Pandemic writing: How close is too close?
In this episode of Narrative Futures, Lauren Beukes discusses the proximity of her recent novel Afterland to the current pandemic and how collective action and art are the only way through these difficult times.
[Narrative Futures Intro Music]
Chelsea Haith: How do the stories we tell shape how we think about the future, the present and the past.
What is speculation for?
And how might we construct better narratives for a better future?
Narrative Futures is a podcast coming to you from Futures Thinking, a research network housed in The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities.
My name is Chelsea Haith, I’m a doctoral researcher in the Faculty of English, here at the University of Oxford. This podcast was recorded entirely during lockdown under the working from home conditions that that entails. It’s also an interactive podcast. Each episode features an interview followed by two prompts or writing exercises designed by novelist and creative writing tutor Louis Greenberg. We invite you to share your responses to these with us at email@example.com. We’ll share these on the blog, where you’ll also be able to find the full transcript of each episode with links to the books, writers and ideas that we discuss. As the world so radically changes we hope these conversations give you insight and inspiration to think about how else we might live and create collectively, going forward.
In this first episode, I chat to Lauren Beukes about subjective reading, community action and how storytelling goes some way to challenging capitalist structures. Lauren Beukes is the multi-award winning author of The Shining Girls, Zoo City and Afterland. In the last decade, she has won the Arthur C Clarke Award, the University of Johannesburg Prize, the Kitschies Red Tentacle Award, RT Thriller of the Year, and the prestigious Mbokodo Award, for women in the creative arts from South Africa’s Department of Arts and Culture.
Beukes’ work has been translated into 24 languages and her work in other media including writing comics, television and journalism have earned her awards such as the best LGBTI film at the Atlanta Film Festival and a spot in the New York Times Best-seller list. Her third novel, The Shining Girls, is currently in development as a major TV series starring Elizabeth Moss and her fifth and most recent novel, Afterland, asks, ‘What would happen if a pandemic wiped out 99.9 per cent of the male population.
Beukes is not prescient of course, but she pays careful and critical attention to the world, and is deeply invested in social justice movements.
What follows now is an extract from Zoo City, her second novel, following which, we’ll launch straight into the interview. Enjoy!
[Extract from Zoo City, read by Lauren Beukes]
CH: Lauren, I love those opening lines, those opening pages of Zoo City, the moment where you evoke the mine dumps of Johannesburg, and the light shining off Ponte Tower. And I think one of the most beautiful things about Zoo City and the play with genre that that novel does is this sort of quality of existential-proximity. The world of the novel is as we know it, recognizable, but not quite. And that’s in that first moment, of the animals, mongoose and sloth, and the human interaction with them. I wanted to talk about what your impetus is to write worlds that are, shall we say, skewed?
Lauren Beukes: I thinks it’s like a distorting mirror that we can use to see things more clearly. Taking the slight shift in reality, it’s still real and it still resonates, allows me to talk about big issues in a way that hopefully feels fresh and interesting and can engagement people in a way that a straight crime novel or a straight social novel wouldn’t necessarily.
CH: Absolutely. I think there’s a trend towards using dystopian elements or fantastic elements in what are otherwise critical realist texts, to think through socio-political problems. And your novels do that really brilliantly.
LB: Thank you.
CH: Johannesburg is so carefully described in Zoo City, as are Cape Town in Moxyland, and Chicago in The Shining Girls, Detroit in Broken Monsters, and then at the end of Afterland, Miami. You do extraordinarily careful research for all of your novels, I think really capturing much of essence of the cities in which they are set. But what is it about those cities that are particularly evocative for you?
LB: I think, I mean Cape Town is obviously where I’ve lived for the last twenty years, though I grew up in Johannesburg so that’s why Moxyland was reflected in Cape Town. But I think Johannesburg is kind of my – the city of my heart. If I had an animal [in the novel’s sense] it would be Johannesburg. And Detroit and Chicago felt similar in that way, they are very vital, alive, but also, just desperate in so many ways, and crime ridden, and corruption saturated and suffocated. And it allowed me to kind of play with these themes that I’m really interested in which is intersectionality and oppression across race and gender, and sexuality, and class of course.
