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“The untapped knowledge on his doorstep in Southern Africa was a continual source for honing his skills, and no amount of online reading and searching could replace face-to-face experiences with the people out in the dry Kalahari or the slippery peaks of the Drakensberg mountains.” Stephen Embelton – Soul Searching.
I gotta say, besides the mind spliting possibilities of the technology outlined in the book, Soul Searching also offers the most straightforward argument against flying cars I’ve read to date. Impossible to dissect the argument here without a copious amount of spoilers, all of which to say, Soul Searching is a hell of a ride. Except there is no Hell, and your ride might come crashing down on you.
Playing jumprope between science and philosophy, Soul Searching applies spirituality to mechanics and crime solving, to healing and recovering our humanity, in the timeless universal that cuts across cultures worldwide, but also in the immediate reality of the multicultural local, where time is running out, and people will die.
Providing a brief synopsis, Soul Searching follows a specialised unit of the South African Police Services (SAPS) tracking a serial killer by means of a soul tracking technology, which not only allows for them to retrieve individuals but also to understand the human soul and alter our fates. It is also the story of a mother and father, trying to find their own peace while the universe won’t give them a break, and the story of a killer, torn apart by love.
Soul Searching is also a uniquely South African book. A Durbanite book, written by a local who understands its soul.
“Travelling down the same eastern longitude, intersecting with the likes of the Great Zimbabwe ruins, the Blaauboschkraal stone ruins and many still ‘undiscovered’ sites, to end at the opposite latitudinal position as the Pyramids, the city of Durban – with an unusually high concentration of stable energy- developed into the global centre of research.”
Stephen does something fascinating here:
- He creates an axis that connects Africa from its most ancient symbols to its newest cities. Cutting across both space and time, it embraces Africa in its modernity through the use of what is and was a colonial marker but is and always was an African place, and presents a multifaceted and diverse continent of peoples.
- Speaking more to themes in the book itself, Durban’s success is mystical, not due to economic advantage, or fleeting world dominance but because it is truly African. Prophetically. On a magnetic and spiritual line that could not have ended otherwise.
And this gets us to the beleaguered point. What and who is an African writer today? Who gets to claim that mantle, especially when, lo and behold, they are white.
Trigger warning to those for whom discussions on race and identity are silly and inherently racist. This is what this article is about. Read the book, it’s a good book, but this is not a review.
Just as Durban is the inevitable consequence of Africa, so is this discussion, especially now that African speculative fiction is gaining recognition, and finds itself having to wrestle with these questions. Especially since the transatlantic slave trade has created diverse understandings of what Africa is in the diasporas.
When Neill Blomkamp released the hugely successful District 9, it was mired in controversy over whether white South Africans were the best positioned to deliver this kind of content, and whether Neil didn’t have some soul searching to do for himself.
The African Speculative Fiction Society wrestles with these questions too. I have personally responded to diatribe over withholding membership because the applicant thought African and Black were synonymous and called me a welwala(race traitor in Belter slang) for having white members but turning down a black man.
The erasing of African legacies in the diasporas led to the creation of African archetypes, that helped maintain a sense of identity through the horror, a narrative of home that had to be passed to generations who would never know that home, who enhanced it and changed it in turn. Forced migration and assimilation gave birth to New World syncretism. Our speculative world is enriched by it.
The Soukounio, the Fulani flesh eating and blood drinking jinn, became the Soukounian by way of French and through further semantic slippage, the Soucouyant, as it became associated with the European vampire. Mami Wata became associated with the European mermaid. She is not a mermaid in African lore, but the spirit endures.
Where do white Africans land in all of this? Where do they see themselves?
I’m quite sure that as with any group (especially across several countries and cultures), no one speaks for the horde, only for themselves, whether others adhere to this identity and what it implies is entirely of their choosing, but it is a question worth asking, though we will struggle with it for quite some time.
So I’ll do just that, and let Stephen speak for himself.
