Sowing the seeds of a new crop

In the midst of the euphoria brought about by South Africa’s newly acquired democracy in 1994, there was a pressing need for a new direction in our literary landscape.

Kwela Books was one of the first imprints to be established with the clear objective of “looking for fresh, young talent”. A year later Annari van der Merwe, the founding publisher at Kwela, received a letter from one Kabelo Duiker, a student at Rhodes University in ­Grahamstown.

Duiker (later to be known as K Sello Duiker) had been a constant contributor to Seeds, a student journal of which he was a co-editor. He was now eager to join the league of the elite in the publishing world. It took another five years for him to get published. Ironically, his first novel, Thirteen Cents, was published by David Phillip in 2000 and only a year later was he to publish The Quiet Violence of Dreams (Kwela), which he wrote before Thirteen Cents.

How he published his second novel before the first is a story for another day. The most significant thing is that, in Duiker, Kwela got more than it bargained for. He was not only a “fresh and young talent”, but also became the youngest writer in the Kwela stable to publish a novel in English.

A writer is the product of the collective genius of a people and no individual can solely claim the glory of fermenting a literary renaissance. However, every revolution has got ringleaders and Duiker was the first young talent to lift his hand and forge new directions in South African literature at the turn of the century.

He stood head and shoulders above his peers on the continent, gaining critical acclaim and winning the 2001 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize (Africa region) for The Quiet Violence, which also won the Herman Charles Bosman award. Duiker’s work has been translated into several languages across the world. The stage adaptation of The Quiet ­Violence is now running at the University of Johannesburg.

Debutant and a trailblazer
Duiker was also a pioneer in grappling with the unconventional and almost taboo themes of homosexuality and male-to-male sexual violence. As a debutant and a trailblazer, he engendered new audiences, because with the publication of each book new readers are born.

According to Van der Merwe, who also published Duiker’s posthumous novel The Hidden Star (Umuzi, 2006): “What must not be forgotten was that at that stage there was not much of a book-buying culture in the black community ... and that he [Duiker] served as a source of inspiration to aspirant young black ­writers.”

Perhaps one should add that ­Duiker’s success as a young writer did not only inspire aspirant writers, it also went a long way towards softening the hearts of the rather hardnosed publishers to take the risk of publishing new voices.

Duiker was soon to be joined on this lonely path by Phaswane Mpe, author of Welcome to Our ­Hillbrow (UKZN Press, 2001). The duo was often featured alongside Zakes Mda, one of the most resilient artistic figures, whose light did not diminish after the jettisoning of apartheid. Mpe made an early exit from this world on December 12 2004 and, in the space of a month, the world of letters was to suffer another blow when Duiker died by his own hand on January 19 2005.

The literary fraternity was obviously bewildered by the loss of such a prominent young writer so soon after Mpe’s departure. Although the reasons for Duiker to extinguish his own flame at the peak of his literary career remain a mystery, we should be grateful that he started a fire that was to burn throughout the decade.

In a recent article in the Sowetan, journalist Edward Tsumele argued that Duiker’s literary genius “heralded the arrival of a new crop of young, black, bold and gifted writers”. Indeed, at the time of Duiker’s demise, the brazier had already caught fire, with the likes of Niq Mhlongo, Mary Watson, Kopano Matlwa and Zukiswa Wanner assuming the role of torch-bearers leading us through the first decade of this century.

It was a period of transition, characterised by the anxieties of a divided past, the complexities of a new democracy and the desire to forge a common identity in a diverse society. This generation became the purveyor of people’s fears and ecstasies. It had to chronicle the exhortations of a nation consumed by the need to redefine itself as opposed to being defined by others.

Vibrant voices

As our democracy matures, our society hangs obliquely on the precipice of becoming either a great African nation or sliding backwards into the quagmire that defined our unequal past. Writers, as was the case during the liberation struggle, keep their fingers on the pulse of the nation and tell the South African story to the world. The vibrant voices of Thando Mgqolozana, Lauren Beukes, ­Cynthia Jele, Sifiso Mzobe, to name but a few, are marshalling us into the second decade of the century and taking the South African story to the world.

They tell stories of a people who have fought and triumphed against the monster of apartheid. They tell of a despondent people who won the battle, but are yet to win the war. They tell of the growing bitterness of an economically deprived people whose patience is now on reserve tank.

This upsurge in South African literature is the continuation of a movement that began with K Sello Duiker. It is regrettable that he left us before his potential could be fully realised. The paradoxical sense of loss and gain, which has come to epitomise Duiker’s short but meteoric life, is eloquently articulated in the late Lewis Nkosi’s eulogy delivered at Duiker’s funeral.

Nkosi said: “The miracle is that Sello should have achieved so much in such a short time; the tragedy is that his life was cut so brutally short when his best work probably, almost certainly, still lay ahead.” Duiker would have turned 38 on April 13. I remember him.

This is an edited version of a public lecture delivered by Siphiwo Mahala at New York University on April 13. Mahala is the author of African Delights (Jacana, 2011) and When a Man Cries (UKZN Press, 2007)

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