Tuesday, March 6, 2012


© Farouk Asvat  

     The last few years in South Africa have been rather traumatic, to say the least.  Blacks in the townships, especially the children, underwent a tremendous amount of tragic experiences, quite often without the vocabulary to cope with it.  

     The uprising and concomitant suppression witnessed, by very conservative estimates, at least three and a half thousand people killed - mainly children; saw more than 30,000 people - again mainly children - detained.  

     Thousands of people saw and smelt human beings actually being burnt alive in grotesque dances in front of their eyes, saw people being shot for throwing stones at armoured vehicles, saw little children being hauled off to prison, and thousands experienced themselves the traumas of being abused, beaten up and incarcerated.  

     Combined with the euphoria of inevitable change, people partook in the uprisings with nothing beyond the easy rhetoric handed out by politicians to cope with these shattering experiences.  As you can imagine, this has led to a tremendous amount of brutalization of a community already traumatized by several hundred years of suppression.  So that there must be an amazing magnitude of sheer events that await expression.  

     But South African literature has always suffered from the illusion that the severity of oppression precludes it from vibrancy; that we are doomed to mediocrity: in life and political leadership, as in fiction.  And yet South America, enveloped as it is in endemic violence and isolation, with a mournful history stretching from pre-Columbian cultures to Spanish colonialism, through the wars of liberation, to the terrible peace of countless dictators, has produced a fascinating literature.  It has extended the powers of the imagination to realms beyond that considered possible previously.  

     That is not to say that the tragic South African situation has not produced a nascent literature that in some cases has just begun to reflect the horrors and intricacies of the situation with a specifically Azanian perspective; that some of our writers are not beginning to move from the merely autobiographical and reflective to the creative; or that our writers have not continued writing in spite of the havocs of death, censorship, imprisonment, bannings and exile.  

     We need writing that comes out of the furnaces of our indigenous consciousness, away from the narrow constraints of most English writing and thinking that emanates from both sides of the Atlantic; away from the imposed traditions of contemporary African and much Third World literature, where the oppressed are heroes, and the colonizers villains.  

     Most South Africans literature suffers, even when good, from a very Western bias, reaching perhaps the nadir in an unpublished collection of the early sixties where Marxist thoughts were expressed in Shakespearean iambic pentameters; from narrow nationalistic rhetoric; or lately from a romanticized Marxist­Leninist perspective.  

     But on the other hand, it would be ridiculous to say in the age of satellite communication - though many of our people still have to walk over many hills to crank a telephone in a white or Indian shop - that Pablo Picasso's mural protest against the fascist bombing of a Basque town, the sheer horror of genius gone mad in Apocalypse Now, the plaintive violin of Yehudi Menuhin, the brush strokes of Siqueiros or Diego Rivera, the zest of Mercedes Sosa, the sensitive portrayals in Satyajit Ray's Devi, the musical genius of Bob Dylan, the joyous calypsos of Harry Belafonte, the plaintive musical streams of Mikis Theodorakis, the tenderness of Han Suyin's A Many-Splendoured Thing, or the intenseness of Wole Soyinka's prose in The Season of Anomy, Carlos Fuentes' brilliant journey into the heart of Mexico in The Death Of Artemio Cruz; the involvement of Ngugi wa Thiong'o in the anti­neocolonialist war, the anguished ragas of Ali Akbar Khan, the liberation songs of Victor Jara and the mournful flutes of Inti-Illimani, or the writings of Stratis Haviaris, Dambudzo Marechera, and B. Wongar; and the amazing, imaginative genius of Gaudi's La Sagrada Família did not influence us.  It would be even more tragic if we didn't let it.  But they are just part of our broader vision, providing influences, support, and a world­view to our own provincial and universal experiences.  And it would be sadder still if we did not let Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad and William Shakespeare inspire us. 

