Barbara Trapido's friends have lately remarked on the strengthening of her accent. Four decades after leaving South Africa for England, the squat vowels of her homeland are leavening her conversation once again. And the author doesn't require a psychoanalyst to interpret why this might be.
At the age of 61, Trapido has completed her most autobiographical work to date. Frankie and Stankie, though not published directly as a memoir, is the embroidered story of her own childhood. It traces two sisters growing up in 50s Durban with their liberal academic father and emigre German mother. They wrestle with the usual indignities of childhood alongside their nascent grasp of the social inequities that surround them.
The decision to write about the country, its people and its politics has taken a writing lifetime. "I left in 1963, just after Mandela was jailed, just as the regime had shut down all legal protest. Politics had gone underground, and it had become dangerous, friends were thrown in jail, Special Branch were knocking on the door. I was 21 and I just tried to pretend that it had never happened. I integrated quite easily into London life."
"When my first book [Brother of the More Famous Jack] came out," Trapido explains, "quite a lot of people said, 'Lovely book, but why isn't she writing about South Africa?', as if it were some sort of burden I had to carry. But in those days most books about South Africa were rather earnest and hand-wringing - look at all our white liberal guilt - and I didn't want to touch any of that."
She is now of an age, she says, when she feels the need to shore up and take stock. "My mother died 10 years ago, and that had a profound effect on me. I had a feeling of wanting to give her some sort of epitaph. As children, we were quite dismissive of the world she had come from - it wasn't that great to have a German mother in that hysterically English environment. But, mainly, the end of apartheid made me feel I could unlock all that stuff."
Although Trapido regularly enjoys glowing reviews from the most demanding of literary assessors, she is the kind of author one is more likely to have discovered following a recommendation by a friend. Her readers hold her in desperate affection and her fiction inspires an almost compulsive desire to share. Deceptively intelligent, her novels are domestic tragi- comedies, all intricacy and knowing. She is a seductive writer, though not wholly comforting.
As much as setting her own story on record, though, it would seem that her latest book is also about setting the record straight. "It's most curious to me how people from abroad assume that if they had grown up in that place, they would have been war heroes," she notes with mild irritation. "I don't think we did accept things, but not because I was in any way more intellectually or morally superior through the accident of growing up with parents who didn't share the local racial views."
As a child, she was always puzzled by apartheid, she says, and knew that it was morally wrong. "I knew that the government were liars and cheats, or else that more awful thing - sincere fanatics. What I was trying to put across [in the book] was that people just get on with their ordinary little lives, and often that's ignored in literature about places that are living through bad times. People carry on living, having fun with their friends, getting married, going to birthday parties, buying new shoes, and the victims of the oppression do it as well." She settles her grey-blond hair behind her ears once again.
After escaping Durban, Trapido came to rest in north Oxford, where she still lives with her husband Stan, a history don, and two demanding dogs. Here, she worked as a teacher and brought up her daughter and son, who is now an art student. His work is displayed across her bright sitting room, which is easy-feeling with mismatched furniture and a wide, canal view.
Trapido insists that she doesn't find this demi-memoir form especially exposing. "From the moment I started writing fiction, I became aware that you are exposing yourself. You are aware that, even if you are writing about made-up characters, they are a way of trying out yourself. You are putting your psycho-emotional framework on the line. You read your own book and think, 'What am I revealing about myself - am I a foot fetishist, am I father-fixated?'"
There's a point at which self-exposure makes the reader uncomfortable, she adds. "You want your book to be an artefact, not just self- obsessed. I was using real-life stories in this book, but I wasn't wanting to write a memoir." There was an estrangement from the characters that she still needed to achieve, by giving them different names, for example. "You want to stage your story and watch it from a distance."
The project complete to her satisfaction, she maintains that the best books about South Africa are the ones that don't travel. "[The likes of] André Brink, Nadine Gordimer are addressing an audience abroad. But I think other writers have been liberated by the end of apartheid." And it is very liberating to return there, she sparkles. For years, she did not, excluded by a regime she found abhorrent. Now she visits frequently. Her elderly father and sister still live in Durban.
"You know lots is wrong, that the economic inequalities are still there, but none the less the feel of the place is fabulous. It makes you blink when you talk to local whites who moan, moan, moan about crime rates. But if you remember what it was like," she stresses excitedly. "You see blacks walking tall. The women have fancy hairstyles. They'll sit next to you in a coffee bar and there's none of that cringe body language left. It's quite amazing how all those horrible racial taboos have disappeared, in urban areas at least." And an era apart from the playground poser she writes about in Frankie and Stankie: "Would you rather have a native girl or a coolie to make your sandwiches?" Her alter ego doesn't know what to reply, as her father makes her packed lunches.
Trapido was first published the year she turned 40. "I don't know why I dawdled so much before I started writing," she says cheerily. "I wrote as an intellectual playing, I didn't think, 'I'm going to publish this'. It was like composing music, it had to do with rhythms and characters."
She had small children at the time and a busy domestic life, but you always find time to do what you want to do. "So I began to carve hours out of the night." She finally settled on a rhythm of going to bed early and waking at 4 or 5am. "I love that time of day. When the daylight hours come along I'm quite gregarious, I want to chat and shop and play, but you can't do that at four or five in the morning. You're still half in a dream state. The world's entirely your own, and I love that unreality it has, that isolation, and the hours of liberty that stretch ahead."
Her work often hangs lightly from a dense intellectual framework - one reflects Shakespeare's comedies, another The Magic Flute. But the background erudition is never to plan, she insists. "I work in a very intuitive, muddly way. I tend to write vignettes in which people bounce off each other, then after a while I think 'Why is this person always dressed in green?', or 'Have you noticed how everything is occurring in groups of three?'" As she talks about her method, she turns her limber frame to the edge of her seat and plaits the air with her fingers.
She refutes the charge of happy endings. "I think that I write about the saddest things I know. I splash tears on the page, and I cry into the mirror as I talk out dialogues. Then quite often reviewers will say what fun it is to have a happy story. But I don't think they're happy. I'm not guaranteeing people happiness, and it seems to me there's a very precarious edge to what they do. So it's comedy, isn't it, because that is about the awfulness of life and the brutal reality of it? What leaves people feeling upbeat is that it's about keeping the balls in the air. It's about energy."