The second in Kgogomodumo’s new season of recordings by Batswana poets introduces Mr.Drummer, and his poem I’m An Artist And That’s All I Know.
Introduction / Reading : I’m An Artist And That’s All I Know
My name is Laone Matlapeng. I organize platforms where the arts can begin to get organized in Botswana. We mainly focus on local artists, and at the moment my main focus has been poetry and contemporary music. My company is called South East Entertainment. One of these platforms is Rhythm Art & Poetry; we recently organized a graffiti workshop / hip hop event (at Alliance Francaise). We wanted to encourage respect for graffiti, as it’s viewed as “dirty artwork”. And to also create platforms for local hip hop artists and poets, because graffiti, hip hop and poetry are all linked. They stem from the same culture.
How did your interest in creating this kind of platform begin?
The first time I came back to Botswana after living in Australia, I went to the open mic sessions at Khwest. I was blown away. I wanted to capture the same feeling but at each other event I went to, they weren’t really delivering the same quality as the artists at Khwest. So that stirred my interest in trying to create platforms for local artists. I feel that people need to understand that we have an industry in waiting. We have to create our own structures. Then perhaps the government can take us seriously.
What was the reason for the gap in quality you were seeing?
Most of the artists at Khwest had been exposed to different arts environments. That exposure, you could say, encouraged them to try to bring it here. But because of the lack of structure, that either dies quickly or people become fed up because they can’t see any growth.
When you say structures – what exactly was / is missing?
Adequate venues, that can bring the right people together. Let me give you an example. When we began the Rhythm Art & Poetry platform last year, we got a huge response – local artists felt that it was a platform for their markets. It began at Cresta, then we came back this year at George’s (I was a former employee at Cresta, and some of the management weren’t so happy about me being there!) The event at George’s was gaining momentum; unfortunately the management had different views. Now we are at Talking Heads in Maru-a-Pula. Talking heads is a bit bigger, and has a similar atmosphere to George’s. The other thing was adequate marketing – most shows don’t target the man on the ground. Africans are people of poetry and music, we express ourselves through poetry and music, we pass on our stories through poetry and music. We are naturally artists. In Botswana, the man on the ground has lost touch with this – unless he goes to weddings and funerals, he’s not seeing art uplifting him personally. So we’re trying to rekindle that.
What are the individual expectations of the artists involved in your shows?
At the moment, they want exposure. And a lot of exposure. They understand that the industry is at this stage, and they can’t really expect to earn money out of it. They have been cheated; they want to continue what they are doing, but they want real expectations. At the moment it’s just focused on really trying to get them out there.
How do you structure these evenings, in terms of what’s expected of each poet / performer?
I try to encourage as much creativity as possible, and the artists to work together. I try to build a working relationship with them, and then we try to see how far we can take it from there. We’re planning on doing a DVD next year, just so we can create content online, and content that can maybe sell, so we can share any proceeds from that.
What are your thoughts on the ‘split’ between poetry on the page and spoken word poetry?
The artists can do anything, up to a point. The open mic sessions are really for screening purposes. You can discover someone taking their art seriously from what they deliver on stage. And that’s when I begin to engage with the ones that want to take it to the next level. So I don’t really try to restrict anybody when they go on the mic. But Rhythm Art & Poetry is not a collective of poets. It’s an arts platform. We want to incorporate visual arts and theatre at some point. This is why we did the graffiti event, which really worked. The interest in slam poetry and graffiti showed me the public want something new, engaging and inspiring.
If anyone reading this wants to work with you in some way, what do they need to do?
I’d have to seem them work, so I’d invite them to come to Talking Heads on a Monday night. And I’m working on a mini festival, every three months. Talking Heads is taking a Christmas break – December 17th is the last one until late January. My aim is to try as much as possible to grow the level interest in the arts in Botswana. I support eTV’s proposed ban of SABC / Philibao. They want to cancel the free to air broadcasts, because they believe they take away from local productions. I fully support that. SABC is contributing to the lack of support for our industry.
Why is there an expectation in Botswana that you should be able to make money from art, and why the expectation that the government should necessarily help you? Doesn’t great art come from a reaction against government?
A lot of artists have been exploited for too long. They’ve seen people making money through them, and feel they’ve been ripped off. So their expectation is focusing on money. But there are those that still believe in art as a way to express yourself. There is art that you can make money out of; if we won the case against SABC / Philibao, we could create greater interest in the arts. Artists could be using their creativity for advertising purposes, for example. If the government pulled up their socks with regards to BTV, it could create great economic platforms to generate money for artists.
But is it possible to have a thriving arts scene that isn’t subversive and confrontational?
Our media, our journalists are failing. So we have to change the whole mindset. Art is supposed to vocalize the opinions of society. But the newspapers here didn’t cover our Alliance Francaise event properly, despite being given incentives to come down. Only The Patriot newspaper really showed an interest. Even some of our media sponsors didn’t show up. But it’s not the companies – the journalists have to be more proactive here. Because they are our voices.
