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INTERVIEW: Lauren Beukes on South African Culture, Writing About Race, and Genre

SF Signal is pleased to bring you this interview with Lauren Beukes, author of Moxyland and Zoo City — which recently netted her the Arthur C. Clarke Award!

[Photo credit: Gareth Hall]

SF Signal: I’m here with Lauren Beukes. Lauren, what’s the correct way to pronounce your name?

Lauren Beukes: It rhymes with “mucus” or “George Lucas” or (here, she’s stretching) An-u-cubis.

SFS: O-kay… Lauren, you have a number of strands to your writing bow. Obviously there are the novels, which we’ll talk about in a moment. You have a non-fiction book out, you’re a practising journalist, and there are the TV strands – the cartoons and documentaries. Why so many different strands? Isn’t that just greedy?

LB: No, what would be greedy, is if I did what I really want to do as well, which is to be a detective and an astronaut and a genetic researcher.

SFS: What’s stopping you?

LB: Time. And also, being a cop in South Africa is very, very hectic. My brother-in-law, Andrew Brown, is a novelist and a reservist cop and a temporary supreme court judge, and an advocate, so if you want an over-achiever, that’s him. But he’s a reservist cop and he gets shot at regularly, and people try to stab him and it’s hectic out there. I’d love to do it, but it’s just too dangerous and I have a kid.

SFS: The South African culture comes through very strongly in your novels. How much of an influence on your books is your environment?

LB: I think it’s a huge part of my books. I think it’s inextricably weaved through and I think that really comes across, and I think that’s what’s really exciting – being a South African writer, breaking out into the international market, people really do want to hear those stories. You grow up and for a very long time you think the only way to write stories is to be American or British or this very homogenous western culture, but it’s really exciting to see the way people have responded to that. I think the politics in South Africa.. you know, what we’ve come through is really amazing. I think Apartheid did so much damage to that country. We had 50 years of heartache. It really destroyed the country; we’re going to be recovering from that for generations. It’s very interesting to see how we’ve come through that, and how we’ve come through that, peacefully, and yes we have problems – we have corruption, and cronyism and dodgy arms deals, but you know what? It’s so much better than it was, where the secret police were killing people and torturing people. We lived in a racist state. We’ve got major problems, and it’s going to take a long time to get through them, but I think we’re definitely on the right path.

It’s really exciting to be in that time, and to see how things change – to see how the social issues are still there, and to see how Apartheid still haunts us.

But the response has been amazing – people are really excited to read a story which isn’t set in London or Japan or New York or LA. We’ve seen this with Maurice Broaddus, as well, where people are quite excited to see a story set in Indiana.

It’s nice to have other backdrops – not just backdrops, of course – South Africa comes across as a character in the novels. Are you likely to move the action away from South Africa in future books?

Being a journalist has given me an access-all-areas pass to South Africa, so I feel like I’ve a real understanding of a lot of facets of society. I recently wrote a short story – a comic – for Vertigo’s Strange Adventures anthology and that’s set in Sao Paulo, and I think I will write a lot more about South Africa, but I have a serial killer idea I want to write about and it’s quite high-concept, and I actually don’t want to set it in South Africa because there’s so much political baggage, it’ll get in the way of the story. I o always feel like I have to explain things to readers – I try to do it in such a ways that it’s really organic, and comes through in context, and I think people generally keep up with that, and that’s great, but with the serial killer idea, I just want to concentrate on what’s there, and not have to focus on the broader social concepts.

SFS: Why do you not address race directly in your books?

LB: I do. It’s there in every situation. It’s implicit, and that’s my experience of it, and that’s my friends’ experience. You know, it’s not something that always comes out in ordinary conversation. It’s just there. It’s omnipresent in society. No-one would ask a British novelist, why didn’t you bring in the council estates? Why didn’t you deal with the immigration issue? It’s because it’s part of the background texture. It’s always interesting to me when people worry about that, because it is there.

