K. Sello Duiker’s short novel, Thirteen Cents is simultaneously gruesome, violent, deeply disturbing, whimsical, and beautiful. Ohio University Press has just released the post-apartheid novelist’s debut book in the US as part of its Modern African Writing series. The book itself won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book, Africa Region back in 2001, when it was first published in South Africa. K. Sello Duiker is one of a generation of the first predominantly urban and black novelists to churn out fiction dealing with realities of a newly post-apartheid South Africa. Of this generation, Duiker and Phaswane Mpe (whose short novel, Welcome To Our Hillbrow is now considered to be one of the great works of contemporary South African literature) are perhaps the most beloved and well known. The two iconic authors both published their celebrated novels within one year of each other and both died tragically within a month of one another. K. Sello Duiker took his own life in January of 2005 following a nervous breakdown.
Thirteen Cents is not a happy story, following the twelve-year-old Azure, a black boy with blue eyes (which are a source of constant trouble) who lives on the streets of Cape Town. Told from the Azure’s perspective, Duiker weaves a narrative that lays bare the violence, exploitation, racial and sexual politics found just under the surface of South African society. The boy harbors a profound distrust for all adults and for good reason, as every adult we encounter through Azure is ultimately only interested in exploiting him – for sex, for money, for power and ego. This is a story about and for a generation of South African youth struggling to make sense of a world that is supposed to hold new and boundless opportunities for them, when in reality the situation appears to be quite the opposite. It is meant to tear the blinders of the rhetoric of a ‘New South Africa’ and ‘Rainbow Nation’ from readers’ eyes. In a letter to his Dutch publishers, Duiker once wrote:
In a South African context I was writing for people between 23 and 30 years of age – people in my age group, because our generation is confronted with different changes happening around us, and I wanted to communicate something of the pressures and contradictions around us. I think the book is not politically correct although it is a sensitive account of what I think is happening in South Africa right now. It’s a young black man’s view of what is happening – it explores youth culture and what it means to be young.
Thirteen Cents is a graphic and tremendously difficult read, but an important one for those interested in contemporary South African literature. It is also a novel written by and for South Africans, so non-South African readers may struggle with parts of it, especially some of the language and cultural references used. Despite the fact that the book contains a glossary, Sello Duiker employs Afrikaans and vernacular phrases regularly, many of which are not translated in the glossary. Nonetheless, it is absolutely a worthwhile read and the same can be said for his second book, The Quiet Violence of Dreams.