#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.