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?

Toying with an immovable history: HHhH

By Mary Corrigall

I'm expecting to meet a self-deprecating man. In HHhH, Laurent Binet explicitly rejects elements of the novel, certain chapters even, and allows the failures or shortcomings in the work to be transparent.
"It's clever, isn't it?" he says laughing, when I suggest that in pre-empting criticism of his book, he automatically undercuts arguments against it.
One of the main misgivings he expresses in HHhH (Random House Struik) is the fact that while it is intended to chart the heroic actions of a group of Czechoslovakian parachutists who assassinate a high-ranking Nazi officer, Reinhard Heydrich, he indulges in a quasi biography of this infamous SS officer dubbed the Butcher of Prague, among many other equally pejorative sobriquets to suit the barbaric acts he sanctioned. The curious title, HHhH, refers to a saying popular among the SS: Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich - Himmler's brain is called Heydrich, and confirms the focus of the novel, though Binet cunningly avoids naming him. It reads like a stutter, as if Heydrich's name is caught in the throat.
In detailing Heydrich's life story, however, and the pivotal role he played in arriving at the chilling "final solution" for the "problem" with the Jews in Europe, Binet draws attention to the necessity for or the sense of justice that Heydrich's assasination would present.
Similarly, in the frank and self-conscious manner in which Binet narrates history, he also generously points to some of the practicalities underpinning this seemingly incongruent bias; there simply isn't sufficient information about the parachutists to fill a book, while in contrast much is known about Heydrich. This, of course, points to a failing in how history is written; inevitably the focus tends to be on evil oppressor, rather than an in-depth look at the identities of the liberators or victims. Perhaps we are more curious about inexplicable malevolence. This might explain the inordinate amount of material pertaining to the Nazis on the History Channel - in his novel Binet admits to a weakness for this channel. His preoccupation with World War II is certainly rooted in its representation in popular culture; the constant revision or recycling of historical events.
Of course, as a novelist Binet could have invented the histories, motivations and characters of the Czech heroes, but it would have been in contravention of the ethical code that guides his novel: to remain faithful to the facts.
"Inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence. Or rather, in the words of my brother-in-law, with whom I've discussed all this, 'It's like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence,' " proposes Binet in HHhH.
It's rare to meet a novelist so bound to the truth. This noble gesture, however, seems not only impossible in relaying history - can it ever be faithfully rendered? - but also seems in contravention of the spirit of novel writing altogether; certainly it presents an extraordinary limit for a novelist.

Book industry needs to turn over a new leaf: Franschhoek Literary Festival

Alexander McCall Smith, the British author who has penned a series of books set
in Botswana, was the star attraction at the FLF pic by Christine Fourie

By Konstantin Sofianos

'It seems that we are all trying to break into something, but we don't know what that is." Ingrid Winterbach, writer of adroit, searching novels in Afrikaans, is talking animatedly from her seat beside an intensely reflective Eben Venter, and next to the apparently detached figure of Carel van der Merwe, author of a string of similarly cool fictions of adult personal crisis.
The occasion is a panel on translation at this year's Franschhoek literature f?te, but the immediate setting is the narrow hull of a white-washed church building in one of the Boland town's back streets, the kind of place in which, as Philip Larkin wrote in his poem Church Going, "someone will forever be surprising a hunger in himself to be more serious".
Winterbach is speaking about the enduring cultural chasm between Afrikaans and English writing, a problem aggravated by the general inadequacy (in all languages) of literary translations in the country, but her comment strikes at another issue that might have remained otherwise implicit among the varied activities of the Franschhoek fest: the question of literary and cultural prestige, and of the institutions that are able to confer this in South Africa today.
What, after all, are writers like Winterbach attempting to "break into" when it comes to South African writing in English, and who decides whether they have achieved this or not? Some preliminary clues might be found in the proceedings of this year's Franschhoek Literature Festival (FLF) as a whole.
Over the past few years its claim to be the premier literary event of its kind has been contested by the emergence of other national gatherings of readers and writers such as the Mail & Guardian Literature Festival in Joburg and the Cape Town Open Book festival, which has successfully positioned itself as an event devoted to higher-end literary fiction attracting impressive rosters of prominent international authors, including Booker Prize winners - it is in conscious opposition to the FLF, one suspects.
And yet the FLF retains a special, gilded attraction for literary patrons and book industry insiders alike, and its autumnal coming each May is an eagerly anticipated event. This is no doubt bound up with its location in the laminated pastoral surrounds of the wine-land town, with its gentrified main street of shopping boutiques, outdoor bistros and haute cuisine restaurants. The FLF offers less a literary than a "lifestyle" experience: writerly conversations and poetry readings mix with panels on gardening, cookery or popular history, and are supplemented by pricey gala dinners and concert recitals.
According to the website, some 8 500 weekend festival-goers descended on Franschhoek last year, to take occupation of its scattered auberges and guest-cottages, and to saturate in its faux-francophone ambience. These are startling numbers for an ostensibly literary function, and they seem to have been maintained this year, in the festival's seventh annual iteration. Practically all the 91 panel discussions on offer were fully sold out by lunchtime on the opening Friday, though tell-tale empty chairs at most events suggest that some patrons preferred to linger over their glasses of semillon.