Tuesday, November 12, 2013

What’s African anyway?

I said to myself that I was going to keep my mouth shut about this. Really. Because this old argument has been doing the rounds in my immediate writerly circles for ages now. But some stuff’s been said by folks in the media recently that picked open the scabs, so I’m going to have my say and then be done with it. I'm also glad that I've waited a week to calm the hell down before posting this (and removing all the F-bombs).

Firstly, there’s the notion of what constitutes being African, and writing African issues. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that all people who reside in Africa, or who were born here, should have a voice. But … And here’s the really big BUT. This voice should be inclusive.

We need to ask ourselves why many South African fantasy, horror and SF writers look to getting published overseas rather than locally. Oh, it’s never said out in the open, but I’ve – excuse the colloquialism – picked up enough stompies. (Reading between the lines, for you folks overseas.) We have a wealth of amazing talent in this country, and what’s being done to develop it? Not much.

Oh, you’re not literary enough.

You’re not writing about “African” issues.

Your ancestors were not born in Africa.

You are not African enough.

Major awards or grants go to writers who create the “right” kind of “African” fiction or poetry. So, what’s going to happen to South Africa’s answer to JRR Tolkien, Stephen King or Ray Bradbury? Not much. Their voices will go unheard because they do not validate a common stereotypical perception of “Africa”. This is discrimination. Plain and simple. You can try dress it up in platitudes about how we need to uplift blah, blah, blah, but it doesn’t change the facts. I see this in other art forms too, particularly the film industry. It makes me tired.

Culturally I'm Afrikaans. When I was a teenager, I was so ashamed of my culture and race back in the 1990s I stopped writing and reading in my mother tongue or discussing "local" issues in my fiction. I looked to the worlds created by Anne McCaffrey, JRR Tolkien, Kate Elliot and CJ Cherryh for inspiration. Which is possibly now why I write mainly SFF/H. I often feel my writing is socially unacceptable here because I choose to write SFF/H. But, get this. (It gets even better.) When I submit to overseas houses, I have my stories rejected because they are not “recognisably African”. When you say you are an African writer, there are certain expectations of your art, and you need to play along and conform to a particular vision of what is African – according to the lens presented by the world.

What makes my experience of being African any less valid than that of a farmer’s daughter in the Northern Cape or a retired security guard living in a township?

But jawellnofine. I'll leave you with that. I'm going to continue doing my thing, and I'll continue cheering on some of my mates who've broken into the overseas market because hey, that's awesome. You go. Do your thing. I'm not going to stop trying.

All I ask is that you think about what it means to be African, and how we are moving into a world where borders are blurring, and cultural identity is moving from local to global. Africa is more than thorn trees in the Serengeti. It's more than South Africa's apartheid past or the depredations of colonialism. We need to move beyond that.


  1. I understand your frustration and your rant +Nerine Dorman.

    It's sometimes very hard to educate the masses, when the masses are still being presented with three African stereotypes:

    1) Bushmen and women in grass skirts, with serengeti safari animals in the backyard
    2) Blood thirsty savages hacking each other to death
    3) Colonial / apartheid white lords and ladies with parasols playing croquet on the green lawns in the middle of the savannah (they kind of get the stories mixed up.)

    Anyway, that is how Africa (the country) is perceived by many because that is the fodder the media feeds them.

    Oh! And by the way, I was one of them when I arrived here 12 years ago because you don't know what you don't know ;-)

    1. Thank you, Joan. I guess what I'm also getting at is that I'd like to see people open themselves to fresh perspectives, and to stop pigeonholing expectations. Where appropriate, for instance, I will write a PoC as a viewpoint character. But I'm not going to write this exclusively either.