/ 3 September 2015

Nakhane Toure: Dreaming the black man’s blues

Writer-musician Nakhane Toure.
Writer-musician Nakhane Toure.

Piggy Boy’s Blues, musician Nakhane Touré’s debut novel, reads like fragments of a recurring dream. Characters flash in and out of the story like apparitions; they daydream to block out deeply scarring violations and the story unfolds in short, sharp, sometimes nonlinear episodes.

Essentially a tragedy centred on the disastrous consequences of a man’s return to his Eastern Cape hometown of Alice, the work is carried by Touré’s poetic, sensuous prose rather than by attention to storytelling mainstays such as a narrative arc.

Such an arc is palpably present, but it is hard as a reader not to get more swept up in the sensitively rendered sexual tension rather than in the fate of the story’s three main characters.

Touré’s focus on the psychological and emotional fabric of his characters at times recalls the work of K Sello Duiker, who Touré credits as “having opened up the gates for me to walk through”.

“I spent a lot of time removing characters that sounded like me to make it more [a] fictional thing,” says Touré of the crafting of the book, which was seven years in the making.

“My friends and family and I are very close but one can never fully understand other people’s emotions, so at the end of the day the only emotions I can pull from are mine.”

Touré, whose debut release Brave Confusion won a 2014 South African Music award for best alternative album, says the novel began long before his music career took off, while he was studying literature at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“At that time, it was just before I had started writing songs. I had just bought my first guitar,” he remembers. “I would write something and put it away for 12 months. So the first six-and-half years was on and off. I’d write and come back to it.

“When you work on something for so long, after a while it becomes not as exciting. At some point it became heavy and bloated and had lost direction; it became this soggy thing that was impenetrable and I just didn’t enjoy it.”

Touré revived the project after BlackBird Books publisher Thabiso Mahlape expressed interest. “One of the most captivating things about Nakhane is that he is one of those rare all-round artists,” says Mahlape.

“When he first submitted his book, I didn’t know who he was; he didn’t say: ‘My name is Nakhane Touré.’ He said: ‘My name is Nakhane Ma-hlakahlaka.’ It took me a while to figure out who he was. Before I read the manuscript, I checked out some of his music videos. I was so captivated by them and I thought anyone who can make music like that, they would be able to write just as well – and I wasn’t wrong.”

Mahlape says, because of Touré’s unconventional literary style, the book will probably not be a popular work of fiction, but she is interested in seeing whether Touré, who she regards as an important voice of his time, “can carry the pop culture from the music into the literary world”.

For all its emotiveness, Piggy Boy’s Blues reads like a statement of intent rather than a fully fleshed-out work.

Though Touré is at pains to locate the three main protagonists of his book contextually via a hasty, almost hagiographic retelling of family trees, there is a metaphysical allure to his writerly voice that means the characters work just as well when considered outside their context.

He admits to being “inspired by the episodic structure of the Bible, especially Genesis. It’s still linear but the information you get is in single chapters and then it moves on.”

An overarching theme of the book, Touré says, is its exploration of the spiritual lives of black people. “You can see it in the characters, whether they are good or bad.” There is also the normalisation of gay sex, which Touré achieves by “writing about it in the plainest language possible”.

Although Piggy Boy’s Blues is an enchanting exploration of aspects of black life in South Africa, one can almost sense Touré’s pressure to marry these multivalent facets into a gripping whole.

The months between inking the deal and the publication date must have been incredibly frustrating, with the author almost rewriting his six-year-old manuscript in a furious period of a few weeks. It is this patchwork, wondrously disfigured and unrecognisable to its original self, that points to the writer that Touré is and will become.

Given the context of the book’s publication, with South Africans preoccupied with decolonising everything, it is hard not to see the book as Touré’s own brave contribution to that debate.