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.

Overcoming Mental Short-cuts

In recent days I’ve been taken with FBI director James Comey’s statement about lazy mental short-cuts that law enforcement officers sometimes make. Don’t we all just with less-lethal consequences? It gave me a great springboard for a program at the church to challenge assumptions of race, xenophobia, homophobia, and suspicion of people of other religions – especially in our tumultuous world. So here’s my March newsletter article. Feel free to join in, if you are able to.

Beloved friends,

One of the greatest strengths of our congregation is our ability to maintain diverse perspectives while working toward a common goal. This goal is nothing short of mirroring the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth by living ever more deeply into the extravagant love of God we have come to know through Christ Jesus.

Living into this love comes with great joys and, admittedly, great costs.

In recent months, given events at home and abroad, I have been prayerfully mulling how First Church can respond to the racism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious violence that characterize so much of life today. In our own beautiful country we have to face what FBI director James Comey recently called “lazy mental short-cuts” that lead to the killings by law enforcement of unarmed black men. The chokehold and shooting deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown respectively are two high-profile examples.

We need to acknowledge that these lazy mental short-cuts are made all the time by many, if not all, of us when it comes to race. The same is true of our encounters with people of different religions, economic brackets, national origins or immigration status, and people of non-heteronormative sexual orientations.

The primary question we face is how we can combat these lazy mental short-cuts and the attitudes and actions that flow from them?

Our task in combatting these mental short-cuts is compounded by the horrendous killings of Jews, Christians, Kurds, and Muslims in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa by supporters of ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda. I believe they have raised the specter of the greatest evil the world has faced since the holocaust. It’s awfully tempting, as a result, to make lazy mental short-cuts.

We need to be on guard. We can’t afford to remain mentally lazy and lump all Muslims or brown skinned Middle Easterners in the same camp. We can’t lump all of Africa in the same basket. We have to break the cycle of superiority that keeps us from valuing people who are different from us.

I therefore invite you to join me in the following activities:
1.) A reading of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree this Lent.
2.) A series of sacred conversations on race this Eastertide through Pentecost.
3.) A panel discussion by representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths on the questions: i) what is the character of your God and ii) what is the highest religious end you wish to achieve.
4.) Participating in the Moral Monday movement being started in Hartford by our friend Bishop John Selders.
5.) Honest and earnest prayerful searching about diversity and how God is calling us to respond to violence.
(Dates for discussions will be determined.)

This is not always going to be easy. We may come into conflict. The mere suggestion of this course of action may well be distressing you. But it’s something we need to do in a spirit of living more fully into God’s extravagant love. How else will we and the world be transformed? How else will First Church truly live into our great mission of mirroring the Kingdom of God here on earth.

I believe we can do this and invite you to participate with me.

Grace and Peace,

Steven