Vivian could see no future from here. When she imagined herself getting older, she drew a blank. She could not see herself, her life, or her hometown. There was nothing. All her life, she’d been plagued by a fear of the pending. And then it happened. The drought. The heat. The debauchery. The one-world government. The chaos. And the end. With this grim vision in mind she’d become increasingly alienated from the people around her.
The men who approached her at work always asked her the same thing. And they always ended up engaging in some variant of the same dialogue:
“So . . . are you single, hey?”
“Wow, that was subtle.”
“Don’t get so defensive.”
“Then don’t be so interrogative.”
“Just give me five minutes of your presence.”
“How about you give me five minutes of your absence?”
While Vivian was mildly tempted by the prospect of real sex, she just couldn’t bring herself to entertain the idea in conversation with another person. She’d forgotten how to flirt. Vivian would do her job, purchase her essentials and drive home in the crackling heat, cooled by her air-conditioned, hydrogen-powered BMW. Vivian herself had no idea how it worked, and she never bothered to find out. What she cared about was that she would never break a sweat inside her BMW. Outside her window was a new kind of squalor. People lay on the streets intoxicated, frothing or fatigued with sunstroke. She needed to re-tint her windows, she thought. She didn’t want to see them, and she didn’t want them to see her. She put on her Ray-Bans and drove on by.
The opening of “Brandy City” from AfroSF
So far, so much to my taste—character-driven science fiction written with precision and bite. The end of the world story might be a bit a bit familiar, but the prose has authority. When the narrator tells me All her life, she’d been plagued by a fear of the pending, I believe it with no evidence or even quite knowing what it means.
As I read, things get wonkier.
This background story doesn’t work. No water? So we all die in a week? Alcohol. We only drink alcohol? Is that symbolism? Well that would only work if it were a satire or something surrealistic. But this is a grim melodrama, with an almost moralistic warning at the end.
It’s satirical and surrealistic, the noir plot with its moral about femme fatales not entirely serious. The story would have been written in 2012 at the latest, five years ago. The author must have been, what, 20 years old at the time? The story is uneven and makes some common SFF errors (like driverless cars are new in the 22nd Century). But it is what we call a new voice.
“Brandy City” is why I’m interviewing Mia Arderne. On my host Jean Meeren’s rooftop, being battered by rustling Cape Town winds sweeping down the bowl, and we’re drinking, appropriately, very strong Meeren cocktails. A lot words are lost to mic rustle and the clinking of ice in glasses.
When Mia speaks, she sounds like I imagine Nadine Gordimer might sound—gravelly, calm, and authoritative—and then she starts to tell jokes. It was a rollicking interview, most of it of no relevance whatsoever to African SFF.
She starts out by trying to find out what exactly is this project I’m doing. (Translation: who is this guy and what is he getting me into?) I talk about who I’ve met in Malawi and Nairobi, and about South African writers like Lauren Beukes and Diane Awerbuck.
Mia: “There’s a lot of Kenyan and Nigerian writers, those are the two countries on this continent, the groups that have been the most edgy. Do I fit with this bunch? I’m nowhere near as established as those guys.
“Ivor Hartman’s call for work (for the first AfroSF volume) was the first one I’d ever seen. There weren’t any calls before his. He’s still doing it. He’s on his third volume. “Brandy City” was my first story.
“I’ve also got a story with Diane Awerbuck, but of all my work, that’s probably the least speculative. It was just a little comedy, a little drama. It’s called ‘The Fool,’ about a girl who takes a girl home. The girl ends up robbing her. I haven’t had it happen to me.
“I’m pretty much just writing more surrealistic stuff now. I think “Brandy City” was also more speculative fiction/surrealism than it was sci-fi. I don’t know if you could call me a science fiction writer at all, really—probably more speculative fiction. I like playing with altering certain appearances without going too far into the tech. I like to do it in a more organic way. This a story where there is no water left in the world, only alcohol. Or, there is another story set inside this politician’s vagina (see below). More organic than much of the canon genre stuff.
“‘The Mother Fucking City’ is just set in Cape Town. It’s a surreal political story. ‘Political surrealism’ is the genre my publisher called it. I wouldn’t know. I don’t read much, which is a terrible terrible thing to say as a writer. When I do read, I read very very slowly. I’m reading Toni Morrison at the moment and it’s taking me for ever. But I don’t read as often as I should.”
