Culture
African Pens 2011 JM Coetzee

African Pens

by Kavish Chetty / 28.07.2011

I don’t precisely adore cosmopolitanism, but I do think there’s something both strange and remarkable about an anthology of Southern African writing which omits black authors. Their absence here draws attention to itself: are black people simply not committing ink to paper? Or perhaps, more interestingly, are they simply not producing anything of value in the eyes of lavished adjudicator, Monsieur JM Coetzee? I don’t intend to sound conspiratorial with that last line, but one imagines that “Southern Africa” contains a great deal of blacks and that at least a handful – a modest smattering, even – are capable enough authors to intrude into this volume. The magnetism of African authorship, to me, appears to not gravitate around the southern reaches. In my private annals of accomplished Africans I mark Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Sefi Atta, Amos Tutola and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; all of whom safely evade the category of “southern”. Down in the South we have characters like Zakes Mda and Es’kia Mphahlehle, but one cannot help avoid recognising – when confronted with the topic – that there are a preponderance of palefaces on literary territory.

I’m available to the charge of being murderously incorrect, but as a literary critic I do notice that most of the local fiction which lands up on my desk is not black in the strictest sense. A casual survey of the right-hand side of my bookshelf admits of Vladislavic, Beukes, Sarah Lotz, Rayda Jacobs, Caspar Greef and Mike Nicol. The schedule for the upcoming Greyton Book Club festival adds to this roster Margie Orford, Christopher Hope, Finuala Dowling, Jason Drew and Kerry Hammerton.

I’m sure there is a veritable regiment of black writers out there, but clearly it’s quite possible to mull over the state of literary pursuit in this country whilst ignoring them altogether. In humanities departments, black scholars are easily the rarer sort. In my English Honours class of forty students, there is but a single black dame and – pardon me for speaking frankly – she isn’t exactly the most passionate literature student I’ve met. It’s possible to account for this phenomenon with a rather plain historical perspective: philosophy and the arts have traditionally been the domain of the middle-classes. This is really the foundational tenet of Marxist cultural criticism. Until you have satisfied your hunger and shelter requirements, you are spared from the narcissistic ravages of philosophy, chief amongst which is languid contemplation of finitude and mortality. Black embourgeoisement is a (relatively, as ever) recent phenomenon. Hence, the amount of black students who find themselves coming from families which genuinely place cultural capital and value on metaphysics, romantic poetry, Oedipus Rex and/or psychoanalysis is likely to be slim. I’m not suggesting that there is some definable lifeline pumping from the study of the arts into the production of writers, but the interdependency between the two is possibly something worth exploring. I’m sure there is some other naked theorising here to account for this fact, and if yours grips you in the right place, slather it all over the comment threads.

But in the judgment of art, there are two poles: the producers and the assessors. Sleuthing around the back of this book with an agenda in mind, I discover that there isn’t a black dude or dudette on the editorial board or reading panel either. I’m trying my best not to sledgehammer race into what is simply a curiosity of the way classes emerge and consolidate in a fairly fresh democracy – but I think we have a puzzle on our hands here. Is it possible to compile a volume called African Pens without (strictly speaking) an African anywhere in the process? (As an aside, let’s not get started on what “African” actually means. That’s a slurry post-dinner debate for another time).

In matters of substance African Pens makes for a splendid compendium of short-format literature. Collecting as it does the work of nineteen separate authors, it displays an admirable versatility of style and subject matter. ‘The Story’ by James Whyle is the opening piece, and the first-prize winner. It apprehends the short-piece format in a now familiar manner. In fact, this general tendency could be detected in many of the shorter pieces in Mahala 3. The logic is to supply the reader with a seemingly arbitrary episode – which begin and end at what might be taken to be strategic cut-offs which leave other parts of the story untold – which is in itself unremarkable, possibly quotidian; but beyond the surface idles a kind of insight which has the power to connect at a national level. Whyle’s piece accomplishes this fantastically. His episode is a kind of dreamy vignette in which a middle-aged man gets pulled over by a younger cop. They shared well-plotted dialogue, an interaction of power dynamics and class – the result is that kind of understated but profound literary reward which is largely the sovereignty of poetry and the short story.

