Tuesday, 19 June 2012
Political Novels Debate: New Literature for a Changed World?
Until the first democratic elections in 1994, writers were under pressure to restrict their subject matter to the struggles to abolish apartheid and allow all adult citizens the vote. Until these aims were achieved, it was felt, no other human rights issues should receive attention. Assertions that the law disadvantaged women, that religions other than Christianity were unfairly treated, that many subjects, political and social, should not be mentioned in print, went unchallenged.
Arguments about this exclusive focus became irrelevant in 1996, when a constitution was accepted which defined broad principles relating to personal liberty and a just state. The ways in which these principles could be implemented needed to be taken up in written and spoken debates across the land, but writers needed time to think, and euphoria is not the best stimulant of creativity.
Literary discussion was delayed by ambivalence: the 1996 constitution proclaimed the equal rights of men and women, of racial minorities, of all kinds of sexual orientation and all religions, but did Mr or Ms Average agree with this? All the established societies of SA were – and most remain – patriarchal: if equality between men and women and religious tolerance are both constitutional principles, how for example do we deal with the fact that many religious groups exclude women from their ministry?
Eleven languages were recognised – but what does recognition mean? Can we, or should we, make a language spoken by a small group of people “equal” to one spoken by millions? Should economic interests decide debates when the poor face starvation?
All these debates were material for literature, but writers took time to think them over – there was a falling-off in literary production between 1990 and 1999. In that year JM Coetzee’s Disgrace appeared, making the “Afro-pessimist” point strongly: if reconciliation were to take place, it would, the book suggested, demand huge sacrifices by whites and the acceptance of radical changes in power dynamics.
Disgrace was immensely and perhaps deliberately controversial. Since then there has been a flowering of South African fiction, the more exciting because people from previously silent groups, or groups which had written only about the agonies of oppression, have begun to write other kinds of fiction.
To write for publication generally means that you are, or have now become, a member of the middle class: you are highly literate. This need not mean that you are remote from the problems of the poor, because the new millennium has been a time of rapid individual movement between classes.
The great question of what the legacies of apartheid are and how we deal with them needs to be divided into many subject areas before there can be usable answers. In the early 2000s many of us encountered the “tradition” argument: an action or opinion must be accepted because that’s the way the ancestors behaved or thought. It’s an argument often advanced by a man wearing jeans with a cellphone in his hand. But it may not be entirely hypocritical: he may genuinely fear the changing world.
Out of the hundreds of novels which have appeared in this country since 2000, four can stand as examples of new approaches to tradition and history.
Coconut, by Kopano Matlwa (2007), presents the experiences of two young, urban, black women, one from a newly rich family, the other poor. One is unhappy at her Joburg private school; the other works as a waitress in an upmarket coffee shop, despises the traditional and longs to enter the world depicted in glossy magazines.
The rich girl regrets that she cannot play a traditional role in her extended family; the poor girl’s family, apart from one unhappy uncle, has disappeared. Tradition, Matlwa shows, is problematic: the world has changed and we must change too – but what should we strive to retain?
Thando Mgqolozana’s A Man Who Is Not a Man (2009) deals with the difficulties of the circumcision rite as an entry into adult life for Xhosa men. Tradition, he shows, continues to demand that young men undergo it, but the equally traditional guidance offered by a male guardian to the initiate is often absent. Pressure in the name of tradition can kill or maim young men.
History is a construct, not a revealed truth – yes, but the history we were taught tends to retain its hold on us and shape our attitudes and actions. So novels which re-investigate the past have been important in the 2000s: Zoë Wicomb’s David’s Story (2000) looks at the Griqua people, and at the fact that they silenced their women and were defrauded of their land by the government. Wicomb also presents the horrors which took place among the ANC in exile, as well as under the National Party government.
Yvette Christiansë’s Unconfessed (2007), which imagines the appalling life of a slave woman in the early 19th century, also re-envisages history. People whose ancestors were enslaved often feel shame, whereas people whose ancestors were slave-owners tend to feel proud of their family’s ghastly past. So the invitation is to understand better what happened and who was responsible.
In the last 12 years, many fictionalised investigations have been offered in novels: what relationships are possible between people of different racial groups? Are gay people a new presence in our society, and what roles should they play? What challenges do previously rural residents face in today’s city? How should South Africans relate to street children and resident foreigners? How is HIV/Aids affecting urban and rural societies?
Without the many novels which have reached publication since 2000, most of us would be less aware of these crucial and newly debatable issues. Let’s read the books and join in the arguments.- published June 17, 2012. Caption: Kopano Matlwa, author of Coconut (2007)