Hunting Fiction in the Beloved Country

As I reflect on the year that has been, I am grateful for yet another fabulous trip to South Africa. One of the highlights this year was the South African Book Fair and Mail & Guardian Literary Festival in Johannesburg. Alighting the Gautrain in the city center and walking the torn-up pavements of Hillbrow before correcting course toward Newtown and the fair was exhilarating.

SA Book FairSeveral prior trips to bookstores had left me empty handed. I was on the hunt for contemporary South African fiction written by black South African authors. Each time a slightly grungy and introverted sales person (bookstore peeps are the same everywhere) pointed me in a possible direction it was invariably to a back corner where a few copies of Sol Plaatjes’ work could be found along with a token of Zakes Mda’s contributions to the literary world.

It’s not that there wasn’t any new South African literature being published. The problem was that I was looking for fiction and eventually in exasperation nonfiction written by black authors amidst a sea of newly published nonfiction works by white authors. Besides some political commentary and Xolala Mangcu’s robust Biko, there was almost nothing that could provide insight into the imaginative future being presupposed by SA’s up and coming black literati.

A few years ago Toni Morrison’s Beloved attuned me to the importance of literary imagination in fostering social transformation. Ms. Morrison says, through the immortal wonder of Baby Suggs, that the only grace you can have is the grace you can imagine. If you cannot see it, you will not have it.

I would love to know what kind of future South African authors are dreaming for the country. If you cannot see it, you will not have it.

My primary question, then, to the publishers, authors, and booksellers at the fair and literary festival was where are my black compatriot fiction authors? I was gratified to learn of Niq Mhlongo, Kgebeti Moele, Phaswane Mpe, Sifiso Mzobe, and Zukiswa Wanner, whose work was highly touted. Not one of their names was mentioned in any bookstore I visisted. In fact, my only resolution for 2016 is to expose as much of their work as possible in this blog and other review forums.

But to a person at the book fair there was the recognition that the publishing industry finds itself in a quandary. South Africans with the resources to purchase books would generally only pick up those by “recognized” authors, or as one publisher’s rep said, authors with recognizable ‘white’ names. There was a lament throughout that distributors and mainstream bookstores were not doing their parts to market black authors in such a way that they become commonly known and read.

Another important dimension of the challenge faced by fiction writers was explored in the Mail & Guardian. It published an excerpt from Leon de Kok’s new book Losing the Plot: Crime, Reality, and Fiction in Post-Apartheid Writing (Wits University Press), pointing out how nonfiction has increasingly outsold fiction in postapartheid South Africa. He attributes the “real” as opposed to the fictional being accented to the interactive nature of online media as well as existential crises commonly faced due to poverty, inequality, political uneasiness, and violent crime. According to Mr. de Kok,

“several high calibre South African writers, among them Marlene van Niekerk, Antjie Krog and Rian Malan, have observed that postapartheid conditions are such that nonfiction appears to be a far more serviceable mode of writing than fiction.

This stands in contrast to the pre-postapartheid period, when realist fiction in the Gordimer “history from the inside” mode and metafictional fabulation about ethical agency, in the manner of JM Coetzee, rode the crest of the wave in the literary truth game.”

While this excerpt sets in perspective the literary shift in the postapartheid era, it also highlights the continued preeminence of “high calibre” white writers. Don’t get me wrong, these authors have made outsized contributions to literature, both fiction and nonfiction, and have held out a mirror and moral compass to the privileged classes. My concern is the lack of attention given to black authors. Race matters. I trust de Kok’s Losing the Plot addresses this and look forward to reading it.

Venue for the SA Book Fair
Turbine Hall, Book Fair Venue

I also hope to see evidence on my next visit to the beloved country of a push to highlight black South African authors and their works. And I hope to see reclamation of fiction that sets both the present and future in perspective. It would be incredible to begin to visualize a future for South Africa beyond the current events of growing unrest, crime and murder, xenophobia, cynical calls that #zumamustfall, corruption, political cronyism, and white pessimism with its culture of blatant and dog-whistle racism.

