So, I read Hunter Emmanuel, the fifth story that made the 13th Caine Prize shortlist, written by Jenna Cato Bass, a 25 year old white South African writing under the pseudonym Constance Myburgh. The story features Hunter Emmanuel, a Walter Mitty type of loser, a misogynist jerk who loves playing detective. He finds a woman’s leg up on a tree and the story builds from there as he chases down the owner, a one-legged “whore” and “slet.”. It is an improbable story even as magic realism goes (which this story probably is not), but there are subtle plays on many anxieties in today’s South Africa: racism (Hunter is black), urban violence, feminism, misogyny, etc.
I imagine this story may be classified as genre writing under the umbrella of pulp fiction, I am not sure. Bass is a good writer, expertly delivering muscular prose and believable dialogue. She is also the editor and co-creator of Jungle Jim, a pulp-literary magazine for African writing. There is a good piece on pulp fiction here but let me provide some context that may be disconnected from historical reality. I believe that television’s main purpose in coming to the world was to get rid of pulp fiction. The good pulp fiction writers went on to be successful scriptwriters in Hollywood. Bass is in the wrong business though, genre writing now exists on television; she should go make financial hay while she is still young. As a writer she would do quite well in any TV station. The story read like the third draft of a made-for TV script. One more draft and it would have the oomph it so badly needed. Many times, I felt like reaching for my remote control to either turn on the volume or shut down the infernal noise from the silence of this story that gently goes nowhere.
The story is actually in my view, a morality story, another opportunity to sermonize about the evils of misogyny, etc., much like Stanley Kenani’s Love on Trial, only in a more sophisticated and subversive way. It is subtle but relentless though: Women are objectified and ridiculed with obscenity-riddled sentences. Even the forest that bears the woman’s leg is named Cecilia Forest. About the leg, it “had been cut off right at the crotch, at the dip he liked so much, probably his favorite place in a chick.” From that point on, there are all these cheesy plays and puns on chicks and cuts, like a drunk staring at cheap chicken cuts garishly displayed in a greasy spoon. It gets old and tasteless after a while.
I like the way Bass she was able to get into character and flesh out the protagonist, Hunter Emmanuel. Hunter is a trash-talking misogynist who manages to make an entire (largely pointless) story from body parts, mostly of the female sort. Dark meat meets dark man. I don’t want to over-analyze, but I have this sneaky suspicion that in her faux anonymity. Bass sought to plant her views on feminism, race, misogyny, etc. on the head of a black South African male. I wondered about the derogatory language deployed here against women; who is more likely to speak like this; a white or a black South African? Interesting. For once I wished Bass had explained all the South African words in her story, it gives it a very provincial, colloquial tint. I did not feel motivated to go looking for the meanings of the many Afrikaans sounding words. This was largely because the story is laconic and listless; it does not inspire much of curiosity in the reader. Besides, when Bass calls a “whore” a “slet” you tend to get the meaning right away.
Bass, the writer has my respect. There is a lot of imagination here, even if most of it is inchoate and disconnected from reality, thanks to perhaps a desire to arrive at a story’s (non) conclusion. She will only get better as her demons mature in the darkness that is her South Africa. She should probably be given the Caine Prize this year if only to encourage her to keep babbling. It would make great copy. I can see it now,
“The Caine Prize goes to faux anonymous Constance Myburgh who spends the day in real life as Jenna Cato Bass, a 25 year old white South African lady who founded the uniquely named pulp fiction rag Jungle Jim magazine that features black men running around weird neighborhoods muttering dark fantasies about female body parts and slets and whatnot. No italics necessary.”
Pulp fiction is not new. As a boy, I read all of my father’s True Detective magazines and his dog-eared copies of the exploits of John Creasey’s Inspector Roger “Handsome” West in a fiction series about a Scotland Yard detective. As children we were also enthralled and entertained by picture plays. There was Lance Spearman in African Film and Fearless Fang in Boom and of course the tear jerker Sadness and Joy. Tunde Giwa has a lovely 2008 essay on the pulp fiction of my generation in this must read. He captures the era wondrously thus
“Growing up in Nigeria, in what I choose to remember as a halcyon era with TV that ran from 6pm to 9pm, the Internet had yet to be invented, no one had ever heard of computer games, you played with your imagination and objects you found around you and comics were a great love. We treated them like gold and devised an elaborate barter system to establish what each one was worth. “I’ll give you two codis (tops made from garden snail shells) or 1/16th of a fizzie if you let me read your comic”. Being as it was, the immediate postcolonial era, these comics, regardless of where they came from, uniformly featured white characters.”
And he continues:
“Into this culturally colonized milieu came a new comic published by Drum Publications called African Film featuring Lance Spearman, a raffish and nattily-dressed black super cop with an ever-present Panama hat. And we all instantly fell deeply in love with him. No one forced Spearman on us. For the first time, we had a comic hero who was actually black like us. African Film was very different from other comics of the time. Not hand-drawn as other comics were, it was a photoplay magazine that used actual photographs of real black people with the dialog typed at the bottom of each panel. Located in an unnamed but strictly urban setting, Lance Spearman was cast as a black James Bond type. It featured several recurring characters including the unforgettable eye-patch wearing arch-villain Rabon Zollo who once made his escape from certain capture using a jet-powered flying wheelchair. Obviously, as with any comic, they were not shooting for plausibility. But when Spearman took on a young sidekick called Lemmy, many of us almost died of jealousy – we so wanted to be in his shoes. African Film used cliffhangers to great effect, keeping us wanting more and eagerly expecting the next serial installment.”
How does Jungle Jim as a purveyor of pulp fiction compare? I don’t know, but this is Jungle Jim’s mission statement:
“Jungle Jim is a bi-monthly illustrated print publication, aiming on spreading narrative, imagination and concept-driven African stories. Taking from the pulp tradition, we publish short and serialized fiction that entertains and engrosses in all dramatic genres (horror, sci-fi, crime, detective, western, romance, adventure etc.), accessible to all, but with a high quality of writing. We seek to publish stories that explore the collision between visceral daring of pulp and the reality of living in Africa.”
Television is here, along with the Internet, competition is stiff, and the publishers will have to do more than the story Hunter Emmanuel to hold the reader’s attention. I read this story three times: Black guys mugging colored guys, mayhem, racial tensions, misbehaving sexist racist cops. The subtext under all of these pretty sentences: post-apartheid South Africa has a lot of issues. We knew that, Ms. Bass.