#75 Young Adult Fiction: Write for the reader, not the age – Carina Diedericks-Hugo

Augustus 11, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

 It is with much delight that I have been following the discussions on books for young people. The genre seldom enjoys lively debate on the intricacies of writing for a market that is harder to pinpoint than Malema’s finances.

I have been in the business for ten years and have laboured through 16 of my own YA books. As a publisher I have published more than 300 books for children and YAs. In fact, I have the honour of being able to claim the title as Sally Partridge’s first publisher!

In all these years I have learnt that it is utterly presumptuous to claim to know what your readers want – never mind the volatile under 18 market. The genre is vast – both thematically and in terms of the target age. Why force a system of grouping YA books under the boring and lifeless category of “fiction”? Surely “adult fiction” is divided into science fiction, crime, romance, literature, classics, etc. If you chat to booksellers they will tell you that to categorise YA books in terms of age is a nightmare. Where do you draw the line (also if you want to label all books as “fiction”)? You might have a book which is aimed at a skilled reader of 13 but a less capable reader of 16. With my [email protected] series we have found that it is used in grade 5 Afrikaans classes and is prescribed for grade 10 English learners. This is a challenge which “adult” writers seldom have to face.

What irks me is the arrogance of some who claim to know what children want to read or not. Have they spoken to all of the five million young people in South Africa? How much time do they spend at schools, chatting to kids, getting to know them and their world? Just because you were young once or have a child or two, that does not automatically make you an expert on the subject. And do they make the same claim when it comes to other genres? I hope not!

There are many points of discussion relevant to this topic and especially with regard to the Afrikaans market, which is seriously lacking in books for young people, cross-over fiction and popular fiction (other than outdated and rehashed love stories). I have, however, quite a few questions for authors, publishers and other interested parties:

  • Have children and young adults been approached to take part in this discussion?
  • Why do the prize committees and other influential bodies consist of literati who are by no means experts on the genre?
  • How do you define popular culture? Willemien Jansen, publisher at Burnett Media (Two Dogs/Mercury), correctly remarked that life as we experience it daily becomes pop culture almost immediately. A VW Polo today will be retro in 10 or 20 years. Do you remove it from a story? No. Steri Stumpie removes a particular flavour from the market. In a month’s time there are Facebook groups with a few thousand followers lamenting the demise of their favourite milk drink and sightings of it is called “retro”. The examples are endless.
  • To say that popular culture should not feature in books is impractical and sounds like a bland solution to a challenge which all writers face. So, do we disregard books of, for example, the New Journalists because of the pop culture references in Tom Wolfe or Hunter S Thompson?

I can really just reiterate what Madeleine L’Engle said: “You have to write whichever book it is that wants to be written. And then, if it’s going to be too difficult for grown-ups, you write it for children.” I would like to add: “… without underestimating the market and without a smothering, dogmatic approach to your readers’ issues and preferences.”

#74 Young Adult Fiction: Give us a good story! – Izak de Vries

Augustus 10, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

This forum has recently published two thought-provoking articles on writing for young adults by two authors of that genre. The first was by Maya Fowler (“Some thoughts on writing youth novels”) and the more recent one by SA Partridge (“Pop culture and context in young adult fiction”).

Both asked, and addressed, the question of pop art in young adult fiction. A summary of their views will not do justice to them, so I urge the reader to read their respective pieces.

My question to them, and for that matter to anyone interested in literature, would be: Is the writing of Young Adult Fiction that different from that of writing Fiction? In other words, when does one have to distinguish between a good book and a good book for young adults?

Maya Fowler’s The Elephant in the room was not marketed as Young Adult Fiction, but I often begged teachers to urge their charges, especially the girls, to read the book. We see the young Lily Fields growing into young adulthood and wilting, rather than blossoming, under the eyes of her peers. Her first sex is so sad, so devoid of anything you would ever want a young person to experience. And why was it? Because Lily did not believe herself to be good enough to have a good time while losing her virginity.

Fowler created a wonderfully atmospheric novel brimming with young adult issues. It was marketed as Fiction, though; and maybe just as well, for it meant that she was able to get on to the short list of the Herman Charles Bosman Prize, something that would not have happened had her publishers slapped the label “Young Adult” on to the text before the word “Fiction”.

And thus my question: Why make a distinction?

Yes, one could indicate on a book that it contains scenes of sex and nudity, and therefore suggest a minimum age. One could even add a sticker saying “Not fit for under 18s” if it really is quite rough (which would have all the 16-year olds reading it), but who really benefits from splitting the market?

