What becomes of Spilt Milk?

Kopano Matlwa’s second novel is an ambitious allegorical exploration of what rainbow nationhood has meant for South Africa, writes Percy Zvomuya

Kopano Matlwa’s new novel, Spilt Milk, begins on an experimental, ambitious note, perhaps befitting a work that sets itself the grand mission of looking back at 16 years of the rainbow nation experience.

“After all the excitement, after the jubilation, after the celebrations, after they had finished with the laughing …” and this cavalcade of a sentence, broken up by more than 10 commas, goes on and on, building to a euphoric climax. It is a sentence reminiscent of novelists writing in the Romance languages and after reaching its peak it is followed by yet another that goes on for half a page.

The Pretoria-born Matlwa — just a nine-year-old in 1994 — is perhaps South Africa’s most eloquent spokesperson for that strand of identity that is derisively known as the coconut. It’s a label thrust on children of the country’s black nouveau riche.

Coconut, her debut novel, embodies that zeitgeist. Winner of the 2008 EU Literary Award, despite obvious flaws that more rigorous editing could have set right, it is shortlisted for this year’s Wole Soyinka Prize. The Soyinka, referred to as the African Nobel, is being awarded on April 30 in Nigeria and Matlwa will make the journey north to see if she has won.

Coconut spoke about and to a whole generation, the offspring of a people who grew up separate from whiteness and who — it seemed suddenly — were too keen to desert their mother tongues and ancestral heritage.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian at her parents’ palatial home close to the Kyalami motor-racing track north of Johannesburg, Matlwa describes her second book as an “allegory of love lost” between black and white South Africa. Using two characters, Father William Thomas (a white priest) and Tshokolo Mohumagadi (a black educator), she tackles the uneasy relationship that exists between the two groups. Spilt Milk is set at Sekolo sa Ditlhora, a school that brings to mind that set up by Oprah Winfrey in Meyerton: posh, well equipped and with grand ambitions.

Mohumagadi wants her black “school of excellence” to be a “place where mathematics would not simply be a tool taught to tally mortality rates … but a means to add something to the nothingness, to create change …”

Appropriately enough, the reading room is named after Sir Seretse Khama, Botswana’s founding president; another building is named after Nehanda, the female hero of Zimbabwe’s First Chimurenga of 1896 to 1897.

As with many people of her generation who grew up under apartheid, Mohumagadi is angry and tortured. But, in the spirit of the times, she tries hard to be politically correct, to be seen to be embracing the inclusive doctrine championed by the country’s new leaders. But rage is not something you can hide, at least not for long. The “white newspapers” have seen through her act, but are rather relieved that at least she is “not [Robert] Mugabe-angry”.

The ideology drilled into the pupils at her school is exclusionary. God, the god of the Bible, is especially disliked. “God was not there when we were chained … so why only now does God want to involve Himself when it appears we are winning?”

The pupils at the school are discouraged — forbidden is the word — from watching movies such as King Kong, Lord of the Rings, Titanic and others. “We do not watch stupid movies. Movies about white people’s fantasies, their minor problems and crises,” says a pupil to Father Bill, the error-prone priest who finds himself at Mohumagadi’s school, where he is assigned the role of overseeing the detention classes.

Matlwa says Spilt Milk is about “the things that should have been said in the early days: our dislikes and likes, hope and dreams. The book acknowledges the pain we have caused one another and asks the question: is it all Spilt Milk and what do we do about it? Do we cry or clean it up?”

Well I am not sure the metaphor works particularly well. When the cup that contains the country’s milk is overturned, one has no choice but to pick it up and wipe away the spillage.

“We haven’t really defined our own story and we are still battling with who we are and where we are going,” says Matlwa. “It’s now almost impossible to have one national story.”

But do we need one national story, I ask. “Maybe not one national story, but one goal. We are pulling in different directions.”

It’s difficult not to warm to Matlwa, blessed as she is with angular, beautiful features and a sharp mind (she is a medical graduate from the University of Cape Town and a Rhodes Scholar). She also has that unassuming, nonchalant attitude that flows from the prodigiously talented. When she was finishing up her medical studies, her friends at university were already studying her debut novel, drawing comparisons with Nigerian legend, Chinua Achebe, who once studied medicine before switching to literature.

“I felt overwhelmed. It was quite strange having my peers studying what I had written,” she says. When she left UCT she not only had a medical degree, but had also written two novels. I don’t know anyone else of her age who is that accomplished.

But I read Spilt Milk and came out deflated. Sadly, it has the sorts of errors a second pair of eyes, and not even particularly practised ones, should have been able to pick up and correct. Some of the dialogue, for one thing, is not credible. Who has ever heard a 10-year-old girl who speaks in this way: “My mother wrote a book on the sexual emancipation of black women, a sexual awakening of sorts, a wonderful, timely book that has really liberated so many of our African sisters.”

Also, I feel the characterisation doesn’t go deep enough. I wouldn’t be able to tell you much, apart from bare biographical details, about who Father Bill is or where his romantic sparring partner, Mohumagadi, got the money to establish her school or even the set of circumstances that created her. The characters have been pruned of so much personality that they only work allegorically.

It’s possible to throw in lots of personality and still have a novel that functions as allegory and works on many other levels. Nation-building is a worthy cause, but the novel is perhaps not the space to live out this grand venture. It was Achebe who said: “Only the story can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war drums and exploits of brave fighters.”

Seek ye first the kingdom of God and everything else shall follow, Jesus told a troubled Galilean crowd some 2000 years ago. Likewise, I feel Matlwa should concern herself with the story foremost and everything else shall follow.

When the South African nation has come of age what we will remember most are not the gaffes and the buffoonery; nor will we remember those who chanted slogans the loudest; what we’ll remember are the stories that captured the foibles and the victories, and the individuals who make up the whole.

I want to think that the remarkable potential Matlwa possesses will make it possible for her to be counted among those writers who captured the story of that age.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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