Too hot to handle

Stephen Gray is dismayed to discover South African writers have been content to let outsiders write our literature.

Why do South Africans not handle their own big themes? This was the challenge made to me once, when I was out there on circuit, meeting the world to which we were restored in 1994. Why should it be Clint Eastwood filming former president Nelson Mandela at that democratic rugby game? Why Oprah Winfrey sending Cry, the Beloved Country into golden sales all over again? Couldn’t we do anything for ourselves?

Miffed at the criticism, I tried to reply: that during the restricted apartheid period we were rightly preoccupied with having to assert local issues. So our confidence shrank, perhaps, while we were defending our puny patches—against quite an impressive list of legislation, censorship, increasing atrocities.
Maybe we became a trifle paranoid and parochial, I admitted, and so unable to see some of the bigger picture.

But my interviewer persisted. Never having been to the African continent, he nevertheless worked for a South African literary studies department, enjoying the mental freedom we had not yet dreamed of exercising at home. He had conducted his researches, he explained, only to conclude that we must be a bunch of moegoes, because we were content to let outsiders write our literature for us.

To this insult I tried to blahblah my way out with some riposte about maintaining the moral high ground being more important, in a running crisis, than some theoretical liberties. But he parried me once again. It was precisely because we had always been so kraaled in, choked up, self-preoccupied—he actually said mentally debilitated—that apartheid had been permitted to flourish so. Centuries of the colonial mentality, he called it.

Well then, in deepest denial, I reckoned I had better glance at the reading list that had convinced him we had never been able adequately to exploit our very own culture. The list was a long one. But to cut it short, these are the questions with which a foreigner set out to challenge me on my own home ground.

Why was the first great diamond fields novel written in French, by none other than Jules Verne, and not by a Kimberley man? My reply is that I have since had the pleasure of translating Star of the South (1884) for Protea in 2003, and yes, it is a masterly exposé of capitalist tactics and labour abuses that would otherwise have gone unrecorded.

Why was it HG Wells writing about the 1913 Rand Strike (in The Research Magnificent, 1915) and not some General Jan Smuts affiliate or Pickhandle Mary on the spot? Why should it be John Berger detailing a woman chafing for liberation in Pietermaritzburg (his Booker-winning novel, G. of 1972) rather than any Alan Paton himself?

Why when the Second Anglo-Boer War centenary was coming up should it have been a New Yorker such as Brooks Hansen turning in his fabulous chronicle (The Chess Game of 1995), and then Britisher Giles Foden hitting the jackpot just in time with his Ladysmith (1999)? And the latter going on, in 2004, to take in South Africa and the World War I with his Mimi and Toutou?

Why had Thomas Keneally in his now classic The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith of 1972, all about manhunting down Aborigines as Australia federated into a new British nation in which there was to be no allotted place for them, run a parallel story about the revolt of Brother Boer half a world away? How were these events related, other than 20 000 mounted volunteer troops having to be diverted for domestic service? Surely he meant to show that empires are ruled by hangmen rather than handshakes? What South African author in 2010 will compare the centenary of the Union of 1910 with Australia then (as Bruce Chatwin has already done in his The Songlines, 1987)?

Why is it Thomas Pynchon writing wonderfully about the Bondelswart Rebellion of 1922 (in his V. of 1961) and then again about the raucous Abbé de la Caille in the Cape, measuring out the world bit by bit (in Mason & Dixon of 1997)?

Why the Canadian Alistair MacLeod dealing with recent immigrants into South Africa (in No Great Mischief of 2001 and his Island stories of 2002)? Following on from the devastating Scotsman, Irvine Welsh, writing about growing up on the East Rand (in Marabou Stork Nightmares of 1996)? Why was it left to the spectacular Spaniard, Javier Marias, to deal with the last of our De Wets, flying his mercy missions against fascism into Abyssinia (in Dark Back of Time, published originally in 1988)? And the Congolese Emmanuel Dongala to launch ditto in French for insurrectionists within South Africa itself (in Jazz et Vin de Palme of 1982)?

Well, by that point down the list I was nearly hands-up. I confessed that we may possibly be negligent and a tad crimped in our imaginations, by the threat of communism, the Immorality Act and all those trying bogies—and also by the utter lack of historical awareness in our educational systems.

We were a country without a memory, but in reply he really sent me for a sixpack. With all the hullabaloo about the rediscovery of the voluminous Bleek and Lloyd documentation, giving evidence of the presence of our vanishing Bushmen, apart from a few plagiarists, why had it been an American Jewish writer, resident in Portugal, who took the initiative to write it all up into a major masterpiece of world literature?

His name is Richard Zimler, his title Hunting Midnight (2003). “Midnight” is the codename of one Tsamma of the Kalahari, purchased early in the 19th century on the Cape frontier for exhibition in Europe. And then his intricate, fascinating story connects up with that of the victims of the Inquisition, which then links up with the US Civil War over slavery ... Apparently such vital interconnections are beyond the scope of vision of our local writers. That was the gist of my interrogator’s complaint.

I said I should return to the shelter of my braindead little backwater and promised to investigate. Meanwhile, cheers Clint, cheers Oprah.

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