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Lauren Beukes

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The great thirst for honest representation

Cape Argus

This is a response to the really lovely review of Michael Gastrow’s Road To Absolom in Monday’s Argus that claimed some really nasty things about me. (Scan above.)

Dear Books Editor,

It was sad to see such a fantastic review of Michael Gastrow’s Road To Absolom undermined by a gross misrepresentation of me.

In her review yesterday, Beverley Roos Muller claimed I “dissed” struggle literature, a position which, she says, “conveniently ignores the deep sacrifice that many of those same struggalistas made without which Beukes would not be sturdily sitting where she is today.”

Wow.

There’s the use of that dodgy word “struggalistas” which seems to suggest that it was just the trendy thing to do at the time (ideally while wearing a fetching Che Guevera-style beret) instead of a devastating war against an evil regime willing to stoop to surveillance, oppression, intimidation, exile, character assassination, torture and outright murder.

Then there’s the way Muller completely misheard or misinterpreted what I was at careful pains to spell out – that I was very cheekily referring to a cliché about the Post-1994 emerging young South African literature scene which saw a glut of white middle class memoirs about growing up under apartheid and coming to the startling realisation through a memorable encounter with a gardener or maid wronged by the state, that [heavy dose of irony] “black people are people too”. I also pointed out that there was a lot more to SA lit at the time than that.

(And, in fact, there have been some superb books in exactly that mould, including Richard Poplak’s Ja, No, Man and Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs’ Tonight about Zimbabwe)

I don’t know how Muller got the impression that I was “dissing” the struggle or struggle literature, particularly when books like Andre Brink’s A Dry White Season were an influence on my novel Moxyland, which is fundamentally ABOUT a re-imagined struggle against a neo-apartheid state in South Africa ten years from now.

I’m no denialist. The trees may have been cut down, but apartheid’s roots run deep and will be tripping us up for years to come.

I know exactly how I got to where I’m sitting today; through hard work and luck and an unfair privilege granted me by a racist state, through feminism which allowed me to actually have an education and a career (thanks suffragettes!), and absolutely through the efforts of everyone who opposed apartheid and made this country a tolerable place to live.

Finally, if you absolutely have to compare me to a flower,  at least make it a scrappy Leonitis.

- Lauren Beukes

 

Recent comments:

  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 16th, 2010 @11:06 #
     
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    Lauren, that's a shocker. Before I read the entire Cape Argus piece, I thought it might have been one of those sub-edit hack jobs, but no, BRM has her knife out for you in particular. I smell an agenda -- yup, looked closely, that English rosebud phrase is a give-away. I'll write you more privately about why this reviewer might have an issue with a beautiful, mouthy, successful young woman whose books are making international waves, but for now this is a horrible reminder of how careful we have to be when riffing (with nuance, with irony, with cheek, with wit) about our thorny past. Loved your image of the trees with deep roots in your response and intend borrowing it...

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  • Mervyn
    Mervyn
    March 16th, 2010 @11:38 #
     
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    Great response Lauren. Just hope that the Argus has the integrity to publish your letter.

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  • <a href="http://www.moxyland.com" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    March 16th, 2010 @12:35 #
     
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    I'd like to think it was a tragic misunderstanding.

    The books editor Vivien Horler responded immediately to my mail and said that they will publish the letter.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    March 16th, 2010 @15:32 #
     
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    I don't see this as a reminder to be careful when talking about our past at all. I see it as a challenge to be MORE irreverent, MORE outspoken, MORE critical, and LESS careful of treading on sensitive toes. This reviewer is trying to use "The Struggle" as a trump card to shame Lauren and to excuse poor, derivative and just plain boring writing.

    South African fiction is maturing at last and Lauren's writing is at the forefront of that process. If we cannot have a fearlessly critical debate about what constitutes good fiction then the freedoms that were fought for in the struggle are worthless.

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  • <a href="http://www.ronirwin.com" rel="nofollow">Ron</a>
    Ron
    March 16th, 2010 @15:46 #
     
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    Struggle fiction did lots of good things, I guess, but it did NOT help us sell Moxy overseas. There is just no way you can argue that Struggalista fiction got Lauren where she is today..in fact, SA's heritage of grindingly political novels almost sunk her chances of getting read by anybody in the UK, mostly because the literary community still sees serious fiction out of SA to be depressing, angst-ridden and dull. Frankly, I'd like to see an alien from District 9 strangle this chick with the last Struggalista's intestines while a Moxyland monster stomps on her toes.

