Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Debate: Novels have to engage with politcs, says Heyns

Award-winning novelist Michiel Heyns, who has recently published Invisible Furies (Jonathan Ball), speaks to Mary Corrigall about Lost Ground, his previous novel.

You dismissed an interviewer’s observation that Lost Ground is a “state of the nation” novel, suggesting that every SA novel delivers pronouncements on it. Are the worth of novels still measured against the depths to which they plunge into socio-political conditions? I hope I didn’t “dismiss” the observation! But, yes, given the nature of the novel, most, if not all novels, would offer some kind of reflection (not “pronouncement”), direct or indirect, on the socio-political conditions underlying its production. The second part of your question is more difficult, but I’ll stick my neck out and say that yes, I think that novels are still gauged as “important” or not, depending on their engagement with those conditions.

Could political commentary be better served in a crime novel?No, I don’t think so, unless we were to say that crime is the main component of our political situation. I know it sometimes feels that way, but I wouldn’t want to proceed on that assumption.

Writers often address the canon from which their writing is rooted, how do you think Lost Ground responds to the political novel (or other genres)? I did not think of Lost Ground as emerging from that particular canon, no. If I had in mind any particular forerunner, it was Shakespeare’s Othello – yes, a political work, I suppose, and also a story of a crime, though I didn’t think of it in just those terms.

In writing Lost Ground, what did you discover about political/social conditions that hadn’t been so obvious to you before?Constructing a plot means, among other things, figuring out the relations between different characters. In constructing the fictional town of Alfredville, I was forced to recognise how interwoven the different parts of the community are – any community. I realised this in the abstract; but writing the novel brought it home very graphically. I had to dramatise, that is, imagine, very different perspectives on the same situation.

Ashraf Jamal has suggested that this imperative to describe the socio-political conditions in SA has limited the vocabulary of fiction – do you agree? If we accept that there is this imperative, it would probably be a limiting one. And my answer to the first question suggests I do think there is some such pressure (“imperative” may be too strong a word, as is “compelled”). But if the presentation of socio-political conditions is a natural part of the process of novel-writing, then it needn’t be limiting; it’s just part of what goes into most novels.- published June 24, 2012.

Debate: "Should we even be talking about the novel?"

By Mbongiseni Buthelezi

Literary studies in SA seems to be taking a while to work out what its project and its objects of study ought to be since the transition to democracy. In his piece “Roger Smith and the ‘genre snob’ debate”, and in the discussion the review generated on the Slipnet website, Leon de Kock, the academic and author, makes the point that some recent works, such as Sifiso Mzobe’s Young Blood, are unscrambling the categories that have become too easy for literary critics to use to classify, describe and discriminate.
He also suggests that the “field is ripe for contention and remapping”.
To make the point that these debates have been had too often, De Kock refers to, among other things, the 1980s Leftist condemnation of elitist criticism as attending only to highbrow literature. He asks: “Do we really want to go back there? Can’t we take those debates and mainly read, now, and move on?”
While he is probing these matters in the context of asking about the ascendance of so-called crime fiction in the place of more “serious” novels, it is worth widening the lens slightly to take in a larger view of literary studies in post-apartheid SA.
As the form that has been privileged for perhaps the last century in literary studies, is the novel still worth agonising over? Does it matter that it is being forced to describe socio-political conditions in the country to be considered good?

Political Debate: "There is still a future for political novels"

By Kelwyn Sole
One approaches this topic with a certain amount of déjà vu, as questions pertaining to political literature were an area of critical debate during the struggle against apartheid.
These debates, heated though they were, vanished in the face of the unbannings of 1990 and political settlement of 1994. Post-liberation SA, it was now proclaimed by many literary commentators, had become a “normal” society where literature could pursue interest in the “ordinary” activities of its citizens. If there were to be a social area at issue at all, it was as regards the upliftment of the previously disadvantaged, especially through the prism of identity politics.
The issue of political fiction, to be sure, always played a minor role in pre-liberation debates. The prevalent usage of the “political” was more often in genres with an oral and performative potential, such as poetry and drama. Nevertheless, a number of issues regarding political fiction were visible in debates at this time, and were left unresolved at apartheid’s demise.
The first question one needs to ask, then, is why a topic declared redundant at liberation, both by the literary establishment and by cultural spokespeople from the new government, is once again raising its head?
With the benefit of hindsight, I would suggest that it is now possible to question the validity of assumptions about the “end of the political” made at liberation. In the face of corruption, mismanagement, and – even more to the point – attempts by the government to curb its media and artistic critics (for example through the Protection of State Information Bill and the Brett Murray incident), political and even resistance art are again compelling topics of discussion.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Final part of Political Novel Debate

