Editor’s Note: Congrats to Lauren Beukes for winning the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award.
Writing The Other is a sensitive topic. It should be. Not least because it’s so often been done so very, very, badly.
But the truth is that unless you’re writing autobiography, any character you write is going to be The Other.
I am not a serial killer. (Unless my multiple personalities are hiding something from me.) I am also not a 50s housewife, a parking attendant, a car-jacking reality TV star, a Ugandan email scammer, a Tokyo mecha pilot, or a future-world stubborn-as-heck gay anti-corporate activist. And even though my novelist friends Thando Mgqolozana and Zukiswa Wanner like to joke that I’m a black girl trapped in a white girl’s skin, I’m not Zoo City’s hip, fast-talking, ex-journo, ex-junkie black Joburg girl protagonist, Zinzi.
I don’t have a lot of patience for authors who say they’d be too scared to write a character outside their cultural experience. Because we do that all the time. It’s called using your imagination.
The other people I don’t have a lot of patience for are the ones too lazy to do any research. I heard a radio interview recently with a poet who had written a whole book of verse about the sex workers in Amsterdam’s red light district and the incredible empathy she had for these women and how she tried to climb inside their heads to really expose the painful reality of their experiences.
Number of sex workers she interviewed or even tried to engage in a casual chat to get that in-depth insight into the painful reality of their experiences?
Sometimes imagination isn’t enough on its own. People are people. We love. We hate. We bleed. We itch. We succumb to Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs and traffic makes us pissy. But culture and race and sexuality and even language are all lenses that shape our experiences of the world and who we are in it.
The only way to climb into that experience is to research it, through books or blogs or documentaries or journalism or, most importantly and obviously, talking to people.
I was lucky to have good friends like Lindiwe Nkutha, Nechama Brodie, Verashni Pillay and Zukiswa Wanner who were all willing to take me round Johannesburg AND read the manuscript afterwards to make sure that I got the cultural details of the people – and the city – right.
I read books on Hillbrow, like Kgebetli Moele’s Room 207, watched documentaries and movies and turned to Twitter to get expert first-hand info on city details like storm drain entrances and good places to dump a body (!).
I chatted to music producers and journalists to understand the South African music industry and interviewed refugees like Jamala Safari to get insight into what he’d been through (and referred him to my publisher when he mentioned he’d written a novel about his journey from the DRC to Cape Town).
I visited the Central Methodist Church where 4000 refugees were sheltering in the worst conditions that were the best possible option for them in that moment, got bounced from The Rand Club, paid for a consultation with a sangoma (who diagnosed a dark shadow over my life and recommended I sacrifice a black chicken) and did follow-up interviews with other traditional healers to make sure I was on track on the details before I twisted them to my fictional purposes. And I spent a week just walking round Hillbrow and talking to people.
As my official “culture editor”, Zukiswa Wanner busted me a couple of times on inaccuracies – almost all of them on inner city living details, like Zinzi stopping to buy a single Stuyvesant cigarette from a street vendor. “No ways, dude, I’m sorry, it would be a Remington Gold. That’s the cheap generic,” or providing the correct slang for the ubiquitous plastic woven rattan suitcases used by refugees: “amashangaan”
“But is Zinzi black enough?” I asked her, after going through all the notes in her commissioned reader’s report which hadn’t addressed the point even once.
Zukiswa laughed at me. It hadn’t occurred to her.
“Oh Zinz is hip and black enough,” she said, “Fuck anyone who questions that. What does that even mean? Don’t worry about it. I too am going to be catching flak. I write purely from the male perspective in Men of the South so you’ll have company.”
No-one (yet) has given me flak for being a white South African writing a black South African. And Zukiswa’s Men of the South was just short-listed for the Herman Charles Bosman prize. She says she only gets flak from people who assume she’s a man and that Zukiswa is a pseudonym.
In the end, I think my question should never have been “Is Zinzi black enough?” but “is she Zinzi enough”? Because it’s not about creating one-trick ponies that reflect some quintessential property of what we think being Other is about. It’s about creating complex, deep, rich characters driven by their own motivations and shaped by their experiences.
People are different. There are things we don’t get about each other. Usually it’s because we haven’t asked.
And then write.