Friday, March 27, 2015

BLACK SOUTH AFRICAN WRITING

BLACK SOUTH AFRICAN WRITING : 
     A CRITICAL APPRAISAL  
© Farouk Asvat

     South African Black literature is in solitary confinement.  It is being written as if Gabriel García Márquez, Dumbudzo Marechera, Leo Tolstoi, and Joseph Conrad never wrote prose; as if Wole Soyinka, Pablo Neruda and William Butler Yeats never composed poetry. 

     South African Black writers are writing without paying heed to their own past (both oral and written), and they seem to be completely unaware of the modern trends in world literature. 

     In fact they even seem completely oblivious of Alex La Guma's A Walk In The Night, or Can Themba's The Will To Die; and completely ignorant of Arthur Nortje's Dead Roots

     South African writing appears to flourish upon the fact that it is Black, that it is oppressed, and that it is South African; so they keep writing - over and over again - the same material you would get in any newspaper of worth or in any political pamphlet. 

     One does not deny the political aspects of creative writing - in fact one cannot escape it - but what the imagination of our writers need is a whiplashing.  They have the material, unfortunately, but they need to produce something original, something modern, something daring and indigenous at the same time. 

     Most of the writing being published, both by writers within and in exile, is tedious, overtly political, rhetorical and entirely predictable. 

     Writing is subjective, and political.  But creative literature , by its very nature , must also be imaginative, original and personal, dealing with human lives, emotions and responses. 

     But unfortunately there is nothing to make our hearts beat faster: our poets might as well be given sledgehammers to write their verse; the prose writers might as well be reminiscing journalists.  In fact there is no attempt being made to produce an authentic Azanian literature: one as modern and native as Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years Of Solitude; nothing as personal and cynical as Dumbudzo Marechera's The House Of Hunger; nothing as inventive and political as B Wongar's The Track To Bralgu; nothing as imaginative and intricate as Carlos Fuente's The Death Of Artemio Cruz; nothing as complex and human as Han Su Yin's … A Many Splendoured Thing

     And it is very unfortunate that publishers are now too eager (where once they were too reluctant and afraid) to print anything - as long as it comes out of Soweto (as if uprisings and writings are defined by a particular ghetto and a specific date). 


[] PROSE

     Almost all the prose being written within the country is semi-journalistic, semi-fictional, semi-autobiographical; and therefore unsuccessful at all these levels.  And writers in exile suffer a similar fate, except perhaps for Alex la Guma's novella, A Walk In The Night.  Though written in the "classical" English literature mould, it is a powerful invocation of Michael Adonis in the Cape Town of District Six; and the short stories in the collection are fairly good. 

     None of la Guma's novels however achieve even these basic norms: In The Fog Of The Season's End is passable in parts, but tends towards the more overtly political and the characters are less well defined; The Stone Country, unimaginatively equating South Africa to a prison, is even less successful; and Time For The Butcherbird is a complete disaster. 

     One would think that the writers who went into exile, being exposed to a less oppressive wider world, would imbibe their experiences and their knowledge.  But they all seem to be stuck in the quagmire of nostalgia, and the longer they are in exile, the weaker their writing becomes about their home country. 

     Peter Abraham's Mine Boy is a schoolboy attempt at story telling; and all his other writings do not rise much above that. 

     D M Zwelonke's Robben Island - necessary as such exposure is of the brutality of the regime - pales besides Wole Soyinka's poignant account of his experiences in The Man Died, or Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon, let alone The Prison Letters Of George Jackson, or Notes From The Underground by Fyodor Dostoevski. 

     James Matthews rarely rises above the commonplace prose of political identification and protest in The Park And Other Stories

     Richard Rive's Buckingham Palace is a pale, nostalgic representation of a District Six that never existed in reality. 

     Es'kia Mphahlele's Chirundu is extremely laboured reading, and his earlier pieces, like Down Second Avenue, are dull and boringly autobiographical, without the kind of insights in Pablo Neruda's Memoirs

     And Modikwe Dikobe's The Marabi Dance is mere reminiscences of the Doornfoontein removals of the 1930's - as are so many other pieces of South African writing. 

     Can Themba's The Will To Die is a respectable enough collection, with some decent short stories, and some worthy enough pieces of journalism. 

     On the other hand, Mostsisi's Casey And Company; and Nakasa's The World Of Nat Nakasa are very uneven collections, with some so-so short stories and some mediocre journalism. 