Should you doubt science fiction is as relevant to Africa as to anywhere else in the world (or universe), look no further than Nnedi Okorafor’s ‘Who Fears Death’ – a vision of a magical post-apocalypse Africa that resonates with the power of stylistic economy, and a tough, compassionate detachment. In the last of a three-part series on the best new science fiction from Africa, the UK and the USA, Nnedi Okorafor spoke to me from her home in Chicago about her stark vision of the future, soon to be brought to life in film.
On your website (here), you quote Patrice Lumumba: “Dear friends, are you afraid of death?” The title of this novel, Who Fears Death, is a real statement of intent – this will not necessarily be a comfortable ride for the reader.
It’s funny, because I never saw the title as “uncomfortable”. Most people do. But for me, ‘Who Fears Death’ is my character’s name. It’s what’s called an “Ogbanje” name in Igbo culture. Those are names that taunt or try to sooth death. So when I was writing the novel, to me it was called “Onyesonwu”. The only reason I didn’t name it that was because that name would scare readers away with its foreignness.
What does this say about the reader? Were you playing with perceptions? Were you exploiting this recoil in the reader?
Simple answer: yep. Playing with cultural lines, points of view, perceptions, all that. I knew the title would have that effect. And I also knew it was meant to have that effect. And the misinterpretation would create its own story.
The book deals with themes that, like your title, touch at the heart of human brutality and vulnerability, especially regarding female circumcision. What was the effect, for you, of choosing genre to channel your ideas about these issues? Did you feel it important to allow the reader some breathing space, so to speak, by setting your narrative in the future? Does genre soften the blow – or ultimately intensify it?
When I write, I never think about any of these things. I am such a hybrid, that the worlds I create are hybrid. So when I wrote ‘Who Fears Death’, the fact that it was in a future Africa and that the world was full of magic…that was all very natural to me. Now the question of genre softening the blow… I strongly believe that this is the case. It’s an unintended benefit.
When you say it was natural to you… this book was very instinctively written?
Yes, exactly. I didn’t set out to write about these tough issues, their magical futurism. It just happened when I sat down to write it. I didn’t even really know the setting when I wrote the first chapter. The catalyst for this novel was the passing of my father. That opening chapter is nonfiction up until the weirdness starts. I had no title, no outline, nothing. Then a week later, I read about weaponized rape in Sudan (that was the Washington Post article) and then I knew my setting. For a while I was calling “onya”… then when I was about halfway through the novel, I went to Nigeria. While there, I met the husband-to-be of my cousin. His last name was Onyesonwu. I knew “onwu” meant death, so my ears perked up. Once he told me the meaning of his name, my novel had a title and my character’s name changed. The process for writing this novel was extensive and very non-linear. Once I knew her name, things about her character shifted, too.
Magic is central to the novel, and love – ifunanya – is a powerful metaphysical force in ‘Who Fears Death’; magic also drives your new book, ‘Akata Witch’. My experience of Africa so far leads me to believe that in many cultures on this continent, the perception of magic is not only a means to an end – whether facilitating customs or teaching lessons through superstitions – but also evidence that there is less of a separation between the imagination and the personality than there is, for example, in my country (England). Is this fair?
I always like to preface with “Africa is a big diverse place”. That said, what I’ve noticed about African cultures is that the mystical and the mundane are believed to naturally coexist. I think in the Western world, the mystical and mundane are seen as separate. Thus you have the magical fairy land that is not part of the mundane world, for example. I am a strong believer in the idea of the mystical and the mundane coexisting. That’s why sometimes the whole category of “fantasy” vs “non-fantasy” bugs me.
Please elaborate – this is something that Lauren and China have also touched on.
Well, how is something fantasy when it’s something that you believe in? Aspects of ‘Who Fears Death’ are not fantasy at all. There are people who believe in masquerades, shape shifters; the “golden rule” in the novel is straight out of Igbo spirituality. This isn’t “stuff I just made up”. Look at Ben Okri’s ‘Famished Road’. That’s never called “fantasy”. Look at ‘Things Fall Apart’ and many other African narratives…there is magic in them, but it’s not “fantasy”. It’s not so simple. And I love that.
It must also be rather frustrating sometimes though? Do you ever feel that channels that your book might reach are being controlled by people who would not understand your argument? There seems, to me, to be less and less room in the modern world for anything which is not very superficially ‘literal’…
YES! I feel like my stories often don’t reach certain audiences because of this. And that’s a shame. And what is “literal” anyway? There is plenty of literary fiction out there that I’d consider to be “fantasy”.
There is a beautiful line in the book which stopped me in my tracks: “Ani makes strange beauty from ugliness.” This suggested so many things to me: resourcefulness, defiance, isolation. It also strikes me that the unique gift of the science fiction or fantasy writer is the celebration of the strange and the feared… SF and Fantasy qualified of course by your last comment!
That’s a line I remember thinking about a lot. It also implies that human beings can be very limited in their perceptions. That we can be so mired in our ways, our cultures, that we can be blind…but once in a while, we can see through that blindness and then we get confused. I think another gift of the sf/f writer is that in our types of stories, we can take painful topics that have been discussed into the ground and renew them. We can make readers reconsider them. We can show things through the distorted lens…if we so choose. I certainly choose to.
The ‘Great Book’ of the novel serves as a guide, and instigator and a justification. And language (especially doctrine) itself both divides and unites. Is science fiction is exploring the power of language more boldly than any other genre?
