Mqombothi frames pictures, time and memories with his words
In Memories We Lost, Lidudumalingani Mqombothi’s Caine Prize-nominated short story, readers come away feeling as if they have experienced the vertigo of getting lost in a starry Transkei night.
This is a feeling that the story carries across easily, while also tending to other overriding concerns in theme. He describes a ragtag search party’s manhunt for a mentally ill character thus: “Those without torches or candles walked on even though the next step in such darkness was possibly a plunge down a cliff.”
Memories We Lost unpacks the plight of a schizophrenic girl whose community believes she should be exorcised in various brutal ways. The afflicted girl has a compassionate sibling but, even though they live with their mother and her partner, all the girls have is each other, a feeling Mqombothi harnesses until the very end.
The story initially appeared in Incredible Journey, a Short. Sharp. Stories anthology produced in conjunction with the National Arts Festival.
“Around the time of the announcement of … Journey, a friend of mine was talking about her father who has Alzheimer’s and how her family was dealing with it,” he says. “So the theme of mental illness was already floating around and I thought this would be an interesting story.”
Mqombothi, who is from the village of Zikhovane, in the town of Tsomo in the Eastern Cape, uses the story to make the wider point of persisting patriarchy, which is at play when the siblings decide to take matters into their own hands.
In a heartfelt, celebratory review of the story on brittlepaper.com, critic Ikhide Ikheloa describes the story as lacking “orthodoxy and structure” and offering “no serious attempt to provide the structures that are standard for fiction …”
Ikheloa means this mostly as a compliment, one Mqombothi probably accepts graciously but also with a degree of chagrin.
“It has never really occurred to me that that is what the story is doing or not doing,” he says. “I sort of like that the story doesn’t conform to certain standards of literature. Even if I was aware of not doing that, I would insist on not writing that [conformist] way.”
Explaining his technique, Mqombothi says: “I don’t sit down to plan where the story is going, or how much of this or that to include in the story. I think I simply write and whatever comes up are things that I am fascinated with or things that I am interested in.”
That Mqombothi loves the land of his birth is obvious when one reads Memories. The descriptions of the landscape are precise without being overwrought, suggesting the instinctive familiarity of someone describing long beheld vistas that unfurl from his back garden.
He confirms that this was the case. “Everything that they [the two main characters] see is stuff that they would look at if they stood behind my house.”
Mqombothi’s first short story to make it to the public eye appeared in Adults Only, a 2014 Short. Sharp. Stories anthology. Eager to soak in more of the man’s style, I paged to the The Art of Suspence, which appears in the latest Chimurenga Chronic’s books supplement. Here he pays homage to the art of football radio commentary by honing in on the 23-year partnership of Zingisile Johnson Matiso and Mthuthuzeli Scott.
Mqombothi has the uncanny ability to manipulate time with words. This is depicted in his description of the time delay between the radio broadcast and the TV signal during football matches: “During matches, TVs in most homes were mute. They played in silence as the radio commentary was on. There was no perfect synergy between the two, however. The goals were scored on radio before they were on television and the seconds apart would feel like a lifetime. To the absent-minded it would appear as if there had been, within a space of seconds, an identical goal that had just been scored.”
Of late, it has become impossible to mention Mqombothi (a filmmaker by profession), without referring to his other talent: street photography. His intelligently framed glimpses of the Mother City (some appear in the Real City of Cape Town; a reaction to the city’s PR account) quietly foreground a city strictured by seemingly irrevocable inequalities.
Mqombothi says his two talents (writing and photography) are usually mentioned alongside each other in interviews, with the inevitable questions arising about whether the two influence each other.
On a superficial level, they are both related to his quest to frame ideas, either in text or visually. On a deeper level, perhaps, they reflect a deliberate, autodidactical drive that reveals something of his personal style and inclination.
Of the pat on the back that a Caine Prize shortlisting signifies, Mqombothi says he is not taking it as a sign of “how good the writing is but [rather] on some ‘maybe you should write another one or something else’ ”.
Not one to proclaim his own props, Mqombothi says it’s working, even though writing is not something he takes lightly.
Lidudumalingani Mqombothi is shortlisted alongside Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya), Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria), Tope Folarin (Nigeria) and Bongani Kona (Zimbabwe). The winner of the £10 000 prize will be announced on July 4