I was at the Cape Town Book Fair back in June (June 15-17, 2012). I approached a range of publishers and booksellers exhibiting and asked what was ‘new’ for them in South African fiction, and to give me their latest fiction-must-reads – (now added to the ever-burgeoning list):
Genre fiction is still strong: crime fiction (the lead proponents still being Deon Meyer and Margie Orford who both have a large international audience) and chick-lit/romance continue to dominate in terms of sales and popularity (as was noted by Christopher Warnes in his paper at the African Popular Cultures event at Sussex Uni in April, ‘Reading the South African Romance: Allegories of Empowerment’, which included an analysis of changes to the genre that reflect the government initiative of Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment – see Nollybooks and Kwela’s new imprint Sapphire Press).
Lifewriting is also still strong – the significance of lifewriting in South Africa was impressed a number of times, as always important in a culture where lives have been made so inaccessible to each other.
To genre fiction, firmly located in a South African context, we must add the rise of science fiction, with the buzz still strong around the international reception of Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City (Jacana Media, 2010): in 2011, Beukes became the first African to win the Arthur C. Clarke Award; the cover of the 2010 British edition of the book took the 2010 British Science Fiction Association award for best artwork, with the book itself shortlisted in the best novel category.
Perhaps due to the international prestige of the Arthur C. Clarke and other prizes, and the ‘global’ reception of the book, people were very interested to know how Beukes’s novel had been received in Europe. I haven’t yet read it myself (I am very much looking forward to getting stuck in to my copy), but was aware of its wide acclaim for its originality and for Beukes’ skill.
Quick to follow any mention of Zoo City was further discussion about the rise of sf in South Africa, and Africa, more generally, and its ‘new’ place in the already established bounds of the genre (surely ‘global’ is inappropriate here – ‘intergalactic literary production and reception’; ‘transglobal literary production’?): there were the multiple Oscar nominations for South African co-production District 9; the debates in the aftermath of the film, particularly regarding the exploitation or benefit to the residents of Chiawelo , Soweto, where District 9 was shot, are reminiscent of those after Slumdog Millionaire – (see Sigurd Fandango’s images and an interview between Maryann Johansen and the film’s director Neill Blomkamp).
Enlivening to hear the debate among South Africans, the majority of whom call Cape Town, site of the enforced removals of District 6, home, as it is to hear reactions to the content of the film itself.
Interesting to note, too, that film rights for Zoo City were awarded to fellow South African producer Helena Spring (Red Dust, Yesterday, The First Grader) in 2011. Beukes plans to retain control over the script, and is committed to making the film in South Africa and to “doing it right” – look forward to the international release of that one and to seeing how it is cast.
If interested in the rise of sci-fi in Africa check out this BBC broadcast of Lauren Beukes in conversation with other African sf proponents. (If you’re not familiar with ’em, listen out and try to figure out what ‘Zola Budds’ might be.)
Outside of the Book Fair, but on genre fiction, at the Book Lounge – one of Cape Town’s pretty wonderful independent bookshops – I came across copies of the ‘zine, Jungle Jim (points to those who can point out the puns in its title – a clue: 1) part of a Southern African kids’ playground apparatus…).
Set up by Jenna Bass and Hannes Bernard, Jungle Jim is a forum for genre fiction from across the continent: pulp-fiction stories from all across Africa are presented in this neat little product – I love it – cheap, bi-monthly, with its unique and distinctive aesthetic (see the instructions on website for how to ‘open’ a Jungle Jim), the stress is on the power of imaginative fiction and the possibilities of alternative vision. ‘Hunter Emmanuel’, a Jungle Jim story by Constance Myburgh (current pen-name of Jenna Bass), was shortlisted for this year’s Caine Prize (watch this space for more on Jungle Jim and the ‘little magazine’ in South Africa in future posts).
