Niq Mhlongo recently launched his new book Way Back Home in his hometown of Soweto. A caustic critique of South Africa’s political elite, its something of a departure for the young novelist who first gained acclaim for his street-smart post-apartheid novels, Dog Eat Dog (2004) and After Tears (2007). We talk to him about home and away, life and death, bodies and his body of work, and finding home far away in Brazzaville.
Are you a South African writer, an African writer or just a writer?
I’m all of the above.
The New York Times wanted to know ‘where were black South African writers?’ back in 2002, when the paper published a feature on South Africa’s post-apartheid literary landscape. So where are they?
I wish the New York Times could come back again and ask that question. Of course the question was relevant in 2002 when there were very few black writers in South African Literary World. That has since changed. Now many black writers have since emerged and made their names internationally. I’m talking about writers such as Angelina Sithebe, Thando Mqgolozana, Thembelani Ngenelwa, Siphiwo Mahala, Sihle Khumalo, Kopano Mathlwa, Kgebetli Moele, Nozizwe Cynthia Jele, Given Mokwevho, Fred Khumalo, Angela Makholwa, Bongani Madondo, Sandile Memela, Ntikeng Mohlele, Zukiswa Wanner, Ndumiso Ngcobo, Sifiso Mzobe, Diale, Masilela, Nape Motana, and so on. There are still many more that are self-published.
You recently launched your new book Way Back Home in Soweto. Was that a deliberate move? How much of reading culture is there in Soweto? Why do so few literary events happen in South Africa’s townships?
Launching my new book in Soweto was indeed a deliberate move. I wrote my novels in Soweto, about Soweto, and using Soweto language in my dialogues. I felt it was time I honored Sowetans for the stories that they have given me to write by bringing the launch here. My observation is that Soweto people do read, but the culture of reading here is the unusual one. For example, one book in Soweto can be read by many people. Sowetans like sharing, and very few people see value in owning a book or small libraries in their homes. Therefore instead of buying a book, most Soweto township readers would rather borrow one and read. So I guess the culture of reading is there, but not of buying. Last year my niece took my copy of Dog Eat Dog and borrowed her friend who lives along our street. Three weeks later I was scheduled to do a reading in some school. When I asked her to fetch my copy, I was told her friend had borrowed another friend, who in turn borrowed another friend. The copy could not be located for about three months. When it was finally returned, I was told that about eleven people had read it. I think the main problem is the culture of buying books rather than reading them. That is why I guess The Exclusive Books that was once at the Maponya Mall in Soweto closed. But there are some Sowetans who are avid book readers and buyers. Sometimes I blame the township libraries that are poorly stocked with old books. At some point I went to a library in Pimville, Soweto to see if they had copies of books, because the Chiawelo one didn’t have. I was not surprised that they didn’t have any book by post-apartheid authors except Zakes Mda. Both libraries still had the same copies of old books that I used to borrow when I was still in high school. The only difference was that those old books now had some pages missing. The state of libraries is Soweto is appalling, and it needs some serious attention before one can talk about the culture of reading in Soweto.
I’m not sure why few literary events happen in the townships. But I guarantee you that if they can be done there; people will attend in great numbers like they did during my launch. I think the problem at the moment is that there are still those stereotypes that still exist about the township. Some people still think that the township is dangerous. To the contrary, Soweto has become a favored tourist destination of Johannesburg. You come here especially on weekends and you’ll find different people from all over the world eating kota at the spaza shops that are spread around the township. Maybe it is such a good idea to invest on a literary event in Soweto. But the question is; who is willing? Maybe Chimurenga must be the first.
You choose to write in English- but one full of street and township slang. Is this an attempt to, as poet Lesego Rampolokeng called it, commit ‘linguisticide’ against the English language?
English had since become my language too, although I speak the bastardized version of it. I chose to write in English because it is the language of the market and through it my ideas and stories were able to be marketed across the world. Besides, I speak half of every South African official languages. This might sound as if I’m betraying my mother tongue, but English is the only language that I think I speak best because I studied it from primary school into university level. Most of the literature books that I have read, if not all, were written in English. To me English is my language too. Nobody can claim to own the language because every country has its version of English. In South Africa we have what we call a township version of English which is bastardized with tsotsitaal or slang. That is the English I use in my books. We also have the suburbs version, which we call a ‘coconut version’. People in the suburbs speak their version of English with their noses, and they start every sentence with the words, ‘it’s like’ and end the sentence with ‘ya know what I mean?’ English is the language that was forced to me through colonialism and later apartheid. I have since happily adopted the language. May be Lesego is right. I have committed ‘linguisticide’ against English, whatever that means.
