Over the rainbow: South African writers take centre-stage at the London Book Fair

More than 15 years after the end of apartheid, what have they made of the era of freedom?

Writers in South Africa have never been short of subject matter. Apartheid laws and the fragmented society they created provided material that compelled attention. During the darkest days, the most pressing question for a South African writer was whether they had a duty to represent social conditions in the country: dispossession, police brutality, racism both petty and institutional.

When Nelson Mandela became President in 1994 and many artists and intellectuals embraced the rhetoric of the rainbow nation, some flippant foreign critics wondered what South African writers might possibly engage with after apartheid. But many of the country's ills - and compelling subjects - remain. Recent reports have called temporary relocation camps for the poor, shunted out of sight of tourists expected for the 2010 World Cup, worse than apartheid-era shantytowns. Over the Easter weekend, white-supremacist Eugene Terre'Blanche was bludgeoned to death, not long after a furore erupted over equally buffoonish African National Congress (ANC) Youth League President Julius Malema's insistence that singing the struggle-era chant, "shoot the Boer [farmer]", is part of his cultural heritage and not hate speech.

The Aids crisis continues, as do appallingly high incidences of rape and other violent crime. Members of the new elite appear intent on proving themselves very nearly as corruptible as the old. For some, there are ominous signs that the country is losing the plot.

South African writers still have serious things to write about. But some have discovered levity in the face of gloom, reflecting both the country's dysfunction and its promise in surprising ways. The local literary scene is varied and sometimes strident: magical realism, SF, crime fiction, and the surreally comic are now as likely to be displayed in bookshops' "local writing" sections as social realism, reportage and cultural commentary.

Henrietta Rose-Innes, winner of the 2008 Caine Prize for African writing, confirms that "the current South African publishing environment is amazingly lively". It is "a good sign that our writing has become more diverse... and lightened up a little", comments Ivan Vladislavic, an editor and writer whose fiction and creative non-fiction is among the most trenchant and entertaining of the past 20 years.

Vladislavic and Rose-Innes will be in Britain during the coming week, along with an impressive number of fellow South African writers. The London International Book Fair (19-21 April) will turn its "market focus" on the country. Fringe events feature writers including André Brink, Achmat Dangor, Damon Galgut, Zakes Mda, Njabulo Ndebele, Marlene van Niekerk and Zoë Wicomb. Younger writers like Imraan Coovadia, Kopano Matlwa and Niq Mhlongo will also be in town, along with influential commentators like Isabel Hofmeyr and Mark Gevisser.

Among these, Mda is the country's most prominent black writer. At the turn of the millennium, it seemed that a troika of gifted authors - Mda, Phaswane Mpe (Welcome to Our Hillbrow; 2001) and K Sello Duiker (Thirteen Cents; 2000; The Quiet Violence of Dreams; 2001) - would turn out to be the leading fictional interpreters of black experience in the new nation. These were perhaps the writers to provide a counterpoint to white writers like JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Breyten Breytenbach and Brink, whose works were best known abroad.

But Mpe died in December 2004, aged 34, of an unexplained and possibly Aids-related illness. Duiker committed suicide a month later. Mda's post-apartheid output runs to seven novels, including Ways of Dying (1995), The Whale Caller (2005) and Black Diamond (2010). His work is broadly satirical, blending aspects of an African magical realism with social commentary and didacticism.

While it is widely read inside the country, it has divided critics. In 2008, Mda faced accusations of plagiarism about the closeness of the plot of The Heart of Redness (2000) to an acclaimed work of local history. A year earlier, Kgebetli Moele's debut novel, Room 207, about young black men in inner-city Johannesburg, shared a major prize and was shortlisted for several others. But it was attacked by a white prize judge for being "unfinished", a "shapeless pastiche", and misogynistic.

Critics have long waited for "authentic" black voices in South African fiction, but some have seemed unsure what to say about those who get published. It is certainly not the case that there are no highly-regarded black writers in South Africa. Some notable examples are beginning to draw wider attention. Morabo Morojele's How We Buried Puso (2006) was widely praised, while Niq Mhlongo, author of Dog Eat Dog (2004) and After Tears (2007), is another writer to watch. But a clamour for the next significant black writer has in some way occluded the fine work of established authors too little celebrated abroad.

As Rose-Innes notes, there is often "an over-emphasis on the new - who or what is the next big thing in SA lit". Njabulo Ndebele's 2003 The Cry of Winnie Mandela, published in Britain by Ayebia Clarke, proved that he can still surprise and provoke, while Lewis Nkosi and Mandla Langa continue to produce exacting and exciting work, even if not widely available outside South Africa.