It would be wonderful if my intuition that South Africa has a far brighter, uniquely African future ahead of it could be filled in by reading the creative stories of a new generation of authors whose imaginations hold the key to unlocking this future.

If you have responses to this reflection or can point me in the direction of black South African authors and their works, please share by leaving a comment or let me know by sending a message on the contact page of this site.

The Massacre in a Charleston Church

Mass killings are horrendous. I can’t fathom why someone would walk into a school with the intent to murder children and their teachers. I can’t begin to understand how anyone could be motivated to open fire in a movie theater, college classroom, or shopping mall.

This week we’re shocked by yet another mass shooting, this time in the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The immediate impact of this shooting has affected me more deeply than any other. I’m struck by deep, deep sadness. It’s not just because it was in a church while people were in prayer and study, though somehow this makes it especially contemptible. It’s not just the accumulation of the despair I’ve felt over so many of these events in recent years. It’s that the killer is white and his victims are black: an act of unspeakable terror rooted in the evil of racism.

Racism can’t be explained away by mental illness or white-washed away as solely an act of individual choice, though there certainly was individual choice involved.

Racism is a societal ill, a communal sin for which responsibility rests on the shoulders of every white person. It rests on my shoulders. Racist realities are perpetuated – knowingly and unknowingly – by those of us whose skin color affords us privilege and allows us to turn a blind eye to the plight of others.

I have often seen this in my ministry. Each time I preach or teach in my overwhelmingly white and well-meaning congregation about the need to confront and combat racism I am greeted with the same refrains: “I just don’t see it.” “Don’t you think we’re beyond that now?” “You shouldn’t preach politics.” “Naturally you’re preaching about this because of where you come from.” (I am South African.) Many speak up in support of efforts to challenge and overcome racism, yet mention the “black lives matter” campaign and you’re immediately told “all lives matter.”

Sure, all lives should matter. But the point is that black lives matter; they really, really do. And, on the whole, society does not treat black lives as if they matter as much as white lives. Just a few months ago in Charleston a white police officer gunned down in cold blood Walter Scott, an African American citizen. The officer shot him in the back. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin are more than rallying cries. They are victims of societally sanctioned and approved racism that emerges all too often as state-sanctioned violence. The social and economic challenges faced by so many in the African American community stemming from pernicious structural injustices dating back to the days of slavery, the mass incarceration of African American men, the ways my African American friends are more likely than I am to be pulled over by police or followed in department stores (yes, it still happens) point to a system that is bent on exploitation and oppression.

Based on what? Based on a construct.

Race is a social construct that conveniently feeds into a hierarchy where lighter skin color equates to greater value and darker skin color to lesser value. It touches every aspect of life, personal and social. It feeds into perceptions of intelligence, ability, worthiness, acceptability. It also goes conveniently unacknowledged by most with lighter skin tones, those of us who are more prone to blame the victim than to ask the hard questions that will lead to necessary inner change. Inner change is the route to outer, societal change. And yes, it comes at a cost.

If it is difficult for many whites to acknowledge the ways our skin color leads to privilege, it is even harder to pluck out those attitudes, beliefs, and feelings that lie at the heart of racism. This becomes especially difficult when your perception of self worth is based on notions that benefit you over others, even when they’re based on something as fickle as skin color. And let’s face it, it is incredibly hard to share privilege when you’re afraid of losing what you’ve “worked” for.

In light of the massacre of African American churchgoers in a Charleston church Wednesday night, I hope that the deniers of racism and the cowardly comfortable masses of whites will open our eyes to the very real and present danger of racism. We’re not talking here about a random act of terror. Racism rears its ugly head all the time, and not always as perceptible violence. But make no mistake: it is violent by nature even if the evil of racism is mostly so subtle it goes conveniently unnoticed by those who perpetuate it in unacknowledged ways.

The responsibility to confront and combat racism rests with whites and we collectively bear the responsibility for what happened in Charleston. It’s up to us to start making the necessary shifts to confront and combat racism within ourselves and within our society. In the end, it’s up to me and that leads me to the deep, deep sorrow I feel in this moment.

As a white person I bear part of the responsibility for what happened Wednesday night in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.