Both Chicago and Detroit are kind of shadow-cities for Johannesburg for me, in my writing. And Hillbrow in particular, for Detroit. Because Detroit is seen as this particularly broken place. But actually when I was there, there was so much vitality, the art scene was exploding, and I think there is a friction which occurs, which obviously JG Ballard talks about a lot between art and very dark times. Or, desperation, or brokenness. A lot of really interesting art tends to come out of that friction. So that’s what spoke to me about Detroit. With Miami, it just felt like somewhere that I haven’t seen a lot of in a really interesting way.
I had thought about setting the denouement in New York but I’ve seen New York so many times and it’s really boring, even though there are aspects to New York that are very real, and strange and interesting and gritty and much more the texture of the city that we don’t see often depicted. But I just couldn’t do it. I just didn’t want to write about New York, and I felt like New Yorkers should write about that kind of sub-aspect in more interesting ways. For me Miami just seemed like an electric place, but also again it seemed this place with crime and corruption and also this vitality and ripeness and a dark shadow self. But there’s also a lot of mixed-race politics and vibrancy and it’s just a very alive, vital city. It really appealed to me, and of course there’s a great art scene there with Miami Art Basel. Ja. I can never resist a good art scene.
CH: I completely identify with that sense of Johannesburg as a heart-city and the vibrancy of the place that you can never really get away from it. That’s one of the first novels that Johannesburg featured in for me, alongside Welcome to our Hillbrow by Phaswane Mpe, and obviously Ivan Vladislavić’s novels.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the engagement with horror and gore that a lot of your novels do, and also of course your graphic novel work. I’m think in particular of Broken Monsters and Afterland with regards to horror and gore but these often reference art and film. I was thinking about speculation, with regards to what you’ve said about dark times provoking really interesting art and thinking about how things might otherwise be, which is part of the work that you do. Asking always, what if. I wanted to ask you, what you think each of these forms, art, literature, film bring to the table politically in their asking of: what if?
LB: I was talking to my eleven-year-old daughter about this the other day, and it’s not just opposable thumbs or our over-active, deeply anxious brains, that make us separate from other animals. I think some other animals have forms of language, but as far as I know we’re the only story-telling animal. And art is a kind of story, because it’s an interaction between what’s happening in you and what you’re seeing, and you’re creating meaning. So all of these things allow us to create meaning. We live in a deeply cruel and senseless and meaningless world, where just terrible things happen all the time outside of global pandemics and Black Lives Matter protest marches and the way those are being ruthlessly suppressed, and people being killed in South Africa in gender based violence, or by the police. It’s just… I think art gives us a light. It gives us a light in the darkness. It gives us a way of imagining another world, or finding some meaning for ourselves. And that’s not necessarily a global meaning, I think that’s why art and literature and film is so very interesting. It’s just a subjective process, it’s how we receive it, it’s about how we bring it into ourselves. This is why I often talk about how books are a conversation between the reader and the book. And it’s not a conversation between the reader and the author. Once I’ve sent it out into the world it actually has nothing to do with me anymore. It’s entirely the resonances that happen inside your own head when you’re reading it. And I think that’s what makes it so magical.
CH: Yes, that sense of magic and a kind of co-creation. Lots of narratologists write about that and talk about that idea. It’s interesting when people label authors like yourself, like Margaret Atwood as ‘prophets’ or somehow prescient of the contemporary period. And yet as you say, your book goes out into the world and then… There’s a moment in Afterland in which Cole is thinking about violence in America and violence in South Africa and people commenting ‘How can you live in Johannesburg?’ and her response being ‘How can you live here [America]?’ And there’s the line “black kids get shot in America”. And I’m reading that while Black Lives Matter is happening and while the protests against the awful murder of George Floyd are taking place and my engagement with a novel that you wrote in the last year [pre-2020] is so charged by my experience of witnessing these atrocities, obviously online. How do you respond to people when they talk about this ‘prophet’ aspect of being a writer who responds to vividly and so carefully to problems of gender based violence in South Africa, police violence in the States, patriarchy and hierarchical power structures generally?
LB: I think… I mean, obviously I’m not a prophet. I do wish I’d patented some stuff in Moxyland, but.. It’s looking at society and being very sensitive to what is happening in our current moment. But of course police killings and shooting black kids in America has been going on for years so it’s not prophetic for me to say those things. When I started writing this book five years ago that was absolutely what was happenng already. It’s kind of like tugging on a thread and watching how things unravel. And then weaving it into something else I guess.
CH: It’s those self-evident truths of contemporary life that you tap into so well.
