Thursday, 11 July 2013

The State of Writing in SA

By Craig Higginson

Where South African fiction and non-fiction have exploded in the past two decades - with a rich and diverse range of people publishing books - our theatre is still dominated by writer-directors. Theatre practitioners who came to the theatre predominantly as directors and who have started to write or adapt their own plays, either because of a growing interest in telling their own stories or simply because there are too few new South African plays out there to direct.
We have had few career playwrights who came to writing plays through the study of literature and its related subjects. In the past, plays were made by communities of people and they were made to be performed - not published. Directors also enjoyed more status than playwrights and it was common practice for directors to completely change or rewrite plays in the rehearsal room. So it is perhaps little wonder we have had virtually no career playwrights.
In today's South Africa, we remain almost as divided as ever: between races, religions, languages, classes, nationalisms. We stand somewhere between apartheid and democracy, pulled in different directions - the best of us sometimes losing all conviction, the worst of us too often finding refuge in a passionate intensity.
So what is the role of the artist at the current time? And more specifically: what is the role of the contemporary South African theatre practitioner?
The easy answer to this is that there are as many roles as there are artists. We are free to make whatever fictions we like. We have fought for our freedom and we are free to exercise it however we want.
This is all very well, and it is a position I am in no position to contest. What I would like to suggest, however, is that I believe the quality of our fictions will depend entirely on the quality of our engagement with questions of content, form and context. It seems to me that the time we live in - in South Africa and more generally - requires works of the imagination that are nimble, dextrous and capable of infiltrating and engaging a range of perspectives at once.
Of these three areas, the issue of context is perhaps the most directly political. Who do I want to tell my story to? Or put it another way: Who do I want to talk to? Whose thinking do I want to reflect or challenge? What change do I want to make in the world? Am I writing for my own gratification - for money, for recognition, for revenge - or because I want to nourish something outside of myself?
In both theatre and fiction - which are the modes that occupy me most as a creative person - we have an honourable and justly celebrated legacy in South Africa. During apartheid, literature had a very clear role in defying the state. The ethical playing field was relatively unambiguous. To counter the dreary monologue of Afrikaner and other nationalisms, literature and other art forms provided an alternative monologue. One that asserted our shared humanity.
Because theatre during apartheid was predominantly workshopped by the director and the cast, this led to plays less concerned with dramatic structure and tight, combative dialogue and more concerned with monologues that attempted to access the interiority of the characters. By giving voice to the inner life, they made us see the humanity in characters that had been compartmentalised, reduced to ethnic types, so that they could be more easily dismissed or overlooked.
Playwrights like Athol Fugard and Zakes Mda wrote conversational, discursive plays - generally naturalistic in style and often quite old-fashioned in terms of form - that were again concerned with giving voice to the voiceless and dignity to those whose dignity had been taken away from them. When one compares these writers with their contemporaries in America or Britain, the plays often feel sluggish in terms of plot and bogged down by too much verbiage. Yet what could characters in plays during that period do but talk? What was more urgent?

