Whose city? (De)colonising the bodies of speculative fiction in Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City

Decolonising Speculative Fiction

Keywords: cyborg, gender, the body, speculative fiction, Lauren Beukes, Zoo City


This article explores the (de)colonisation of the body and body boundaries in contemporary South African speculative fiction, paying particular attention to award-wining author, Lauren Beukes’s, second novel, Zoo City (2010). I will apply Lara Cox’s (2018:317) argument that ‘Haraway’s cyborg resembles the liminal view of identity presented by queer theory, which seeks to blur strict divisions between sexual and gender categories, dissolving binary oppositions such as woman/man and heterosexual/homosexual’, to my reading of Zoo City. By centring the novel around Zinzi December, a resident of ‘Zoo City’ (the marginalised underbelly of Johannesburg), and situating the novel in the cradle of humankind, Beukes reacts against South Africa’s colonial history and its colonisation of the body by blurring the animal-human boundary and challenging the colonial construct of body binaries. The novel can be read as a decolonial feminist text as it re-writes South Africa’s apartheid history and critiques its division, separation and bodily segregation. Furthermore, I explore how fictional bodies are imagined and constructed in the text; I ask what kinds of boundary-breaking bodies predominate; and consider their thematic, narrative, and political significance in the post-apartheid imaginary in relation to speculative fiction. I examine how new boundaries (particularly between ‘normative’ society and ‘Zoo City’) are formulated. Zoo City pulls into focus Kristeva’s (1982) notion of the abject body as a central to its concerns, while also bringing attention to Foucault’s (1992) notion of the ‘disciplined’ body. It foregrounds questions about the formulation and destabilisation of identity, with a particular focus on the construction of female identity. This article builds on the critical literature on the dystopian post-apartheid state by examining Zoo City’s depictions of marginalised people and its construction of the body and body boundaries, as well as by extending the examination of representations of the body in speculative fiction.