‘I don’t know, it’s probably just the human condition. Maybe we’re all just fucking depressed,” says Charl Blignaut. He throws up his hands.
Blignaut, a writer and pop-culture aficionado, narrows his eyes and stares into the distance. Hillbrow Tower looms large beyond the window of his quiet, neatly furnished Parktown apartment. Only the occasional sounds of traffic from the street below or chatter from the hallway outside disrupt the serenity.
His comment about the human condition and depression is in reference to his friend and one-time lover, the author Kabelo Sello Duiker. Before taking his own life, Duiker published two critically acclaimed, award-winning novels, Thirteen Cents and The Quiet Violence of Dreams. A third novel, Hidden Star, was published posthumously.
Duiker, in life, not only garnered praise for the two novels but was also hailed as the literary voice of the black post-apartheid generation. In death, his work has attained cult status and inspired other black artists to emulate its public displays of fragility.
According to reports, shortly before his suicide, Duiker was in the throes of depression and had stopped taking his mood-stabilising medication because “it was taking too great a toll on his artistic creativity and joie de vivre”. It is at this point of his biography, perhaps, where we should be cautious.
The idea of the tortured artist is a common trope that has come to be accepted as fact. “Perhaps it’s good for one to suffer,” Aldous Huxley once wrote. “Can an artist do anything if he’s happy?”
Author Zakes Mda was a close friend of Duiker. “I have always said that, if Sello was still alive, he would go on to be a greater author than I am,” says Mda.
The echo over the phone line amplifies his words. “He had achieved so much more than I had at his age.”
Mda says Duiker would often call him when he was depressed. But nothing about Duiker’s condition surprised Mda.
“It’s not romanticism, it’s a reality — most artists are anguished. There’s nothing romantic about it either. Freud came to a similar conclusion during his time. Instead of showing their neuroses through self-destructive means, artists channel it through their art.”
His voice trails off. A pause.
“You know … I wrote an auto-biography called Sometimes There Is a Void and for the longest time I would ask myself what the void was. I have now come to identify it as this very melancholy we’re speaking about.”
Mda’s words bring to mind a passage in The Quiet Violence of Dreams. After successfully escaping from Valkenberg, Tshepo (the novel’s protagonist) runs to the corners of his mind before ruminating on the nature of the void:
“I am not the first person to feel like this nor am I the last. There are legions of other people like me out there, slowly getting on with the quietness of their lives. And when they crumble, our paths cross at places like Valkenberg.”
[An artist’s anguish (NB Publishers)]
That may be so. Mental illness is common and only recently has it become more of a mainstream topic, especially among a younger generation of black artists, each of them in their own way heirs to Duiker’s legacy. Do these artists believe mental illness is a necessary precondition for creativity? And, if they do, how do they escape the pain without losing the artistic inspiration? How do they escape, that is, other than self-harm?
Journalist and author Phumlani Pikoli is one such artist who broaches the topic of mental health in his work. The Fatuous State of Severity, his self-published book of short stories, was written while he was being treated for depression and anxiety at a psychiatric clinic. He wrote the stories as a form of therapy and a second edition of the book is due for release with Pan Macmillan in 2018.
“I’m not sure if I believe in the idea that all good literature needs to be mined from pain,” he says. “That kind of downplays the seriousness of mental illness. Besides all of that, there’s nothing sexy about needing help and not getting it.”
To Shy Away in Silence, a short story in his collection, deals explicitly with suicide. We find a nameless protagonist contemplating whether to take “their” life. After failing to hang themselves, the protagonist bandages themselves up before going to see their friend Mmabatho. At the end of the conversation, Mmabatho tells the protagonist “to take care of [themselves] because it makes people uncomfortable to see the wounds and pain of others”.
Is this what makes Duiker’s oeuvre such a discomfiting read? Because, it’s there, you know? The prefigured suicide, the disillusionment with medication and the sense of feeling all at sea. The wound was there for all to see; skin hanging loosely from the bone.
Were any of us actually looking? And, if we were, what did we see? Did we see Duiker’s cries for help, or were we too inured to the idea that “art is pain” to see he was in danger?
Cultural critic and author Bongani Madondo believes we lost Duiker from the beginning. Madondo was a close friend. Parts of The Quiet Violence of Dreams were written at Madondo’s flat in Yeoville, Johannesburg.
“On one hand, I believe you cannot be a true artist and storyteller (that includes journalism) without being concerned or tormented by social and personal demons. The blues are part of your personal pact with the God/Devil of the art. But I’m also loath to trivialise psychic pain.”
There are writers such as South African author Mohale Mashigo and singer Msaki, a poet in her own right, who carry Duiker’s mantle. Mashigo, who won the debut category of the University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing for her novel, The Yearning, is candid about her own struggles with mental illness as well. “I wrote The Yearning as a story of healing primarily for myself. The entire book is about secrets and how we heal ourselves from our past.”
Towards the middle of the book, there is a moment when the protagonist has a seizure and wakes up with bandaged wrists, unable to explain what happened.
“That was me referencing the first panic attack I had at 17. I had no idea what was happening. Was I dying? Was it a heart attack? I wanted to portray that sense of helplessness in the book,” she says.
Better known as a singer, Msaki’s gift as a poet is clear, as a close listen to the lyrics of her debut album Zaneliza reveal. Released in 2016, it was written in different phases of Msaki’s career, and reflects her rise from being an aspiring singer with no musical training, only hope, to commanding a stage a few weeks ago at the Lyric Theatre, backed by a 15-piece band.
In her Yeoville flat, where Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes sits in a corner on a stack of other books next to other book stacks, Msaki says she has found her version of peace as an artist by remembering that she is merely a vessel, a medium through which an unseen force, a muse, amadlozi (ancestors), if you will, speaks. She is attuned to Blignaut’s view of the human condition and the harsh realities of life as a black person, especially a black woman, in South Africa. In fact, her next project, Platinum Heart, is an album of protest songs. But her creative process relies on the muse showing up (or not), rather than dwelling on or drawing on the pain of life for artistic inspiration.
Back in Parktown, Blignaut reflects on the burden of Duiker’s celebrity. “He had turned into this literary icon and with that came the need to turn him into a seer or a mystic.”
Ultimately, according to Blignaut, Duiker didn’t enjoy any of the pressures that came with being labelled the voice of a generation, or working as a commissioning editor at the SABC, his job at the time of his death. Because with these pressures came the middle-class appendages he spoke out against in his work — fancy apartments, cars and such. He hated it.
“One of the last times I saw him, we were driving to his place at night and I just remember him crying and saying just how trapped he felt by his job and his life. He couldn’t get out,” Blignaut says.
He cautions that, whatever our intentions are when speaking about Duiker, we need to remember that a human being existed outside of the myths and abstractions.
“We have to be careful not to weaponise his death for our own causes. He was an actual person. Sello loved himself, he loved people.”
He pauses, searching for the right words. “Maybe that’s what made him so relatable — all of his crises were ours as well.” — Additional reporting by TO Molefe