I do understand that teachers would need guidance in terms of relevance to their charges, especially for the younger ones, but I find the present system too restrictive. The Elephant in the room was sadly not adopted by many teachers, because it was not written as “youth fiction”.

Roepman, the wonderful (adult?) novel by Jan van Tonder, was (correctly) deemed fit for the classroom and it got prescribed, only to have mommies and daddies throwing their toys because of a single scene containing a blow job. The violence did not bother them, but heaven forbid that their poor grade 11 children became aware of such a thing as sucking the male member.

Jonkvrouw, that rollicking good read about the 14-year old Marguerite van Male, heir to the Duke of Flanders, is all about growing up, falling in love and being a headstrong teenager. Yet the novel by Jean-Claude van Rijckeghem and Pat van Beirs is not marketed as Young Adult Fiction, even in South Africa, where the Afrikaans translation (Jonkvrou by Daniel Hugo) is now selling well. Fortunately the editors of Klasgids saw the value of the text and recommended it for the high school.

Or think of the hugely successful Thomas series by Carina Diedericks-Hugo (published by Lapa). I am one of many adults who enjoy reading them (although I may be the only who is willing to say so in writing). They are clearly aimed at the pre-teen and young-teenage market. The themes are spot on and so is the language level. The books even contain some of the techno problems Fowler and Partridge address in the articles, yet they work. Why? They tell a good story well, that is why.

Carina’s undoing came when she attempted a “cross-over” in Die verdrinking van Joshua van Eeden. Interestingly enough, the book contains one of the most beautiful scenes of a young man losing his virginity, but the rest of the book sounded like a grown-up Thomas book. In some ways Die Verdrinking Van Joshua van Eeden is true young adult fiction, as the book is just too innocent and the characters too infantile to be liked by any reader, yet it has lost its wide-eyed innocence that charmed readers of Thomas. Is that not what many teenagers experience? Yes, it is. But who likes reading about it?

The first three Harry Potter books were written for younger children. Look at the number of pages and the types of adventures the kids got into. Number four saw a gear change. No one could deny that numbers four to seven are literature for adults (and intelligent teenagers). Why? The problems faced by the characters in the last four books were universal, and their fights against evil reminded one of Tolkien, Terlouw and Cervantes, to name but a few people who wrote books that are loved by adults and teenagers alike.

Give us a good story (the way Fowler and Partridge do), and we’ll read it – all of us, irrespective of age.

#73 Young Adult Fiction: Pop culture and context in young adult fiction – SA Partridge

Augustus 10, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

I came across fellow youth writer Maya Fowler’s piece on writing for youth (#25 Some thoughts on writing youth novels) and she made some very interesting points about pop culture:

I’m not keen to populate my fiction with Hannah Montana-type characters or references to Jay-Z and the gang. But one can’t help feeling you should, just to get through … By adding that much of pop culture, mightn’t one overpopulate the work with detail in the same way Higginson describes that too much historical detail weighs down the work? I think the same holds here, namely that the writer is “undermin[ing] the richness of collective memory [or collective cultural knowledge] the reader brings to the book”.

I recently read the young adult (YA) novel Deadlands by Lily Herne, which has been marketed as South Africa’s first zombie novel. The book is set in a future Cape Town after a zombie apocalypse forces everyone into enclaves to protect themselves from having their brains eaten. The book has many pop-cultural references in it, including films, music and books from the 20th century. The use of these pop culture references clearly targets the book to the “now” generation. In this instance it works well and adds an element of fun to the off-beat tale, but I can’t help wondering how well future readers will relate to the content. Are pop culture references necessarily a good thing or can they date a novel?

It could be argued that the use of pop-cultural references makes it easier for teen readers to relate to YA novels, as the content reflects the period in which they find themselves growing up.

Cory Doctorow’s youth novel Big Brother reads like a personal account of the 2008 internet generation in America.

Harajuku Fun Madness is the best game ever made. I know I already said that, but it bears repeating. It’s an ARG, an Alternate Reality Game, and the story goes that a gang of Japanese fashion-teens discovered a miraculous healing gem at the temple in Harajuku, which is basically where cool Japanese teenagers invented every major subculture for the past ten years. They’re being hunted by evil monks, the Yakuza (AKA the Japanese mafia), aliens, tax-inspectors, parents, and a rogue artificial intelligence ….

