Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Upending representations of violence against women

By Mary Corrigall

Of all the rape scenes depicted in cinematic products it is the infamous one in the 1972 American film Deliverance that the real horror of the act is driven home, proposes author Margie Orford.
So close was the line between fiction and reality that the actor, Ned Beatty, who played the victim of the rape in the "squeal like a pig" scene, suffered so many taunts after the movie, that he eventually felt he had been victimised.
This prompted him to pen a 1989 editorial in The New York Times, where he recognised his "own anxious desire to distance himself from the victimisation of the role".
The gritty rendering of that rape scene is directly related to the gender of the victim, suggests Orford. Violence against women in the realm of fiction (and perhaps in how it is reported in the press) is portrayed in quite a different manner; it is "so built into the aesthetics of pleasure and pornography which has bled into everything", says Orford. Certainly, it is a feature of crime writing.
"The genre is a misogynist genre, based on killing the femme fatale. Women must be shown their place," observes the Cape Town-based writer over a cup of tea at 54 on Bath. The genteel setting seems at odds with the dark subject matter.
The misogynist aspect to crime writing presents somewhat of a dilemma for Orford, who by all accounts (including her own) is pegged not only as a crime writer, but one of the most celebrated, both here and abroad - she recently signed a five-book deal with a UK publisher.
Water Music (Jonathan Ball) is the fifth novel in the Clare Hart series, but she admits that she hasn't quite worked out how to resolve the ethical dilemma that working with the crime genre entails.
"I wanted to disrupt (the model) and avoid the torture of women as spectacle and entertainment; you have to find a way to disrupt that visual pleasure cycle but it is really difficult."
It's a familiar refrain; Lauren Beukes struggled with a similar trope while writing Shining Girls, a sci-fi serial killer thriller that pointedly deals with femicide. There has been much discussion in literary circles around the value of the crime genre as an alternative model for the political novel - in fact, it was a review of Orford's last novel, Gallows Hill, that sparked the discussion. However, it can't be a coincidence that it has proved a vehicle for female writers interested in upturning the gender politics attached to genre literature. Can this be done without perpetuating the model they reject?

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Diaspora writers dominating the Caine Prize

By Rob Gaylard

A feature of this year's Caine Prize collection of stories, A Memory this Size and Other Stories (Jacana), is the prominence of what one might call diasporic stories, such as Tope Folarin's prize-winning story, Miracle. Given the salience of novels like Brian Chikwava's Harare North and NoViolet Bulawayo's We Need New Names, this seems to reflect an emerging trend in African writing. (Bulawayo was the 2011 Caine Prize winner.)
A second feature of the collection is the absence of any stories from South Africa. Since our writers have clearly not suddenly stopped writing short stories, this seems surprising, and may be a comment on the process of selection or the criteria for inclusion in the collection.
There are five short-listed stories of which four are, rather remarkably, by Nigerian authors (or authors with a connection to Nigeria). A further 13 stories came out of this year's Caine Prize workshop, held on the shores of Lake Victoria. Four of these 13 stories were submitted by Ugandans.
The first story in the collection is Folarin's Miracle - on the evidence of this story, the author is clearly Nigerian/American. He tells us, "I'm a writer situated in the Nigerian disapora, and the Caine Prize means a lot - it feels like I'm connected to a long tradition of African writers."
It seems pointless to debate whether someone who was born in America can be described as an "African" - one infers from the story that the author's Nigerianness is an important part of his identity, and he falls squarely within the definition of "African writer" inscribed in the Caine Prize rules.
The story explores the issue of faith and belief, and provides a vivid first-person account of a revivalist service at which a blind prophet performs what are alleged to be miracles. The story does not confirm that any miracle has taken place - but it does affirm the ties of family and community, and suggests that "both (truths and lies) must be cultivated for the community to survive".
The congregation consists entirely of Nigerian exiles or sojourners in America, and the story balances the narrator's scepticism against the repeated affirmation, "We need miracles".
The American connection is reinforced by the second story in the collection, Pede Hollist's Foreign Aid. The story is a deftly narrated, somewhat ironic, cautionary tale about the folly of the "Been-to" who imagines he can return to his native land (in this case Sierra Leone), rather like a deus ex machina, putting right whatever is wrong and making up for his 20-year absence (and neglect of his family).
As the story unfolds the scales are lifted from Logan's eyes and he comes to realise the futility of his efforts. His sister, Ayo, points out, "Out here. We manage. We do what we have to do". The story could have been subtitled The Americanisation of Balogan/Logan: it explores the dissonance set up by the manners and expectations of the returnee, Logan, the "self-made man from ICU (the Inner City University)", whose "fanny pack" of dollars rapidly runs out. One quotation will help to illustrate the inventiveness of the writing:
"Logan was left severely to himself. He felt powerless, useless like a kaka bailer who arrives at a large family latrine with only a small tamatis cup, unable to and incapable of handling the crap that had been generated."
Ironically, much of the "crap" has been generated through Logan's efforts to assist his family.
In contrast, Elnathan John's Bayin Layi, set in a Hausa-speaking and predominantly Muslim part of Nigeria, plunges us in media res. The narrator is Dantali, one of a group of homeless boys who sleep under the kuka tree in the town of Bayan Layi.
These boys "like to boast about the people they have killed". We are introduced to their seemingly amoral perspective: without the security or guidance of home or parents, they are easily sucked up into what seems to be standard election-time violence in Nigeria.
Driven by desperation or greed, they stop at nothing; in their hands machetes become lethal weapons. They seem to have internalised the worst aspects of the society around them. These include ethnic hatred (one boy is killed partly "because he has the nose of an Igbo boy") and homophobic violence (another victim is referred to as "a disgusting dau dauda" (or effeminate homosexual).
The effect of the plain, unvarnished narrative is chilling: "I am not thinking as we move on, burning, screaming, cutting, tearing. I don't like the feeling in my body when this machete cuts flesh so I stick to the fire and take the matchbox from Banda." At the end our narrator is running "far, far away from Bayan Layi" - but to what possible future? The references to Allah and the call of the muezzin form an ironic backdrop to the grim action of the story.

