Ceridwen Dovey is a South African born novelist who now lives in New York. After receiving her undergraduate degree from Harvard in 2003, Dovey returned to South Africa to write a novel. Blood Kin, the result of that work, was published in 2007 to critical acclaim: the novel was shortlisted for the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Informed by Dovey's South African roots, the novel tells the story of a fictional military coup from the perspective of the overthrown leader's portraitist, chef, and barber. Dovey is currently completing a PhD in Anthropology at New York University. Dovey doesn't see a conflict between her two passions. "Both anthropology and good fiction are full of thick description and a layering of detail," she says.
Dovey: Okay I’m gonna read from my novel “Blood Kin” – just the first three sections. It’s three male characters sort of speaking in turn about their relationship with the president and the duties that they perform for him.
Here’s the portraitist: “He came every two months for a sitting, always early in the day, usually on a Friday when he still had something vital in his face from the week’s effort; but a mellowness in his eyes from the knowledge that it was almost over. In the late spring the fallen ___________ blossoms lay luminous on the pavement outside at that time of day, and his assistant would scoop them up by the handful and strew them over the couch where he sat, or lay, or lounged for each portrait. Regal, purple petals made him feel like a king. I always mixed my palette 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 was seated, I’d adjust the colors slightly according to his mood. If it had been a bad week, his skin tone needed more yellow. If he was feeling benevolent, I added a dob of blue to the white for his eyes. He said having his picture painted was his only therapy. I would start with the charcoal sketch of his face. I was ruthless about detail and documented each new wrinkle, or discoloration, or sausage spot, but this is what he wanted. In his very first sitting I flattered him on the canvas, and he threatened never to return. So the next time I painted him as he was, and it pleased him. You would be surprised what could happen to a face in two months. One day I’ll bind together all the surviving charcoal sketches and make a flip book that jolts single frames into action when fanned quickly. The flip book’s action will be the aging of the president.
The oil portraits used to take me exactly six hours. He would decide on his pose, and when he settled into it his assistant blotted his face oil with foundation. And on days when the president looked particularly tired, added some authority to his eyes with eye liner. He had an uncanny ability to sit still for hours. At the end of each session before the paint had even dried, his assistant collected the portrait to hang next to the flag in Parliament so that the portrait in Parliament was always the most current, and the outdated ones were distributed to dignitaries to hang in their homes.”
His chef: “The president’s favorite meal was Sunday brunch when I would do a fresh seafood platter for him and serve it in the private dining room in his city apartment. Not even his family joined him for this meal. We established a comfortable routine over the years. The guard would let me into the apartment at 9:00 a.m. I brought all the ingredients uncooked with me and prepared the meal in his own kitchen as quietly as I could so as not to wake him. I had equipped the kitchen to meet my needs and did tasks there that I had long abandoned doing in that main presidential residence kitchens – things like disemboweling crayfish using their own _________; de-_________ sea snails; beheading prawns. These are normally jobs for lowly kitchen boys; but in his quiet kitchen on a Sunday, I grew fond of doing my own dirty work. I communed with an earlier self that way – remembered my own humble beginnings. It reminded me of my respect for processes – the satisfaction of peeling, and chopping, and mincing and grating – all the myriad ways one could put a culinary world in order. I can’t deny the pride I felt knowing that each item I prepared in that kitchen would nourish the president.
As soon as I arrived I would place the live _________ on the floor of the pantry. They were always tense from being transported and had to calm down before I could kill them. Otherwise the flesh would be tough. I would leave them there until everything else was almost ready, then creep up on them and hit them on their soft underbellies with the end of a rolling pin. If they sensed me coming, they contracted like a heart muscle and were wasted.”
His barber: “The president was meticulous about his facial hair; same with his ear and nostril hair. He insisted that I use tweezers to dig deep into his orifices to root out the hair at its source, which inevitably inflicted pain. And he swore and threw things against the wall to cope, and afterward panted like a dog in heat. I secretly suspected he liked it.
He had a daily late afternoon appointment with me in preparation for evening functions. His hair grew fast and blue. And by the end of each day his stubble showed its color. But the ear and nostril ritual I performed only weekly. Like all men, the president’s favorite part of the session was the lathering. The brush I used was soft but firm, and the shaving soap lathered easily with moisture and needed little encouragement. I made small circles on his lower face until the soap foamed. I know it felt good. For me the satisfaction was in de-lathering. I would sharpen my knife in front of the president. And he would wince from the sound, but he never open his eyes to look, which could be interpreted as a sign of either cowardice or bravery. Then I would take his head firmly between my hands and tilt it backward. This was the moment I waited for each day. With a brisk twist of my hands I could have snapped his neck; slit his throat with a knife flick; but I did neither. I would start at the bottom of his neck with the blade and glide it slowly upward, watching the stubble mingle with the foam.
Every evening the floor of my shop would be covered with hair. Hair is an extension of self. I believe it has power. When I looked at the hair of so many people lying tangled on the floor, it was like seeing earlier selves and discarded personality ticks made manifest. So I never threw it away. My assistant swept it into a heap, then bottled it to keep on shelves in the back room.” Recorded on: 12/6/07