“Always write with a compass but not a map,” says Ceridwen Dovey ’03, quoting the contemporary Spanish author Javier Marias to describe the way she approaches writing. Dovey’s first novel, “Blood Kin,” follows the paths of three members of a presidential staff in a nameless country. “Blood Kin” was published in 2007, and since then, Dovey’s debut novel has accumulated a growing catalog of literary prizes and sparkling reviews. In many ways, the author’s own path has matched her approach to writing.
Though published at first only in South Africa, the novel boasted a blurb by Nobel Prize winning South African novelist J. M. Coetzee, and quickly began receiving attention. Dovey, whose mother had written one of the first scholarly treatments of Coetzee’s work, called it a “miracle.” Since then, the book has been met with widespread acclaim, and has been published or is awaiting publication in 17 countries.
Dovey’s literary success story is an unlikely one. She recalls feeling “sort of blown away” in her undergraduate years by the “Harvard idea of, ‘do what you love.’” At Harvard, she studied Anthropology and Visual and Environmental Studies, completing a documentary on South African wine farms for her thesis. “I wanted to make documentaries,” she said. “I didn’t take creative writing at all... I did take English 10a freshman year and that put me off English.” After working for the public television documentary program, “NOW with Bill Moyers,” Dovey moved back to South Africa.
Dovey found that the resources in Cape Town, however, couldn’t stack up to Harvard’s well-stocked VES department. Out of what she calls “desperation” for creative outlet, Dovey enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Cape Town, where she wrote “Blood Kin” as her master’s thesis. The novel follows the barber, chef, and portraitist of a presidential household in an African country as they are taken hostage during a military coup.
The novel strives to be emotional and intellectual, but the writer says “Blood Kin” intentionally strayed from the personal. “I wanted to avoid the trap of the debut novel, of narcissistically rewriting your own childhood,” Dovey says. “I didn’t want to be seen as ethnic literature or female literature.”
And despite her success, Dovey hasn’t surrendered her other interests to the pen. She is currently enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Anthropology at New York University, where she is working on issues of climate change.
But Dovey’s paths aren’t completely separate: she is working on another novel that is inspired by her work in anthropology. “It’s really only in the writing itself that ideas come,” Dovey says, giving words to a sentiment that feels as familiar and universal as Expos. “If I plan it out too much, then I don’t want to write.” For now, at least, Dovey is following her own compass.