"Not wanted on the voyage": a talk at the Midlands Literary Festival, 2019

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The tenth Midlands Literary Festival took place from 31 August to 1 September 2019 at the Fern Hill Hotel in Howick, KwaZulu-Natal.

The Midlands Literary Festival is ten years old

Elana Bregin shared the talk she delivered at the festival with LitNet. 


The title of this talk is stolen from a novel by Canadian writer Timothy Findley, called Not wanted on the voyage, which is built around the biblical story of Noah, instructed by God, the Old Testament Yahweh to build a great ark and take on board his breeding-stock family, along with the various animal species, two by two, in order to repopulate the world he is about to destroy. Only the life forms sanctioned by Noah, controller of the ship and righteous interpreter of Yaweh’s edict, are allowed on board. The rest are expendables, consigned to the sacrificial bonfire in Yaweh’s name, or left behind to drown in the floodwaters.

The book is Findley’s imaginative take on how that famous voyage might have played out, with the cagefuls of miserable animals imprisoned below deck in the dark hold, and the gender dynamics of subjugation and tyranny enforced by the iron fist of patriarchal Noah, sole authority on what is wanted and not wanted. What doesn’t suit his agendas or his rigid understanding, he labels undesirable and tosses overboard.

I chose this title, because it seems that many of us, rightly or wrongly, are feeling that way right now, in this authoritarian, power-hungry and exclusionary moment in which we find ourselves – not just in South Africa, but worldwide: that our particular brand or style or voice or presence or set of values is, for one reason or another, “not wanted on the voyage”. Wrong nationality, wrong skin colour, wrong ethnicity, wrong gender or orientation. Just – wrong.

Here in South Africa, in particular, everything is so highly politicised. Category rules us, regardless of who we think we are. We are stuck in our official demographic tick boxes, like it or not. Are you M or are you F? B, W, C or I? Or maybe O, for “Other” – a definite nuisance, that one. If you can’t be categorised, how can we package and control you?

“My hatred of you is older than I am. I’m sorry, but for me, you are your race.” Zach Rapola wrote those profound words many years ago. They are still as applicable to where we are, as ever.

So, where does that leave us – as people, as a nation and, more pertinently to this talk, as writers, especially writers of fiction, of which I am one? It leaves us on the wrong side of the gangway. Not wanted on the ark. That’s because South African fiction has now been downgraded – by Moody’s – to junk status, relegated to the undesirable list of hard-to-sell categories. Along with poetry, short story collections and other untouchables. The result being that even publishers who previously published what they liked – as Jacana’s famous slogan says – are turning away novels of definite worth which, in former times, they might have taken on. And who can blame them? They have to keep their ark afloat. Market forces rule in this game, like everywhere. And the market – US – is generally not buying South African fiction. Aside from those diehard staples – crime thrillers. And fantasy series.

The high irony is that what is being written in South Africa at the moment is mostly fiction. And poetry. But that is not what is being bought. Another talk in itself.

This expulsion of fiction from the “Wanted” list is a very alarming indication, I think, of our stuckness as a nation. We are so steeped in realism. In what is, and what has been. We have, quite rightly, a lot to get off our collective chest. Memoir. Disclosure. Political tell-all. The real life that we’re immersed in. This is the moment for hindsight. But it should equally be the moment for foresight. For the kind of illumination and possibility that only good fiction can offer.

Many people misunderstand what fiction is. It’s much more than just fabrication, writing an imaginary story. Fiction is the mirror held up to society. It is well-observed reality married with imaginative possibility. Memoir is tied to a specific truth, a particular life experience. But fiction speaks in the voice of collective truth.

In order to go forward from this divisive rut we’re stuck in, we badly need those powers of imagination, that re-envisaging and creative role-modelling. Truth and possibility both on board together for the voyage.

Jacana is so worried about this alarming erosion of our fiction heritage that they’ve started an initiative called Storied, where they aim to use crowdfunding to help offset the costs and losses of fiction publishing. Their goal is to be able to publish more African fiction – and poetry – for local and global consumption. It remains to be seen whether their definition of “African” is the inclusive or exclusionary variety.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the outlook for fiction writers is bleak: so much being rejected that shouldn’t be, so much that is good and valid and valuable being tossed overboard. Rejection, for a writer, is always crushing, but even more so here in South Africa, where the publishing options are ever shrinking. Once you’ve sent your book out to the big five and their satellites, and had a “no” from them, you’ve pretty much covered the choices.

Yet, it has never been more crucial to keep the dissenting visions and viewpoints alive. To refuse to be silenced because you don’t fit the current “it” category. To keep your unpopular voice heard, your counter-conversation out there, your unwanted rowboat bobbing alongside the giant, bloated ark, challenging by its mere presence those dominant monologues of power, celebrity worship and separatist agendas. And, if there is no space on the ship for us, then we must make our own space. Even if it means having to publish ourselves.

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