Eric Miyeni, blessed with a tongue that will not shut up

Eric Miyeni is a neon-headline lightbulb of a character and to his critics chagrin, he has just published his fifth book. Bongani Madondo reports.

Eric Miyeni is a neon-headline lightbulb of a character and to his critics chagrin, he has just published his fifth book. Bongani Madondo reports.

'Never! Not once! Not once did I go out of my way to be, what you call it? Controversial."

Clad in a zooshy grey-check three-piece get-up (more Harlem Nights than Harlem renaissance), his trademark spiky kinks shooting up, his sleek navy MG Rover parked around the corner, Eric Miyeni doesn't only look old-school dapper, his mind also works overtime as he speaks.

We are chatting kerbside outside this joint going by the name of Sophiatown, French café-society style. But this is no two Niggas in Paris (with a wink to Kanye West and Jay-Z), but Melville, Jozi. It is as cold as a bitch.

Miyeni sounds vulnerable, unrehearsed, raw and as good as you will ever find him.
It's a free-flowing conversation that touches on his childhood, the gift of having a beautiful jaw line (as a detractor once quipped), Ernest Hemingway, fact or fiction and does he feel now, after four books, confident enough to regard himself as an author?

Talk ranges over just about everything. Does he regret calling City Press head honcho Ferial Haffajee "a snake in the grass"? "Why would I?" Would he change anything, if he had a chance, to get his SAfm job back? "I am who I am." He's been hired, fired, hired, fired and hired only to be fired for the third time in less than five years at the SABC talk station.

Banter and steel-cold direct talk are Miyeni's greatest gifts. And yet it is one of the surprising ironies of South African popular culture, as well as corporate protocol, that in all the places Miyeni has run foul of the bosses it's when he was doing what he does best: shooting his mouth off.

Just three minutes into our meeting, it dawns on me the chap is not only a loudmouth, but also an amazing raconteur. If he feels safe, Miyeni has a touching capacity to open up and show the internal wounds, or, at some point, a lack of assuredness. Like when he was telling me the story of his childhood and I demanded to know the name of his mother.

The man was shocked, unsure and anxious. He wanted to do it. But then again, why bring his beloved mother into his personal life? She'd done a sterling job as a single mother who raised him and his brothers after his old man passed away when he was only 12.

Perhaps we should cut her some slack?

His face changed when he spoke of his mother: for the first time he looked just like any other boy coming from the township or village with a store of emotional narratives about his parents. In short, he became what in the religious motivational trade is called "just human" and not always a "character". Not always "switched on".

Miyeni has just published The Release, slightly autobiographical fiction through Random House's bolshy, small imprint, Umuzi (See Dark day that changes a life, Page 9). He says there's nothing biographical about it. I say it's in the subtext. So we agree to disagree. The title speaks of catharsis, a release of sorts from the emotions engulfing his personal and professional life in the past five years or so.

The protagonist, Jeremy Hlungwani, is an achieving black middle class oke, originally from Soweto. Just like Miyeni. He drives a posh car, just like Miyeni. He is opinionated, just like Miyeni. Although Hlungwani lives in Sandton, he too roams the streets of Melville. Although he might be a slightly different character in content, we are slap-bang in the area of self-portraiture as an overt art.

Those who know Miyeni will tell you he is not only part of the furniture in this once La bohème village, but that, for better or worse, Melville is not the same without Miyeni and his ever-evolving posse of storytellers, artists, hangers-on, visionaries, layabouts and dreamers. For more than a decade Miyeni has held court and discovered his Algonquin space on 7th Street.

The book also seeks to examine the deeper psychological impact of apartheid on today's black middle class. It also seeks to find some kind of space, deep within the heart, as well as externally – a space to call "home".

But is the book any good? Depends on who you ask and what your standards are.

In The Release, Miyeni paints real, believable pictures and captures an organic, unrehearsed way of expression. Its sense of place, especially when Soweto is its backdrop, is earthy real. The protagonist's anxieties and obsession with whiteness and the material baggage and sense of superiority are heartfelt.

His authorial voice is also unaffected, although I wish he would tune into a truly fictitious (or should I say "fantastical"?) voice so we don't hear some kind of Miyeni-lite when his protagonist opens his mouth. Although not as catchy, not as dandy, not as self-aware as the man himself, The Release might turn out to be Miyeni's most honest act of creation ever.

He has previously written a clutch of nonfiction tales with catchy titles such as O'Mandingo! The Only Black at a Dinner Party, O' Mandingo! Before Mandela was Mandela, A Letter from Paris and a volume of poetry that, once again, centres on his persona: A Poetic Journey with Eric Miyeni. But he had stayed clear of fiction. Until now.

"Sbali, like I said, I have never done anything solely to be controversial, so I am always shocked to see and hear people reacting to me the way they do. In fact, real people just don't react that way. I have mature and passionate debates with whoever over current affairs. But that's normal.

"So, boet, I am surprised the media says Eric Miyeni this, Eric Miyeni that. I think they are playing to a script they have in their heads and now they can't then turn around and say: 'Actually, Eric Miyeni is just a normal bloke.' Because they have primed their readers to expect this tightly created character they've been fed. What can I do? I can't control what people feel about me. I can only continue to talk my truth."