Then I asked her where the river was in Zulu and she answered my question in Kikongo. I understood completely. I then realized that we are actually one people who have been made different by the French and English colonialists.
The Times anointed you as something of a spokesperson for the country’s so-called kwaito generation- the so-called born frees? It’s a generation sometimes accused of apolitical, ‘hedonistic’ and flighty preoccupations, do you agree?
Only a politician can claim to be a spokesperson of a particular group of people or a generation, not a writer. I only write from within this generation, but I’m not a spokesperson. I cannot speak for the so-called kwaito generation as if it is a homogenous group that can’t think or speak for itself.
Kimathi Tito, the protagonist of your new book has it all. As a child of the revolution, born in exile in Tanzania, he has steadily accumulated wealth and influence since arriving in South Africa in 1991. How much of you is there in Kimathi? In many ways you’ve also achieved ‘success’ in your chosen profession. Do you relate to him at all?
There is none of me in Kimathi; nothing at all. In fact, our characters are completely different, from age, philosophy, where he was born in exile and the wealth that he has accumulated over the years. Kimathi is egocentric, wealth driven politician and I’m just a poor writer who happens to write about the likes of him. I make sure that although I write fiction, the world and the characters that I depict are real. Today South Africa is full of the likes of Kimathi who are holding the whole country at ransom by thinking that their struggle credentials give them the right to wealth. Contrary to Kimathi, my success is not monetary at all. My success can only be measured in the way my writing had been received around the world. However, that has not yielded any monetary rewards to me. In South African standards, I’m a very poor writer who cannot even afford to buy himself a pint of beer. I relate to Kimathi in the sense that he represents the current trend in South Africa. Like Kimathi, everyone is hustling to get rich. The more you’re politically connected like him, the more it becomes easier for you to make lots of money.
Does being a published novelist make it any easier to write?
Actual I think that being published makes it difficult for one to write. Although you don’t worry much about getting your work published, it is difficult for one to keep the momentum. This is because there is lot of expectations from your readers. Because of this there is too much unnecessary pressure that is created around you as a writer as people expect you to write in a particular way. For example, I have already been name-tagged as leading Kwaito generation writer. This means that I have to fulfill this expectation in my next book. The pressure is that I have to be careful if I have to come with something different from what has already been classified as my type of style and narrative.
Has your generation become disillusioned? Are you hopeful for South Africa’s future? Where does hope lie for you?
I’m not sure if my generation has become disillusioned, but the hope of South Africa’s future lies within its constitution. We have a great constitution that everyone has to abide by and it gives us hope against the abuse of power by the rich and powerful and the politically connected; who are hell-bent. The constitution makes it possible for South Africa to survive as a nation. I’m also very optimistic about South Africa’s future. The young generation, the so-called ‘born frees’ does not see the world in terms of race. Unlike my generation, they did not experience the horrible things that we have experienced under apartheid. Therefore the foundation is already laid for them through the constitution. When it comes to exercising their democratic right to vote, they will make an informed choice and vote for the right government that will take them to the great future.
Way Back Home to some extent grapples with South Africa’s complex relationship with the rest of Africa. Would you characterize it as speaking out against xenophobia?
All my writing’s sub-themes speak out against xenophobia, from Dog Eat Dog, After Tears, Way Back Home; as well as my short stories. Way Back Home, questions the artificial national boundaries that were created by the Berlin Conference in 1884. For example, my main character Kimathi was born in exile in Tanzania of Tanzanian mother and a South African father who was forced to leave the country in the late sixties because of apartheid. Kimathi grows up in Angola, but later comes back to South Africa, the country his father comes from. The point I was trying to make in creating this character with such complex origins was that apartheid and the Berlin Conference of 1884 has done a lot of damage in dislocating people and describing the artificial boundaries for the African people. We are after all one people, and that is why apartheid called all of us the Bantu people. Xenophobia in South Africa results from the fact that some sections of our population still looks into Africa through the apartheid lens, and therefore they have internalized apartheid. Xenophobia comes from the apartheid mentality of thinking of African people as a different lot- the so called divide and rule mentality.
