Revolutionizing Boyhood: An Interview with Jacques Strauss
Words By Jacques Strauss, Words by Dani Hedlund
Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project.
Fiction and nonfiction books alike have focused on South African apartheid, drawn to the inherent drama of a country brutally divided. Rarely, however, do we glimpse what it was like growing up in this environment, how one develops an identity in a country failing to balance its own. This personal battle is the main focus of Jacques Strauss’ debut novel, The Dubious Salvation of Jack V., a powerful work inspired by his on upbringing in South Africa.
Through the eyes of our eleven-year-old narrator, Strauss transports his reader into the seemingly perfect world of Jack V. He is old enough to know about apartheid, about the violence erupting along the borders, but from his sunny private pool, those issues seem very far away. Economic fluctuations are only reported when they affect the price of his favorite toys, political parties are judged on their color schemes, and his parents’ stereotypes and sly jokes are reported as fact. Yet these things are mere side notes to far more pressing issues, like buying the new He-Man doll and tricking his sister into doing his chores. In fact, the greatest injustice Jack sees is that the world was so cruel as to deny him a brother. If he had a brother, everything would be better. An older brother could help Jack become a man, and if he were the older brother, he could be the one to play mentor. Either way, a brother would have spared him the pain of growing up alone, half English and half Afrikaans, in a country where their long-lasting hatred still rages on.
In this struggle, Jack’s family is no help. His mother and father are gone often, leaving him to be raised by his black maid, Susie. And although Susie loves him fiercely—and violently—she offers no solution to his identity struggle. Without a proper mentor, Jack spends his days imagining situations where he would sustain serious injury, believing that if he were to survive such a trial, that perseverance—and attention—would certainly propel him into adulthood. Yet, when Jack’s trial finally comes, he is unprepared. Caught in a moment of weakness, Jack does not endure that pain; he thrusts it upon another. Betraying one closest to him, he is tragically ejected into the adult world, for the first time understanding the racial hatred overtaking his country.
TBL is honored to recommend The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. By allowing the historical and political environment to simmer in the background, Strauss creates a fascinating lens through which to view 1989 apartheid. Both deeply moving and humorous, we are shown a country and a boy on the brink of revolution. The end of apartheid and Jack’s boyhood are inevitable, but both must first survive the violence and fear of change, praying for salvation when the dust settles.
Strauss on The Dubious Salvation of Jack V.
Given the title character’s name and the book’s setting, it can come as no surprise that Strauss drew from his own experiences when creating his fictional world. However, Strauss told me that he was originally hesitant to write a book about South African apartheid, feeling that “there were just so many books about politics and there were so many influential writers who had discussed that period so well…and [he] just wanted to write about boyhood.” However when he began writing, he realized that to talk about growing up in South Africa in the late 80’s without addressing the political background was absurd: “I began to see the enormous impact it has on your everyday life and the politics kind of seeped in.”
Along with the political background, Strauss also poured his mixed heritage into book. Like Strauss, Jack is half Afrikaner and half English, torn between two cultures that although ethnically-linked, are hugely disparate. As Strauss explains, “the black/white dividers are hugely significant [in South Africa], but something that doesn’t get as much attention is the dividers between the Afrikaans and the English.” The relationship between the two cultures has a long and acrimonious past, including two civil wars, the latter of which decimated the small Afrikaner community. Combining those violent wars with the Great Depression, the Afrikaner community was left “disenfranchised and extremely bitter.”
This history plays an enormous role in Jack’s family dynamic: Jack’s Afrikaner grandmother—based on Strauss’ own—harbors a burning hatred for the English and thus half of her grandson’s bloodline. Torn between these cultural extremes, Jack struggles to discover what sort of man he should become. While this was certainly a difficult way to grow up for both Jack and his creator, Strauss confessed that he was very grateful for his heritage, stating “I’m really glad because I did get to experience both cultures. It certainly helps as a writer to understand both communities.”
Although the political setting and the cultural division are certainly pivotal to the plot, the first-person perspective through which we view them is what makes the Dubious Salvation of Jack V. so remarkable. Curious about how Strauss delves so authentically into that mindset, I inquired if he did some sort of special research, enjoyed long conversations with his nieces or nephews, or spent long afternoons staring at his He-Man dolls. “How did you know about that!?” he declared with a laugh. But in fact, Strauss did very little research save for reading a couple books to remind himself of the time. “I have very vivid memories of myself when I was eleven. It’s such an interesting time, when you can slip from being a child to an adult. When you aren’t one or the other.” Although putting himself in the mindset was easy, Strauss always found books narrated by children very limiting, and thought it implausible that someone so young could construct such a long, coherent narrative. To escape this, Strauss narrated the novel from the perspective of an adult Jack V looking back on his eleven-year-old self. While we spend the majority of the time in this younger mindset, the distance of using an older narrator allowed Strauss to employ the beautiful language that sparkles throughout his prose. Emphasizing this point, Strauss declared: “since I’m kind of pompous and a bit of dick…I wanted to be able to slip out of the eleven-year-old perspective and be back in the adult perspective easily.”