… And it’s a competition, with the winning team of four taking a grand prize of ten days in Tokyo, chilling on Harajuku bridge, geeking out in Akihabara, and taking home all the Astro Boy merchandise you can eat. Except that he’s called “Atom Boy” in Japan.

I wasn’t always into ARGing. I have a dark secret: I used to be a LARPer. LARPing is Live Action Role Playing, and it’s just about what it sounds like: running around in costume, talking in a funny accent, pretending to be a super-spy or a vampire or a medieval knight.

For someone not necessarily familiar with internet lingo all the references in Big Brother can become quite exhausting. More importantly, young South African readers might not be able to relate to the content at all. (I know I didn’t at first).

Do we as South African writers have a responsibility to the unique demographic in our country, and if we do, should we fill our books with unique pop-cultural references that only South African readers would understand? Culture is important, especially in a country such as ours that is as diverse as it is unique, but good realistic teen fiction can function without it.

In my latest novel, Dark Poppy’s Demise, I decided to keep the pop-cultural references to a minimum so that the book could appeal to as wide an audience as possible. This presented a marked difficulty, since the plot was framed around a 16-year-old girl who meets a boy on Facebook. Instead of relying on typical Gen-Y speak and internet lingo I focused more on the themes of identity, sexuality, familial struggles, and abuse to connect with my readers. Most teens will have had similar experiences in their lives, whether it’s bullying, first love, that first big fight with a best friend – and through these shared experiences identify with the book.

Teenagers are an ever-evolving species, but their underlying needs of acceptance and self-identity are aspects that don’t change.

Michael Cart said it best in his white paper:

YALSA [Young Adult Library Services Association] also acknowledges that whether one defines young adult literature narrowly or broadly, much of its value cannot be quantified but is to be found in how it addresses the needs of its readers. Often described as “developmental”, these needs recognize that young adults are beings in evolution, in search of self and identity; beings who are constantly growing and changing, morphing from the condition of childhood to that of adulthood. That period of passage called “young adulthood” is a unique part of life, distinguished by unique needs that are – at minimum – physical, intellectual, emotional, and societal in nature. By addressing these needs, young adult literature is made valuable not only by its artistry but also by its relevance to the lives of its readers.

By focusing on what unites young adult readers novels can achieve a timeless relevance.  For this reason teens can pick up SE Hinton’s The Outsiders or  JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and still be able to identify with the characters and the themes, even if they don’t understand the cultural references.

Young adult fiction should mirror real life and should be an impartial (albeit enjoyable) tool for teenagers to identify and cope with the problems in their lives.  Young adult fiction can capture the essence of the Y generation, but whether it’s through pop-cultural references or through relevant issues, the most important aspect of YA is that it should tell a story, and tell it well.

#72 About writing memoirs and other things – Julian de Wette

Julie 20, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

Is apartheid a laughing matter?

Set in 1960s South Africa, Prime Minister Verwoerd’s assassination resonates throughout my novel, A Case of Knives, in which fictional Prime Minister Sybrand Schoon is murdered. The butler, Cyprian Molinieux, changed his racial classification from White to Coloured in order to marry a Coloured nanny. His love is unrequited and his subsequent attempts to regain his “European” identity drives him over the edge. He blames Schoon, the Prime Minister, for his predicament.

When one reads a novel about apartheid one is not likely to expect a good rollicking read. I did not say to myself, “Here is this thing called apartheid – I’m going to give it the laughter treatment.” I was simply writing to find my way out of a conundrum left me by my grandfather on the occasion of Hendrik Verwoerd’s assassination in 1966. He told me that the prime minister would not have died had he continued to pay tribute to a witchdoctor.

On the one hand my grandfather was often right and on the other he was a leg-puller.

I began to write this book when I was in my early twenties, and I was fascinated by their relationship. They were an unlikely couple – Khotso and Hendrik Verwoerd. Khotso’s millions and his innumerable wives were often featured in The Golden City Post. When two such opposites meet there is bound to be tension and humour: Verwoerd, the ice-cold, tough politician and Khotso, who peddled palm grease and muti to suit any occasion or remedy any condition. Nor was it a secret that Paul Kruger was Khotso’s favourite totem, and that he had a bit of a thing for Afrikaner politicians and power mongers, and they for him.

