I just got back from BookEx at Sandton Convention Centre, where I attended what was probably South Africa’s first sci fi, fantasy and horror panel (woohoo!). Dave-Brendon from DaveBrendon’s Fantasy and SciFi Weblog chaired the panel, which featured SA authors Sarah Lotz, Louis Greenberg and Lauren Beukes. Admittedly, South Africa has precious little SF, F or horror to boast, so it wasn’t surprising that the panel was cruelly scheduled for 4pm, on the very last day of the expo, but I’m hoping the fact that there was a panel at all is a sign of exciting things to come. It’s not like we’re short on fans, so where’s the fiction? But even in places where the SF, F, and horror industries are booming, those genres are still seen as publishing ‘ghettos’ as Lauren described it, supposedly lacking the quality and depth of so-called literary fiction. Any reader of good SF, F and horror knows better though, and the panel started off by chatting about the social edge often found in genre fiction, its potential for satire. At the same time, Lauren said she doesn’t like genre and she hates being boxed with labels like ‘cyberpunk’ or ‘urban fantasy’. Forget about genre, she said; just read what interests and surprises you.
The panel authors certainly have some interesting new books for us. Sarah and Louis both love horror and have collaborated on a horror novel titled The Mall, where an emo-kid bookseller and a coke-junkie babysitter are drawn into the bowels of an otherworldly mall. Sarah and Louis described the collaboration process – a kind of good-natured sadism where they took turns writing and each left the characters in impossibly difficult situations (like being stuck in a room full of mirrors with no door) that the other would have to write them out of. That sounds like a promise of a lot of terrifying fun. The Mall will be published in June 2011 under the pseudonym S. L. Grey. I’m really keen to get my hands on a copy as soon as I can, so I’ll keep you guys updated. In the meantime, enjoy the luscious cover:
Sarah and her daughter have also written a YA zombie novel called Deadlands, which will be out in March next year, published under the name Lily Hearn. Lauren is working on a new novel – an Apartheid thriller, which will be a change of pace from her two previous novels, but having enjoyed both Moxyland and Zoo City, I’m willing to follow her down whichever road she chooses to take.
I asked the panel what they thought a South African context could bring to genre fiction. Many South Africans, when they think of our country’s fiction they think of fiction about race relations, Apartheid and post-Apartheid politics. Is this essential to the South African novel? What else can South African writers bring to sci fi, fantasy and horror? Sarah and Louis had already mentioned malls and hospitals as potential sites of horror in SA, because of the way social injustice and evil collects there. In Lauren’s opinion, SA novels certainly don’t have to be Apartheid novels, but they have to acknowledge what has happened to this country as a result of Apartheid. She also emphasised how important it was to write novels set in South Africa – no one wants to read fantasy novels set in Middle Earth anymore; it’s been done to death. Similarly, paranormal romance fill shelf after shelf with vampire/werewolf/angel/demi-god love affairs. For South African writers to produce another one of these is to compete with the millions already out there.
Not to mention the fact that South African publishers aren’t interested in novels that aren’t, well, South African. Sarah further emphasised the need for local settings when she told us about a writing class that was held for children in the Cape Flats. Most of the participants wrote vampire stories set in American locker rooms and yet these kids had never even seen an American locker room. The problem seems to be that we’re over-influenced by the over-abundance of fiction from the US and the UK and, as Lauren suggested, SA writers don’t feel cool enough to compete. In the meantime, publishers are looking for “the South African Twilight” (yes, I cringed when I heard that. I really hope they’re just referring to popularity and that publishers aren’t scouting for million-rand drivel).
In reference to the race relations mentioned in my question, Louis added that we’re already thinking about it in new ways, allowing Lauren Beukes, a white woman, to write in the persona of a black woman for her novel Zoo City. What’s exciting about this is that South Africans can use fiction to speak for each other, that writers can safely explore a variety of racial and political identities rather than feeling trapped in racial stereotypes. Besides exploring identity, I’m looking forward to the unique ideas and territories that SA writers can create in SF, F and horror. It’s a fresh market, and the fans are there, locally and internationally, eager as always. And I for one would love to find new worlds in the streets and buildings I know so well.