In Other Words

Turning a New Page in South Africa

South Africans have always turned to literature to wrestle with their country's challenges, be it apartheid, violent crime, or the AIDS epidemic. FP recently asked Shaun de Waal, arts and literary critic for Johannesburg's Mail & Guardian newspaper, how a new generation of writers is channeling the past to confront the present.

FOREIGN POLICY: What new genres are emerging in South Africa these days?

Shaun de Waal: We seem to be seeing the birth of a confessional genre, where people are writing about their life experiences. A recent bestseller was a book called Smacked by Melinda Ferguson, [which] talks about her experience with drug addiction and how she overcame it: dealing with Nigerian drug dealers, getting raped, losing her children, and finding her way to recovery. That’s a very powerful new element in South Africa, that kind of confessional literature. A book that recently won a big literary prize — the Alan Paton Award — is Aidsafari, by Adam Levin. It’s the story of his discovery that he was HIV-positive.

FP: Are there any topics that are taboo?

SW: There’s not much that people won’t talk about. HIV/AIDS has been a very contentious issue in South Africa, partly because of the dissident position taken by the president. But there’s a strong push to get it all out in the open. There’s a recent book about a young, popular DJ called Khabzela, who died very young of AIDS-related causes. [The] writer, Liz McGregor, told his life story, looking at the reaction of his family and the denial he went through, trying different traditional African healing methods. Stories like that have the effect of certain taboos being broken.

FP: Who are some of the up-and-coming authors right now, and how are they making a name for themselves?

SW: We’re seeing a lot of first novels coming out. Morabo Morojele lived in exile with his family for many years and returned to South Africa in the early 1990s. He recently published a book called How We Buried Puso. It’s interesting because it deals with politics in the frame of the family saga. Kgebetli Moele recently published a book called Room 207 about rural black South Africans moving to the big city and finding themselves impoverished and having to deal with crime, HIV, and drugs. That’s a very contemporary, slice-of-life kind of book.

Jane Taylor, an academic [based] in Johannesburg, wrote a murder mystery called Of Wild Dogs. People are now coming at the realities of life in South Africa and creating literature that deals with the fact that so many South Africans — both black and white — are at the mercy of violent crime.

Interview: Carolyn O’Hara, assistant editor at FOREIGN POLICY.

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