Steve Braunias: A cultural appropriation spat in the literary world

Lara Markstein was in the kitchen at her home in Picton when the phone rang. “Sorry, one moment,” she told her caller. “The timer is going off on my oven.” She put on her mitts and took out a freshly baked tray of beskuits. “They’re rusks,” she said, “the dry biscuits that all South Africans eat. I only make them once every three or four months and it’s funny I should be doing that just as you call.”

Yes, because the caller was phoning to essentially put to her a question that had been asked by several people with varying degrees of curiosity, suspicion, and even anger: just how South African was she? Also, what kind of South African? A good South African, a bad South African? They were charged questions, an inquisition into her bona fides, calling to her from across the ocean of her adopted country to the veldts of her place of origin, accented with that distinct and rather beautiful sound of Afrikaans – once heard, easily imitated and parodied. It’s a language that makes short work of syllables, coming down hard and fast, but also quite flutey, and musical. It forms the soundtrack to this story which is nominally about Lara Markstein but more so about the way South Africans in New Zealand see South Africa.

Markstein, 34, recently won the richest and most distinguished short story prize in New Zealand, the Sargeson Prize, for a 5000-word story set in South Africa, and titled Good Men. It was judged by Patricia Grace. The University of Waikato administers the prize and requires that entries are sent anonymously. No one knew the name of the author of Good Men until it was judged the winner, earning Markstein $6200 and publication at Newsroom. “Lara”, chanted the South Africans spoken to for this story, sometimes with pride, sometimes with hostility.

Good Men is told by Koos, a 10-year-old boy who leaves the city with his father, an out-of-work construction worker who seems to have no prospects of finding another job, and comes to live with family in a small, dusty town (Markstein identifies the area as the desert plateau of Great Karoo, in Western Cape). Koos has an older cousin, a girl who yearns to learn French and get the hell away. His best friend, Ronnie, is black and enjoying a nice middle-class life – he has PlayStation and his uncle has a swimming pool. In the background, looming and ominous, are Koos’ uncle and father, described by Grace in her judge’s comments “as hardened and as tough as the land they inhabit”. It’s evocative, with an edge of suspense, and foreshadows of violence.

“It’s a bad story,” said Neil Sonnekus, shouting in an Afrikaans-accented rage down the line. It really got him riled up, he wasn’t having a bar of it; in fact his dislike had instigated this story, because a few weeks ago he sent in a column to the Herald which set out to pull Good Men apart and condemn it as an insulting portrait of his native country. Editors passed on running the column but wondered whether it could serve as the basis for a story about that old trope known as a literary spat. It now serves as the basis for a story about the relatively new trope known as a cultural appropriation spat.

“I consider myself a Kiwi,” said Markstein. Her family emigrated to New Zealand when she was 7. Does that make her story set in South Africa a form of cultural appropriation? She writes about a culture she doesn’t actively experience; in that sense, is she committing the same modern sin as a Pākehā writer of fiction wanting to write a Māori character?

To Sonnekus, Good Men is a travesty, ignorant of the culture it portrays, with an inconsistent use of Afrikaans and English words – she spells the English word “veldt” instead of “veld”, and uses the English word “ute” when every Afrikaner and, indeed, every South African would call it a “bakkie”. Minor, until you consider how lame and wrong it would be for a New Zealand story to misspell Māori words or not bother with macrons. More seriously, Good Men casts Koos’ father and uncle as Afrikaner brutes. “They have no character at all; they are merely types,” Sonnekus wrote to the Herald. “Stereotypes of Afrikaners, as perceived by non-Afrikaners.”

In fact Markstein’s family (on her mother’s side) are Afrikaner. “The theme of her story is African patriarchy,” Sonnekus said, and actually Markstein agreed with that analysis. She said, “I was telling a story about a patriarchal community … It’s very much inspired and influenced by my family and their history.” Her extended family live in Pretoria; she said slowly, in a circumspect manner, “The father’s character was based on someone I met.”

Deborah Pead lived in Natal from the age of 8 to 35, and now heads Pead PR in Auckland. She read Good Men and recognised Koos’ dad and uncle from her life. “They felt like real characters to me.” She could also picture the setting. “I could feel the dust. I could just get the sense of what it was like. I thought Lara captured so much of it. She’s painted a family who are representative, very conservative, God before everything else, they would resent anything that upset their hierarchy … I thought it was pretty accurate. I loved the story.”