Some of it is, some of it is just having fun (and there’s nothing wrong with either). I think all categories of storytelling have much to offer. I think they all explore language in different ways. It’s hard for me to speak on this because I read all kinds of stories and I take from all of them what I think is of value.
‘Who Fears Death’ is full of other books too – they are at once everywhere and superfluous and precious. I wonder how you feel about what is happening to reading in the 21st century?
I love narratives. I believe there is a deep spirituality about them. And to me, books are magical. That’s why you find them in many forms all over my novels. Spoken books, computerized books, old books, books written by people who died gathering the information for it. I have mixed feelings about what I see happening right now. But as a reader, I’m very optimistic. I have grown to love eBooks. But I will always love physical books, too. To me, they complement each other. We are now seeing people pirating books (it’s disturbing but it’s also a kind of a compliment!). We are watching “the book” shape-shift and multiply right before our eyes. It’s really quite cool.
“This can’t really exist, I thought. So much water.” I was very struck by the dry, unadorned beauty of your writing, and its lack of sentimentality. It is rare for a science fiction novel to achieve both. When you began writing this novel, did you make an early decision to create this powerful sense of distance? The reader is seduced by this, I would argue – we cannot help but care. I see, every day, how unsentimental people are in Botswana. There is just no room for sentiment.
I fell in love with the Sahara desert when in a plane that flew over it during the day (usually it was night when we flew over it). It looked like another planet but I knew there was earthly life down there, too. My mother also grew up in northern Nigeria and she would tell me about the land there. The dryness and the dust devils and the culture. It’s been under my skin for a while. The lack of sentimentality, I think that was intuitive because it’s kind of that way in Nigeria, too. Really, it’s just a way of looking at the world that is different from here in the US. Interesting that you picked up on that.
It has an immediacy and emotive power because there’s no sentimentality in between… It doesn’t ask anything of you or take anything. It just is. It always makes me think of the slipperiness of the “morality” of nature in a lot of western fiction.
Yeah, that’s what it is. And me being American too, I remember fighting myself. A part of me WANTED to have that morality. There are parts of the book that felt like I had to let go of the wheel and let that other part of me take over. It was not easy.
I was delighted to discover that (‘Pumzi’ director) Wanuri Kahui will direct the film of ‘Who Fears Death’. I know that this is always a difficult question for a writer, but it must be in some small part be painful to hand over your creation to someone else (even to someone as perfectly suited to this project as Kahui) … like waving goodbye to your child on the first day of school.
Actually, I’m totally excited to see what she does with the story. I want to see how it expands and shifts. I’m going to be a consultant, too, so I’ll be a part of it. But I totally trust Wanuri. Also, as long as it’s in the right hands, I have no problem handing my stories over like this. It is like a child. And with a child, you must let him or her become who he or she will be. And you have to have trust that you instilled all that needs to be instilled. I’ve seen glimpses of what Wanuri has in mind…oh, she and I are sooo on the same page.
‘Who Fears Death’ is full of technological innovation. There is an argument that developing countries may be better equipped to deal with the challenges of this century because they have, in some ways, dealt with them already. Do you see the Africa of the future becoming powerful through its ability to withstand the worst this world can throw at it?
Well, it depends on which parts you are talking about. Some parts of Africa are chugging along nicely, others…not so nicely. 1) No one knows the future. Who knows, there may be a wild card in there that none of us could ever predict. 2) I think that technology will evolve in a different way in Africa. 3) I do think that Africa (to generalize) is better equipped to handle certain problems because it’s had to struggle with certain things that other nations have never had to struggle with. Nevertheless, Africa has a long way to go on many fronts.
“It’s meant to make you feel safe. It’s supposed to remind you that great things will always be protected and people meant for greatness are meant for greatness. This is all a lie. Here’s how the story really happened.” There is great compassion in this – so my last question is: what is a book’s responsibility to the reader? To entertain, or tell the truth?
Ha-ha, that is a tough one because lies can tell the truth and the truth can tell lies. And entertainment can inspire truth. And the truth can be quite entertaining. It’s all connected… when we want it to be.
“Pippi promised her mother she would not go out all day, but would wait for her at home like a good girl. Pippi really did want to be a good girl, but while she was waiting, a friend came calling” ~ from ‘Pippi Danga’, a folk tale from the DRC
British author Melvin Burgess has been writing, and championing, the child’s voice since his first novel, The Cry of the Wolf, was published in 1990. I spoke to him about his latest book, Kill All Enemies, and his recent visit to the Congo with Save the Children, where he collected a number of folk tales told to him. On his blog about the visit, he writes, “And I know this: the witchcraft is something that happens at night, while you sleep and dream. You may be anything in the day world – poor or rich, young or old. But in the night world, the world we all visit when we dream, you could be something completely different”
You’ve said of your new book, Kill All Enemies: “It’s just amazing how the very people the system paints as bad are among the most remarkable people you could hope to meet.” In this context I must ask you first on your thoughts on the recent riots in the UK.
