Genre, dystopia and the ‘African’ novel

Recent discussions on H-Net literature and History logs have (re)debated the idea of ‘African’ literature. Labeling and pigeon-holing books clearly has advantages – although I hope I am not the only one who has moved a book from crime back to fiction in a library, sure that ‘my’ labeling is the right one.

Buying online seems to me (as punter rather than analyst) to make these categories more tricky (and more weighted). As an author, trying to sell as much as you can, you want buyers to find you: so understandably these categories become all but meaningless as publishers try to appeal to the greatest number. I have found the same book under three (very different) categories, but also searched in vain for ‘a book like…’, ultimately heading off to publishers and book blogs for tips.

What has all this rambling about labeling got to do with ‘Zoo City’ the novel published by Lauren Beukes?

Amazon describes the book as follows:

Zinzi December finds people. Even if they don’t want to be found like missing pop starlet Songweza. Trouble is, when you go turning over stones and digging up secrets it isn t long before the real truth comes to light. A truth the local crime lord, dark magician and beast master, will kill to keep hidden. In Lauren Beukes’ shattered city, magic is horribly real and the criminal classes sport symbiotically linked animals. A stunningly original urban fantasy. 

The cover doesn’t give much away either. Having won the Arthur C Clarke 2011 prize, Beukes was quoted as saying that South Africa ‘is really where science fiction is’, for example the success of the film District 9Yet the novel crosses genres – others have noted that the novel reads ‘like noir’, and the plot is familiar to any crime reader, as a private detective is asked to investigate a missing person, a case which snowballs, littered with red herrings and memorable characters.

As with much ‘African’ fiction, the city itself is a character: dystopian Johannesburg, broken down into ‘safe’, gated communities and ghettos where everyday life is far less predictable. Zinzi’s life in post-apartheid South Africa is multicultural, poverty stricken and troubled by drugs and gangland violence. Zinzi moves effortlessly in a cosmopolitan universe: the woman with water on her head, to the owner of the ‘Spaza’ store, to her lover, who still hopes he will be able to retrieve his family safely from a refugee camp. Yet at the same time, the plot also winds around characters’ (forcible) acquisition of animal characters – Zinzi is accompanied by a sloth – who are the subject of prurient interest by those without. An ex-boyfriend sells his story on Zinzi, suggesting animal participation in their relationship: parallels have been drawn between the book’s description of the ‘animalled’ phenomenon, and the HIV/ AIDS epidemic in South Africa.  This accompaniment to the story echoes Pullman: animals’ reactions indicate emotion, jeopardy and in some cases mirror the politics of race. Beukes suggests characters with large and bulky animals are unable to go under the radar. In contrast, the woman who works at the local shop and does welfare claims on the side, has a scorpion, which fits conveniently into a handbag. The reader is left to question the  politics of ‘passing’, post-Apartheid.

Given this complexity, Beukes’ novel is gripping and challenging at the same time. Given the rise in popularity of the light hearted international crime series, following in the wake of Mma Ramotswe, it is intriguing to wonder how many people will find Zoo City expecting Jim Jiree style comic absurdity, or Brunetti’s contemplative encounters (with plate after plate of gourmet Italian food), having ticked ‘detective fiction’ online.

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4 replies

  1. Thanks for this, Charlotte – I must confess to being pleased whenever a novel resists easy market categorisation!
    I loved Zoo City – found it witty and smart – and its genre-bends *are interesting in terms of how its categorised, aren’t they? – and it doesn’t appear to have diminished interest in the book in South Africa – the buzz around it, and her, back in June amongst the publishers I spoke to, was phenomenal – palpable.
    I think, for me, the novel does largely fall into a category of sci-fi that projects the possibility of a disturbed future in through a combo of magic (‘animalling’) and technology (web-based networks and geekery), in order to discuss contemporary social and political conditions. Did you see/hear this – Beukes in conversation about it with various proponents of sci-fi on the BBC:
    Having said that, your point about the genre debates around it are esp. interesting in light of the recent ‘return’ of the political – whether South African novels should be ‘political’ – with one of the main indexes of the political in South African fiction now being drawn through the crime novel, and its detailing of (corrupt) systems of power, violence, suspicion and threat – plus intelligence, acts of heroism, solutions, positive action… (It’s here in South Africa’s Sunday Independent’s Books pages if you haven’t come across it:
    Arguments against this line of argument re the political come down to the simplicity of the resolution of plot that is built in to the crime genre, and that this doesn’t satisfy the inherent ongoing openings and resulting possibilities for action that ‘the political’ affords. I wonder what you make of that in terms of Zoo City, and also of being ‘animalled’ as an indicator of guilt – because being animalled indicates your having committed a crime, part of a criminal ‘class’, and not so much an indicator of racial politics?

