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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

Lauren Beukes on winning the British Arthur C Clark Award and the SF tag

Fred de Vries - 2011-06-08

Untitled Document

A Jo’burg bookseller described her as “sassy”, which I misheard for “sexy. “Yes, that too,” she laughed. Others have called her “ambitious”, which is slightly more worrying. How much ambition is still pleasant? Some of our female writers have mixed up ambition with incessant, exasperating self-promotion.

But when she sits across from me at a table in the garden of a Franschhoek house Lauren Beukes comes across as pleasant and patient, even though this must, as a passing photographer jokes, be her “400th interview” since she won the British Arthur C Clark Award for Science Fiction. She was the ninth female winner, following in the footsteps of Margaret Atwood, who took the first award home 25 years ago. “They didn’t give reasons for why they picked Zoo City,” she says, “but they said it was the clear winner. It was practically from the beginning that they knew. No, no South African has ever won it. I’m the first.”

It’s probably too early to gauge the effects of bagging that prestigious award, but a few points can be made. The prize should be a clear incentive for our writers and publishers to take more initiative and actively explore the international market. Beukes signed a contract with British publisher, Angry Robot, who gave her a decent advance that enabled her to do the extensive research that the book needed. It raises the question: Why did this need a British and not a South African publisher?

Additionally, the international success of Zoo City should be a stimulus for publishers to start investing in longer-term writing careers so that their authors will find their own voice. Right now we’re stuck with a situation where we have an avalanche of debuts, but very few writers who manage to go beyond the first book. There’s a lot of happy activity on the surface of the pond, but very few ducks are given the chance to dive a little deeper.

Beukes says she’s working on her third book, which is set in 1992 and has a black albino as the main protagonist.

We talk for a while about genres. She acknowledges that the SF tag can be a handicap, that it may put people off. But, she adds, SF has come of age. In fact, it has been coming of age since the late sixties when the British publisher New Worlds took SF away from its American “pulp” tradition and pushed it into a much more literary field, with authors such as Michael Moorcock and JG Ballard. Subsequently SF started dealing with the dystopian features of modern life, often set in a recognisable near future.

“SF or any fiction is most interesting for me where it tackles our assumptions about the real world,” says Beukes. “I like playing with elements of the fantastic because it distorts reality just that bit more, in the same way satire does. That’s why District 9 works so very, very well. If it had been set on Mars, it would’ve had no impact. If it had been set in New York, it would’ve had no impact. If it had had real refugees instead of aliens, it would’ve had no impact. The fact that it was South Africa twisted made it so powerful.”

And that is exactly why Zoo City and the award are so important. This was a crowning moment for the new wave of South African fiction, a macro-genre that we can loosely label SA Grit and that encompasses science fiction, crime, detectives, horror, thrillers and real crime. Names include Mike Nicol, Deon Meyer, Sarah Lotz, Karin Brynard, Margie Orford and, of course, Beukes herself.

“I think it’s wide open now. People are writing much more diversely, writing the stories they want to write. Yes, scattered in terms of subject matter, but that’s a sign of a healthy literary world – that we are writing these diverse stories from these diverse perspectives.”

Critics have accused SA Grit of trying too hard to fit in with international trends. They say that these authors have shed that unique South Africanness that drives the work of Ivan Vladislavić and Marlene van Niekerk, that they merely use South Africa as a setting. That may be true for some, but it certainly isn’t true for Beukes and Zoo City. Sure, the setting is South Africa. And sure, Beukes’s style is a mishmash of various aspects of popular culture that include the cyber works of William Gibson, the jive talk of The Wire, the chemical experiments of Philip K Dick, the noir elements of James Elroy, reality TV, Alan Moore’s ominous comix and even some of the fantasy elements of Haruki Murakami.

But underneath all that Zoo City has a firm South African core, a South African soul. There are no space ships or interplanetary wars. It’s firmly set in the here and now: gritty Johannesburg, 2011. The most important “weird” element is that the baddies in the book are “animalled”, which means they all have an animal attached to them and live mainly in the Zoo City ghetto (Hillbrow). Main protagonist Zinzi December has her Sloth; her Congolese boyfriend Benoît has his Mongoose; there’s a Maltese, a Maribou, a Crocodile, even a Bear.

