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Margie Orford

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

The Ethics of Writing Crime Fiction in South Africa

South Africa, charming and vibrant as it might be, is a delinquent democracy in which the most outrageous crimes are committed, often with impunity. It is a murderous country where no one is unaffected by violence. It is a place where corruption is corroding hard-won democratic institutions. It is a place where ethics – collective and individual – are increasingly elastic.

So, I ask myself, is it ethical to write crime fiction, to fictionalise crime? What are the ethics of representation, especially the representation of violent and degrading experiences, in a place where everyone has them? I could not find a satisfactory answer, so I put this question to a professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town.

He advised me to consider these two things.

First: That one would have to weigh up the value of public knowledge of things with an individual’s rights to privacy. A solution to this, he told me, would be that a story be told anonymously because once it is linked to an individual, it would be a further assault. This I do in all my books. I sink real people and real interactions deep below the surface of my fiction so that their lived experience is the pulse, the heartbeat of the stories, but the detail of their identities is not. It plagues me though that the murders, the rapes, the fear that one fictionalises are the lived experiences of so many people in South Africa.

Second: there is the necessity of truthfulness, of avoiding the hyperbolic, the sensational. This can be a vexing question for a novelist. Is my account truthful even if I have buried the originating detail? Does it reflect things accurately? Crime fiction is a popular genre – born out of the penny ‘orribles of the 19th Century – and many crime books are filled with the most pornographic violence.

Much of what I think of as ‘good’ crime fiction – well written and ethical – is not hyperbolic. It might be condensed, time might be speeded up a little, but it is not possible to create a good story without being truthful and accurate in the essence of interactions around traumatic events.

This is a challenge if you write about crime in South Africa. The reality is that most actual crime is far too hyperbolic, for too outrageously meaningless, far too sensational. The violence is excessive, too gratuitous to be turned into a good story. There is, in fact, little narrative behind most crime. It is just lots of drinking and fighting, shooting and hitting and stabbing and then people are dead and children are crying. And the cops come and roll their eyes and arrest a couple of people.

End of story.

No reason, no explanation, no gain.

Just loss and pain and no words to say it.

And that is not what crime fiction is about.

So, in life the ethics are messy, the crime fiction the aesthetics complex, but for Ian Rankin, creator of the fabulous Rebus series, that is a good place for a writer to be. He wrote that

‘What crime fiction needs is a sense of the incomplete, of life’s messy complexity. The reader should go to crime fiction to learn about the real world, not to retreat from it with comfortable reassurances and assumptions… Good does not always triumph in today’s crime fiction; evil cannot always be rationalised.’

It was life’s messy complexity that brought me to the subject matter of my last book. DADDY’S GIRL originated in a series of real events. In a two-week period in 2007, eight little girls were killed in Cape Town. Really little girls. The youngest was 18 months. The oldest one was six. I wanted to explore this feral society that picks off the weak and vulnerable.

This was the question that kept on coming at me as I clipped the stories of these deaths from the newspapers. What does it mean when the fathers turn on their (baby) daughters and kill them?

A Jungian formulation, I know, but what other kind of question is there to ask? What should one say when a patriarchal society is stripped to its malignant bones and kills its own children? In the Greek myth of origins, Cronos eats his grown sons.


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Liesl</a>
    February 8th, 2011 @14:24 #

    Complex but relevant questions, Margie. No simple solution in the offing either.


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