She defies easy definition. On the cusp of global recognition, local cult sci-fi and fantasy noir writer Lauren Beukes still wakes up in the middle of the night wondering whether she’s good enough. A contrast of fragility and extreme imaginative strength Beukes’ books are going places. She’d better ready herself for one helluva wild ride. By MANDY DE WAAL.
Moving towards the mind of South Africa’s first lady of sci-fi and fantasy noir is an experience in altered realities. The woman who makes other literary legends yearn to write that well mashes the strange and the familiar together to reinvent new worlds for her books, the acclaimed “Moxyland” and recently released “Zoo City”.
In real life engaging with her is just as much of a trip as is reading her books. The request for an interview is met with delicious introspection that feels like tumbling down a rabbit hole or being seduced to take the red or the blue pill. Like turning the first page of her novels. You know it’s going to mess with your mind, will become a compulsion, but there’s only one way to go. Further and further into world of Lauren Beukes.
“You know what you’ve done, right, Lauren? By moaning on Twitter about deja-intavu, you’ve put undue pressure on interviewers to ask new, inventive and deeply philosophical questions that are going to be terrifically hard to answer and force you to define happiness and the imagination when you don’t really know what those things are and are probably not what readers really want to read about and there’s a good chance you’ll come across as a colossal wanker if you answer them seriously which will probably lead to you answering them irreverently and talking about how happiness is a giant zombie shark who flosses, which will be of no use to man or beast (but particularly beast) and will just prove confusing and probably cement your wanker-itude for all time and really, contrary to what people may imagine, the inside of your head is not ordered and systematic and interesting, like some wunderkamer of bright ideas, but a chaotic, dingy mess of connections, of STUFF, like those scary houses you see on that TV show ‘Hoarders’ (is it Hoarders? Not like you have DStv, is it Lauren, and isn’t it a little weird talking to yourself like this?) if the piles of old rotting newspapers and clutter had butterfly wings and flittered about in giant chaotic flocks, the sound of their wings brushing against each other filling the cranial space with a menacing rustling. And trust me, no-one wants to see that.”
Holy crap! If Beukes gives DC Comicsmeister Bill Willingham performance anxiety, what the hell is going to happen to me? But when you hear how Beukes talks about writing and words you can’t help, but fall in love. “My husband’s wedding ring is inscribed on the inside with ‘More than words’. That’s a dirty lie. Words are everything, and more so, stories. Getting paid to make them up is a privilege.
What would Beukes do if this miracle was taken away from her? If by some perverse stroke of fate she woke up one terrible day and there were no words. Just a blank land with an empty vista? “I can’t imagine how that would be possible. Perhaps if I suffered brain damage? (Some would argue the weirdness of my books – and this interview – is an indication that I may already have done so). If I had to choose an alternative career I’d be a cop working my way up to detective. I’d be a great cop. Apart from that whole getting-shot-at thing. (I confess I may have been watching too much of ‘The Wire’. But no, really, I’d be a great cop.)”
She would be a great cop because in the same way she wriggles into wormholes of altered states in her writing, one can easily imagine her inveigling herself into the mind of a killer, or picking at the threads of a mystery until they unravel. After all a crime is just a real story that is complete, that one doesn’t fully know yet and has to decode.
Investigating her sense of self-identity, there’s the mea culpa I’ve already committed, the attempt to overly define. “I hate the ‘boxiness’ of defining identity, particularly when it comes to being a writer. ‘Woman writer’, ‘science fiction writer’, ‘South African writer’. Can’t I am just a writer, full stop? Gah.” Here there’s a sense of the vulgarity of trying to contain imagination. How labelling Beukes renders her flattened by removing some of the essence of what makes her who she is.
“Okay, so thinking about construction of self, I think about psychology and behaviourism and how we’re defined, not by our beliefs, but our actions. I have described myself as a pragmatic optimist humanist. I’d like to think my actions reflect that.”
There’s a sense that Beukes is poised on the cusp of fame. And not just the kind where you’re recognised as a remarkable writer in your own country or by people immersed in your genre. “Moxyland” earned Beukes cult respect, but the more accessible “Zoo City” is garnering a greater global recognition. The story about Zinzi, her slothful familiar, addiction to double crossing and genius for discovering what’s lost was Waterstones’ Book of the Month. Then there was that meeting with a big-name producer in London. You’d think this would bring euphoria, but there’s ambivalence from Beukes.
“It’s been amazing and humbling and it freaks me out very deeply too. Being able to self-actualise, to challenge yourself, to have control of your life and where it’s heading is happiness, so, yeah, recognition and respect are very good. But what’s fundamentally at the heart of happiness is basic human rights and women’s rights in particular where I’m allowed to have a choice in my life. Many women don’t.”
