A few years ago I visited Salinas in California, where John Steinbeck grew up. At the end of a quiet street with a burger bar and a few boarded-up shops, is the Steinbeck Museum.
Steinbeck first came to prominence in 1939 with his book Grapes of Wrath which documents the exploitation of displaced and destitute mid-western farmers at the hands of the wealthy land owners of California.
These were the early days of industrialised farming, and the small-scale farmers of the mid-west had been attacked on two fronts: by a devastating drought that turned their land into dust, and by the arrival of mechanised tools that they could ill afford.
Grapes of Wrath follows a family as they cut their losses and head west, only to find that beyond the desert is not a land of milk and honey, but a place where their poverty ensures that they are despised, ill-treated and exploited.
It is a damning portrait of America and when the book was published it was met with outrage. The Associated Farmers of California dismissed the novel as a “pack of lies” and “communist propaganda”, copies of the book were burned, and the FBI put Steinbeck under surveillance.
This summer, Lost Where I Belong: Trying to Escape Apartheid’s Shadow, will be published. The book has been praised for being confronting and challenging, and rejected for not being saleable enough, and so like Virginia Woolf who stared her own press (now Bloomsbury) because the publishers of her day thought her writing too feminine, I have decided to go it alone.
Thanks to Amazon and the like, self-publishing is no longer considered the vanity press it once was, and has been repackaged as “indie” publishing, and a way to circumvent the spinelessness of traditional publishers. But without the stamp of approval of a third party, I am left alone with this thought: how will this book be received by South Africans? And what would it feel like to have your writing rejected by your nation because it is out of step with the way the nation wants to see itself?
Twenty three years after Grapes of Wrath was published, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his “realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”.
But far from celebrating his success, again America baulked. How dare this book that vilified their nation and portrayed the ruling class in such a vile light, be awarded such an important prize? How dare this book be lifted up high for the world to see?
Grapes of Wrath is a confronting book. It is a book that every South African should read as it drives home the point that land ownership matters, really matters. Drought may have pushed the mid-western farmers off their land, but in South Africa it was white immigrants who created laws that banned black people from owning land, and until that disenfranchisement is dealt with through some form of satisfactory compensation and restitution, South Africa will never find peace.
When I set out to write my book, I did not understand the land issue. My book is about an awakening to the realities of a country I ill-understood. The book is about a journey from ignorance to the beginnings of understanding, and there is no doubt that it will get South Africans hot under the collar. I know, because it already has. And those people were my friends.
The Steinbeck museum is book-ended by two poignant exhibits. The first, when you enter the museum, is a film about mechanised farming. The camera runs through jolly wheat fields, shows happy labourers picking fruit, and the clean and smooth processes of conveyor belts carrying shiny produce. It looks like a video that was produced by the Associated Farmers of California for their annual 4th of July picnic, and feels like an attempt to sow doubt in the the twisted mind of the Grapes of Wrath reader.
The last, just before you leave, is a green camper van (pictured above). After he won the 1962 Nobel Prize and America spat at his victory, Steinbeck was concerned that he had lost touch with his country and had the camper van built so he could take to the road with his dog Charley, and write about America. Travels with Charley is a writer’s book. It’s a book more about what it is to like to desire to write about your country, and fail and doubt and lose interest, than it is about 1960s America. Steinbeck never again wrote about socio-political issues.
Steinbeck is far from being the only writer to be publicly lambasted for daring to write about that which others did not want to acknowledge.
A Woman in Berlin, published shortly after WW2, documents the Russian occupation of Berlin and how all the women were raped, how the German men were incapable of protecting them, and how the women accepted the rape in order to survive. The book is written with a light-hearted, deft touch, and after its first publication, it was met with such public anger in Germany, the author refused the book to be published again until after her death, and then only anonymously.
Contemplating these books, on the eve of publication of my own work, made me ask myself: what is it that nations expect of writers? It is easy to get a handle on what individuals expect. I just have to think of myself, as I sit down with a book.
Writing can give me succour at a time of difficulty.
It can shed light of clarity on things I do not understand.
Good writing can point me to something that I have not noticed before.
It can entertain me, creating an escape route from myself.
It can critique the way things are, and remind me that they have not always been this way, that there are other ways.
Writing can be like a hall of mirrors, that reflects me back to me, sometimes stretched, sometimes magnified, sometimes exactly the way I am (which can be the worst reflection of all).
But what do nations want? What are the forces that guide a collective consciousness to revere or deride a book at a certain point in history, and then to change their mind, or not, decades later?
I don’t have an answer to that yet. Maybe you do?
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