ONE QUESTION: Michelle Pretorius

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HYPERTEXT is launching ONE QUESTION. It’s a mini-interview series where authors consider this: “What question do you wish you’d been asked about your work?” We’re delighted to kick off the series with Michelle Pretorius, author of The Monster’s Daughter.
Check back tomorrow to read an excerpt from The Monster’s Daughter

By Michelle Pretorius

A question I have not been asked is why I chose to use elements of Science Fiction in a novel that could already be categorized under the genre of crime thriller or historical fiction. I grew up in apartheid-era South Africa. During apartheid literature and media were censored, and education, as is often the case in police states, was skewed towards ideas that could ensure government control of the population. Because of this, I didn’t learn the true history and meaning of apartheid. And neither did my peers or other generations that grew up within this system.

I always loved reading crime fiction, the idea that misdeeds could be punished and criminals found out through the use of intelligence and logic. When I started the work on my first novel, The Monster’s Daughter, I knew it would have to contain, if not be driven by, some heinous crime that had to be put right by a detective. As my research into South Africa’s past grew, I realized that the real crime I was writing about, was apartheid, the criminal, the proponents of apartheid.

I went back to South Africa several times in the course of writing the book. I tried to broach the subject of apartheid with my parents, my grandparents, my siblings and my friends. The reaction was usually a degree of denial, or deflection to how the current government was messing things up. When presented with the facts that I had so recently researched, the horrors and misdeeds perpetrated by whites against blacks, my friends, family and acquaintances often turned outright hostile, sometimes even reverting to racial stereotypes that were propagated in apartheid-era South Africa.

So how do you go about writing about societal ills, racism and its consequences, and reach the people whose wounds are still raw, both black and white? How do you attempt, in your small way, to make amends with the past, and like crime fiction often does, make order out of disorder?

Darko Suvin, an often quoted science fiction theorist put forth the theory of estrangement and cognition. Suvin’s idea is that the reader intentionally takes a mental step away from their reality to engage a narrative that may use factual information and mimesis to strengthen a feeling of being possible and that, in doing so, they acknowledge that the “real world” is in some sense a construction. Suvin argues that fiction is a cognitive exercise in refuting reality and that estrangement functions by forcing the reader to recognize that they live in a world of instability and ambiguity. It is this instability in the world we inhabit that essentially impels readers towards fiction, where they intentionally shift their perception from the problematic world around them into a narrative where, even if it is dark, weird, or complicated, a new set of rules to make sense of the world are presented. While there is some degree of estrangement in all fiction, a break from the real world, as it were, what sets Science Fiction apart from other genres is the fact that its estrangements are cognitive, scientifically possible or believed to be scientifically possible.

For me, social commentary has always been the power of Science Fiction. The hyper-drives and strange worlds are fun, but it is what they say about the human condition that compels us to look at ourselves and the world we inhabit. We perceive our world superficially. Especially now with our eyes trained on our iPhones, we do not really see things around us the way they really are. To overcome this blindness, we need to experience the normal everyday world we inhabit as strange again, to see it through strange eyes. Science Fiction, because of this idea of estrangement, also has the power to remove the immediacy of our emotions, to distance us from the rawness of our experience, and to allow us to look with new eyes at our society. That is why I turned to Science Fiction when I came up against the problem of discussing race and the social ills of apartheid. A part of the mythology of apartheid involved the racial superiority of whites and I wanted to subvert that and actually have a created race that was superior to ask the question of what a superior race really was, what being human really meant.

The advances made in biological and genetic engineering today already read like science fiction. In the novel I shift the timeline of what was possible in 1901, so that this type of gene manipulation could have happened, through some cosmic accident, and use it as a vehicle to discussing race, and race superiority. It is my hope that by introducing these science fictional elements, I can create just enough distance, estrange just enough, so that the reader of my book can look at society with new eyes.

The excerpt is from Chapter 9 in The Monster’s Daughter. The protagonist, Constable Alet Berg, and her partner, Sergeant Mathebe, had a falling out. Alet consults with a forensic pathologist and learns that there was something very different about the murder victim.

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Born and raised in South Africa, Michelle received a B.A. at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. She has lived in London, New York, and the Midwest and holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. She is currently a doctoral student in creative writing at Ohio University. Her writing has appeared in LitHub, Arcturus, The Copperfield Review, and others. Her first novel, The Monster’s Daughter is published by Melville House and Audible. More information can be found at www.michellepretorius.com.

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