In this Sunday's edition is the final part of our 3-part series looking at the nature of the political novel in the post-apartheid era. Mbongiseni Buthelezi suggests that we shouldn't be agonising over the novel when other cultural forms seem better able to address and engage with current conditions. Kelwyn Sole asks why the political novel should be seen as redundant after liberation? Michiel Heyns (pictured above) believes that the crime genre cannot serve to plot the socio-political conditions in the country unless you view crime as the main component of our political situation

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Political Novels Debate: "We don't need political novels anymore" - Coovadia

Mary Corrigall: Your novels have dealt with the political conditions in SA but do you consider them political novels – what do you think is meant by that tag?Imraan Coovadia: Politics is one way of dealing with the existence of other people. Novels are another way, and maybe a better way, at any rate, I think a more interesting way. Politics is organised around the distinction between my friends and my enemies whereas, in novels, friends and enemies tend to become confused with each other. Having said that, good politicians are often pretty good writers – Lincoln, Churchill, maybe Obama, although in Obama’s case the writing is a little too reconciling and maybe the politics also. He doesn’t seem to believe in the existence of enemies.

Do you think the nature of the political novel has shifted in the post-apartheid era? If so, in what way?Yes, of course. We don’t need political novels anymore. In fact we may not even need novels. You’d have to say that the vital energies of South African culture aren’t confined to literature anymore. We have the doodle raised to a transcendent form by William Kentridge, the puppet as a work of art from the Handspring Puppet Company, the cartoon as practised by Zapiro, Lauren Beukes’s science fiction or fantasy novels, and the grotesque of Die Antwoord. There’s a lot more energy there than was ever contained in the standard model of the political novel.

Political Novels Debate: New Literature for a Changed World?

By Margaret Lenta

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.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Part 2 Political Novels Debate this Sunday

In this  Sunday’s edition we continue with the debate on the nature of the political novel in the post-apartheid era. Challenging political authorities is no longer the focus, proposes Lenta during her survey of shifts in literature since 1994, though she observes that writers were initially crippled by the euphoria that political changes brought.
“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.”
Coovadia proposes other cultural forms have superseded the novel.
“We don’t need political novels anymore. In fact we may not even need novels. You’d have to say that the vital energies of South African culture aren’t confined to literature anymore.”
Next week, Mbongiseni Buthelezi and Kelwyn Sole weigh in on the topic.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Part 1 Debate: Q & A with Zakes Mda: "All art is political"

Your novels have dealt with the political conditions in South Africa, have you considered them “political novels” –  what do you think is meant by that tag?All art is about power relations. Therefore all art is political whether its’ creators overtly intend it to be or not.
Is the perceived value of a novel in this country still measured against the depths with which the novelist plunges into the ‘state of the nation’?  No. Any successful novel is about characters and their conflicts. The characters interact actively with their environment, which includes the setting. Some of that environment will be shaped and informed by the social, political and economic conditions.
What is at stake for the characters in their conflicts may therefore be overtly political in nature, be criminal, romantic, existential, erotic, religious, scientific, fantastical etc. or any combination and permutation of these.
A novel that is dominated by the “issues” (including “state of the nation”) at the expense of credible character development (for literary fiction) and engaging plot development (for genre fiction), or a combination of both,  will be an utter failure.

Part 1 Debate: Is Gordimer out of time?

By Mary Corrigall

After the country went to the polls in the first democratic elections of 1994, a line was drawn, delineating what the country had been and what it would become. This socio-political rupture between the past and present was to some degree artificial; it also implied an erasure. In No Time Like the Present (Picador Africa), Gordimer expresses this temporal break in the form of a compelling motif of a motorbike ripping “the street like a sheet of paper roughly torn.”
This everyday event has momentous significance for the Reeds – Steve and Jabu – for the simple fact that it coincides with Steve’s suggestion that the family move into the suburbs. For the Reeds transplanting their lives in the suburbs is a politically loaded act; after years of living under the radar as not only an interracial couple, but as Umkhonto operatives taking up residence in the suburbs implies that they are being reaggregated into a society with which they were once at war.
Gordimer places the “s” in suburb in upper case throughout the text as a way of drawing attention to the politics underpinning this spatial and ideological frame. The suburb where they settle offers the utopian dream for which they fought. Around the corner live their (former) comrades and an NG Kerk has been overrun by gay men – an obvious sign that the old authority has been overturned.
“Now everything is after,” becomes a mantra for this new society or condition, this ideological shift.
But the rip that has segmented their existence, their narratives, isn’t a clean one.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Debate on Political Novels

