Fiona Snyckers
Fiona Snyckers

Should local writers always set their books in South Africa?

Along with spending too much time on Facebook and perusing the sidebar of shame on the Daily Mail website, deciding where to set one’s novel provokes feelings of intense guilt in South African writers.

When writers get together, either socially or on formal discussion panels, they often confess to feeling conflicted about where to set their books. South African fiction has long been beset by a cultural cringe response whereby books — or indeed any cultural artefacts — that are produced locally are perceived to be inferior to their overseas counterparts. This applies less to literary and protest fiction than it does to genre fiction.

Literary and protest fiction grew organically out of the South African landscape. The dramatic conflicts of our past and present have given rise, quite naturally, to fiction that grapples with the most serious aspects of the human condition. And we have a fistful of Nobel and Booker prize-winners to prove our competence in this field.

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Genre fiction, on the other hand, was grafted onto our literary tradition at a much later date. And most literary genres can be regarded as imports since none of them actually originated in South Africa. So when you are writing in a foreign genre anyway, is there any reason to set your story in South Africa?

Many local writers have decided that there is. On the one hand, they want to combat the cultural cringe and prove that local characters can be just as appealing as overseas ones. And on the other hand, they are well aware that South Africa is a rich source of inspiration for virtually any genre imaginable. Whether it be crime, horror, romance, erotica, science fiction, or post-apocalyptic scenarios, South Africa is the perfect setting for most novels. It helps that there is no one, single South African setting. Whereas countries like Finland and Norway are far more homogenous, both culturally and economically, South Africa can encompass just about any fictional setting. Rural, urban, coastal, inland, middle-class suburban, lower-middle-class suburban, wealthy gated communities, townships, and small towns are all waiting to be written about. And that doesn’t even touch on the different cultural communities encompassed within our borders. Inspiration need never run dry.

So writers remain trapped in this sense that it is their patriotic duty to add to the canon of local fiction, and the awareness that all the inspiration they will ever need can be found right here. There is also a desire to avoid being asked awkward questions on discussion panels, such as “Why did you choose not to give your latest book a South African setting?” (Subtext — “you yellow-bellied traitor”.)

But what about appealing to the overseas market? For those writers who are looking to make it big internationally, there is an anxiety that their books should have a British or American setting in order to be successful.

Some recent books that have been set outside our borders include those by Steven Sidley. His first three novels are set in the US and have garnered a slew of well-deserved awards and nominations. But Sidley lived in America for most of his adult life and knows the Los Angeles landscape well. Sarah Lotz’s breakout novel The Three is set all over the world, but also in Khayelitsha as the site of one of three horrific plane crashes. Lauren Beukes’ last two novels have both been taken place in the US, with The Shining Girls set in Chicago and Broken Monsters in Detroit. Both are cityscapes that Beukes knows intimately, and in both novels the setting is so important as virtually to assume the role of a character in the narrative. But in none of these cases can the success of the novel be attributed to its overseas setting. The originality of the ideas and the excellence of the writing are key to how well they were received.

Perhaps the most useful conclusion writers can draw is that they should feel free to set their novels wherever in the world they choose. Not one of us carries the weight of South African literary prestige on our shoulders alone. But we should also make sure we are very familiar with whatever setting we decide on. Howlers don’t make anyone look good. And if we do happen to choose never to set our books outside South Africa at all, that’s more than okay too.

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    • Momma Cyndi

      Write what you know. There is nothing as infuriating as an outsider writing a part based on a South African. You spend so much time picking at what they have gotten wrong that you can’t even follow the story line.

    • http://nicholasjakari.com Dekonstrukshun is norty

      I was never conflicted about the setting for my work, for the same reason that i support the Gauteng Lions because my home is in their home, this is where i write … My work is either set in Jozi or in places outside Jozi that i seldom name.

      No: the real ‘setting’ dilemma for me was where to set the place in which i live.

      So, to be brief, it is set in Jozi, not Johannesburg… originally i called it South Central Gauteng, and then beta test runs i ran on the text, son a Californian test site, back in ’98, indicated that that ‘Gauteng” should become more neutral. So for various reasons, it [Gauteng] became ‘Zone One’.

      Then: For reasons i outlined in the closing essay of a Penguin publication: “Soweto Inside Out”, i chose to eliminate two particular words from my work, on ideological grounds. These are the two textural words that have defined our entire existence as a civilizing region of the planet…. The ‘B’ and “W’ words.

      So being a poet first and a ‘writer’ second… i ended up writing a great deal of allegoric prose poetry, knowing full well that few would therefore understand it… and do i care… No. It’s not my problem… i write exclusively for those who choose to understand me… populist pulp is not my ‘genre’.

      I write for 1% of a global audience, not for a national consciousness.

    • bernpm

      Not being a writer, but writing a fair amount for my own pleasure, I cannot see any reason why a South African writer should place his/her stories necessarily in South Africa.
      Having moved from my original homeland through a few places and ended up in South Africa, I am aware of the risk that reporting on your own observations (using them as your background) can lead to some funny perceptions for the local reader.
      Does that make it wrong? Or does it give a more colorful literature?
      Is sticking to your own turf wrong? No, just your choice and equally interesting to read.
      My answer to the question is a simple NO, write what you want in any background you like even an imaginary background.

    • lover of Africa in spite

      can’t wait for the next Zulu novel set in -say- China or Ecuador or even London
      siyahamba nathi futhi

    • Baz

      Why ? Unless you want to break into the South african market.
      I lean more to a bokk that is so un South african.
      Thank you for your article. It should stir those avid readers & local apiring writers who do have the talent & gift to express in the written word so to speak.

    • http://www.joannemacgregor.com Joanne

      Great article, Fiona. I agree that SA writers should be free to locate their books in any setting.
      If you set, or try to publish your book overseas, you do sometimes get the “yellow-bellied traitor” skeefie, but if we want our writing to support us, then sometimes we need to make pragmatic, rather than patriotic, decisions. More than the locale of this country, I find its history influences the type of stories that can be set here. I have just finished the first draft of a story that really intrigued me, but it simply could not have happened in this country. (Just as there are stories that could not happen anywhere else.)

      I think the setting should serve the story, and not the other way around. Great debate!

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