     Whereas the early seventies saw, with the advent of Black Consciousness, a resurgence of creativity and exploration, the early eighties seem to be caught in the inertia of dogma, by the constraints of petty ideological warfare: narrow-minded nationalists pitted against strait-jacketed Stalinists.  It is perhaps a reflection of a nation finally brutalized by the strains of oppression, as our people indulge in wanton violence reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge; or collapse into senseless actions symptomatic of much of Latin America: if you will only ask the mothers of the missing.  

     But as much as literature should emanate from our experiences, we are faced at present with a retrogressive trend, where emergent and established writers expose themselves only to South African black writing, and at most to Africa south of the Sahara (as the desert creeps up on us).  They deny themselves the satire against Indira Gandhi's state of emergency in Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, the anger against the violence of Ireland in Desmond Hogan's Diamonds at the Bottom of the Sea; the desperate poetic love affair of Mahmoud Darwish with his Palestine in The Music of Human Flesh; or the psychological torture in Arthur Koestler's Darkness At Noon; and most of all to the wonder and sadness of South American literature, for it reflects so much of our own anguish and quest.  

     But the excuse is often made, both by black writers and by white writers for black writers, that blacks are unable to produce anything substantial beside the odd poem in the heat of the night decrying their own chains, for the sheer degree of suppression, and for the more mundane needs of
our daily lives - even though artists have composed the most profound work under the most harrowing circumstances. 

     Before Gabriel García Márquez wrote The Autumn of the Patriarch he spent more than 12 years reading about dictators and travelling the Caribbean islands, and it was 15 years before he started the final version of Cien Años De Soledad.  Pablo Neruda spent 12 years constructing his epic Canto General.  Jane Austen worked on Pride and Prejudice for 15 years (as she did on her other novels), and Leo Tolstoy devoted 20 years of his life to War and Peace.  And yet, our writers are wont to publish the day after they have written a story. 

     The other common misnomer is that oppression prevents good writing: a fallacy born of justification, no doubt.  Good literature appeals to all our senses of emotion, logic, truth, aesthetics, beauty, emerging from our everyday lives and struggles, even if manifest in very ugly situations.  Since unfortunately we are faced with oppression and its white manifestations, it is just as well that writers and artists exploit the situation to our advantage (as we proceed with the more mundane mechanics of liberation), so that our writing could even under the severest conditions attain in beauty and killing power an inverse proportion to the degree of tyranny.  

     Another common fault with South African black writers, which obviously upsets them very much, is their lack of dedication to their craft, as they are the first to point out that art is for 1ife's sake.  They seem by and large quite satisfied to read peripherally, provincially and politically; they seem to give the briefest thought to a poem or short story, churn it out, send it for publication, and the worst part is that it does get published, without merit quite often, just because it comes out of a township.  And this is destroying our art, or at best leaving it stagnant.  

     As García Márquez says: "I don't think you can write a book that's worth anything without extraordinary discipline."  Having chosen to write, an artist's function is to master his craft.  Ravi Shankar said he had to practice every day on the sitar for 15 years just to begin to learn to play; painters endeavour daily to learn the myriad subtle differences in colour, stroke, shade; to feel, seize, penetrate, to abandon: Paul Cézanne spending three years painting the same mountain more than 60 times in an effort to capture its essence.  So why are our writers excluded?  Both carpentry and writing "are very hard work ... with both you are working with reality ... both are full of tricks and techniques.  Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved."  

     Or as Jazz trumpeter Winston Marsalis says: "I studied classical music because so many black musicians were scared of this big monster on the other side of the mountain called classical music.  I wanted to know what it was that scared everyone.  I went into it and found out it wasn't anything but some more music."  

     It is essential that our creative artists understand that to be genuinely committed to the development of our people in a political sense means an equally genuine commitment to the demands of their art.  That they realize, like Neruda did, that poetry is a full-time occupation; that "it has been the privilege of our time - with its wars, revolutions and tremendous social upheavals - to cultivate more ground for poetry than anyone had ever imagined".  

     Before dealing with the problems with South African writing in the early eighties, some European and Third World perspectives in world literature pertaining to our paradigm have to be dealt with.  English literature as it affects the oppressed nations falls perhaps into the following groupings:  

     One that is essentially racist or at best condescending, with obviously no understanding of our world, and we shall go no further with the ilks of Wilbur Smith and Robert Ruark.  

