Zinaid Meeran and I first struck up an acquaintance in the refuse yard of the local government office of Ohashi Samui Prefecture. He had just sold a bundle of furs, brindled snow ape I bet—guns were coming in from all over the place, making bank taking the sorry critter out. Ugly thing it was, the fur wasn’t of much value, smelly stuff, feathery tufts, even the supposedly pretty brindled bits were off-putting. Meeran looked awful–beard out to here, gaunt, touch of kwashiorkor, stupid even. He asked me permission to “root around in the bins for a sec”. Those were his word, I remember and he spoke English, most of us in Southern Hokkaido did at the time. ‘Course I gave him my blessing; hell they weren’t my bins. I was just there for pussy, you understand, a smartypants with blue-tipped hair called Wolfberry, at least that’s the name she gave me. I recall this feverish look in Meeran’s eye, like he wanted maybe to cold-smoke somebody’s ass; not mine though, we hit it off just fine. We enjoyed a good lunch of bread rinds with only a touch of black mould, the scrapings of congealed oil from a sardine tin, and for dessert the sweet dust if you’re lucky you find on the inside of a marshmallow wrapper. We fought a little over a blob of marshmallow goo he found jammed into the edge of the wrapper, but it was good-natured stuff, just horsing around.
Never saw him again until Vanuatu, can’t say I gave him much thought either. We were camped in the bottom of the Rorutanga river valley. Kak-stoepid idea, but hey, after you’ve hiked all day in humidity like you underwater, on a bellyload of nothing but treefrog leftovers, with bug-infested leaves slapping you every three steps you don’t give a shit, you just doss where you fall.
The opening of Tanuki Ichiban by Zinaid Meeran
As the jacket tells us: one character gets romantically entangled with a retired circus orangutan and starts a campaign to have great apes declared human. Another character sets out to cook every creature on the rare animals roster. This Zinaid Meeran gets drawn and quartered by Dubai playboys on jet-skis.
The other Zinaid Meeran, the real one (well, solid, in 3D, and in front of me), looks rather sleek and healthy as we chat on the rooftop of his brother’s house.
Not everyone quite gets Tanuki Ichiban. A local reviewer for The Soweto Times of 17 August 2012 was doubtful. “Expect to be confused,” he wrote. And, “The characters are [as] often animals as people, and the book uses a lot of prose.” Too much prose? I suppose Zinaid could have mixed in poetry. Or mathematical symbols?
Zinaid: “I’ve published two novels. The first one was Saracen at the Gates. It’s about a curry-mafia princess who falls in love with the leader of an all-girl gang of anarchists, and finds out that her father is the sex slaver that the anarchist gang are hunting down.”
Zinaid: “So it’s like the manga version of Johannesburg. And I tried to explore two girls being in love, not a lesbian relationship. Just looking at it as love. The girl gang leader Sophie is interested in women more, but Zakira the curry-mafia princess is interested in guys only, she’s never been interested in a girl, but then she falls in love with Sophie. The parents don’t know about the love affair, they just know she’s gone wild.”
GD: “So why is wild always set in Jo’burg, not Cape Town? Zoo City is in Jo’burg.”
Zinaid: “I guess Jo’burg has this edginess to it. It’s much more dangerous, it’s very violent everywhere unlike the pockets of violence in Cape Town. And it’s congested, denser, taller, everything’s more imposing. I chose it because of the anime vibe it can evoke. It looks like a space station at times, you know? At night because it’s so lit up, like a derelict space station, a fallen civilization, like a mining planet.
“The book got a good response. It won the EU Literary Award, which is a manuscript award that Jacana Media do. It’s now called the Dinaane Award, and it was short-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize and the University of Johannesburg Fiction Prize.
“I was also trying to evoke a South Africa where the characters aren’t racialised. That’s the norm in any kind of narrative in South Africa. So these characters, I was trying to evoke them in this extremely fluid, fragmented way where the details of their lives and their interests and passions are what make them the character, rather than these racial templates.”
