"Ma, Thulani got bitten by a dog on the way here. Do you have any bandages and antiseptic?"
What a way to start an already tense first meeting. Pa stays in his chair while Ma flutters ahead of us down the passageway, her hands quick like flicking sparrow wings as she jabbers away. Thulani makes her nervous. This is probably the first time a black man has entered her home as a guest, and she’s too polite to say as much.
Framed black-and-white photos of long-deceased family members glare down at us from the walls. I can’t even imagine what they’d think of our arrival in their midst. Thulani sits on the edge of the bath while Ma reaches into the cabinet under the sink for the first aid kit. I don’t like the way he clutches his left hand, and a thin film of sweat beads his upper lip.
"Are you okay?" I ask him.
He nods. "Just my phobia of medical stuff." He manages a small laugh.
"This will only hurt a little," Ma says but then she pauses, her expression growing unreadable as she looks at Thulani. She thrusts the box into my hands. "Here, Marietjie, you do it. Then come help me in the kitchen with the tea things when you’ve done."
She all but dashes out of the room.
"Well that was weird," I comment.
‘My ma’s normally the first to dive in and take control when anyone’s gotten hurt. Wonder what –"
"She probably doesn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable," he answers.
"No, that’s not it." I don’t want to tell him that I think she didn’t want to touch him.
From "Shame" by Nerine Dorman, from her collection Lost Children.
If you are an SFF fan in the USA or the UK, you will have met someone like Nerine Dorman before.
She is one of the Women Who Keep Fandom Going—unconventional, but reliable and organized, draped in Gothic black, and kind, a sort of martini-mixing editorial mother.
Nerine writes, edits, and organizes. She organized a seminar for me to speak at in her own house, because the University of Cape Town was closed down by FeesMustFall. A week later, she organized Bloody Parchment, the literary component of the South African Horrorfest.
She edits Bloody Parchment’s yearly anthology, which has grown out of an annual event in Cape Town. She did the editorial legwork (though not the story selection) for Terra Incognita, the 2014 anthology of African SFF selected by the Short Story Day Africa competition. She freelances as an editor and story doctor, and in the meantime she writes a range of fantasy and horror fiction herself.
She lives in Glencairn, a large village strung out along the side of the hills in a valley not far from Fish Hoek and the sea. Her wooden house perches on stilts, and she takes in abandoned dogs who bark alarmingly (one of them is the size of a small dinosaur). The garden smells deliciously of syringa.
In common with many Africans elsewhere on the continent, her relationship with English is a crucial part of her biography.
Nerine: "My parents were both Afrikaans and I grew up in Hout Bay. It was a very English community and although we had an Afrikaans church community, my mother, as a schoolteacher, felt it very important that I didn’t handicap myself by knowing only Afrikaans as a first language. So I went to school in the English class; but when I went to church it was Afrikaans. The kids in the church hated me cause I had pretensions of being English, and when I was in school the kids hated me because I was Afrikaans. So I didn’t quite fit in anywhere."
Then, as with many white South Africans, there is the coming to terms with recent history:
"As a teenager growing up, I was realizing everything that I’d been taught was just wrong, stuff that I had taken for granted such as the casual racism that was entrenched in our community. When you start realizing that, you go through such a paradigm shift.
"So you go through, like, a total rejection of your cultural heritage, rejection of being Afrikaans. I mean, I purposefully cultivated a British accent, and was helped by the fact that I worked in a clinic answering the telephone. A lot of British people were clients, and also I worked for years for British people. So I went through an Anglicization.
"I often have to explain to people that it feels like shit when you’re actually a member of the most hated race in Africa, because that is what the Afrikaans-speaking person is, if you look at the way that we’re stereotyped in media. In some of the videogames that my husband’s played, Afrikaans mercenaries are like the de rigueur figures of evil. I just hear the Afrikaans accent, and I’m like ‘Oh my God, that’s the villain’ and then I’m right.
"So it’s that whole otherness ... but you know, the funny thing is that redeeming the culture is something that has been on my mind as well, and I’ve found that I’ve almost come full circle now. I’m translating for work now, translating from English into Afrikaans."
I ask her if any of her own fiction has been about this sense of dislocation. She is particularly proud of "Shame." It had been selected by Wole Talabi for publication in one his anthologies, but was too long for most of the publications accepting submissions. It appears in her own e-book collection Lost Children.
