Andrew Miller’s a Jozi-based freelance scribe. Years spent with a muscle disease have allowed the writer to patiently hone his writing craft as well as flex his philosophical biceps with Jozi’s artists, writers and passers by at his dinner table in Melville, Johannesburg. A tireless six years of editorial bench pressing has saw him produce his very first novel known as Dub Steps, which won Dinaane Debut Fiction Award. Kagiso Mnisi speaks to him about the writerly life and white male privilidge, among other things. Tseliso Monaheng shot a video segment which you can watch here.
Peering into the sci-fi we meet Miller’s chief character, Roy Fotheringham, who is neither an anti-hero nor intent on saving the day. He is a plain old pathetic as a human being. There is no shred of redemption in Roy as his middle-aged frame continuously gets gushed and mangled by past and present failures.
Miller’s version of the future is of immersive virtual reality, hyper-augmentations, and holograms. It presents an alternative paradigm of experience. After a night of binge-drinking, Fotheringham is thrust into a still Joburg without human activity, just “the occasional bark of what must have been a dog” and roaming “free pigs.” With a chip on his shoulder the chief character meanders the country and circumlocutes back to Jozi. His relations to the few people he encounters further precipitates his self-loathing amidst an air of survival.
Kagiso Mnisi: You cut your teeth in the Jozi poetry scene of the late 90s and late 2000s. This was a time when it was a thing to be a poet. How would you describe the stories that emerged? And did you ever carve yourself a space in that scene?
Andrew Miller: For me it was an interesting time because being a whitie in the city was interesting thing and the only reason why I got into that scene was because my wife and I had opened a gallery, so there was ample exposure to the wave of poetry that had mushroomed. You would have poets wanting to use our space for their sessions and being a writer myself I thought it fit to participate. So for me it was a very exciting time and having viewed poetry as no-hoper, much of the excitement came from being immersed in the militantly creative abyss that Jozi poetry scene was. I was inspired by the socially angry stuff spat by poets. The hard core polemic posturing was a thing of the times.
You have two independently published works, namely Hintsa’s Ghost and Getting Up. The former is an anthology of poetry and the latter a collection of essays. How was it going through the indie route to produce these?
Yeah, we started a little independent publishing company with a couple of people. It was interesting because I being the only whitie in the house brought on a perception that I possessed mlungu [white] power. This is a perception that one has access to cash and corporate networks. And all of us as a group were interested to see whether that theoretical access to this monied world of corporates could be leveraged to everyone’s advantage. And so we experimented with what it would be like to publish what was happening in the city at the time. For me Hintsa’s Ghost was a nice little poetry book that worked out well. Getting Up was extremely flawed in every possible way. There was some material that was good in it. However, I think it could have been a better book if I had been exposed to an editor. That is part of the problem if you’re a writer being involved in publishing, designing and marketing the book. You kind of lose your editorial head, which is what happened.
Literature, or the written word at large, mostly serves the age it lives in. Phaswane Mpe’s Welcome To Our Hillbrow took a stab at inner city blues post ’94 as well as the contradictions prevalent in an urban Jozi. Kgafela oa Magogodi offered the experimental Itchy City which chronicled the millennial hustle and bustle of Jozi. How is Dub Steps a tale of its times — or its future times, for that matter?
I think it reflects the weirdness technology has brought us, and continues to bring us. We’re only at the very beginning of the techno revolution and yet the changes in the way we communicate, and what we seek to achieve through communication, have been profound. Within this context I think it also reflects just how fragile South African society is at the level of human relationships. We’re living in an era of Hyper Morality – supported by ubiquitous communication and a very obvious communication obsession – but we struggle to speak to each other in the most basic way.
Your main character, Roy, in Dub Steps is neither a hero nor an antihero in the traditional sense. You’ve even went on to describe him as pathetic. Why did you opt to create such a figure?
He became alive as I wrote him, and he grew to be more narcissistic and self-referential as the story grew. I guess this reflects in some way my reality over the last decade, where I’ve been one of few white people working in an office full of black people. In this context, it’s blindingly obvious how much your peers have to carry you along with them in terms of language and culture. I was always very grateful to have been dragged by my peers with such grace and humour during our shared office time. Roy – as a pathetic hero – reflects all this, which is, I think, a very common South African paradigm at the moment. There’s always a hint that he could come to life and act in a meaningful way, but he never does. Now that the book is done and out there, this is probably my favourite part about it. The obviously pathetic character of the protagonist — it’s a very South African thing.
In the post-apocalyptic world of Dub Steps, human relations are put to the test in a ‘new desolate world’, what would you say is the greatest challenge in modern day Joburg for co-existence?
History. Each individual has a choice to make about where history begins, and what that means in terms of how we interact. Does our history start in 1994? 1948? 1913? During the hundred years war in the Eastern Cape? How you choose to answer that question dictates a great deal about how you choose to behave — commercially and socially — in modern Joburg. Because we all make such different choices as to where history begins, it’s very easy to get caught on the wrong side of assumptions you didn’t even know you had. #Rhodesmustfall is just the beginning, in my view, of the SA history challenge. Joburg, because it is often ahead of the rest of the country in terms of racial, social and class interaction, will face this challenge first.
We all know that the best-selling formats here in South Africa are sports autobiographies; political analyses by opinianistas; motivational books and, of course, CSI-type hack work packaged as literature by some folks at Primedia. You on the other hand went on to write a sci-fi riddled with popular urban cultural paraphernalia. Where is the method in that madness?
The best-selling formula is well-established in SA, as you say, but it only serves a tiny portion of the populace. When you line real life up against what’s on the shelves and on the TV, it’s obvious that huge swathes of local culture, lives and lifestyles aren’t represented. I wanted to write a story for people who listen to hip hop and dance music; who make art and hold street fashion shows and who dress like bums and avoid the office block and the call centre as much as possible. [People] who push for something new and different through things like poetry and art. There are a lot of young and not-so-young people out there who live in this context. I wanted to write something for them. I also wanted to write a story in the classic sense, where the polemic content lives well below the surface — a story that entertains, first and foremost. I’m not sure whether there’s any commercial logic to this approach, but at least I enjoyed the process.