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Mary Watson Mary Watson is the author of Moss (Kwela, 2004), a collection of interlinking short stories. She teaches in the Film and Media Department at the University of Cape Town. Her most recent short story, "The Lilytree", is about a couple who grow a little girl in their backyard. Mary is 29 years old and lives in Woodstock.
"... Exploring landscape in South African literature is not unlike treading a minefield."

Writing space: reflections and refractions

Mary Watson

In recent South African fiction, place and space have been imagined in reassuringly familiar ways. There is, for example, an invocation of space imbued with a nostalgia. This is a necessary reclaiming of space, wresting it from the more pragmatic discourses to which it has sometimes been subjected; it is one way of refiguring dispossession. The South African landscape is, in too many ways, a contested space, and the claims made to it are not simply claims of ownership, but claims to legitimacy. This contestation plays out the level of literary criticism too - exploring landscape in South African literature is not unlike treading a minefield. My interest here is the relationship between space and imagination, particularly where representations of space are layered with a sense of the magical.

I am curious about the ways in which we perceive space and the ways in which South African literature reflects on this process. What happens when the world is translated to word? How do land- and cityscapes affect our perceptions of the world around us and the words we write? To what extent does writing recreate space and where is it transformed by the imagination? This is a complex interaction, where space and place are realised through words, and the shape-shifting, almost magical, power this implies

When we consider the effect of landscape or the built environment on perception it becomes evident how structures and land alter the ways in which we think and perceive. Because land- and cityscapes are physical presences, they provide a seemingly unassailable structure by which our experiences are shaped. But this physicality is strangely both concrete and elastic - and our experiences of it are at once highly subjective while retaining a collective understanding. Replicating physical features through writing - recreating our lived environment through our fictions - offers a way of concretising and solidifying collective perceptions; it also creates an outlet for the expression of the subjective realisation of these spaces.

Even as space influences us, we continually redefine the landscape as it becomes a receptacle for thoughts, emotions and perceptions. This is a two-way process where space influences us, yet we read space in terms of how we project ourselves onto it. So in South African fiction the Karoo, for example (that big emptiness where ghosts must surely linger), is evoked as a great barren expanse (a shared understanding), but even as this emptiness is given, it is retracted. Instead, it is as if its vast surface were reflective, and so it becomes the site for all kinds of things; a complex manifestation of something else. What this distorted reflection may be, varies from story to story, but there is an awe of the Karoo as a magical place where extraordinary things may happen. It certainly seems plausible.

In this way, we see that imagined streets and locations, mountains and towns that exist in literary space share a likeness with the known and inhabited, yet they are of necessity separate and different from the real thing. By recording the landscape, we evoke the familiar and simultaneously render the real to the imaginary. This is rather like going through the looking-glass, where suddenly what appears to be solid and real now abides by alternative, unknown rules.

The magicking of space is certainly not limited to the Karoo. In some fictional representations it need only be a faraway place: Devil's Valley; Susan Mann's winelands with its magical pockets which are only accessible once away from the city; my own twilight garden implies a different kind of faraway. Other writers show us that magic places can be anywhere (Mda) and that the rural/urban divide is easily transgressed - Vladislavic and Schonstein have shown us how cities can also be magical.

But my reading of magical is not meant to simply identify fey or fantastic elements in literature. What can be read as magic space is often metaphorically loaded representations which highlight the interaction between the physical environment and the individual. Anne Landsman presents a land riddled with holes, and indicates how these become a site for the eruption of sexual energy. In other works, communities may be closed, the space inaccessible (on the other side of Mount Improbable or its equivalent) and the characters who inhabit, or visit, these places do not remain unaffected. The land leaves its mark - imprints itself - on them, as we see with Landsman's Miss Beatrice (who at one point sees herself as the veld), Van Heerden's Ingi, Brink's Flip Lochner, and Coetzee's Magda, to name just a few.

In recent South African fiction there has been an engagement with this process of transforming space. The trend towards creating an artistic object or surface in a story, such as a painting, provides a metaphorical parallel with the act of creating written space. Both indicate the process by which one makes sense of external space. The relationship between the artist and space is therefore foregrounded: How is space realised within a narrative? Landsman's paintings of eyeless fish and goggas, of monsters and demons, draw attention to her written Karoo - the nature of the artwork has a close relationship to the kinds of space invoked in the narrative. Mann's painted feral animals hint at the secret places of the story, and also the terror that lurks beneath these, and she speaks of paintbrushes as "magic wands". The paintings therefore indicate another space in literature - I am not referring only to painted landscapes, but to the painted canvas itself. This is a contained space, a two-dimensional surface, and it functions almost as a mirror within the text. But it only ever offers a distorted reflection. Often it seems to move even further through the looking-glass as the space of imagined imaginations appears to be mostly dream territory.

Art within literature almost invariably removes space even further from a realistic representation, but makes us conscious of the process by which this happens. Mda in The Madonna of Excelsior carefully transcribes painted surfaces at the beginning of chapters - these are landscapes rendered magical by an explosion of colour. The chapters then begin with a skewed reflection - the links can seem tenuous - and create an alternative space which is separate from the narrative yet simultaneously furthers the story through allusion.

So we see how the physical becomes invested with other kinds of meanings and serves to absorb and refract myth, to function metaphorically and symbolically.

Implicit in the process of writing is the recreation of an alternative, of the reconstruction of a different sense of space through an imagined eye: it is possible for devils to walk in Long Street; it is possible for a secret cult to live on Red Hill in Simon's Town. The menacing claustrophobia in the Cango Caves may swallow you up and spit out its ghosts; staggering mermen cast in stone may well spring out of dagga butts and wood shavings. And all of these function to suggest, to state obliquely, to layer and nuance a representation, to create contrast. Most fictional representations of space hover somewhere in between a dogged emulation of real space and a complete metaphorical renovation. What may constitute a magical space varies immensely - magical does not simply refer to spooks and cauldrons, to evidence of the supernatural; it is more subtle than that. One could even argue that imagined spaces are all, in some way or another, magical by virtue of being conjured onto a blank page, through spelling.

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LitNet: 20 October 2004

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