GR: "And everyone said, 'what a superbly accurate portrait of modern Asian womanhood.'"
Zinaid: “There were people who spoke about it that way too and I got pretty worked up about that. But generally when I look back at it now, it was accepted as depicting the kind of youth who are fluid and fragmented in their identity anyway. So in the end it was relegated to that. That’s become a niche identity, beginning to be accepted in South Africa, where you reject a racial identity. It’s just emerging.
“I used to be racially profiled all the time, and it’s less now, much less. People would describe me as Indian. And that’s thinning out now. It could be because I hardly go out now (laughs). I’m not sure. It used to happen every day.
“The struggle for me when Saracen was published came from people who were interested in racially categorizing. I am just partially of Indian origin, having also Afrikaans, Madagascan, Indonesian and some Khoisan origins. And the idea of being partially anything in South Africa was just not accepted at the time. It was 2009. It’s still just a niche thing in society to be accepted as being a mix of origins and not subscribing to one of those apartheid categories.
“In my case when I described my ancestry or even my parentage, the detractors would just erase that as though it hadn’t even been said. So the problem was that mixed heritage wasn’t accepted at all. And I don’t mean Coloured. Coloured became a racial group under apartheid, strictly policed as being this concrete thing from Heaven. But actually being a mix of all those apartheid categories like in my case, people weren’t able to comprehend that at all.
“And then on top of that I was arguing that you could be 100% of any one of those labels in your heritage but not have that identity at all. And nobody seemed able to grasp that ... well, the detractors weren’t able to grasp it.”
Zinaid has a fairly dizzying CV. He spends a lot of time writing for screen and TV, pitching series or feature films, working with his brother Jean in a company called Team Tarbaby. He doesn’t talk about it in this interview, but he also has taught creative writing at the University of Cape Town where he was Mia Arderne’s supervisor.
But the reason I’m interviewing him is Tanuki Ichiban.
Zinaid: “Tanuki is set in Cape Town ten years in the future. I wrote it in 2010, so it’s set in 2020 and was published in 2012. I was looking at a South Africa where colonialism ended in 1820 and apartheid never happened. So it’s this very mixed version of South Africa. Kind of like Brazil. There isn’t any racial categorisation. So I created this world where South Africans could live out and explore all the other elements of being human without it all being piled into race. They can freely live the rest of their humanness.
“It was kind of a response to the categorization that Saracen got from some quarters. I loved writing it. Just for the freedom of doing the speculation about that. I wanted to let myself go into any of those fragments that I brought up in Saracen, to show how the characters’ personhood is fluid, and I wanted to show it in the form, just going with whatever elements of them are highlighted in the plot situation they’re in, and running with that as far as it would go, and then leaping onto another one if it related to that. I tried to make the form fluid and fragmented too, not just the characters.
“And the same with their imaginations. They have these totemic animal versions of themselves that they resort to as a kind of a comfort in a crisis or violent situation. They live out a reality in that animal totem world that they can’t live out in the real world. So the story slips in and out of that world.
“They’re mired in their real lives, all the characters. The totems are a way for the characters to liberate themselves artificially. It shows how intractable their real lives actually are. When they come back to their real lives the situation is the same. But it could even be in a different time or different place. So even place shifts in this fluid and fragmented way.
“For instance the main character Geronimo has a duel with his nemesis in Hokkaido where he’s become a bounty hunter for the Brindled Snow Ape. They kill each other in the duel, but their stories and their personhoods are transferred immediately to Saudi Arabia where they are both there on Haj. But they’re really just there to have a good time. Like a thing that used to happen, maybe still does, where people go on a pilgrimage to Mecca and it’s really just a holiday.
“Then they go through this whole other violent escapade in Saudi Arabia. Their nemesis relationship, they just can’t shake it off. Not even death is a barrier to the fragmented person.
