MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The new novel "Blood Kin" is set in an unnamed country where a president has just been overthrown. The political landscape is in chaos. But the book deals with the personal fallout for the people who had served at a president's pleasure.
NPR's Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr reports that author Ceridwen Dovey brings an anthropologists eye to her writing.
JEFFREY FREYMANN-WEYR: Like the country in which the action takes place, the characters in "Blood Kin" are never given names, the principal narrators are identified only by their relationship to the ousted president. His portraitist, his chef and his barber tell their stories as their lives and their influence are shaken by the coup.
Ms. CERIDWEN DOVEY (Author, "Blood Kin"): I was more interested in people who worked for a corrupt president but in a non-political capacity, (Unintelligible) speech writers, they're kind of removed - once they've removed from the workings of power. And I just thought it will be interesting then to explore more abstract (unintelligible) of power and contamination.
FREYMANN-WEYR: The South African first-time novelist Ceridwen Dovey shows how the narrators have helped to prop up the president's power through their duties. Early in the novel, she describes how every two months, his portraitist creates a new work which will hang in the parliament building.
Ms. DOVEY: I always mixed my pallet before he arrived. I knew the shade of his skin, the hue of his hair, the pinkness of the half moons in his nails. After he'd arrived and will see fit, I'd adjust the color slightly according to his mood. Has it been a bad week? His skin tone needed more yellow. If he was feeling benevolent, I'd add a daub of blue to the white of his eyes.
FREYMANN-WEYR: The narrators concentrate on their jobs seemingly oblivious to the details of politics until the coup when they're taken into custody with the president at one of his palaces. They begin to fall back into their familiar roles, but this time serving the rebel leader known as The Commander.
Ms. DOVEY: As someone who had grown up in apartheid South Africa who'd always - and as a white, I'd always been interested in, you know, how people are complicit in these regimes even if they are opposed to them, and my parents were but we were still beneficiaries of that system. And so, for a while I think I was trying to work through my own accountability for what had happened.
FREYMANN-WEYR: When apartheid ended and the country was trying to remake itself, empowerment projects were set up as a way to help give opportunities to black South Africans. Ceridwen Dovey made a documentary film about one such project while she was studying anthropology and film at Harvard as an undergraduate. The film looked at labor relations on a post-apartheid wine farm.
Ms. DOVEY: They were claiming that workers were being given a percentage of the profits or part of the land grow their grapes on. They're building houses, owning their own houses for the first time. So I want to see these claims were real or not, so that's when I went often - looked on the wine farm and kind of track apartheid.
(Soundbite of documentary "Aftertaste")
Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)
FREYMANN-WEYR: The documentary that she made was called "Aftertaste," and she did see people's lives actually improving on the farm. After Dovey graduated from Harvard, she returned to school in Cape Town (unintelligible) masters of creative writing as she wrote "Blood Kin." She says she purposely avoided writing a work that could be seen as thinly veiled autobiography.
Ms. DOVEY: And I have to say, it's pretty unusual for a first timer to do that. And it was a challenge that I set myself. I just didn't want to write that book about growing up on a farm in South Africa.
FREYMANN-WEYR: In fact, "Blood Kin" is deliberately not set in South Africa. It could be any country at all. The novel looks at political power and intrigue from the vantage point of those along its edges. The stories of most other fictional tyrants like the one in Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "Autumn of the Patriarch" have been told from ruler's point of view. Dovey is now at NYU studying anthropology again, pursuing a PhD. She says fiction writing and anthropology are both fertile places for the imagination.
Ms. DOVEY: I think all writers are (unintelligible) of sorts and sorts of similar impulse, the observational impulse that, you know, writers (unintelligible) part of the train to have and, you know, a perfect gifts talks about thick description for ethnography. I mean, he's talking about nonfiction, but I think a similar kind of layering of detail if what makes good fiction really good.
FREYMANN-WEYR: "Blood Kin" is being published in 11 countries. The cover of the American edition features a blurb of praise from Nobel Prize winning novelist and fellow South African J.M. Coetzee. But Dovey, whose father is an academic and mother is a literary critic, is not so easily labeled.
Ms. DOVEY: You know, my dad always used to say (unintelligible). When we were quite young, like, you girls are going to have six or seven careers, you know, in your lifetime not just different jobs, but different careers.
FREYMANN-WEYR: Anthropologist Ceridwen Dovey plans to study the politics of climate change tracking how societies respond to enormous upheaval. Novelist Ceridwen Dovey plans to continue exploring the complex web of human behavior in fiction.
Jeffrey Freymann-Weyr, NPR News.
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