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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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