It’s a book full of history that crosses beyond our borders –what was your research process?
My research process included physical, psychological, historical and spiritual journeys into the Southern part of Africa, and the world. I observed, read about, and interviewed people in this voyage. Some of the events in the book are real, but I fictionalized them. For example, while in a residency in Brussels, I visited the Museum and learnt about the Bakongo culture. The museum there talked about the ‘Bantu people of the DRC’. My visit in the Netherlands coincided with the Voodoo religion exhibition at the museum there. In South Africa, I interviewed some people who were in exile. In Botswana, I went to Lobatse where most exiled South Africans lived. In Lesotho and Tanzania, I had the same experience. I also read lots of books about life in exile. So the book research had been on for some years, I guess since 2008 when I conceptualized the book.
You were recently at Etonnants Voyageurs in Brazzaville- which brought together writers from across the continent. These kind of meetings mostly tend to happen in Europe. How significant was it to be in Brazzaville? What did you take away from the event?
Being in Brazzaville was an eye opener for me more than anything. One particular day I decided to walk around the city alone. My aim was to see the Congo River which I had read a lot in history books. From my sixth floor hotel room I could see that the river was just nearby, and walking to the banks would only take me less than twenty minutes. Again, from my hotel room I could see Kinshasa clearly across the river. Because I was not yet used to other writers at the festival (most of them were French speaking), I decided to walk to the river alone. I walked for about three hours without finding the river. When I discovered it later, I realized that I had been walking parallel to it. How I found the river was very interesting. I didn’t know any word in French except merci and je t’aime . When I asked a lady who was selling on the street where the river was in English, she just looked at me. Then the magic happened. The lady talked to someone in Kikongo. Surprisingly, I understood most of the things she was saying as I felt the language was closer to Zulu. Then I asked her where the river was in Zulu and she answered my question in Kikongo. I understood completely. I then realized that we are actually one people who have been made different by the French and English colonialists. Later that day I decided that I should talk to Koli Jean Bofane whom I heard talking a similar language with his niece. That’s when I learned lot. I spoke in Zulu and he answered in his language. There were lots of similarities between our languages and the surnames of the Bakongo village. For instance, Brazzaville was once a Nkuna village before it was sold to the French by the Nkuna Chief. My cousins here in South Africa are the Nkunas. We spoke to one of the publishers whose surname was Ngoma. I told him surname means a song in South African languages. He told me it means drums in his own language. Later on Mabanckou who deliberately called me Milongo told me that in fact Milongo was a very popular surname in Congo. Their then prime minister was called Milongo.
Brazzaville increased my curiosity of Africa, my history as an African, and all the colonial distortions of history of African people as a whole. It taught me the power of language and culture. I realized that the reason colonialism succeeded was because it successfully dismantled the history and cultures of the African people. I succeeded in giving us a new identity and a new language, which makes it difficult for us to know who we are as people. It makes it difficult for us to realize that we come from one womb. We now see each other as English speaking, Portugueese and French speaking Africans. This is what has bred xenophobia in South Africa because many South Africans are refusing to let go of these colonial distortions. We have internalized them and we think that we are better off than other brother and sisters who come from beyond our borders. So the Etonnants Voyageurs was an eye-opener. I wish it long life as it helped me to look into Africa from a different angle.
Way Back Home also crosses the border between life and death. Ghosts, the voices of the dead that refused to die play an important role in the book. To what extent do you think South Africa is still haunted by its past? How can/should we deal with our ghosts?
Way Back Home takes a lot from the African tradition and culture. In African culture, the dead are not gone forever because there is an afterlife. The dead leaves this world to be our guardian angels. That is why we make sure that we bury our dead appropriately so that they look upon us once they are gone. If we do not bury our dead accordingly, they can come back to haunt us, and they have every right to do so. In the book I have tried to show the importance of this culture and tradition. My main character is a metaphor of South Africa as nation. He had killed people in exile, and these people are not buried properly. They are coming to haunt him (South Africa) and this affects the whole nation. So many people have been killed in the name of apartheid, and their tears are haunting us. We have not cleansed properly as a nation, and that is why we have so many problems. Among other things, the haunting of the ghosts of the people who died and not accounted for comes in the form of xenophobia, unemployment, AIDS pandemic, racism, poverty, inequality, which are the problems of South Africa today.