Feathers should remain unruffled and alarm bells switched off... I've read the book and its brilliant. There's a great deal to discuss about the work outside of the author's nationality (and I write this with full recognition of the politics of ownership, storytelling and North/South dynamics etc, but this novel understands and deals with those complications). Helen, my sense is that you will love this book, its rich, layered and its in full conversation with the country and its literature (its not difficult to recognise, among others, Coetzee's influence).
You know, this issue makes me uneasy, because of the logic of argument it leads from and to. The fashion when I was starting out was to measure all South African novels in terms of their 'authenticity' and 'accuracy of representation'. It's precisely this angle of attack that David Attwell and his crowd reacted against in the late 1980s/early 1990s as "a putting down in history" (his words). Personally, I still think this kind of analysis has a point: but one has to be wary.
(Come to think of it, there was a cliched assumption in the 1950s/60s that you more or less had to get away from apartheid and overseas, before you could write about it).
For instance, I can think of at least two touted novels published in the 1990s, written by SAfricans living inside the country, which to me were bogus as hell - in terms of language usage, in both cases. One was a white author trying to write 'coloured' slang; the other - a Booker finalist - well, I put down the first time the 'black' female character spoke.
Which means that I don't know where the insider/outsider boundaries are - apartheid, remember, separated different 'races' far too much; and it's still very difficult to span that divide (one of the reasons Tatamkhulu Afrika and now Lauren Beukes have been successful, IMO, is that they have been fairly skillful interlocutors, showing off 'other' cultures to vicarious readers). But I think we have to realise that many different South Africa's that are being represented and projected by our current crop of writers. From my marxist angle, some of them feel pretty erroneus.
Nadia, I am concerned about what the 'politics of owneship' means in this context (are you the same Nadia I knew? - if so, howzit). I think one has to be careful of anyone who writes, or speaks, as owners of a culture. The province of old men, at least in cultural studies.
Howzit Kelwyn. (I think I might be the same Nadia.. I did my undergrad in the English Dept in the late 90's?) Thanks for this considered reply. I hope it didn't sound as though I was dismissing the importance (or the complexity) of all those debates. I'm not. I agree that one has to remain vigilant about any sort of cultural ventriloquism, whether it emerges from within or without. Those issues are not passe, they were and remain about power, and so a Marxist angle is probably the best one to take! My remit is mainly theatre and certainly, in the 90's and 2000's, it was precisely this argument around insider/outsider, (or even insider-outsider--which I would argue is the moral place of all artists, even those who are in embedded in a particular world/community) that drove much of the work. Its a place where art and structural politics collide; its difficult, thorny and at times it feels irreconcilable. It means that making new work about South Africa (while holding these concerns close, understanding them, attempting to engage creatively with them) almost always holds an element of undoing someone else's damage (but that's probably a separate issue!).
But to get back to the book for a moment: without giving too much away, there is not really any attempt to write black characters (I think the absence is deliberate; its seems suggest the impossibility of trans-racial conversation). It does write white South African characters (superbly I think), and it narrates the country, its landscapes and its histories, and perhaps its in those zones that the arguments around who writes a nation can be brought to bear.
Agreed - I guess I am as wary about prohibitions on these attempts, as I am about resolutions....fact is, that South Africans have tried to write across 'other' lines for a long time, and to me it's got to be seen as positive explorations to find a way out of the maze, even if some of the results are dire. (In 'race' it has happened for over a century, in both directions...to name but one of the issues here).
Somehow Lukacs always pops up in my mind in these discussions i.e. there are writers who, despite their own social positions and ideologies, do manage to write novels/poems/plays that are wider, more far-seeing than one would expect, if one was being deterministic. (e.g. Albie Sachs' remark in the late 1980s that, if the 'great South African novel' were written, it would probably come from a member of Inkatha...).
Nice to hear(?) your voice, by the way.
Nodding. I think we are in broad agreement about most of these issues, and Lukacs' theorising around the Novel generally is a wonderful prism through which to refract ideas around the South African novel specifically-with all its gifts and difficulties.
What you say about the prohibitions, resolutions, failures, successes, limitations of writing across experience and 'out of the maze' chimes with something I've been thinking about lately about stories and ownership, about 'authenticity' and empathy...so when Richard Rorty writes about human solidarity being achieved through the imagination, the ability to imagine others' suffering, to imagine ourselves into being someone else through creative processes and projects, I suppose he means to arrive at a sense of empathy without sentimentalisation or condescension... and this can't only be a task for those inside a particular context, but also (and perhaps more crucially) for those outside of it...so maybe thoughtful (and thought-provoking) novels about South Africa written by those who are not South African are as necessary for the process of establishing trans-cultural, trans-racial and trans-national "knowingness" as those written by people within the country.... personally, I am waiting for the 'great SA novel' to be written an African foreign national.
And thank you for the welcome. This is my first contribution to bookslive... though I follow lots of the threads with great interest... Good to hear your thoughts too.
Nadia, I agree: although I guess it's really hard, perhaps impossible, past a point to imagine others' suffering...although I think it is crucially important to use art to imagine ourselves into being someone else, speaking either socially or individually.
Yet the crux for me is trying to do this 'without sentimentalisation or condescension'. Yes yes yes. But so hard to do. And it kind of goes somewhere further than Rortian conversations IMO, because it not only needs information and empathy and knowledge, but also wisdom and judgment, I think: tippy-toe self-critical judgment, but judgment nevertheless e.g. when I was a student in London, in that antediluvian time before the Wheel, radical students there were hot with solidarity and starry-eyed projections of the glorious life that awaited their country(wo)men once Pol Pot and the Ayatollah had come to power. Nuff said. ...There's an essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, 'Tourists of the Revolution', which is worth checking out - has a wonderful poem by the Cuban poet Herberto Padilla in it, which shows the dangers that can accrue to solidarity; that solidarity can become about the self and not the other. (Although none of this changes my broad agreement with what you're saying).
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