Writers Nadeem Aslam, Craig Thompson and Joanne Harris will debate ‘is Mutagenesis worth research?’ at Sheffield Book Festival
Next month marks the fifth annual Sheffield Book Festival (Sat 5-16 Oct), where visitors to one of its events may have thought they were watching a sensitive horror film. This time, it is an actual film and all participants are to be seen as ghosts (where is the main character when I’m in need of her help? Oh, so scary, she won’t know. And you really, really shouldn’t be watching). However, instead of fleeing, these ghosts are in fact real people who do really live, work and write in South Africa. And we’re to try and get to the bottom of the mysterious “variant births” being reported within the country.
This film-making project, part of a year-long work by South African writers to explore whether mutagenesis – abnormalities occurring in different populations, according to their culture – is real science or fiction, invites South African writers, scientists and writers to share their differing opinions on the concept. Join Craig Thompson, Joanne Harris, Nadeem Aslam and Nedda Mlongwane, or the novelists Sara Valetta, Lucy Beckett and Valerie Vaz.
From September to November, the writers will collaborate in studio settings with researchers at several institutions on the various themes in the novel (this one is about particular variations, such as variations of cancers). The resulting mix of stories and fiction will then be made into a full-length novel.
South Africa has produced an astonishing number of international bestsellers, and numerous acclaimed works by established and emerging South African writers alike, but that hasn’t kept South Africans from responding to the region’s strange, dark corners with their own, imaginative, occasionally depraved takes on the traditional texts they have read and loved for centuries. Horror is hugely popular in that part of the world, and not least in its extremely well-known tales of little people, the tribe of Twi. Surely all this might make people think again before publishing those supernatural stories? But the only people who seem to stop writing after that are the likes of Ian Rankin and Sarah Mengers, and the violence in those books remains … well, savage.
Given South Africa’s bloody history, the tendency to imagine the paranormal has long been as a way of coping with the pain that the nation endured, but to the extent that things have changed within the country they have also changed the nature of the mythology that has survived. In the 1990s, particularly after the ANC won power, mutagenesis was truly considered a distinctly South African matter. But today many South Africans value the validation and new research methods that mutagenesis can provide, while others might be more wary, not just of the damage that mutagenesis might cause but of being pulled into the search, without knowing exactly where it might lead them. Will our discussion, and the resulting literature, show that mutagenesis, beyond this threat of violence, is, in its contemporary and political incarnations, something worth investigating?
• The Variant Hunters: Inside South Africa’s Effort to Stanch Dangerous Mutations is at Sheffield festival (Sat 5-16 Oct) and will be published by 4th Estate Books, Price £16.99. To order a copy for £15.04 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.