Back at the Book Fair – very interesting to hear postgraduate scholar Sikophaze Jonas talking about her own experience of researching contemporary black women’s writing in South Africa, querying her own role, whether she, in trying to find a position for the black female writers’ voice, as a young, black scholar, who came to the Book Fair from across town in a public transport taxi and read her notes from her Blackberry – was herself being positioned as a representative for “a new voice”, and questioning the difficulties surrounding this; she described her surprise at, in 2008, how few black female writers she found (in 2008!!) and tackled the difficulties that surround language issues head-on, asking directly whether English is, has become, or can be “a valid” or “authentic black voice”, recognising very clearly the need for integration whilst insisting that first, this voice needs to exist, on its own terms, rather than employing imposed models for people outside of South Africa. (For Jonas’ article see SA Lit: Beyond 2000, ed.s Michael Chapman and Margaret Lenta, UKZN Press, 2011). I can see where the awkwardness lies in, and the necessity of, differentiating a white women’s and a black women’s voice – not only are the experiences different (been made different), but also the expression of those experiences: of the short list of the novels that were recommended at the Book Fair because they indicate and cross these kinds of problematics, all written in English by black South African women, what emerges most forcefully is how multiple and varied these voices are, how resistant to categorisation. See Yewande Omotoso’s Bom Boy (Modjaji Books, 2011), a beautifully elegant, poised narrative about the adult experience of an adopted boy with cross-cultural South African and Nigerian heritage; Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut (Jacana Media, 2007), where the white-on-the-inside ‘coconut’ taunt is explored through the stories of two young black women – one living in a predominantly white, gated community, the other in a township, an orphan and a school drop-out; and Shameless, by Futhi Ntshingila (UKZN Press, 2008) which exposes the schisms and exploitative positions that accompany the enforcing of Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment, (also evident throughout Matlwa’s Coconut).
The debate on multilingualism and indigenous languages was repeatedly raised: exhibits and stands showed English predominating, with some Afrikaans; there were some, but relatively few, predominantly Afrikaans publishers and booksellers.
Discussions around Afrikaans texts focused on the changing status of the language and its relative vulnerability in the increasing dominance of English in South Africa, that its political liberation heralded a kind of an endangered status. For some, this is a radical and liberating position – Afrikaans can find its place in line with the changed environment – better able to express alternative realities and multiple positions and rid itself of the baggage of the language of the oppressor; for others, this is essentially an argument that they hear from conservatives, representing another form of closing off, a retreat into a disturbingly familiar, embattled position. On the whole, it was acknowledged that Afrikaans texts continue to sell well, a number of publishers were clear that they out-sold their English titles, and that there isn’t enough need in terms of the national market for translations between English and Afrikaans – the languages in which books currently sell. There is, however, a need for good translation and talented translators, for distribution into the international market: for some, this is the only opening into significant sales – Van Niekerk being a primary example – with both Triomf (1994, trans. Leon de Kock) and and Agaat, (2010, trans. Michiel Heyns, who won the Sol Plaatje award for his translation) – the title translated to The Way of the Women specifically for the international market.
Indigenous languages are evidently much more problematic for publishers in South Africa, and feed in to issues around the the size and range of the reading public, and questions raised about elitism and value; regularly, these difficulties were partly explained in terms of the apartheid legacy, but also, and interestingly, as a kind of systemic crisis of indecision about indigenous languages in tackling that legacy. That said, there was evidence of some momentum in this direction, indigenous language writing initiatives from a variety of sources, the most successful of which seem to be coming through the drive to address literacy debates and promoting a reading culture; as well as through the use of indigenous materials coming out of the archive – such as the Bleek and Lloyd. One academic, Louise Viljoen, noted the similarity of issues in the struggle with identity construction in the face of overwhelming change in the material of both Zulu and Afrikaans poetry– and that both ‘scenes’ were enlivened by popular readings and slams, for which demand and interest grows.
Certainly it was clear that people want to tell their stories: people are writing. But with this, there is a clear need to promote a reading culture and to disentangle literacy’s automatic equation with pedagogy – to continue to promote value in storytelling, alongside the value in the mediums of expressing those stories in their variety and range of possibility – and to show the possibilities that literacy holds for storytelling. See the range of excellent work from Cover2Cover Books – a new publisher of teen fiction and the Harmony High series – ‘Our books are readalicious!’; Nal’ibali (isiXhosa for “here’s the story”), a national reading-for-enjoyment initiative; FunDza Literacy Trust whose work aims to boost literacy among teens and young adults in South Africa by popularising reading, building a community of readers and growing young writing talent; and the SA Book Development Council – and their new Indigenous Publishing programme – a few of the initiatives, among many, prominent at the Book Fair.
Still, however, a way to go before this list becomes a list of novels or short stories published in and translated from indigenous languages. Optimistically, watch this space…
(Answers for the Jungle Jim and Zola Budds quizzes, plus any other comments, links or further discussion can be made in Comments – just no cheating South/Southern African English speakers! And – come on, everyone else – google is a cop-out.)