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.
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.