Faith, doubt and reflection
This is an edited extract of his speech on receiving it.
For me particularly, the doctor of literature honoris causa is the greatest of all the honours that I have received in my country. Robert Frost composed these lines when he was chosen poet laureate of his home state of Vermont: “Breathes there a bard who isn’t moved/ When he finds his verse is understood/ And not entirely disapproved/ By his country and his neighbourhood?”
These halls of learning are my neighbourhood, which makes this degree more meaningful and valued. I am being honoured by my alma mater. This is where, 22 years ago, I received my PhD, the one I really worked for.
Vice-chancellor, I also thank you for inviting me to share a few words with this august convocation, which I hope will go beyond my usual diatribe.
Diatribe: it is a word that was once used by a famous publisher when he rejected my first novel, Ways of Dying. He called it “feminist diatribe”. For a while I was devastated. After all, this was a publisher who had published some of our greatest African writers of the time, including Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi and James Ngugi, as he was then called. But then, when I remembered that this was also the publisher who had published a lot of really bad literature, my devastation turned into disdain and then defiance. How dare he?
I know a number of writers who give up after the first rejection and lose faith in their work. Great literature has been lost to the world as a result. If James Joyce had given up after the first few rejections, we would not be talking of him today. The Dubliners was rejected 22 times by different publishers before it found a publishing home; Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell 38 times. Ways of Dying was finally published by another reputable publisher right here in this beautiful city of Cape Town and many years later it was selected as the best novel in English-speaking Africa at a premier continental literary contest. Can you guess who the judge was who made this wise decision? What better revenge can a writer wish for?
Since then, thanks to my defiance after that first rejection, I have written nine novels and a memoir, which have been translated into a number of languages. A week ago I was caressing the Turkish translation of Ways of Dying. Apparently, the world loves feminist diatribe. Turkish is the 21st language into which my novels and plays have been translated. So you see, there are lessons that we can learn from a writing life.
Self-editing is the second lesson. Writing and editing are two different sets of skills. Some of the world’s strongest writers are poor editors. As a writer, your focus is on the developing narrative, on your gradual discovery of your characters, their personalities, their conflicts, their setting, their interiorities, their dialogue, their climaxes and their denouements. Your whole being is consumed by the attendant pleasure of that discovery. When you are done, you think the result is perfection materialised.
An editor, on the other hand, operates from a different mindset — a much more analytic and diagnostic mindset. Remember that, as a writer, your approach is very conjunctive — that is, you aim to bring different things together. A critical mind is much more disjunctive — it takes apart what has been brought together to examine how its parts operate and how they make or should make the whole more effective. A good editor is much more critical in her approach because she is distant from the work and therefore is able to discover its flaws. When your work has gone through her hands, you soon learn that it was far from being perfect.
The more you write and rewrite, the more you come to realise that perfection resides only at the end of the rainbow. Great writers equip themselves with the skills of self-editing, which requires that, as soon as they are done with the first draft, they distance themselves from the work and switch the mindset from a conjunctive mode into a disjunctive one. The art of self-editing is the practice of self-examination and self-criticism. It serves one well, not only in the creation of art, but also in the living of life. The line of demarcation between literature and life, between memory and imagination, is very arbitrary. Nawal El Saadawi is correct when she says: “Fiction and fact are inseparable. The personal is political.”
Like great writers, we need to equip ourselves with the tools of self-examination and self-criticism, for we, as individuals and as a society, are a work in progress, a manuscript that is being written and rewritten. This is even more important today than ever before as we collectively write the narrative of our country. It serves us well, as the authors of this new narrative, occasionally to stop and ponder and distance ourselves from our creation and look at it as a stranger would, defamiliarise it, in other words, and re-edit it quite relentlessly and mercilessly. We need to do this in defiance of the demand for a lemming mentality. We are required, even coerced, to follow the herd — follow the herd because, if we dare to think independently from those who have been assigned to think for us, we are traitors, not only to the specific political project, but also to the tribe, the nation, the race.
We need self-examination and self-criticism in defiance of those of our opinion leaders who are engaged in the cultivation of a new laager mentality, the closing of the ranks, in defiance of the notion that outspokenness about our own weaknesses is tantamount to selling out to the other, however that is defined — perhaps in terms of ethnicity, class, race or nationality. In Sesotho they say: “Re tlameha ho tentshana tsheya (Let’s cover each other’s nakedness so as not to be exposed to strangers).” But to cover our nakedness we first need a critical awareness of that nakedness. A little boy in the crowd must shout “The emperor has no clothes!” without fear of being pilloried.
Closing ranks at all costs is a philosophy of victims. Once we were victims. Alas, we internalised victimhood and made it part of our psyche. Somehow we survived. But, even as survivors, we continue to worship at the altar of perpetual victimhood. Self-pity is not pretty at all. Victimhood makes us look so unattractive.
The insistence on the closing of the ranks emanates from those who are exclusively harvesting matundu uhuru — the fruits of liberation. The writerly life taught me to break away from the herd and be free to hold an opinion, even when it is a minority opinion, and to reject mediocrity even when it is all resplendent in the colours of patriotism. Talking of patriotism: self-examination and self-criticism at a societal and national level are patriotism in action — wholesome patriotism rather than the insidious kind that is also known as jingoism.
The third and final writerly lesson is about doubt. Doubt is a skill that good writers have mastered. It is the foundation of wisdom. Without doubt you are unquestioningly certain of the correctness of your path, of your beliefs, of your ideology, of your actions, of your side. You do not see the need for self-examination and self-criticism. This may sound Zen-like to some of you, because earlier I applauded those who have faith in their work. I noted the ultimate success after numerous rejections as a result of that faith. But faith and doubt can reside in the same house and nourish each other. Doubt is a progressive impulse rather than a conservative one; it fuels change and discovery.
Through the writing experience I hope one day to banish, once and for all, the arrogance of certainty.