So, too, did Erica Crawford, emphatically. The first thing she said was: “I absolutely loved it. Absolutely loved it.” She lived in Cape Town (her father is an Afrikaner) until she met Kiwi winemaker Kim Crawford at a wine festival. They now live in Marlborough, where she owns Loveblock Wines. She correctly identified the setting as Great Karoo: “The most beautiful colours.” As for the Afrikaners in it, she said, “For me, you could take this and plant the same kind of characters in the outback of Australia. Or Scotland. Or parts of New Zealand. The same things are going on everywhere – this beautiful innocence and how it’s lost and how the cycle of violence just starts again and again, and it starts again with this young boy. So I think this particular group of people you’d find in any society.”

The last thing she said was: “I loved, loved, loved reading Lara’s story.” So much love, from Crawford and Pead; but it would be misleading to think that the only South African who has a problem with the way Good Men depicts the post-apartheid republic in 2021 is Sonnekus, 65 (“Got my Gold card, mate”), a former sub-editor and proofreader who moved to New Zealand from Johannesburg in 2010, has made short films and written self-published works of fiction, and now drives a bus on Waiheke Island.

After India (13,200) and China (8500),Statistics New Zealand says South Africa forms the largest group of migrant arrivals in 2019-20, with 7100 arrivals. The 2013 census puts the South African-born population in New Zealand at about 54,000.

Markstein is among that number; when confronted with the unease about her story, she said, “My South African bona fides I guess is the question isn’t it. How South African am I, and do I have the right to write about that community? I think that’s actually a much larger question that’s absolutely fascinating – who has the right to write about who, and this I think is what Neil is getting at, which is so important, how do you do so respectfully? Personally I do actually think that it’s not an unfair portrait. It’s trying to make a point, and it’s fiction.”

What point was it making?

She said, “About what it’s like to live in a small conservative town. I could have written about living in a cosmopolitan city in South Africa or about living in a hippie town. South Africa isn’t a monolith and I think that’s where Neil and others are perhaps a bit defensive, because they might have experienced people attacking them as being racist just because they came from South Africa. I remember when we came to New Zealand, people would assume that we were racist. So I understand that defensiveness, I really do.”

But maybe this was missing the point. “Neil and others” simply thought the story was false; and one of their main concerns was when she set the story. Was it modern or in the past?

Nadine Rubin Nathan, as a South African expatriate but also as co-founder of New Zealand literacy agency High Spot, read the short story with a practised eye. She liked Good Men. Well-told, layered, engaging. On the day Nathan was interviewed, South African author Damon Galgut won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Promise. “It’s about disenfranchised Afrikaners too … Clearly this is a topic of interest.” She thought that Markstein, as an Afrikaner, had “every right” to write about her culture. “But,” she said, and there was something in her tone that made the “but” an inevitable destination, “I have issues with when Lara’s story is set.”

She took clues – a poster of wrestler Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson in Ronnie’s bedroom – to assume it was maybe set shortly after the end of apartheid. “And that would be more authentic in the sense that there were people who had lost their standing after apartheid, and who became poverty-stricken for the first time in their lives, like Koos’ father in the story. But if you say it’s set right now – and by the way, my family live in South Africa and I go there quite a lot, and know what it’s like – then I would say that’s not a fair representation.”

It was relayed to Nathan that Markstein had indeed set her story right now.

There was a pause, and she said, “Oh. Like today? Well. That’s a problem.” Then she said she had shown the story to two South African friends, one in New Zealand, another back in the republic. Tellingly, the Kiwi friend said the story reminded her of her childhood in South Africa, 20 years ago. As for her other African friend, in Johannesburg, “She took a harder stance.” Nathan quoted an email: “I find all the characters problematic. They are stereotypes from a very long time ago … It would seem she has no experience about the complexity and sophistication of a modern South African society – the very society she has chosen to write about. Hers is not a lived experience.”

Sonnekus was baffled when the story was set. “The father, the uncle, the grandmother – they’re all stereotypes, and even more dangerously, there’s this token black friend. See, the problem is it’s a 1990s story set in the – when does Lara think it’s set? The 2000s?”

Now.

“Right now?”

Correct.

His conversation was often on the verge of excitable; now and then he crossed that verge. He said, “Then she’s in even deeper trouble because there’s something called farm murders happening on quite a huge scale. You will know that, won’t you? But why is this conveniently excluded? It’s a massive, massive thing!” He meant the attacks on white farmers, and this awful statistic: during the past year, 59 people were murdered on farms in South Africa, compared to 41 in the previous 12 months.

