Passionate about her characters’ unique destinies, author Bessora talks about her beginnings as a writer and the release of her latest novel, Les Orphelins (The Orphans), wherein she retraces an obscure historical event.
After dreaming of becoming an air hostess then making a career in finance, you’ve finally devoted your days to writing. How did it come into your life? What event led you to change your life?
I started by working in the financial world in Geneva, which didn’t suit me at all. I went on a journey to South Africa one day, and at the end of the trip I decided to take up studying again, in anthropology. I then wrote a memoir that amounted to a transition to fiction but I had no ambition to write books. As a child I didn’t imagine that there was a book trade or writers. I had fun writing this first novel during my thesis, without thinking that it would work. After having a friend read it, I sent it to an editor and he published it. I didn’t really know if I was made for writing or if a second novel was going to take shape. Nowadays, I don’t think that you’re really born a writer but rather that you spend your life becoming one.
Your literary style is sometimes compared to Boris Vian, sometimes to Nathalie Sarraute. What were your major influences in the artistic world?
I am a watchful sponge, meaning I soak up everything. Not just from my reading or my artistic tastes. I can be inspired by a scene witnessed or experienced in the metro, in a restaurant, in a documentary, or in a painting. It’s impossible for me to give it a specific name because there are too many things that can spark an emotion. Personally, I don’t understand this need to compare authors to each other and I really do think that each one is unique. I should obviously feel flattered to be compared to Boris Vian or to Nathalie Sarraute, but the value of the comparison escapes me.
In your novels, you like to explore destiny and how your characters try to break free of it by forging their own path. How do you envisage this theme? What is the seed of this inspiration?
I have a real soft spot for pariah characters and I want to examine how we break free of these labels. As we live in society, we have to respect a certain number of rules, except when they become oppressive and veer towards totalitarian doctrine. So how do we break free of it? It’s quite prominent in Les Orphelins, my latest novel, as my two characters are emblematic of two doctrines, Nazism and apartheid. They find themselves trapped in this indoctrination and try to free themselves from it. Is it possible? What path does each one take? I find these topics fascinating.
Your latest novel, Les Orphelins, broaches an obscure historical event where 83 children, supposedly Aryan orphans, were adopted by white South African families in 1948. How did you learn about this story? How did this project take shape in your mind?
I told you I was a watchful sponge. I was watching television around three years ago and saw Weisses Blut, a documentary by Regine Dura. Already fascinated by South Africa, where I had the opportunity to travel several times, I was floored by a sequence where Peter, one of the two protagonists, talks about his toxic relationship with his adoptive mother. There are pain-filled silences and you can discern, in the eyes of this man who’s now 70 years old, the eight-year-old child from 1948. I felt straight away that there was something to write and I had a strong urge to find it. I already knew that the narrative wouldn’t be an essay but definitely fiction, a novel. After applying for a Stendhal mission, I set off for South Africa a few months later.
You went on a Stendhal mission to South Africa in 2018 to write this novel. Can you tell us about your trip?
My story structure was vague when I left, and I knew that this trip would help me focus on the narrative approach I wanted to give the book. When I got to the Cape, I didn’t have Peter’s details and I quickly realised that no one had ever heard about this story. By all accounts, it’s not the kind of story you want to remember and celebrate. Thanks to a few details gleaned from the documentary, I identified the names of towns and railways that helped me locate an estate with 62 houses where he lived. After a surreal investigation, I got his address and was warmly welcomed when I told him that I’d travelled 10,000 km to see him. He agreed to answer my questions and he had a book that belonged to Werner, another adopted child who’d since died and who I’d never found. It was the first time I was writing fiction based on a real person and I was eager not to betray the facts.
During this Stendhal mission, you managed to get in contact with and meet one of the adopted children. How did you rework this connection in the text? What memories do you have of your talks with him?
I’m still in contact with him, his wife, and his daughter. I sent them the book and I hope it’ll be translated into English so they can read it. He told me a lot about the relationship he had with his adoptive parents and he brought me to his childhood home. I was able to get photos and records but these weren’t formal interviews. They were invitations to lunch or walks along the beach with his family members and friends. It turned out that his daughter was born in Germany but grew up in South Africa: she told me recently that, at 46 years old, she moved to Germany because she never felt South African. This reinforces the idea that there was a trauma spanning generations, that she was torn apart by this story that happened before she was born.
While this story was brought to the screen in Weisses Blut, a 2011 documentary by Regine Dura, you would also like to adapt it as an original screenplay. Do you have any initial ideas for directing? Would you like to create this film yourself or entrust it to someone else?
I love dramaturgy — the art of telling stories — but I’m not a professional scriptwriter. I would of course be very happy to contribute to the audiovisual adaptation, even if I don’t think I’m up to taking on the project all alone. I’m doing some beginner scriptwriting courses, notably with scriptwriter and mentor Isabelle Blanchard. I’ve already gone as far as writing a treatment but that’s not enough yet since a film adaptation isn’t a literary transposition. The book is very visual to begin with and it can be read in sequences like you’d watch a film. The result, however, depends on the scriptwriter’s and the director’s freedom of interpretation. I was thinking about a collaboration with director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, who created The Staircase, a documentary series on the Michael Peterson case, but I haven’t yet been in contact with a producer.
The concept of obsession with safety, already present in your novel Courant d'air aux Galeries (Draughts in the Galeries), as well as fear of the other are explored at length in Les Orphelins. What is your take on the present day and the excesses of a complex world?
I think we’re living in a society that’s becoming increasingly polarised, where identities are hardening. It makes me sad because I wrote several books encompassing these themes twenty years ago and I’m unhappy to see that things haven’t changed over time. You could even say that things have gotten worse. It looks like you have to be an optimist and that history goes in cycles but we’re not in a good place.
Thanks to the Institut français Stendhal programme, Bessora went to South-Africa to write her latest novel Les Orphelins (The Orphans).
The Stendhal programme supports French-language authors whose writing project justifies living abroad for at least one month.
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