AiW guest: James Smith.
Broken Monsters and Broken Dreams
I read Broken Monsters on a night flight from Cape Town, on my way to interview Lauren Beukes following her contribution to the Edinburgh Book Festival (2014 edition). It made the world seem a smaller place. The plot raced so quickly I struggled to keep pace with the themes, like vainly reloading a literary twitter feed lost in an everywhere of urban decay. I had finished reading it by the DRC (according to KLM’s little moving map anyhow) even if that only meant crossing a digital representation of a 10km-distant arbitrary line borne of corporate greed and colonial need. Broken Monsters explores similar themes to much of Beukes’s earlier work, blurring the connections and disconnections that motivate mass culture and individual’s struggle to live – or at least not die – in worlds balanced between materiality and magic. The coordinates of reality, dreams, structure and agency are pulled away from us.
Beukes was part of a session, together with fellow South African first-time author C.A. Davids (author of the beautifully written and compelling The Blacks of Cape Town), entitled ‘South African Literature Goes Global’; the only real point of intersection being that both authors are South African and sometimes write about the South African ‘overseas’, the world outside of South Africa and the rest of the African continent.
We – the rhetorical ‘we’ – are obsessed with genealogy and taxonomy. Trajectories and labels. Neatness and order. Genre stacked upon genre. Africa. Europe. Race. Ethnicity. Speculative. Literary. Post. Ante. Apartheid, of course, represented this to the nth degree, and casts a long shadow still.
So, we find ourselves in a session with Lauren Beukes and C.A. Davids, somehow still feeling shoehorned into the broadest possible South African theme: the global. Their books are markedly different. Beukes represents the vanguard – globally – of South African speculative fiction, flitting across genres in an anarchic sense-making exercise. Davids is more in a South African political tradition: austere, forensically picking at the seams of Apartheid and the complexities of identity. Both blurring boundaries. Always blurring boundaries.
In The Blacks of Cape Town Davids plays with the definitions of Apartheid racial categories, in doing so not only subverting the machinery of Apartheid but also the veracity of generations of family history and by extension personal certainties and intimacies. She shows how notions of belonging, of home and exile, are contingent on much more than place and history. There is no either/or as defined by an airport arrivals hall or family tree, only the dealing with what is next, whether it is prosaic or earthshattering. In Broken Monsters Beukes switches cities and continents, post-recession Detroit could equally be the Johannesburg of earlier books. The identikit context forces us to confront the power of technology, media and corporation to render everywhere equally strange and tractionless, and maybe, actually, there is some comfort in that. We all have to find ways to live in a world where the future is simultaneously bound by the past and cast adrift from it.
And yet we have a new boundary: the post-apartheid. An era of promise, reconciliation, and reconfiguration. It has been an era of uncertainty and of the forging of new identities. The banner of the anti-Apartheid movement has fallen away and former comrades may now be at odds. Former alignments have transformed into delineations. Civil society organisations, political parties, church groups and the media have all had to re-orientate themselves in relation to the governing party. The African National Congress, too, has suffered the hangover of the post-liberation-movement-in-power. It is not easy.
A lack of jobs and worse than hoped for economic growth has limited economic liberation. The hegemony of the ruling party has limited political debate. Corruption and a lack of capacity has limited service delivery. While many challenges have been met – an inspiring constitution, a painful reconciliation, a genuine political democracy, stability – there is still much to be done.
In many ways everything is more messy now. The psychotic, obsessive compulsive neatness of Apartheid with its borders, categories and rafts of racist policy was an easy thing to rail against, or I suppose support if that was your inclination. Even in the death throes of Apartheid, up to close to the very end, there was a sense of certainty. The Apartheid government would not go without a struggle; and then, of course, it did. And what next? What now?
Mess, a good mess, but mess nevertheless. There is the uncertainty of multi-speed emancipation, political: yes, economic: no, reconciliation: in part. The messiness of identity, alignment and community in a country where taxonomy was suddenly less important, although now important in other ways, and above all else, the legacy of Apartheid, as a fact, as a ghost, as an excuse, and as an inter-generational legacy. I had the sense that South African fiction quickly turned in on itself, it became introspective when before it been expansive. Isolation and uncertainty replaced idealism and indignation.
Genre fiction, other than Apartheid fiction as a genre, began to emerge. In discussion with me, Beukes identified the emergence of two groups of writers, one more explicitly political using the genre of crime as a means to interrogate the disappointments of modern South Africa (Margie Orford is a case in point, also at the Ed Book Fest this year), another implicitly so, using speculative or science fiction to neatly sidestep self-flagellation or the impossibilities of writing in a post-idealist idiom. The possibility of genre fiction could expose the impossibility of the new-old South Africa. The sci-fi one-two of Beukes’s novel Zoo City and Neil Blomkamp’s film District 9 was a watershed, South Africa no longer isolated, no longer newly back in the fold, but now contributing to global genres via distinctly local themes. Another boundary blurred.
Mess and Genre
If we embrace mess, and recognise it in others, we can be more certain in our collective uncertainty. It is ours, not mine alone, a sort of post-modern Ubuntu. We live in the future and the past, but never quite in the instantaneous present. The right now is just too slippery a concept in South Africa and possibly always has been, which possibly explains the also slippery South African notions of ‘just now’ and ‘now now’.
We might rail against lazy compartmentalization, but perhaps the one delineation we can firmly grasp is the democratic election of 1994, two decades past, and if the ‘new’ South Africa remains a strange place then perhaps South African authors can help make sense of that, regardless of genre. For Beukes, perhaps we need to raise ‘obfuscatory zombies’ to make sense of somewhere where real life monsters lurk and seek reconciliation and even parole, in the recent case of Eugene de Kock of Vlakplas infamy.
The combination of forensic dissection, deep introspection and, well, zombies, allow us to reimagine ourselves, and South Africa’s past, present and future. Zombies break down our deepest dichotomies: living/dead, conscious/unaware, society/anarchy. After all, what are zombies, except a means to help us make sense of who and what we are?
James is Professor of African and Development Studies and Vice Principal International at the University of Edinburgh. He has studied, worked and lurked in (mainly South) Africa for almost 20 years, most recently on things like tsetse flies, sleeping sickness and alternative forms of energy. His publications – hopefully not classified as in the genres of science or speculative fiction – include Science, Technology and Development and Biofuels and the Globalization of Risk (both Zed Books). @jrsmith73.
James has written on Lauren Beukes’ work and the Ed Book Fest (2013) for AiW before – see ‘Lauren Beukes and African Science Fiction’
James spoke to Lauren Beukes and Carol Ann Davids after their 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival session on Saturday Aug 9th. This session, ‘South African Literature Goes Global‘, was part of the Book Fest’s Voices from South Africa theme, which is hosting a range of South African writers in Charlotte Square Gardens this year.
Worth catching if you can today (13 Aug) will be prize-winning author Niq Mhlongo, who the Africa Book Club aptly describe as “part of a young generation of black writers who depict their country without concession” – Mhlongo will be in discussion about his latest novel, Way Back Home – a boundary and border crossing contemporary critique – in a book Fest session entitled ‘When traditions collide with modernity‘, at 3.30. Buy tickets here.