A warning- this column intends to step on people's toes, so please raise your feet.
I am a white woman with a black name. The rough draft of me was finished in America, while the final edits are being done in Botswana. I often find myself in situations I call "the lekgoa moment", it is that blank stare or awkward pause when the person I am meeting is trying to reconstruct their idea of me with the reality before them. I try to tell myself that it is their problem not mine, this usually works. I try to maintain that point of view in my writing too. Still it is hurtful when a person loves me to death as the black writer, and then meets me and suddenly has no more time for who I really am. It's happened numerous times and always with South Africans or people in the publishing industry who want to "uplift African writers". I tell myself it is their issue, but it's difficult. I suppose the same happens for black writers with white names- maybe. It's crap- racist, sucky crap, from any direction it comes.
I write. I write what comes to me, what my head creates. This last week my first romance novella came out, Kwaito Love. It is about an up and coming fashion designer in Johannesburg, Mpho, who falls in love with a famous record producer, Thabang. Kwaito Love is one of two books launching Sapphire Press, an imprint of Kwela Books, it's an imprint targeted at a black, urban, female audience. My second book for this publisher was recently accepted as well.
When it was announced that the book was out, I got a comment from a South African that my book was accepted only because of my surname; the publisher assumed I was black. Apparently in the world that is South African publishing only black people can write about black people. I knew this to be at least partly wrong since with my second acceptance everyone knew I was white, but it still gave me an ugly, sick feeling in my stomach. What would have been worse would have been if in fact I was black and someone told me the same thing. That kind of upliftment I would think is nothing more than a serious slap-down and an insult to the writer's ability. I took it in the same way.
Last week was the premiere for Morwalela, a television series with only black characters, in which I was one of the scriptwriters. People have been congratulating me on the series, and not one Motswana has mentioned anything about the fact that I am white and am writing about black characters. Not one.
My book ,The Fatal Payout, currently a prescribed book for junior secondary schools in Botswana, is about a black woman detective who solves a crime and goes on to start a relationship with a black male engineer. No one has said a word. Everyone knows I'm a white woman, but it seems they accept that I can write about men and people who are black.
Recently there was a long, arduous and infuriating discussion on UK writer Vanessa Gebbie's blog about writing about "the other". I did not get it at the time, but I think I'm starting to understand. I think perhaps the point is otherness. I'm not saying I'm better or worse than anyone else, but I don't see myself set apart from the people I share my country with. Maybe that is what makes such writing awkward and often patronising- the writer is an other. I'm not saying I'm black. I'm not saying I understand everything that goes on here, why would I? I was forever lost by the actions and motivations of the white Americans that surrounded me in the place of my birth, why would I suddenly be Ms Insightful here? That's not it.
In my second romance novella for this publisher, I have three white, Afrikaner characters. The readers cringed at my stereotypes, at my flat characterisation. For me, they were now "the other" and I was struggling, trying to pull them into three dimensions. Until I could connect with them, and remove the otherness barrier, I would never be able to write them as believable characters.
I know writing for a South African audience is a schlep. Everyone is political. Everyone has a heavy, historical chip on their shoulder. No one there is free from race issues. I thought I accepted this. This past week made me feel sad. I felt sad for my new book that I'd been so happy about. I'm not trying to pretend I'm someone I'm not. I'm a writer. I make up characters. I make up stories. That's it, nothing else. If I've succeeded, then readers will connect with my books, if I haven't- then they won't. That's all that really matters anyway.
Now, if I can only convince myself of that.