Under the skin of lies

TO SAY THAT ZOË WICOMB DOESN'T LIKE interviews is as much of an understatement as saying that four-year-old boys, as a rule, don't bounce happily into the dentist's chair and invite the attentions of syringe and drill.

Why that should be so is an oddity, for Wicomb, South Africa-born but living in Glasgow for the last 11 years, is a writer of rare brilliance. On the cover of her latest book, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison and double Booker winner JM Coetzee compete to eulogise her work. She's formidably intelligent: "A mind like a steel trap", says the head of the Scottish Arts Council's literature department, "one of the brightest people you could meet." She is, according to the pupils she has taught creative writing to at Strathclyde University, where Wicomb holds a professorship, a peerless and inspiring teacher.

Yet the chances are that you won't have ever heard of her, because this is the first British newspaper interview she has ever given. For the 30 years she's lived in Britain, that's the way she liked it, and to be honest, it probably still is.

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Wicomb's third book is published next week. It's one of the most convincing novels I've read all year. If she's going for the title of Scotland's greatest unknown novelist, it's hers on a plate.

Playing in the Light opens with a successful white Cape Town businesswoman visiting her father, a retired traffic policeman. Apartheid has ended, the rainbow nation has been born, and at the travel agency she runs, Marion Campbell is slowly making adjustments, like appointing its first black assistant. Her father John, an unreconstructed Afrikaner, is depressed at the metamorphosis that has left the country he once served proudly as a reservist going to the dogs, blarry kaffirs dragging it further into anarchy, further from the idyllic past when they knew their place.

At first, you might think that's all the story is going to be, and so accurately are the characters portrayed that it would be enough. It would be a story of quiet accommodations, of the slow tensions of change: Marion relaxing in her luxurious apartment overlooking the beach she has long since learnt not to walk on at night; Brenda Mackay, the new girl at the travel agency, calmly challenging old assumptions; John drinking whisky, dreaming of golden childhood summers on the veldt. The Truth and Reconciliation Committee hearings might be on the TV and in the newspapers daily, yet lives like these are where those abstract nouns are made flesh.

But Wicomb, subtly seeding her story with symbols, allusions and half-buried memories, goes deeper still. As she gets under the skin of her two main characters, she uncovers something else altogether. Another skin, and a skin of a different colour too.

THEY CALLED THEM "PLAY-WHITES", PEOPLE like John Campbell and his wife Helen. If apartheid had been absolutely impermeable, if officialdom implacably unable to be bribed with money or sex, if rules were irredeemably incapable of being bent, they would have been categorised as "coloured" from birth through every single year of their lives.

But in South Africa, being white meant opportunity, whether getting on or getting out. So among some families classed as coloured but who could pass for white, sacrifices were made.

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And what sacrifices! For John Campbell, for his dead wife Helen, it meant turning their lives inside out. They couldn't be seen with their darker-skinned families, so that meant a whole string of absences, from empty pews at weddings to missing mourners at funerals. The family home had to be abandoned, sisters and brothers had to be effectively renounced; grandparents who could only come and visit if they pretended to be, and dressed as, servants. Surnames had to be changed; ancestors' photographs painted over, lips and noses thinned; thick-soled feet scraped tender. All the time a fear of exposure, of what a casual incriminating word, an unnerving remembrance of love, a racially inappropriate memory, could lead to. Constantly, consistency: and no room for trekking off into dreams (or not real ones, anyway); constantly, fending off inquisitiveness, the answers readily prepared, aliases and alibis already present and correct; constantly, constantly, fear.

Would a second child come out white, like Marion had? Perhaps not, so no second child. No second child, and another absence for tension to fill, like air rushing into a vacuum. Another absence like the empty chairs round the Christmas dinner table and all the myriad other ways in which appearances have to be kept up, and meanwhile, all the time, the tension growing and growing "as if the very plaster was giving its all to prevent the house from exploding".

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So Wicomb pulls Marion from that sterile luxury flat, where her (unnamed, naturally) "girl" will tidy up unpleasantnesses, on through a journey through thickets of lacerating lies back into her family's past. At the same time, this is a voyage into the new South Africa, where the old divisions have been constitutionally shrunk away, but where they still remain, like hidden cancers.

WICOMB WAS BORN IN NAMAQUELAND, A HOT, arid region on the southern fringes of the Namib desert, in 1948. The good life of white South Africa was a long way from this sparsely populated scrubland, and the nearest whites lived 20 miles away, in the town which also had the nearest shop. (Not that, as coloureds, the Wicombs were allowed to enter it, only being served from a hatch round the side). Her Afrikaans-speaking parents wanted the best for their children, something more than working in the nearby gypsum mine or as a domestic servant, which were the only local jobs going. Speaking English - as no-one did for 200 miles around - wasn't an automatic free pass to a better life, but it was a better bet than anything else.

