By Mike Nicol
The issue central to this month’s column actually came up during a panel discussion at the London Book Fair in April, so my apologies for only getting round to it now, but there’ve been equally pressing issues to write about in between. Always assuming that in the heady world of crime thrillers, there are some issues more pressing than others, that is. The LBF panel was to address the matter of writing crime fiction in South Africa. As is the nature of these things, it did more than that.
The ‘more than’ part was about race – which, for those of us at the bottom of the African continent, is a topic that’s never far from our everyday lives let alone our fiction. In the run-up to the panel discussion I asked local crime novelists for their opinions on the main topic and ran them on my blog Crime Beat and then summarised them in my May column for ITW. But the focus there was violence in our society and its representation in our fiction. I felt the race issue needed a separate outing.
The topic first came up in a contribution to Crime Beat from Karin Brynard. (Unfortunately her extraordinary novel, Plaasmoord, is only available in Afrikaans at the moment.)
She wrote: “Recently at the Stellenbosch Woordfees [a book festival held each March in the university town near Cape Town] I attended a session where the (white) writer Wynander Coetzer was torn apart by two women because he dared to use a ‘coloured’ woman as a main character in his book, Skerpioen. This character is rather interesting, in the sense that she grew up a San living off the veld, but eventually became a Cape Town based psychologist. And towards the end of the book she starts embracing her San shamanic roots and its ancient but relevant wisdom. The ‘coloured’ women accused him of being racist by turning his character into a witch doctor!
“This conversation carried on afterwards – we asked ourselves, who was entitled in this country to tell whose stories? Am I allowed to use a San character or a Zulu-character, I asked a literary professor from a formerly black university? He answered that, strictly speaking the answer is no, because what do I know about living like a traditional or urban Zulu?”
The point about imaginative writing is that writers are supposed to use their imaginations to conjure up worlds they might not have experienced. And make it feel authentic. I’ve never shot let alone killed anyone, yet characters die by the bucket load in my books. As I’m male I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman, but this hasn’t stopped me writing female characters. Nor do I know what it’s like to be elderly – although as the poet Philip Larkin once assured us, “we shall find out”.
On the London panel were Deon Meyer and Gillian Slovo, with the discussion being led by Tom Harper. Afterwards he emailed to say, “We had a good discussion on whether white authors could write from different racial viewpoints – both authors were adamant that you could, and that creating characters from your imagination was a key part of what writers do.”
I couldn’t agree more.