No, young people shouldn’t be out nicking fags and cameras, but then there is the example of the most enormous greed from above. Those MPs and those bankers managed to trouser fortunes without even breaking the law – how convenient is that. Second, everyone is doing their utmost to remove any form of political angle on it, but of course it is political in its own way – incoherent and ignorant, but still political. I’m wondering what it has in common with what’s happening in the Middle East. Of course it’s misguided, un-politicised and so on. But there are some things in common. Both communities have no effective democracy. Both communities have no platform for their own voice. Both communities see vast wealth all around them have no access to it, or to a decent education or to opportunities in general. The only real difference is that the kids here come from small communities with no democratic heft; whereas in the Middle East it’s large communities – whole nations – without any political heft. But they both have this in common – they both have avenues of opportunity denied to them.
It seems that the kinds of things you did in researching this book – listening to them talk about their lives – would be incredibly beneficial to the current UK situation. How do you think this might be facilitated on large scale? How do we give these kids a voice?
Those whole communities have no voice. In the past, politicians have gone in and tried to listen and formulate policy. To his credit, this happened with Iain Duncan Smith. I don’t see anyone doing it today. Listening is the first thing to do with any situation of this kind. I think the ways to deal with these problems have been there for ages … effective education, smaller classes, investment in communities. No one does it – it costs too much. Basically listening has to be done politically and socially. I can listen – but that’s it. It’s a start, though.
Among the people that I interviewed for it, was a death metal band from Leeds a friend of mine put me in touch with. Big lads, fearsome looking brutes, tats, long hair, the lot. At least two of them had been through hell – really violent stepfathers. Some of the stuff they told me made my hair stand on end – really, I’ve never heard of domestic violence like it. But somehow, they’d managed to turn themselves into delightful, charming boys – polite, ambitious, full of love and ready for life. They had their problems of course, but they had done wonders with themselves. I think they did if through the music. “Music is anger,” one of them said. They’d used it as a therapy, an avenue … anyway they were dealing with it. Amazing – I have so much respect for them. These two lads, when they were younger they used to play a PlayStation game, a shoot em up, in which at beginning of each mission, the words, “Kill All Enemies,” came up on the screen. Years later, when they met again after a separation of some years, they got together and formed a band .. and that’s what they called it – Kill All Enemies. So my book is named after their band.
Hip hop too is a great avenue – but has been appropriated by big corporate interests. Is it, in your experience, difficult to get kids to write just for the sake of writing, or by extension, make music to the same end? There is a perception these days that creativity must at some point serve a capitalist end.
Well, certainly these kids had their dreams of making money. As all people who get really involved in something want to make a living at it. But they do genuinely see the music as a part of lives as well, as something that makes them whole.
How did this recent visit to the Congo with Save the Children come about? Was it also an early intention to collate these stories?
No, that happened because Save the Children wanted to do some work with authors to try and promote their “No Child Born To Die” campaign. So when they offered to fly me to some hot spot and have a look at their work I jumped on it. It was fascinating and wonderful, as well as often heart-breaking. The idea of collecting folk stories was my own. I want to publish them once the material has all been typed up. We shall see …
These stories are incredibly touching – “One Sunday morning, a mother went to work in the fields. She did this despite the fact that Sunday is a day of rest”. I’m interested to know how these stories are told (were you making notes during an interpretation?) – are they very sparse like this in the telling, or is there more theatre to them? On your blog you describe the singing and dancing that accompanied “Pippi Danga”…
It varied. The street kids in Kinshasa couldn’t tell them fast enough, by and large. In the villages later on, people spent more time. Also, it depended on my translator, since I didn’t speak any of the local lingos, needless to say. In Kinshasa – and so far I’ve only written up the Kinshasa stories – the translator was quite good, so I think the stories come across as they were told – but of course, the truth is, I don’t really know. Also – I’ve re-told some of them. Not what actually happens, but the telling. As for Pippi Danga, that girl was great. I didn’t get anyone else so keen to perform!
Sometimes I did, if the story was very plain or if the translation felt hurried or slack in any way. I feel that these stories are there to be told by whoever tells them. And some of them came to me very plainly. I didn’t want to waste a story that could be made to blossom with just a little bit extra to bring out the drama. In the case of Pippi Danga, no fiddling was necessary!
So the narrative drive is already there, and the humour…
Where and when are these stories told? In what context?
It varied. The Kinshasa stories were told in centres funded by the Save the Children for street kids. Some were residential, some were drop-ins. I told the kids a story – usually Little Red Riding Hood or the Three Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, and asked them for one in return. It was great. Later on the stories are told from more sources – one from a man who was a friend of one of the people who worked in the Save the Children offices, who told the stories that his father used to tell him – complete with morals. They’re coming up next. After that, I took a trip on my own upriver into the interior of Congo and got villagers to tell me stories. There are many of those to come.
Some of these stories are at once funny and quite disturbing – the mosquitoes story features a walking bag of clothes…
Oh yes – there’s a lot of magic and many of the stories are kind of scary. It’s a peek into what our own European stories may have been like, before the nursery got hold of them.