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  • <a href="http://helenmoffett.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    Helen
    March 16th, 2010 @15:56 #
     
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    Go Ron, go! And yes, Fifi, you're right. We shouldn't have to be more careful. More self-protective, maybe? Nope, that'll shut us right up. We have to trust that folk won't grind their personal axes on the anvils of our words, and grit our teeth when they do. And trust that enough people were listening properly.

    BTW, kudos to Vivien Horler for responding so promptly.

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  • <a href="http://www.moxyland.com" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    March 16th, 2010 @16:19 #
     
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    Dammit, friend pointed out I should have said Belladonna (aka nightshade) instead of Leonitis.

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  • <a href="http://fionasnyckers.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    Fiona
    March 16th, 2010 @17:01 #
     
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    Belladonna ... beautiful, deadly, and has a long literary precedent.

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  • <a href="http://rustumkozain.book.co.za" rel="nofollow">Rustum Kozain</a>
    Rustum Kozain
    March 17th, 2010 @08:58 #
     
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    The church of 'Struggle literature' is quite broad. It includes, for instance, Nadine Gordimer, Brink, and Coetzee who all wrote novels about individuals caught up in systems of power; sometimes references to apartheid were explicit, at other times, as with Coetzee, it was not (SA critics who dissed Coetzee for 'lack of relevance' had it wrong; Coetzee's own stated resistance to playing the game of history within the game of fiction is not a denial of history; Coetzee's act of resistance was exactly to escape easy definition, which is what apartheid was all about. How are Dusklands PtII, In the Heart of the Country, Foe, Waiting for the Barbarians, Michael K, Age of Iron not of that era, and not South African? Even The Master of St Petersburg addresses contemporary SA issues through Dostoevsky's critique of that young rebels' short stories). Then there's Serote's To Every Birth its Blood, Matshoba's short stories, Call Me Not a Man, which has very interesting things going on in terms of narrative and subjectivity, and is not the one dimensional socialist realism it is made out to be. There's Vladislavic's Missing Persons and The Folly. The short stories of Ahmed Essop. The poetry of Farouk Asvat, Kelwyn Sole, Ingrid de Kok, Jeremy Cronin, CJ Driver. Further prose fiction with Miriam Tlali, Bessie Head. Don't forget our exiles: Arthur Nortje, Alex la Guma etc. So, if you want to talk about the literature of an ERA that had as its one main subject politics and power relationships, it was nevertheless diverse and deep.

    If one uses the label to denote a style, then that would be one style in an era with deep and diverse material, even if limited to the populism of 1980s into the really 1990s.

    I can understand that publishers may have been reluctant with Moxyland because of what they understood to be SA Lit, but that's partly because of the Brink-Gordimer-Coetzee triumvirate dominating the international market, limited lesser lights' exposure, the cultural imperatives that determined what else made it to festivals (a complex issue in itself), and limited knowledge of existing material. The material is there; it's about perception of what's there. And to what extent do we ourselves frame that perception?

    My problem with the label 'Struggle literature' is that it is often a convenient label, a caricature and a probably euphemistic label of dismissal. Sometimes people use it to denote work that was a bad imitation of soviet inspired socialist realism, yes; and there's a lot of it. There's a lot of bad stuff, but there's also a lot of good stuff. Basing one's sense of it on the few bad examples one has encountered is like dismissing Rap because you've heard 50cent.

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  • <a href="http://tiahbeautement.typepad.com/quotidian/" rel="nofollow">tiah</a>
    tiah
    April 14th, 2010 @14:27 #
     
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    This makes me sad. I adored your book. Best of luck with this.

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  • <a href="http://book.co.za/blog/2010/02/01/the-road-to-absalom-launched-in-cape-town/" rel="nofollow">Michael Gastrow</a>
    Michael Gastrow
    May 18th, 2010 @15:49 #
     
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    It's saddening that conflict emerges in the wake of a book review, but encouraging that it stimulates the important debates opened up here. As Rustum says, a reductionist approach is no good. But ultimately there is the need to move on, and so we do. Lauren your new book looks awesome.

    MG

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