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Nick Wood

Nick Wood

Sibusiso's Start

I never knew it would be so hard to say goodbye, especially to my father. (I leave him until last.)

"Sala Kahle, tata!" I say, bowing my face so he cannot see my eyes.

For a brief moment, he holds me close to him and I can smell the Earth: sweet, sharp sweat and the decades of cattle manure on his skin. His jacket buttons poke into my stomach – he has dressed for this occasion too. He is so like a fragile bird—a kiewietjie comes to mind for some reason—but then he pushes me away, turns and walks off in a hurry and without looking back. He has left me with a little gift, a small beige plastic digi-disc, on which I can record the happenings in my life.

I put it in my pocket.

Since when did my father get so old, so delicate, so suddenly?

I look over brother and sister's head to watch his stiff, blue-jacketed back disappear into his house. The brown door shuts against yellow brick and the late afternoon sun glints off the corrugated silver eaves and roof.

Behind our master's house, I hear the cows sounding out as a dog barks, unsettling them.

Lindiwe is crying openly but I keep my own eyes dry. I am the eldest son; I am strong.

—The opening of Azanian Bridges.

By now many of you will know that Nick Wood's Azanian Bridges is a special book—reviews should have been alerting you to that.

What makes it special is that this is not another dystopia for young people who want to get their hands dirty. It's a book by a mature man who lived through the struggle in South Africa. Though structurally similar to a thriller, Azanian Bridges draws on Nick's life experience to shoot a sense of terror and toxic power into your heart.

It's a good novel in SF terms, by which I mean Nick has imagined a detailed and convincing alternative present, a South Africa in which apartheid has held on. As we follow the stories of his protagonists Martin and Sibusiso, we get glimpses of the alternative fates of Mandela, Zuma, De Klerk, Terreblanche, and Barack Obama.

A mind-to-mind interface has been developed in this South Africa—the EE box. The regime wants to use the EE box for interrogation—force their way into people's heads to find out who they work with. The ANC is convinced that if they use the EE box, white people will be forced to acknowledge the humanity of black South Africans.

There is also a third strand, the most distinctively African—traditional belief. Inside the hero Sibusiso there lurks a big beaked bird and an angry panther, and this is perceived by a sangoma who tells him to seek them out. The authoritarianism of apartheid and its agents drives the plot, but it is this spiritual dimension that flowers into the novel's overwhelming ending.

SPOILER ALERT: This ending accomplishes two great things. First, the white main character is able to escape the full horrors of interrogation by calling up a distinguished lawyer. The character of Martin is detailed and subtle; he's not a bad fellow, but you have to be intent to catch the full extent of his racism. His almost-friend Sibusiso knows he himself will be tortured to death. As Nick says, "White skin is power. Martin's escape is a bitter but truthful bit of storytelling."

Second, the mind merge box is used to interrogate Sibusiso. Beatings cost him his teeth, his joints, his eyes. But he does not reveal the names of his comrades, even when violated by the box. Instead, he focuses on his two spirit guides, the bird and the panther, and in so doing, he uses the EE box against his interrogators. They flee the room, weeping, seeing in him their own families, their own lives.

That doesn't stop them killing him. The heavy-beaked bird, the spirit of his dead mother, wings him towards heaven. But the police interrogators know in their bones his full humanity. This is victory through being tortured, an earned transcendence. And he also becomes, through technology, a meme on the Internet.

It's beautiful stuff.

Azanian Bridges is published in the UK by NewCon Press publisher Ian Whates. But it can't find a publisher in South Africa.

Nick: "They say it's 'too raw. There's too many sensibilities.' The things publishers reveal about themselves in their rejections. It varies from no response at all to 'Why not just make it a Struggle novel set in the 80s?' The novel was long-listed for the Kwani Manuscript Prize in 2013, the winner being Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. Billy Kahora, editor at the Kwani Trust, gave it very positive feedback and hoped they could publish it."

Nick is a clinical psychologist who came to England with his wife and daughters toward the end of 1995, to do a PhD in the cognitive development of deaf children. He had been doing work in townships and deafness was the most common form of disability among children.

Nick is not a native South African. He was born in Zambia, to a father who worked as an accountant for the copper mining industry. Until the age of ten, he lived just south of the Congo border in Mufulira and Kitwe—just north of the city (Lusaka) to which his hero Sibusiso travels, to get the EE Box copied by the Chinese.

Nick: "My parents were aware that Zambia's economy was taking strain, with the kwacha devaluing. So we left for South Africa.

"We almost didn't get in. We were stopped at border—they wanted to know my mother's racial classification. She had curly hair and darker skin. They had to explain that my mom had family roots, a Sephardic Jew from Portugal.

"There was no real upside to moving to South Africa. It was all downside; I struggled to adjust. Black kids in school disappeared. There were no black kids. That was bizarre. 'Are we still in Africa?' It was Cape Town in 1971, the height of apartheid. Schools in Zambia were a lot more open, a lot less authoritarian. I remember we still had to learn the list of kings and queens of England in Zambia though. We learned the seasons, and they were European seasons. I'd never known snow; I only knew the hot rainy season and the mild dry season.

