.

There was plenty of anti-Semitism amongst the Afrikaners and substantial support for the Nazis during World War Two. But the Afrikaner community had also developed this notion of being the Chosen People, as part of their national mythology. (They were deeply religious through the Dutch Reformed Church).  So there were many Afrikaners who identified with the ‘Israelites’ and who put Jews on a pedestal. As a Jew, one could never quite tell whether one would get a positive or negative reaction from an Afrikaner, and there are entertaining scenes in this novel where Eli encounters both types.


RG: Historically, was there a resistance to apartheid from South African Jews?

BE: The Jewish community had a paradoxical role in relation to the struggle against apartheid. On the one hand, Jewish religious leaders were reluctant to openly criticise the government because they feared a backlash. This was in contrast to other religious groups, who were much more vocal. On the other hand a disproportionately high number of white anti-apartheid activists were Jewish. These included figures such as Joe Slovo, Albie Sachs, Helen Suzman and so on. Incidentally, these high profile figures definitely served to fuel feelings of antisemitism amongst the Afrikaners.


RG: I’m very curious to hear your take on the transformations within South Africa over the last thirty years.  What have become some of the central issues in contemporary South Africa?

BE: South Africa now is in many ways unrecognisable from the country I grew up in. There’s a new generation of young black people who have themselves never experienced apartheid – it’s something they read about in history books. To me and other people of my generation, that’s extraordinary.

There were times when we couldn’t imagine that the transition out of apartheid could be peaceful. I was sitting in a conference in Johannesburg when Prime Minister FW de Klerk unexpectedly announced that the ANC was unbanned and Mandela would be released. There were many political activists in this auditorium, including people who had spent long periods incarcerated on Robben Island, and I will never forget the stunned expressions on their faces at that historic moment.

We were blessed at having leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu, who were able steer the country through a peaceful transition. Which is not to say, of course, that the country isn’t struggling with the legacy of apartheid. There’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done in education, health care, housing, transport and so on.

Perhaps the most pressing problem in SA is the high crime rate and the extreme violence of this crime. It doesn’t happen along racial lines – crime is targeted towards black and white alike. It’s endemic. I think it’s a legacy of the violence that people had to endure under apartheid (of which this excerpt shows a fairly small-scale example). And we’re dealing with a generation of people who missed out on education, and who can’t see a way to improve their lives other than through crime.

Right now SA represents an extraordinary mix of warmth and energy and forgiveness on the one hand, and endemic violence and corruption on the other. One has to hope that the former will win out. As the most economically developed country in Africa, SA’s success could of course drive political and economic improvements further up the continent.


RG: Any thoughts on the ongoing South African hosted World Cup?

BE: I won’t be in South Africa for the World Cup but everyone there says that it’s a wonderfully positive experience. It seems to have reignited a warmth and sense of unity in the country. That’s heartening, because visitor numbers were looking disappointing in the run-up and there were real question marks over organisation and safety.


RG: Finally, you are currently living in London.  What brought you to England and how would you describe living there?

BE: I’ve been living in London since 1992.  I came at the age of twenty-five for a gap year, but I immediately felt at home in London. Maybe it’s to do with my grandparents’ European heritage, or the colonial history of SA, but so much about England felt familiar and warm, and London is a great place to live. It has tremendous diversity and coming from SA the general atmosphere of tolerance is refreshing.

The diversity and quality of cultural activity here is dazzling. I can walk into an art gallery and see a famous masterpiece or I can turn up at the Royal Academy of Music and listen to world class musicians. All for free!  One has to have grown up on the tip of Africa, or at any rate, outside Europe, to appreciate fully what a privilege that is.

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Ryan Gleason is a literary editor at Pif Magazine. He can be found reading and writing in a Seattle puddle or at ryan.gleason@pifmagazine.com.