Michael Sears interviews Lauren Beukes about 'Afterland'
Published in the Big Thrill (30/09/2020)
Lauren Beukes shot to prominence in 2008 with her debut Moxyland.
Before that, she was a feature journalist and TV and film director - and according to her author bio, “When she’s not travelling for research from Detroit to Zagreb, Port-au-Prince to Antarctica, she lives in Cape Town, South Africa, with her daughter and two trouble cats.” The cats may have met their match.
The premise of her new book, Afterland, is that a pandemic hits the world - not unlike the one we’re experiencing now - and most people become sick and then apparently recover. However, it turns out that males subsequently develop prostate cancer and almost all die over the next few years.
Afterland is a world populated and run by women - but don’t expect a feminist utopia; that’s not how the world works. For a start, women are banned from having babies - “reprohibition” - to “flatten the curve,” as we’d say now. Then, any males who do survive become guinea pigs for a variety of tests and analyses.
That brings us to Cole and her teenage son, Miles, both of whom are held at a special facility near Tacoma run by the Department of Men. They are South Africans who were working temporarily in the US when Cole’s husband died of the disease. Her priority is to get her son and herself out of the clutches of the Department of Men and home to South Africa. Her sister, Billie, is supposed to help them escape, but she actually has completely different plans.
Soon Cole and Miles (now disguised as a girl) are on the run with everyone after them.
In this exclusive interview for The Big Thrill, Beukes sheds some light on what inspired her prescient thriller, and what readers can expect both from the novel and from the author.
Afterland is amazingly prescient. I’m sure you wrote the book before Covid-19 reared its ugly head, but the pandemic’s impact on society that you describe is now current affairs rather than science fiction — except that your virus subsequently kills almost all men. I imagine that you wanted a premise to explore the impact of a woman being hunted by other women in pursuit of her teenage son, and that the pandemic then took on a life of its own in the story. Is that correct?
Yes, I came up with the idea about five years ago, and we completed final edits in November last year, so it was all way before our real-life pandemic hit. The man-killing plague in the book was a way of getting to a world of women and being able to upturn the sexist cliché that women are kinder and more nurturing and we’d all be making friendship bracelets and growing communal gardens. Women are just as capable of all the evil in the world, from Margaret Thatcher to Daisy de Melker to Mama American, who ran the Americans gang in Cape Town more ruthlessly than her predecessors because she had more to prove. I also wanted to gender flip the traditional “teenage girl in peril from human traffickers” narrative and make it a teenage boy who is being hunted for his body, by gangsters who want to sell him to the highest bidder or harvest his genetic material, by a government that wants to control his reproductive rights.
The thriller is a page-turner as Cole tries to reach safety before her sister and the callous thugs she’s with catch up with her. However, it’s also a moving exploration of a mother-son relationship. Miles is suffering the pangs of growing up and sexual awakening, at the same time as having no friends, pining for his dead father, and being forced to play the role of a girl in public. It leaves him with vulnerabilities Cole can’t guard against. How did you put yourself inside his head so convincingly?
I have an 11-year-old daughter who is just as smart and troublesome and compassionate and funny as Miles. She was a great starting point for me to understand the tween headspace. But that’s just the seed of the character development and I find, in the writing, that characters grow into their own people with their own fears and desires, challenges, and demands.
The story is told from three points of view: Cole, Miles, and Billie. Why did you choose that particular narrative approach for Afterland?
Apart from Zoo City, all my novels have had multiple narrators. I’m interested in the liminal spaces of the story that happen between perspectives, in characters lying to us or to themselves, getting a different take on what just happened, and exploring these other minds.
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