LB: Absolutely. I think as a writer, an artist, a creative, you’re attuned to tap into those things and I think in my daily life these are things that are important to me and of course that’s going to leak through into my writing. I’ve spoken about this before: having grown up under the apartheid state in South Africa and having been so privileged and having grown up in this utopia for white people, with such a terrible cost, with assassination hit squads and torture units and people being disappeared and going into exile and the most horrifying acts. It really made me socially aware. I really want to put that through and play them out in my novels, and use them as a way of examining that and trying to imagine something else.
Of course, as I’ve spoken about with The Shining Girls and my own personal experience with a young woman I knew who was murdered by her boyfriend, at least in fiction you can have justice. And that’s not the way it works in the real world.
CH: It’s interesting that you talk about having justice or creating a sense of justice. I suppose the reader will experience that particularly at the end of Afterland and the idea that you’re working from a place of having experienced an atrocious utopia, (utopia in the sense that Stalinism was a kind of utopia), and I think that evocation of justice in a dystopian world as a utopian impulse as Frederic Jameson would theorise it, is quite profound. There is something about it for the contemporary moment of literature, that critical realist styles seem to be drawn to, or seem to evoke really interestingly. Is there anything that you’re looking at or reading or thinking about that you think is particularly important right now with regards to thinking through alternative justices or justice through fiction, and how else we might imagine the present, but also the future.
LB: I actually listened to the audiobook of this a couple of years ago while I was writing Afterland, and doing research on societies falling apart, and looking at what does happen in crisis. It’s Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell, which really explores how so very often people in crisis rally. They come together. Yes sometimes there is looting but there is also community action and people starting soup kitchens and creating housing. Creating their own solutions. I’m not a libertarian, I’m not saying we don’t need government. I think we need a strongly enforced, democratically elected government that is not corrupted by capitalism, with a lot of ways to restrict corporations and proper taxation and all the rest of it. But I do think there’s a lot to be said for communities rising.
It’s been so inspiring to see what’s been happening in Cape Town through honestly just these beginning days of corona because I think it is going to get a lot worse. These community action networks have formed, especially in Cape Town, where white communities, majority white communities in the kind of nice suburbs. So Cape Town is still segregated across geographical lines because of the way the apartheid government really ripped apart communities and physically removed people and shunted them out to the Cape Flats, which is a barren and dusty marsh land.
What’s been so interesting is to see people in the suburbs really rallying to help those in the townships, which are typically poverty stricken, people are living in shacks. And people create ways to work together, and twinning up with those communities. So the place I live Tamboerskloof has twinned with Zwelitsha which is a part of Khayelitsha which is one of our biggest townships, and seeing what the community needs, creating electricity vouchers or having fundraisers to buy people food, sandwiches. I wish we’d had that before, I wish we’d had that community engagement before. That’s why I think the Solnit book is so very relevant and so interesting because we are capable of reaching out and we are capable of that great compassion and empathy. Major corporations in South Africa have donated a couple of billion I think and it’s like: where was that before, and why weren’t you paying your taxes before, and why weren’t we able to come to this level of compassion and engagement before? Why did we need a crisis for this to happen?
CH: There’s a sense that we were in crisis before this. The status quo in South Africa is one of perpetual almost-crisis, sort of living on the edge all the time. And it very often bubbles over with instances of gender based violence, responses to that, I’m thinking also of the Marikana Massacre, these moments where the press responds, where you’ve got major responses from across the very socially and class divided society of South Africa, and yet that is something that needs to be addressed perpetually.
LB: Absolutely. It’s just ongoing. And I think that’s why we’ve been able to adapt to a crisis because suddenly it feels urgent. And it’s one thing that we’re fighting. That’s why apartheid activism was really interesting, because you had a clear enemy, and that enemy was the racist oppressive regime. But if you look at inequality in South Africa, and of course we’re one of the highest in the world, I think the Gini co-efficient is the highest here, though I’ve also heard that said of Brazil. How do you… What’s the enemy there? Of course it’s capitalism but we all profit from capitalism. It’s a system that we’re all deeply, literally invested in. I don’t know how to change that.
That’s why the response to COVID-19 has been so interesting, because we suddenly have a clear enemy. Here’s the enemy, here’s how to deal with it. It’s not gender based violence, it’s not those problems that have a deep societal rot and root that you can’t fix by throwing a couple billion at it, they can’t just say ‘Cool, we built some field hospitals’. I don’t know how to fix that systemic stuff and in South Africa we’ve become so inured to it.
