Neil Bennun

Neil Bennun
Neil Bennun was born in Devon in 1971 and lives in London. He is a BAFTA-nominated writer who has written for Radio and Theatre. He studied at the University of London and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He is constantly travelling between South Africa and London. Here, he kindly answers a few of our questions ...

Mark Thwaite  How did you first come across the story of the "Bushmen" that you write about so sympathetically in Broken String? What made you want to pursue and write about it?

Neil Bennun  Twelve years ago I found an extraordinary poem in an anthology of Southern African poetry. This was The Broken String itself, a lament sung for a dead shaman who, it was explained, used to go about at night in the form of a lion. As beautiful as the passage was it wasn't a patch on the footnotes: now that the man was dead, killed by a Boer, the world did not vibrate as it had. A string had been broken.

I'd never come across anything like it in any of the African literature I knew, but since it was a tiny extract from a collection of notebooks comprising 12,000 pages, unpublished and kept in the Special Collections department of the University of Cape Town, I had a long way to go if I wanted to read more. And I certainly did. In 1999, my father returned to South Africa from exile in Devon and I had somewhere to stay. Excellent.

Two years later, during the course of a long journey from the source of the Orange River in Lesotho to its mouth in Namibia, it was explained to me how the contents of the Bleek and Lloyd Collection had been used to understand rock paintings and engravings. A few days of research later it became clear that the story of how the notebooks were made was as remarkable as their contents. Nearly.

Broken String

MT  The book seems impecabbly researched. For how long were you working on it?

NB  "There were nearly four years between the beginning of the research and the book's publication."

MT  Is Africa and its people a continuing passion?

NB  "I suppose so. Yes. I've been fortunate enough to see quite a lot of the continent south of the Sahara in my life, and I've been collecting African literature and music for nearly half of it. My father used to play township tunes around the house when I was growing up. I hated his music. Curiously, the moment I left home I begin to loiter around the international section of Tower Records.

Africa's a place easily romanticised but now, more than ever, that's doing much of the place an active disservice since there's nothing romantic about HIV/AIDS and poverty and if we're not careful they'll come to define the continent entire. It would be better if the continent continued to be defined by things such as innovation in the field of driving and generosity.

We have an obligation to make a fuss, here in the northern hemisphere, since our governments will not do a thing if we don't.

I step off the soapbox."

MT  Indigenous peoples, their cultures and their languages continue to be wiped out- what do you think should be done? Should we all join Survival International or is there a better way?

NB  "Reluctantly, I assume the soapbox position again.

Threaten colossal fines against the right prospecting companies, mining companies, drilling companies and logging companies. Threaten criminal proceedings against specific individuals in those companies too. If international law prevents this happening, change international law in favour of the dignity and continued wellbeing of displaced and threatened peoples. Impose sanctions on governments that favour European and American businesses over their own people. Better yet, do whatever it takes to ensure the prosperity of those governments so that they're not so cash-strapped they lease their own land to foreign-run corporations and conspire to kill their own citizens.

Practically, visit the South African San Institute at and give them your money.

Well, you did ask."

MT  How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer?

NB  "Hours of scribbling on photocopied pieces of paper followed by even more hours on Office 2004 for Mac."

MT  What is coming next?

NB  "I'm leaving for Portugal tomorrow (7 June 2004) where I'll be devising a theatre show in Monsuraz. After that a book on what happened when the Khoe people of the Cape Peninsula met the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English. An incredibly funny, sad story, and writing it will give me an excuse to read more myth from Southern Africa and hit the sub-continent in my dad's car."

I Send You This Cadmium Red

MT  What is your favourite book/who is your favourite writer?

NB  "Impossible.

I Send You This Cadmium Red by John Berger and John Christie is a wonderful object. It's full of pages that fold out, curious lists and little poems, and it's beautifully printed. It's absolutely sui generis, a book 'about' colour, and friendship, and love. If it weren't such a whopper I'd take it everywhere."

MT  What book do you wish you had written?

NB  "In the Heart of the Country by JM Coetzee makes me jealous. And I'd quite like to be either Hugh Brody or John Berger."

MT  Do you have any tips for for the aspiring writer!?

NB  "The best advice I was ever given, with appropriate hand gestures, was 'vomit it all out'. It's no good to you until it's on paper."

MT  Your book has really whetted my appetite ... what should I read next?

NB  "Genes, Peoples and Languages by Luigi Luca Cavalli-Svorza does what it says on the tin. David Lewis-Williams' Stories that Float from Afar is an anthology of previously unpublished material from the Bleek and Lloyd Collection and his The Mind in the Cave explains an interesting, readable theory about understanding the world's rock art. Der Mond als Schuh (The Moon as Shoe) edited by Miklos Szlalay is a great big book with all the art from the Collection and some good anthropology. Hugh Brody's The Other Side of Eden is good if you're interested in understanding the hunter-gatherer world view (a wonderful book)."

Beyond Geography

MT  I'm struck that there are now some books I'd like to recommend to you! You may well know them? These are three books that become beloved of certain parts of the Green/primitivist movement, but they are each, I think, pretty stimulating: Against History, Against Leviathan by Fredy Perlman is an anarchist-primitivist take on history and on the growth of Leviathans (cities/industrialisation) - it is a frustrating read, but doubtless a provocative one. Perlman wrote a small book of literary criticism called The Machine Against the Garden which I think, fairly clearly, shows where he was coming from! Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins suggests that"stone age economies formed the original affluent society". The six essays collected here have been of enduring influence. Frederick Turner's Beyond Geography: The Western Spirit Against the Wilderness is one of my very favourite books: I think the sub-title alone should be enough to prick your interest!

NB  "I'm going to Waterstones now to feed my Portugal reading and Turner's going to be in it. Thanks for that Mark. Looks right up my street and I'm surprised I missed it."

MT  No bother - thanks so much for your time Neil. Have a great trip and all the best!
-- Mark Thwaite (10/08/2005)

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