I created a fictional persona and provenance for Prime Minister Schoon, but left Khotso, gnome-like with lots of cash for cars and influence to spare, larger than life. However, their relationship was real and remains a measuring stick for the superstitions, misunderstandings and fears that continue to bedevil relationships in our country.

So, this is my answer to the question put to me: Why choose humour as a vehicle in writing A Case of Knives? In 1966 the assassination was like witnessing a head-on collision. After the shock had worn off, I couldn’t properly assimilate what I read and what my grandfather had told me and I had to find a way of describing this dilemma. My story changed over time and I later employed irony instead of tragedy. It seemed to me, from where I was living in America, that the entire South African situation was so preposterous (especially with regard to race and identity) that I decided to use humour. It was also a way to deal with my exile.

In A Case of Knives all the different types of people were known to me. What I had to do was find a context for them to appear in my story. In truth, I had not met either Khotso or Verwoerd, but I knew enough about each to describe them The body of the writing had been completed by 1990. I later introduced the character of the young boy, Enoch, as a device to link the different parts of the story. A sharp-minded teenager, Enoch gains entry to the Schoon household because of his relationship to the head gardener.

I was later both pleased and surprised to come across Felicity Wood’s book The Extraordinary Khotso at the Cape Town Book Fair in 2009 and to find that a lot of my fictional descriptions of Khotso and his home in the Eastern Cape had a grounding in fact. Now there was something to smile about.

#71 VS Naipaul versus the World: Roses, thorns and dealing with pricks – Jonathan Amid

Junie 24, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

As I was reading the recent comments made about women’s writing and women writers by one VS Naipaul, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature no less, a quote from William Shakespeare’s beloved Romeo and Juliet came to mind: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” When I heard what Naipaul had uttered about women’s writing and Jane Austen in particular, I was displeased to say the least. But was I shocked, surprised, caught off guard? Hardly! The man in question (with the huge bull’s-eye on his back, chest and penis) is Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad, purveyor of some of the most cycloptic, pessimistic, altogether misanthropic literature ever to be celebrated by those in the Ivory Tower.

When evaluating Naipaul’s statements we could quite easily substitute Naipaul in the attribution of an outdated, asinine and unenviable attitude with the name of any other male, non-white author, and our disgust with the sentiments expressed would probably be the same. Having read the diverse and perceptive responses to Schutte’s original piece from Janka Steenkamp, Fiona Snyckers and Mike Rands I would like to put my footprints in the sand as well, and weigh in with a few small thoughts that move beyond the castigation of Naipaul as a straw man to be furiously beaten a very large stick.

A quick perusal of the internet, a leisurely visit to the local Exclusive Books or Wordsworth, or an extended investigation into the number of women involved in literary practice would all reveal the following result: While the “contemporary insidious misogynistic patriarchy” and “continued patriarchal hold on language” that Schutte identifies is neither complete fallacy nor dominant discourse in reading and writing circles, we find that more and more women are working very hard to express their own subjectivity and experience. A quick glance at the fantastic female authors currently held in high esteem by the public and publishing houses alike (such as Marlene Van Niekerk) suggests that this a process tackled in a grammar that vehemently resists the patriarchal, the phallogocentric and the logocentric, through a language of writing that celebrates the bodies, minds and power of women.

In this piece it is of little interest to me to challenge assertions about a male-dominated publishing industry or to poke my head into the seething cauldron of debates around masculinist or feminist discourse. Rather, as a white, twenty-something male student of Literature at Stellenbosch – and I put Literature in capitals as a fundamental intellectual and material form of expression that helps us to understand ourselves, our world, and the connections, affiliations and aversions we share with others across time and space – I then find myself wandering about town, wondering whether Naipaul’s opinion holds much currency in the debate around the ways that we read now, and how we evaluate books as works of art. How much does it really matter whether a writer is male or female, white or black, Asian or African, young or old, when we evaluate the literary merit of their writing? And how do we define what has merit as literature, bearing in mind the thick connections between texts and their contexts?

Do we turn to Foucault’s novel idea of the “founders of discursivity” and bestow such a title upon those whose writing is deemed groundbreaking through its genre-bending, epoch-defining, shamanic or self-reflexive qualities? Or do we use literary prizes as a guide to choosing the “best” books to read? At the end of the day, what makes one work of literature a classic and another a pedestrian piece, unworthy of being put on a pedestal? Who is fit to answer these questions?! Academics? Reviewers? The man in the street, the common reader reading for pleasure? These are questions without any easy answers, but questions that simply must be addressed, particularly in this age of “reality hunger”, to quote David Shields, where the future of the novel and book as we know it is seemingly under threat.

