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.

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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.

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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!)

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Review of The Cutting Room by Mary Watson

Cutting Room_2Title: The Cutting Room
Author: Mary Watson
Publisher: Penguin Books
Published: April 2013
Genre: psychological thriller
Source: Penguin Books SA
Rating: 8/10

Writing a plot summary for The Cutting Room is difficult – the novel doesn’t follow the chronology of its events. Putting them in chronological order for a plot summary feels disingenuous, because that’s not a proper reflection of how the novel feels to me. But all summaries and reviews are inaccurate in some way; keeping that in mind I might as well go ahead.

Lucinda is a cutter. She doesn’t cut herself with blades – she cuts and edits film – but the sense of menace and the hint at harm and self-harm are not to be ignored. For the second time in their marriage, Lucinda’s husband Amir has disappeared. The first time he went to do ‘research’, and left without saying a word to her, only sending an sms to say that he was ok. This time, Lucinda suspects that Amir has actually left her for good, although she has no way of knowing for sure because he hasn’t communicated with her at all. Their marriage had become strained, and Lucinda finds Amir too inscrutable to understand what exactly has gone wrong. Is it her fault, or is it something else?

Lonely and frustrated, she fills her days with work, dinner parties, and nights with trendy, pretty boys at bars in Long Street, Cape Town. Her nosy, paranoid neighbour keeps worrying about how vulnerable she and Lucinda are, as two women living alone in the crime-ridden Cape. Lucinda finds this annoying, but one night she is attacked with a knife in her bedroom.

Trying to get on with her life, Lucinda joins an old friend on his latest project – a documentary about a supposedly haunted house in the small town of Heuwelhoek. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, and yet the house draws parallels with the figurative ghosts in her own life, and the problems that continue to haunt her.

As I mentioned, the actual story isn’t as linear as this plot summary. To read it is not so much to read a story in the traditional sense but to view a collage of characters, relationships and themes. The narrative jumps back and forth between pasts and presents, Cape Town and Heuwelhoek. In the present, Lucinda tries to live a life where Amir – like her own safety – is an uncertainty. When it segues to the past, we see the before and during of their marriage. At times the narrative goes back even further, to Lucinda’s childhood. The haunted house in Heuwelhoek has its own narrative arc, with stories told about the various people who lived there.

In this way, this novel has multiple facets. It’s an intimate psychological study of Lucinda. It’s depicts her understanding of her relationship with Amir. It’s a supernatural mystery with a touch of horror. It’s a tapestry of life in Cape Town, a mixing pot of cultures and histories but also a “Janus-faced city” (17) with its combination of wealth and poverty. It’s a story about intruders, whether they’re criminals breaking and entering in the city of Cape Town, or ghosts disrupting homes and lives.

We never learn when the first scene of the novel takes place, but it sets the tone for what follows. In it, Lucinda sees a burglar on the wall between her house and her neighbour’s. He’s holding a DVD player and a brick. She calls out to him; he makes as if to throw the brick at her, but it’s just an act of mockery and he runs away laughing. In real time this scene would last about thirty seconds, but it takes up several pages as we’re plunged into Lucinda’s interior world. Some of her thoughts are random and a bit silly – she’s impressed that this man jumped onto this high, narrow wall and wonders how criminals train to master their craft; she compares her stereotypically sinister image of criminals with the ordinary person before her; she thinks of how he looks like the Oros man with his big belly and orange T-shirt; she thinks about how much she hates the Oros man “with that bloated rubber dominatrix suit. That sinister smile. His round dead eyes” (3). When her mind focuses on the reality of the situation, she is scared but also annoyed – this man intruded on her Sunday morning and now she’s a witness to his crime. She has been infected by someone else’s problem. It reminds her of a similar, haunting experience as a child. She is, to an extent, in danger, but the burglar uses her vulnerability to humiliate her.

What comes across here are the themes of crime and intrusion, the psychological narrative style in which the story is related, and a brief but illuminating idea of who Lucinda is as a person. The way you can be shamed by what other people’s sins. This kind of detailed interiority makes The Cutting Room a relatively dense, demanding read, but also a rewarding one. Watson’s writing is impeccable: her combination of choppy and run-on sentences mimics the nature of Lucinda’s thoughts, and the details with which she weaves her stories and characters are captivating.