South Africa seen from beyond the border

By Leon de Kock

One of the effects of the globalisation of the novel, leading to that contentious creature referred to nowadays as "world literature" - a supposedly "post-national" phenomenon - is that anyone can now, more easily, write about anywhere, including South Africa.
In the old days of struggle literature, "outsiders" would tread warily on "insider" turf, and writing about South Africa from an outsider point of view tended to take the form of non-fiction rather than confidently imagined novels which delivered commentary on the "state of the nation". No more.
Two recent novels show that commentary from outside is both salutary and refreshing: Adrian van Dis's Betrayal (excellently translated from the Dutch, Tikkop, by Ina Rilke, Maclehose Press, London) and Patrick Flanery's Absolution (Riverhead, New York, 2012).
Flanery's novel attracted at least one local review in which his characterisation of South African mannerisms was questioned, but on the whole his novel is absorbing, if somewhat bland. It has received good reviews, especially in the international media.
Van Dis's Betrayal, the more recent of the two, raises some interesting issues. It is a riveting tale of post-apartheid disillusionment which plays out in a little Cape fishing village where Mulder, an old "struggle" collaborator from the Netherlands, meets up once again with a formerly exiled Afrikaner ANC comrade.
Their lives conjoin in the stewardship of Hendrik, an intelligent coloured teenager who is addicted to tik and who - at a critical moment in the novel - must choose between material and spiritual goods, raising the issue of what is known in contemporary scholarship as "uneven modernities".
Instead of accepting the good intentions of the two well-off former struggle "heroes" and their way of helping him get his life back into shape through education, Hendrik instead runs away with their stuff: a laptop computer, a hairdryer and the rich silver belonging to the wealthy old house where he's been put up by the rebel scion of patriarchal Afrikanerdom.
What else did these whiteys expect? Imagine for a moment the possibility - at this late stage in the post-industrial era, and more than 10 years into the new millennium - that you still have never seen a lighted oven, not to mention a gleamingly slim computer containing Google Earth and info on cool-dude Chinese punks?
Or, even worse - you see these goodies via their media representations, on massive advertising boards, flapping in the wind as newspaper images, mockingly out of your reach, but you're supposed to make peace with the fact that Facebook and Twitter are for the rich only. And for the most part, that means for whites only, even in 2013.
Hendrik's destiny, as he sees it, is a life without gadgets and connectivity, and although Van Dis occasionally pushes the limits in his characterisation of a rural coloured boy who has never before seen an oven, it's nevertheless a no-brainer when such a boy must choose between modernity's goodies on the one hand, and Protestant values like forbearance and patience on the other.

