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The View from Here: Books from South Africa

viewfromhereWelcome to the next country in  The View from Here series on literature from around the world. Today we get to visit South Africa for a peek into the literature of that country with the help of Mariechen who blogs at Whispers of a Barefoot Medical StudentIn case you are wondering, the “barefoot” part refers to the fact that she loves  the simple things in life and is happiest when she can walk barefoot. Mariechen spends most of the year in Cape Town although she originates  from the Eastern Province.  She says she started blogging “as a kind of a debriefing tool for my medical studies, but when I started reading again and discovered the book blogging community I widened my niche. So these days I blog about medical things, books, current affairs,traveling and anything I want to, really.”

Q. What is the first book you can remember reading and enjoying?

I learned to read with the Afrikaans edition of Spots, Feathers and Curly Tails by Nancy Tafuri when I was four years old; but the first “proper” book I remember reading was by Roald Dahl – either Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or George’s Marvelous Medicine, I can’t remember because I devoured them back-to-back.

Q. What books and author are very popular right now in South Africa?

I don’t think South Africa buzzes quite the way some countries do, but this year everyone was quite proud of Lauren Beukes’ The Shining Girls. Zimbabwean NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names has been quite popular this year too. We do buzz quite a bit about Western authors as well.

Q. What do you like to read – books written by local authors or books from other parts of the world?

I like a combination. When I started reading as a kid I had good combination of Afrikaans Middle Grade books and English/Foreign books. I think during my teens I read almost exclusively American or English books, but thankfully I have diversified again. I actually go out of my way to read from countries I’ve never read before, likeI just recently picked up The Calligrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim, about Korea. Imake it a point to read South African authors regularly, though. I think more and more that it is incredibly important to keep our authors flourishing too.

Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by authors from South Africa?

Being the “rainbow nation”, with so many cultures and languages and backgrounds,it is hard to pinpoint a type of literature. Some iconic South African books for me include A Dry White Season by A.P. Brink, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and Heart of Redness by Zakes Mda. I would also suggest The Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard (a play) and reading some South African poets, like Antjie Krog.

We recently had a surge of YA-type South African novels. Deadlands is a dystopian zombie novel set in Cape Town by Lily Herne. The Spud novels by John van de Ruit are the hugely successful journal-type stories of a kid at a boarding school in South Africa during the early 90s – John Cleese plays in the screen adaptation of the books. For contemporaries, definitely read Zoo City or Moxyland by Lauren Beukes, set in Johannesburg and Cape Town respectively; and Sister-Sister by Rachel Zadok. Deon Meyer writes some excellent and very scary thrillers set in South Africa. A good option is to start with a short story anthology. Touch: Stories of Contact compiled by Karina Magdalena Szczurek offers a great diversity of South African authors, as does Yes, I am! Writing by South African Gay Men compiled by Robin Malan and Ashraf Johaardien.

Q. What effect has the end of apartheid had on the literature of South Africa?

I think perhaps the bigger distinction is the kind of books that are allowed these days – during Apartheid many South African authors faced censorship and published in other countries. I think the end of Apartheid really diversified what South Africans read and write – it is a little difficult to say though because I was born when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. There are a lot of guilt/suffering narratives, which I think is a normal part of our country’s healing process, but there is also a lot of forward-looking and new creations, like Zoo City which has been dubbed a “Muti Noir” and Rosamund Kendal’s The Angina Monologues which looks at the South African public health system through a fictional eye. The Apartheid Government was a censoring government, so in literature the revolution was what was suddenly allowed – criticism and satire and interracial love,all these things that were not allowed in books before. As for books read in schools, To Kill a Mockingbird and Othello are widely taught because of their applicability to our past, but books like Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom, Marguerite Poland’s Shades and Fugard’s The Road to Mecca are also taught.

Q. Earlier this year when the Caine Prize for African writing was announced, one author complained that the award promotes an “African aesthetic of suffering.” Is that criticism fair or unfair? 

I’ll start with addressing this aspect of African writing in general: When I think of Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch, I think of a book set in Nigeria that has absolutely nothing to do with poverty, but with magic! If there is suffering, it has more to do with the main character’s albinism. (Okorafor is a Nigerian author currently living in the USA.) Deadlands addresses suffering in a dystopian fashion. Spud has some tender moments relating to a dysfunctional but hilarious family. There are many African books out there that do have some reference to suffering in them, although often that is no longer then central theme, but a background issue.

I think it is important to remember that we write what we know and what we see. Our continent is a continent with a painful past, with guilt and with suffering. It would be foolish to expect authors not to write about that. But our continent is also a continent of intense beauty, of magic, and of some of the most interesting people you will ever meet, and it is important to portray that through literature too, which I think many authors are doing.

I can’t really comment on the Caine Prize or any other prize for that matter but I have noticed that the media around the world tends to emphasise books that conform to their impression of a place: suffering Africa, oppressive China, repressed England, and so on. And authors, marketers and READERS should be aware of those stereotypes and combat them. I know that ours is not a narrative of suffering, but I am not surprised that the perception out there is different.

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