     Built perhaps on the old exotic racism of Shakespeare's Othello (a provincial reaction to something strange), comes a literature with modern perspectives, obviously empathic, but one that remains the outsider's view: - where the natives remain peripheral, obedient servants mainly, props for the white man's stories; as in Somerset Maugham or Graham Greene.  These are rather “objective” portrayals, without the anguish of Mishima committing hara-kiri, or Marechera unsuccessfully trying to exorcise his ghosts.  Faulkner is perhaps the only western novelist in the 20th century who has the same sense of defeat and loss that we have.  

     The other is an “insider's” view, written in the Third World, with a Third World setting, with an attempt to be sympathetic to its pains, but with a somewhat tubular vision (limited by exposure), with an essentially European literary perspective by white writers: from Alan Paton's liberal, wishful portrayal of blacks, to Nadine Gordimer's inability to distinguish or represent other than Europeans in Africa, to the nebulous, mute barbarians in all of JM Coetzee's novels; or by Eurocentric representations by EurAsians like Ruth Prawer Jhabvala in Heat and Dust

     But does our literature exclude European writers, with no holds in the Third World, writing about their own country, with an oppressed perspective: as Desmond Hogan's sparse, evocative intensity of vision displays in Children of Lir, or Stratis Haviaris in The Tree Sings, and perhaps the East European writers' difficult pursuit of happiness in their totalitarian states.  

     In contrast with the above is the writer from the colonized or neo-colonized world, who frowns upon his own heritage:

     V.S. Naipaul flourishing in a denial of his own culture and background in all his books - a perspective already evident in his early short stories; still referring to people from other civilizations as barbarians - in the same way, even “enlightened” western writers referred to people from other continents and cultures as savages right into the mid 20th century; 

     or writers living in the Third World with an essentially Eurocentric vision like R.K. Narayan and Ahmed Essop;  

     or someone who writes about his world partly with a view for the exotic for a western audience, as Salman Rushdie does in Midnight's Children.  

     But then we come to writers from our world, who write about our lives, usually with excruciating pain and torment, with a perspective ingrained from their own cultures: the shatteringly beautiful and valedictory sadness of Yukio Mishima's The Sea of Fertility, Ralph El1ison's cynical look at Negro life in Invisible Man; Dambudzo Marechera's verbal acidity and vulnerability in his sardonic tales of madness, violence and despair in The House of Hunger; George Lamming's claustrophobic intensity of life in Natives of My Person; Gabriel García Márquez's infinite despair in One Hundred Years of Solitude; Toni Morrison's haunting tale of slavery in Beloved ; Wilson Harris' The Palace of the Peacock; Wole Soyinka's searing poetry emanating from imprisonment in The Shuttle in the Crypt; Carlos Fuentes' extravagant history of the world in Terra Nostra; Ngugi wa Thiong'o's blending of the liberation struggle with the personal and the traditional in A Grain Of Wheat; the poems of Mao Zedong, Ernesto Cardenal and Costa Andrade, or the stories of Yusuf Idris in The Cheapest Nights: writers who were or are involved in the political and day to day struggles of their people.  

     But black South African fiction is faced with several constraints: the most demanding has been the state of censorship and repression that has existed over the past few decades, but which has gone largely unchallenged in terms of the fiction itself, except for the regular mouthings of liberal protest sentiments.  

     Writers and artists have also had to deal with the prescriptions of both the politicians and the publishers.  Politicians on the bourgeois left, as opposed to revolutionaries (of which South Africa has an extreme dearth), have tended to prescribe what “relevant” literature should be about, and writers themselves have not faced up to the challenge of opposing this, or explaining the contributory role that literature can play.  

     Publishers on the other hand have been bogged down by their western perceptions of “subtlety” and “objectivity”, their need to service high schools and universities; or simply by pure mercenary objectives; and have refrained from taking on anything off the beaten track, anything innovative, or anything controversial, that merits to be published.  