“Geronimo goes to search for his mother; he’s always hunting for her. She tells him that she’s going to be doing salvage diving in the Pacific and they can meet in Tokyo airport. And they have this awkward half-hour meeting at a café, and he becomes depressed after that. So Japan becomes a fulcrum for him. He starts to stand up for himself. ‘Ichiban’ means number one. ‘Tanuki’ is a Japanese raccoon. He is Number One Raccoon, which is his totemic creature.
“In this South Africa there’s no racial categorization, no group areas. But there is poverty, and the poverty IS related to degrees of European heritage that you have but that becomes just an element in someone’s personhood. This South Africa is allowed to go in all kinds of directions culturally and technologically. It’s much more well off, much more innovative and freethinking as a result.
“I depicted it as that niche I was talking about earlier in Saracen that accepted the characters as being outside of race, and fluid in their identities. They’re my friends actually, a whole South Africa of just my friends.
“It was this dream of mine to absorb the horror of South Africa, the horror of being profiled, of not being accepted as having a mixed heritage. To make my own world to live in. Instead of the horrible reality that exists, you get a fantasy. I go around feeling that if I say any of these things, people would want to argue about it. Objectification is the main South African cultural pursuit.
‘There are some things horrid in Tanuki, like the environment. But the people are allowed to explore all those things, possibly like the way people in Norway are allowed to explore the other elements of their humanity.
“Tanuki took me three months to write. I banged it out so that I could get it done in time for the World Cup, so I could just party. And then it wasn’t published until two years later. Saracen took longer, like a year and a half.
“I did get a negative royalty for Tanuki. I don’t know what that is, even. I guess it’s a bit too mad, too wild in its form. I think that the publisher and others are maybe scarred by Tanuki. It frightened them.
“I do film and photography too. I make short films, experimental films, trying all the elements of the filmmaking ... feature films as well, where I write screenplays and have been developing them. Jean and I work together, especially on the feature films, developing them ... hopefully to direct them. We haven’t got a feature film on the screen. We do have lots of shorts. The shorts are on Vimeo, a lot of them. It’s the Team Tarbaby site on Vimeo. That’s the collective Jean and myself and couple of others are in.
“One of the films is Riot Waif. A brother-and-sister pair of urban Mowglis bring each other up when their mother runs off to join the revolution, and they have a pact to just love each other. This is becoming a strain, and they’ve been cheating on their love pact. The girl sees her doppelganger and is convinced this must be their sister. And the boy sees reports on TV about a war hero back from the front, and becomes convinced this must be their mother. They go searching for their family, trying to stitch it back together. That’s the feature version. The short is just this impressionistic take on the doppelganger story where the girl is trying to find out who her double is. The film is an electropunk musical; they have a band, the brother and sister. You can check out the music for Riot Waif. I just had a hand in it, but it was composed by fellow Team Tarbaby, my wife Tara, who also acts in the film. That was last year.
“There’s also The Brown Europe Pageant. It’s kind of a documentary fiction mix. It eludes definition. It’s about European women of colour. So their profiles are like profiles in a beauty pageant but extremely stylized.
“Umbilical Cords is another Team Tarbaby documentary—about women in South Africa who have mothers overseas. They’ve moved here, but keep contact with their mothers despite strained relationships. That was directed by Sarah Jones and produced by my brother Jean Meeran, with myself a co-producer.”
I ask him if he’s working on a new novel.
Zinaid: “I’ve written two more since then. One of them is the novel version of Riot Waif. One’s called That Pesky Ovule (as in ‘egg’). It’s about the ovule and the sperm's hunt for each other, to fertilise, using a couple as a carrier. I follow this couple through twelve stages of a love relationship. It’s played out in many different time eras and with different characters, but they are the same couple. Their personhood is the same but the characters are different. There’s Cape Town at the millennium, and LA also at the millennium, and Mongolia in 1937, crossing into Siberia. Then there’s outer space in 2132. Then it goes to the Pacific Northwest in about 2010. The eras are not that different, but the geography is. The last chapter is in Cape Town in 2040, when the next spate of xenophobic violence breaks out."