To return to my quote from Romeo and Juliet, it seems that Literature itself is in this context the beautiful yet mysterious rose, simultaneously fragile and resilient, its petals soft, yet its thorns so prickly to some! If we agree that literature means different things to different people, then just as Naipaul might find fault with all that is penned by a female hand – dismissing their “sentimentality” and “narrow view of the world” – I might decry his pen as poisonous, his words as slander, his oeuvre overwrought and his praise by those who enjoy his work as obsequious – both submissive and sycophantic. While Naipaul points a trivialising finger at women writers, othering and belittling them, he unhinges the nuts and bolts of his own colonial critique, which Austen, if she were alive today, might have derided as mere fool’s gold.

My point is that Naipaul’s criticism of women writers draws our attention to the archaic attitudes that still stir in the hearts of some men, and – while buried under an avalanche of invective – has equally made some of us remember, and question, what we love about women’s literature (and Literature itself). I would not be surprised if many readers now return for a repeat visit to their favourite Austen, Brontë or Eliot novels, or discover some of the wonderful writing of someone like Hilary Mantell. Words are the means to meaning, the picture of perception and the frames of perspective. They can only mean what we decide they mean.

#70 VS Naipaul: A man from another time – Mike Rands

Junie 21, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

When Osama bin Laden was finally killed the Americans partied. From coast to coast they sang and danced and declared that it was a “great day to be alive”. People across the globe added their voices to the chorus.

I was ashamed to be a human. 

In the quest for finding the bogeyman the greatest power the world has ever known bankrupted itself. Countries were plunged into war, and hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives. The man with the long beard and the shiny eyes was hiding in a house in Pakistan watching porn. The threat he posed to the American Empire was horrifyingly small.

Yes, sexists and misogynists are some of the world’s most disgusting people. If I find myself in the presence of a true sexist, I get hives along the ridge of my spine and tend to fantasise about cutting off their testicles. But I have uncovered another dealing strategy, and one that is less likely to win me prison time – I avoid them. I associate with people who don’t think like that, and I have never struggled for company.

VS Naipaul’s comments are stupid and expose his own bigoted view of the world. But he’s a man from another time.

We live an age where monetary systems are collapsing. We have destroyed our environment. As of this year there will be seven billion of us – which is to say, way too fucking many. Fossil fuels are running out. There is not sufficient water or food to maintain our species. We have destroyed the oceans. In the face of this Mr Naipaul’s comments are mostly interesting for their extraordinary irrelevancy.

It is true that women often represent vulnerable groups in society, and women’s specific plights should, of course, be highlighted. And although it should go without saying, I will say it anyway: men who abuse women are the ultimate scumbags! But “women’s issues” and patriarchy were not things that I was aware of as a child, and when I came across feminism later in life I was somewhat baffled. It has always been evident to me that women were in charge of everything. They had all sorts of skills and abilities that men didn’t have, and men listened to women, or spent all their waking hours dreaming up ways to impress them. Perhaps this was my very unusual and skewed perception of reality, but it was my perception all the same. And this perception is certainly not just mine, and this perception has a lot of evidence to support it as fact. It’s an oft-quoted fact that in New York women on average earn higher salaries than men. Across the globe there are increasingly more women entering postgraduate programmes. Women head up companies. Working women represent a huge force in the economy. Women can express themselves psychologically and sexually in ways that were unimaginable at other points in history.

As for literature, I have read numerous novels, short stories, poems and articles by females and never imagined that there was even a scrap of evidence to suggest any kind of inherent inferiority. On the contrary, I had understood that literature was one of the realms in which women have, for an incredibly long time, had a sufficient measure of access to enable them to compete with, and often outdo, their male counterparts. There are more women who read fiction than men. According to US publishing records over fifty percent of published writers are female. In South Africa it would be hallucinatory to think that fiction was dominated by men, much less white men.

The above entry says that race is a topic for another day. But the implication is that (white) men need special mention, despite Mr VS’s not being altogether white himself. Anyway, let it remain another topic for another day. Suffice to say that the white race’s global dominance was the result of an accident of history. An accident that has been, and is, busy correcting itself. The big bad whitey white man, and the manly man who does his manly things in manly ways, are a thing of another time, of a bygone era. Forget about them. Let them go. The threat they and their views on life pose to the world are laughably small. To rage against them and their control and dominance of everything, is to bankrupt oneself hunting down Osama bin Laden.

