Is SA fiction too local?

I love South African and African writing.

I love stories set on this continent and particularly in this country and I love it when authors speak of places I know; of emotions I have felt and of experiences I have had.

In Choke Chain the boys pick mulberries and ride their bicycles to the cafe to play arcade games; they leave for holiday at 4am and wake up in the middle of the ‘Berg and sweat on Durban beaches and compete to see who sees the sea first.

These things I have done and I relate to what they felt like.

I am transported to the back of the panel van my mom drove when we were kids; I am naked, picking mulberries in the garden and I am pushing my toes into the beach sand trying to find the cool dampness under the hot surface.

I am there with the kids in the books; alongside the mother shopping for Christmas gifts in the stifling heat of December and I know that Afrikaans teacher and feel the pain of palms smacked for poor spelling test results.

It is all of this that makes novels like this wonderful for me to read.

But I wonder if perhaps it is exactly these things that prevent these novels from every being anything more than just South African.

Is the very localness of these stories not hobbling them? Will tales of warm stolen mangoes, fresh from the neighbours’ tree ever make it in the rest of the world?

I fear not.

The emotional moment which South African readers understand when we read about the race to see the sea for the first time from the back of the volksie or about the soggy jam sandwiches eaten on school trips is, I think, unique to us.

The South African, and African, experience is not international enough for it to be understood and appreciated. Books which talk about our political experience are more likely to be popular because everyone wants to have read those kinds of books.

But books which simply tell the ordinary stories of ordinary people – these I think are too alien for the mass American and European market. Our experience is too different from that of ‘first world’ readers; we are too unknown. This is both our strength and weakness as a source of stories.

So by writing truly South African stories, these authors are pretty much guaranteeing themselves a small audience. And it is for this reason that I think South African readers have some kind of duty to support these authors.

Very few local authors will ever be Mark Behr, Andre Brink, Dalene Mathee, Zakes Mda or John van der Ruit. Most will simply be true to their country of origin and write little books which few people will ever read.

What do you think? Do you agree with Kim? Or do you believe that there is a huge market out there for South African and African fiction?

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