Dovey Reveals Source of Novel Ideas

As an undergraduate, Ceridwen Dovey ’03 never took a creative writing course and eschewed the Harvard literary scene. Instead, she ca me to fiction with the unique perspective of the anthropologist. Now a second-year Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at NYU, she’s having her debut novel “Blood Kin” published in 14 countries and has received sky-high accolades from the likes of J.M. Coetzee.

“I wasn’t involved in The Advocate, The Signet, or any of those,” Dovey says. “I always found them very pretentious. I avoided them like the plague.”

A joint concentrator in Social Anthropology and Visual and Environmental Studies, Dovey instead focused her creative endeavors on documentary filmmaking. Her senior thesis included a film on post-apartheid black economic empowerment projects on wine farms in her native South Africa.

Dovey spent her early childhood shuttling back and forth to Australia with her family due to the death threats the South African police made against her father, an academic. She moved permanently to Australia (where she has dual citizenship) when she was 14.

Although she had been back to South Africa on holidays and for thesis research during her junior summer, it was only after Harvard that Dovey returned to South Africa on a traveling fellowship to live. “It was a really difficult and quite unhappy time,” she says.

Lacking funds and without even a video camera to her name, Dovey’s many film ideas did not come to fruition, and so in 2005 she channeled her creative frustration into a creative writing program at the University of Cape Town. “I turned to writing because I felt like I had failed at film,” she says. “I think it was the solitary aspect of writing that just really appealed at that point where I felt like I’d lost this other creative outlet. I just wanted something that didn’t involve depending on other people, that could come out of my own head.”

The product of Dovey’s imagination, “Blood Kin,” was a much different work, a dark modern-day fable about the people who become complicit in propping up a new corrupt regime in the aftermath of a political coup. Set in an unnamed country and told through alternating first-person narration, Dovey’s novel identifies its characters only by their relation to the deposed “President”—“His Barber,” “His Chef,” “His Portraitist”—and by pronominal slippage, their relations to the new “Commander.” These vignette-like accounts depict the violence latent in the everyday “tactile processes,” telling the stories of men who ostensibly work for the President/Commander in an intimate though non-political capacity, shaving his hair or disemboweling crayfish for his dinner.

Dovey emphasizes that while the creative seed of “Blood Kin” can be traced obliquely to her desire to understand current South African president Thabo Mbeki—whom she once sought to explore by interviewing his barber, his chef, and his portraitist—the project became something much more universal, and the figure of the President is in no way based on him. “It’s certainly not an allegory,” she says. “There’s no real life referent that I’m using. It’s not a critique of any real life situation politically. That’s the beauty of a fable.”

The questions provoked by the novel however, are certainly real. It asks searching questions about the corruptive nature of power. Tackling such a weighty subject, Dovey hopes to transcend the label of “female author.” “You’re always in danger of being framed in an uncomfortable way as a young female author, where the implication is, ‘Oh, you only got published because you’re young and marketable,’” she says.

She describes her first photo shoot, a spread of the “lit world’s new ‘it’ girls” for Radar Magazine, with a wry sense of humor. “They put me in a tiny leopard print minidress with gold platforms and a gold belt and hair like this,” she says, gesturing expansively. “I mean, I looked like a 45-year-old Russian prostitute!”

In the era of chick lit’s ascendancy in the mass market publishing industry, Dovey sees the cards as stacked against female novelists of a more literary inclination. “I suppose there are young female authors who are taken as seriously as, say, the Jonathans—you know, Jonathan Safran [Foer], Jonathan Lethem, or Jonathan Franzen—but not many of them. I can’t think of any right now,” she says, pausing for a moment. “Nicole Krauss, but she’s married to one of the Jonathans.”

For Dovey, then, there’s a particular poignancy to the accolades “Blood Kin” has received from notable male authors. “Again, as a female author, it’s all about how you’re framed,” she says. “That’s why having the blurbs is so important. Having male authors like Colum McCann and [J.M.] Coetzee blurb your book allows you, then, to be framed as a certain kind of literary writer.”

“These are all things I never would have thought about before I actually wrote the book,” she says. “That’s the weird thing about the publicity: I didn’t realize how much of it would be about talking about who I am and what I have done, instead of it just being about what I wrote.”

—Staff writer Alison S. Cohn can be reached at