CH: I think the construction of the world in Afterland is a really interesting evocation of how that systemic kind of power and how those systemic inequalities are so comfortable and how hard they are to work against and restructure. So the world is without men, or the world is run by women. You’ve said before, you set it only three years after 2020, so in 2023. The choice to sustain hierarchies and political structures is an explicit and politically charged one. I think that evokes that sense that it’s so hard to work against these systems because so many people benefit from them, acknowledging those privileges. Do you want to talk us through a world run by women, and the proximity of the world we know to the world that you describe in Afterland?
LB: There’s a line in the book which says that patriarchy is a very comfortable pair of shoes. You can just slip them on. I was interested in not having a far future in which men have died out and there’s been a women-led society for centuries. I wanted to parallel reality. It was really interesting talking to people when I was designing the book and thinking about what the world would look like. Even talking to someone who’s incredibly feminist whose a leading scholar on gender based violence in South Africa was like, ‘Oh, I wonder what we’ll do with the stadiums?’ And I said, ‘Well, maybe the women’s teams would actually get to play.’
So there’s this idea of what being a woman is, and of course there’d be communal gardens. That’s what’s been so interesting in this time is that the community action has been women led and women volunteers and women’s involvement. So yes of course there’s going to be that, but also women are people. Which seems like a radical idea. I like to switch that around and say that feminist is the radical idea that men are people too. And we expect you act like it. We are just as capable of being corrupt, of being power-hungy, of being losers, of being violent. We are capable of atrocity just as easily. This kind of motherhood gene can also be used to justify terrible things. Speaking as a mom who would probably kill someone if they hurt my kid.
So [Afterland] is exploring female complicity in the system and how if all the men died tomorrow, which I hope does not happen, for the record, we would struggle to overthrow the existing systems. I can’t remember who said it, might have been Ursula Le Guin or Octavia Butler, but somebody said something about how feudalism seemed like it would always be around and impossible to overthrow. And I know people say the same thing about capitalism, but I just don’t know what that would look like. Or, I do know what that would look like, certainly more socialism, Universal Basic Income… But I just don’t know how we would get people to give up power to make that happen.
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” – Ursula K Le Guin
CH: Your novels deal well with that sense of shifting power and shifting world structures. So I think that that kind of storytelling goes some way to articulate what would be necessary. Afterland is an interesting one. It’s particularly troubling that major shifts are usuallycausedby wars or plagues. The [second wave] feminism movement comes out of women working in factories during WWII, obviously that’s imbricated in white feminist narrative, feminism and matriarchal societies were prevalent and dominant across the African continent in that period, and I am sure the same is true of other societies, though my context is Africa and Europe. I think that there’s something interesting in the push that is occurring in social justice movements towards: how do we think about what the world after this pandemic will look like. And how do we work together to imagine that? It is a mode of storytelling. WE have to tell ourselves a new story about the future.
LB: And of course some people are telling another story and pushing us towards fascism and the far-right and authoritarianism. There’s a strong history of women being pushed back into more traditionally feminine rolls, havng to give up school, having to stay home and clean the house in times of plague, and I think we saw that most recently during the Ebola outbreak. I don’t have the exact stats, I think it was in The Atlantic, but something like 70 percent of women who gave up their jobs to go back home and look after the home, to feed their families, and to tend to the dying and the dead, never went back to work. And some girls never went back to school. That’s the imaginary that I’m really frightened of and I think we need to imagine brighter and harder, and also act on that, to try to put things into play. Again, our current system of government and democracy, it really feels like we don’t have individual voices. Except on Twitter, where we can maybe shame some racists. [laughs].
I just don’t know how to bring about that change. And of course every civil right movement has always had a hard pushback from the authoritarian right, historically. So that’s a huge fear. I’m worried about us losing women’s rights, I’m worried about us tipping into fascism. I’m worried about people acting out of fear. Maybe that’s what this kind of storytelling is for, imagining a better future or imagining a different future from where we are now, is to combat fear. Fear is very insular and fear shuts you down and you’re so closed. What need is more imagination to open up.
CH: That’s really beautiful, Lauren. It’s so hard to work through the kind of, the fear and the paralysing quality of this, and to keeping working through it. One of the things I most admire about your work, is that you push back against the paralysis that things like gender-based violence in South Africa produce, and the paralysis of these capitalist based systems. Because it can feel that way. But paralysis is a cop out.