     So that reviewing black South African fiction in the eighties has been largely a journey through nostalgia, as a host of publishers got old books off the banning list and played it safe; writers that were published previously had their new books undertaken; and emergent writers remained unpublished or had to publish their own stuff.  So that our published fiction remains largely autobiographical, journalistic fact-fiction, based poorly on the socialist­realism school.  

     Because so often our people fall into the sad trap of cultural colonialism where it is impossible to convince South Africans themselves that their literature is good until the outside world tells us that it is good.  As Steve Biko has so succinctly put it: "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed;" and as Ngugi has so potently urged us to decolonize our minds.  

     Paradoxically, we simultaneously suffer from the inverse snobbishness of accepting only literature that emanates from the uncomplicated reportage of the nationalist scene masked as “relevant” -discarding the almost superhuman efforts of the few artists and politicians who transmute our circumstances into a vision that is cognizant of the universal ideas of humanity.  And unfortunately almost all our writers are more concerned with fame and political “acceptability” than in the development of their own work.  

     But we are faced with another challenge: to discover what emanates from our own suffering, what creative thinking processes - not only in fiction - are blossoming in our ghettoes and our rural impoverishments.  For there exists in our midst a tangle of broken traditions - cultures destroying themselves, or being destroyed by the white man, and increasingly by blacks themselves;- and a mist of new ideas, befogged by staid ideologues.  But it is out of this very tangle of events and this morning dew that an African and Azanian consciousness must begin to form itself.  

     Because fiction remains the artifice of transforming old realities into new ones, writers and artists must create a new reality, not merely mirror it.  We have been exposed to many cultures, both the indigenous and the external: both the Western and that brought by the slaves and indentured labourers.  We have to learn these cultures, imbibe them, and we have to appropriate writers from other traditions - including our ancestors in the Western canon - to fill the void.  

     All of Asia, Latin America and Africa have been fooled by the illusion of progress; even though Western culture has been essentially destructive and rapacious.  And like most of the Third World we live in a continent where the novel is a recent development, where many things have been left unsaid.  

     So we have to look back on our tradition which is rich in religious and cultural imagery, at our sad and proud history of struggle; and we have to look at this hope in our hearts - for often that is all that we have - because our political life is fragmented and our history shot through with failure.  But our cultural tradition is rich, if only we will seek it.  The time is at hand when we will have to look at our own faces, our own past: look into the mirror, and look at these masks we have created.  

     For we do have an oral culture to fall back on, though we have no historians of note, (with the possible exception of the photocopied, underground circulation of 300 Years (1652-1952); few records of traditional songs; no scholars delving into the mysteries of the past; and a written literature that is embryonic, going back less than a century.  And yet when we sit down to write, we must feel the whole of our tradition in our bones: a tradition that extends from Homer to Arthur Nortje, Imbongi to Shakespeare, from Mishima to Márquez, Khoi paintings to Picasso, from warriors to guerillas.  

     The challenges that confront us are many.  And that is the challenge we face today: to create our own myths based entirely on the truth, for myths are a tradition, myths breathe, myths nourish the epics.  We have to decipher the environment, to separate the essential elements of a poetic synthesis from a milieu we know all too well.  And we have to learn the craft of writing: the techniques, the moulding of sentences, the ingenious techniques of the craft.  "To find probabilities out of real facts is the work of the journalist and the novelist, and it is also the work of the prophet."  

     Writers are pretty powerful, because people eventually come to believe their honest writers more than their politicians; because the function of the true artist has always been to be the keeper­of-the-truth, like the keeper-of­the-history in our traditional societies: a most harrowing task, with a great sense of responsibility, but one that is also most challenging and imperative.  But unfortunately most of our writers are not interested in what they should do, but in what they think they should do, bringing forth a certain type of calculated writing that doesn't have anything to do with experience, intuition, or sincerity.  

