Nineveh, published late last year, is the latest book by South African writer Henrietta Rose-Innes. It’s a strange and apocalyptic tale about a swarm of insects which overruns a luxury housing development outside Cape Town, causing mayhem and destruction. A pest remover – named Katya Grubs – is called in but finds she has much more on her hands than just the bugs. Rose-Innes is a past winner of the Caine Prize for African writing and the SA PEN literary award. She is author of Homing (2010), an anthology of short stories, as well as two other novels: Shark’s Egg (2000) and The Rock Alphabet (2004). Nineveh has received widespread critical acclaim for the quality of the writing as well as the way it deals with contemporary political and environmental themes, with one reviewer calling it an innovative blend of the comic, the gothic and the social realist. I asked her 5 questions.
Your first novel, Shark’s Egg, seemed to me to be a very intimate story about the relationship between two people and not very political at all – whereas Nineveh has a strong environmental and political aspect to it. Do you think you’ve evolved into a more political writer?
I don’t really believe in apolitical books – it’s all political on some level – but when I was younger I was very aware of my limitations as a writer. I’ve gained in confidence since Shark’s Egg, technically and in other ways, and feel able to paint on a bigger canvas. These days I can try to convey things in a more conscious (rather than terribly self-conscious) way.
Insects form some of the main characters of the book – ticks, caterpillars and beetles are everywhere. What is it about insects that makes them so repulsive to many people, but also so fascinating?
We do have a very deep-seated fear of parasites. I like the fact that insects and other ‘vermin’ are humble and despised, but powerful in numbers. They’re the underdogs of our city ecosystem – the underbeetles – and my protagonist, Katya, relates to that. Also, insects are a good metaphor for insidious, cumulative change: they are the small but numerous agents of chaos in the cracks and foundations of our solid-seeming reality, and they can eventually bring down a city.
As the book progresses it seems that chaos and anarchy increasingly take over. But it doesn’t come across as necessarily a bad thing…
I think the underlying idea in Nineveh is that change is inevitable, irresistible and not necessarily undesirable. It’s not an apocalyptic book in that the chaos is not an end point, but perhaps the start of a new cycle, a different order. The imagery of ancient, abandoned cities suggests that systems – cities, civilizations, families – are eternally falling apart and being replaced by something else, and that we should not fear that process but embrace it.
The cover of your book is really stunning. How important is it to you as an author, to have a really great cover?
Thank you. All credit to the designer Michiel Botha, who is responsible for some of the most beautiful South African book covers around. I think most authors care a lot about cover art – it’s one of the things we dream about before we ever get published, and it can feel very personal. But I’ve learned to let go and let the experts handle it. I’ve also been lucky: I’m extremely happy with the cover and also the cover of my 2011 collection, Homing, which was also designed by Michiel.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m in the early stages of a new novel and a couple of short stories are also taking form. I’m very fortunate to be a fellow at the Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts at the University of Cape Town this year, and right now I’m coming to the end of a short residency at Hawthornden Castle, near Edinburgh.