Second-prize was awarded to Beth Hunt for ‘The Heatwave’. Her style is the opposite of Whyle’s: sentences burst with imagery, flush with cadence. William Oosthuizen’s ‘The Ticket’ got third-place bragging rights and his is one of the more enjoyable (if ultimately predictable) pieces about two young boys who unwittingly win the lottery and have to find a way of claiming their fat returns – without arousing the suspicions of the world-weary adults who satellite around them menacingly. Elsewhere, historical material provides the bases for stories like ‘July’ and ‘Pinch’.

Considering there are fifteen SADC countries all eligible for these awards, with 500 entries, it is possibly a mark of our own merits to report that with the exception of one writer born from Zambia and another hailing from Zimbabwe, all the stories are written by South Africans (or those with some past or present connection to South Africa). But regardless, to remain here in the evaluative mode writing of which stories I enjoyed and which I find tiresome is probably quite a misguided project. It should be adequate to say that this book provides readers with an impressive array to select from, and its stories mostly provoke, satisfy and enflame (although, as is the nature of any collection, quality is variable and uncertain). As an index predominantly on what South Africa is capable of producing in short-story form, I’d say this collection is 280 pages worth of positive omen.

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  1. bce says:

    “which begin and end at what might be taken to be strategic cut-offs which leave other parts of the story untold” huh? what could have been an interesting read is just a turgid sophomoric slog you’re so cheap andy you really really need an editor

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  2. Reader says:

    “Until you have satisfied your hunger and shelter requirements, you are spared from the narcissistic ravages of philosophy, chief amongst which is languid contemplation of finitude and mortality.”

    What fantastic phrasing!

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  3. Melanie B. says:

    This is really interesting, because I also noticed that the Franschhoek literary festival was lacking blacks. They only appeared to have Zakes Mda – who’s been in Chicago now for Christ knows how long. And some other guy from the Caribbean. There’s also some new collection of African writing launching at the Book Lounge soon, forget the name, which also appears to be missing black representatives of our literary culture.

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  4. dudie says:

    i dont know… i always find this writer’s style quite pretentious, too damn grave and a little too careful.

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  5. Ulla says:

    I respect this, but I couldn’t read the article. I noticed this in the book too and I think it’s wrong. I didn’t read because I don’t want to fume. There’s nothing to argue beyond the first line. Not yet, anyway. Until we address the one simple issue of omitting black writers.

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  6. Wilson says:

    zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz *snore*

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  7. frederick daniels says:

    A really insightful and well written article. All its points about the narrowness of literary adjudication of “competitions’ are valid. The fact is that we are in the midst of a very backward ‘neo-liberal’ historical period dominated by superficiality and anti-radicalism. That no black writers were included in the group of nineteen is more than peculiar; I wonder how many entries were received and how many stories were written by black authors as opposed to white? Having said this, there is one point where the article goes wrong: the winning story is not satisfactory; the depiction of the young Coloured cop is weak; he has no real personality and his speech pattern is unconvincing. The writer, a white person, got it wrong- he has no feeling for Coloured culture or speech so his character was unconvincing. To write out of your box, you need to be free of preconceptions and LISTEN and LOOK without blinkers. very few of us are currently able to do that – but still, artists must be in the forefront of this opening up to the Other.

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  8. frederick daniels says:

    A really insightful and well written article. All its points about the narrowness of literary adjudication of “competitions’ are valid. The fact is that we are in the midst of a very backward ‘neo-liberal’ historical period dominated by superficiality and anti-radicalism. That no black writers were included in the group of nineteen is more than peculiar; I wonder how many entries were received and how many stories were written by black authors as opposed to white? Having said this, there is one point where the article goes wrong: the winning story is not satisfactory; the depiction of the young Coloured cop is weak; he has no real personality and his speech pattern is unconvincing. The writer, a white person, got it wrong- he has no feeling for Coloured culture or speech so his character was unconvincing. To write out of your box, you need to be free of preconceptions and LISTEN and LOOK without blinkers. very few of us are currently able to do that – but still, artists must be in the forefront of this opening up to the Other. Man I love eating cock, mmmmm. Just want to chew on a big fat one. Put it in my mouth, let me lul my tongue around the tip and then slowly work the shaft down my neck.

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  9. Mavie says:

    The amount of trolls on this board, like the one who punked fredrick daniels above, is getting a little silly. Andy, you need to attract a better class of reader, serial.