     In his excellent book Open Veins of Latin America, on the pillage of Latin America over the past five centuries, Eduardo Galeano talks about the supposedly militant literature aimed at a public of the converted: "For all its revolutionary rhetoric, a language that mechanically repeats the same clichés, adjectives, and declamatory formulas for the same ears seems conformist to me.  It could be that this parochial literature is as remote from revolution as pornography is remote from eroticism."  

     Another common argument about literature is that unless it is written in simplistic language, the masses will not understand it.  Besides being condescending, it grossly underestimates the “ordinary” person's power of perception.  Pablo Neruda, unexpectedly called upon to address a group of impoverished labourers in Chile, began reading from his anthology España en el Corazon (on the Spanish Civil War) to them: "Reading poem after poem, hearing the deep well of silence into which my words were falling, watching those eyes and dark eyebrows following my verses so intently, I realized that my book was hitting its mark.  I went on reading and reading, affected by the sound of my own poetry, shaken by the magnetic power that linked my poems and those forsaken souls."  

     As García Márquez says about a very favourite argument bandied about:  "I have a great many reservations about what came in Latin America to be called “committed literature”, the novel of social protest ...  This is because I think its limited view of the world and life does not help achieve anything in political terms.  Far from accelerating any process of raising consciousness, it actually, slows it down.  Latin Americans expect more from a novel than an exposé of the oppression and injustice they know all too well.  Many of my militant friends who so often feel the need to dictate to writers what they should or should not write are, unconsciously perhaps, taking a reactionary stance inasmuch as they are imposing restrictions on creative freedom.  I believe a novel about love is as valid as any other.  When it comes down to it, the writer's duty - his revolutionary duty if you like - is to write well." 

     But there is an extraordinary potential for vitality in the process of liberation by the oppressed, all over the world -arising partly from the fact that oppressive regimes bring forth extraordinary heroes and extraordinary circumstances that lend themselves to new visions for the future of mankind.  

© farouk asvat

composed: 1985 [Johannesburg, South Africa under apartheid]

[] Acknowledgements:

Creativity And Development In Literature:
A Critical Look At Black South African Literature
In The Context Of Third World And World Fiction

was previously published in:

Dokumente Texte Und Tendenzen VIII:
     South African Literature: From Popular Culture to the Written Artefact:
     [2nd Bad Boll Conference, 11-13 December 1987, Bad Boll, Germany],
     (Evangelische Akademie, Bad Boll, Germany, p158-162, 1987]
Crisis And Conflict: Essays On Southern African Literature:
     proceedings of the XIth annual conference on commonwealth literature
     and language studies in German-speaking countries,
     Aachen - Liege, 16-19 June 1988:
     ed G V Davis (Verlag Die Blaue Eule, Essen, Germany, p235-246, 1990]

It was also serialized in:

     The Sowetan ( 06 May, 13 May, 20 May & 27 May 1987):
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);
     The Indicator (May 1987, June 1987, July & ?August 1987):
Black SA Literature In The Eighties
     (The Indicator, p35, 22-31.05.1987),
Artist's Function Is To Master His Craft
     (The Indicator, p36, 26-30 June 1987),
Looking At 'Third World' And European Literary Perspectives
     (The Indicator, p45, 28-31.07.1987),
The Problems With South African Fiction
     (The Indicator, p?, ?Aug 1987).

Creativity and Development in Literature,
with a Critical Look at Black South African Literature
in the Context of Third World and World Fiction

was also presented at:

The XIth Annual Conference on Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies
     in German-speaking Countries,
     at Aachen (Germany) and Liege (Belgium), 16-19.06.1988.
* where it received special mention at the closing gala event.
The Afrika Colloquim,
     University of Leiden, The Netherlands, 19.02.1988;
     Weapons of Words (kindle, 2016);
     Weapons of Words (amazon paperback, p15, 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,
without the prior permission of the author in writing.
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

[] please check out my blogs @:

books by farouk asvat: www.faroukasvat-books.blogspot.com

[] also link up on:

amazon kindle author @ www.amazon.com/author/faroukasvat

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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