Lucinda is a complex character who I empathised with, admired and disliked all at once. In some ways she’s similar to me – a coloured woman from Cape Town with her fair share of insecurities. Coming from a historically impoverished background and a troubled childhood, she is now sophisticated and financially comfortable, but deeply conscious of keeping up her desired appearances. If she seems cold at times, it could be because she prides herself on being able to be “aloof and unemotional”. When people ask about Amir’s absence, she tries to be nonchalant, never admitting how shamed and lonely she is. I particularly like this anecdote about her cravings for KFC and what it says about her character:

 Lucinda, then approaching thirty, wanted to be stylishly grown-up; she wanted to be sophisticatedly disaffected. The only thing was that every now and then she craved Kentucky Fried with the same intensity that Rapunzel’s mother wanted those radishes in the witch’s garden. She needed the deep grease and she wanted to lick the small bones clean. But she hated going down into the KFC wearing her little boutique dresses – the smell of refried oil absorbed into the expensive fabric and her hair. She felt stared at. Sturvy. So she would slip into an old tracksuit and head down to the Main Road as if in disguise. It became a secret; it just didn’t fit in with the deli and boutique culture she was working so hard at. (41)

“Sturvy”, by the way, is coloured Cape Town slang for “snooty” and its one of the scatterings of slang that Watson has woven into her depiction of the city. She doesn’t explain it, which might be a bit confusing for international readers, but which I thought was great, as explanations tend to distance you from the culture.

Anyway. Lucinda struggles with being alone, not only because Amir has disappeared but because she simply doesn’t know what to do with her time at home. Her work has made her hopelessly impatient:

Lucinda was getting used to manipulating time. She was becoming adept at making it lengthen and contract at will, at the click of a mouse. But it meant that she no longer knew how to wait. That she who had once waited and waited (for Cat to come home from school, for the princess, for her mother to get out of bed, her father to call) had lost the art of sitting something out. Lucinda’s sense of time no longer followed the wise circle of the clock. Instead, it had become a timeline that could be revisited. She could jump from the beginning to the end; she could sever anything that lingered unnecessarily. Except she couldn’t really. And later she realised that she, like software she knew so well, could also play a loop: have one small moment repeat endlessly. To see it relentlessly without reprieve. To know the details, each frame, but to be unable to change even a fraction of a second. (42)

She repeats those small moments by reliving happy memories of her relationship with Amir, to the point where those “comforting memories were worn thin from being taken out and lingered over on too many evenings in with a glass of wine” (14).

It’s quietly tragic, but this isn’t actually a particularly sad book. Lucinda’s narratives – and the book as a whole, in fact – are laced with a sense of menace that elevates the novel from dreary domestic drama to psychological thriller. There are countless details and stories that involve or suggest violence and cruelty or carry the threat of the supernatural – ghosts, witches, the tragedies of the past claiming victims in the present. It’s not something I can properly articulate in the space of a review – the effect is subtle and cumulative, so a few quotes won’t really convey the unsettling tone of the whole.

It’s interesting to note though, that crime isn’t the primary source of menace. Yes, the novel tackles the issue of crime in South Africa, but it doesn’t resort to the relatively simplistic depiction of fearful citizens preyed upon by vile criminals. Rather, crime is one aspect of a more complex consideration of fear in general.

One depressingly memorable moment is when, as a child, Lucinda is walking home with her sister Cat and they hear a woman screaming:

Lucinda thought, rape. Because that was the scariest thing. That’s what they were always warned about. Be careful when you walk home because you might get raped. Don’t go to the caravan park because you might get raped. (44)

Almost as scary as rape itself is the idea that a child would immediately think of rape when she hears a woman screaming. That says a lot about the kind of society that Lucinda and Cat grew up in. But the incident quickly becomes very different: when the woman emerges it’s revealed that she’s screaming for hep for her drowning brother. Lucinda and Cat only stare at the woman in shock, until she runs off looking for someone more capable. Then the two girls just walk on, and Cat immediately starts talking about their library books. Lucinda is more disturbed – was there really a drowning man? Has it got anything to do with the legend of a dead Princess who drowns children in the vlei? She never finds out what really happened and the incident haunts her for years. The unknown is just as threatening as regular crime, at least for Lucinda: ” While she minded gangsters very much, she was more frightened by things she couldn’t see, things that touched a nerve” (54).

