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Madness at the launch of a book about … madness

Mishka Hoosen launched her debut novel, Call it a Difficult Night, at the Ekhaya Multi Arts Centre in eThekwini on Tuesday night. The programme was part of the Time of the Writer Festival’s evening sessions (the first segment of which was themed The Madness of History) and was moderated by artist and writer Tracey Rose.

From the get-go, Rose, who admitted to having hardly read Call it a Difficult Night, sought to frame the discussion around Hoosen’s anthropological studies and how these may have informed her approach to writing the book, which is billed as “a story about madness”.

She kicked off the discussion by asking a variation on the most hackneyed of questions: How much of the book was autobiographical?

This seemed to establish a tension between the two that was sustained for the duration of their discussion, irking some in the audience who felt Rose was being too nebulous, perhaps as a way of masking being underprepared.

“I’m not imaginative enough to write full-on fantasy,” Hoosen said in response to Rose’s opening question.

Divine madness
Hoosen crushed Rose’s theory about human beings living in vibrational prisons, trapped between a palaeontological world-view of proving our evolution and a crazy madness that we can barely talk about.

Rose had prefaced this theory with a detailed description of a performance piece she did in Germany, whipping an orchestra singing a German translation of Peter Tosh’s Downpressor Man into submission, while screaming: “Change the fucking frequency.”

“Western civilisation thinks in binaries; there’s the scientific and then you have divine madness. They built that limit on thinking,” replied Hoosen.

At this point there was self-consciousness from Rose, heightened by the unease of some in the audience. This was a book launch, after all, and here was Rose trashing protocol.

Perhaps as a way of mitigating this, fellow writer Panashe Chigumadzi launched into reading a brief passage from Hoosen’s book, following this up with questions of her own.

Decolonising the programme
Later on, author Ashwin Desai (whose most recent work is The South African Gandhi) joined the discussion, but not before a preamble about needing to define what is meant by “decolonising the book”.

Desai said he was unsure what that meant in practical terms, stating that perhaps he was of an older generation that understood revolutionary theory differently. “Intellectual processes cannot be given away to the madnesses of the moment,” he said.

Desai seemingly took it on himself to discuss his own book, as was evidenced by long stretches in which he spoke of his and co-author Goolam Vahed’s persecution by a section of the Indian community for the book’s stance on Mohandas Gandhi as a racist who saw black people as inferior to Indians.

Gandhi’s perceptions of black people’s subservience are nothing new, so perhaps Desai was being a tad melodramatic in this instance.

While the book launch fell apart structurally and the ensuing discussion was equally formless, I couldn’t help but observe a strange beauty in the meandering, indulgent and at times egocentric riffings sparked by Rose’s intentional irreverence.

It’s one thing to be formalist and only joke about the programme being decolonised, but it’s quite another to be blind to the disruptive power of the human instinct to wing it.

The writer’s accommodation and travel costs were covered by the Centre for Creative Arts.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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