Secondary school meant Cape Town, where she moved to live with her aunt. A school for coloureds, followed by a university for coloureds, where she learnt about such great non-coloureds as Chaucer, Johnson, Shakespeare and Hardy. And where, for the first time, Wicomb caught sight of her first "play-whites". "There was a family living across the road from us, and one day they just disappeared. Our neighbours said, 'They've left. They've turned white'. This happened all the time"

"It's an odd phenomenon, the play-whites," says Wicomb. "We don't even know how many of them there are. There's no discourse, nothing in the library, because officially they don't exist. Yet the truth of the matter, because of their history, is that many Afrikaners are mixed race. Even Verwoerd [the founder of apartheid] had a wife who looked African."

Because skin colour is so variable even within the same family, legal definitions of whiteness were absurdly tortuous. "A white person," the government decided in 1950, "is someone who in appearance obviously is or is generally accepted as a white person, but does not include a person who, although in appearance obviously a white person, is generally accepted as a coloured person." Mrs Verwoerd presumably counted as white not because she looked it but because enough people could agree that she actually was.

"The weird thing," says Wicomb, "was that there was this legislation for racial purity at the same time as the whites were tacitly boosting their own numbers by allowing some people to cross over."

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Those blurred edges of all racial groups contain their own potential tragedies. "The newspapers were always full of stories about abandoned children found tied up or living under the bed because their families were ashamed of them on account of the colour of their skin," says Wicomb. "On the other hand, when I was at school, I remember kids in my class boasting about the members of their family who had 'turned white'." (Given the coloureds' formal rights under apartheid to live in South Africa, some blacks were just as keen to recategorise themselves as coloured.)

So why, with such an intriguing subject (the first time it's been dealt with in South African literary fiction) so commandingly handled, with Toni Morrison praising her "seductive, brilliant, precious talent" on her book's cover, with now-published pupils like Laura Marney and Rodge Glass lining up to credit her for helping get their writing on the right path, just why is Wicomb, in Marney's words, "the most self-effacing writer I've ever met"?

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She isn't, she insists, a real writer; she doesn't think of herself as one. Apart from sabbaticals and holidays, she hardly writes at all, and when she does, it's "torture, painfully slow". Her university work is different: that's what pays the bills, that's where she finds it easy to talk about literature, that's where she studies nothing but the very best, like Coetzee. And she sighs, just at the thought of his so-beautifully constructed sentences, beside which her own ... Her voice tails off.

And because the teaching, rather than the writing, is the priority in her life, she deliberately chooses to be published by small presses, free from the larger houses' interfering editors demanding rewrites on a whim or from publicists drawing up an impossible round of interviews. The books, she says, will find her own way without her helping them.

She doesn't like talking about her own life too much, but switch to South African history or the politics of race and it's a different matter. History played a cruel trick on her, she says: the anti-apartheid resistance movement was weak in the late Sixties, when she was a student, and she left the country two years before Steve Biko's black consciousness movement flared up on the campuses. "I was hot-headed, impatient, I just wanted to leave the whole oppressiveness of my own culture far behind."

In exile in London, a shy girl surprised at hearing herself speak in public, she took up the fight against race hate. Sometimes it seemed surprisingly close at hand: Scotland, she noted on arrival in 1989, seemed a much more racist country than England (it's no accident that nearly all of the characters in her novel have Scottish surnames). Yet even after all these years, she remains unable to shake off her birth country's hold. "I have a ghost existence here: my whole intellectual and emotional life is in South Africa."

While that may be understandable, the blanket of self-effacement with which she talks about her writing seems less so.

What it all boils down to, she finally says, is this: "I'm very, very contrary. And I want to be in control, which is what informs my attitude to publishing, editing, being interviewed. I set high standards too: as a reader, I don't read any poor novels, so I'm always aware of how much my own work falls flat by comparison. And perhaps it's because I grew up in South Africa, and it was easy there for people like me to grow up with a consciousness of inferiority."

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So still it lingers, the shadow of a political system so barbarous and absurd that it becomes increasingly hard to imagine. Read this novel, so nuanced, so precise, and so much better than its author can bring herself to admit, and it's back, rivetingly captured in all its soul-shrivelling force.

• Playing in the Light by Zo Wicomb is published next week by the New Press, price 14.99

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