The ghosts, whether real, imagined or figurative, cut deeper than any incidents of crime. They are born of intimate, unsettling secrets, they bring personal insecurities into sharp relief, they kindle obsessions. I particularly enjoyed the ghost stories of the house in Heuwelhoek. They raise more questions than they answer, but they get under your skin. As a genre fan I was hoping Watson would make the supernatural horror story a bigger part of the novel. I wasn’t unhappy with what she did, I just wanted more of it, with a more satisfying resolution.

But the book is primarily and Lucinda’s relationship with Amir and the mystery of his disappearance. This is probably not a good choice if you’re looking for sheer story – the book is packed with stories within stories, but the main arc of narrative moves quite slowly and isn’t especially exciting. The appeal lies in everything around the core narrative – the characters, their histories, the writing.

I was captivated, but if I have an any complaints, it’s that yes, the novel does drag in parts. As Watson mentioned in a Q&A with Penguin, The Cutting Room is a very reflective book rather than a typically fast-paced thriller. The challenge was to balance reflection and action. For the most part, I think Watson balanced it very well, not with guns-and-chases sort of action but with gripping stories and intriguing encounters. Nevertheless, Lucinda’s problems start to become tedious in the last third or so and I really wanted to hear more about the Heuwelhoek house instead.

Niggling aside – The Cutting Room is good. Very good. It’s one of the most sophisticated South African novels I’ve read and a classily macabre work in its own right. Recommended.

Review of Cape of Slaves by Sam Roth

Title: Cape of Slaves
Series: Time Twisters #1
Author: Sam Roth (pseudonym of Dorothy Dyer and Rosamund Haden)
Published: March 2012
Publisher: Puffin South Africa
Genre: science fantasy, historical children’s fiction, YA
Source: review copy from Penguin South Africa
Rating: 5/10

In the year 2099, a glowing, green, time-travelling dust escapes into an air vent and travels “through time and space, searching for human skin with which it could connect”.

In present day Johannesburg, the glowing dust finds 12-year-old Sarah, and some of it seeps into her skin. At school the next day, Sarah is inexplicably drawn towards a book entitled Europe in the Middle Ages. When she examines one of the pictures she is pulled into the scene, travelling to the time in which it occurred. Sarah returns moments later, and decides that she needs to find others who have been touched by the dust.

She places a cryptic ad in the personal columns of a local teen newspaper, and that’s how she meets Toby, a street-smart boy from a dodgy neighbourhood, and Bonisile ‘Bones’ Tau (rhymes with ‘cow’), a super-nerdy genius. Toby shows them a newspaper clipping about a girl named Miriam who disappeared from the Cape of Slaves exhibition at a local art gallery. Toby is convinced that Miriam travelled through a portal in one of the paintings and could not get back. Bones and Sarah agree to join Toby on a rescue mission to save Miriam, but when they go through the painting to land in Cape Town, 1825, they do so without an inkling of what kind of society awaits them.

 

Before I go any further, I should put in a disclaimer. The protagonists are 12 and 13 years old, and according to Puffin’s press release for this Cape of Slaves, the target audience is 8-years old and up. I know nothing about the intellectual capabilities or reading preferences of this age group, so I’m reviewing this primarily for older teenagers and adults who read YA. Younger readers are no doubt less demanding and wouldn’t be bothered by the many shortcomings in this novel, but I thought the authors could have been more rigorous, regardless of the fact that they were writing for children. YA and children’s fiction shouldn’t be sub-standard fiction.

The bit of plot I described above already raises a lot of questions and issues for me. I think it’s unlikely that a personal ad in a local youth newspaper would catch the attention of the very few people who were touched by the dust. Who reads those newspapers anyway? Then Toby assumes that Miriam has time-travelled, based on nothing but a newspaper article claiming she “disappeared without a trace” (24). Sarah and Bones accept his assumption without question and agree to join him on a rescue mission, even though these three met each other less than an hour before. They all act as if time travelling is old hat for them, even though they’ve only had one experience with it so far and don’t really know how it works.

When they go to the museum to find the right painting and travel through it, none of them thinks to dress the part, so they all travel 187 years into the past looking like modern kids. What’s worse is that none of them give a single thought to the fact that they’re going to a time of slavery, and the issue of skin colour only comes up once they’ve gone through.

