Zoo City author Lauren Beukes talks about South African SF, and winning the Clarke AwardS

Lauren Beukes won the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award for her novel Zoo City, a jarring urban fantasy about an alternate Johannesburg where criminals are matched with magical animals.

We talked to Beukes about being the first woman to win the Clarke Award since 2002, and why a book about magical animals and ghosts that communicate using cellphones speaks to people's real-life concerns. And the evils of autotune.

Top image: Zoo City cover art by John Picacio.

Congrats on winning the award! What does this win mean to you, both in terms of your career and in terms of your writing?

It's all rather overwhelming. Mostly I feel grateful - and I know everyone says that, but it's actually a deep physical pang, a bit like heartache, only happier. I owe so much to so many people. I'm still in shock. The international recognition of the win, especially with THAT short-list, is amazing, the physical object is beautiful, but it's been the response from people that's affected me the most. (Although my favourite response has been from my friend, Tom Eaton, who runs satire site Hayibo.com, offering congratulations on winning the Arthur C Clarke and commiserations on storing a three year old corpse of a dead writer in my living room - which made me laugh out loud).

It's remarkable - unbelievable - to be ranked among some of my favourite writers.

It's also a little terrifying because it raises expectations and I know some writers have been paralysed by success early in their careers. Happily I have my next three books planned out and I have witty friends to keep me grounded.

There's been a lot of debate over the gender politics of the Clarke Award lately, and you're the first woman to win it since 2002. Do you feel like women are under-represented in these sorts of awards?

They probably are, the way women are under-represented in many professional fields. I suspect it's more about gender politics in the world in general. Awareness helps and it's a discussion we need to be having, but I've never felt it personally and that's a remarkable position to be in — that I've never (knowingly) been discriminated against for my gender or race or sexual preferences or what I write about in my career. Ultimately, I hope, it's about the book not the writer.

Zoo City is a book that deals with some gritty issues about poverty and crime, and the creation of a criminal underclass. Do you think a book like that speaks to important issues in the 21st century? Is this win partly a recognition that your book is topical?

You'd have to ask the judges. But from the feedback I've had from readers on Twitter and in blog reviews and emails, that's certainly part of what resonates with them - it's also the setting, that Johannesburg is unusual, a mash-up of culture and class, third world and first, that is largely foreign and unknown to a lot of people. And I do try to tackle the issues that make me angry in my fiction, from surveillance society to xenophobia to the divides between people and the evils of autotune. It's fantastical and it has magical animals and ghosts that communicate through cell phones and emails and crime and music and refugees and inner city slums, but at heart it's a book about guilt and the possibility of redemption.

Obviously, the Clarke Award is for books published in the UK, and it's a UK-centric award, whereas your book takes place in South Africa. Do you think issues of class, race and post-colonialism play out differently in those two settings? Do you think the UK has something to learn from reading literature about former colonies?

I don't know how relevant the former colonies are to the average UK citizen/reader today. I think it helps because the British audience possibly has a better idea of South Africa (and India and the West Indies) because we had a conjoined history for a time and there are lots of saffers (hate that term) living and working in the UK.

The issues in South Africa are probably more out in the open. We wear our chaos on our sleeves (and our t-shirts and our pants legs and, in the case of the Numbers gangs, sometimes even tattooed on our foreheads). But they're universal problems. Poverty, crime, inequality, xenophobia, refugees, dodgy
corporations, corruption and cronyism and meddling repressive governments and historical atrocities that still affect people today - we've all got that going on to some extent.

Johannesburg is interesting because it's all those things condensed into one city, a microcosm of global issues crammed into one amazing, vibrant city.

What are you working on now?

I'm doing the final audio mix on the feature documentary I directed, Glitterboys And Ganglands, which will be out later this year, about South Africa's biggest female impersonation pageant.

I'm writing kids scripts for Millimages TV series Mouk.

Working on comics proposals for Vertigo (my debut is out March 25th with a short story in the Strange Adventures anthology with art by Inaki Miranda)

Talking to Tony Kaye about writing a screenplay for him about a very exciting idea I can't say a word about.

And starting in on the new novel which I've suddenly become very superstitious about talking about. I need to do less talking and more writing.