Stephen, for the sake of doing your work justice first, can you tell me more about what motivated the book. Is this a personal quest for meaning? The lead investigator struggles with the weight of what his knowledge carries, is that how you see the human struggle?
Yes, to me, the human struggle is beyond the day-to-day animal instinct of survival. It is about what happens after, or the meaning of existence, and that bogs many people down. From my upbringing and experience in religious circles, it’s how positive and destructive beliefs can be. Something as insubstantial as beliefs, effectively a thought, can have real-world effects. My teenage years began the questioning of that. My country and my church bugged the crap out of me. My mother encouraged a sense of something greater than ourselves and so I was inquisitive about my place in the world. That has never changed. I found I was making notes on certain themes, arguments for and against ideas and beliefs, challenging myself. Inner monologues found their way onto paper and the idea for Soul Searching came. I started writing the novel in 2006 as a way of processing everything that had been building in me for twenty years. A personal tragedy for my wife, in 2008, pushed our beliefs to the limit. And only through her honest and raw openness and willingness to talk did we cover some hectic ground together. I threw pretty much everything I had at the novel. But I’ve yet to solve the meaning of life.
When your book came out, you held a release where you read from a portion of the book that related to your childhood, and the oppressive cultural conservatism of white South Africa, political and religious. Can you tell us more about that incident, and looking back, what it was like to grow up a white South African? We don’t think of whites as having been oppressed, but fascism is fascism and it affects the whole of society. How was it like for you?
The “incident” played out very similar to described in the book, only we were all at home, not me arriving home from school. And there were no tears on a supportive friend’s shoulder, just me lying on my bed angrily grinding my teeth being pissed off with God and the world. The Satanic Panic was prevalent, not just in Born-Again households like ours but all over the media and high school. My mother and brother got a bee in their bonnets and decided we needed to burn our Dire Straits (money for nothing and your chicks for free, is not cool) and Bruce Springsteen LPs. But, the burning of my toy magic set took the cake.
Becoming a teenager in the 80s in South Africa was very much about becoming self-aware. I remember my mindset shifting from “what the hell is the rest of the world’s problem (with us)?” to “what the hell is wrong with our government?”
I consumed so much media as a kid (my bedroom was the TV lounge) and we were shown this violent world on our doorstep by the SABC, and then having that worldview challenged by Lethal Weapon 2 and MAD magazine was jarring.
Emotions ranged from the ominous to the petty teenage desires. Living with the threat of military conscription when finishing high school, and the anticipation of bombs on civilians while passing through metal detectors in malls, down to having to buy or bootleg imported music because none of the musicians you listened to were distributing to SA. Life was sheltered and isolating just when this teenager wanted to experience the world, but life was very different for those living literally a few hills away from us.
Through family histories and upbringing, everyone is a culmination and amalgamation of their own people’s beliefs and prejudices. I’m working through all of that, through my writing and most importantly by frankly talking about it with open-minded people (and some not so open-minded) and hopefully growing. Letting go of what I’ve been taught and what doesn’t serve me or others. Put some damn effort into changing yourself because you can’t make anyone else do it.
“Nigerians aren’t all space-prawn eating drug dealers scamming people on the internet, omokunrin. We are little old ladies who survive prejudice and xenophobia. We watch our husbands butchered because someone feels threatened because he’s driving his taxi in their country. Assumptions.”
You don’t pull your punches at Neill Blomkamp on this one, but you also bring up the cyclical uptakes in xenophobic violence in South Africa. Without expanding on District 9 do you think that white South African authors and artists have a responsibility other ethnic/racial groups don’t? What is that responsibility? What is the white South African contribution to speculative fiction?
D9 is a fantastic contribution to African SF, and it’s easy to look back with hindsight, but because of its social commentary it should have demanded more reflection by the creators. There’s a fine line between social commentary and caricature. Listen. Learn. Pay respect to those around you. And if you don’t know them, research or talk to people…on the ground. Don’t assume and don’t use outdated histories, particularly skewed by past historian biases. I firmly support the decolonise movement; it’s been an education.
