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“The Strangest Setting is South Africa”: SJ Naude and Ivan Vladislavic Exchange Letters

Ivan Vladislavic SJ Naudé

The Alphabet of BirdsAlfabet van die voelsThe FollyFlashback HotelPortrait with KeysDouble Negative

SJ Naudé and Ivan Vladislavić recently exchanged letters in a piece for Granta, discussing translation, writing, and the looming presence of setting in South African writing.

Naudé published his debut collection of short stories, Alfabet van die voëls, in 2011, winning the University of Johannesburg Debut Prize and the Jan Rabie Rapport Prize. The English version, The Alphabet of Birds, which Naudé translated himself, was recently launched at the The Book Lounge, with Michiel Heyns calling it “wonderful”.

The latest issue of Granta includes work by Naudé for the first time – an excerpt from the title story of The Alphabet of Birds – and in her introduction to the issue, Granta owner Sigrid Rausing compares Naudé to JM Coetzee, “in his language, and in the vision of the fate of South Africa, hanging in the balance”.

In his opening letter to Naudé, Vladislavić ponders on how The Alphabet of Birds was tailored for the UK and South African markets, a concept he calls “quite new”: “When I began to work as an editor thirty years ago, we sometimes debated whether a book needed a glossary or not, but the idea of rewriting a text to make it more accessible to a foreign readership never arose.”

Vladislavić mentions a piece written by Leon de Kock a few months ago, “The SA Lit issue won’t go away”, which was in turn inspired by an article written by Fiona Snyckers entitled “Should local writers always set their books in South Africa?”

De Kock mentions the glut of South African authors who have “gone global” and wonders “what might be lost in this veritable rush for the emergency exit”. He also surmises that the question of “where to set one’s stories” must come across for Afrikaans writers as “strange”.

For many scholars, the explosion of the category now rather quaintly remembered as SA Lit is a genuinely liberating development, a deliverance from Ashraf Jamal’s sense (borrowed from Samuel Beckett) of local English letters being like a “dog chained to its own vomit”.

For Jamal, the transnational success of writers such as Sarah Lotz and Lauren Beukes, not to mention Deon Meyer, is cause for celebration. And indeed it is, isn’t it? We’re out of the province, at last! Boykie Sidley can set his stories in Ohio or California and sell his books in Jo’burg, Durban and Cape Town. Who would begrudge any “local” writer this kind of range?

At the time of Snyckers’ article, Books LIVE spoke to Lauren Beukes, Steven Boykey Sidley and Penny Busetto, who have all set work overseas. The consensus seemed to be that a South African setting was too constrictive.

In his conversation with Naudé, Vladislavić wonders whether “the question of locality is more interesting to my generation than yours”.

A few months ago, Leon de Kock published a piece in the Mail & Guardian about the tension between the local and the global in South African fiction. More and more writers are ‘going global’, he says, and setting their books in other places. They are also using a more generic English, I think, which doesn’t smack too strongly of one culture and won’t offend a sensitive palate. According to De Kock, these decisions threaten to dissolve the category of ‘SA Lit’ entirely. Interestingly, he views Afrikaans writers as a special case: ‘Consider, for a moment, how strange the question of where to set one’s stories comes across to most Afrikaans writers.’ The implication is that most Afrikaans writers, whose readership is largely confined to South Africa, don’t even think about setting their stories elsewhere.

Someone reading your Granta extract might assume you are one of those writers. The setting and language are pungently local. In fact, your book presents a strikingly wide range of settings, moving with ease from Berlin to Tokyo to Milan to Cape Town.

In his reply, Naudé clarifies that the changes made for each edition of his book were “quite superficial”, and introduced purely to avoid confusion.

He also disagrees with De Kock on the subject of setting quite strongly:

Leon de Kock, in the article you mention, sets up a dichotomy between serious South African literature and genre-literature – the former having a local focus, while the latter is now often set in exotic locales in the pursuit of ‘royalties’ and ‘big glam fame’. I would argue for a different kind of serious South African writing, which is neither necessarily predominantly concerned with South Africa, nor primarily set (t)here, but still driven by the urgency and deep necessity that fuel good writing. And which is not ‘everywhere and nowhere’ either. The notion that Afrikaans authors are somehow uniquely and inseparably tied to South African locales is a relic from a different era. I certainly don’t find the question of where to set my stories strange. For me, the strangest setting, the one that requires the greatest imaginative effort, is in fact South Africa.

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Recent comments:

  • SeanMayne
    December 17th, 2014 @08:24 #

    Why no book excerpts on Kalahari, Loots and Exclusives? Need to go to Amazon to 'look inside'. A pity, as I would rather support a local distributor.


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