Since its launch last year, Mermaid Fillet by Mia Arderne has frequented bestseller lists in bookstores around the country. The neo-noir novel is set in the northern suburbs of Cape Town and tells the story of a group of gangsters, a wife protecting her husband and their riches, the only human born with Jordans on his feet and a feminist post-grad student, all linked to each other and a mysterious tamagotchi. There is also an omniscient Goddess who rains menstrual blood when women’s bodies are abused. It’s unlike anything you’ve read before and it will hook you left, right and centre.
How would you explain what Mermaid Fillet is about? Mermaid Fillet is about a group of people who have vices or mental illnesses and they are involved in an underworld scheme involving the ‘smokkeling’ of mermaid meat.
Where did you get the idea for the characters in the book? They were amalgamations of certain people that I know and certain aspects of myself that I formed into types of characters that then took on their own evolution. But it all came from quite a familiar world, so I went for recognisable character traits in people.
Did the magic realism help you to create your own world that’s separate from reality and your own lived experience? Yes, using magic realism helped me work through some of those emotions and experiences in a different way. Some of it is still quite intense and visceral but it just allows me to process it in a way so that now I can create my own world around it. I can evolve those situations… and that can be quite cathartic. I can create my own magical world where things can happen the way I want them to happen and it becomes a bit of escapism.
Can the menstrual blood raining down on abusers be seen as a representation of the anger many women feel towards men who have hurt women? Absolutely. So that device was very helpful in the sense that I could then have retribution and vengeance happen where maybe in my own life I couldn’t have it. It allowed me to channel a lot of that anger and feeling of vengeance to take place in this ultimate reality. That was probably the most rewarding device I use in the book.
A lot of the characters in your novel deal with mental illness, and we saw during the alcohol ban how much the country is reliant on alcohol. Do you think that as a society, we sweep this under the mat? I think we do. Every time the dop ban comes back, I freak out. I don’t like not having access to alcohol myself, I get very edgy and that’s something that I need to reflect on and deal with. But, if I look at friends, relatives, the community in general, we don’t really see the way we drink as problematic when maybe sometimes it is. You’re just going through some stuff so you’re going to drink until you resolve that and it’s not really seen as a problem… the thing is if you let it get out of control, it will become entrenched and it will mess you up.
There’s alcoholism in my family, it is in my genes, and it’s the same for a lot of people. It’s not seen in the same light as other drugs where you need to approach it with the same level of caution. It messed me up for a while. I was in a terrible cycle of alcohol dependence while writing the book and for a while afterwards, and still now on and off. It’s something that I’ve become very aware of as a crutch. That being said, I still don’t want my dop taken away from me. I mean, I was making my own fake Hunters Dry with apples and yeast and sugar.
How do you think the character Isaac from Mermaid Fillet would have dealt with the alcohol ban? I think Isaac would have just become a ‘mert’ [someone who illegally trades alcohol]. I think alcohol would’ve just been one of the things he helps provide while also consuming.
Who has inspired you the most? Various artists. I’m inspired by a lot of musicians and visual artists like Frida Kahlo and Isaac Newton. I grew up reading a lot of Afrikaans stuff like Marita van der Vyver and Andre Brink. The modern influences with Mermaid also include TV series like Atlanta and Bojack Horseman which have the hybrid genre work that I wanted to play with.
What’s next for you? I’m never sure, but I started a sequel to Mermaid Fillet. I might continue with it if I can get myself to stop watching RuPaul and drinking the whole time. There’s also a possibility of making Mermaid into a movie, but I can’t say too much more about that because it is still in the prelim stages. And then, I’m writing columns for different publications at the moment.
Buy the book here: http://www.nb.co.za/en/view-book?id=9780795709760