Books: Beyond borders
Local authors are using foreign landscapes to explore perennial human issues
There’s a literary Great Trek of sorts taking place. A bevy of local writers have abandoned the familiar SA backdrop, metaphorically leaving home to colonise imaginary hinterlands abroad — the US, in the case of both these novels.
There is at least one obvious advantage to this literary migration. The new destinations are likely to prove to be financial El Dorados, for the SA novel-buying populace is small, whereas the transatlantic one is enormous.
South, by Frank Owen — the joint pseudonym of writing team Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer — is a post-apocalyptic novel set in the eponymous lower swathe of America, following a civil war between it and the North.
Similarly futuristic and dystopian is debut crime thriller Zodiac, by Sam Wilson, which plays out in a California whose citizens are immutably divided into castes at birth according to their astrological sign.
It all makes for an exciting, welcome departure from the long-running obsession of so much local writing to pick compulsively through the entrails of apartheid and hope to come up with something original and interesting.
Says Awerbuck: "As a South African it is hard to write about big issues without focusing on apartheid and giving readers the feeling that they are being preached at. Dystopian literature is also a very serious genre dealing with big issues, but you can sneak them under the radar."
It is about intellectual freedom, agrees Latimer. Working in another space, in another place, allows the writer to "take those heavy things that we have been so exposed to and have dealt with over and over, and then [come] at them from a new, fresh, completely different angle".
For Wilson, who is Zimbabwean-born but has lived in SA for many years, the matter of setting is simple: "I just don’t feel confident of authentically conveying an SA voice. I felt much more confident writing a version of America, because we are all living somewhere or another in the American empire.
"I also appreciate that [writing for an international market] means that though one is seen as an SA author, one is not tied to a geographic location. The recognition is about what one is writing rather than where one is writing."
Awerbuck describes the literary trek as a "reverse cultural imperialism". "We are all so familiar with America, not only as a setting but as an idea, as a trope."
It doesn’t matter whether something actually works or not. Sometimes it is enough that you believe it worksSam Wilson
It’s an imperialism that, in both these novels, has paid off handsomely.
Awerbuck and Latimer have imbued South with a dark, brooding Tolkien-like atmosphere. It’s 30 years since wind-borne viruses, deliberately released by the North, have reduced the South to perpetual ruin, with every strong wind bringing new mutations of death.
The two Americas — the rich North and ravaged South — are separated by an impenetrable wall. The few survivors live haunted lives, avoiding both the wind and one another, for it is a world without government or law.
The brothers Garrett and Dyce Jackson are on the run from a vigilante posse when their paths cross that of Vida Washington, who is searching for herbs to treat her dying SA-born mother.
They are compelled by circumstances to co-operate. Flight transforms into a quest — travel is by foot, for while there are wild animals, horses have been completely wiped out by the viruses — that takes them to sanctuaries both real and illusionary.
Since both Awerbuck and Latimer are independently successful as writers, why collaborate? At the simplest level, it is the result of sharing a publisher, meeting often at book events, and on a whim deciding to work together.
As a South African it is hard to write about big issues without focusing on apartheid and giving readers the feeling that they are being preached atDiane Awerbuck
Latimer would write a chapter, concentrating on narrative, and then send it to Awerbuck who would double its length, "filling in the texture", as Latimer puts it.
Or, as Awerbuck quips, "doing the women’s things".
There was one unexpected benefit, says Latimer: "Once you collaborate you are creating a third voice, a completely new persona.
"It’s not what I would write and it’s not what [Awerbuck] would write. It’s what the imaginary Owen would write.
"That creates a lovely distance for an author. You can do new, different things in this other voice and not take full responsibility."
South is at turns both terrifying and uplifting. It’s one of those books one wants to enjoy in nibbles, both to prolong it and to better savour its richness. A sequel, North, is in process.
Stars in their eyes
Like South, Wilson’s Zodiac, too, has a tenuous SA character connection. Cape Town is the old hometown of astrological profiler Lindi Childs, who is working with detective Jerome Burton on a series of bizarrely brutal murders.
Burton is sceptical about whether the answer to the killings can be discovered in astrological theory or constructing a horary chart, all of which makes for a prickly working relationship between the two. However, they find enough common ground soon to conclude that an elaborate killing plan is being executed.
The whole concept of Zodiac — that rather than race, religion or wealth, it is the arbitrariness of time and date of birth that determines your position and life — is not only wonderfully original, but it allows Wilson to riff off it with slyly humorous comparisons. It’s a cleverly subversive way of challenging the reader to upend racial and religious preconceptions, without any preachy didacticism.
Says Wilson: "Astrology is something that most people understand but it doesn’t have the historical baggage, the weight of race, religion or class, or any of the other ways that people judge one another. It allows me to be playful and dance around without standing on people’s beliefs and prejudices. That’s one of the things about fiction. It lets you approach the world from a different angle.
"One of the cores of the novel is that of self-fulfilling prophecies. If you are told from birth that you are going to be poor, useless and not a good worker, you end up in a bad job, which is [the] case with the Aries people in the novel.
"These beliefs are based on nothing, on nonsense. But they have very real consequences. It’s that weird moment when fiction turns into reality."
That closure of the loop between fiction and reality happens when one of the characters discovers his parents had faked his birth date to avoid him being stigmatised as a member of a "bad"
That is, of course, the leitmotif in a number of apartheid-era literary novels, where the protagonist finds that his "white" identity is actually a sham, a fig leaf hiding the social shame of mixed-race parentage.
"Absolutely," says Wilson. "One does not have to write about SA to reflect that universal truth. It’s what I really enjoyed about writing this novel, that sense of undercutting comforting but fake world views, which, when stripped away, forces the reader fundamentally to question [his or her] reality."
Similarly, there is a parallel between Burton’s antipathy to his bosses summoning the assistance of an astrological profiler and the reliance of present-day Western police departments on the "science" of psychological profilers. Burton’s feelings are no different, one imagines, to the feelings of many cops who believe in a painstaking process of elimination and deduction, rather than the ambiguous subtleties of psychology.
"Some things that are accepted in criminal analysis for years as proof have been found not to be as accurate as assumed initially, including DNA evidence. So I loved the idea of someone solving crimes using a flawed method.
"Simply the fact that Lindi is focusing her attention on the crime and is thinking it through, is what matters. It is the dedication that solves the crime, rather than the tools applied."
Wilson says he deliberately left ambiguous whether astrology works in that zodiac universe. "It doesn’t matter whether something actually works or not. Sometimes it is enough that you believe it works."
Zodiac as a book certainly doesn’t seem to require an act of faith to work. After a first release in SA, in December it hits the shelves in the UK, then there are sequential rollouts in Germany and the US. Translation rights have been sold in Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Turkey.
Wilson has also been contracted to do a "semi-sequel". It is set in the same zodiac world, but in a different part of it, with different characters and dealing with different aspects of life in a world where the populace believes fervidly in astrology.
Wilson is a little taken aback by his sudden literary success. "I got really lucky. I had written a comic novel about the collapse of ancient Rome. It was completely unsaleable, but fortunately an editor at Penguin liked the writing enough to open the door to me to write Zodiac."
Clearly, it was all written in the stars.
South, by Frank Owen (Corvus);
Zodiac, by Sam Wilson (Penguin)