The Responsibility of Writing in/for/about South Africa – after the Edinburgh International Book Festival, 2014

AiW Guest: James Smith.

During the Edinburgh International Book Festival I managed to catch three South African authors, Lauren Buekes and C.A. Davids, and Mark Gevisser. Three authors, writing in three different genres (although I realize that ‘genre’ in itself is somewhat problematic when talking about South African writing – more later).

1EDIN_MarliRoode_CallItDogI was very struck by the first question posed by the audience in both sessions: “what is the future for South Africa”? Last year at the Ed Book Fest I sat in a session with Marli Roode where she talked about her debut novel Call it Dog (Atlantic, 2013) and she was asked a similar question. My initial reaction was – this year and last – mild irritation, we are here to talk about the books after all. My next reaction was why did the audiences react like this? Was there something especially parochial about Scottish audiences (or audiences in Scotland)? I don’t think so; I’ve been to plenty of Edinburgh Book Festival sessions with authors from other countries and they haven’t been appointed as proxy literary ambassadors, asked to do fact and not fiction. It must be something to do with how we view South Africa from afar, what it represents, and it what it means to us? Mandela, Tutu, despair, hope, segregation, forgiveness, rainbow.

The world being both big and small meant I ended up sitting next to my old Johannesburg housemate, then a student now a cultural critic, at the Beukes and Davids event. After a somewhat…. heated post-event debate it became apparent to me that it wasn’t simply an issue of exotic, symbolic South Africa driving discussion at the event, ‘doing politics’ seemed to be central to literary authenticity back home as well. There was almost a moral obligation to write about South Africa, and to write about somewhere else or write obliquely through different genres was apolitical, or political by omission. Essentially, South African writers had a responsibility to write about South Africa.

Alongside the Voices from South Africa thread running through the Book Festival was a Scottish independence thread. Now, not every Scottish author was writing about independence, nor in the sample of stuff I attended were they either being chastised for not writing about Scotland or queried regarding their views on civic verses ethnic nationalism. facebook-broken-monsters-sa-This does not mean, of course, that a Scottish author in South Africa might not be asked these questions – or about whisky or rain for that matter – but my sense was that there was indeed a peculiarly South African set of obligations a South African author is expected to discharge.

So far this blog post is ‘anecdata’. My thoughts leavened with fragments of evidence. Luckily, I was able to speak in person with C.A. Davids and Lauren Beukes after their Book Fest event. What I took from these conversations was not the obligations of the South African writer, but the constraints of the South African novel. It is hard to publish in South Africa, it is hard to earn any kind of living, it is hard to get your books read. The authenticity of authorship in South Africa actually refracts itself through the realities of the country, not the obligations of the medium.

A recent article by Leon de Kock, ‘The SA Lit Issue Won’t Go Away’ (Mail & Guardian, 22 August 2014), turns on the constraints of place, scale and genre: can, and should, South African authors write about elsewhere? Can ‘SA Lit’ be global, or must it be context-bound, grounded in South African history and geography? For de Kock, this is perhaps not a crisis of identity, more a creative opportunity. It is both liberating and disconcerting to be writing in and outside of South Africa, to play across scales or use genre to interrogate South Africa. For Beukes and Davids, implicit within this ordinal perspective of literature is, of course, the issue of money. What sells? What constitutes a bestseller in South Africa? What is or isn’t a risk for a local or indeed international publisher?

Rather than think of Beukes, Davids and Gevisser as exemplars of different genres, writing for different audiences, reasons and to different sets of rules, it is productive to reflect on their commonalty. Each made it quite clear that they wrote because they wanted to. dispatcher_LostandFoundThey wrote what they wanted to (to paraphrase another South African writer). Davids told me she wrote her book, The Blacks of Cape Town (Modjaji, 2013), because she wanted to draw on her family’s past, engage with their political history and produce an intensely ‘South African’ novel. Beukes wrote about Detroit in Broken Monsters (Umuzi/HarperCollins, 2014) because it could be a proxy for Johannesburg, an urban everyman of a place. Gevisser wrote his autobiography of his relationship to Johannesburg, Dispatcher: Lost and Found in Johannesburg (Jonathan Ball/Granta, 2014) because it would postpone writing another commissioned political biography of a South African president, a particular genre that promised “diminishing returns” he told the audience after his reading, in which he describes the humour involved in his own same sex marriage in downtown Joburg.