"South Africa had corporal punishment. If we misbehaved we'd get 'cuts.' A bullying kid told me that that meant they'd cut me with razors. He was just joking but I believed him and I went home and cried. Mom and Dad said it was not true—it was just caning.

"They had military cadets. I was told I was too soft and sensitive and needed to toughen up, so they sent me to commando camp at ten years old. We got sent into the mountains, were given toy guns and real knives. We had instructors in blackface pretending to be terrorists and we had to shoot them. I absolutely hated it. There were fifty boys but only two of us, me and another boy, we cried and cried, as quietly and privately as we could, to minimize bullying. All the other boys did so well, got five stars, but we both failed and were an embarrassment. They had a closing ceremony with a South African Defence Force Brigadier and we had to wait until the end, the two failures. That was my introduction to South Africa."

Nick started to write and publish science fiction when still in high school. His first story was in 1977 in Probe, the fiction journal of Science Fiction South Africa, of which he was a member. The story was called "The Minds Of Man." SFSA ran an annual competition and it was in the top ten.  He went on to publish a fair amount of SF in the 1980s, mostly in Probe, still online. But there came a long hiatus in his work. Why?

Nick: "Young men were being forced to fight a war on the border between SWA (Namibia) and Angola. I was a draft dodger. I had military police come to my parents' home and my parents said they didn't know where I was. They came to my work. My boss was black. He said I'd moved on. Eventually they had far more pressing issues than me, so they finally left me alone.

"Then there was my clinical training and clinical work. I wanted to work in the townships, but there were huge problems there and it was really quite draining. There was the state of emergency and a lot of trauma, especially for people like myself working for organizations against apartheid such as OASSSA and NAMDA. (OASSSA stands for the Organisation for Appropriate Social Services) in South Africa and was set up to deliver grassroots psychological support services in the black townships, contrary to official state organisations such as the almost exclusively white PASA —the Psychological Association of South Africa.

"Basically not until Mandela was released was there any sign of things getting better. That was an inspiration, really. The stasis in the country had been broken. Before, everyone was expecting civil war. There was such a sense of hopelessness, a sense that you had to keep working to make things different. It was hard to write."

I tell Nick that elements of his life story seem to echo parts of Azanian Bridges.

"I did say to Tade (Tade Thompson, collaborator with Nick on the novella "The Last Pantheon," published in AfroSFv2) when he read the book that a lot of the details and incidents in the book actually happened. For example there is a scene with Sibusiso in the psychiatric institution when the canteen staff refuse to serve him curry because he's black and not Asian. That actually happened.

"The book is partly dedicated to someone I worked with who had had traumatic experiences. He educated me in so many ways. He opened my eyes to insidious whiteness, and the power and subtlety of racism. I still have the therapeutic case study I wrote on him, now on yellowing paper, about the need for political transformation as well. I thought it would be nice to have an Internet meme immortalising him, perhaps resonating with current world memes too.

"Fear was pervasive. In protected white society there was a sense of the Black Danger, of a fragile privileged existence that will be swamped by dangerous, angry black people. Mandela's release and the elections just made some white people more afraid. White people stocked up with food, they believed the propaganda that the county would collapse after the elections. They thought their houses would be taken, that they'd be strung up from lampposts. I thought this was absolutely bonkers.

"My wife was allowed to vote for the first time in her life in her mid-thirties. There was euphoria in the queue. Finally there was going to be a place of justice and fairness for everybody, things would change. The book is partly an interrogation of that optimistic time and the hopes that never got fulfilled, thinking about what went wrong. Racism is still rife, subtler than it used to be.

"My sister was far braver than I was. She went underground for a few years. She was put under surveillance, including being followed everywhere she went. Everyone, even neighbors, were questioned about her. She was arrested, interrogated, and put on trial under the Internal Security Act—she'd been part of a motorcade for the United Democratic Front. She'd borrowed my dad's company car for it and the car was impounded as State evidence. My dad was furious. He got a call from his boss—'what is the company car doing being impounded as part of a treason trial?' My sister didn't give a fuck. 'You're on the wrong side. Not taking a side is taking a side.' The interrogation scenes at the end of the book have information that comes from her."

His sister was an enormous influence on Nick's reading as well, getting him pioneering texts of feminist science fiction. He shows me the beat-up paperback copies of the books she got for him.

"My sister got me into Joanna Russ. Also Jen Green and Sarah Le Fanu's edited Dispatches From Frontiers Of The Female Mind and Pamela Sargent's collection Women of Wonder.

"Mom introduced me to John Wyndham and Philip K. Dick, Brian Aldiss and Ursula le Guin, also the staples of Asimov, and the adult Heinlein, which I didn't always gel with, I don't know why. Maybe Starship Troopers reminded me of my commando camp. Stranger In A Strange Land was banned in South Africa. There was a book we had to read in school Hemelblom … the Heaven Flower … by Jan Rabie. It was an Afrikaans SF novel and it wasn't bad, but my Afrikaans was terrible. Afrikaans was compulsory, you couldn't graduate without it and I was so behind coming from Zambia. There was no SF on TV because there was no TV until 1976—the regime was so worried about overseas media.

