A Conversation with Carolyn Slaughter, author of Before the Knife
Q: After publishing several highly acclaimed works of fiction, you stopped writing for over a decade. What were your reasons for this period of silence? What finally inspired you to write Before the Knife?
A: I stopped writing twelve years ago in a deliberate attempt to uncover memories I knew I'd half-remembered and half-forgotten. I had also become convinced that writing itself—working and reworking images and themes in fiction—was actually keeping my real story out of consciousness. So I stopped writing altogether. This tipped me into a disturbing year when I was flooded by childhood images and memories. But the process turned out to be redemptive as well as traumatic. It brought clarity to my life for the first time. While I was not writing, I trained as a psychotherapist and began to work with trauma and abuse survivors, which I still do. And when I felt I had enough distance from the traumatic material, I tried to find the right voice and form to tell my real story. I wanted to create an intimate and close connection with the reader, and I had an image of two people being in the room as I was writing. Before the Knife is the result.
Q: In the second paragraph of the prologue, you wrote that your father raped you when you were six years old. Why did you choose to reveal this at the very beginning of the book?
A: I make it plain in the book that the first rape took place when I was six and that it did not happen just once. I put it right there at the beginning because I did not want to sensationalize the material by leading up to it in a fictional way. I wanted to state what had happened in a plain and exact way to protect the child—myself in this case—from voyeurism. I also wanted to spare the reader any more horror than was necessary. The way the book is written, with the reader knowing the truth in the prologue, also reflects my own experience: I knew it, "forgot" it, and then it returned in full force. I suspect that readers will have a similar experience as they seem to "forget and then are hit with the epilogue, which describes how the memories resurfaced.
Q: Due to your father's position with the British Protectorate, you and your sisters grew up in several different places in Africa. When you recall your childhood, is there a particular part of Africa that springs most vividly to mind?
A: The book is an elegy for Africa and for the part that I love best: a small place called Maun at the northern edge of the Okavango Delta in Botswana.
Q: Even though you lived with your two sisters, you spent a lot of time on your own as a child, exploring the African landscape. At what point did you start to turn some of your solitary observations into writing? Did you ever dream, as a child, about becoming an author?
A: I've wanted to be a writer since I was eight or nine years old, when I first tried to find words for what I was seeing and feeling. I was communicating with myself and with the landscape, and the urgency of needing to write probably came from the fact that what was happening to me was unspeakable.
When I was sent, in my early teen years, to St. Mary's boarding school in Johannesburg, I wondered if I was unteachable, but the religious life and the nuns and their extreme devotions fascinated me, and I learned how to become very self-disciplined. That discipline has been an important force throughout my writing career.
Q: British colonialism was waning while you were a child in Africa in the late fifties. How did you address these changes as you wrote about yourself and your family?
A: While writing this memoir, I hoped to describe my observations of Africa in a way that would make the book more than just a personal document. In Before the Knife, Africa's wrenching out of British imperialism through violence to independence is mirrored by a child's frantic freeing of herself from a particularly virulent form of domestic imperialism.
Q: Have you returned to Africa recently? What did you find?
A: I often go back to Africa and the way I see it is that Africa always returns to what it is: the white man comes and takes what he wants and leaves. But Africa is eternal.
Q: How did this memoir change your perspective on writing? Have certain writers influenced you? Are you ready to begin writing fiction again?
A: My first novel, Relations, was published in l976 and did extremely well. In the next eleven years I wrote eight more (including Dreams of the Kalahari), so I was a bit of a junky. I wouldn't want to write that way again, but I do always write at great speed, by hand, several drafts, and have closets full of manuscript books.
Writing the memoir didn't change my perspective on writing, but America did. Reading American fiction for the first time had an impact (I love Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Barbara Kingsolver and the great poets like Lowell and T.S. Eliot), but the language of the country—the way people speak, the way they turn formal language inside out and make something new and astonishing out of it—this was powerful for me. As an English novelist I wrote more formally but was perceived as a writer who wrote with a combination of violence and vulnerability. That quality is still present, but the language itself is now more fluid, conversational, intimate, and with this language I'm hoping to hit a vein.
I've started writing a novel about India at the time of the l9l9 Afghan War. It's based loosely on my grandmother's life. Four generations of my family lived in India and had connections to the Anglo-Indian Army. I like best to write in the first person so I'm trying to find the right voice and tone to keep the intimacy of Before the Knife.