Nearly everyone believes in magic, nearly everyone believes in witches. A lot of people believe that many of the children accused of witchcraft are wrongly accused, however, so that is a good thing for them – and in many cases, a simple explanation of the symptoms that people believe typical of witchcraft can put people’s minds at rest. It was put to me very simply once – if you believe in a god, and in the power of god, how can you not believe in the devil and the power of the devil? God is seen as a manifestation of the supernatural – it kinda makes sense. The pastors and priests are very vehement that there is no “third realm” – a world of magic outside the devil and God. But of course many people believe that.
Did hearing these stories confirm a suspicion that folk tales are universal in their imagery and morality? There is the Sandra and Sandrine story… Or was there something quite different going on in these tales from the DRC? I thought that there was a real Chaucerian edge too…
Hmm, I wouldn’t really like to say. Sandra and Sandrine certainly shows that these stories have a great deal in common; but they also have a great deal that separates them. Stories travel to and fro. While there are universal themes I feel that they probably come more from the human condition – we all have mums and dads, we all live in a society with rich and poor ….
A lot of the riot coverage on TV has featured “experts” explaining to us that “I’m from a poor background and I never did anything like this.” So with your visit to the Congo in mind, one might argue that the very poor have a lot more to be rioting about, but get on with their lives with dignity and humility…
Not really. You can get mugged very easily over there. And I daresay that if it wasn’t for fear of geting mown down by machine gun fire, you might get the odd riot. It has been, after all, a country where violence has been endemic for most of the past few hundred years … As for coming for a poor background and being a good boy – well, there are always good boys. Social events aren’t just about individuals – it’s about the odds. It’s a tired old argument, I think.
Here in Botswana there is a widening Setswana – English divide, and the poetry and tales are not written down; they are being lost. Must they be archived? Or is it in their nature to be impossible to capture forever? Is folk tales’ mutability, over generations, part of their power?
Of course as soon as you write them down they change; and you can’t capture the oral tradition on paper – it’s a different thing. But I do think they should be collected. They survive as museum pieces in one way, but in another … someone will be able to pick them and re-spin them, which is what story telling is all about.
Melvin Burgess’ website – HERE
Melvin’s blog on his Kinshasa visit – HERE
More information about Save the Children’s “No Child Born To Die” campaign – HERE
China Miéville’s ‘Embassytown’ should be required reading. For everyone. Not just because the author is the only three-time winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award, and probably the most innovative and exciting writer the UK has produced in a very long time. Miéville’s work – which he describes as ‘Weird Fiction’ – is much more than literature: it is feisty, robust exercise for the mind, and succour for the questioning soul. In the second of a three-part series on the best new science fiction from Africa, the USA and the UK, I talked to China Miéville about all things language.
First, what are your thoughts on the recent situation in London with the riots? As a Londoner yourself, would you agree that the themes of the demonization of the ‘other’ and the barrier of communication in Embassytown are of great topical interest in this context? How does a Tory politician communicate with a ‘hoodie’? In Embassytown you write, “Being a child is like nothing. It’s only being. Later, when we think about it, we make it into youth”…
If people find parallels or anything, that’s up to them, and I’ve no problem with it, but I think it would be presumptuous of me to make links between my books and anything as epochal as what’s going on in London. And it is, I think, epochal. For a long time I’ve been struck and horrified by the incredible cultural spite we’ve got in the UK towards young people. The constant use, for example, of the term ‘feral’ to describe trouble/d children should be a matter of utter shame: that our culture has normalised that adjective is an expression of our culture’s moral degradation, far more than children’s. Add to that the slashing of funding for youth amenities, add to that the hopelessness engendered by underinvestment, by lack of jobs and opportunities, by confrontational and racist policing, this is no surprise.
Is it a problem of communication? Or purely one of perception?
I don’t think it’s either: I think it’s one of structures.
In an interview with the Independent, you quoted Dambudzo Marechera, the writer of your favourite book Mindblast: “the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights… before you can make it do all that you want it to do”. Is one of your suggestions in Embassytown that language must be conquered before it itself can be weaponized – for good or ill? Are we to both master our own language and assimilate others – or seek out the dying languages for our ammunition? Here in Botswana of course we have the click languages of the indigenous (and oppressed) Koi…
I don’t think it’s really my job to make suggestions in the fiction. (In real life I make them all the damn time, of course.) The thing I like about fiction is that I can raise ideas without coming down on one side or another. So I was very interested in the idea of lying as being something that is both toxic and emancipatory. I don’t have to come to any conclusions about this. I do think in general, however, that fighting language is almost always a good thing. If nothing else, it tends to have fantastically exciting aesthetic effects – to wit, Marechera, as you say. And it may also, if we’re lucky, prod our thinking in one or other interesting ways.
Has the possibility of language as a weapon been lost as an option for young people in Britain? They must have lost all hope after the Murdoch scandal recently…
I think young people use language as a weapon all the time. I think the intoxicatingly brilliant London slang is a weapon. And it, like all slang, is as the surrealist radical Benjamin Péret said, ‘proof of the necessity of poetry in everyday life’. The problem with language as a weapon is that while it has its uses – is, indeed, indispensable – those uses are limited. There’s only so much you can do. Language alone will neither destroy nor liberate us, but that’s because it’s always a function of other thigns, other power structures. Not reducible to them, but not distinguishable either.