GR: “Writers need to read a few things very very well so that you absorb how it works. I know a lot of writers who read very slowly. And have absolutely nothing interesting to say about what they read.”
Mia: “I read Andre Brink. I like his magic realism in The Devil's Valley. He taught at UCT, yes. He wasn’t there when I was there. I think he died shortly after I arrived. I don’t think the two events are connected. I was in love with that book.
“So ‘The Motherfucking City’ was set in a particular politician’s vagina, but I wasn’t allowed to write which politician. She is a real politician. The protagonist is an 80s Struggle victim, an anti-apartheid activist. The first part takes place before ‘94 and the second happens after ‘94 (the year apartheid ended). It opens with a scene of him not being allowed into Spurs, one of our iconic restaurants here. And he’s being denied access because he’s Coloured. And he proceeds to shoot the manager and then have his steak, and then walk over his corpse and leaves. That’s him in the 1980s.
“Then it cuts forward to when Mandela’s been elected and we’re now a democracy, but nothing much has changed really in terms of economics and people of colour remain poor and live on the outskirts of Cape Town. But we’ve been promised this Rainbow Nation. You have to know a bit about South African politics and social understandings. The Rainbow Nation is now how people like to view the country but it’s a myth. The biggest thing is inequality. But he tries to find the Rainbow Nation; he’s on a quest to find the Rainbow Nation. He searches and he searches and eventually he finds it inside this white woman’s vagina. That’s basically the story.”
GR: “Does everyone go inside?”
Mia: “He finds himself walking through the Kalahari Desert and the sparse grass starts to turn into hair and the terrain becomes flesh and he walks deeper and deeper into this landscape. It becomes more clammy and congested; he starts to discover he’s in a vagina.
“Inside he finds the Third World bourgeoisie. All the other suckers that have fallen for this myth, and a bunch of white people. So he finds, like, Woolworth’s, and the offices of the DA (“Democratic Alliance”), which is the white political party. Woolworth’s started as a clothing store but became a high-end grocery. You can only afford even the carrots if you’re middle class.
“The Rainbow Nation only exists if you are white or privileged in South Africa. So the story’s got all this white privilege symbolism there. The Rainbow Nation only exists up this white woman’s ass.
“My publisher gave me a lot of shit. She’s scared it's gonna alienate the readership.”
GR: “I sure hope so.”
Mia “I can’t use the politician’s name so I just allude to it, or the name of the DA, but I found a way to mention them.
“A phallus enters the vagina, a big veiny black penis from the top of the vagina. It belongs to a particular politician. They have put up a token black man as head of the DA. I wasn’t allowed to use his name either. You can truthfully say that they’ve allowed in one black dick.
“It’s kind of localized for the political situation. It appeared in Die Laughing, this year’s Short Sharp Stories anthology. It was received really well by the audience when I read it. The editor told me it was coming across as a bit too anti-white. It was just for this anthology, the editor. She kind of pioneered the publishing house. But external judges decide who gets into the anthology.
“I’m working on a novel, finally. We did a novel-type thing for my MA in creative writing. The Last Gangster of the Old School. It got listed for the Dinaane Debut Fiction award with Jacana. I’ve since scrapped that completely. When I got shortlisted, I just stripped it down in different parts to work on different projects, like ‘This Motherfucking City’. Zinaid Meeren was my supervisor. My lecturer told me he would be the best for me and he was, he was lovely.
“Now I’m just going to write a different one. That Dinaane novel was really a crime novel with gangsters in Cape Town and syndicates and speedchasing. The one I’m working on now is more unashamedly surrealistic. No title as yet. There are a number of gangsters who are kingpins, people who used to be active in the Struggle area, and they now own multiple syndicates in drugs, property, etc. I want to write about them loosely based on the life of an actual kingpin who used to be my neighbour.
“He’s embodied as a Twitter account. He’s a ghost, trawling young postcolonial tech communities in Cape Town. He can only talk with the character-number limitations of Twitter, so there’s a lot of things he can’t say.