Two examples in Soul Searching:
There was one word I used in the story – really a phrase that looks like a word – which readers may read past without asking what it means: Huriǁhaoǃnakhoena – People with their Settlement in the Sea. This represents the fictional people of the novel’s prehistory who resided along the southern African coastlines during the last ice age, eventually inundated by the Great Global Flood. Out of a 100,000-word novel, that phrase took a month (and a patient linguist) to formulate in the Khoekhoegowab language traditions. It was important to acknowledge those who lived in these lands eons ago and draw on those languages and mythologies. And it’s there to set up for any possible sequels and ideas I have in mind.
Soul Searching’s protagonist, Ruth Hicks, is a person of colour. As revealed in the story, she is a descendent of the AbaMbo – one of the settled clans in the greater Durban area before the Zulu Kingdom was established – and Dutch. KwaZulu-Natal isn’t just the Zulu Kingdom. In my settings and locations, histories matter. Cosmologies matter.
For white South African creators: be honest and not stubborn bastards full of shit about our past or the pasts of others, unable to look in the mirror. Talk. Discuss. Share. Interrogate ideas and stigmas. But most of all listen. Then contribute and support. Don’t think you won’t or don’t have a place in the rapidly changing world of literature because, in my experience, the African Speculative Fiction world is encouraging in all aspects. From reading others to open dialogue and sharing of ideas. I’ve seen the most interesting and honest discussions around history, race, and beliefs that you don’t normally get in regular social circles. Be involved and don’t separate yourself from other African writers of SF.
People talk of the white literary community in South Africa, and I support anyone upending that: from emerging writers to publishers to festival organisers. I was first published in Malawi. Africa gave me, a white oke, a chance. So, if there is ever a platform that I’m given, I’m going to push African Speculative Fiction.
We’re at a new linguistic crossroad. The omnipotence of Afrofuturism is challenged by AfricanFuturism. As a white African author, where do you see yourself on the spectrum of these two words? Do you think they represent you? Do you think they matter and why?
AfricanFuturism is the one I identify more with. Whether others want to categorise some of my work under that is up to them as readers.
Yes, these are important simply because if you don’t create the vocabulary for your work, others will anyway. Creators seem to eschew labels, but get upset when others label them in ways that they don’t agree with. This is why I have huge respect for Nnedi Okorafor in standing in her power and formulating AfricanFuturism for herself, and with such clarity that others can use its clout for their own works. Words are everything.
I have only ever lived in South Africa. As Thabo Mbeki said: I am an African. Nothing and no one can change that for me. I write about Africa in the future.
 The Blaauboschkraal stone ruins are a provincial heritage site in Waterval Boven in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa. The site was originally declared a national monument on 18 April 1975. The ruins are thought to be the remains of structures created by the Bokoni people who settled the region in the 16th century and who altered the landscape to increase agricultural yields in high-altitude grasslands. The stone rings were probably used as enclosures for cattle (kraals). The Blaauboskraal stone ruins are among a number of stone circle ruins located in the Mpumalanga escarpment over an area of approximately 150 km2, a number of which are facing threats to conservation.
Durban, formerly Port Natal, largest city of KwaZulu-Natal province and chief seaport of South Africa, located on Natal Bay of the Indian Ocean. European settlement began with a band of Cape Colony traders led by Francis G. Farewell, who charted the port in 1824 and named the site Port Natal. Land was ceded to the group by Shaka, the Zulu king (whose right to take that action is disputed), and the Old Fort (now a museum) was built. Durban was founded in 1835 on the site of Port Natal and was named for Sir Benjamin D’Urban, the governor of the Cape Colony. Durban is also known now as Ethekwini, from the Zulu itheku meaning "bay/lagoon" as several South African localities are reclaiming local African names.
 The South African Broadcasting Corporation was central to the Apartheid regime’s control through disinformation and censorship. http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S1011-76012017000200012