One of the biggest problems is that the home market remains small. This is directly related to the disparities in wealth and to the failures of the educational system. Fewer than 6,000 of the nation's 25,000 public schools have libraries. Most that do were formerly reserved for white, coloured or Indian students, and those able to charge higher school fees. Final-year school examination results remain abysmal outside the Western Cape and Gauteng provinces, particularly in poorly resourced rural schools. "Our real crisis in South Africa is the state of education and the diminishing culture of reading," Achmat Dangor told me.

Middle-class South Africans "are increasingly buying their home-grown authors' books", Alison Lowry, Penguin South Africa's CEO, explains, "and there is also strong support for SA titles from local book chains and independent stores". But there are still only "approximately one million book buyers of general trade books" in a country of nearly 60 million.

Despite this, says Vladislavic, "We're going through a good phase". In many respects the field has never looked so buoyant. Among larger publishers, Penguin SA and Kwela (in the Via Afrika stable) expect print runs of between 2,000 and 5,000 copies for a literary novel. At Penguin, there is no cross-subsidisation of literary titles; each is costed and must compete separately.

Nèlleke de Jager explained that at Kwela, 10 per cent of their titles generally carry the other 90 per cent. "Most often you don't earn back your money on a single highly literary title, unless it snaps up all the literary awards". At Pan Macmillan, MD Terry Morris says fiction tends to have a print run of between 1,000 and 2,000 copies, and is subsidised from the non-fiction list.

For independent presses, the figures are painfully tight. Leading independent Jacana Media aims at 1,500 copies per title. They "are pleased when we sell more than 3,000 of a title", says Bridget Impey. Their recent big seller has been Kopano Matlwa's Coconut, winner of the 2006 EU Award for Fiction, which shifted 15,000 copies. "Our market is growing", says Impey, "but damn, it's hard to relax for a moment."

Foreign marketability remains a key issue, and work by some émigrés does respectably well outside of South Africa. Mark Behr, resident mostly in the US, is author of three novels published in Britain by Abacus. Anne Landsman, wholly US-resident, has two novels published here by Granta. Others include Gillian Slovo, Dan Jacobson, Anthony Sher, Barbara Trapido and Christopher Hope, all long resident abroad. How "South African" they are remains questionable.

Justin Cartwright has only recently returned to South Africa. Coetzee is now, of course, an Australian. Another partial émigré, Zoë Wicomb, divides her time between Cape Town and Glasgow. Her novel David's Story (2000) is one of the most important South African books of the last decade, but has no UK publisher.

Local writers must generally strike it lucky with an international prize short-listing or other high-visibility endorsement if they are to make a living from writing. Galgut and Dangor have had recent success in Britain largely due to their novels - The Good Doctor and Bitter Fruit, respectively - appearing on the Man Booker shortlist. Galgut's In a Strange Room is published in the UK this month.

"There's still a sense that the real writers are published abroad," Vladislavic notes wryly, "but it is possible to sustain a satisfying career without that." Of Vladislavic's two novels, two short-story collections, a linked-narrative fiction, and an evocative work of creative non-fiction (think Roland Barthes and Alain de Botton in Johannesburg), only the latter, Portrait with Keys (2006), is published in Britain, by Portobello Books.

Several significant Afrikaans authors available in English translation, like Eben Venter, Ingrid Winterbach and Etienne van Heerden, also deserve a wider foreign readership. The most extraordinary is Marlene van Niekerk, whose harrowing 1994 novel Triomf, in a brilliant English translation by Leon de Kock, was published here by Abacus. A novelist's novelist, she writes loose baggy monsters, panoramic and claustrophobic, that push the form further than almost anyone else inside the country. Agaat (2004) was published in South Africa in a prize-winning English translation by Michiel Heyns in 2006. In 2007, Little Brown published it in the UK under a clumsy new title, The Way of the Women. It was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Rose-Innes complains that there is "not enough support, financial or otherwise, to keep the middle ranks" of writers inside the country "going over the long haul". Author of two novels herself, Shark's Egg (2000) and The Rock Alphabet (2004), she will soon publish a short-story collection and third novel. Who does she regard as in this "middle rank? "Imraan Coovadia's star is rising; his work is impressive in its craft, sophistication and insight. Michiel Heyns is a consummate artist whose work should be far more widely celebrated. I look forward to reading the next thing that [2006 Caine Prize winner] Mary Watson produces: I think she has a unique, layered, at times surreal vision".

And the growing appetite for crime fiction in South Africa is producing a bumper crop of novels. Deon Meyer is the leading figure in this genre. Tremendously popular, he writes in Afrikaans and is widely translated. His latest, Thirteen Hours, is just out from Hodder. Perhaps South Africans merely enjoy the formula of detective fiction. Or perhaps the success of writing about violent crime and its aftermath says more about the state of the nation than a great deal of the high literary fare.

Andrew van der Vlies teaches postcolonial literature at Queen Mary, University of London. London International Book Fair programme: www.londonbookfair.co.uk; details of the British Council's South Africa events: www.britishcouncil.org/arts- literature-londonbookfair

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