South Africa and science fiction aren’t usually words that go together, but one SA author is changing that, bringing sparkling, slick fantasy writing to the forefront of South African literature, and having a lot of fun doing it. Tali Barnett chats to Lauren Beukes about her spectacular new novel, Zoo City
Zinzi December has a sloth on her back, a dirty 419 scam habit and a talent for finding lost things. But when an old lady turns up dead, she’s forced to take on her least favourite kind of job – missing persons. This could be her ticket out of Zoo City, the festering slum where the criminal underclass, marked by their animals, live in the shadow of the undertow. Instead, it catapults Zinzi deeper into the underbelly of a city twisted by crime and magic.
If I told you all of the above happens in Johannesburg, would you believe me? In Lauren Beukes’ world, Jozi’s urban sprawl is “an unfamiliar land full of familiars”, filled with broken places and equally broken people. Zoo City follows on from the critically-acclaimed Moxyland, and is a science-fictioned fantasy that will take you on an SA trip like you’ve never experienced before.
“Everything is fucking political”
From Beukes’ perspective, “it’s a novel about crime, magic and music, refugees and redemption. Zinzi, a girl with a sloth on her back and the magical ability to find lost things, is dragged into Johannesburg’s seedy underbelly when she takes on the job of locating a missing pop star. It’s wildly inventive fiction, set in a re-imagined Joburg – I guess it’s a bit China Mieville meets Phillip Pullman with a dose of District 9, without the aliens.”
Not your usual SA fiction by any means. When I ask Beukes about Zoo City relating to South Africa’s apartheid past, she retorts “eugh, I’m so over labels. I think South African fiction is in a very good place right now, where writers can write about anything.”
She elaborates: “Art doesn’t have to be a servant to political activism as it did during the struggle days, but then as Skunk Anansie said, ‘everything is fucking political’. You can’t divorce our present from our past. Apartheid’s legacy is going to be tripping us up for years to come. If you’re writing about South Africa, even if it’s a frothy chic lit or a boy’s boarding school romp, it’s there in the background. It has to be – it’s part of who we are.”
Sci-fi in South Africa
But how established is science fiction in South Africa? “It’s hard to publish science fiction or fantasy in South Africa because the publishers are generally not interested in a straight elves-and-dragons tale or space opera,” she explains.
“Those speculative stories that have worked tend to be grittier works with a social edge, like JM Coetzee’s political dystopia Waiting for the Barbarians or the smart, scathing action-satire that was District 9. It’s more about telling great stories that are recognisably us, which is different to the usual fictional locales such as London, Los Angeles, New York and Tokyo.”
She adds: “Didn’t Neill Blomkamp call Johannesburg the real city of the future? It’s that mash of cultures and economics, the third and first world crammed into one space that makes it exciting, new, different, and eminently accessible to international audiences if you do it right.”
Beukes is a journalist and columnist who deals with South African reality on a daily basis, yet in her novels she manages to effortlessly blend fantasy and reality together so that they appear perfectly in sync.
“That element of the fantastic – technology in Moxyland, magic in Zoo City – allows me to play with reality, to shift the perspective on issues that we take for granted, whether it’s economic apartheid or the rise of xenophobia, manufactured pop music, strange art or finding a way back from having committed terrible atrocities,” she says.
Monkeys and Bares
Animals play a key role in Zoo City, which is “about the idea of familiars: scapegoats and the monkey on your back or the Jiminy Cricket on your shoulder,” she says. “It’s inspired by a Shona belief in mashavi – that lost spirits of the ancestors might come back as animals and attach themselves to someone.”
In Zoo City, having an animal on your back is “a blessing and a curse; you get some small magical abilities, but you’re also immediately marked as a criminal outcast. It’s about segregation and the artificially imposed differences between people, but also guilt, accountability and the possibility of redemption.”
But Beukes’ novels go beyond the pages, and both Moxyland and Zoo City have official “merchandise”, which are “cool creative collaborations I did with ridiculously talented people,” she says. Both books have “kick-ass official soundtracks put together by African Dope’s HoneyB and me.”
For Zoo City, Beukes commissioned a range of toys called Bares. “I approached Am I Collective, who donated five of their blank vinyl Bares that were customised by amazing local illustrators, all inspired by Zoo City.”
Stranger than fiction
Finally, Beukes’ writing is as slick as it is sensual – reading Zoo City means being both pummeled and wrapped up in words, letting them explode as they hit you, and at the same time allowing them to weave themselves around you. If you were traumatized by reading Hermann Charles Bosman as English setwork books in high school, now is the time to start reading SA fiction again. Beukes’ writing will take your breath away.
If you want to write great fiction, “write what you know,” Beukes advises. “But if you don’t know, research the crap out of it.” Wherever you are, “experience makes your writing richer and more vivid. I’m very grateful for the interesting places and people journalism has exposed me to. Real life is often more surprising and inventive than even really, really weird fiction.”
The Zoo City Bares will be auctioned on BidorBuy.co.za from 27 July – 10 August. All proceeds will go to The Suitcase Project to provide ongoing education for refugee kids in Hillbrow.
Moxyland and Zoo City soundtracks are available at www.africandope.co.za
Attend these London events next week to get your hands on Zoo City:
BSFA meeting with reading, Q&A and interview, 28 July, 7pm onwards.
Venue: The Antelope Tavern
Forbidden Planet signing, 29 July, 6 - 7pm
Venue: London Megastore
BFS Open Night, 31 July, 1 - 5pm
Venue: The George pub on The Strand.
Beukes will also be the guest at the first BFS Open Night of the year.
This article was originally published here and here on page 15