I ask about his childhood reading.
Zinaid: “Tintin, Asterix, I was crazy about Tintin. Still am, kind of. All the usual kids’ stuff. I loved Paddington Bear, he’s my hero. Winnie the Pooh. A lot of bears. I used to write books as well, kids’ books on those Jotters, brownish paper, and illustrate them and everything.
“I got into writing because filmmaking is so crazy and social. Writing is like a refuge—I mean writing seriously to get published. With film you don’t have any control outside of making shorts. You’re part of this collaborative process which is wonderful, but when you’ve also written the script it can be a strain with feature film, and the concept keeps getting chipped away.
“Also, 100 Years of Solitude, that was very influential. I liked that reality was a fluid thing, fractured. I also saw you could take your time with a novel, just go into the details of everything in a way that you can't in film.
“I’ve just finished writing a TV series. It’s called Little Good Witch. The main character is inspired by Liewe Heksie, which means Darling Little Witch. She’s an agent for the South African version of the FBI, a fictional version. She’s investigating a gang lord for drug-trafficking. Turns out that he has a vast sex-trade empire. He’s also very much like a vampire, so it has this Gothic feel, though it turns out to be in her imagination. I’m trying to get that produced. I’m going to send it to M-Net now, literally email it to them right after this.
“I used to stay up all night watching films. It was video then. It was special, having a VHS cassette. It was weird—and eating like three courses of chips: french fries where you cook them yourself, watch another movie, and then tubs of ice cream, with the dawn coming up. Me and my brother used to do housework all the time. My mother used to say, ‘Don’t do the housework.’ So we’d mop and sweep up afterwards in the wee hours, like elves.
“The SABC used to be very cryptic. You couldn’t even pitch to them. It was just this labyrinth. Then it started opening up. Jean and I were part of this venture to make ten feature films by the SABC, something they had never done before. Saracen at the Gates, an adaptation we wrote, was one of those scripts. They started to open it up so that they’d invite filmmakers to develop films with them. Along with M-Net, the satellite TV channel, and Network, they’re at the film markets and film festivals and you pitch to them. Their commission process is more open.
“There’s a film and video foundation that you submit bids to for development, production, even post-production. So there are lots of avenues now.
“International networks are interested in making South African shows. I wrote another twelve-episode drama called Funny Old World that I sent to AMC, because they were here looking for African TV drama series.
“Saracen at the Gates was actually greenlit. Then everybody vanished from the SABC. You couldn’t get hold of anybody. Only the Xerox girl was left. She was in charge and she was the best person in the whole department. They actually had to get buses to bus them to the police station to be charged with embezzlement. A billion rand vanished. It’s a periodic thing like cycles of drought and then rains.”
GR: “So aside from all the media opportunities, what’s the plus side of being a writer in South Africa?”
Zinaid: “There’s something close-fisted about the horror that is South Africa. They’re very guarded about letting people be. But you can create an imaginative world where you can be human rather than some sort of template. That imaginative world can be quite extreme or realistic. But it can be your own. And it can be inviting and generous. That’s the inspiring thing within the horror.”
Since this interview in 2016, Jean’s film Umbilical Cords, on which Zinaid collaborated, had a screening at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
Riot Waif, the full, feature film version that he’s writing and directing, has received development finance from the National Film and Video Foundation. A short film version of this story can be viewed on Vimeo at Riot Waif - The Short Film.
He’ll be returning to Brazil as he’s been selected for the Africa Centre's Artists In Residency award 2018, for a residency fellowship at the Sacatar Foundation, Brazil. This would be to work on his upcoming novel version of Funny Old World, based on the TV series mentioned above, a tale of derring-do and intrigue set at the triple border of Turkey, the Soviet Union, and Iran in the 1930s.
And he’s also working on another novel, Son of Gaul, about a sex robot who starts to realise she is one. He’s also been shooting music videos with Sonika, aka Tara Meeran, his wife and collaborator at Team Tarbaby.