The Jabu Goes to Joburg Fotonovella is the brainchild of writer-researcher Achal Prabhala. Chronic caught up with him to talk form and absurdity.
Achal Prabhala: I grew up in India in the 1980s and my neighbours, three Punjabi girls who lived in a joint family, used to read fotonovelas. They borrowed them from a commercial lending library, a thing that still exists, and still caters to people who want to read – but can’t afford – imported books and magazines. My neighbours were about ten years older than me, and since most of the fotonovelas were about romance, I’m sure they thought I shouldn’t be reading them – but they let me see them anyway. I liked them. I was too young to think of them as cheesy or low-brow or cool in some pop-cultural way – and living in a socialist country, I had pretty much no television or movies to turn to. I had books, and I read a lot, and there were comics, but that was pretty much it, and I guess fotonovelas were a kind of cut-rate cinema for third-world people. Naturally, everyone in every one of the fotonovelas I read then was white, but this was probably what made them such desirable objects of sub-literary consumption.
I then discovered that this story played out in almost exactly the same way in South Africa. Chimurenga ran an excellent feature on Lance Spearman, one of the great characters to come out of Drum’s African Film magazine. Pam Dlungwana, who produced this fotonovela, and Francis Burger, an artist who incidentally plays a small role in our fotonovela, introduced me to more great characters from South African fotonovelas of the 1970s and 80s.
I won’t pretend that there was a huge amount of intellectual reasoning behind this project – we just liked the form, the cheesy production values, exaggerated emotions, absurd romantic longings and all. I wrote a script in about one day, sent it to Ntone, we talked, he liked the idea, Pam came on board, and here we are.
AP: I haven’t actually seen “Jim comes to Joburg”. I’ve heard of it, of course, but I don’t think I’ll be watching it any time soon. I find it massively annoying that every urban story in South Africa is some version of “XYZ comes to Joburg” – and essentially the same story: good-hearted wide-eyed rural man/woman comes to the city of gold to seek his/her fortune and gets screwed. Alan Paton wrote “Cry, the Beloved Country” in 1948 and that little snowflake he kicked down the mountain kept rolling, and rolling, and became an avalanche. So much so that 70 years later, the big feature films set in the city – I’m thinking of Tstotsi and Jerusalema – are about little more than how the whole place is some kind of torrid hallucination. It’s as if there’s a rule; a mandatory clause that requires all creative people to plumb the stygian depths of Joburg in any narrative of the place, from which no one is exempt – not even, for instance, the young, black, male writer of a promising blog-turned-book called the “Diary of a Zulu girl” in which said Zulu girl makes the long journey to Joburg only to immediately descend into prostitution.
I worked as an activist for a trade union in Joburg for two years, and I’ve lived there for a few months a year ever since. It’s now been 12 years – and I love it. Maybe because of my geographical origins – I’m from India, and I came to South Africa shortly after living a year in Guyana – I don’t have the privilege of considering South Africa a comedown. It’s a step up for me, as it is for so many others I know, and it’s weird that our enjoyment of the city – with its dazzling promise and possibility – has no place in the narrative of the city. Weirder still is how the people who count, by which I mean the conscience-keepers (the activists, the consultants, and what have you) and the uptight Sandtonites, without meaning to collude, both see this city in exactly the same way: as a problem that needs to be solved.
I guess this is a roundabout way of saying, we wanted to tell a story of people having fun. Also, I like alliterations.
AP: I am the biggest fan of Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise. She is, without doubt, the greatest character written in crime fiction. (If you or anyone else reading this is interested, here’s O’Donnell’s account of his inspiration behind the character from his time in the British Armed Forces in 1942: it makes me cry with joy every time I read it.)
I would like to believe Jabu is a descendant of Modesty Blaise.
There’s all this talk of authenticity, and to me, it sounds like a mundanely diabolical plot to stop people from dreaming. I think Modesty Blaise is about as unlikely as (the very real) Sun-Ra. Which is not to say her story – or Jabu’s – is “true”. I like escapism, I think pulp fiction is fine, and I would say this fotonovela has worked if someone reading it thinks: who cares if it’s real?
Yes, she sleeps around a little, but only in her unending quest to bring her true love home. When you get down to it, Jabu is a traditional woman. That’s why she doesn’t kiss strangers. I read an extensive interview with Tau Morena, the producer of South Africa’s first hard-core pornographic feature film, in which he said, “The cum shot is a foreign concept.” (He was explaining why his film, Mapona Vol. 1, had everything but this one scene). When I read that line, I thought it was the single greatest articulation of a national identity I had ever heard in my life, and I tried to bring something of his spirit to our protagonist.
I don’t think the characters in this fotonovela are any stranger than those in the fotonovela of our lives.
Some people find genres constraining; I find them liberating. The fotonovela is a light, frothy, melodramatic, fast-paced romance which is almost always about finding TRUE LOVE. (There’s a reason it’s the name of South Africa’s highest circulating womens’ magazine.) Now you can either treat the genre sincerely, or turn it into camp, and have a big laugh about low culture. I prefer doing it with integrity – not only does it work better, but I think it’s also an honest admission of the very powerful lure of popular culture, even to us high-minded folk.
One of the casualties of a high-minded literary culture everywhere – from South Africa to India and to the United States – is the devaluation and gradual disappearance of pulp fiction. Literary culture can degrade popular culture all it likes, but the lurid stories being sold on the streets of Lagos, São Paulo, Hong Kong or Bangalore – where I live – have the stamp of democracy. Mostly terrible, sometimes passable, and very rarely wonderful, the book on the street is, however, always a sign of a population in control. And as much as I regret the loss of the steamy paperback in middle-class literary life, I am reminded of how the sentiment still exists when I read the tabloids, or internet fan fiction, or see popular social media memes. Google Mugabe’s misstep on the tarmac, or Zuma’s weekend-special Finance Ministry appointment, and then read our fotonovela: you’ll see the same thing going on – ordinary people crudely photoshopping their reality on earth into the preferred universe of their imagination. Pulp fiction has only disappeared from print, not from our lives.
Back in my blameless youth, I read the only book Pedro Almodovar ever wrote – it’s called The Patty Diphusa Stories and Other Writings. It’s a collection of his columns for an underground Madrid magazine, and it’s expectedly insane. Patty Diphusa (a pun in Spanish meaning “flabbergasted”) is a transsexual porn star/ performance artist/ socialite who chronicles her nocturnal journeys through what seems like the centre of the world. Among the many gems in the book is an essay on Madrid, and how he turned it into the centre of the world. Spain was in the throes of a post-Franco frenzy of relief. He was excited by the city, having moved from a small town in the interior, and – he figured – if he said that it was all happening in Madrid, people would believe him, and maybe then everything would actually happen in Madrid. And it did.
I kind of feel the same way about Joburg.
Jabu Comes to Joburg is a pull-out supplement that rubs with the Chronic (April 2016), an edition in which we explore the tensions between reform and revolution, and decolonisation and the neoliberal order in the academy, through the lens of history and via the alternate education paradigms based in indigenous knowledge systems, and also arising from South Africa’s radical anti-apartheid struggle.Buy the Chronic