Jy blaai in die argief vir 2010 Julie.

#3 Crossing borders – Mike Rands

Julie 30, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

My generation of South Africans was raised on the mantra that there was no difference between peoples and races. We were told that we should become blind to the colour of a person’s skin, that our blood was all green. We were told that our differences were minor and our similarities great.

This philosophy undoubtedly had an enormous influence on me. So much so that when I started living in Japan as an adult I was quite horrified by the national attitude towards ethnicity and identity. For months my inner monologue was consumed by a passionate rant against the citizens of the country for daring to be so obsessed with themselves and their ethnic and cultural “differentness”.

In Japan the “outside world”, while fascinating to some, represents a real threat, and preservation of Japanese uniqueness is of the utmost importance. Japan tells itself that its citizens are different from those of other nations. South Africa tells itself that despite minor differences, its citizens are the same. They are both essential to the nations’ self-images.

These views are both partially true, partially fabricated.

Emphasising single identities and focusing on ethnic and racial separation is dangerous. It has clearly been responsible for the incitement of hatred and violence throughout human history. In “liberal societies” we are so terrified of anything that resembles racial or cultural intolerance that if arguments stray from the official line, they are fanatically suppressed. Talk of “celebrating our differences” is often superficial, because when real issues like polygamy arise, most aren’t interested in celebrating the other’s perspective. Speaking to people, and reading public forums online – where new South African and world issues are hotly debated – we learn that everybody’s views, even in our supposedly liberal and accepting world, are shaped by these very things we tell ourselves we’re blind to – race, ethnicity, religion.

But the world is a complex place and there is another more positive side to the human story. In a recent lecture Steven Pinker showed that despite what we often tell ourselves, the world is, in fact, getting better. This is most evidenced in the steady decline of violence, measurable over the millennia, centuries, decades and even years. If the modern world always seems bad, this is because our moral reasoning is constantly improving and we’re always looking at the situation through a contemporary lens.

And why is the world improving? The advance of science is well documented, but what Pinker and numerous other theorists argue is that the ability to empathise with others has made a serious and quantifiable difference to the state of humanity. And that ability to empathise with others is largely due to the successes of literature and art.

If ever there was a validation for what writers do, then surely this must be it. I think that artists not only play a role in increasing cross- and inter-cultural empathy, but also aid in constantly raising the moral standards by which we judge ourselves. This means that so long as art keeps doing what it does, it will always remain relevant.

People who attend writing seminars are always told to write what they know. Of course this soon gets boring and any real fiction writers will have to write about things they don’t know. Historical writing can be achieved through research.  Women are said to write better male characters than men write female ones. Either way it’s almost impossible to write a story without characters of both sexes and so this problem has been dealt with for centuries. But what about writing characters from different race groups and cultures? More and more it is happening. But what is the ethic of doing it, or of not doing it?

When I wrote my first novel I was a young person living in Cape Town. Most people I associated with were white. Then I lived in Johannesburg for over two years. I worked producing television shows for black audiences. For a period almost everyone I worked with, interviewed, socialised with was black. And it did change me. Now I live in Japan, and everyone is Japanese. Again, it’s changed me completely. I know that we are not all the same. Cultural and societal expectations, histories, group identities, all these things have major influences on our psyches.

Japan embraces the stories of the West, just as the West eats up Japanese stories. In stories, it seems, there is a new kind of truth. A truth that reveals us as different, yet absolutely recognisable.

But can you write a character from another culture and make him or her so believable that people from that background would not know it was written by an outsider? If we decide to attempt it, we open ourselves up to massive levels of criticism. But if we don’t do it, we allow ourselves to become representatives of “our group”, whatever that group may be. One reviewer of my first novel grouped it with two others in an examination of the white male protagonist. While I suppose it was unavoidable that some would bracket me in that category for that first novel, I certainly don’t want to spend my life as a spokesman for the white male cause. I imagine many writers across borders feel this way. Perhaps, then, as we move forward more writers will continue to write across every line, imaginable and real, and this will be a continuation of the writer’s contribution to society.

#2 The first time I died – Richard de Nooy

Julie 30, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

There was pandemonium at the bus stop. Shouting and crying children and parents crowded around a heavy truck that had stopped on the zebra crossing. Someone had been run over. There were lots of people in the way, so I couldn’t get a good look. Judging by the expressions of those who had, this was a good thing. So I turned and walked home. I must have been about six or seven. At school the next day I heard that the kid had tried to hang on to the side of the truck as it slowly trundled uphill with its heavy load. He had slipped off and landed under the back tyres. His head had been crushed. I couldn’t quite imagine what that must have looked like, even when I saw his picture in the paper a couple of days later. But I did get an entirely different shock that jump-started something in my brain. It was me. The boy in the picture. Same green blazer. Same straight blonde hair. Crooked fringe. Blue eyes. Gap-toothed smile. I stared perplexed, nauseous, as helpless as a ghost reading its own obituary. Then my mother came in and asked me if I’d made myself a sandwich. I brushed past her as I hurried to the kitchen. And I remember the relief I felt when she scolded me for my bad manners.