Since Mandela was released and the ANC and other liberation groups were unbanned at the beginning of 1990, South Africa has suffered from an excess of plot. Suddenly, there was movement.
There was a war between ANC supporters and the IFP in KwaZulu-Natal, fuelled by a mysterious third force, the AWB stormed Bophuthatswana and the Codesa buildings and Eugene Terre'Blanche - the boer horseman par excellence - fell off his horse during a march in Durban. Chris Hani was murdered outside his home, in front of his family, Mandela and De Klerk had verbal duels on national television, and in central Joburg and elsewhere bombs were going off.
With the help of Mandela, we even won the rugby World Cup in 1995 - a tale recently retold by Clint Eastwood. These stories were followed by the TRC and the flood of new testimonies - too many to digest. Followed by Mbeki's African Renaissance and Aids denialism, and his almost Shakespearean overthrow in Polokwane. On the domestic front, crime had entered practically every single farmhouse, mansion and tin shack in the land. Stories of rape and murder and pillage, stories of abuse, overwhelmed us - and overwhelm us still.
Terre'Blanche was murdered amid tales of sodomy and abuse, xenophobic attacks shook the land, and over 30 protesting miners at Marikana were shot by the police. Regarding the government itself, there have been tales of corruption and fraud and lack of service delivery.
Everyone has started to fight with the liberation party and the liberation party has started to fight with itself - with its youth league, its deputy presidents, its dissidents.
Yes - we have been literally inundated with plot. Too much material for our artists to digest. And our response has often struck me as a form of panic.
In our literature, for example, non-fiction is out-selling fiction - which is a trend particular to South Africa; in other countries, fiction sells far better. Why is this? Perhaps we feel that non-fiction will explain us better, capture the truth better. Perhaps we want to be reassured by the facts. But we are not reassured by the facts. This accumulation of horrific detail seems to freeze us more, bringing an ever-growing sense of doom.
Perhaps it is no surprise that our fiction has been dominated by dystopian allegories - as if we are asking of fiction not that it open up new possible worlds, describe new imagined lands, but that it reduce the overwhelming quotidian to something digestible, manageable. There has also been a new wave of crime writing, with detectives who are able to find their way through the labyrinth of depravity and squalor and solve it - separating out good from evil, providing a sense that the details of the quotidian can culminate in something, be given a meaning, be reduced to a problem that can invite a solution.
Our theatre has also revelled in acts of violence. As if representing the acts of violence is enough. As if it is too much to ask of us that we also look at the consequences of violence - how to survive it, how to imagine an alternative. These are often the plays that travel to great acclaim outside of South Africa - in part, perhaps, because they provide the illusion that the South African situation can be easily represented and therefore digested.
My suggestion so far has been that a great deal of our literature - in fiction, non-fiction and theatre in particular - is in many cases inclined to respond to the chaos and uncertainty of our times by imposing quick solutions, which are often little more than fake victories of perception.
But there is also a second tendency - and that is to turn away from the challenge of our times altogether. So we have seen an outpouring of memoir, of semi-autobiographical accounts of childhood or family life, and a return to the nostalgia of the farm novel (as defined by Coetzee), with its claims of connectedness to the land and the indigenous people.
In these accounts, white writers continue to write idealised, naive, sentimental, often rather inarticulate black characters, and black writers have more often than not declined to represent white characters at all - and when they have, they are usually predictably one-dimensional.
I have been disappointed by the latest offerings from our greatest playwright - some have said our only playwright - Fugard. His last plays - written from America - have fallen exactly into this paradigm. They are full of nostalgia for a lost era - for Fugard's youth and middle-age, in fact - and are usually set somewhere out in the Karoo, surrounded by loyal servants and poor weather conditions. (In fact, it is interesting how Yael Farber recently wrote about the Karoo in Mies Julie; it is exactly as Fugard and dozens of others have done - and one is left thinking: "Surely there are other ways of writing about the Karoo? Surely there are a few other character types about, with something else to talk about other than the weather?") The only two Fugard plays that deal directly with a more contemporary post-apartheid South Africa are Victory and The Train Driver, both of which are centred on the ageing white male protagonist and fail entirely in demonstrating much empathy for the black antagonists.
So this tendency towards autobiography and nostalgia - what is driving it?
I can't speak for black writers, who have little reason to feel much nostalgia for the past. But in white writers I sometimes think that it's as if they don't know who they are in the present, so they need to recreate images of themselves in the past that might help to sustain them better in the present.
This certainly explains to some degree the groundbreaking success in the white community in particular of a book like John van der Ruit's Spud books.
The books - set at a privileged boarding school in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands that I myself attended - seemed to reinscribe a world of white privilege - and they did so with admirably self-deprecating irony - in a world that was growing increasingly indifferent to white privilege.
The Spud books can also be seen as part of a third general trend in South Africa today and that is the rise of satire and stand-up comedians that we have seen in recent years. We have a long and honourable history of satire in South Africa - which is perhaps best represented by the irrepressible Pieter Dirk Uys.
However, there is a vibrant new generation of comedians emerging today, and they are from almost any ethnic or racial group you could mention.
As brilliant as many of these commentators are, it is interesting to note the continued reduction of people into types, whose accents and prejudices can be unambiguously represented and therefore ridiculed. The chaos of the quotidian and the actions of the protagonists of our times can also be reduced to bite-sized anecdotes - so there are stories about Malema or Oscar Pistorius that make us laugh - and laugh the threat of what these stories might represent or suggest to us, away.
Of course, it has always been the role of artists to create allegories, foreground themselves in their fictions, reduce humanity to types and make the events of our time comprehensible through anecdote. What is art-making but the reduction of the quotidian into comprehensible metaphor? Much of the work created in South Africa that might fall roughly into these categories is also powerful and enduring and worthy of celebration.
And I am grateful to the Spud books in particular for inspiring a younger generation to read South African literature.
Yet for me as a practising writer and as an audience member, I often come away from these works with a sense of something left out. I am suspicious of the authority that artists - and I speak here predominantly of white artists - claim back for themselves through the creation of allegories, through foregrounding their own biographies over the lives of those around them, or through giving themselves the moral high ground through satire - which by its nature requires a process of cleansing the other of any ambiguity, ridiculing it and then rejecting it.
While I am as disturbed as many by the growing threat of censorship in our country - and the subtle forms this takes - I also understand what is behind Zuma's frustration with the cartoonist Zapiro, who will forever draw Zuma with a showerhead above his head. As a prominent black actor once said to me: "Why doesn't he represent white characters with apartheid permanently hanging over their heads?" I am also suspicious of the moral high ground and hectoring tone taken by artists like Brett Murray - now famous for his The Spear painting - which reduces the ANC to one monolithic thing: a machine of corruption, rather than an ever-evolving, conflicted, contradictory force-field comprised of individuals, some of whom may actually be doing a good job - now and again - under difficult circumstances.
I often return to the statement of Susan Sontag's: that drawing a line is an act of violence. We ought to have learned this from our past. Yet we are still just as insistent on drawing lines and othering that which is - in the most fundamental and inescapable sense - of us. When you reduce your subject matter to the other, and you draw a solid line between yourself and it, you are exercising a kind of violence on your subject matter - and you oughtn't be surprised when a reciprocal violence is the response you get from it. In these cases, we are making artworks that bring out the worst from our target audience rather than the best. We come away from these works feeling reduced, feeling our context belittled, rather than broadened and nourished by new possibilities. - published June 23, 2013.

 This is an edited version of a speech Craig Higginson presented at the University of Toulouse on June 7.   


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