Your protagonist Avice has to become a simile in order to be able communicate with the Ariekei, the central alien species of Embassytown. The book is an incredibly muscular toe-to-toe with the possibilities and dynamics of language. What did you discover about your own mind’s processing of language during the writing of the book?
That’s a good question and a hard one to answer, not least because the book was written in an odd way – there was a long, long break – about four years – between draft one and draft two. So any answer would probably only hold for this book. I think it was not necessarily so much discovery, as confirmation and exaggeration of a certain structural scepticism I’d had for some time, about the notion of narrative as liberating – which is still something one hears, all the time. I think it isn’t necessarily anything of the sort. And at the level of words and sentences, the book continued my interest in trying to see how far I could go with making language simultaneously alienating and alienated *and* quotidian. Something SF can do very well, if all goes well.
Ursula Le Guin said in her review of Embassytown of the Ariekei that it seems “they crave that which is not, the unthinkable untruth, the lie.” And there is a rather sinister and frightening concept explored about how the Ambassadors on the aliens’ home world cannot be understood by their “Hosts”. Would you elaborate on the political inspiration for this idea, and the novel’s proposal that language is only comprehensible if there is sentience behind it?
There was no direct political inspiration that I’m aware of – the more obvious metaphoric resonances are, as you say, pretty obvious, but I wasn’t at a conscious level riffing off a specific thing. (But intentionality is a partial and inadequate beast.) The idea of language as a direct, unmediated representation of reality – which is the telos of your point about sentience – is a riff on an old theological debate about ‘Adamic’ language, supposedly spoken in Eden. For which there really was no gap between the signifier and the signified. If you think of that gap, according to whatever theory you fancy, as at the core of the way language works in reality – symbolising and signifying – then removing it so language is just a way of speaking the Real is simultaneously a very simple trick but one with immense and hugely alienating ramifications. Those ramifications are at once philosophical and theoretical, but also political. As everything is.
Embassytown posits that not only is our own universe in its third incarnation, but there is something outside it – the Immer – which is so far beyond our comprehension that to travel within it causes nausea and psychological distress without the aid of medication and “augmens”. City and the City also dealt with the idea of realities outside our own. Is it then your instinctive conclusion that to seek life in our own universe is rather missing the point? You describe “powers like subaltern gods, who sometimes watched us as if we were interesting , curious dust”…
No, not my conclusion at all! Again, I have the luxury of fiddling around with big ideas in the fiction, without deciding whether or not I subscribe to them in reality. A bad theory can make a good novel – and this has happened loads of times. I think there’s every point seeking life in our own universe. I am just also powerfully drawn, and always have been, to the tradition of the numinous and strange, the awe-blasted and inexpressible, that posits something Outside. The tradition of ecstatic, visionary literature, from religious chants through to pulp SF. Again, I stress, that doesn’t mean I believe it’s true – all I need is to believe that it’s an interesting way of thinking about things. And that, I do.
So can I ask for your views on alien life?
I understand that given the imponderables of scale and stars it is impossible to have a ‘measured’ or ‘evidence-based’ position on this, yet, but for myself I am absolutely and unhesitatingly a believer that there is other life in the universe. In fact, I suspect there’s loads. I think part of the problem is the assumption that for years xenobiologists had, of the ‘goldilocks’ paradigm, where planets had to be ‘just right’ to harbour life. That is anthropocentric and parochial, and has come under sustained attack from other more radical xenobiologists, recently, which I think is all to the good. Extremophile organisms on our own world have proved to us how vastly more fecund and less restricted life is than we might have suspected. I blatantly believe in aliens.
Your descriptions of alien lifeforms are deliciously coy and flirtatious – we are asked as readers to give our imaginations a very healthy work out. And this reinforces another theme of the book, that of the human mind’s ability to approximate – it’s interesting that the currency of Embassytown is the Ersatz, with all the political subtexts and duplicity packed within that word!
Well… yes. Good. Thank you! I’m glad you think so, and that I will cop to. The book has a lot of approximation in it. I wanted to make it so that the organisms were left, in part, up to the readers’ mind. Because – to fit in with a bunch of other themes – among the jobs that language is doing at the point we read it is not, in particular, capturing the specificity of the Ariekei.
The Operating System of the AI in Embassytown is called turingware, and runs Avice’s friend, a robot called Ehrsul – who rebukes Avice for asking her if she can joke to herself. The concept of AI in the novel suggests that AI might encapsulate the best of human wit and benevolence… I believe Turing himself said, “Machines take me by surprise with great frequency”…
I like the idea that intelligence and sentience is always contextual, and social, in the sense of not reducible to a monad, so seeking to understand it in the abstract won’t get you very far. That can go both ways. Ehrsul is definitely Avice’s best friend. But there are also points where her behaviour, absolutely clear and sensible from one point of view, distinguishes her from what we might think of as ‘mainstream’ consciousness and sentience the next.
I was thrilled every time she appeared. I think I fell in love with her a little bit.
Thank you. She’s – in a terribly predictable and intentional irony – the most likable and human character, I think, for a lot of it.
You were very critical of Avatar, and called CGI “a mannerist absurdity” – is Hollywood then missing the point entirely, or does it fear to present something to an audience that it thinks it might not be able to process? It’s rather nice that Embassytown doesn’t ‘reveal’ the creatures so to speak… so would a film adaptation fill you with dread? Might I (humbly) argue that one powerful point made in Embassytown is that some things might be better left unknowable?