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  10. Fed up... says:

    Mahala is thick with trolls these day’s. But I don’t think you can get rid of them. At least they bring people down a peg – sometimes. And it can be funny – sometimes. It’s good to know that as wonderful as you may think your opinion is, there’s always someone out there who just plain doesn’t give a shit. Best to just ignore them. Don’t feed the Trolls man.

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  11. JM Koet$ee says:

    Frederick, what does Coloured speech sound like? What is Coloured culture?

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  12. Andy says:

    if we could round up all the trolls and beat them with sjamboks…

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  13. Just Saying says:

    @Andy You could just not approve their comments. They’re annoying to people who come here to read and stops us returning to read subsequent comments.

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  14. Just Saying says:

    (Oh for the days when content was more important than conversions and hits…)

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  15. Andy says:

    it still is… we’re overhauling behind the scenes…

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  16. Mabel says:

    Very interesting piece that really hits on some hard facts. I think that a possible reason why some black people do not go on to do Honours or Masters in Literature is that there is pressure for them to start working as soon as possible. The Arts are still not respected in the community and parents are not that understanding. I did my Masters in English and most people remarked that I was wasting money, too lazy to go work and many said their parents would never have allowed them to study English Lit.

    There are some awesome black writers out there just need the outlet and time.

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  17. I think it’s time mahala changed the way their message boards are managed- I tire of having these beauteous chains of consciousness pissed on by witless ingrates.

    Well written Andy

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  18. Andy says:

    Christopher do you think it’d help to only use facebook messages? At least that way it’s less ambiguous

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  19. [...] African Pens | Mahala In my private annals of accomplished Africans I mark Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Sefi Atta, Amos Tutola and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o; all of whom safely evade the category of “southern” Down in the South we have characters like Zakes Is it possible to compile a volume called African Pens without (strictly speaking) an African anywhere in the process? (As an aside, let's not get started on what “African” actually means. That's a slurry post-dinner debate for [...]

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  20. [...] blog, Mahala.com has two must-read posts about what’s considered normal in South Africa: white writing (what’s out for our longer post on Monday on this) and white [...]

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  21. Neelika Jayawardane says:

    White Writing: AFRICA IS A COUNTRY http://t.co/X6J0r7Z

    Thanks for pointing this pot – but really, no need to be so polite or attempt not to offend the Coetzee-Protection Mafia. The man who wrote the definitive book of essays analysing on ‘European’ writing in South Africa (the excellent White Writing), the man who is protected from valid critique (not the idiotic politically-motivated nonsense) includes no black writers? I’m hardly shocked. The politeness evident in this Chetty’s critique indicates the level of tiptoeing one is obliged to do, whenever approaching the circle of protection around Coetzee. As Chetty points out, “I think we have a puzzle on our hands here. Is it possible to compile a volume called African Pens without (strictly speaking) an African anywhere in the process” (“let’s not get started on what ‘African’ actually means”, Chetty adds), when there are “fifteen SADC countries all eligible for these awards” and when there were over 500 entries?

    The stranger thing is complicity of the editor and publisher, who agreed to continue to permit such a lopsided selection. While Coetzee’s name on the cover means that there will be good sales, this selection also endorses the view that no black people can write well enough to be selected by The Master. Apparently, none of them read Chimurenga or Kwani?

    Of course, the entries were anonymously judged. And I’m sure they were winnowed down for JM. But South African hardly need to be told that all sorts of things (social class, education, geographical location/history of that place, and being trained to write in the ‘classical form’ i.e. ‘European’ forms of writing) enter how/what one writes. And how people judge ‘good’ writing is equally changeable, according to those same markers. A proactive committee/set of editors would have taken a step in the right direction: a few emails distributing the invitation to submit to key journals (such as the two I mentioned) would have guaranteed a deluge of wonderful fiction.

    If the same had happened in the music industry (Music from SADCC turns up nada back musicians!) imagine the riot (I’m being ironic here – I know the social history of black involvement is different. But imagine if only those who were doing ‘classical’ music were considered). Even the ivory towers of art based in South Africa wouldn’t dream of not including black artists in this day and age.

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  22. [...] of “winning stories”, African Pens 2011: New Writing from Southern Africa, and people like Kavish Chetty (in Mahala) point out that this collection –  which includes no black writers [...]

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