"Shame" is about a white girl taking her black boyfriend home to meet her parents—but he is bitten by a dog that is carrying the virus for a zombie plague. The story is a dream image of South African race relations. Towards the end, the white girl, who had been terrified to visit a township, is driving through an informal settlement as the zombie plague hits, trying to find her infected lover. Police warn her away from black areas, much as they do now anyway.
"This story came from the heart, because it came through a time where I’d been through a lot of soul-searching and coming to terms with the fact that yes, I am African and it doesn’t matter what the SJWs say—that I’m problematic because I’m white and Afrikaans. And I’m saying: no, this is my African experience, and it’s just as valid as someone growing up in a township or on farm. It’s a very long story and I was very proud when I wrote it."
Nerine’s packed CV can be difficult to keep track of. She did a national diploma in graphic design at the Cape Town University of Technology, majoring in illustration and photography, followed by jobs in marketing communications and magazine publishing, and then ten years working in newspapers as a writer and sub-editor. A Google search will reveal just how consistently productive Nerine is both as a writer and editor.
Her Dawn’s Bright Talons is a novel set in an alternative history, in an Africa colonized not only by Europeans, but also by vampires. It honours the early Anne Rice, and allows Nerine to write secondary world fantasy, her favourite genre. Like much of Nerine’s recent output, it’s published by Crossroads Books in the USA and is available both as print and e-book. Crossroads also publishes what she describes as a YA portal fantasy, The Guardian's Wyrd.
And then there’s Raven Kin, an unusual book even for her. "It was written at a time when I just wanted to have fun, and I didn’t even bother submitting it anywhere. I felt it would have no commercial value whatsoever because it has an animal protagonist, it’s told from the point of view of a griffin, and it talks about things like slavery and the environment. Yet so far it’s been my best-selling work."
"Sonya Loots’s Sirkusboere changed everything for me. It got a lot of negativity from the traditionalists and from the sort of moral right people. Basically, Loots took an event, the Anglo-Boer War, and showed how that event is so deeply embedded in the psyche and how it changed everything, and how in fiction, the stories we tell are so important, and—this is where sci-fi comes in, very much so—how stories change as we tell them. A lot of the older literature about the Boer War is thinly veiled propaganda to justify Afrikaner nationalism. What I saw is that literature can deal with difficult topics. It was just a mind-breaking work for me because I realized that SF and fantasy also provide a safe space for people to take on hot-button topics. It’s almost like you can bypass the natural resistance that people will have to it."
Like African writers of other ethnicities, she can find that label "African" limiting.
Nerine: "I wrote a portal fantasy—this Harry-Potter-meets-Narnia thing, and my main character is this little boy called Jay September, and he comes from a mixed marriage. His mom is white and his dad is Coloured. A reviewer came on me hard, and he’s like 'Where the hell does he get the name September?' The answer is that slaves were often given the surname of the month they were sold in.
"I had an experience, uniquely frustrating, is that many years ago I wrote this rambling, Twilight-esque adventure about vampires going on a road trip. I struggled to sell it. And one publisher said he was very interested but he was not going to take it because it was not recognizably African. And I sat there and thought to myself, ‘Please, what is recognizably African?’"
Presumably jungle drums, rampaging hippos, grass huts? Or delicate mainstream studies of the Struggle?
Nerine: "Africa is a very weird place. That weirdness comes out in my books. It’s an environment and it’s also the people in it. I’m very drawn to the environment—especially the desert. When I was a child, many years we’d go to the Cederberg, which is out on the West Coast. It’s a mountainous area, and in my formative years we went on holiday there. It’s an ancient landscape, lots of rock paintings, lots of farms. It’s a whole little microcosm of its own—the most weird rock formations and very isolated people. The Afrikaans people there speak in dialect, this very incomprehensible Afrikaans which I struggle to follow.
"My parents were fairly liberal but my grandfather was very conservative—'A woman’s place is in the kitchen.' I got that talk from him when I was eleven years old, that I must now shut up and know my place. He was very strict in that regard: a woman must not be heard, she must be seen going to the kitchen and making food, and that’s just how it was. It was furthered by the church that I grew up in. It’s not something that is often spoken, it’s a sort of convention that you follow – and I hate words like 'patriarchy' because it’s a term that you get taught without understanding that each situation is nuanced.
"The standard Afrikaans culture is very sterile and homogenous in a way and anybody who deviates from it is seen as being somehow wrong. Which is why my love of hiding in the house in the summer, reading fantasy novels, did not endear me to anyone.
"You become a stranger in your own land."