#69 VS Naipaul’s recent rant – The last gasp of a moribund mindset – Fiona Snyckers

Junie 17, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

When something happens in the literary world that stirs me, I take to my blog at once. I find I can’t rest until my swirl of thoughts has been tamed, ordered and laid down neatly on the page.

VS Naipaul’s recent rant against women writers was not one of these stirring events. I felt absolutely no compulsion to respond to it. Beyond a few moments of shocked incredulity, I stopped thinking about it almost at once. A few days later I read with great pleasure and amusement Finuala Dowling’s blog “My dog, VS Naipaul”, and felt that her response could not be bettered. She had struck exactly the right note of amused disdain in comparing Sir Vidia to an ageing, cranky lapdog, desperate for attention and deeply threatened by the young pups he sees frolicking outside.

Never once did it cross my mind that Naipaul was saying what other men secretly believe, nor that his blatherings deserved the serious attention of busy people. It seemed to me the last gasp of a moribund mindset that has no place in the modern world. It was striking and shocking precisely because it was so archaic – rather like stumbling across a dinosaur in the middle of a bustling shopping centre.

Then Gillian Schutte joined the debate with a scathing indictment of the South African literary scene and, for the first time, my interest was piqued.

Schutte’s piece is shot through with phrases like “contemporary insidious misogynistic patriarchy”, “phallocentric and logocentric notions”, and “feminine discourse” that make my brain hurt to read them. It’s not that I don’t understand these phrases, it’s just that I don’t trust myself to recognise them in the wild.

What is a feminine discourse? Is it anything written by women, or for women, or about women? How about all three? Is it a particular type of language that one might term gynocratic, rather than phallocratic? And what type of language might that be, and how does one recognise it when one sees it? The moment I try to fathom such a notion, my brain implodes in a welter of useless speculation.

Schutte’s call for writers to set up a new feminine form of language in opposition to what she believes to be the dominant masculine form of language strikes me as just as much of an essentialist fallacy as Naipaul’s claim that he can tell within paragraphs whether something has been written by a man or a woman. The attempt to separate language into masculinist and feminist usages strikes me as artificial and not particularly useful.

The rest of Schutte’s piece is devoted to her claim that the South African publishing industry is rife with misogyny, to the extent that it is almost impossible for a female voice to be heard. “In South Africa,” she claims, “(white) men overwhelmingly dominate the publishing industry, as publishers, writers and reviewers. They are the self-appointed gatekeepers to what our society reads.”

This struck me, as one who has been inside that industry for some brief while (as a writer, reviewer, book festival habitué, and self-styled commentator) as not entirely true. It seems to be more true of the Anglo-American publishing industry, where complaints about the sidelining of women’s writing are ongoing and seemingly valid. And it is certainly true that as a generally misogynistic society we South Africans are shamefully among the world leaders. Our sexual violence and domestic abuse statistics place this beyond dispute.

But the interesting fact remains that the disease of misogyny has been much weeded out of our publishing industry in recent years. When I think of the most powerful players in the South African publishing world, I think of women – many, many highly influential women. The male-female ratio is not fifty-fifty yet, by any means, but it’s getting there fast. And the real, gatekeeping influence of those female insiders seems to me to be out of proportion to their actual numbers in the industry. As publishers, editors, writers, reviewers, literary awards judges and shortlistees, South African women are well represented and by now well nigh impossible to dislodge. Yes, we still have a way to go to achieve full gender equality, but we’ve made a bloody good start and created a vibrant young industry I’m proud to be part of.

#68 Naipaul’s temerity carves into the heart of the matter – Janka Steenkamp

Junie 17, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

Upon reading VS Naipaul’s utterances about his clairvoyant ability to distinguish a writer’s gender by simply reading a paragraph, I was shocked beyond the realm of language; was this Nobel Prize for Literature winner really echoing Sir Robert Southey’s letter to Charlotte Brontë from 1837 who famously said, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and ought not to be”? It would be ludicrously obvious to jump on to a feminist horse at this juncture and prattle on about the fact that we need to create a discourse that gives women a unique voice in literature, but the truth is that language is but a tool that we colour as we see fit. We all use language to enact an identity, our identity that is made up of our own experiences, background, framework and beliefs – to me the true crime that Naipaul’s utterances commit is that he has the audacity to claim that all women from all cultures have the same “sentimentality [and] narrow view of the world”; blatantly ejaculating that women are without context, without authentic voice and without the ability to apprehend the world – as individuals.

