GUEST INFORMANT: Lauren Beukes

September 8th, 2011 | guest informant

Lauren Beukes is a journalist, tv writer and author of the award-winning sf novel ZOO CITY.  She’s also recently moved into comics writing (I took great pleasure, a few weeks ago, in introducing her to the fine people at Isotope Comics in San Francisco, who essentially threw her a “welcome to comics” party.) I asked her if she’d have time to crank out a little something, and she produced the following epic for you:

“It’s only art, Ms December,” she says, not meaning a word of it.”
- chapter 13, Zoo City

Art has a habit of sneaking into my fiction in interesting ways (including limited edition art toys).

Sometimes it’s bleedingly obvious, like the mental short story I wrote about giant tentacled monsters made from suicides’ hair and Takashi Murakami flower balls in “Unathi Battles The Black Hairballs” or the genetically modified bio-art creature, Woof ‘n’ Tweet that gets a rather violently unfavourable response in Moxyland . (Partly inspired, of course, by Theo Jansen’s amazing Strandbeests and audio installations by artists like James Webb)

And sometimes it’s more subtle.

The truth is Zoo City came about because an illustrator friend Simon Villet was commissioned by the notoriously limited edition South African design magazine iJusi to design an “imaginary book cover”. He approached me to come up with the wordy bits and I wrote a synopsis for an idea that was already lurking in the back of my head – a phantasmagorical noir about a girl with a sloth on her back who crosses a magician gang-lord in the slums of inner city Johannesburg. (I can’t link to the image, alas, because the original title is spoilerific.)

The actual novel does not feature a major art-related scene (unless you count artful email scams). But it does include shout-outs to several real artworks by artists I hugely admire.

Most of it goes down in chapter 13, when fast-talking, Sloth-carrying protagonist Zinzi December visits The Haven on the trail of a missing pop star. The Haven is a rehab centre and clearly doing well enough from their celebrity clients that they can afford some SERIOUS art. And a lot of that art is doing double-time, not just as decorative detail, but in serving the plot with hints and allegations of things to come.

Purely decorative? The Technicolor smiley flowers behind the reception desk, which are, yep, Takashi Murakami (I may have a thing for his work).

The Devil in repose by Brett Murray and Conrad Botes has a deeper backstory. It was a work I desperately wanted to buy at the original opening about ten years ago, but it was already sold by the time I got there.

I would only find out who bought it several years later when I was on assignment for Cosmopolitan magazine, doing an investigative story on rehab safaris.

Turns out that The Devil hangs above the fireplace in the communal lounge at the Kenilworth addiction clinic in Cape Town – a black-humoured reminder of temptation, kicking back in his chair, just waiting for you to succumb. It was a wonderful detail. So I appropriated it for the novel.

Working harder to serve the plot is The Scapegoat, a dreamy etching of a buck with its head bowed and a chain around its neck, by Louisa Betteridge. It’s there as a way in to a conversation about Zoos and what their magical animals might represent, like the ancient Israelite scapegoat, that was sent in to the wilderness to die carrying the burden of evil.

But the art is also there to prompt a line of dialogue about accountability: “penetrating people’s denial systems, removing the alibis that will trip them up.” My hero, former addict, email scammer and finder of lost things, Zinzi December has a lot of alibis.

There’s also a Colbert Mashile* original, hanging above the director of the Haven’s desk. Mashile is an artist I first discovered at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal gallery in Durban and again didn’t manage to buy back when his art was still affordable. The painting described (this one is thematically similar) is one of his early works: a grass hut ablaze, a deep phallic root, figures writhing in torment – from his circumcision series, that is described in the novel as being about “culture and tradition, rites of passage, the difficulties of being a man. And also being mutilated”.

Zinzi doesn’t know it yet, but it’s a foreshadowing of mutilations to come in the story ahead. But the description of the painting also foreshadows deep roots – and rot – speaking to subterranean pain and the secret things that lie beneath the surface.

There’s another work that’s not mentioned, except in the acknowledgements, but many readers have picked up on. “The Hyena and Other Men” is a series of photographs by my friend Pieter Hugo that left an indelible impression on me. You’re probably already familiar with the pictures – they’ve been published in magazines and newspapers and exhibited all over the planet.

According to Pieter, the subjects are an informal travelling circus troupe who also work as debt collectors. Because there’s nothing like a hyena in your home to encourage you to cough up your outstanding loan. According to Pieter, the handlers steal the cubs from dens when they’re still little and feed them a steady dose of hash to keep them docile.

The image stayed with me and was definitely one of the seedlings in my brain that germinated into Zoo City . I referenced it with the novel’s fictional gangsta rapper Slinger who poses with a snarling Hyena in his music videos, two years before Beyonce appropriated the image for hers, for reals.

I like art. I like using it in my writing, name-checking the artists I admire or the works that have affected me, making them a part of the texture of the story. But I realise I can only try to make words as powerful and provocative and profound as those images. And that make me feel jealous and inadequate, but also really grateful that it’s out there.

(*If it reads “Mandla Langa” in your copy of Zoo City, congratulations, you got the collector’s first print-run edition with the egregious error on my part! I was reading Colours of the Chameleon at the time, used the name automatically and managed to slip it past me and my editor.)

Lauren is on Twitter.  You can learn more about ZOO CITY here, a book I recommend.


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  1. You can find Warren on Twitter: @warrenellis