Books

The SA Lit issue won't go away

Leon De Kock

Where to now for the South African writer of fiction in English? asks Leon de Kock.

South African fiction in English, it seems, has reached yet another moment of crisis, but this time it might just be a black hole. (John McCann, M&G)

South African fiction in English, it seems, has reached yet another moment of crisis, but this time it might just be a black hole. 

The question now, if we are to believe some writers, is whether or not to locate one’s stories in this country at all. 

The matter was posed on Facebook by writer Fiona Snyckers following her piece on the topic in the Mail & Guardian‘s Thoughtleader series. Snyckers reports on Facebook that the dilemma was raised again at the launch of Richard de Nooy’s novel, The Unsaid. Several writers chime in, confidently asserting that the world is for everyone who lives in it, so what’s the big problem? 

Whether or not one agrees with the “go global” view — it’s very hard indeed to resist such a gust of fresh air — it’s difficult not to see this as a decisive moment for what we used to call “South African literature”, or “SA Lit”, as Michael Chapman and Margaret Lenta call it in their edited collection, SA Lit Beyond 2000

What is beyond doubt is that our literary scene has witnessed a category explosion. The “liberated” SA Lit that Njabulo Ndebele and Albie Sachs foresaw in their calls, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, for ordinariness, intimacy and the cessation of “struggle” plots, has to a  large extent (although not completely) been derailed by several key developments.

These include the worldwide implosion of the “nation” as a pre-eminent placeholder for literature, and the rise of trans- and post-nationalism, along with the phenomenon of a newly ascendant “Global Literature” and the idea of the “Global Novel”. 

In addition, Ndebele and Sachs could surely not have been expected to foresee the widely perceived “failure” of the democratic “revolution” and its co-optation by late capitalism, rendering the much-desired rupture with the apartheid past itself an awkward fiction to deal with.  

Further, who would have thought, in the early 1990s, that the patronage accorded to SA Lit by English literature departments in South Africa — and their wider spheres of symbolic capital — would wane so significantly as much hotter topics came to hand, especially in the wake of post-humanism (a shift of focus to animals and objects, as in object-oriented ontology, “surface”, the archival turn and the “new materialism”), transnationalism (oceanic studies, histories of the book and others), and cultural studies as a catch-all for almost anything that can be described in language? 

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?

It bears asking, though, even if only briefly, what might be lost in this veritable rush for the emergency exit.  Consider, for a moment, how strange the question of where to set one’s stories comes across to most Afrikaans writers, or, for that matter, intensely city-bound writers such as recent debutantes Perfect Hlongwane and Given Mukwevho, and possibly the leader of the current (English) pack, Ivan Vladislavic, not to mention the vastly underrated Henrietta Rose-Innes. (See also Peter Morris’s coruscating Jo’burg underworld in Bad City, a startling debut.) 

Granted, writers such as Marlene van Niekerk, Eben Venter, Zukiswa Wanner, Etienne van Heerden and Mark Behr now often set their stories within an interzone of “local” and “global”, but here it is the interplay between an intractable “home ground” (“lost ground” in Michiel Heyns’s case) and alternate locales that provides much of the fictional energy. 

These writers work in several of the concentric circles available to a South African writer: the (micro-local) home ground, more than one language (and within each language, the sub-codes of the “hyperlocal”), and then, by extension, (hopefully) the world markets. For them, an either/or approach would be awkward. 

Dominique Botha’s phenomenal debut as a new fictional voice has a lot to do with the fact that she wrote her multiple prize-winning memoir-novel False River in English, and then rewrote it herself into Afrikaans (much like André Brink) — showing that it works very well, either way, to be ambidextrous. 

Botha’s book has been savoured by high- and low-brow readers because it captures the detailed textures of what are felt to be now lost South African times and places, whether these are “good” or “bad” (childhood during apartheid on a Free State farm, Natal boarding schools and the Jo’burg post-hippie drug culture). 

Significantly, though, Botha’s novel, like the micro-local works of Vladislavic, is unlikely to find big traction in global markets. And local sales, even in the best of cases, aren’t much to get excited about. 

To some extent, this condition underlies Snyckers’s sense of a dilemma about where to set one’s stories. One’s choices are : 1) quit the “local”, go global and seek (potentially) big readership, big royalties and big “glam” fame (see the amazing extra-local success of the erotic A Girl Walks into a Bar, by Helen Moffett, Paige Nick and Sarah Lotz, writing as Helen S Paige); or 2) persevere with “serious” Lit Fic, in which you grapple (primarily) with “home ground”, accepting the fate of being a rarefied connoisseur who writes for similar types — the analogy of classical music comes to mind. (This, by the way, is not necessarily a bad condition at all.) 

Can one be both, writing up a revised sense of “home” as a constellation of networked locales, as Wanner seeks to do in London, Cape Town, Jo’burg, or as fêted “World Novel” writers David Mitchell, Chimamanda Adichie, Teju Cole, Amitav Ghosh and others appear to be doing quite successfully? 

It is a question that is yet to be resolved. The jury is still out on Wanner’s book, but it is hardly deep stuff.  And the World Novel paradigm is beset with problems of its own — the loss of a “home ground” that is richly mined, the “everywhere and nowhere” of “networked” existence within the Global paradigm (where and what is it?), the surrender of strong geopolitical identity, and the loss of the idea of literature as committedly situated social critique, à la the great example of Nadine Gordimer. 

Certainly, the everywhere-and-anywhere approach has worked best in genre fiction, where locality is largely incidental, providing spunky “local colour” to a global condition of disenchanted late-capitalist modernity, a “place” where you grab your pleasure — or your relief from suffocating conditions — wherever you can find it.  

The issue with this approach, of course, is the “problem” of genre fiction, and the trade-offs it makes, which many critics regard as crippling to the cause of a nuanced literary culture.  

To some extent, then, the South African writer of fiction in English is both liberated and stranded, both here and not really here anymore. Whatever one thinks of this condition, it certainly isn’t comfortable, and it speaks to a loss of plot that is both exhilarating and disorienting. 

Leon de Kock is a critic, poet, translator and author of the novel Bad Sex (2011). New Fiction is the subject of session four at the M&G Literary Festival, on Saturday August 30, 2.30pm to 4pm. Corina van der Spoel chairs the panel of Ingrid Winterbach (The Road of Excess), Perfect Hlongwane (Jozi) and Harry Kalmer (‘n Duisend Stories oor Johannesburg: ‘n Stadsroman) 

For the M&G Literary Festival programme and to book your seat visit www.redballoon.biz/mglitfest/

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