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New South African Writers are Giving the Middle Finger to the Old Literary Circles

Sally Fink
Image from the cover of Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City

The setting of Johannesburg, but one in the new South African literature, is cool and accessible; a global city where aliens can come down to earth and magic is alive and well in the slums of Hillbrow.

Gone are the days of stodgy literary fiction bewailing the atrocities of Apartheid by authors such as Andre Brink and JM Coetzee. South African literature is today a melting pot of pop culture, social media and new writers giving the middle finger to the tweed-wearing grey beards that once dominated literary circles.

Lauren Beukes’ Zoo City is a noir crime novel following the adventures of black hipster protagonist, Zinzi December, as she makes a living in downtown Johannesburg creating 419 scams and finding lost things with the help of the handy magical sloth on her back.

In Zoo City, the “animalled” are those who have committed atrocious crimes, and like the old sea dog in Coleridge’s The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, have to constantly wear this penance in the form of an animal. In Zinzi’s case it’s a sloth which appeared on her doorstep out of the blue. Some wrong-doers are lucky in that their animal is nothing more than a sparrow or a mouse, while other poor souls have to contend with bears and even crocodiles.

Zoo City is a brave science fiction novel that follows the success of fellow South African Neill Blomkamp’s Oscar nominated film District 9 in 2009. The message is clear: whatever you can do, we can do better. In both these instances, the setting of Johannesburg is cool and accessible; a global city where aliens can come down to earth and magic is alive and well in the slums of Hillbrow.

Zoo City follows Beukes’ debut novel Moxyland, which recreated Cape Town as a police state dystopia, where biological weapons are a form of crowd control, and nano technology is used in corporate branding experiments. Beukes is hailed in her home country as a maverick. But she is not alone. Other genres are also starting to sink their teeth into South African literature, as well.

Lily Herne’s Deadlands tells the tale of a post-apocalyptic Cape Town, where zombies have taken over the city and the human survivors live in small communities watched over the mysterious Guardians. Zombie fiction is a first for South Africa, but horror certainly isn’t.

Writer friends Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg are the evil geniuses behind S.L. Grey, a pseudonym the pair use to pen horror fiction. Their first foray into the genre, The Mall, is a gory exploration of what lurks beneath the neon façade of a South African shopping mall where everything they thought was real is mirrored in a nightmarish parody of itself.

Young adult fiction is also raising the bar. Adeline Radloff’s Side-Kick is a smart fantasy novel about a teenage girl who faces the dual problems associated with being a teenager while at the same being the sidekick of a super hero. The novel won gold at the Sanlam Prize for Youth Literature 2009.

But genre fiction isn’t confined to the world of "what if" -- it has a darker side rooted firmly in reality. Fellow youth writer S.A. Partridge’s latest novel, Dark Poppy’s Demise, tells the story of a 15-year-old girl who meets a handsome older boy on Facebook. At first he is a dream come true: always on her side and full of affirmations, but she soon realises that the object of her affection has much darker intentions in mind.

Partridge’s second novel, Fuse, dealt with the sensitive subject of school killings. In the first half of the book, popular 16-year-old Justin Mullins had his world turned upside down when his anti-social brother Kendall is caught building a pipe bomb, which he intended to detonate at school. It’s a harsh social commentary on a very real issue, but one that affected South Africa as much as the United States. In 2008 a teenage boy was arrested in Krugersdorp for attacking his fellow pupils with a samurai sword.

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