Since Strauss’s own experiences of the period conclude with a happy ending, as our discussion about the Dubious Salvation of Jack V. began to wind down I had to ask why Jack did not deserve the same, confessing that I found Jack’s ejection into adulthood utterly heartbreaking. Prepared for a sympathetic reply, I was rather surprised when a wide smile split Strauss’ face. “I’m glad you felt that way,” he replied, his smile growing even larger, “I’m really pleased.” As a writer, Strauss loves the fact that his characters were evoking such a potent emotional reaction that his readers were able to care about them. But of course, if they have enough life breathed into them to dance, they also had to face the music. “I think Jack needed to be punished for what he did,” he concluded, “He needed an appropriate consequence to his actions.” The same honest writing that led me to bond with Jack had to also create a realist outcome or it would invalidate the book’s authenticity.
Strauss on Writing
When I asked about Strauss’s process as a writer, he answered with one word: “chaotic.” One of the greatest things he learned through writing The Dubious Salvation of Jack V. was the importance of having a process, for when he began he had none: “I’m one of those people who just opens up a document, writes ‘Chapter One,’ and starts typing away…which is a terrible way to write and I will never do that again.” Since his initial “lack of process” was so haphazard, after completing the book, he had to massively restructure it, rewriting the majority of the prose and cutting out huge sections: the latter of which distressed him greatly. “It was horrible. When you’ve written these beautiful pieces and during the rewrites you kind of crowbar in what needs to go in to make it make sense but you try to protect the beautiful things in the drafts…but eventually you have to pluck up the courage to kill them, to kill those bits…”
Determined never to go through those horrible revisions again, Strauss has been working hard to cultivate a process. “It’s all rather cliché, but I try to sit down and write a certain amount of words a day even if I don’t feel like it…it’s similar to going to the gym: You know that you don’t necessarily feel like going, but when you’re there and actually going it, you feel better for it.” In addition to forcing writing time, Strauss also carries a notebook around with him, ready to scribble down any good ideas he has while out and about.
When I asked Strauss what advice he had for our TBL writers, he replied, “I’m such a new writer, I’m not sure I’m in any position to be giving advice. Because what I know is probably dangerous.” He then took in a deep breath, and added, “The thing is, it’s so hard, I know how hard it is. Putting all this effort into writing, and you don’t know if there’s going to be a pay off. Its eleven o’clock at night, on a Friday night, all of your friends are out at the pub, drinking and having a good time, and you just think, ‘Why am I doing this? If I get an agent, there’s still a huge chance it won’t even get published’ and you have all of these really sort of dark moments.” Remembering his own anguish with writing, he concluded that despite it all, he believes that if you are passionate enough to be able to finish a book, there isn’t any disconnect between having enough talent and it not turning out. “Maybe it’s my ‘care bear’ way of thinking, but between genuine passion and talent, there’s no disconnect. It’s just a question of READ, READ, READ, WRITE, WRITE, WRITE. And just go for it.”
Excerpt from The Dubious Salvation of Jack V.
Even in 1989, ten rand didn’t go very far. You could, theoretically, go to the movies four times. But then only if you didn’t buy anything to eat or drink. And the chances were pretty good that you’d buy the grape-flavored Slush Puppie. And that cost nearly as much as your movie ticket. But you’d spend the extra two rand. And seeing as you had already spent four fifty, you might as well buy a chocolate to round the afternoon’s entertainment up to five rand, which meant that even thought in theory you could go to movies four times, I don’t think there was a single month in my childhood that I actually managed it.
Or, you might spend you whole allowance on a He-Man doll, though we never called them dolls—they were just He-Mans—as in, “Ma, can I buy myself a He-Man?” The title character’s name stood in for the complete set of figures, of which there were a sufficient number to bankrupt a family should they give in to a child’s every whim. I don’t recall anyone mentioning the peculiar tautology. Perhaps She-Man was inconceivable, or we just accepted that masculinity redouble was really the only way to express it properly. Whatever the case, a He-Man would set you back for the month because they were at least ten rand and every time the president said something that upset people they would cost even more.
Some kid in our class who went away on holiday to America said that no one played with He-Mans anymore and they weren’t cool but it turned out, he didn’t actually go to America, he went to Canada, and everyone knew that Canada was most assuredly not America because they were almost communist. So it made sense that they didn’t play with He-Mans because everyone knew communists didn’t have toys. They played with pieces of wood and the bones of Christian children. At least this is what we told ourselves because we loved He-Mans very much and America was the great arbiter of coolness because they made everything we cared about and desired. If someone had said to us that E.T. or The Goonies was based on a true story, we would have believed it without question, because America was a place where anything could happen and frequently did. And, importantly, our parents said that America was still friends with us, not best friends, but good friends because they chose President Bush instead of Dukakis. He has a good name, I thought, Dukakis. It sounded like carcass. When I asked my parents who they wanted to win the election they said, “Well, it will be good if Dukakis wins but it might be a little tricky for a while.” This was not a satisfactory answer. People were god or bad and if they wanted Dukakis to win they should have said so and not muddied things by saying, “It might be tricky.” Deep down, maybe they wanted Bush to win because my parents hated anything tricky.
Whatever the Americans really thought about He-Mans, the suggestion that a He-Man wasn’t cool was enough to make us wonder a little. Perhaps there was something a bit off about playing with a man in his underwear with really big muscles, nearly as big as boobs, but definitely no willy. Him being willy-less, well, it was reassuring, there was nothing sexual about it, but then again, he didn’t have a dick, not even a teeny little tottie like the nursery-school kids…