LB: I don’t know how useful writing books actually is, as a mode of action. But it’s the thing I can do. And I honestly feel like art is the only thing we can hold on to right now.
CH: For those writers and speculators listening, stay with us now for writing prompts and exercises designed to encourage putting pen to paper, or hands to keyboard, as well as reflection on the writing process. This section is designed and presented by Louis Greenberg. Louis is an editor, writing tutor and author, born and bred in Johannesburg, South Africa. Apart from his own genre-confused novels and short stories, he’s co-written five horror novels and short stories as SL Grey, collaborating with Sarah Lotz. A one-time bookseller, he’s been working as a freelance editor and writing tutor for over ten years. He currently teaches creative writing and drama writing courses for the University of Oxford Department of Continuing Education.
Louis Greenberg’s Writing Prompt:
Over the eight episodes of Narrative Futures, I’ll be presenting a series of writing prompts and exercises linked to the interviews. We hope they’ll help inspire you to create and make you feel connected in these isolated times.
1. What is the point?
What is the point?
Lauren Beukes says ‘I don’t know how useful writing books is as a mode of action.’
I’d like to start off with that question that many writers face at least twenty times a day.
What is the point?
Some writers, like Beukes and many of the writers in this series, find fuel in addressing social issues and reimagining futures.
Some writers want to entertain. Some writers want to express themselves.
You can often find a blend of various motivations.
Whatever the reason you do it, writing is hard.
It’s an awkwardly slow process in a fast world. It is a lot of hard work and a lot of self-doubt for very little reward or acknowledgement. Your rewards are most often self-generated – a brief sense of satisfaction or contentment. You might argue that the publishing industry thrives on keeping creators insecure, disconnected, and disempowered.
My opinion is that the slow depth of writing creates empathy.
Art – creative, transcendent communication, storytelling, meaning-making – whether the ideas are challenging and subversive, or comforting entertainment, or both, is profoundly important, especially in times like these.
That’s my opinion. What’s yours?
What brings you to your notebook or your desk when there are so many easier things to do?
What brings you to this segment of this podcast?
Why do you want to write?
It’s not essential to know the answer to this question, but it can help on those more difficult days.
It can also go some way to giving your work a central theme or identity.
As your first exercise, write a note to your future self or your past self or an imagined or real writer who’s struggling with motivation. List the reasons why you write, why you bother.
Keep this note.
We’d love to see all or any of your exercises you’d like to share, so please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll post them on the blog.
- A world without men
For your second prompt, I’d like to pick up on Lauren Beukes’s ideas on a world without men in Afterland and turn them into a technical exercise.
Choose a scene from a book you’ve read or a film you’ve watched recently, or from something you’ve written yourself. The characters should include men and women.
Now reimagine it without men.
You could approach this in various ways:
You could write a brief synopsis of a longer work, outlining how the characters and scenario have changed without men.
You could rewrite a passage of dialogue and action, changing the male characters to women
You might rewrite a couple of pages of a script, removing or changing the men.
Feel free now to pause the recording, write the piece, and then come back.
You might find it beneficial to do the exercises without the discussion in mind.
Consider how you approached the task.
What work did you choose?
Did the male characters disappear altogether, or were they transformed?
If they disappeared, what, if anything filled the spaces they left?
What does this new world look like?
Is it better, worse, the same? Beukes says ‘the patriarchy is a comfortable pair of shoes’ and that women are people too, just as capable of being losers, corrupt or violent as men.
Consider your vision?
Do you think it’s achievable?
Has your writing been useful?
CH: And that concludes episode one of Narrative Futures. If you have any comments, or would like to submit work to be featured on the blog, please email us at email@example.com. You can also follow us on Twitter at @ThinkFuturesNow. Your host on this podcast is Chelsea Haith, and you can tweet me @chelsea_haith. And Louis Greenberg is also on Twitter, @louisgreenberg.
Thanks to Lauren Beukes for joining us on this episode. Next week I’ll be speaking to Mohale Mashigo about Afrofuturism and who South Africa’s first black super hero really is.
[Outro music to fade]
Music credit: The sounds used in this podcast are Technological Vibe and Cyber Technologies by Ricky Rombino, sourced from Premium Beats.
Production credit: This podcast was devised, recorded, and edited by Chelsea Haith. All writing prompts were designed and presented by Louis Greenberg.