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Trying to describe South Africa without ‘overkill’

The novel I am writing has its opening scene in Cape Town on the day Mandela was released from prison. This manuscript is my project for the masters degree in creative writing programme at Auckland University in New Zealand.

My protagonist, Ruth, is a young South African, and Chinese in appearance. She does not know, among other things, who her real parents are, or precisely where they come from.

Though she is entirely Asian in appearance, perhaps her being Chinese is just a myth given to her from early childhood by her European and Capetonian foster parents and her Mandarin tutor, Sue Hong.

So is it really her Chinese ancestors whispering to her in her dreams at night, along with the strange memories she has of a long-lost twin brother, Simon, from whom she was separated at birth? Who is she? What does “Chinese in appearance” mean? She tracks down Simon, who now lives in Shanghai, a city I have actually lived in for several years.

I am rather fond of Ruth. This is partly because she does not quite know who she is or where she fits in. This is what racial segregation did to her. She is in her early twenties when she starts off in the novel.

I put her down outside Cape Town’s City Hall on the great man’s first day of freedom and let her go. She gets lost among the tense crowds and banners, waiting for Madiba to appear. (I cover her childhood later on in the novel.) I let her go to be as she will on that electric day, a great day fraught with all kinds of tension, shadowed with violence, rubber bullets and tear gas. I know what it was like on that day because I was there, long before my Ruth was.

“Slow down, Rod,” implore my writer peers.

“This is overkill, Rod.”

“You are talking about so many racial issues on the very first pages and depicting Ruth as a … a ‘half-breed’ which is derogatory.”

“How can she call herself a ‘chinky’?”

“To be frank Rod, Ruth is a racist,” one person said. “I don’t like her.” Others disagreed. The conversations were live wires.

I hear that I need to tone down my writing project. That the “racial profiling” and suggestions of violence on different levels is “overkill”. I try to explain to my peers, to my supervisor, to myself, why my writing is like this. Perhaps they will read this.

Fellow writing peers and supervisors, I come from a bizarre, complex country. I only more fully realise that from the outside, a word I handle like examining the delicate finger bones of a human being.

It has taken me many years of living outside South Africa to truly own that she is sick with violence, rage and trauma on many levels. Her body is like that of a patient with a slow, terminal disease, wracked and putrefying. And to own that all of that has infected me.

All this is not easy for me to depict in my novel without getting these valid remarks from you, my peers and colleagues, who have never been to the country I was born in, where I lived until the age of 41. I understand criticisms such as “overkill”, or “calm down”, or “go slower”. I get all that.

But here, for example, is a normal Facebook posting that I all too frequently see. It is by an online South African friend, a woman who is no youngster, and typical of what it is like to live in many urban parts of South Africa. To stress through repetition: bear in mind I see postings and anecdotes like this in various online forums all the time. This is not the official news, endorsed by advertisers’ banners around the newsworthy column. This is straight from people at grass roots level.

“Old lesson relearned: Do not drive with open window after dark. Especially in Joubert Park. It was only open a tiny bit, but enough for a guy to stick his fat fingers in and demand my cellphone “or I’ll shoot!” I’m thinking you MOTHERFATHER, but I look him in the eye and scream: Hoowwhatt? WHAT?? An accomplice is now also at the window and Fat Fingers repeats, addressing me as madam: ‘Give me your phone or I shoot’. One hand behind his back. Me: WHAAAT? trying to close the window, but the fat fingers are in the way. Says he: You can’t close the window, madam, give the phone! So the car in front of me moves forward a few metres and I Put Foot Down and off I go. Amateurs! Tsk.”

Note how her story starts with “Old lesson relearned”. Observe the gritty undertone of noir humour, especially at the end. It echoes a sentiment often used in my country: “South Africa is not for sissies”. This bleak humour is a way of mentally and physically surviving in many parts of South Africa today.

Fellow writing peers, do you understand now why I write the way I do, because living like that is now perfectly natural for most people there? That this is a country where you need to say and believe things like: “South Africa is not for sissies”, to stay more or less functional?

Thank you for helping me see more clearly that my writing, as it stands now, is too much for the ordinary reader outside places like my beloved South Africa. That I need to tone it down, take out the overkill. I will do that, I promise, because what I say and the way I say it is too much, just far too much.