That’s not in Good Men. Neither are a range of social concerns on account of the fact that Good Men is not a policy document, nor investigative journalism, nor any species of non-fiction. It’s about a family, and the loss of innocence.

Zirk van den Berg left Cape Town for New Zealand 23 years ago; he writes novels in English and more prolifically in Afrikaans, published in South Africa at a rate of a book every year. His take on Markstein’s story might be described as liberal, and permissive: “I don’t think it’s the job of stories to represent anything other than unique circumstances. I can very much imagine all of Lara’s story to be true, that they are those characters but it shouldn’t be taken as representative of South Africans, or Afrikaners.

“This is a story about a particular boy living in a particular place surrounded by specific types of people, you know … I’ve encountered people like that. They’re not the proudest examples of Afrikanerdom but they exist. I thought they were quite typical.”

And then there’s the way New Zealanders see a story set in a South Africa they can only imagine … The fact that Good Men won New Zealand’s premier prize for short fiction agitated Sonnekus and even rather baffled van den Berg (“I probably wouldn’t have had the gall to present that story for that competition, it being very South African – I’d think it wouldn’t have a chance”) but to story judge Grace – and also to Catherine Chidgey, an acclaimed novelist who administers the Sargeson Prize – the story was an obvious candidate as soon as they read it.

Grace was forewarned that the story’s credibility had been questioned. Asked what made it stand out, she said, “It seemed culturally authentic to me, but not knowing anything about that culture really. It was using some of the language of the characters, except that I don’t know that language, so I couldn’t say if it was all okay or correct or anything like that. I just took it at face value.”

But some South African readers thought the characters were crude stereotypes.

“I suspect they would be the ones to know that.”

Does it matter?

“Well in a way, yes it does,” she said. “For example, in my novel Chappie, I wrote a Japanese character. I knew that I didn’t have a chance of getting inside his head or psyche. So he remains a kind of mysterious figure and is only viewed from the point of view of characters that I do know and understand.”

Yes, she agreed, the issue of cultural appropriation in literature was fraught, complex, difficult. ” I think writers have to be free about what they want to write about, but they must be prepared for it to be criticised.”

It was put to her that the same ought to be said, too, of judges of writing prizes.

“Well, true. I could get criticism for choosing that story I guess. I don’t care. I just did the best I could and, to me, it was a strong story.”

It was at this point in the interview that Grace discovered that Markstein was herself Afrikaner. “Oh,” she said. “Well, that makes a difference doesn’t it. I thought the argument was she wasn’t anything to do with that culture. But she has the whakapapa to write the story that she did. I have no doubt about that.”

Chidgey was indifferent to the case against Markstein’s story. Asked whether Good Men might be a travesty of Afrikaners, she said, “Yeah, I mean of course it’s possible. But how would we know? It’s not the job of the competition to fact-check.”

And yet the entire issue of cultural representation was intensely relevant to her own work: Chidgey’s two most recent novels, The Wish Child and Remote Sympathy, are set in Nazi Germany. “I felt the weight of responsibility,” she acknowledged. She said she immersed herself in research and was careful to get the facts right.

“My next book is set in New Zealand and is narrated by a bird. That feels quite liberating.”

What kind of bird?

“A magpie.”

What gave her the right to inhabit the psyche of that bird?

“Don’t go there.”

Things were getting out of hand and would do so again during the interview with Sonnekus when he was asked whether he had the right to write about the protagonist of one of his novels: a black 38-year-old female concert pianist. To his credit, he laughed like a drain at the absurdity of it, but then he said, “The acid test is whether the story is respectful, or relying on stereotypes. I was very careful in writing that book. Very careful.”

It was pointed out to him that Markstein had shown her story to many Afrikaner people in her family before she submitted it to the Sargeson Prize. Had he shown his book to a black woman before publishing?

He left a pause big enough to drive an AT bus through, and finally said, “I did not. No.”

Why not?

“Because,” he said, meaninglessly, “I was pretty confident of what I was doing.”

Good for him; as for Markstein, she spoke with great enthusiasm and good humour about her short story, and welcomed the comments. She had her priorities right. “Maybe I should be upset,” she said, “but I’m actually quite thrilled that people are reading it at all.”

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