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Q&A with Lauren Beukes

'Afterland' imagines a world where a global pandemic has wiped out half the population

28 April 2020 - 14:19 By Carla Lever and nal'ibali

Nal'ibali column No 1 Term 2 2020

Congratulations on your latest novel. Afterland imagines a world where a global pandemic has wiped out half the population, tracking a mother's desperate attempts to hide her surviving son from lifelong quarantine. Are you a prophet?

I don’t know. I can say, though, that having spent so much time living in a fictional pandemic in my head, it is awful to emerge into the real world and suddenly live through one. It’s also a reflection of my experience of motherhood, which I think a character describes in the book as the “worst game of improv ever”.

What drew you to the world of Afterland, and what balance did you want to strike between radical reimagining and discomforting familiarity?

I wanted to challenge our ideas of what a world of women would look like, and flip some of our assumptions around gender roles: that women would be kinder and gentler; and that being one of the only surviving biological males would be a sexy time paradise. As it turns out, women are – surprise – just as capable of weaving a violent boy trafficking ring as they are a friendship bracelet. I set the novel in 2023, three years after the pandemic that kills 99% of people with prostates. That means the power structures are still in place, the social mores are mostly the same, but evolving, and the problems are still the problems, just with a different flavour. The world is still recognisable, but also dramatically changed.

Unlike Covid-19, Afterland's pandemic was gendered and affected only men. South Africa's extraordinarily high rates of gender based violence make a world run by women sound appealing, but Afterland is far from a feminist utopia. What ideas around power do you hope people will take from this novel?

This is twofold. The first is looking at gender roles and what we expect of men and women. So 12-year-old Miles is a valuable commodity: to the government who want to keep him locked up, to the religious zealots who see him as their chosen one, and also, very uncomfortably, a sex object, a reproductive resource. Women are just as capable of evil, greed and being as power-hungry and violent as men, especially when they feel they have more to prove. Secondly, when we talk about fighting power, it’s about the structures, which are brutalist fortresses on the outside and luxury mansions on the inside. You think you want to tear it down, but you might end up moving in accidentally because it’s just so nice in there, and it works and it is familiar. We’re going to have to do a lot more work to overthrow capitalism and the patriarchy.

The irony of an author being in lockdown while launching a book about people trying to escape a quarantine is almost too much. What are some of the most innovative ways authors are promoting, and readers sharing, new work?

It really is. I’ve seen authors giving self-filmed tours of their writing spaces and reading short stories on YouTube. I filmed a short talk about Afterland, but the blooper reel is getting way more hits, which to be fair, features my cat. I’ve read my Book Dash book aloud on YouTube, and we did a Facebook Live launch event for Afterland, which went great, apart from the tech issues that had us running half an hour late. I’m glad the archive is still available though on my Facebook page.

What's keeping you sane and connected in these dramatic times of our own pandemic?

Not being too hard on myself and lowering my expectations of what I can reasonably accomplish, while in shock and grieving for the world we had and how many people are suffering terribly, terribly now. I’m watching a lot of series. I’m reading. Zoom calls with friends, especially while cooking, pitching a TV show and playing a crazy addictive morbidly cute video game called 'Don’t Starve Together' with friends, where we work together to survive the haunted woods.

Books can be expensive for many people and, during lockdown, they are particularly hard to access. How can we involve all our South African families in reading and storytelling, even where it is not possible to buy new books?

For families with small children, all the Book Dash books are available free on their website and their app. They are a series of childrens' picture books by and for South Africans, created with some of the best talent in the country. I know Book Dash also has some of their authors doing YouTube readings – including me – if you don’t have the time or head space to read to your children yourself. I’d love to see a story time reading slot on radio. Radio producers call me. I’m keen.

How does storytelling feature in your own home?

In a giant, teetering pile of unread books that grows all the time. The Japanese word for that is 'tsundoku'. I’m trying to work my way through them all before I move house at the end of the month. An impossible task, but lockdown helps. We’re big on stories here. My daughter is plowing through the Ross Welford books and A Place Called Perfect trilogy. But we also love great TV shows and video games with an amazing story threaded through them, like Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

We are living in a time when we have the unique opportunity to rebuild our economies and communities differently at a global scale. When imagination seems to be key to survival, and even thriving, has there been a more urgently relevant modern time to be a storyteller?

Doctors and nurses and the people who launder hospital sheets, delivery people and scientists and farm workers and supermarket cashiers and shelf packers and truck drivers all seem more urgent and undervalued, but telling their stories is essential right now and hopefully can help us reimagine how we want to rebuild a better society after all of this. Art is the fire we light against the darkness. It feels a bit useless being a novelist and TV writer at the moment, but part of what I try to do in my work is find ways, through fiction, to talk about social issues, imagine something different. Sometimes it’s just escapism that we’re allowed to enjoy.

Many people have been putting pressure on themselves to complete long-dreamed of writing projects during lockdown, as if creativity simply requires time alone in front of a computer. What, in your experience, goes into your work. What makes creativity possible for you?

My mental health is critical for doing good work. I’ve certainly written through depression and anxiety, but it’s been an unhappy process. Right now, we’re all dealing with shock and trauma. The important thing is to get yourself through to the other side. Get enough sleep, eat healthy, do laps around your kitchen if that’s the only exercise you can do. Stop putting this insane pressure on yourself. Unless being creative is an escape for you and a joy and you want to do it.

How can people get their hands on a copy of Afterland?

It’s only available as an e-book for now, until lockdown is over and the printing presses are back up. You can get it from Takealot, Kobo or Amazon or your favourite e-book vendor.

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift. It builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success. For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access children’s stories in a range of SA languages, visit www.nalibali.org