I could, reluctantly, suspend my disbelief to accept that Sarah is capable of this. She lives a life of privilege, where her daily problems involve her stepdad driving her to school in a huge, embarrassing Hummer, walking her to class, and searching her room for sweets and chocolates because he’s a health freak. Because she’s white, discrimination has probably never been an issue for her and 1825 will be far less dangerous for her than for Toby or Bones, so maybe – just maybe – she hasn’t considered the slavery issue.

Toby on the other hand, is coloured and comes from an impoverished background that has made him acutely aware of the racism and discrimination in present-day South Africa. In 1825, he knows full well that his skin colour puts him in danger, so why didn’t he mention it before? Bones, being a genius who attends one of the poshest schools in the country, has actually memorised a historical timeline from 1652 to 1902, so he definitely knows all about slavery. Nevertheless, he arrives at the gallery an hour early and goes through alone, all because he wants “to be the boy who came back from the past, told the world, and won prizes for it”. Of course, he ends up being the boy who is assumed to be a slave because of his skin colour.

Childish optimism aside, are 12-year olds really this dof? Or so ignorant of their history? Did schools stop teaching kids about slavery? Even if that’s the case, or if these three haven’t had those classes yet, then an art exhibition named “Cape of Slaves” and a room full of pictures depicting slavery should have been a giant, screaming clue. Certainly more noticeable than a cryptic ad in the personals column of a youth newspaper.

Perhaps the protagonists’ ignorance is meant to set the stage for an educational experience, since education is presumably one of the purposes of this novel, at least for those who don’t know about slavery or the fact that it was practised in South Africa. Since I already knew the basics, Cape of Slaves wasn’t informative or immersive. The depiction of slavery felt thin, like an impression gleaned from novels and movies on the subject. The authors (or publishers/editors) appear to have favoured ease of reading over historical accuracy in many instances. Sometimes this is understandable. For example, the violence in the novel is mild, to better suit the young audience, and we mostly see the cruelty of slavery in the way black people are treated like domestic animals.  But too often it felt like the novel just glossed over difficulties in a way that felt unnecessarily childish and unrealistic.

Almost all the characters speak perfect English, so the protagonists have no difficulty communicating. There’s only a smattering of Dutch or Afrikaans, and I don’t recall any African languages being used. No one makes a big deal about the kids’ modern clothing, speech or mannerisms. Many people marvel at how well educated Bones is, as if he were a monkey who’d learned to speak, but none of the slave owners find this threatening or even suspicious, and no one asks how or why he was educated. At one point, a slave boy named Elijah runs away from his farm in an attempt to help Bones, and they both end up getting sold at a slave market in the nearby town. Surprisingly, Elijah’s owners don’t ever come looking for him – quite convenient in terms of plot, but I can’t imagine that runaway slaves were treated so casually.

The characters are just as thin and uninteresting as the historical setting. Sarah is a garden variety shy, insecure girl, who gets jealous easily and finds it difficult to think of Toby without some kind of romantic overtone. Bones is a hollow nerd cliché – he’s physically weak, troubled by allergies, dresses like Steve Urkel, and likes to read about “rocket science and global warming” (46). What vague tastes. Poor Elijah, the only slave with a major role, is little more than a plot device put in place to help the readers and characters find their way. Toby, at least, is a little more appealing, probably because he’s the boldest, most socially conscious, and most adaptable of the three time travellers. He’s the streetwise “cool dude” with a sensitive side, but sadly this comes off as a bit of a cliché too. There’s an odd lack of slang in the characters’ speech, and they don’t really sound like kids most of the time, even if they act as such. There’s no real variation in the way they speak either, and this can be confusing, because the narrative switches between first-person narrators every two or three chapters, and it’s only the context that enables you to identify who is speaking.

On the whole, Cape of Slaves has the quality of a made-for-TV kids’ movie, like the ones that M-Net used to play for the two-hour Disney family time on Sunday afternoons. I remember liking those movies, but even then I knew that their stories were kept smooth and simple – sometimes ridiculously so – in order to keep kids happy. Similarly, this could be a good read for pre-teens and younger teens – it’s short and fairly easy to read, has a bit of adventure, and some educational value. For the many adults who read YA though, I would not recommend this.

Buy a copy of Cape of Slaves