I was pacing around the garden, admiring the blooming agapanthus and sipping a cup of tea, ruminating about things and finally settled on the South African stories that I read in New Contrast and New African Writing and then I considered some of the things that I haven’t written about. I don’t mean the gender-appropriate, or race and religious related literary no-no’s – I mean the ordinary every day things that happen in our country.
Nadine Gordimer recently accused South African writers of failing to write the stories that are happening now. A common cry from South African readers is that they don’t want to read another damn story that takes place during the transition from apartheid to post-apartheid.
In fairness, many of the local novels have themes that have moved beyond apartheid; but rainbow-nation-weary readers aren’t prepared to even read the blurb. And who can blame them, when they’re faced with international novels that completely convey them to another place, another time, another life.
I tried to consider some of the contemporary issues in our country and wondered who might be interested in hearing how repatriated refugees are tasered on the flights to their countries of origin, who might be intrigued by the porn-star whose daughter attended my own daughter’s private school and was rejected by her peers because the car-park mommies didn’t want their children attending a party at a porn palace. Such stories, who’d believe them, I thought to myself.
Living in South Africa is a challenge. I doubt there is a resident of South Africa who doesn’t have a crime story to tell. In less than twenty four hours I had been told about or the following stories: The home invasion where a woman watched a thug holding a gun to her son’s head; a grandmother who had to leave her job two years before pensionable age to look after her orphaned grandchildren; a woman was ambushed while driving under the bridge situated 2km from our house, killed by the thugs who dropped a cement slab onto her windscreen.
While these stories might appear on the daily broadsheets and on TV news, they’re not the subject matter I, nor any South African reader, I imagine, want to be clutching when we get into bed at night or when we’re waiting at an appointment. No, I want subject matter that transports me from the horror stories that punctuate daily life for many South Africans.
So where do I find the stories that I write; well personally, most of the last twenty stories I’ve written have not been set in South Africa, simply because I am a travel writer and travel has provided me with an opportunity to look for stories elsewhere. I grasp this opportunity with both hands because I find that when I’m writing about another place or about the people that inhabit them, I am able to get the critical distance that I don’t achieve as easily when writing about South Africa. I’ve written short stories set in Mauritius and Thailand and a novel set in Morocco. The short story collection I’m compiling at present is set in Egypt as is the novel I will begin working on in June. The novels I plan to write after that one is set in Singapore, and the one after that in Japan.
I don’t think for a minute that there aren’t wonderful, spirit-lifting stories to be told about South Africa; I just don’t believe that, at the moment, I can emotionally detach myself from the grime of the crime to polish up the pretty.