  2. Great to have you as a contributor to ‘Africa in Words’, Charlotte! In a weird quirk of fate, I recently purchased ‘Zoo City’ on Amazon for a writer friend of mine’s birthday who has asked me for African authored genre fiction recommendations. On the day I woke up to find your post in my inbox, there was an email from Amazon highlighting to me that Paolo Bacigalupi’s award-winning dystopian thriller ‘The Windup Girl’ was frequently bought alongside ‘Zoo City’. It also suggested I consider ‘Broken Glass’ by Alain Mabanckou and ‘The City & the City’ by China Mieville. I actually found these refreshingly good recommendations! It is nice to see the book not being pigeon-holed by readers as ‘African’ and bought / recommended alongside mainstream US and UK fantasy writers. Yet, having the brilliant and experimental African writer Alain Mabanckou there too suggests this mailing could also bring his work to the attention new readerships and made me reflect ‘Broken Glass’ would be a good Christmas gift for the friend in question too!

  3. Welcome to Aiw, Charlotte. It was about time that you joined us here!
    I have not read Zoo City **shame** but, I was very interested in the discussion on H-Net about the definition of African Novel. A few things called my attention on that debate. One of them is that what was suppose to be a debate about genre and categories, became a discussion about identity and legitimacy in defining and exercising such identity. In order to define African novels, many who joined the discussion found necessary to define first what being African means. Ok, it seems reasonable: if you want to say that a novel is a crime novel, you are thinking in a definition for crime that the novel in question ticks some of the criteria (probably there is a crime, an investigation etc etc). But even such a simple classification can be tricky. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers (also known as And Then There Was None) has no investigation at all, only crime, 9 of them. And some Conan Doyle’s short stories have no crime, only investigation. Pure investigative techniques applied by Sherlock Holmes to unfold curious cirscumstances. And nobody would ever dream to say that these are not crime or detective stories. Silly example, I know.
    Bringing it back to the ‘Africa’ sphere, Chimamanda Adichie said in her talk at TED (I talk about this in a earlier post) that she was offended by a lecture in US that denied the ‘African’ authenticity of her writings. According to him, she is an educated middle class Nigerian, who joined a good university in the US, and never lived the horrors of poverty etc. So her writings couldn’t be truly African. In the H-Net debate, some lectures said the same about a couple of authors, who were living in Europe. They shouldn’t be read as African, but as part of some European literary school. It is all about belonging.
    Karin Barber says in her book ,Anthropology of Texts’ that genre gives to the reader an indication of what to expect. The same text can be read very differently depending on the genre. The wind blowing through an open window into a room where a woman lie in bed can be a crime scene or a romantic description of someone sleeping. But in this definition that Barber uses. the categorisation of the novel in crime or love story would come from the author. The reader would start reading knowing already the genre of the novel.
    You know where I am going, don’t you? Yes, my thesis. (Sorry about that!) In my thesis I argue that criteria used by scholars in the 60’s and 70’s to define what was history (regarding the intellectual production of the 1890’s) left so many publications at a side, neglected, to be forgotten. On the same way that some people in the H-Net was saying, leave these titles outside the ‘African Novel’ list (some used very convincing anti-imperialism arguments!)
    So, there are genres, categories, identities. And criteria used by authors, publishers, librarians and readers. And a lot of ‘belonging feelings’ to deal with.
    sorry, no conclusions to offer. yet.


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