Justine van der Leun on Writing ‘We Are Not Such Things’

Justine van der Leun’s new book We Are Not Such Things opens in familiar territory — an exploration of a particularly complex but well-known historical event — and quickly becomes a narrative more complex than its author had anticipated.

Van der Leun’s original intention was to explore the circumstances and aftermath of the 1993 killing of Amy Biehl, an American working with anti-apartheid groups in South Africa. The men convicted of her murder were later released from prison as part of the hearings held by that country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and two went on to work for the nonprofit organization established by Biehl’s family.

As van der Leun began interviewing people close to the events, however, the generally accepted version of the narrative didn’t hold up. Rather than a definitive look at the events of 1993 and their aftermath, We Are Not Such Things revels in the case’s newfound ambiguity, and it examines historical perceptions of certain events, complex questions of guilt and innocence, and how South Africa has changed over the ensuing decades. We talked with van der Leun about the process of researching the book, how it evolved over time, and other notable works about contemporary South Africa.

Signature: Early in We Are Not Such Things, you discuss how the book changed from your initial conception of it. Was there one particular moment when you realized that the story you were planning to tell was not what you expected it to be?

Justine van der Leun: I initially thought that I would expand upon the story of Amy Biehl’s murder, and how her parents had so remarkably forgiven her killers — a story that had been told in newspapers and magazines for nearly twenty years. I was on my way to doing so when I met Mzi Noji, a retired freedom fighter who would unexpectedly become one of the book’s main characters. Amy was killed in Mzi’s township, by men aligned with Mzi’s political group, and I wanted him to tell me what he knew about the day she died. We were going over the events of August 25, 1993, the day of Amy’s death, when Mzi casually mentioned that as far as he knew, the established narrative wasn’t exactly true. That’s when the book took an unexpected turn.

SIG: Beyond the story of Amy Biehl’s killing and its aftermath, you also include an abundance of history covering the centuries that led to modern South Africa. How did you find the balance between incorporating history with the more contemporary sections of the book?

JvdL: It was important to contextualize the story I was telling in the broader history of South Africa. You can’t fully comprehend the rage and disenfranchisement that led a mob to kill Amy Biehl unless you understand the country’s past and how race had been used for so long as a basis for privileging a minority and discriminating against a majority. I wanted to explain how policies and land grabs and battles, starting from the time the early Dutch set up shop in Cape Town, shaped the country, and that the Amy Biehl story did not happen in a bubble, but was one of many tragedies that marked the country’s long path to an inclusive democracy.

SIG: You chronicle how your relationship to several of the people being interviewed for your book changed over time. Since you’ve finished it, have any of those relationships changed even more?

JvdL: As much as possible, I stay in touch with most of the main characters in the book, though I’m now based in New York. It’s difficult for poor people in a township to make a long-distance call or check email from home because data and airtime are exorbitantly expensive in South Africa, so I call to check in every couple of months, and often the phone gets passed around the house. Once in a while, I even get an email. I stopped living full-time in Cape Town in 2013, but I traveled there every few months until 2015, when I returned to the States, and Gugulethu, the township in which the book is based, was always one of my first stops.

SIG: As an American with familial ties to South Africa, do you feel as though you had any insights into this case that someone without connections to both countries would not have had?

JvdL: Because my in-laws are Capetonians, I was immediately accepted into and immersed in family life. I had an in-built social network there, and a bunch of guides to help me navigate a strange land. South Africa doesn’t have much of a culture of political correctness, so I also heard a lot of uncensored commentary; at first, it made me crazy, but it did give me good insights into the country.

SIG: How has writing this book changed how you perceive South Africa? Do you still find yourself visiting with some frequency?

JvdL: I first went to South Africa on holiday. I’d heard about the rainbow nation and post-apartheid glory, but I didn’t know much more than that. When I started living there, I had a naive perception of the place: I thought that there were cut-and-dry heroes and villains, and I was quick to judge people for being on the right or wrong side of history. With time, I came to understand the complexities and nuances of the place, and I found that the “other” — whether in the form of a black ex-militant or a white ex-cop — wasn’t so other after all.

SIG: At one point in the book, you encounter sets built for the film “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom;” at another, there’s a discussion of the film rights related to the aftermath of Amy Biehl’s killing. Have you found that cinematic depictions of recent South African history have played a significant role in altering perceptions of that history?

JvdL: There are two widespread perceptions of South Africa, from film and media and general myth-making: as the poster child for peace and reconciliation, personified by Mandela, and as a hotbed of violent crime. There is of course a basis for both those views, but the country is far more complicated than that, and its past and present are much richer than those narratives imply.

SIG: You quote journalist Rian Malan a few times in your book. Are there any other writers whose work on contemporary South Africa you’ve found illuminating?

JvdL: Malan’s My Traitors Heart is one of my favorite memoirs, and is worth reading even if you have no interest whatsoever in South Africa. Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom is the definitive history of the Struggle. Antjie Krog’s Country of My Skull is a raw, riveting, personal report on the Truth & Reconciliation Hearings, while Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s A Human Being Died That Night recounts a strange sort of friendship that developed between the author — a black psychologist — and a white prisoner, an infamous ex-security policeman nicknamed Prime Evil for his terrible acts. Andre Brink’s novel A Dry White Season and almost everything written by J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer describe the impossibility of the country under apartheid — plus, they’re all damn good reading. Three books also shed light on the region: NoViolet Bulawayo’s fictional We Need New Names, Norman Rush’s classic novel Mating, and Alexandra Fuller’s memoir Dont Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight.

SIG: Ideas of truth and memory become malleable over the course of the narrative. Has the process of researching and writing this book also affected how you view contentious sociopolitical questions in other countries?

JvdL: I no longer think that there is one single truth to historical events, and I take newspaper reports and history books with a grain of salt. As I dug deeper into this case, I saw how narratives solidify over time and retelling, and how even those involved tend to remember events differently than they may have occurred. I found that people often become accustomed to telling the story they feel that others want to hear or the story that they themselves have heard, and that story eventually becomes accepted as fact — then even the teller starts to believe it.