I think it is very easy to get caught up in ordinals and dichotomies – a particular book is this or that and therefore ultimately is more or less South Africa. This makes for too-easy a nuance, which is not really nuance at all. We simply need to hyphenate or concatenate and we have new things which are possibly not really new and almost certainly didn’t need defining. For Beukes in particular, thinking about the delineations of genres or “genre wars” is a pointless exercise, it’s the mix that matters as that is what drives experimentation and enables more people to write. Davids is possibly the writer of the three who most closely identifies with ‘SA Lit’ but equally felt that the sheer growing diversity of South African, African and ‘global’ literature was great.

In contemporary South Africa it is not really about literary pigeonholing, it’s about the critical mass, the mess (again). This may seem an aphorism, but really it may be an antidote. These novels and new authorial voices shed new light and cast new shadows, they flit through scale and perspective, and they tell both new stories and old myths. They help make sense, obliquely and acutely, of a complex today, which is in one very important respect clearer but in many other more confusing than the past. blacks_cover_front_HRThe most important point is that they do all of these things, individually, and in communion, collectively. Beukes spoke of the creative community of Cape Town-based writers she is part of, who read each other’s material, encourage, collaborate and grow.

In contrast, Davids outlined the limitations of publishing in South Africa, small markets circumscribed by often prohibitively expensive books, the problems of multiple languages and relatively small numbers of people who regularly read novels. Selling 2,000 copies of a novel in South Africa would make a bestsellers list. This breeds conservatism amongst larger publishers, but possibly creates creative (if risky) opportunities for smaller publishers like Modjaji. There are ways around this; both Beukes and Davids are involved in initiatives and programmes to make reading more accessible through innovation and technology. Beukes is involved in, for example, delivers free, bite-sized stories through mobile phones to encourage younger people to read. Davids is getting involved in grass roots initiatives to increase reading amongst the youth. There are other older ways to expand reading, going back to the era of semi-disposable pulp fiction or making use of e-readers. Technology and tradition present opportunities.

Much effort is being made to highlight new authors, through anthologies, blogs, twitter, community. Beukes was aghast in Edinburgh when asked by an audience member to identify just one up-and-coming author: “there are so many”. Established South African authors, generally, are very supportive of emerging South African authors.

My abiding sense of the ‘responsibility’ of the South African author, right now, is not that they must use literary fiction to engage with politics or as a political act. Rather, it is that if they do indeed have a responsibility it is to forge something new, new communities of writers, new styles, new topics, new formats and new communities of readers. There may be politics in the text no doubt, but there is Politics in the act of writing, and reading.


james profileJames 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).

James has written on Lauren Beukes’ work and the Ed Book Fest (2013) for AiW before – see ‘Lauren Beukes and African Science Fiction’ – and also after the 2014 event in the Book Festival’s ‘Voices from South Africa’ theme – Lauren Beukes and C.A. Davids, ‘South African Literature Goes Global’.

Categories: Announcements, News, & Upcoming

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

4 replies

  1. “There may be politics in the text no doubt, but there is Politics in the act of writing, and reading.”
    — And even more so in publishing!

    I really enjoyed reading this! The ‘anecdata’, ‘antidotes’ and all. Thrilling to have published an author who has made it to a global platform like Edinburgh.

  2. Dear Colleen, I really liked Carolann’s book. I agree very much with your comments about publishing. It does seem to me that besides taking risks with new authors or publishing in new areas/genres there is a real discussion to be had about the nature of the ‘book’ (or the medium) in South Africa – how is it read? how is it accessed? how might it be tweaked or completely re-thought for the realities of South African reading?

    One would hope this wouldn’t mean going the way of Amazon and the Kindle and the squeezing of margins, authors and publishers, but rather that there could be a conversation between all actors to ensure that authors write, innovation and diversity is encouraged and readership grows. I think you need all this in concert, or at least in conversation.


  1. South Africans at the 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival: Round-up | Books LIVE
  2. Review – Jacob Dlamini’s Askari: A Story of Collaboration and Betrayal |

join the discussion:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: