Book review – A book in which race has no place

2013-04-07 10:00

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In contrast to all the talk of Bikoism vs white liberalism, Zinaid Meeran was the most refreshing literary voice at the Time of The Writer festival.

He’s the author of two wildly imaginative novels.

The first, Saracen at the Gates, won him the 2009 European Literary Award, and the second, Tanuki Ichiban, the festival’s bookseller assured me, “is even weirder, but cool”.

Among its many themes, Tanuki Ichiban’s main one, Meeran says, is “to investigate this concept of ‘race’.

It’s something to be ridiculed. It’s a really stupid idea”.

Meeran speaks like a man determined to own his imagination.

He describes his imaginary world as “riot waif and tropic punk. It’s my own carving out of an imaginary space for characters who live outside of society’s categories, so as to wrest control back from society for those who want to live outside of it”.

He’s committing a violence, he says, on “categorisation” in all its forms.

“I try to bring that out in the book. The characters struggle with society and with themselves. Being outside of society doesn’t preclude this battle with your peers, so I’m trying to bring out these endless layers of struggle that happen outside of the traditional ideas South Africa has settled on.

“There’s a discourse that’s been agreed on, that everybody subscribes to one of those racial categories. They sort of tacitly conspire to see each other as being of different races and cooperate – but in a sort of subterraneanly malicious way.”

He says that, for his book, he created a world where colonialism ended in 1820 and apartheid never existed.

“So everybody’s mixed. There are no racial identities. But I do mention the historical ancestry of the characters I bring up. I reach far back, to the age of exploration. People are Madagascan, or Huguenot, or of Caroline origin. It’s not about being coloured or Indian. That misses the point,” Meeran says.

“To me it’s about completely disrupting the accepted categories.”

When I ask him what I’d have to do to become a “riot waif”, Meeran advises: “It’s about seeing the human as more of a collection of sparks of associations and identifications, rather than concrete ideas and ideologies. And these are fleeting.

“These sparks are constantly flowing. Society and the political discourses solidify those. It keeps on reinventing those categories for social control, but if you see people as sparks, then you’re constantly asking what those associations could look like. It’s about what it could look like, rather than what it is.”

But don’t for a minute think that all of this means his book reads like a dry, academic treatise.

It is great comic fantasy.

Meeran says: “The two main characters are smuggling endangered species, trying to get through the Cites roster, to eat all these animals at dinner parties – to impress girls. The rivalries get harsh. One of them, Geronimo Chanboon, ends up killing his friend Everton Sacramento.

“Both are reinvented immediately in the next chapter in Japan, where Geronimo is wandering around Japan and ends up in Hokkaido as a bounty hunter, hunting the brindled snow ape. There he meets another reincarnation of Sacramento, who is reinvented as a vet.

“They end up in a duel over a girl and kill each other simultaneously. They then come to life in Medina, in a new Muslim empire. They go with a corrupt Hajj travel agent to assassinate the pretender to the throne of the caliphate. Geronimo’s grandmother has been enslaved in the harem of the caliphate and he’s trying to rescue her.”

I do a big double take. “How old is his grandmother?” I ask.

“Seventy. But she’s spry.”

Meeran continues, hardly missing a beat.

“Another character is Lahnee O, an orang-utan languishing in the Joburg Zoo, dying of Aids because of his past, during which he worked as a rent boy. They’re trying to get human status for the apes by showing there’s a loophole in the Constitution and he should be considered human. A nymphomaniac has a little fling with him because, to her, he’s clearly human. The idea of bestiality doesn’t cross her mind.”

So, yes. It’s a bit of a wild literary romp.

Meeran has an Afrikaans grandfather, a Cape coloured mother, an Indian father, and an English/South African stepfather.

In contrast to his imaginary world, 20 years into a “new South Africa”, concepts of race seem more entrenched than ever.

I ask him how he takes it if someone looks at him and calls him an Indian.

He replies: “I react very violently. I fight with them. First of all, they haven’t even asked me who I am. They haven’t troubled themselves to learn who I am, what my ancestry or identity is. They’ve just imposed that category on me. Inevitably they say, ‘but you are that’. And I say, ‘I’m not.’

You don’t know my racial ancestry, and I don’t have a racial identity. I don’t have to have one.”

He adds: “The usual response is, then: ‘Well you’re just a neoliberal.’”

“Which is just another label,” I say.

“Yes,” he says. “Exactly.”

“Is there any hope these categories can be overcome?”

“Yes,” he says, with a twinkle in his deep brown eyes. “Everybody just has to mix.”

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