“I show the Graveyard of Dead Profiles on Facebook 'cause they float in the Net forever. He’s going to rise up from one of those. His tag is going to be @M16inyrbak ... which means a gun in your animal’s mouth, how you refer to the mouth of an animal, so it’s an insulting way to refer to your mouth. Basically, it means ‘shut up’ in Cape Coloured slang. He’s going to be this super-villain, anti-hero type who drinks white tears and whiskey and kills racists. He drinks white tears on the rocks.”
GR" “I think Drinks White Tears would be a great title.”
Mia: “It might be a good title.”
GR: “It would serve notice. ‘If you don’t want to read this book ...’”
Mia: “... just read the title. It says what you need. My publisher says I could alienate a number of people with the kind of writing I’ve started going into. But I don’t know. She’s pretty conservative. It’s because the readership is still predominantly white and conservative in South Africa.
“It’s my lived experience I’m writing about. I am Coloured, though nobody thinks I am because I speak nicely for a Coloured Girl, and I’m studying here so people confuse me for a white all the time. It’s infuriating, cause racist people feel more comfortable saying racist shit around me. Which is always interesting.”
Mia then shows me an eggplant emoji on her phone.
Mia: “It’s the universal emoji for dick. I want a field of eggplant emoji to set one of my scenes. The novel’s all kinds of looking at the virtual world. All surrealistic scenes set in virtual environments. Dead stuff that, ten years ago, was really hot news. It’s still a process ahead of me.”
I ask if she hangs around with the Cape Town SFF and horror crowd.
Mia: “No, no. I’m pretty reclusive really and I don’t live in this part of town, which is this posh, because I just can’t afford to. So the people I hang out with are mainly in the northern suburbs, and there’s not all that many creative people. Everyone is just kind of grinding along.
“The city also suffers from gentrification in a very big way. I’ve just been gentrified out. I’m from Cape Town and I can’t afford to live in Cape Town. And that’s what ‘This Motherfucking City’ is actually about—gentrification.
“Nobody who lives here (the prosperous Cape Town bowl) ever ventures out of here. I come here because this is where I come to meet professors, or I come to hang with Jean. I got to travel. I get tired of it. People ask me where I’m from and I tell them. And they are like ‘Oh God, why?’ Well because I’m not a trust fund kid. That’s why.”
When it isn’t busy trying to be cool, Cape Town has some entirely wacky and fun nightlife, and Mia seems part of that too.
Mia: “I’m working on this event with this friend of mine from the States. We’re doing stripper-oke. Stripper-oke is exactly what it says (Amateurs sing or strip for an audience of friends and strangers), but it’s a very gender-inclusive space, unlike your mainstream strip club. We don’t have many of the usual heterosexual idiots cluttering up the space. You only take off what you want to take off and nothing more and you do whatever you want to.
“People sing, and there’s a dancer for each song, and people strip or pole dance. So it’s karaoke with strippers. It’s an art form. It ends up being subversive shit. Have you met Gareth? Well, Gareth, he comes on stage with a crown of thorns and dances the pole as Jesus. It was a pole-dancing crucifixion.”
I tell Mia the story of Muthi Nhlema, who played Jesus in a performance, resulting in all these protests because he was bare-chested in the crucifixion.
Mia: “What, they want Jesus to wear bikini? I teach pole dancing as well. It’s a thing. It’s blowing up. There’s a lot going on in pole dancing. I dance but I don’t get naked. I wear stage bra and stage hot shorts. I’ve never worked in a strip club before. I wouldn’t have the guts. Maybe I’d do it in a place where I was anonymous. Pole dancers are not strippers. We haven’t encountered the shit that strippers get. It’s in a dance studio. It’s like doing yoga really. Strippers are not treated very well at all. But they get by. They’re as tough as fuck, most of them.”
I had so much fun talking to Mia. Maybe too much. Our interview strayed far from African speculative fiction.
That was back in October 2016. I got back in touch with Mia for this article and asked what had happened in the months since we spoke. She had finished her degree, and then got a job writing for, of all things, Marie Claire.
I’m pleased to say she hasn’t lost her combative edge, as you can read here. Compare this analysis of awkward conversation and I think you’ll see a continuity with the opening of “Brandy City.” The person who put the Rainbow Nation where the sun don’t shine is still the same person who wrote this reminder about Nelson Mandela.
The one thing that’s not there is the crazed surrealism. The good news is: she is still working on her novel.