Nobility of purpose

Eleven years into democracy, the question relating to the sort of literature—especially the novel—that South Africans should be producing, remains bothersome.

Two weeks ago, the Mail & Guardian‘s book’s editor, Shaun de Waal, wrote that books released this year by white South African writers, in particular, seemed eager to sidestep the issue of race and suggested that this could perhaps be a great thing.

“For a long time,” wrote De Waal, “there was a tension between the need to deal with broad social realities and the desire to handle more subtle, personal inner states.”

Perhaps it was time, he concluded, that race issues were left to radio shows and opinion pages of newspapers and other such media.

Besides, he said, white writers, by tackling race in their fiction, risked falling into the white guilt trap all over again, among other perils.

So write, white South Africa, write, but beware the dangers of race?

Something is amiss here. But then, South African writers of all hues have always been in a precarious position when it comes to subject material.

In his essay, South Africa’s “Rainbow” Nation: Mandela’s Fiction, Lewis Nkosi quotes one writer as observing that, “South African literature has been held hostage to apartheid, (which) has given writers a subject of great power and moral urgency, while at the same time denying them the luxury of certain choices if they want to be taken seriously.”

Discomforting, though, is the fact that sections of the country’s writing community would rather not deal with some issues for fear of backlash.

This would suggest that, contrary to widely held notions, the South African nation is not a nation at all; that not even in our 11 years of democracy have we begun to deal with the scars that the apartheid incubus left on our psyche.

Given this sad situation, therefore, should this be the time for the emerging generation of writers to be making certain choices that will lead to them being taken seriously?

Argues the poet Keorapetse Kgositsile: “In any given space of human development, the themes for any artist will always come from the concerns, needs, hopes, desires and even dislikes of society at large.

“Any writer with a sense of national relevance would therefore be guided by these factors.
And it is the responsibility of such a writer to articulate the preoccupations of his or her society.”

Kgositsile further says that since we are now preoccupied with the transformation of this society, he would naturally expect, from local writers, work that either celebrates what has been achieved in our democratic dispensation, or questions what is not happening, but was expected to happen.

Having said that, however, Kgositsile says “people should write about what they are most responsive to—unapologetically so”.

Meaning that when Mtutuzeli Nyoka writes in his book, I Speak to the Silent: “When I refer to whites there will be a distinct harshness of tone. This is the product of many years of misery …” We, as readers, should be sensitive to what the author is most responsive to. But, Kgositsile also warns of the dangers of us being tired too soon with stories about our past — both from a black and a white perspective.

A friend who worked in Canada in 1990 was once asked, while there, what it meant to be a South African. Then, as now, he did not know what to say.

But the situation will not be helped if even our writers—our conscience and pathfinders, as it were—choose to avoid confronting those questions which have the power to mould us as a nation.

Because we have been wounded so deeply as South Africans, our writers need to be at the forefront of our combined and determined effort to heal this land. That is my contention, but perhaps the last word, here, should go to Nyoka, who said: “Though our cultures, languages and values are diverse, we are an African country in the process of renewal. We cannot allow our future to be shaped by circumstances.

“The stories we write must reflect the new African character we desire [and] drain off the racial lightning that seems to play above the heads of most mortals these days. What one is talking about is an elevation and nobility of purpose.”

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