In the Sunday Independent this weekend the Books Page - Page 16 Life will feature the first of a three part special on the nature of the political novel. The furore over Brett Murray's portrait of President Jacob Zuma has prompted interesting questions around the nature of political-centred art in the post-apartheid era. This has ramifications for the political novel, the privileged literary genre in South Africa. The emergence of a local crime genre, where much political commentary is being embedded has prompted academics such as Leon de Kock to question the value of the political novel. This week Books Editor, Mary Corrigall, will review Nadine Gordimer's No Time Like the Present and Zakes Mda responds to questions on this topic in relationship to his writing.

FLF 2012: Chapter or Worse?

By Matthew Blackman

The last time I was at the Franschhoek Literary Festival I made a mental note never to return. This was after a session where several novelists not only shamelessly plugged their own books but also seemed disingenuously to promote their fellow panelists'. Now call me a hypocrite lecteur, but on Saturday I returned and attended the Sunday Times Literary Awards shortlist announcement.
However, unlike the bonhomie that pervades - in my limited experience - some of the festival's panel discussions, I noted some disquiet after the announcement. The editor Helen Moffet was expressing chagrin. "I want to box somebody's ears," she said to judge Imraan Coovadia. "Thando Mgqolozana was robbed." Moffett then admitted she was Mgqolozana's editor.
It is this "incest" that lies at the heart of many of SA's literary ills, and it is one that extends to the festival itself. There is no doubt that criticism becomes a complicated business in the South African literary microcosm. And certainly biases derived from the closeness of the community, when aired publically, can lead to a distorting of the relevance and value of certain works.

Gilfillan & Hope on FLF 2012

By Mary Corrigall

The themes and names on this year’s Franschhoek Literary Festival (FLF) programme might have been interchangeable with those from previous years, but Lynda Gilfillan, the academic and renowned editor who chaired and starred on a variety of panel discussions at FLF 2012, proposed that “it was better than last year. It surprised me with its richness.”
“The country changes so radically that some of the same old tired topics are always refreshed. Jonathan Jansen for example appeared again, but I didn’t feel a sense of déjà vu when he spoke.”
Christopher Hope, the author who founded the festival six years ago, was delighted with the turnout this year. “The halls were packed. You had to book to get in. There was a real buzz in town.”
He is no longer the festival’s director and regrets that there wasn’t as wide a mix of authors from different countries.
“(The line-up) needs to be more diverse. For so long we were cut off from the rest of the world. We need a bit of ‘elsewhere’ here. Festivals like this need to be about controversy and discussion.”

Brothers in Arms

By Margaret Lenta

Brothers in Arms is not a general history of the Anglo-Boer war, but a somewhat anecdotal account of the participation in it of the Dutch – readers need pencils and paper by their sides to help them find their way through the enormous number of individual names.
As happens in most wars, some of the Hollanders who joined the Boers found they were in their element, enjoying attacks on blockhouses and other fly-by-night activities. Others adapted to wartime conditions and endured the hardships and the gradual fading of hope as best they could.
Chris Schoeman’s interest is in the Boer side of the contest, and there is no attempt to understand British strategy or motives.
The Dutch who volunteered to fight alongside the Boers belonged roughly to two groups: those who were resident in the country when war was declared and whose sympathies, understandably, were with their friends, colleagues and neighbours; and those resident in the Netherlands who felt sufficiently strongly about the war to come to southern Africa and fight alongside their distant relatives.
Schoeman explains that the people of the Netherlands “felt an increasing solidarity with their Dutch-speaking (relatives) in South Africa”, and their queen, Wilhelmina, wrote to the Boers expressing her sense of the strong bonds which united them. She even tried to dissuade the aged Queen Victoria from endorsing the war, according to Schoeman. It was in vain: the last major war of British imperialism was unstoppable.
This preliminary political information is the first and last we are offered. Other than this, Schoeman is concerned with the lives of the Hollanders who volunteered and served, though he does imply that other Europeans felt that Britain’s attack on the Boers was unjustifiable. Many of us have read of the Irish presence on the Boer side, and the sympathy of the Kaiser (despite the fact that he was Queen Victoria’s favourite grandson) for the Boers.