I tell him he doth protest too much. I tell him that although it is indeed true that others have a distaste for him without ever having met him, or dismiss his books without having read them, it is also true that he has been shooting his mouth off in the most awkwardly amazing fashion.

South Africa and Miyeni deserve each other: at some point they both can be sharp, deep, boisterous, beautiful and, at some point, too loud, too show-offy, too self-loving. A lot like overseas commentators never tire of telling us: this country has to overcome its sense of specialness. That it is unique. That it is a miraculous country. That it has been anointed. That people should listen to it. That also afflicts Miyeni.

I have lost count of the number of pieces I have read that have been jaw-droppingly funny or mindblastingly stupid real-life episodes featuring Miyeni in the lead role. Several years ago there was a front-page story in the tabloid Sunday World that read like a drunken tale set in 1920s England. Apparently, at a party at his apartment in Melville he punched the actor Tina Jaxa, who, with friends, allegedly tormented Miyeni in his own house. They apparently parachuted through his upper-floor windows, only to break legs and limbs when they hit the ground, scuttling to the police.

Not so long after, SAfm's then-management exposed themselves as a bunch of dodos for hiring him in a talk slot, giving him licence to be himself and when he became exactly that, quickly kicking his ass to the kerb. They claimed Miyeni had "incited black hate" and implied that he was xenophobic.

Then in 2006 there was the Chillibush Communications incident. Miyeni, who was creative director at the firm, is reluctant to look back on that specific incident, apparently out of boredom – or perhaps it stung his ego and self-respect a bit deeper than other comical episodes.

Nobody is clear about exactly what happened, but this much we do know: Miyeni was dismissed and escorted off the premises. The case went to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, but he lost. It is out of the pain of this incident that, he tells me, he went to work full time on The Release. Not surprisingly, the book is flavoured by a biting edginess, lingering anger and undealt-with emotions, sharp as a blade.

The latest in his set of woes was the now infamous Snake-in-the-Grass-gate. In his hugely popular and well-crafted column in the Sowetan – boy, is he a master of short narrative and intense, imaginative biographical tales intended to bleed bigger discourses beyond himself – Miyeni took on the feisty, glamorous Haffajee.

Although his regular column was a brilliant exercise in intense short form, the one on the editrix had all sorts of red lights screaming. He took on Haffajee precisely about the time when some people, both in power and on the streets, started perceiving her as "reactionary", singling out her politics on race, or lack of it. To her credit, the City Press's coverage of the government had obviously ticked power off in a major irritating manner, creating multiple enemies as it increased her fan base (which is, after all, what all good editors really hanker after).

Miyeni had picked up on the paper's tempo and temper much earlier and he said as much in his column, likening Haffajee to a "snake in the grass, deployed by white capital to sow discord among blacks".

His implied expectation was that, because Haffajee is "black", she was expected to champion the upliftment of a certain unified black progress, including balancing her coverage of black corruption with the ills of others, or of corporate corruption, or whatever. He might have had a point, but in terms of why Haffajee should be the person to execute that when the government and its deployees were not performing any better in matters of public accountability is not clear.

But that's the thing. Miyeni has an amazing talent for drawing passionately antagonistic energy towards himself. He dishes as much as he invites double, triple the slap back. Just the other night, before our meeting, I chanced upon two friends and a quick dinner was arranged.

On learning that I would be profiling Miyeni, one of my friends - the learned one, in matters of literature – paged through Miyeni's book and gasped: "Oh, what a piece of molten-pish!" We looked at him for signs of humour. There weren't any. Then he blurted out: "Hey, of course Eric Miyeni owes his fame to the accident of being gifted with an utterly beautiful jaw line, otherwise ... " So he went on in this fashion. Apparently my friend had praised the book a week earlier. Was he now playing to the gallery? (We were in the company of a fetching dame with brains to match.)

I have heard worse things about Miyeni. I have also heard the most affectionate. Radio host Jenny Crwys-Williams said his Letter to Paris was "an exercise in son et lumiere" and an uncle, who prides himself as the village intellectual, never forgets to ask me to pass his regards to the "king of the Mandingo".

But Miyeni is already on to the next thing. "I have another idea and I will be leaving soon to work on it," he says. "My second fiction attempt." He writes his books outside the country or, if he's in it, at least far away from Johannesburg's noise. The Release was written in Friesland in the north of the Netherlands. It was rejected twice by publishers before Fourie Botha, an editor at Random House, put his bet on it and pushed it all the way through.

"But hey, Animal Farm was rejected 26 times," Miyeni laughs "and it is George friggin' Orwell, y'know." No, Miyeni does not think he is Orwell, although he would love to master Hemingway's taut prose, he says. Strangely, for a man of such confidence, he admits he is "just a student".

With those words, Miyeni was gone. Off to his next meeting. Was I had? Did he wrap me around his perfumed palm? Did he have me running for sixes?

Whatever you think of the man, there's a vulnerable, thinking and caring soul hidden somewhere in that Molotov of bravado. Only, he doesn't seem to have mastered the art of baring his soul and resting his sword, if only for a moment, in public.

How many of us can?

Eric Miyeni will be appearing at the M&G Literary Festival, which runs at the Market Theatre from August 28 to September 2. To see the full programme and book your place, see the special report.

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