Queer Books | Alistair Mackay Talks About New Novel, The Child

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South African queer author Alistair Mackay, who made a notable debut in the literary world with his acclaimed 2022 novel It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way, returns with his new book, The Child.

While his first novel is described as a queer, dystopian sci-fi work, The Child diverges dramatically from that genre.

The story follows a young man who returns to Cape Town with his husband, Adrian, after suffering a mental breakdown and losing his job at a New York advertising agency. Set in 2018, the novel unfolds as Cape Town faces a severe water crisis.

The couple plans to start a family by adopting a child, but as the adoption process begins, the narrator is forced to confront the childhood traumas he has spent his life avoiding. As his marriage and sense of self begin to unravel, his life becomes increasingly intertwined with their bubbly and outspoken domestic worker, Sibs, and her quiet toddler, Buhle. The more he tries to fix things, the worse they get.

We spoke to Mackay, a former contributor to MambaOnline, about the trials of writing a second novel, his thoughts on adoption, and how biographical The Child is.

Writing and publishing a first novel is a major accomplishment, but the second can come with its own challenges. How was it for you – was there a lot of second-guessing in the wake of the great success of your first book?

Thank you, and you’re right – in some ways the second novel is even more difficult than the first. There’s all this pressure to live up to the first one, to prove its success wasn’t a fluke. I’m really lucky in that I had actually started writing The Child before It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way was published, so I had a good chunk of the work done before the panic set in! After that I just tried to block out all the worry about how it would be received, and to focus on the story that I wanted to tell.

With The Child, you’ve broken out of the sci-fi genre. Was that a purposeful decision to not get pigeonholed or did this story just naturally take you in a new direction?

A bit of both, I think. I definitely don’t see myself as a “science fiction writer”. There are things about sci-fi that I love, the way it lets you extrapolate or subvert things, for example, and the way your imagination can run wild, and I will probably write more in that genre in the future, but I enjoy moving between genres and seeing what feels right for a particular story. The Child is a very different kind of story.

Interestingly, you first wrote a book set in the near future and now you’ve set The Child a little in the past but both seem to be linked to ecological issues. 

Well, to put it bluntly, climate breakdown poses an existential threat to humanity. It weighs on my mind all the time, and I think many people feel anxious these days as a result of this sense that our future is very uncertain. So I would find it difficult to write a novel that didn’t include the climate crisis. But having said that, climate change is not as central to the story of The Child as it was in It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way. The narrator of The Child returns to Cape Town during the drought of 2018, and so things feel quite dystopian, but it’s not a dystopian book. Among the many things that the novel looks at – queerness, family, trauma, class, love – one is the narrator trying to figure out to what extent his mental health issues are a rational response to the society we live in, and to what extent they are a result of the way he was raised and the wounds he has yet to heal. It’s mostly a book about confronting our past, I think, and healing ourselves.

You grew up in Johannesburg, now live in Cape Town and have placed both of your books there. It’s a city that’s full of contradictions and in many ways very different from the rest of the country. How does this inform your writing? What intrigues you about Cape Town and will you ever write about Joburg?

The contradictions are a part of it, for sure. Cape Town is this beautiful city, beloved by tourists from across the world, and yet it has struggled to recover from apartheid and remains very divided. As a gay teenager growing up in Joburg, Cape Town always represented something to me – a kind of utopia where queer people could live out their lives in the open, without harassment or judgement, and so it’s interesting to confront the ways in which Cape Town is a complicated place. Wonderful in some ways, and nightmarish in others. That’s fertile ground for storytelling! But Joburg does have a special place in my heart – and I do write about it sometimes! I’ve set short stories there, and part of The Child does take place in Joburg. Maybe one day I’ll set a whole novel there.

Is adoption, or raising children, something that you’ve considered in your own life? How has writing the book informed that?

It’s definitely something I have considered. There was a time when my husband and I were quite keen to adopt, and I suppose that became the seed of the idea for this book. Writing the book did help me work through some of my feelings around becoming a father, and this phase of life where so many of my friends have become parents – and it got me thinking about what we pass down to the next generation. It didn’t give me a definite answer, though, one way or the other. Life is messier than novels, I suppose, or at least my life is a very open-ended book.

Is writing a therapeutic way for you to grapple with your challenges, fears and hopes?

I was hoping it would be therapeutic, and in some ways it was just re-traumatising! But writing does help me work through my stuff, and it helps me figure out what I think and feel about things. Writing a novel is an amazing way to explore aspects of ourselves and to see where certain thoughts lead, and what happens when we look straight at something we generally try to avoid.

Is The Child more autobiographical than It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way?

It’s a cliché to say it but I think it’s true that there’s always something of the writer in their characters – even characters that seem very different to them. They are based on that writer’s observations and experiences. The Child is quite autobiographical – ‘auto-fiction’ they call it. There is a lot that’s taken from my life, but there is also plenty that’s made up. Playing with that boundary between memoir and fiction felt very strange, and both exhilarating and terrifying while I was writing it – but I think the result is worth it. It’s a story that people seem to resonate with, because they see themselves in the thoughts and feelings that are explored.

You can find The Child by Alistair Mackay in stores and online now.

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