I recount this incident because I do not fully understand what drives me, why I feel the need to write and draw, but I know the key lies hidden somewhere in the synapses that suddenly created the connection between fact and fantasy, between what was out there in the real world and everything it triggered in my brain, This was followed by the gradual realisation that the latter, the intuitive concoctions of my mind, would not only vastly outweigh the stimuli and experiences of the real world, but could also prompt very real emotions. It took some time before I felt confident enough to share these intuitive imaginations and their related emotions with others. At first I suppressed them, because they frightened me, and later I hid them, because I was afraid no one would understand. But eventually they could no longer be contained. At university, friends would express delight at the surrealistic doodles I drew during lectures. And it dawned on me that I was finally sharing the seemingly random firing of neurons by creating something tangible that others might understand and enjoy, that might add meaning to their own lives.

I often feel uncomfortable when I am asked which authors or artists have inspired me. The only honest answer I can give is: all and none. I am a sponge, constantly absorbing the experiences of the real world and then gently squeezing out a trickle of fiction that looks and tastes real and clear, but only because all the imperfections have been filtered out. I have a towering block of flats that rises high above my head. I merely have to step into the lift and press the button to a random floor, where I can explore to my heart’s content, opening doors and observing the inhabitants. I feel no need to interpret their actions, words and thoughts. I simply have to tell their stories, assume their roles and perspectives. And so I am the torturer, his victim, his wife, his daughter, her dog, their god, the man who washes him for the grave, his brush, his comb, his sponge, the coffin – all and none.

What it boils down, I suppose, is that I have always used stories and metaphors to make sense of the world and the thoughts and processes it seems to trigger in my brain. I recently read an article about a scientific study of brain activity that revealed remarkable similarities between the patterns seen in creative minds and in people suffering from schizophrenia (Creative minds “mimic schizophrenia” ). This really struck a chord with me and it reminded me of a documentary I’d seen of a man who had learned to control his schizophrenia by creating hundreds of paintings during his waking hours. And I remember thinking: Now why does that sound so familiar? I myself have often experienced my creative drive as an aberration rather than a talent; something that needs to be reined in, steered, controlled, to prevent it becoming little more than the garbled musings of a madman. I have gradually become more adept at riding this feral stallion. Most importantly, I have learned that I can detach myself further and further from the action that drives the story, the uncut real-world experience, by simply creating more and more layers of narrative – like those little Russian matryoshka dolls that can be placed inside each other. And so I have a man describing his brother’s actions, but also a narrator describing the interaction between the brothers, and then there’s me describing the actions of the narrator and the two brothers. But I might also have added a further layers. A psychiatrist, for instance, trying to explain the actions of the narrator and the two brothers, and a god trying to control the actions of the psychiatrist, the narrator and the two brothers. All of these layers add further control, each doll is contained by the next, and I, as the author, get to decide at which level the narrative will unfold. This allows me to remove myself further and further from the actions of my characters, adding new levels of interpretation and meaning that mimic the rather complex interconnections that my brain seems to generate automatically. 

Often these interconnections give rise to absurd, surrealistic and, dare I say, comical images that seem to mock the tragedy and atrocities that unfold at the action level. I recently wrote: “Serious thoughts do cross my mind at times, but they are invariably run over by comical, little cars and mega-trucks marked Mirth & Puns Haulage.” This presented a problem when I first started writing, because South Africa was a very serious place when I left it back in 1986. Much of the literature and news was driven by the need to bring about change. The atrocities were very real and had to be recounted and interpreted so that others might understand this need. At the time, I felt I had no right to tell my stories. The real world was complicated enough without me adding my personal brand of madness. A friend recently reminded me that my first book would probably never have been published back then. I think he may be right. It would have been like M*A*S*H being broadcast while the Korean War was still on, or Inglourious Basterds being screened before WWII was over. This explains why I only really started working on my debut novel after the first democratic elections had taken place in South Africa. As if the facts had finally caught up with the fiction that had been brewing in my mind for so long.

#1 Introduction – Janet van Eeden

Julie 30, 2010 in Sonder kategorie

LitNet’s Big Book Chain Chat is an ongoing discussion on (South African) books and writing. LitNet invites publishers, authors, literary agents, reviewers, translators, marketers, anyone involved in the (local) book industry to write on any relevant topic from any angle in any format. Contributors can either comment on a previous post – or introduce a new thread. Although we’ll be issuing the invites, the blog-format allows for comments by everyone! Feel free to mail Imke van Heerden at [email protected] to contribute or for more information.

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Big Book Chain Chat kick start by LitNet-reviewer Janet van Eeden

The ground was hard, the air was still, my road was lonely … I was a mile from Thornfield, in a lane noted for wild roses in summer, for nuts and blackberries in autumn, and even now possessing a few coral treasures in hips and haws, but whose best winter delight lay in utter solitude and leafless repose. If a breath of air stirred, it made no sound here; for there was not a holly, not an evergreen to rustle, and the stripped hawthorn and hazel bushes were as still as the white, worn stones which causewayed the middle of the path. Far and wide, on either side, there were only fields, where no cattle now browsed; and the little brown birds, which stirred occasionally in the hedge, looked like single russet leaves that had forgotten to drop. (Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë, pp 112–3, Penguin, 1994.)