A third-world child, like all women born on the continent there’s that sense that one rises as others suffer. Beukes realises she is part of this “village”, this binary community of stark contrasts. “The world constantly surprises me with wonderful things (as well as atrocities).” Context apart, happiness for Beukes is all about: “My husband, my daughter discovering things for the first time, being occupied with sillinesses, satire, good stories be it TV or movies or books, experiencing new things, hanging out with cool new people and great old friends. All the usual I suspect. We work on certain basic programming, humans.”
Beukes was born into the city of contrasts. “I grew up across the road from the Johannesburg Zoo so we’d hear the lions roaring at night and occasionally find puff adders in the garden. I was lucky to grow up with liberal parents who were involved with Habitat for Humanity in Alexandra and as kids took us in to help build a house, I went to a mixed-race private school, have a foster black brother, Thabo – so in many ways, a more sane upbringing than many kids of 1980s SA would have had.”
Although currently in Cape Town, the home of Beukes’ imagination and books is that place of thunderstorms, The Market Theatre, Zoo Lake, cooling towers coming down. Rosebank market. A grunge club called The Doors that used to live in downtown Johannesburg. Rockey Street. And taboo tattoos in Melville before she became an adult.
Beukes describes her imagination as, “A happy accident in the ones and zeroes?” She doesn’t want to quantify how she thinks which makes sense for someone who refuses to be reduced by definition. “My imagination is fired by experience, by new things, by making unexpected connections, by the stuff I’m interested in from US military drones to Takashi Murakami’s cute monster toys.”
This expansiveness is what has reworked the Johannesburg of her new book. “Zoo City’s Joburg is Joburg pretty much verbatim only that Hillbrow has become a ghetto for ‘zoos’ – people who have done something terrible and had a magical spirit animal attach to them. I made up some venues like the Biko Bar in Melville, which Che Guevaras that black consciousness hero (Zinzi is appalled by it: wants to know if the T-shirts are pre-soaked with acid) and Odi’s glossy Brixton club Counter Revolutionary. But they’re all inspired by real places, real experiences.”
Beukes left the mountain for Jozi’s hard edges when researching her book. “I did a research trip, getting the measure of the place with a Zimbabwean fixer, interviewing refugees and security guards and local residents in Hillbrow, checking out dilapidated buildings and shelters and the faded glamour and its hopeful resurgence. I hung out in Braamfontein, attended a service at the Central Methodist Church which was then housing some 4,000 refugees, dragged my friend Lindiwe Nkutha along to the faded colonial pride of The Rand Club and to consult sangomas at Mai Mai and Faraday.”
The experience was liberating says Beukes. “Whereas ‘Moxyland’ was based a lot on journalistic experiences, I had free rein to explore here. I’d spot a building and we’d head over and chat to management or security and see if they’d give us access or just stop and talk to interesting people. It was amazing and insightful. It’s easy to get caught up in the horror stories of Hillbrow, but I found it a very hopeful, very normal place. I could totally live there.”
Beukes’ urban inspiration also comes from the works of other local greats. “I read a lot. Kgebetli Moele’s brilliant novel about Hillbrow ‘Room 207’, Bongani Madondo’s accounts of Hillbrow as boho hipster paradise in the 80s and early 90s and Nechama Brodie’s ‘The Joburg Book’ was an invaluable resource too. Although I didn’t get to meet her on that trip (we’ve since become friends), she gave me lots of pointers and advice and even sent me annotated Google maps and read the manuscript.”
Where do the borders of reality and imagination meet for a woman who spends so much of her life in fantasy, and how do they blur? The answer is surprising. “Eek. I’m very much a pragmatist. I don’t believe in fairies, alas, or magic, or ghosts and I think psychics are mostly dodgy fuckers and don’t get me started on ‘The Secret’. I do think alien life is a scientific probability, although most likely not in any Star Trek (i.e. humanoid) variation. The natural world is amazing enough as it is. It blows my mind. We don’t need magic. We have science and technology and nature. Fantasy is useful for play, for whimsy and it’s essential for novel writing, but also as a way of exploring some very serious ideas. The best science fiction asks hard questions, it interrogates the now by extrapolating a fictional future or an otherworld.”
What’s more surprising is that for all she’s achieved, Beukes still has a sense of fragility. “I still sometimes poke my husband awake at 2am in the morning in existential despair and whine about how useless I am. He used to talk me down, now he just groans, rolls his eyes and goes back to sleep. Mostly it happens when I’m procrastinating and have spiralled into desperate unhappiness and panic. I’m never so unhappy as when I’m not writing, although I’ll do anything to avoid it. Anything. I suspect writers are fragile in general. It’s scary putting yourself out there in such a personal way. And yeah, bad reviews bum me out, but you get over it. If the reviewer has a point, I’ll take note, if they just hated it in general, I shrug it off.”
Never mind loving her writing. After falling into the outer edges of her mind, it’s hard to stop yourself from falling in love with her. Although it may give her sleepless nights, let’s hope that big-name producer is smart enough to see that “Zoo City” would make a remarkable film. Johannesburg deserves that just as much as does Lauren Beukes. DM
Photo: Victor Dlamini
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