When I was studying English Literature at U of Cape Town during the last dying gasps of the Nationalist government, there was an ideological battle going on between two poets on the department’s staff. One, Stephen Watson, advocated that poetry and literature can stand on their own and need not refer to politics, or the struggle for liberation, in order to be valid. The other poet, Kelwyn Sole, believed that if you live in South Africa it is your responsibility as a public voice to use polemic to educate people and open their minds. It was a debate that I, as an undergraduate, never resolved for myself. All I learnt is that if I wanted to get good marks from Stephen I should leave politics out, and that if I wanted to get good marks from Kelwyn I should put politics in. An object lesson in pandering to academic agendas.
However, the argument itself is a valid one, and it continues to inform South African literature now. The new government is in place, say some, liberation has occurred, so literature is free to soar without the shackles of having to be politically right-on. Others say, hang on, we may now have a legitimate government and one of the most humane constitutions in the world, but does that mean that women are free from sexism or that people on the poverty line have been liberated? Perhaps we still have a duty to point out the inequalities that have not gone away with our longed-for freedom.
I have just finished reading a novel called Strange Nervous Laughter by a young South African writer, Bridget McNulty. Set in Durban’s hottest summer, the plot swirls around six main characters, all of whom are eccentric, to say the least. There is Harry a dustbin man, to whom broken things, including broken people, attach; Mdu who is talented at everything he does, but only finds joy in speaking to whales; Meryl who wears an invisible corset that reigns in her feelings, and Beth, cashier turned motivational speaker who levitates when she is happy. There is also Pravesh, an undertaker obsessed with painting corpses’ toenails and Aisha, a withdrawn and silent orphan. All are seeking romantic love.
Every word I think of to describe this book sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise – it’s delightful, whimsical and quaint. It would make a great date movie. I could see Drew Barrymore as Beth, being cute and levitating. The process of reading it was satisfactory – I wasn’t gripped enough to stay up all night, but I wanted to finish it. I wanted to know if Beth would dump the self-centred Pravesh, if Harry could actually bag the glamorous Meryl.
In any other context, I would love the whimsy. If it were an Irish novel, or a Canadian one, I’d be yelling yay for the whimsy and the bits of magical realism, which I really rather like (the pearls that Aisha cries when Mdu rescues her from the ocean, for instance). But there is a part of me that still wants my South African literature gritty and that’s because life there is gritty. Durban is the epicentre of the AIDS epidemic, most of it is poverty-stricken and crime-ridden. Life there is dangerous, even if you have tall walls and trellidoors to live behind, and far more deadly if you don’t.
I realise that this is my need, and that, for South Africans who actually live in Durban rather than in the European diaspora like me, maybe it’s great to read escapist literature set in your home town. Maybe if you see the gritty realities on a daily basis, you want to read something that takes you away on a magic carpet ride. Maybe there’s room for literature of gritty reality and of charming whimsy and neither need cancel the other out. I’m sure that’s the case.
However, don’t read Strange Nervous Laughter as your guidebook to Durban and KwaZulu-Natal. You’d be in for a shock.
(Bridget McNulty blogs here. Apparently she’s attempting to break a Guinness Record by baking a one-metre wide cupcake. Sounds like my kinda gal.)