Morality of Border War goes unquestioned

By Gary Baines

The body of literature on the "Border War" has grown exponentially in the last decade or so. These writings have included veterans' memoirs, novels, unit histories and military histories.
Leopold Scholtz's work falls squarely into the last category for he posits that his The SADF in the Border War 1966-1989 (Tafelberg, 2013) is "primarily a military rather than a political history".
The eminent British military historian John Keegan was critical of practitioners who disregarded or downplayed the broader socio-political and economic context in which wars were waged.
He labelled the approach of those who argued that major changes were determined by the outcome of significant military engagements as "battle-centric" history. Scholtz does not fall into this trap but he comes close to doing so.
Scholtz is well qualified to write a military history of the border war but he feels a need to defend the role of historians in providing balanced, well-informed accounts of the border war against those who uphold the authority of the eye witness as somehow inviolable.
Contributors to the recent collection of SADF veterans' writings compiled by (retired) General Jannie Geldenhuys under the title We Were There claim to know what "really happened" by virtue of their participation in specific battles or campaigns.
But they merely offer a perspective that should be subjected to scrutiny as with any other version of the events.
Personal narratives or experiential stories have their own particular shortcomings as history. But, then, the same is true of other primary sources. Scholtz has drawn upon a vast array of documents, interviews and published accounts to provide a comprehensive history of the border war.
It surpasses extant works by military journalists such as Willem Steenkamp and Helmoed-R?mer Heitman because of the author's willingness to approach the subject of the SADF critically rather than as an apologist.
However, Scholtz still avoids addressing thorny questions about the morality of the war and the criminal conduct of the SADF.
Nor is he prepared to acknowledge that the armed struggle waged by military wings of Swapo and the ANC might have had significantly more political legitimacy than the counter-insurgency of the SADF and its surrogates.
Although there can be no denying that the liberation movements, too, were guilty of human rights abuses and the TRC pronounced all military formations "perpetrator organisations", the level of violence committed by the SADF was disproportionate to the perceived threat to the country - especially when it is remembered that most of the destruction was wrought upon innocent victims in neighbouring states.
Scholtz is critical of the upper echelons of the SADF for micromanaging the war and so limiting the freedom of the commanders on the ground.
He argues that the SADF's strategic objectives in Angola/Namibia were blunted by generals who were concerned about losses of national servicemen and the concomitant political fall-out among the white constituency.

When the safety net is removed: Wolf, Wolf

By Christine Emmett

Mattheüis Duiker walks into his father's study and cannot help but aspire to this as the domain of private reflection and exclusively masculine exchange.  In Michiel Heyns' English translation of Eben Venter's novel, Wolf, Wolf (Tafelberg), Heyns captures this pleasure, as well as the emphasis placed in the original syntax of the Afrikaans version. Mattheüis' father is dying, and the house will be part of his inheritance, "His, the study will be." This symbolically imbued space, positioned in a Cape Dutch house in Cape Town's southern suburbs, epitomises the Afrikaner patriarch, Benjamin Duiker's wealth.
A comfortable and secure prospect; though as Mattheüis is apt to point out, he will have to change aspects of the house to fit with the changing identity of Afrikaners in post-apartheid South Africa - "The Battle of Blood River picture, that can be chucked out".
This painting reappears throughout the novel indicating issues surrounding Afrikaner inheritance. In Afrikaner nationalist mythology, the Battle of Blood River was used to legitimate Afrikaners' role as an independent and politically dominant group in South Africa. The battle, taking place on December 16, 1838, purportedly involved a clash in which the Voortrekkers were vastly outnumbered by Zulu warriors. It's claimed that Sarel Cilliers made a covenant with God that would secure his people's victory. Because, among overwhelming odds, the Voortrekkers succeeded in winning the military encounter, this event became mythologised as proof of legitimate (because it appeared divinely ordained) occupation and political sovereignty in South Africa. It is no surprise then that Mattheüis, a young, gay, white South African, would want to leave this part of the past and his father's ideological beliefs behind. These ideologies, dated and prejudiced, are effectively the same ones which deny the legitimacy of Mattheüis' relationship with his lover, Jack. At his most accommodating, Benjamin Duiker can only say: "That's your business. But not in my house. I won't allow it. It flies in the face of my principles."

The house, the container of Benjamin Duiker's values and prejudices, is the same one which Mattheüis wants to inherit. This gives rise to a number of issues in the new South Africa: what is to be made of Afrikaner wealth and privilege? Bestowed on the previous generation by discriminatory policies which benefited both Afrikaner material wealth and Afrikaner culture, what is the new generation of Afrikaners to inherit? Can one appropriate the privileges of apartheid and use them to forge a new subject position? Can they be manipulated, changed, and have the core ideologies vacated, as the disavowal of the Blood River painting suggests?
The patriarch's death is a slow one. A significant part of the novel is dedicated to detailing this decline. Benjamin has lost his sight and his internal organs are deteriorating as a result of the chemotherapy administered to fight off his lymphoma. His son, nursing him, experiences both anger and guilt amid the forced intimacy which frailty necessarily effects. These details underlie the miscommunications and painful moments in which both parties hope to secure something of their lives before Benjamin expires.
In this way Venter represents both the anguish and ambivalence of familial passing, and the ambiguous and fraught relationship between Afrikaners and their past. Wolf, Wolf is at times graphic and visceral, but for the most part, remains an emotional and sensitive account of the slow and painful extinguishing of human life.
Within this bleak context, hope is vested in two aspirations: the fast food business which Mattheüis hopes to open in Observatory, and the house, which he is certain his father will pass on to him. This will be the place in which he will start a new life once his father has died.
This allows Venter to dramatise the struggle involved in the desire of a younger generation of Afrikaners to distance themselves from the prejudices and values of their cultural heritage, while holding on to the material legacy it facilitated. As an Afrikaner in the new South Africa, Mattheüis must adapt his inheritance - not only the house, with its emblems of Afrikaner nationalism, but the general way of life and world view passed down between generations. Venter suggests two problems inherent in this action: firstly, the extent to which people are able to choose their inheritance in this way; and secondly, what new values will substitute the outdated ones.