Part 15 – SF in SA 15 – On Writing the ‘Other’, with Zandile Mahlasela (March 2012)

It took me Nick Wood a good few years before I plucked up the courage to write the 'Other', i.e. to me, someone who was not white and male. I firstly wrote as a 'white woman' in God in the Box (2003), set in an increasingly familiar London. Phew - that was picked up, published in the British science fiction magazine Interzone - and I wasn't scorned as a 'sexist impostor'! The leap to crossing the 'colour' divide took a bit longer for me though - part of my fear was that, given South Africa's history, it would be seen as a form of colonisation of experience. Then, one day, I sat down and thought long and hard about it.

Slowly, a series of thoughts dawned. In not writing about characters of colour, I was in essence deleting them from my stories, replicating an apartheid mindset. Furthermore, I was holding on to an implicit internalised belief that perhaps the 'gap' between us was so large, I would get it completely and catastrophically 'wrong'. Again, apartheid had taught us that the 'racial' gap was an unbridgeable chasm - which in essence meant we needed to be kept apart. I realised with some degree of horror that, in excluding characters of 'colour' in my writing, I had thus been - at least partly - colluding with an apartheid mindset.

So in 2004 I wrote about 'Kerem' in The stone chameleon (Young Africa imprint; Maskew Miller Longman), a so-called 'coloured' character in a futuristic Cape Town. The book 'passed' the test read of several selected township readers. Phew again - but this time, I knew it was right to write about the Other - as long as it was with respect. Further, as long as I checked the voices I was using with someone from within that culture - and if the characters felt 'right' for that particular story.

I eventually came across Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward's (2005) book on Writing the Other, which has also proved a useful tool. However, even in that book, there was what sounded like an inauthentic white South African character's voice included in a story excerpt. The book itself uses an acronym - 'ROAARS' - which covers what the authors see as central potential areas of difference to be considered in your characters, i.e. Race, (sexual) Orientation, Age, Ability, Religion and 'Sex' (gender): http://booklifenow.com/2010/03/nisi-shawl-and-cynthia-ward-on-roaars-and-the-unmarked-state/ .

As a South African, I think class and culture are additional important considerations too. I don't know what it's like now, but when I was at (then an all-white) school, there was an acute awareness about the relative wealth of where people came from. This was such, that there was overt snobbery shown towards perceived 'poorer' whites, coming from a less affluent nearby white suburb in Cape Town.

Lauren Beukes wrote a great guest blog on Writing the Other for The World SF Blog. I'm not going to repeat it, you can read it for yourself, but one of the points that particularly resonated with me was her idea that anyone you write about is 'Other'. That is, at some level, we are all 'Other' to each other - and one way to bridge that 'gap' of difference is to ask.

There has also been some interesting genetic-cultural research which suggests that in certain places, variation within cultures is much wider than variations across cultures - i.e. we may be more different to someone we perceive as similar to ourselves, than someone we see as completely different. Also, perhaps not surprising given Africa as the 'cradle' of humankind, variation within Africa is wider than variations in the rest of the world combined; Africa is indeed the original and the richest, most subtle 'stew' of people.

So, although I stand partly outside now, I am still proud to be (South) African - and to continue to write stories about where I come from, trying ever harder to get them to reflect the richness of the people there/here. When I anxiously handed my story Of Hearts and Monkeys to an amaXhosa reader, Zandile Mahlasela, I had an irrational fear it would be full of inaccuracies, because I was no longer resident in South Africa. I was extremely relieved when Zandile eventually replied that it was fine. I asked her what the process had been like for her:

"Well, for me, what caught my attention in the story was the fact that a male WHITE writer thought about the issues normally thought about by black population. The content of the story is really amazing, I must say. Upon request to look at the story, many things came to mind, I was nervous, excited and yet anxious to begin with it, I thought to myself, this challenge I have to take. I did not know what feedback I will get back from the writer though, hence the nervousness:). At the end, the story turned out to be exciting. Again, for me, this has been a great life experience, it gave me hope that, I, one day shall write my own book."

This cultural consultation around 'Of Hearts and Monkeys' has been a good experience for both of us it seems, although we were both also obviously anxious about the process! I also know that I Nick Wood will always need a cultural adviser or editor. I am thrilled to have an amaZulu psychiatric nurse reading my current work in progress, a book set in Kwa-Zulu Natal - chunks of it in a psychiatric hospital familiar to us both, although she Busisiwe Siyothula has a much more current and ongoing experience of it, which will be interesting indeed. I know I will have lots of stuff to correct, but it's all great learning experience too.

Finally, on the dangers of Internet translations and cultural-linguistic context. I consulted a Zimbabwean of Shona heritage about a short story I'd written recently. 'All fine,' he said, 'But why on Earth have you got your main character saying in Shona: "Oh, excrement!"'

'I was trying to making her swear,' I said lamely, to his laughter.

He gave me a much better word. Duzvi! I have to finish now.

© 2012 Nick Wood and Zandile Mahlasela