Charlotte's Web

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Poets and Politics

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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 There is also Pravesh, an undertaker obsessed with painting corpses’ toenails and Aisha, a withdrawn and silent orphan.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.)

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Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

6 thoughts on “Poets and Politics

  1. There are similar arguments about postcolonial literature but I always fall on the side of allowing artists to do what they like, because a major characteristic of art for me is not placing it under constraints, whether it’s for “good” or “bad” causes. I’d prefer to read about an inspired, wonderfully executed story about Jamaican carpet flyers than a mediocre “political” novel, done out of some misguided, inflated sense of responsibility. I don’t know of any struggling country that did not naturally produce some art that addressed such issues, even in repressive regimes — so why worry about it unless we’re trying to reach a quota?

    I look as unkindly on the use of fiction as “travel guide literature”: Oh, Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish novelist, so reading his fiction will give me insight into Turkey and their bid for the EU.

  2. I agree with Imani. Any restraints put on any art form is a type of censorship, in my opinion. As for my own experience, I love to read about history and politics. Sometimes though, it becomes too much and that’s when I love to turn to some lighter fare. It’s great to have choices available.

  3. I’m all for escapist literature, though gritty is good to get messages across to the rest of the world. I love it when I come across a novel set here that doesn’t feel obliged to be earnest and teach, that has references to reality to set the scene but which then stand back to let the people play out their personal stories. I’ve only read one such since I’ve been here, so I’d love to give this one a go!

  4. It’s an interesting argument, and one that I grappled with before writing Strange Nervous Laughter… Here’s what I came up with:
    One of my main goals for writing this novel was to get people who don’t like reading to finish a book. There are so many people (in Durban, in South Africa, in the world) who don’t really enjoy reading, and it kills me that the stuff they end up reading is all badly written pap – romance novels and westerns (to play into a stereotype!)
    So I wanted to write a book that was easy to read but with a deeper meaning, well written but not laboured.
    I wanted to write a book that people would want to read, not feel obliged to; personally, I’m tired of political fiction.

    But each to their own, I say! Each to their own.
    As for it being a romanticised view of Durban, well, yes and no. It’s my view of Durban, and although it might not be gritty and crime-ridden, it is a little seedy and dirty and hopeless and colourful and vibrant and alive. You write what you know. I know that kind of Durban.

  5. Imani, I’m sure you’re right that artists should do with they want. It just goes to show that I’m a product of apartheid in that I still believe in the need to be politically aware because of the horror that was perpertrated by a bunch of criminals. It’s probably time to let that go, especially in terms of literature.

    Alida, you’re right, choices in reading matter are what it’s all about.

    Kit, I’m sure you’d enjoy Strange Nervous Laughter – the last thing it is is preachy.

    Bridget, thanks for stopping by. Your novel absolutely achieves its goal – it is lovely and eminently readable and that matters more than politics.

  6. To be honest I’m not sure how I came to be so relaxed on that viewpoint since, while Jamaica didn’t go through anything like apartheid, it’s still being run by a bunch of criminals. :/ Among my friends I’m probably in the minority — most feel as if the only “valid” forms of Jamaican art are political.

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