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'Next Door' Neighbors Gradually Learn To Get Along In Post-Apartheid Cape Town

For decades, the two strong-willed women in Yewande Omotoso's new novel were committed enemies. Hortensia is black, Marion is white and both are widows in their 80s. Their properties — in an affluent neighborhood in Cape Town, South Africa — sit next door to one another. Then, one day, an accident brings them together.

Omotoso's book is called The Woman Next Door. She tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro that while Hortensia and Marion do come together, they don't exactly become friends. "I like to think of what they have as a hate-ship rather than a friendship," she says.

Interview Highlights

On Marion, a character who experienced the white side of apartheid and has trouble adjusting to the new South Africa

I was really interested in looking at what is it like, particularly for Marion's character, to have been someone during the apartheid days who didn't necessarily resist apartheid, disagree with it, but kind of went along. What is it like now, you know, post-apartheid? What does she do with her opinions? What does she do with the mental gymnastics she had to create for herself to agree with something like an apartheid system that says this kind of skin color is better than that kind of skin color? I wanted to look at this character, or attempt to look at her, with compassion.

A friend of mine who's a psychologist often says, you know, being racist is a bit like being an alcoholic: You have to be able to acknowledge your racism and your prejudice, and that's the beginning. And I wanted to have this character, Marion, who's definitely full of prejudice and so stuck because of it and, like, she cannot give it up. ... [She resists] acknowledging that she was wrong, that apartheid was wrong, that it was a horror and that these are the things it did to the country she lived in.

On the scene in which a family patriarch sees a house servant dressed nicely and accuses her of stealing

On one level, it's ... this man unable to understand how the woman that works for him can have good things. In the scene, she's finished working and has dressed because she's off somewhere — maybe she's going to a party or meeting a friend. And the sight of her not in her uniform, let's say, it shocks him. All he can imagine is that those things are not hers and that they are his wife's. Now, his wife comes home and obviously the things don't fit her and they're not her things, but that's quietly put aside.

Yewande Omotoso lives in Johannesburg, where she works as an architect.
Victor Dlamini / Courtesy of Picador
Courtesy of Picador
Yewande Omotoso lives in Johannesburg, where she works as an architect.

So that is actually particularly violent. ... He strips her down, you know, and takes these things from her. But there's also something, for me, allegorical about that ... the kind of things that have to be done to maintain the myth that [he is] better. So to maintain that myth, [he has] to absolutely break you. ... And so the scene where he strips her, I wanted it to be so personal. It's such an affront. And I think that's a true thing when we set up these false privileges. It's a true thing; it's so fragile. That's the fragility of these systems. It's not enough that the entire government is, for [him], a patriarch, and is not for you, you know, the black woman working in [his] house. [He] also [has] to take your own sense of self away from you. That's how fragile [he is].

On the importance of portraying instances of casual, unspoken racism

We can look at government and we can say, "Oh, government is corrupt." But when we drive drunk or run the red light or whatever, we do not recognize that as a corrupting. And I'm really interested in individuals recognizing the little things, the seemingly innocuous things. And part of this whole thing is shame still carries. You know, Marion carries a lot of shame. Underneath her anger and righteousness is a deep shame, because the humanity in her, whatever is there, knows. So how do you begin to release that if you don't address even the most innocuous things as a kind of violence? Those things have their own kind of violence.

On the book's cautious optimism about healing racial inequality

I didn't want to write a book with a very simple, happy ending, and I don't necessarily think that's what I did. I think it feels like it's delicate — that's the caution, that this is delicate. And I think it's important to remember, as we connect and repair, that it's delicate. ... And so the optimism is as important as the caution because we also get careless sometimes and we think, Ah, you know, we did it.

And I think South Africa, in a way, may have been careless. I don't know if that's quite the word, but we talk now about the rainbow project, you know, rainbow South Africa, the rainbow nation, and we sometimes talk about it disparagingly because it feels like that was too optimistic and we didn't do the really hard dirty work to kind of peel underneath the scab. My sense of Marion and Hortensia is that they're just going to try and plod along. They're going to argue a lot. There might be long periods of sulking, and occasionally they would have a meal or they'll sit down together. And that's OK because it means that we're always trying and always attempting, which I think is more important than feeling like we've arrived somewhere.

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