Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Morning Reading: Becoming Human

Summer is here. Fewer readings, more time to read and, perhaps, to write.

On her blog, Laila Lalami brought playwright and novelist Zakes Mda's essay, "Justify the Enemy: Becoming Human in South Africa," to my attention. It appears in the Boston Review and explores his evolution as a writer, touching on realism, allegory, characterization and J.M. Coeztee along the way - with a cameo appearance by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

an excerpt:
For many black South African writers, the only literary models were the nineteenth-century realists. Theirs was the only literature in English to which we were exposed by the educational system. Whereas in drama, for some reason, we did explore modernists like T.S. Eliot and George Bernard Shaw, and naturalists like Ibsen and Strindberg (in addition to the ubiquitous Elizabethan bard), in fiction the only writers that were extensively prescribed were George Eliot (particularly Silas Marner), Charles Dickens, and the Brontë sisters. That is why we wrote, as critic Lewis Nkosi once noted, as if the modernists and postmodernists never lived.

Nineteenth-century realism was defined by its mix of an omniscient narrator and close attention to characterization. In our contemporary fiction we retained the omniscient narrator because it gave us the storyteller’s freedom to render opinions and judgment and summarize at will, as stories in the oral tradition are wont to do. But our fiction was sustained by big dramatic moments of oppression, with scant attention to characterization and psychology. Yes, the actions of our characters may have been motivated, but rarely were these motivations dynamic. The black characters were oppressed and driven by the quest for freedom; the white characters were oppressors and driven by the quest to oppress. With a few exceptions, the motivations were imposed externally by the apartheid system.

I was later to learn that motivation alone does not make a believable character. There is something beyond motivation that provides characters their emotional and intellectual depth.

To read it in its entirety, click here.

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