"In Zambia, in Kitwe library they had comics. They had just published Tintin On The Moon. It was the Apollo era, and we watched the moon landing. Blew my mind. In Kitwe we also watched Doctor Who—they showed a lot of old BBC stuff in Zambia.

"All that stopped when we went to South Africa. I had to go hunting for stuff. W. E. Johns, who wrote Biggles, had done some space stories, so I read those in primary school.

"I could find Heinlein juveniles and the Tom Swift series. They did have comics in SA, Marvel comics, and I remember when they introduced Luke Cage as Powerman. 'Wow, they've got a black guy as a superhero.' Otherwise black people were gardeners or maids. I wrote a bit about this experience later, on comics, looking back."

Publication later in life can be a blessing. Readers meet your writing when it is matured and technically cunning—other recent examples in SFF are Roz Kaveney and David Hutchinson. The story of how Nick Wood found his writing career illuminates how the SFF community works.

"I started publishing again in 1988 or 1989 in Works, edited by Dave W. Hughes. I'd phoned him from South Africa. He was from Huddersfield and I had my thick South African accent and we couldn't understand each other.

"My first paid story was 'African Shadows' in Scheherazade 18, edited by Elizabeth Counihan and Deirdre Counihan. It was 1996 and I'd just arrived in the UK.  I couldn't believe it. It was the first time I had artwork for a story of mine. Deirdre was the art editor and I went to visit them in Brighton, and they had the artwork up for me to see. Keith Brooke subsequently published it online in Infinity Plus."

He was very proud when he finally published in Interzone, a magazine he had been reading for years. He also showed me a story of his in a beautifully produced volume, a luxurious publication called The Company He Keeps edited by Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers. It's a Postscripts Anthology (#22/23)—Postscripts used to be a magazine. It publishes by invitation, but Nick Gevers is from Cape Town and he thought Peter Crowther might like it, which turned out to be the case.

"'Of Hearts And Monkeys' was my first properly long African story in a Western publication. An older woman who speaks Xhosa is the victim of a corrective rape. At the time a lot of lesbians were being raped in South Africa, ostensibly to 'cure' them. I felt it was saying important things in a good publication and I got some good feedback on it. After Postscripts, it was subsequently published in the South African speculative fiction magazine Something Wicked.

Nick continues to publish in African venues like Omenana, the online magazine founded by Mazi Nwonzu and Chinelo Onwaulu. He has a story in AfroSF and the collaboration with Tade Thompson in AFROSFv2, both edited by Ivor Hartmann.

Lauren Beukes, Dave de Burgh, Diane Awerbuck, Joan de la Haye, Sarah Lotz—it sometimes seems as if white Africans are punching above their weight in terms of African SFF. Do they have more of a cultural connection to science fiction?

Nick: "I remember asking SFSA in the early 2000s how many black members they had. They said that as far as they knew, not one. They met in Jo-burg in a hitherto white area. There was a lack of representation of black people in the scene.

"It's white privilege to an extent. Books are bloody expensive in South Africa and libraries are mostly in white areas. There are few libraries in the townships, or maybe there's a council book bus, but that probably doesn't have any SFF in it. It's harder for black kids to get hold of the books.

"Western science was also a colonial enterprise and is being resisted at some level as being tainted. One of main architects of apartheid (Dr. H.F. Verwoerd) was a psychologist who used IQ tests as a weapon.

"So science is sometimes seen as having blood on its hands. Science works but there is suspicion of it, a sense that it is a white way of viewing the world. Hard SF particularly is suspect, with the Puppies into hard SF and military SF. SF is part of the colonialist enterprise, and SF stories are seen as being expansionist.

"There has been an assumption that black people don't read SF. My first YA novella was set in the townships. I wrote about where I lived, I lived in a township for several years because my wife is black and we couldn't live anywhere else, until the Group Areas Act was abolished. The publishers said 'But black people don't read SF.' I asked them how they knew that, so they sent the book to readers in the township, and got a favourable response, so the book was eventually published as The Stone Chameleon.

"I've also organized to share royalties from Azanian Bridges with an organization in South Africa promoting black writing, Long Story Short.

"It's hard for me to comment on South Africa as I've been out of it for some years. Whenever I go back, it helps having a partner who is black. I've always felt uncomfortable being white. I had to do a lot of work around about what it means to be white. You need to confront and manage whiteness if you are going to write speculative fiction in Africa. You can't be white in Africa without embracing black.

"The world is changing, which is why SF is the best genre to write in if you are dealing with change, and are thinking about how to make the world a better place for everyone, which is why I write."

Other stories online by Nick Wood:


Geoff Ryman is Senior Lecturer in School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester. He is a writer of short stories and novels, and science fiction and literary fiction. His work has won numerous awards including the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award (twice), the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, the British Science Fiction Association Award (twice), and the Canadian Sunburst Award (twice). In 2012 he won a Nebula Award for his Nigeria-set novelette "What We Found." His story "Capitalism in the 22nd Century" is part of Stories for Chip, edited by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl and published by Rosarium.
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