     Though Neil Williams' Just A Little Stretch Of Road is well-written prose in parts, it uses the primary clichés of local literature: black woman raped by white policeman, black labourer beaten by white farmer - without adding a new, never mind a humane dimension to these events or the characters. 

     Ahmed Essop's The Hajji and other stories contain some poignant literature, like "Gerty's Brother," but it is sad that he is unable to escape the use of the Queen's English, or to capture the nuances of a complex and unique environment he knows and enjoys so well. 

     Mariam Tlali takes a complex world and reduces it to a simplistic diary of recollections in Muriel At Metropolitan

     Mtutuzeli Matshoba's Call Me Not A Man was too hastily published - as most black South African books are.  Though some pieces are tolerable, there are stories that just go on and on.  Matshoba has potential, and his themes are well chosen, but he should have been given the chance to develop and explore.  But what is most unfortunate, if not tragic, is that the book is being held up as the trend black literature should take. 

     Don Mattera's Gone With The Twilight is merely nostalgic, with the usual myth-making about Sophiatown, in a series of recollections without any philosophical or personal insights. 

     Achmat Dangor's Waiting For Leila is an iconoclastic attempt at being clever, with derivative references to clichéd literary characters.  His later works are even more nondescript attempts at being original. 


[] POETRY

     Going through the mountains of "poetry" written within the country (and in exile), one would find it difficult to put together a decent anthology.  Our poets never seem to tire of writing about "chains," "mother afrika" and "suffering" in the same old hackneyed manner. 

     The only exception is Arthur Nortje's anthology of excellent poems, Dead Roots.  His poems are imaginative, intense, fresh and personal compositions of his experiences in relation to the tyranny in the country.  He died in exile at the premature age of 30, but in that time he wrote some superb poetry, the kind of creativity one would hope to see in our writers. 

     Dennis Brutus' poems, however, are mostly cold, dispassionate and distant in Letters To Martha; A Simple Lust; and Stubborn Hope.  And though many are strong indictments of the regime, one cannot easily identify with them at the human level. 

     Mazizi Kunene's "Zulu" poems take cognizance of our oral tradition, and some of his poems are passable.  But in the myth-making process (necessary as it might be), his Emperor Shaka The Great is the romanticisation of an African tyrant. 

     James Matthews does not rise above the level of the protesting versifier in Cry Rage!, and there is little improvement in Pass The Meatball, Jones

     Oswald Mtshali's Sounds Of A Cowhide Drum, is merely an expression of trite, liberal sentiments, with only a few tolerable poems. 

     Sidney Sepamla's poetry in Hurry Up To It, and The Blues Is You In Me is largely unsuccessful, and worn out, many of the images spoiled by overwriting. 

     Mongane Serote is too steeped in the Black American subculture to develop his South African consciousness in Yakhal' Inkomo.  His Tsetlo contains some bearable poems, but No Baby Must Weep, and Behold Mama, Flowers again degenerate into overkill and vagueness. 

     Mafika Gwala is fairly aware of modern trends and the past for his Jol'inkomo to be somewhat personal and meaningful.  Some of his poems could perhaps be the trend our poetry could take. 

     Fhazel Johannesse should have been allowed more time to mature along the lines of his better poems - his The Rainmaker is too hasty a collection. 

     Christopher van Wyk's It Is Time To Go Home contains the usual hackneyed use of verse, which are largely dismal and uninspiring, and his slang poems rarely sound authentic. 

     Essop Patel's They Came At Dawn is made up of the usual quest for identification with the struggle, with some lazy images that are not properly developed. 

     Shabbir Banoobhai's Echoes Of My Other Self is just that. 

     Ingoapele Madingoane's Africa My Beginning might make excellent protest poetry when performed amidst an audience, and he may be the "poet laureate" of the townships, but he does nothing new for our writing. 

     Don Mattera's Azanian Love Song is nothing more than a collection of rhetorical, political verse that has not developed since the 1960's, in style or content.  

     Achmat Dangor's Bulldozer, in spite of its attempt at intellectualism, is devoid of all passion, does not evoke any empathy, and is extremely difficult to identify with, because of its obscurity and insipidity. 


[] LITERARY MAGAZINES

     The literary magazines also do not do much to encourage imaginative writing. 

     Contrast has become an establishment quarterly that only white liberals read; New Classic has just vanished; others have gone defunct; and The Bloody Horse was a stillbirth concerned only with western literary standards. 

     New Coin and the English Academy Review (E.A.R.) are both steeped in staid academia, demanding standards that are in keeping with "classical" English literature. 

