Stop going back to the farm: Celebrating the strong voices trying to pull South African fiction out of its self-indulgent swamp
By Wamuwi Mbao for the Sunday Times
When I asked someone who claimed to be an enthusiastic reader what South African fiction he was reading, his face fell as if I had suggested drinking a tumbler full of a stranger’s tears. The kind of novel he envisioned was probably a grief-and-violence-sodden morality tale about apartheid.
South African literature, to borrow a joke from Tom Waits, is dominated by Grand Weepers and Grim Reapers. It reflects a society in which repressed sadness and spectacular violence trade regular places at the forefront of our national attention span.
The die was cast by Cry, the Beloved Country. Many people left school believing that all South African literature amounted to was wordy sermonising about the soul and pitched exchanges between white and black for the edification of some unseen interlocutor.
For many years they weren’t wrong. The crucible of South African writing has produced many significant writers, but also a great many also-rans. An odd result is that our literary scene loves a good formula. The first critic who called Cry, the Beloved Country “magisterial” should have patented the term, because that mode has become the coveted descriptor of serious South African fiction. That, and “searing”, which looks great in a review but quickly reaches its limits as an expression of anything. Paton’s novel spawned a hundred watery imitations, and so we came to understand literature as a mirror reflecting lives we already know, rather than as a way of opening life outwards.
The tree continues to bear bitter fruit. Most South African literature does too much of the work for you. This may or may not explain why South African literature sells like pork at a kibbutz. Very few, if any, South African authors make a sustained living from books alone. As one confided to me while slipping scones into his coat pocket at a book launch: “Ingrid and André obviously didn’t have student loans.”
But for the past year, I’ve been telling anyone who asks that there’s a must-read list of young South African authors. If the Mandela era birthed a crisply ambivalent literature that morphed into the hallucinatory crime-fiction boom of the Mbeki and Zuma years, the last two years have seen a new cohort of writers loosened from our traditional moorings of corruption and buried secrets.
Between postgraduate limbo and day jobs in ad agencies, these university-reared and copywriting-matured new writers create ways of speaking to the turbulence of the present. A ragtag group of novelists, poets and playwrights, their work is much more compelling than a lot of the stuff that has occupied our bookshelves over the past decade.
What does the new South African writing look like? It would probably use keywords like “hyper-literate” to describe itself. There’s a determined turn away from apartheid preoccupations, a campily sardonic humour always in touch with its own self-absorption; a favouring of statement over meditation, a pervasive anti-sentimentality, whether describing the kid next door’s death or the trepidations of a matric Rage party.
These authors are united less by age than by the environment in which they write. They understand that forgetting about verisimilitude is the first step towards achieving it. They are ciphers of our discordant age, and they embrace the unknown in ways that are exciting and that – most importantly – feel new.
How you know you are reading an old South African novel
1. Following the death of a father/mother/sundry other relative, Character X returns to South Africa after 10/15/20 years and must confront a dark and unresolved secret from the past (SPOILER: usually something bad involving race and/or sex).
2. Crime-by-numbers action in a loud dust-jacket, making mordant criticisms of the current government while taking great pains NOT to be about apartheid. May involve scenes from prison life that read suspiciously like they were culled from a Ross Kemp documentary.
3. Ordinary-lives drama in which City X (usually, but not always Jozi) is an awesome and edgy backdrop for a fairly ordinary story whose ordinariness is awesome and edgy because of the city.
4. Historical fiction usually involving a little-known South African historical event, padded out to speak to present-day anxieties. Is the old-world version of 5 (below).
5. Science/Future fiction, which goes to great lengths to show that the future will happen in South Africa too (probably in Joburg, but not Bredasdorp); usually uses the future to comment on the present.
New SA writers who might save us
Mohale Mashigo’s The Yearning begins like a folkloric tale, reminding us that “we all have the desire to be special”. Mashigo can sound like Toni Morrison, with that same burnished sense of storytelling speaking through the novel. Zakes Mda, no less, calls The Yearning “a bewitching addition to the current South African literary boom”. Mashigo stakes out an imaginative terrain and then decorates it.
Panashe Chigumadzi’s Sweet Medicine brings a transnational dimension to this area of writing, being set in Zimbabwe. Sweet Medicine courses with the complications of coming to fruition in an economically precarious society. Rather, it’s a rueful tale about how to live in uncertain times, weaving in the problematics of patriarchy and gender inequality that is especially pertinent in a climate of blessers and sugar daddies.
Genna Gardini’s terse collection Matric Rage makes childhood feel like a morbid conspiracy. In each poem, Gardini finds an unexpected metaphor in the provincialism of everyday routines (a school outing becomes “a foefie-slide ride past the exit sign”), and her aphorisms unstitch old horrors (an abuser is “thready as a wear in the leather”). My copy is guiltily underlined, because every line shows off Gardini’s formidable powers. Her lens might swing to the past, but her poetry is rooted firmly in the present.
In Nick Mulgrew’s Stations, muggy middle-class worlds are made knowable via reverberant prose. The stories are preoccupied with capturing the texture and shadow of an otherwise impenetrable world. Mulgrew has a knack for taking up or leaving off a story at just the right moment. Some characters’ stories stretch across several pages, while others like “Daughter” exhale their intimacies in half a page.
Koleka Putuma’s poetry has received rapturous attention, for good reason. She uses droll wit to cauterise old wounds and puncture new ones with equal candour: her poems reconfigure the odd predicaments of black life in South Africa without seeking to over-define what that life might be. Her magnificent suite of poems, Water, knows the deprivations and desolations beneath the everyday rituals of family life.
Wamuwi Mbao is an essayist and cultural critic. His short stories have been published in various collections. He lectures at Stellenbosch University on literary and cultural studies and post-transitional South African life.
- Sweet Medicine by Panashe Chigumadzi
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