Asked how she came up with this idea, Beukes says: “I had a very clear image of a young woman in a tenement slum going up to this ratty cupboard and opening it and there was a sloth. And she took the sloth out and put it on her back like a backpack. And I knew she was going to have a run-in with this magician crime lord, and I knew she was going to run into very scary people, the Maribou and the Maltese. And then I had to figure out what happened from there. So this was a very striking image and the more you focus on it the more you tease it out.”

Beukes has built Zoo City around a search for two young lost pop stars, twins. The tribulations of “investigator” Zinzi lead the reader through the underbelly of Jo’burg: Hillbrow, Brixton, seedy clubland, the sewage and the downtown muti market. We enter a world full of clever scams, gadgets and ruthless exploitation, where the fortune seekers, conmen, tsotsis, druggies, losers and greedy all collide. As someone in the book remarks: “Someone is always buying in this city. Sex, drugs, magic.”

It’s a fast-paced, first-person, present tense thriller. And it’s very South African, very Jo’burg.

“Totally,” she says – a word she uses a lot. “The hustle. Jo’burg is almost the New York of Africa, and that does bring a lot more hustle than elsewhere. So many people are trying to make it, with ambitions and dreams in their eyes.”

That doesn’t mean Zoo City is flawless. For someone not used to science fiction or fantasy it may take a while to get used to the basic idea of the “animalled” people. And somewhere halfway the story starts to sag and the language loses its glitter. Journalese takes over and the story becomes murky. Or as the reviewer in The Guardian put it: “In the proud tradition of Chandler and Hammett, possibly Beukes herself isn’t sure who did what to whom, in what order and why, on the way to a supremely messy and disgusting climax.”

“There’s a bit towards the middle where she’s blundering around,” agrees Beukes. “I should probably have tightened it, because I think the reader feels they’re blundering around as well. But that is also classic investigation stuff. You don’t know what’s going on; you have to figure it out yourself. It’s about striking the balance between being too explicit and too implicit.” And with a nod to The Guardian she adds, “But people actually miss some of the clues. A lot of the revelations are in chapter 18, the sangoma consultation. It’s stuff that he says in the conversation – and I don’t make a big deal out of it. If you miss that, if you’re skimming that chapter, you’re screwed.”

But as with most SF, the plot is really secondary. What really matters is the pace, the cleverness and the themes that are explored. And those themes are all truly home-grown. It is interesting, for example, that Beukes has chosen a black female protagonist, something most white writers shy away from. “It’s always the white voice”, she says. “We always describe ‘she had cappuccino skin’, or ‘he was black as coffee’. I originally wanted to make all the skin descriptions about the white characters, from Zinzi’s perspective. Ultimately I didn’t do that. Listen, I think race in South Africa is still a big issue, but I think class is a much bigger issue right now.”

Beukes paints a world that has fallen apart, with a sharp structural divide between those who have succeeded and those who have not. She calls it “artificially enforced segregations”, a theme she also explored in her debut, Moxyland. Here, the second-rate citizens have been “branded” with their animal. It can be read as a reference to the yellow star for the Jews, to a Third World passport, to the old apartheid passes, to the Christian cross, even. “It’s about the burden of the past. The animals are physical burdens, but this country is burdened by the past. We are fucked by the legacy of apartheid.”

Also very South African is the image of the Undertow that Beukes introduces. Terrifying and cannibalistic, but never visible, it’s an allusion to the dark shadow that looms over people’s lives. “You can relate that to several things. We live under the shadow of crime and the shadow of apartheid. If you live with aids you live under that shadow, knowing that you will die.”

Additionally, Zoo City with its clubs, drugs, black magic and hapless pop stars can be read as a critique of the South African world of bling, where celebrities eat sushi from naked bodies, sweeping Mandela’s legacy under the coke mirror with a stroke of the razor blade. It’s the world of Idols and Jub Jubs, of instant gratification without responsibilities. A world where everyone wants you when you’re young, gifted and black, where you hop jobs and partners with equal ease. Zinzi is a case in point. “Totally,” says Beukes. “It fucks people up. It becomes the prom princess syndrome, where all the guys are after her and she can’t have a serious relationship because she’s flitting from the next one to the next one to the next one. I think it’s a big problem in our society.”

But the most South African element in Zoo City is the finale, which, despite all the gore, is surprisingly tender. Initially she had a bad ending in mind, but somehow she couldn’t push herself to write it. “Ultimately Zoo City is about guilt and redemption. And Zinzi needed to have that redemption. It’s redemption at a terrible price, but …”