     Staffrider, though it brought some new writing to the fore, and perhaps encouraged many new writers, is also, by printing so much mundane and mediocre stuff, arresting South African writing at a very unhealthy level.  Wietie, though it started with some promise, fell into the same trap by the second issue. 

     Only Lionel Abrahams was brave enough, under severe censorship and oppression, to publish what was then considered extremely risqué writings by black writers in Purple Renoster; and then the anthologies by some of the black writers. 

                                                                 []

     Compared to our "fictional" literature, Nelson Mandela's No Easy Walk To Freedom (not to be confused with the later non-autobiographical myth-making tome, which was actually written by a Time magazine editor) and Steve Biko's I Write What I Like, being political statements without any other pretensions, are less strident and more powerful indictments of the regime.  But theirs is the realm of the politician (Mandela) and the revolutionary (Steve Biko): the domain of the artist is to make magic. 

     It is tragic that none of our writings contain the indigenous ingredients of our traditional music, nor the magical genius and imaginative improvisations that can combine all our myriad influences (San rock paintings, central African migrants, slaves and indentured labourers from diverse parts of the world, Islam and Christianity, Nguni and Sotho) into one successful piece. 

     In the end, what is said is always more important than how it is said, but journalistic and autobiographical writing, by merely repeating the obvious and the mundane - our lives are so much more eloquent speakers of our circumstances - adds nothing to the meaning of life; whereas great art provides interesting, liberating dimensions to our lives. 

     Unfortunately there are no echoes of even other African writers, from Ngugi Wa Thiong'o to Yusuf Idris; or Black American writers from James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison to Amiri Baraka; no reverberations of the (auto)biography of Malcolm X or Angela Davis; let alone any resonances of other writers from across the world, from Gabriel García Márquez and Pablo Neruda to the masterpieces of world literature by William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad and William Butler Yeats. 

     So if our writing is to improve - and writing is a full-time occupation (in addition to earning our daily lives) - then our writers must incorporate their personal emotions, their peoples' political aspirations, their inherent cultures, the miracles of modern technology, the slang on the train, the political prose of Emile Zola, the imaginative freshness of Pablo Neruda, the complex gentleness of Han Su Yin, the music of Theodorakis, Inti Illimani, and Victor Jara, and the wisdom of our forefathers - from Shakespeare to ibn Sinna - into one helluva piece that is Azanian, and everything else at the same time. 

     That is the challenge.  And our creative writers can either take it up, or pack their shallow knapsacks, and take up something else. 


© farouk asvat

composed: 1985 [South Africa under apartheid].

[] Acknowledgements:

Black South African Writing: a critical appraisal was serialised in the Sowetan as:
     Our Anguish And Quest (Sowetan, Argus, Jhb, p8, 06.05.1987);
     Artist's Function Is To Master His Craft (Sowetan, Argus, Jhb, p11, 13.05.1987);
     Third World View Is Vital (Sowetan, Argus, Jhb, p7, 20.05.1987);
     The Problems With South African Fiction (Sowetan, Argus, Jhb, p17, 27.05.1987);

Black South African Writing: a critical appraisal was serialised in The Indicator as:
     Black SA Literature In The Eighties, Farouk Asvat (The Indicator, Caxton, p35, 22-31.05.1987];
     Artist's Function Is To Master His Craft The Indicator, Caxton, p36, 26-30 June 1987];
     Looking At 'Third World' And European Literary Perspectives [The Indicator, Caxton, p45, 28-31.07.1987];
     The Problems With South African Fiction [p`, The Indicator, Caxton, p`, 1987`].

Black South African Writing - a critical appraisal: was previously published in:
     Weapons of Words (kindle, 2016);
     Weapons of Words (amazon paperback, p96, 2016).

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© farouk asvat.  All rights reserved.

Farouk Asvat asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
No part of this publication may be reproduced by any means whatsoever, or transmitted in any form or any means whatsoever, mechanical or electronic, including recording, printing, photocopying, or via any computerised means or media, including the internet.  This publication shall also not be stored in a retrieval system.  And the writing shall not be sold, lent, hired, resold or circulated in any form or binding or cover other than that in which it is published,
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Permission to publish or reproduce the writings in any format can be obtained from the author.
Reproduction of this work without permission, except for scholarly & nonprofit purposes,
is liable to a payment of 10, 000 ren men bi or US$ 1,500.

farouk asvat can be contacted at: farouk.asvat@gmail.com

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[][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][]
the NOVEL Sadness In The House Of Love by Farouk Asvat
is now available on amazon: paperback @ $15 & kindle @ only $5
[][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][][]

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