Stuart Kelly (who, in his cream linen suit, apologises for looking like a “colonial overlord”) chaired a discussion with two of South Africa’s leading authors, Lauren Beukes and C A Davids, and how their work – although very different in topic and tone – is impacted by their country’s social and political legacy.
“The first idea was raceless,” says Davids, speaking of her debut work The Blacks of Cape Town, “but I had to go into race.” Though at its heart, the novel is a fictional family history focusing on the limits of forgiveness. “People have taken a step back,” she says. “Forgiveness is a very important part of the South African discourse.”
Beukes’ novel Broken Monsters is set in Detroit, a world seemingly at first far removed from South Africa. Describing the American city as “the ruins of our civilisation”, Beukes goes on to draw parallels with her chosen setting and her homeland, describing it as an “analog for Johannesburg”, and how her latest work examines how “we’re all broken inside.”
Kelly asks how the legacy of apartheid has affected both authors’ work, and if it has in some way defined a sense of “apartness” in South African literature. Davids believes that it has, though points out that authors are no “no longer confided to that ghetto of apartheid writing.” Beukes agrees, declaring this as an “exciting time, wide-open”, though very much still imbued with a social conscience.
A discussion about genre follows, and whether the issues raised by both authors are easier to address in the speculative worlds often depicted by Beukes. “I have to obfuscate,” she says, describing writing as “a game you play with yourself then force on other people.”
Davids concedes that genre fiction may provide a more accessible way to raise issues, but believes work need not be put in boxes and that genres can be defied. “In South Africa we break laws habitually,” she says. “There is a point where we have to.”