I don’t think Hollywood’s missing any point – I think its fidelity is to the dollar, and thus considerations of aesthetics will always take a back seat. My criticisms of its affects and effects are on my terms, not, I have to freely confess, its. And yes – I’m very ambivalent about a film, were one to be mooted, for precisely the reasons you cite. You’d lose, definitionally, a lot of the nuance of representation. In that by having the latter, you’d lose the one. But I’m not opposed in principle – just nervous.
Early in the book you write, “We’re still playing you, when we tell you: the story dramatizes, even without lying.” Do you believe in an absolute truth that lies at the heart of all great art? Or that the only truth lies there?
I don’t think I think that there’s an absolute truth in all great art… but I’d have to have the terms clarified to be sure. I do think – and that quote points at it – that narrative, whatever its strengths and necessities, is a manipulation, and to be approached with caution.
What can we look forward to next?
I’ve finished a novel about which I will, I’m afraid, say very little, as I don’t like jinxing things by talking about work in progress. But I’ll say that it’s done, I like it, I need to finish editing it, and I’m raring to go on the next one. I know that’s horribly vague. I’m hoping to do work in a bunch of other media, soon, too. I’d like to do a lot more drawing and so on, for example. But novels will always be my first professional love, I think.
Would you leave us with a simile to describe yourself, and/or your writing?
Well this will sound like an evasion, but I promise it’s not – it’s a rigorously thought-through position! Which is that one of the points of language is that you don’t get to choose how it interpellates and embeds you. So to take my own approach seriously, I have to insist that I’m the last person who gets to choose what simile I would be. I’d love it to be something awesome and cool, of course, but I don’t make the rules. It could be awful. Not my choice.
So begins South African writer Lauren Beukes’ sizzling noir science-fiction show-stopper. But there’s so much to ask the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award winner about its palimpsest Johannesburg setting, with its criminal underclass of magic-tooled low life and their uninvited animal familiars: the Jozi of the novel is a city bristling with invention and hard boiled innovative license. In the first of a three-part series on the most exciting science fiction coming out of Africa, the USA and the UK, I spoke to Lauren Beukes about genre, creativity and the sinister supernatural force known as the Undertow…
“Birds have their own serial killers. Chimpanzees commit murder.” There is a rawness to this that suggests that you feel creativity is a way of managing our darkest impulses. But it also reflects the way the underclass in the book is labelled and dehumanized by society: this demonization of poverty is described in Zoo City as “festering middle-class paranoia”…
If you’re reading ‘mashavi’ in the novel as creative impulse / expression, then yeah, definitely. It certainly allows me to channel mine. But I was also probably influenced by JG Ballard and works like Cocaine Nights where the novel posits that creativity is a reaction to crime and danger, it’s fed by it – and festers and dies without it (related: that “a thousand years of peace and democracy in Switzerland has produced the cuckoo clock”). I think that edge is certainly part of what makes Johannesburg such a vibrant and exciting city and why people are so friendly. But I don’t fully buy that conflict = more inspired creativity. I need to be settled and happy to write. Oh, and of course Ballard was the king of “festering middle class paranoia” and there’s certainly a lot of that in Joburg. I think he would have loved the city.
The inhabitants of Zoo City are vividly visually characterized – especially their sense of style. You seem to have lots of fun with this idea in the novel. Characters’ impressions of each other are constantly being re-evaluated according to their importance to a fashion aesthetic, and not always in a positive light… Steve Biko, for example, has been reduced “by irony and iconography to a brand”…
People keep saying that! I’m always surprised by that, which tells me that sense of style/aesthetic must be there, but it wasn’t something specifically intended. I think it’s a reflection of the things I’m interested in, consumer society, how fashion is taken as short-hand for personality, how history and symbols are sublimated to marketing. And hey, Joburg is a stylish city. I always feel under-dressed when I’m there.
Joburg is very defiant in Zoo City isn’t it? Very lacking in self-pity.
I don’t like to generalise, but I think it is. I think Joburgers bitch a lot, but they don’t feel sorry for themselves. They get on with it. Self-pity is self-indulgent and particularly for those people living on the very edge of things, the refugees I interviewed (for the book) in the Central Methodist Church for example, that’s not an option. Not to say they haven’t shut down part of themselves to get through. Again, generalising, but I find Joburg a very optimistic city. It’s fiercely ambitious. But of course the city of dreams can quickly turn to nightmare – although I think I expressed that particular sentiment better in the novel.
Your protagonist Zinzi December says at one point, “Wish they had a ‘restore saved game’ for the real world.” Does this also apply to the future of the book – this idea that things which have great meaning for us now as human beings will become much more fluid in the future? If a reader will be able to “remix” a book in the future, how does this affect the integrity of the original idea? It’s very interesting that you include sections by other writers in Zoo City.
