With her debut novel, ‘Mermaid Fillet’, Mia Arderne delivers an engrossing noir crime fiction that personifies social issues, like violence, feminism, and mental illness, in the notoriously crime-infested city of Cape Town.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Images courtesy of Mia Arderne:
Blacklight: For anyone who might not know about you yet, who is Mia Arderne, and how did she end up being a storyteller?
Mia Arderne: My background to being here is not a straight line. I worked as a Hooters Girl after about 52 rejected job applications. I studied Philosophy, not my most practical life choice. I freelanced for years, managed to get some articles published along the way (GQ, City Press, Mail & Guardian). I then wrote full-time for Marie Claire and Cosmopolitan SA before they got liquidated. I’ve been retrenched more than once. By the time I got approached to write this novel, I had pretty much given up the idea of writing fiction.
BL: How did this profound story first show up to you, and what propelled you to turn into a book?
MA: Around the festive season. It was a deep dive into is fokol is festive. The book came from me exorcising my own demons, fighting my mental illness, vices, and traumas – and then externalising those things through my characters. Most of it was written during the festive season, in the reckless abandon of is fokol is festive, while I was depressed and wanting to shoot the sun for rising. Some passages go back with me, hard triggering things I wrote in primary school and revisited as I grew up. When Stevlyn Vermeulen from Kwela approached me, I had already started curating my writing into this novel – probably the first time I believed in my writing enough to write with conviction. It was a dream I’d given up on.
BL: Why the mermaid reference?
MA: The mermaid tail symbolises depression, which a lot of my characters face as they stay fixed to the couch or a mattress for so long that their legs splice together into a mermaid tail, and they sink into the black. At their lowest, they become mermaids trapped in a tank of black water, barely moving.
The title, Mermaid Fillet comes from an appetite for the aspirational, impossible and unattainable, trying to get the very best of the best, like abalone being sold on the black market. The characters are searching for something that they can’t get, so mermaid is something that they can’t attain; it’s too expensive, and it’s also something impossible.
BL: This book has strong and diverse characters, and it unpacks a wide range of social topics like crime, violence, feminism, racism, classicism, sexual violence, homophobia, and mental illness. How did you manage to weave such issues together?
MA: There was no weaving of these issues. I know and experience them as interwoven. In the book: A Goddess rules over the world, and every time an act of sexual violence is committed, she rains down a menstrual blood storm. If the act of sexual violence is particularly severe, the blood storm is heavy enough to kill a character. Less heinous acts or thoughts of sexual violence incur a light drizzle of blood coming down from the sky. So, vengeance and retribution are reflected in the elements of violence against the bodies of women.
Depression, anxiety, PTSD (post-traumatic disorder) manifest in my writing because they manifest in me. My six characters all suffer from a mental illness in one way or the other, and they put on a façade when they are feeling something entirely different in their internal world.
All my characters are Coloured (or Camissa/Creole/whatever the “acceptable” term is for my culture these days), and there’s diversity within that. The privileged end of class and colourism are highlighted in Michaela (Sturvy kin), who is the only character with access to the ‘woke ‘discourse.
Homophobia exists in the book because homophobia exists in the world. My queer characters are flawed because human beings are flawed.
BL: This story is set in Cape Town, which is infamous for being a gang-ridden city. In your depiction of the city, were you wary about diving into stereotypes?
MA: Yes, because my characters are quite archetypal, I explored them in robust ways that are nuanced rather than tropey. They are still recognisable as types, but they subvert the stereotypes in many ways:
The Grootman (boss) runs an underworld empire, but the only person he really wants to kill is himself. The Sturvy Kin (Michaela) is a polyamorous pescatarian. I find her insufferable, but she’s emotionally honest, I guess, and moves towards self-awareness. Then there is a Banggat (scared person) – a non-binary character who struggles to come out as non-binary because they are too filled with self-doubt. The Malnaai (mad fucker)is a violent bisexual killer who is full of toxic masculinity. There’s a Genuine Ou, a family man who loves choking his wife out, consensually. And I have Letitia, who is a bitch (‘tief’ in Afrikaans); she reckons with her childhood trauma and is motivated by deep compassion.
I think we all know a Malnaai and a Tief in our lives, but you don’t become a Tief and a Malnaai for no reason. There are influences in your history, in what you have seen of the world, which informs your anatomy and makes you a certain kind of person.
BL: What do you hope to impart to the world by sharing this story?
MA: One thing I hope to impart is that Cape Town is so segregated; the spatial apartheid is so real, and there has been little change that I don’t think it is something we can shy away from. I’m incredibly partial to the places in which I grew up (the Northern Suburbs – Bellville South, Kuilsriver, Belhar, Goodwood, etc.) but, I think it is something that South Africans, particularly Capetonians, need to impart to the world. The closer you get to the mountain, the more privilege you hold. It’s just something you can’t unsee once you have seen it.
The book also addresses alcoholism, which runs deep because alcohol was weaponised against coloured people through the ‘dop’ system. A message I hope to impart is that there’s deep history there. It was biological warfare. You drink for a reason. There’s a reason that that particular vice runs through generationally the way that it does. It’s almost a revolutionary act for a coloured person to overcome alcoholism because everything about your history has geared you to succumb to this thing. It was meant to marginalise us; it was weaponised against us; it was used as a reward; it was used as sedation, and we still use it like that a lot, myself included.
Mermaid Fillet character cards:
BL: It’s incredibly hard to get published in South Africa. What were some of the challenges you faced as a writer, and what propelled you to continue fighting?
MA: I’ve received countless rejection emails, and that affects your self-esteem and motivation. It can also help one to see that kind of thing as mere logistics; file away that email and carry on developing, pitching, and improving. I learned to be careful about what feedback I took on. I got to a stage with writing Mermaid, where I told no-one that I was writing it, and I showed it to no-one except for my editor because I find that feedback can derail me very quickly. Sometimes, letting too many people in on that process can disrupt it. So for me, there is something to be said for just keeping it insular for as long as possible.
BL: We are living in a very complex era where everything is digitized. How do you think this digital movement will affect the book publishing industry?
MA: It’s no secret that print media is struggling. It’s not a one-dimensional process to read or write a book, and the publishing industry needs to consider multi-media companions to literature. I think authors will be pushed to create multi-media content to accompany book releases. For example, Mermaid Fillet has a Spotify playlist. There are character cards with images and voices on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
People don’t read quite as much as they used to because consumers want audio-visual content. I’m quite a visual person myself, so I’ve created images for my characters, and each card explains the character’s vice, their age, their area, their star sign, and their mental illness. I included short voice-overs for them, too, so you can see and hear and get a feel of the characters before even reading the book or while you are reading the book.
BL: What impact do you hope this book will have on readers?
MA: To those people, who wake up in the morning and want to shoot the sun dead, I see you, I hear you, and I wrote this [book] for you.
Mermaid Fillet is available at leading book stores and online shops.
For more info go to miaarderne.com