I find it unacceptable that someone who is a “who’s who” in the literary community, who writes chiefly about Colonialism and Othering, can stand up on his phallocentric pedestal and Other more than half the population of the world. Have we not moved past this? How can it be that in 2011 we still have this ridiculous fight to fight: “Women are people too” – I cringe as I type that little fragment, thinking it’s so obvious, isn’t it? Apparently not. The fact that Naipaul as an educated person can invoke a binary as troglodytic as “man = rational and woman = irrational” is just too absurd even to contemplate; and yet he left us in no doubt that that is exactly what he means.

In her rebuttal to this cycloptic “member” of the human race, Gillian Schutte raises an interesting point: perhaps Naipaul has done us a favour by unmasking the truth behind the politically correct discourse that we hide behind in literature. True, we no longer live in Victorian England, where we literally have to fight “The Man”, but it does make the fight for marginal voices all the more difficult when the dominant discourse claims to be all-inclusive, but is then selective about the voices that it allows to be heard – the hypocrisy is tenfold.

Perhaps we need people like Naipaul to come by and shake our trees a little now and then, so that we do not become complacent and trapped in our own discourse. Perhaps we should, instead of focusing on the fact that Naipaul has said that women are not equal to him as writers, focus on the idea that he is employing a discourse of Othering that he seeks to abandon and crack open in his works of fiction: he explores the damage of the colonial legacy in novels such as Half a Life, but sadly does not realise that he is propagating the selfsame in his utterances as a supposedly “emancipated” subject.

Naipaul’s utterances, though appallingly misogynistic, highlight the broader problem of a duplicitous discourse which, although outwardly denouncing a totalising patriarchal occidental prerequisite, fails to truly deliver egalitarian opportunities to all. He draws our attention to the fact that most literature is pigeonholed: according to him women write “feminine tosh”, but on a broader scale, black male writers write “African literature”, black female writers write “African women’s literature” … In a way, he is participating in the great debate about literature as a whole, and neatly brings us back to the conundrum of “Who gives whom the right to label what as literature?”

That is not a question that can truly be answered, but until we embrace the fact that there is no superior voice in literature and that this business that we are in is a craft – with each person etching at different depths and with more or less complexity on the same block of wood – we will not get to a place where we can appreciate literature for its being instead of its circumstances.

#67 VS Naipaul’s phallocratic utterances: Has he done us a favour by default? – Gillian Schutte

Junie 14, 2011 in Sonder kategorie


Well I’ll be damned, the blasted old bigot VS Naipaul has done it again. No stranger to literary spats and barneys, he seems to have little regard for current politically correct social norms, preferring the masculine “say it like it is” inclination of yesteryear. Not so long ago he disparaged all things African. This time the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature has lashed out at female authors, saying there is no woman writer whom he considers his equal – picking on the literary icon Jane Austen in particular. He goes on to say that he felt that women writers were “quite different”. He said, “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me.” The author puts this down to women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world”. “And inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too,” he said. “My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way,” he added.

Of course women around the world were outraged. Our initial angry response was to lash back at this seemingly despicable little man. Message followed message about what a phallocrat he was. One-liners containing unsavoury descriptive elements such as “idiotic”, “arrogant sleazy git”, “unhappy man with haemorrhoids”, “elephantoid ego”, “pompous pretender”, “dipstick”, “conceited cretin”, “misogynistic pig”, “popall”, etc, hit Facebook pages and blog sites with revolutionary momentum. Women declared that they would never again buy a book written by said author and posted pictures of his portrait with “no entry” signs etched over his cynical expression. Some even went as far as to write the word “effing” in relation to his fucking arrogance. We bonded with strangers over our disgust at his unacceptable utterances … and we vented. We vented because we had something to vent against. We openly declared our revulsion to his view because we knew exactly what the insult was. We did not need to wade our way through a mire of obfuscation, wondering if we had misheard him or if we had imagined that there was a snide sense of male superiority in the statement. No – Naipaul did us the favour of blatantly declaring war on thinking, literate women. He was simply saying out loud what so many men (not all) really think but are just too darned politically correct to voice.

