Thursday morning’s murderous cold winds and howling rains were the perfect setting for South African writer Lauren Beukes to discuss her new crime novel, The Shining Girls.
In conversation with ABC Radio National’s Michael Cathcart, the 2011 Arthur C. Clark Award winner was at the Sydney Writers’ Festival to discuss her haunting tale of a time-travelling serial killer who murders Chicago’s ‘shining girls’.
The conversation spanned gender issues inherent in the novel, the politics of femicide in South Africa, the titillation factor of the dead female body in Western crime literature, and the geography of apartheid from Johannesburg to Chicago.
Lauren said she decried the use of a dead woman’s body as a form of titillation. She described the UK Daily Mail’s front cover photo of a bikini-clad Reeva Steenkamp, murdered by South African Paralympian Oscar Pistorius, as “very sensationalist and gratuitous”.
Acknowledging Steenkamp was a bikini model, she nevertheless said this image had become prevalent in the crime genre. “I was specifically writing against that”.
For a novel audiences might have hoped was more fiction than reality, Lauren revealed how true stories informed the characters in her novel. Kirby Mazrachi, one of Beukes’ ‘shining girls’, is based on the true story of Alison, a South African girl who was “horrifically attacked by Satanists”.
Stories like these are close to home for Beukes. “South Africa has a horrifying femicide rate,” she said, “a women’s dead body is a statistic for a politician”.
Beukes is aware of the difficulties in writing honestly about issues of domestic violence in South Africa, admitting “people aren’t going to read that”. Instead she prefers fiction, “one of the most powerful ways to explore where we are in the world”.
The issues she addresses in her fiction are global. “Chicago was actually the place that the apartheid government went to find out how to do segregation better, because it is one of the most racially segregated cities in America,” she told the audience.
Lauren Beukes believes fiction is a way to overcome what she calls “issue fatigue”. Michael Cathcart described it as “a way of returning to the unreturnable” – to the issues that filter, like those in Beukes’ novel, through time and place.