History is Another Country: South African Influences on a Fictional World at War

Kameron Hurley is an award-winning writer and freelance copywriter who grew up in Washington State. She is the author of the book God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture, and her short fiction has appeared in magazines such LightspeedEscapePod, and Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as The Lowest Heaven and Year’s Best SF

I was totally sold on God’s War by the end of the first amazing page, and I read and reviewed the whole series. When Kameron was offering guest posts for the launch of the UK edition of God’s War, I asked her to write something about how her time in South Africa influenced the series.

_________________________

The new UK edition of God's War

The new UK edition of God’s War

I’ve written before about how living and working in South Africa changed the way I view my own country, in particularly how it opened my eyes to our own racism and segregation. But how do those experiences get trickled down into the nitty-gritty creation of a fictional world?

When I went to Clarion University, the best advice I got was to read outside the genre and travel. When I talk about how traveling makes folks better writers, they nod sagely and say, “Well, of course. It’s good to see how things are different elsewhere.” And yeah, sure. You pay for public restrooms in parts of Europe. The bus drivers actually have change they can give you in Durban. In South Africa, the phenomenon of “car guards” was pretty mind-bending, for me. But to be honest, after awhile, you get used to the differences. After just a few weeks or a few months, the world became boringly normal again. It was all just living.

You don’t know what you’ve taken away from a place until you leave it.

I lived in a cockroach-infested flat with a partial view of the Indian Ocean (mostly the cranes in the harbor), using cardboard boxes as desks and tables. Furniture consisted of a bed and some throw pillows. My biggest purchase was a mini-fridge, because not a single flat I looked at came with appliances. Putting fruit out overnight on the counter was a no-no – it’d be rotten or bug infested by morning. I’d grown up in a rainy, temperate climate, and though I’d already traveled a lot and lived for a couple of years in Alaska, by the time I arrived in Durban, the sub-tropical climate (no air conditioning, obviously) took some getting used to.

In truth, it was the climate that I started writing about first, with a story set in a steamy locale with a regular monsoon; a country being invaded by women from a far shore. I spent my days at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, pursuing a Master’s degree in history looking at the African National Congress’s recruitment of students during the war against Apartheid. As I uncovered more about revolutionary armies at the time, and found an internal ANC communication that estimated the number of women in its militant wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, at 20% or more, I started to spend more time looking at the role of women, in particular in revolutionary movements throughout southern Africa during the 80’s.  In turns out, women have always fought.  And though some part of me knew this, well… it’s amazing how, when you first begin to write stories, you find yourself just mimicking everyone else. You read it, you write it.

I had to live something else.

Gods War by Kameron HurleyThis interest, too, bled into my fiction. I found myself now writing about groups of militant women – in steamy locales, no less – working to uncover weapons of mass destruction by any means necessary. I drew heavily on all the research I was doing both in Durban and Cape Town. I spent more hours than I can count sifting through atrocities recorded by The Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

And though I can certainly pretend that it was the distance of these crimes to my own situation that appealed to me, in truth I lived in South Africa from 2002-2003, after my own country had started two unnecessary wars, using the veil of a nationwide tragedy to mangle, bomb, invade and overcome two sovereign nations in a ruthless push for oil resources.

For me, understanding war – why we fight, the things we do, how we motivate our soldiers, how we teach people to kill and, most importantly, the way the victors rewrite it – was something I found easier to untangle from a distance. I wanted to understand conflict. I just didn’t have the objectivity to untangle my own country’s just yet.

At night, I’d lie in my bed smoking, listening to cockroaches skittering around, and I’d listen to the muezzin calling out the athan at the nearby mosque. I never saw the mosque, though. Maybe it was just a recording someone played from a rooftop. I’d grown up in a rural, conservative town on the western coast of the U.S. This was the first time I heard the Muslim call to prayer. And it was the first time I ever walked down a street, or got on a bus, and found that my face was the only white one.

There are things we absorb about the world, intellectually. I can tell you that most people in the world aren’t white, and aren’t Christian. Of course not. But I came from a country that had worked very hard to segregate its citizens, and manufacture a media that told us there wasn’t anything but what they showed us on TV.  I didn’t realize how much I’d internalized those ideas about “how things were” until I actually saw the rest of the world.

Then I got pretty pissed off.

Because I started to see it everywhere, especially in the fiction I both wrote and read. The default white. The default Christianity, or Christianity-inspired atheism. It was everywhere I looked, building a narrative of a world that was a lie. Perpetuating a reality that had never existed.

I figured I could be part of that narrative. I could feed that monster, the monster narrative that made it so simple, so easy, so obvious, for a nation to respond to a tragedy with violence. To dedicate itself to a war with people it didn’t truly, emotionally, see as people. We had written them out – and it’s easy to bomb and obliterate what we don’t see every day.

Or, I could write something different. About different people. A different place. Another war, fed by outside interests and grand alien nations, and the people struggling to make lives for themselves in the wreckage. I could write outside the expected narrative, and maybe figure out my own world’s fucked up wars in the process.

For my non-SA readers, this is a bakkie, which you may know as a pickup truck. Pronounced "bucky", not "backy". On Hurley's planet of Umayma, the bakkies run on cockroaches.

For my non-SA readers, this is a bakkie, which you may know as a pickup truck. Pronounced “bucky”, not “backy”. On Hurley’s planet of Umayma, the bakkies run on cockroaches.

Years later, that book was God’s War, with its bakkies and veldt and broederbond and the haunting sound of the muezzin, all mixed up with bug magic and alien ships and prayer wheels and bounty hunting.

Yes, it was broken sometimes, and flawed, and imperfect. Like me. Like the world.

I can’t say I learned any more about my war, except that it was just one in a long history of wars fought by big nations over limited resources. I’m not sure there’s comfort in that. I’m not sure I want to feel resigned to it. It was a book only I could write, and only I could fail at. And in the end, the war was their war. The world was their world.

I had to believe they could do better with it.

_________________________

God’s War was not previously available in SA, but will now begin shipping to SA stores on 22 January 2014. ISBN: 9780091952785. Approximate retail price R180 (thanks to Dave de Burgh for this info!)

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “History is Another Country: South African Influences on a Fictional World at War

  1. >>For my non-SA readers, this is a bakkie, which you may know as a pickup truck. Pronounced “bucky”, not “backy”. On Hurley’s planet of Umayma, the bakkies run on cockroaches.<<

    I admit, Kameron, that I mentally pronounced bakkie as backy when reading your novels. I had no idea it was "bucky".

    • Well, it’s not something you can tell from the text. The word comes from Afrikaans, where the letter ‘a’ has an ‘ah’ sound. Bakkie or bak can also refer to a bowl or container, and I assume the vehicle picked up the name because of the bit at the back.

  2. I’ve seen this book on the shelf, and pulled it off once or twice to consider, but now I will definitely be reading it. Thanks for the insight into the process. (Alas, my to-read pile is about a mile high now, but it sounds like it should float to the top.)

  3. Pingback: God’s War Wicked Winter Carnival: Week 2 Wrap-up | Kameron Hurley

  4. Pingback: God’s War Wicked Winter Carnival: WE SURVIVED! | Kameron Hurley

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s