Talking about language, quotas and processes with Lidudumalingani Mqombothi

Brothers in words: Nigerian Man Booker prizewinner Ben Okri with recent Caine prize recipient Lidudumalingani. (Margaret Busby)

Brothers in words: Nigerian Man Booker prizewinner Ben Okri with recent Caine prize recipient Lidudumalingani. (Margaret Busby)

Milisuthando Bongela (MB): What is the aftermath of winning a coveted literary award?

It’s been made up of a lot of interviews. But it’s also been great because it opens you up to a lot of people with whom the conversations would have been delayed. It has cultivated some interest into my work.

MB: When was the last time you sat down and wrote after Memories We Lost’?

After the announcement, time was a bit tight. But after about two weeks after that I decided to write ever day.

Kwanele Sosibo (KS): You say writing ‘Memories We Lost’ was a very deliberate process. Does writing every day accelerate your talents?

I don’t know how I feel about it because my kind of process has been to obsess about a sentence for, like, 30 minutes. Go back and have coffee and try to fix that sentence again. But the process I have been doing for the past two weeks has just been writing. I haven’t even read anything I’ve written.

MB: Are you working on anything at the moment?

A book. So, way before the Caine prize I had made the decision that I was not going to write any more short stories until at least I wrote a first draft of a novel that I wanted to work on. I am doing some essays about growing up in the villages and the stuff that goes on there.

MB: Do you want most of your work to reflect that rural experience or are you going to fuse in some of the urban experiences as well?

I think it’s going to be a fusion of both, but my interest is writing about smaller communities and smaller politics that affect the bigger picture.

KS: Does the feedback from people you are writing about mean more than the feedback from people who have never set foot in Zikhovane?

I really care about people who have some form of understanding about what a village does — or people who at least respect the different perspectives that people in the villages have — instead of people that dismiss it as being backwards.

MB: Why did you select to write about mental illness? Do you see yourself as a writer or a black writer? And do you feel this responsibility to perform these black narratives in your writings?

I do definitely feel as a black writer in South Africa, but I also don’t want to explain black stories and I don’t want to explain the conversations. My interest is writing about black communities and part of writing about black communities is writing about yourself, because you exist in those communities.

KS: What were your thoughts on how the other writers tackled the subject?

I really liked Bongani [Kona’s] story because I recognised the setting of the story and the characters. There are two things about writing: the story and the writing. It came down to the writing for me.

MB:Have you listened to the podcast published in ‘Chimurenga’ with the Otolith Collective and George Shire, where they talked about Dambudzo Marechera’s work and how African writers of that time, and to some extent today, have a dichotomous choice to make, whether to write for the sake of writing or this responsibility of having to educate?

Yes I have. I tend to think of the villages as this sort of Utopia. But I’ve spent all my life in the villages. I write from within as well but I try to keep myself off the page a little bit.

MB: When you are constructing a sentence, which part of your history and your culture does that sentence come from?

Sadly, I think it is English for me because of the setup of literature in South Africa. Over the past few years, I decided that I am going to go and read some of the isiXhosa books that I love and make it a point to read some isiXhosa poetry. The writing comes out in English but my sensitivities are not.

KS: Do you think there are subtleties working in how you use language, given that you grew up speaking a different language to the one you are working in?

I don’t understand English for shit, so I think my construction of sentences is actually me trying to figure out English itself. I was supposed to translate a short story for some writer for some magazine, which I haven’t got around to because I have never in my life been so confronted with the fact that I don’t speak isi-Xhosa every day. It’s a problem.

MB: Because when you speak isiXhosa you access a different part of your brain and being. The idioms are so specific.

The idioms are absolutely the best thing in the world.

MB: I feel myself resisting the need to translate things these days, even though there is a policy that I have to.

It’s a simple thing, like you write “sangoma” and people are, like, “Tell us about the witchdoctor.” And you’re, like, “But I didn’t even write witchdoctor, I wrote sangoma.” I think this was important for Panashe [Chigumadzi] as well when she wrote Sweet Medicine. You have to find out what it means or get a less powerful version of what I am trying to say.

KS: Petina Gappah, in ‘The Book of Memory’, does this as well. Do you think the fact that we were the last country to be liberated means we are always on the back foot to what other countries are doing in terms of literature?

I think we might be, but I also think we exist at the same time as the Petina Gappahs and we see what they are doing, so surely we could try to do that now.

KS: Not to place you in a generational box but in the past 22 years, a lot of the writing was celebrated not out of merit but because publishers had something to sell. Do you think there has been a decisive shift [in tone], along with what has been happening in South Africa socially, of the young black voices coming out?

In terms of the narratives or in terms of the amount?

MB: Both. The style of writing and the subject matter. For a long time people were celebrating the fact that a young black female writer has written something. It was great to see this new wave flourishing. Some of these books are not necessarily great.

The idea of having different qualities of work has always happened. What I appreciate about the writing now is that, again, we are beginning to move away from political writing and write about the stuff that young black South Africans are dealing with today. I think the time a writer is given to write a book should always be important. But there are also money problems, where a writer has to get the book out because we have to sell it.

MB: Publishers have to take responsibility because some are sending out young writers because “it’s a female writer; she is going to do well”.

I agree with that because this has been my view of short story anthologies where the judging and the selection of the stories is all made up by white people and then the decision becomes to balance the colour of the writers and not to choose the best story.

KS: How have you consciously sought out mentors?

I have never studied writing, so my learning of the politics of being a black writer and writing stories that matter to black people has been through reading people who are doing those kinds of things. In Cape Town, you have to surround yourself with black people or you will be floating alone in all that whiteness. I have a group of friends with whom, when we are writing, send each other stuff and encouragement. Social media has been great at really stalking people.

A video of the conversation is available to view online at this link

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011.
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