SFS: Zoo City was shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Award for Best Novel and it won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for best science fiction novel, yet Publishers Weekly described it as “almost single-handedly pulling the urban fantasy subgenre back towards its groundbreaking roots.” Where do you see it fitting?

LB: I don’t know. I think this whole genre-versus-literary debate and the micro-boxing, so it’s not just “science fiction” – it’s “cyberpunk” or it’s “dystopian” or it’s “speculative” or it’s “new weird” or it’s “urban fantasy” or it’s “paranormal romance”… I think what we’re doing is putting off readers. It’s great for the guys, shelving in the bookstores, but I think too much categorisation frightens people away, or it limits readers. If there has to be a genre, I’d like it to be “good stories”.

SFS: Other than novels, what are you working on at the moment?

LB: I’ve just finished directing a documentary on Miss Gay Western Cape. It’s called Glitter Boys and Ganglands. (Trailer here.) It’s about the biggest female impersonation pageant in South Africa, and we found three amazing characters. One’s the newbie on the ramp, and she’s a mechanic by day and she talks about how she’s going to fit into being the only gay mechanic in this workshop. She even brought in gay porn to show her co-workers, to show them what it was like, and what it’s about – it was amazing, really hilarious. And there was Princess Cat – she and her boyfriend are known as the Posh and Becks of the Cape Flats, and Kayden, who’s a pre-op transsexual, who might not be allowed to enter the competition because she has hormone-induced breasts, and the other contestants think that’s not fair. That was really fun to work on. We’re doing the final edit on that at the moment, and we’ve had a lot of interest from international broadcasters.

And I just did a nine page comic for Vertigo for the Strange Adventures anthology, and that was amazing as I’ve always wanted to write comics. I read Misty when I was a kid and Asterix and Tin Tin and 2000AD was a huge influence on me, and Elf Quest and it was always something I really wanted to do. I got the opportunity through Bill Willingham, who I met at WorldCon, and he introduced me to his editor. I got to pitch on this story idea and she loved it. It’s so exciting to do . I think what’s been most exciting is to see how it works differently – that’s the nice thing about working across the board, and playing in all these different disciplines, to see what different challenges they bring. In animation, for example, the storyboard is very straightforward – it’s one, two, three panels in a row – that’s what a storyboard looks like, because that’s how it’s going to be animated onscreen. With comics, the layouts that you can play with, the panels… it’s just mind-blowing. That’s what I struggled most with – trying to figure out what panel layout works best. Luckily, Shelly Bond, the editor and Inaki Miranda , the Illustrator really held my hand through this, and brought such amazing life to that, so that was really, really cool, and hopefully it’ll lead to more comics work because I loved it.

SFS: Anything you can tell us about your next book?

LB: Ummm… I don’t like talking about new books too much, but the information I’m willing to give away is that it’s a thriller, set during Apartheid, and it’s loosely based on the real-life Occult Crimes Unit. I interviews the unit, which ran from 92-2004 when they were disbanded for being unconstitutional (because you’re not allowed to discriminate against someone due to their religion, and Satanism was a big part of what the unit was dealing with). They also dealt with muti-murders and the photograophs and the stories they told me put any fiction to shame. I might have to go and do a non-fiction book on them, because they were just crazy. My plot kind of grows from there, so we’ll see what happens.

SFS: Lauren Beukes, thank you very much.

LB: Thank you.

Zoo City, along with Lauren’s debut novel, Moxyland is available worldwide from Angry Robot, and through all good bookstores.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

1 Comment on INTERVIEW: Lauren Beukes on South African Culture, Writing About Race, and Genre

  1. No-one would ask a British novelist, why didn’t you bring in the council estates? Why didn’t you deal with the immigration issue?

    Not true. That’s exactly what I’d ask a British novelist, especially knowing that those issues are causing fissures in British society. Similarly, I’d ask a Malaysian novelist about the NEP; I’d ask a Singaporean novelist about the HDB heartland; and I’d ask a US novelist about the effects of the multiple wars on mainstream society and their expectations. These are precisely the questions SF fans should ask and should expect to be answered, or at least mentioned, in such settings.


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