Let’s face it, we know that in South Africa (white) men overwhelmingly dominate the publishing industry, as publishers, writers and reviewers. They are the self-appointed gatekeepers to what our society reads. We also know that these gatekeepers, who clearly favour masculine narratives, still largely overlook women’s narratives. Is this not a clear indication that women’s stories are viewed as less well-written and less relevant than men’s? If these decision-makers considered feminine narratives as interesting or as good as masculine narratives they would be publishing a lot more of them. They are not. Thus they obviously think women do not write as well as men. So why do they not just come right out and say it like it is? Well, because the tendency these days is to disguise misogyny in politically correct language so as to appear progressive while maintaining a dominant position – a position which is most often in binary opposition to women whom they still secretly view as irrational, body-bound beings filled to the brim with unsavoury fluids, sentiments and illogical thoughts. This phallocentric logic upon which the Western Christian world is predicated, goes something like this.

mind/body
active/passive
rational/irrational
culture/nature
public/private
reason/emotion
subject/object
self/other
Male/female.

In South Africa we can take this even further by replacing the male/female opposition with white/black, and within this we can add white male/black/female and then again we can also add white female/black and black male/black female … and of course DA/whatever suits …

But that is another essay. Let me stick to my point, which is that as modern women we often do not know what we are up against, because what used to be blatant patriarchy is now cleverly camouflaged in a new form of masculine language. It is a language that endeavours to appear universal and egalitarian by stripping away obvious male bias and neutralising its tone so as to give women the impression of change. Except that it has no intention of budging even a bit. Of course it then becomes harder to vent and revolt against it, because it proves too difficult to name or expose, so cleverly does it pretend not to exist. This patriarchy hides behind political correctness and relegates the “problem of patriarchy” to the ethnic groups and working classes. It disguises itself as “enlightened” and “concerned”, yet still demands that its view is not questioned. Anything outside this view is silently deemed wrong with an authoritative certainty that cuts short any chance for open debate. They won’t come out and tell you they think your writing is inferior. They’ll simply not publish you.

No wonder our ancestors were the ones taking to the streets with placards and passion. They knew what they were up against. We don’t. We know there is something amiss, but we have been silenced by niceness. Instead we have become armchair revolutionaries, simmering with passive aggressive anger while wondering if we are indeed a bit mad or if we heard right. This contemporary patriarchy fucks with our heads. It sabotages our instincts and creates the pathology of low-grade depression and inexplicable anxiety.

VS Naipaul’s boorish phallocratic utterances may just have done our politically correct Western world a favour. He has exposed the contemporary insidious misogynistic patriarchy that is so perilous to the collective female voice and which completely devalues feminine writing and body. I contend that we women (and feminist men) in South Africa and globally have no choice but to revolt against the continued patriarchal hold on language and collectively name a feminine discourse that stands in opposition to it.

We need to shout out in unison that while our language may be different it is most certainly equal! I say again that it is time for a feminine revolution in which we reclaim a celebratory language that speaks our body, our sex, in bold terms. In solidarity with the seminal feminists of past decades I, too, propose that to do this it is necessary to form a sisterhood so that women can use a common language which is free of the kind of patriarchal, phallocentric and logocentric notions as expressed by Naipaul. It is through this sisterhood that women will be able to share experiences, understand each other and find solutions to our problems. 

Feminist writer Luce Irigaray writes that the function of the new language will be “to cast phallocentricism, phallocratism, loose”, so that it will “no longer, all by itself, define, circumvene, circumscribe, the properties of anything and everything”. She insists that precisely for this reason it is crucial for women to create a language in which to express our sex. If we do not do that, Irigaray argues, “we will miss each other and fail ourselves”.

Let us not miss each other and fail ourselves!

Gillian Schutte is an independent filmmaker, activist and writer.

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#66 In love with books – Margaret von Klemperer

April 29, 2011 in Sonder kategorie

What made you fall in love with books – and how did it happen?
 
It’s difficult to answer this, because I can’t really remember not being in love with books. I suppose it goes back to listening to Children’s Hour in Britain when I was about 5 – I could already read, as I had learned by watching my older brother do his reading when he came home from school, though as I sat at the other side of the table, I was better at reading upside down. They broadcast The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, and when it ended I cried and cried, and told my mother I had to have the book. She  suggested that I might find it hard going at that stage, but eventually she gave in. And I never looked back. I still have that old copy.

What’s your favourite line from a book, play or poem?

A favourite line from a book is also hard – there are so many. But maybe it’s the opening line of LP Hartley’s The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” It seems to encapsulate so many of the possibilities that books offer.