The idea of the singularity, of minds living in virtual space, disembodied, appals me. Physicality makes us human, makes our lives relevant, forces us to give a damn, even while we shut ourselves away in our cosy middle class lives and try to ignore the bad stuff going on around us. If we could disconnect, live idealised eternal lives as World of Warcraft, Second Life icons with perfect skin and perfect hair and tailor-made virtual friends, it would be pointless. I’m not worried about remixing – as long as there’s an original version out there as the master work. I don’t think the idea of a novel will ever fall away – we want coherent stories created by a master storyteller. But we also want to play in those stories and I think there’s space for both. I love the idea of people playing in my universe, taking my characters and running with them (attribution, share-alike, non-commercial please). It makes my day when someone sends me art or short stories inspired by my worlds, even when the writer is doing dark, fucked-up things with them (the short story by a UWC student as part of her course-work which involved necrophilia with one of my favourite characters was, er, interesting). I’m not precious. I think it’s silly to be. The moment you let the book out into the world, it’s already being reinterpreted by other minds. As long as it doesn’t take away from my ability to make a living or that other people are profiting off my work without remunerating me, creative remixing is awesome.
How protective are you / would you be over a film adaptation of Zoo City? There are a lot of elements that Hollywood might be very uncomfortable with, but your book in particular strikes me as one that needs to be represented as faithfully as possible on screen, without any watering down…
The most important thing I think novelists struggle with is that books and films are different animals, as it were. There’s such a thing as being too faithful to the source material. Some things have to change. But doing it in South Africa means more creative input (hopefully – the film industry is notoriously difficult) and not re-casting the novel in New Orleans with giant robots and voodoo and Michael Bay directing. And Megan Fox as Zinzi. So yeah, trying to avoid that, get someone really passionate, but it obviously will be the director’s vision too. So it’s a collaboration, letting go of ego. As long as it’s better / more interesting, that’s fine.
One character is described as having “a black tumour of lost things hanging” over him. Loss of identity is a central theme in Zoo City – your characters retain their dignity despite their fractured and damaged pasts. I am fascinated by the idea of The Undertow… should we be afraid of it? Or if it is a “psychic equivalent of dark matter that indeed serves as a counterpoint to… the bedrock of existence”, shouldn’t we embrace that? In the context of the book, it suggests that the more you aspire to a moneyed and superficial existence, the more your creativity withdraws…
I love the creativity subtext you’ve brought to your reading of the novel. You can read the Undertow in different ways, it’s up to you. I don’t want to get too specific about it. Although I LOVED that Charlie Human’s chapter on the psychological significance seemed to undermine everything I’d established on it. It’s certainly doubt, fear, guilt, living in the shadow of death (crime, Aids) and a physical manifestation too. That’s why it was so exciting to get other contributing writers. Sometimes you can’t see the Undertow for the shadows in the trees. Lovely to get a fresh spin on ideas I was deeply immersed in, connected to. Other minds rock.
Matthew du Plessis described Zoo City as “an act of unadulterated literature”. That must be very gratifying – but it must also frustrate you that you are bound to be pigeonholed, simply because bookshops often really have no clue how to categorize a book like Zoo City. Are you comfortable with the SF label?
Pigeonholing makes me mental, especially the genre labels within genre. It’s not science fiction, it’s urban fantasy. Aaargh! Compartmentalising prevents you reaching a greater audience. Who, unfairly, stigmatise genre based on labels. You say “science fiction”, there are a lot of people who think aliens and rocket ships. Same as in South African bookstores where local literature gets shoved into the “African” section. It’s bookstore apartheid. I don’t know why we’re not allowed to play with the other books. It’s also that I read widely and the kind of zealotry of lit vs genre is as artificial and irrelevant as rabid atheists vs creationists. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle. Believe what you want to believe, read what you want to read. Be more open-minded generally.
I spent 12 years in Japan so I am excited that you have been researching the culture there – can you tell me about your next project(s)?
Yep, it’s been announced. I’m doing a six comic arc of Bill Willingham’s Fables, set in Japan and starring Rapunzel. It’s published by Vertigo. Going some dark places with it, riffing off Japanese fairytales and legends. Reading lots from Genji through to Grotesque, watching lots of movies. And I’m working on a new novel, set in 90s South Africa. It’s strange, but not technically SF. I think if there’s any way you have to characterise my work, it’s “strange”.
I think the world could do with a whole lot more “strange”.
The early days
On talent and leadership
Speculation and controversy
Masculinity in Africa
Pressure to conform musically
On the album track “Kgogomodumo”
Distribution issues in Botswana
On judging “MyStar” (Botswana’s equivalent to American Idol)
To aspiring artists
“Podtape has been audible since Friday 30th October 2009, an on-line 40 minute podcast comprised of hip hop and lounge music that’s made in Botswana. Songs that make it onto Podtape are those below radar of what is play listed on radio, otherwise termed underground or not radio friendly. The local support platform is a creation by James Kebuileng Khama, who goes by the moniker JamesKebu. Music is sent to JamesKebu by firstname.lastname@example.org for his perusal, and what sounds good to him is what makes the playlist. Each show or episode of Podtape is available for streaming and download via www.podtape.mypodcast.com .”
Repetition on radio
The current scene in Botswana
The Podtape playlist
Politics in local hip hop
The work ethic
Are DJs still DJs?
A Podtape event?
Women in local hip hop
Getting your track on Podtape