The whole country about them abounded in beautiful walks. The high downs … were a happy alternative when the dirt of the valleys beneath shut up their superior beauties; and towards one of these hills did Marianne and Margaret direct their steps, attracted by the partial sunshine of a showery sky […] They gaily ascended the downs, rejoicing in their own penetration at every glimpse of blue sky; and when they caught in their faces the animating gales of a high south-westerly wind, they pitied the fears which had prevented their mother and Elinor from sharing such delightful sensations. (Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, pp 38–9, Penguin, 1994.)

The above two extracts illustrate the inner landscape of my childhood and early womanhood. Growing up in a home where the so-called classics were read was a privilege in so many ways. My mother, orphaned at a young age, was brought up in a convent under the wing of an extremely well-educated nun, Sister Albertine. She taught my mother to love classic literature, and this gift was passed on to me. So I’d shut myself away in my room during my troubled adolescent years to withdraw into the world of wind-swept downs with very occasional glimmers of bright skies. While I was growing up under the harsh African sun, my inner world was paradoxically papered with images of British landscapes such as those described in the two extracts above.

I absorbed and loved everything about the novels and plays I read. And our high school teachers encouraged us to believe that European was the only real literature. This focus on all things European continued through my studies in English and drama at university, although one or two weighty African works were sometimes introduced into the syllabus by progressive lecturers. My studies were laudable in giving me an excellent grounding in dramatic writing style, structure, and language. I’m eternally grateful to have had such a solid background in the classics.

The only problem was that I grew up with an awareness that the environment I lived in wasn’t quite as good as those I’d read about. Especially as I grew up in a rather barren area of the Orange Free State.

It was only after living in the UK for almost five years, where I walked through windswept downs and bird-filled hedgerows on a daily basis, that I remembered where my heart belonged. It belonged on the wide open veld of the Free State, alongside an exploding field of impossibly yellow sunflowers, under the clichéd blue canopy of sky.

The first democratic elections in this country seemed to make everyone else aware of the fact that it was time to root our allegiances in this country. We no longer had anything to be ashamed of (well, not as much as before) and we could celebrate ourselves and our country without guilt. Since then South African literature has come into its own. At last we can revel in landscapes which are familiar to us. Instead of windswept downs and gently winding hedgerows we have:

It was a warm, windless evening and Kalk Bay was awake as if it were daytime. A convivial row of fishermen on the pier cast out their lines. Sons and daughters helped to attach wriggling bits of bait to hooks; wives unpacked large bottles of fizzy cooldrink … We like Kalky’s because it has no pretensions. Whether you order crayfish or hake it is slapped on your picnic table in the same Styrofoam container. The tomato sauce is served in a sawed-off plastic juice bottle. (What Poets Need, by Finuala Downing, Penguin, 2005)

I’m on my way home from the road. I walk along the pavilion bridge cause it’s still hot, hot and it helps me to see the sea. Down on the beach, dark brown mamas wash up like whales. In huge D-cups, I’m talking humongous. Tent panties, totally see-through. They let the sea take them, drag their hands in the sand. Laugh their heads off. Carry on like it’s Christmas. (Whiplash, by Tracey Farren, Modjaji, 2008).

These two extracts are not exactly romantic, but the images they conjure up are as real and tangy as sea salt. We recognise the people of our country in them. We know them. Our inner landscapes reflect our home.

And here are two more extracts redolent with the sights and smells of Southern Africa:

Behind the cottage, beyond the vines, the two children have discovered the vague hint of a path. They already know that if you follow it carefully a short way, it will take you over the coarse mountain grass till you reach a clear, shallow pool of water, the base of a small waterfall. This haven for rock rabbits and tadpoles and the occasional wildcat, hidden among trees and boulders, has become their secret, close enough to the cottage for them to hear Camille calling, yet far enough from things too ordinary for the serious business of make-believe. (One Tongue Singing, Susan Mann, Random House, 2004)  

I met Ikeji at the Women’s Agenda Forum, on one of those sweltering summer days with the clouds making empty threats and the air thick with the smell of rain. A plump woman emblazoned in African attire with a high perm on her head was addressing the crowd. The air was stale, unaffected by the fans sputtering overhead. I ached for the chill of winter, the way I always yearn for a slap of sun when my cheeks freeze in June. The woman seated next to me stank of sweat and I waved my programme vigorously for relief. (“In Bed with Ikeji”, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, from The Bed Book of Stories, edited by Joanne Hichens, Modjaji, 2010)

Here we have Africa reflected in just a few of her guises: the smell of sweat on a hot day, fish in a Styrofoam container, mountain paths surrounded by coarse grass, large women swimming in the sea with abandon in only their underwear. Our stories resonate now with our daily lives.

South African writing has at last achieved a fine sense of itself. Finally our writing can stand, unapologetic and proud, alongside those European forerunners. South Africans of all races and sexes are making their voices heard. And I’m truly grateful to be here to enjoy the renaissance of South African writing.