It is anti-racism blog week currently: http://community.livejournal.com/ibarw/ – so I guess it's only fitting I've recently read Steve Biko's I write what I like - a collection of political essays banned at the time in apartheid South Africa. The official (white) line at the time was obviously that his ideas were of extreme, radical demands and a 'terrorist' inspiration. So it was with slight - but not completely unexpected - surprise, that I read the essays with a feeling they were both eminently 'common sense' and restrained, laying out the need for a positive 'black consciousness' to develop in order to challenge the denigratory and oppressive system then facing black people. Even Biko's assertion that a black liberation movement needed to remain undiluted by involvement with (liberal) whites made sense in his philosophical justification of the need to develop a strong black 'antithesis' to the dominant 'thesis' of white power. (The black political opposition had been severely curtailed after the Rivonia treason trial in 1964. This effectively robbed anti-apartheid organizations such as the ANC of their leadership structure.)
The 'antithesis' did grow of course, burgeoning in the aftermath of the Soweto uprising in 1976 and the subsequent detention and murder of Biko in 1977: http://africanhistory.about.com/library/biographies/blbio-stevebiko.htm. It's a tragedy that he and so many others never got to see the eventual 'synthesis' that emerged from the (dialectical) conflict of 'black' and 'white' political forces into the non-racial democracy of South Africa in 1994 - when the 'Rainbow Nation' was born, with both its' ongoing triumphs and difficulties.
One of the obvious implications of Biko's philosophy is that it highlighted the experiential chasm between white and black in South Africa at the time, implying little – if any – point of meaningful contact. I have a feeling, however, that there may well be similar sorts of experiential chasms currently operating across the world. For a writer trying to create characters that represent a more-rounded and diverse world, this translates into how does one write authentically about characters of significant difference from one's own background and experience?
For a start, there has been some useful guidelines and suggestions developed in Writing the Other: a Practical Approach by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward (2006), as well as perhaps more ironic guidelines such as 'How to write about Africa': http://www.granta.com/extracts/2615. Further to that, I think one cannot skimp on where people come from - I'm not taking nationally here, but socio-culturally and politically. Which is why I think science fiction and fantasy in its richest form has an advantage - being not just able to illustrate past or current systems, but additionally being able to speculate and create future or alternate systems too - and to keep pushing the boundaries of experiential understanding, fostering the development of imaginative empathy - for all humans, animals, 'aliens' ('illegal' or science-fictionally otherwise)…
And for those who need reminding that today's so-called 'terrorists' may be tomorrow's – or even today's – 'freedom fighters', there's always Farah Mendelsohn's edited collection Glorifying Terrorism. rackstrawpress.nfshost.com
Finally, I would like to thank Tanya Barben from the University of Cape Town (UCT) for her excellent article on the wonderful work of Timlin, from Kimberley in the Cape, who wrote and drew a rare classic fantasy entitled The Ship that Sailed to Mars. Tanya's article has been uploaded into the section on SF in South Africa; part 4, as the work was written in South Africa.
Nick Wood – Aug/Sep 2007