Writers in trouble, or just living in troubled times

#14: Attend the Sunday Times Literary Awards dinner. The Sunday Times book awards were held at Summer Place on Saturday night. I used to be an organiser and now have joined the ranks of the guests — which I have to say  is infinitely more pleasant as I didn’t have to sweat any of the detail. The theme of the night was “Writers in Troubled Times” and it left me wondering why South Africa’s writers seem so dislocated from the place, mostly unable or unwilling to engage with this country or to attempt to define some part of it.

One defining feature of Zimbabwean fiction post-1980 (Zimbabwean independence) was a direct engagement with the post-colonial state especially by black writers. From Dambudzo Marechera to Charles Samupindi and Chenjerai Hove writers were critical of the country they had inherited, already sounding the alarm bells then on Mugabe’s reign. Disempowerment and betrayal, poverty and corruption were key themes in the writing. Not so much “a dream deferred” as a dream become a nightmare. In much African literature of post-independence these themes persist whether it’s in the work of Wole Soyinka, Mariama Ba, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Ousmane Sembene or Ayi Kwei Armah. They illuminate truths about the societies of which they are part,  establish the writers as outsiders and as critical components. Ironically, I see this as a sign of health.

In many of these books, there is also an experimentation with form and with language, a reaching beyond established boundaries and genres. The writing is exciting.

South African writing is flourishing with more novels being published than ever before and yet having followed  it’s rise I can’t help feeling disappointed in its “un-Africaness”, it’s seeming dislocation from place and time, its lack of experimentation with form. It’s true that apartheid as a grand spectacle overwhelmed many, and its downfall heralded a freedom to explore things in writing that are more personal, intimate, and not shaped by the public space. But while I think that’s a necessary step in our evolution, fourteen years later I am looking for more.

3 thoughts on “Writers in trouble, or just living in troubled times

  1. Your comments are interesting and provocative, Laurice, and set me thinking about how different a global landscape post-independence Zimbabwe was born into, compared to South Africa. The grand narratives of nation and state still held some validity and writers – like the Zimbabwean authors you mention and others in other African countries certainly engaged with them. I think that South AFrican writers now are trying to cope with a very different framing of stories and politics. Our (or mine) sense of the world is very fragmented, the notions of the state is no longer an easy literary home to turn to for an authorative and containing moral structure and the problems of poverty and urban/rural dislocation seem to have so many permutations, so many globalised issues over which we feel powerless, the little people cats-pawed by fate. I remember thinking that when I read Kiran Desai’s lovely, moving book last year. There is fluffy genre literature, yes, but there is also an increasing amount of literature that tries to engage with the urban realities of South AFrica – often using very individualises responses, and points of view. This turnign away from the grander post-colonial narrative forms can be read as political in itself. One of the curious things about South Africa is both how distinct it is, and how indistinct as yet another developing nation scrabbling to make it in a brutal, global economy. Perhaps the taking up of conventional forms, of what the Americans call ‘genre literature’ is an unconscious experiment with finding places in which we fit. I write in a genre myself – and it was one I chose because it woudl allow me to parachute my writing into a violent, urban present. I am half way through my third book now and I find it curious to work through what works about the form of a crime novel – an investigation of a specific crime, a specific set of damaged ‘little people’ – and which parts of the form do not work. those i adapt and change. But there is also something comforting about fitting this fractured country into a form that works in other places too. When I interview people and do my research and then try and fit that into the particular (admittedly jaundiced and violent) view I have on the place where I live, I am always struck the intimacy of people’s experience of fear and violence and love. the shaping of our history is there but it is a challenge (for me at any rate) to try and show how that works out in one life, one body, one experience.

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  3. Pingback: Two Touchy Takes on “un-African” SA Lit from Laurice Taitz | BOOK SA - News

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