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Launch of Inheriting the Earth: Jill Nudelman Discusses Her Debut Novel

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Inheriting the EarthThe launch of Jill Nudelman’s Inheriting the Earth was held on 18 June at The Book Lounge in Cape Town. Adele Branch from UKZN Press welcomed the audience and introduced Nudelman and Arja Salafranca, who joined her at the launch to discuss the book.

The discussion started with Salafranca reading a précis of the book which is about Rose, a girl who was orphaned at a young age and adopted. She knows nothing about her biological family until her foster mother dies and she inherits a fortune along with a box of artefacts that provide her with clues to her ancestry.

Nudelman then read two extract from the book, her animated reading highlighting the different voices represented in the novel. The first extract was from Rose’s perspective while the second was from the diary of a Victorian woman.

The idea for the novel was sparked by a story Nudelman’s friend told her about a man that had adopted the baby of a single mother, who had worked for him, after she died. The novel is the imagined future of this child. The investigation of whiteness in the book came from Nudelman grappling with issues of integrating into the new South Africa, which she explored through her writing.

Salafranca explained to the audience that she met Nudelman while they were both doing their Master’s degree in English and in Creative Writing at Wits University. She asked Nudelman why she chose to do her MA. “You’re compelled to finish your novel and the criticism I received was a good way to judge the quality of my writing.” Nudelman answered. “Also if it was never published at least I’d have an MA!”

The title, Inheriting the Earth, comes from the American Indian proverb: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children”. The original title was Waking the White Goddess but someone in the MA class pointed out that this was deifying whiteness, which wasn’t Nudelman’s intention.

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The book is set in a fictional town but Nudelman’s research included spending time in the Underberg and going on a road trip to Lesotho. Salafranca asked if she put some of the people she met there in her novel. “Absolutely! I overhear conversations and write them down, characters are a mosaic of people I’ve met,” Nudelman said.

Salafranca referred to the elements of Khoi culture brought into the book, pointing out that many writers have been criticised for this “appropriation”. Nudelman admitted that she was worried about this until she spoke to Professor Njabulo Ndebele, one of South Africa’s foremost literary scholars, at the Franschhoek Literary Festival. He told her that as long as it’s done with respect it isn’t a problem. To use these myths and legends and to incorporate this culture into writing is to celebrate it and extend the life of these stories.

Nudelman is currently working on her PhD, which is on South African biographies as well as her second novel, which she says will also involve a journey of some sorts, possibly to the Karoo. The discussion wrapped up with audience questions, which had Nudelman admitting she set the book in a fictional town so that the people she met in the Underberg wouldn’t read the book and recognise themselves in the characters.

Nudelman also expressed her gratitude towards UKZN Press’ Elana Bregin, “She has such an eye, it was a privilege to have her as an editor”.

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