David Mann

Allan Kolski Horwitz, poet and publisher at Botsotso Publishing, interviews award-winning editor and arts writer David Mann on his debut short story collection, Once Removed.

Allan Kolski Horwitz: These stories are all connected—and were inspired—by the South African art world. Could you elaborate on how this came to be?

David Mann: My day job is as an art critic. I’ve been writing about visual art and theatre in South Africa for the past ten or so years, and around 2020, during the closure of theatres, galleries, and artist studios as a result of South Africa’s stringent lockdown regulations, I turned to fiction as a way of seeing and making sense of the art world. It gave me a kind of critical distance from a world I had been so deeply immersed in for so long and allowed me to find a new appreciation for this world, as well. The stories in Once Removed take place in artist studios, galleries, theatres, auction houses, festivals, public spaces, and private homes, and they are all subtly connected through art and performance. 

The title Once Removed strongly links with a phrase, ‘melancholic realism’, as taken from one of your stories. Is this a fair assessment of the overall mood of the collection? Is this your general philosophical position, namely, a sense of fatalistic if wistful detachment?

This wasn’t intentional while writing, but I am starting to see some resonance with the term as it relates to the collection as a whole. Many of the stories are quite wry, using subtle humour to address some of the imbalances and precarities of the art world. But there is also a great hope and belief in art as a tool for change that’s represented in the collection as well. Additionally, some of the stories take a sudden turn into surrealism, exploring complex themes and worlds through this narrative style. So, the collection definitely has a melancholic realism to it, but it’s not the tone that defines the book. 

Your stories are rooted in the various social and political crises facing contemporary South Africa. Was this a conscious decision and do you think you have successfully integrated them in a way that does not overwhelm the individual narratives?

I like to think I’ve succeeded in balancing a critique of various institutions and socio-political power structures with engaging, edifying, and entertaining characters and stories. Much of the critique is embedded in a secondary layer in the stories. On an immediate level, a story might be about a group of self-involved artists failing to organise a public art festival, for example, but a closer reading reveals that, in many ways, they were set up for failure by funding models and organisations that are wholly inadequate and out of touch with the lived realities of artists in the country. 

Though a white South African man, you have created characters from across the colour, gender, and cultural spectra. Are you satisfied with the authenticity of your depiction of these supposed ‘Others’?

It was one of the things I was conscious of throughout the process of writing the stories. I wanted the stories to be as representative of the South African art world as possible, which meant writing convincing and full characters often beyond my immediate experience. I had a brilliant cohort of fellow writers and readers who engaged the stories and provided detailed feedback and critique on all of the characters in the collection. I believe this helped a great deal. Similarly, I tried to shift focus at times to the artworks and performances represented in the stories. A question I had throughout was: ‘What does it mean to put art to work as a character or a narrative device, and what does this do to the other characters in the story?’ So the characters are also at times deliberately half-finished canvases, open to interpretation in the way that art so often is. 

Do you read much short fiction? Is this a medium of expression that you chose for specific reasons or was it by chance?

I am a huge reader of short fiction, specifically South African short fiction. The short stories of Ivan Vladislavic, Zoe Wicomb, Nick Mulgrew, Richard Rive, Niq Mhlongo, Can Themba, Henrietta Rose-Innes, and Bessie Head, to name a few, have been essential to my own writing. I love the short form for its economy of language, and its ability to inspire play, incidental discovery, and a level of experimentation that longer-form writing doesn’t often provide. On a practical level, too, I feel as if we are so deeply located in the era of the short-form. This is how we read, respond, and engage with the world on a daily basis. Short stories have always felt urgent and exciting, and I don’t think this will ever change. 

You raise the hope that art can change lives. In what ways can or does this take place?

Art has always been a tool for meaningful change. One of the threads running through the collection is the notion of art changing one’s life. It’s present in every story in one way or another. It’s a notion that I take very seriously and also poke fun at. I do believe that art can help us to make better sense of ourselves, the world, and our places in it. I believe that it’s a language, a tool for connection, meaning-making, resistance, and more. In the context of a commercial art market, however, the notion of art changing one’s life is put to work as a slogan—a way of marketing and selling art, divorced from any real meaning. I believe in the former and try my best to write against the latter. 

David's book, Once Removed, is available via African Books Collective. 

Botsotso Publishing is made up of a group of poets, writers, and artists who wish to create art and to generate the means for its public communication and appreciation. They speak particularly of art that is of and about the varied cultures and life experiences of people in South Africa – as expressed in all languages. To find out more, take a look at their publisher page

Photo copyright: Youlendree Appasamy.

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