Pikoli’s Fish out of water



We’re at Bread and Roses in Melville. When I arrive, Phumlani Pikoli has already ordered a drink. “What are you having?” I ask and I laugh when he tells me it’s a mimosa. Towards the end of his debut novel, Born Freeloaders, when the characters are partying with the president’s children at his compound, someone offers them a Bellini. It needs to be explained exactly what species of drink this is. “It’s like a mimosa that went to private school,” their new friend quips.

Back to real life and Pikoli is sticking with a plain old mimosa. I order a Bloody Mary (it’s a Sunday morning, after all) and we get down to some freestyle conversation.

It feels felicitous to be interviewing Pikoli during jacaranda season: the purple bell flowers are woven throughout his work (Born Freeloaders is set in Pretoria). “Stockholm Syndrome has a great PR manager: the jacarandas in Pretoria,” he says. “It’s a really tough city. So, you always have those changes to look forward to in a city. [Jacarandas] are like one of those strong seasonal drivers.”

The main characters of Born Freeloaders — Nthabiseng (18) and Xolani (22) — are siblings navigating their lives in Pretoria as black, middle class “born-frees” with family political collections. Nthabiseng is still at school; Xolani is in a band, The Cursed Children of Ham.

The action is set over three days in 2012, drawing the reader ineluctably into their fast-paced world of partying and relative privilege. “I just wanted to capture a snapshot,” Pikoli says. This book doesn’t lack a plot — there’s a modicum of resolution at the end — but plot is not its driving force. Instead, it feels as if you’re watching a reality show featuring characters who could be your friends.

Born Freeloaders is a very “talky” book and dialogue is one of its strengths, although Pikoli does worry that it’s a “collection of one-liners”. But it works: every line earns its place and contributes to the themes of the novel as a whole. Through the conversations and quips of Xolani, Nthabiseng, their friends and family, the aftermath of colonialism and apartheid is dissected with a brutally sharp scalpel.

Some of the funniest passages skewer the naivety of Nthabiseng’s white friends. As the president’s son, Gangisizwe, says: “Yeah … when I use terms like ‘first world’ or whatever kak, I mean real whites, you know? Like the kind of whites who separate salt from their rice because they like to keep their whites separate.” Pikoli admits he “jacked” this line from a friend.

All the characters are subject to this same treatment. A vituperative blog post about The Cursed Children of Ham and their song Stupid Fat Loser, Shut up and Dance! by one Donald Sterling (the whitest name Pikoli could think of) is laugh-out-loud funny. Pikoli clearly enjoys flexing his music-writing skills, honed during his days at Mahala magazine. “These gutless Rebecca Black knock-offs blowing the whole of Ladysmith Black Mambazo on a Friday need to have their cheap antics shown for what they really are, which is not musicians, by the way. They’re just another version of industry darlings, made and manufactured in the ghettos of suburban Pretoria.”

Being the collaborative force of nature that he is, Pikoli is already thinking of asking someone to record Stupid Fat Loser, Shut up and Dance! in real life. When we’re discussing the music in the novel, he mentions that he hopes people don’t think Xolani’s band is too closely based on BLK JKS and The Brother Moves On, although it obviously draws on these artists. But he doesn’t have these musicians in mind when it comes to taking The Cursed Children of Ham from the page to the stage. Bongeziwe Mabandla, if you’re reading this, you can expect a call one of these days.

But it’s not all fun and games. Another set piece in the novel occurs during a flashback, when Xolani and Nthabiseng listen to their mother, Masechaba, ruminating about the traditional room divider — and why she chose to remove it from their house. “She called the room divider an unnatural way to separate the flow of the house: it suited the appetites of the infrastructure that forced them to animate the tiny boxes they were assigned for not being born on the right side of apartheid.” It’s a masterful exposition of how the ideology of apartheid was reinforced in people’s homes and everyday lives.

The way in which Pikoli infuses Born Freeloaders with themes of colonial and apartheid dispossession — both material and cultural — lends the novel a coherence that is a departure from his first, delightfully aburdist, collection of short stories, The Fatuous State of Severity (which was originally self-published).

READ MORE: Short, sharp prods at our psyche

There was a ludic quality to that collection and the stories have a tendency to work on you and pop into your mind at unexpected moments. (As an aside, for those who have read it, I’m still personally fearing a squirrel revenge.)

Born Freeloaders is different. “I wanted to be a little bit more coherent,” Pikoli says. “And I wanted to write something that stood the chance of being accessed, and also had commercial viability.”

But there are still moments when fable and magic realism collide, as in the three sections called “Education”, “Knowledge” and “Wisdom”, which include an illustration by Pikoli’s brother, Lisolomzi, aka “Fuzzy Slippers”. These vignettes tell the story of the Children without Tongues, who watch the Fish emerge from the water and gradually take over their land. The Fish are cautious at first, but soon begin to pursue a colonial agenda. A new species — of Childish Fish — is born and most of the original Children are driven into the sea. The few Children who remain on land have lost their voice, “betrayed by the Fish and their own children”. They lapse into a psychosis of memory, speaking in tongues, until their own physical tongues shrink and eventually disappear.

“I just wanted to be able to look at assimilation, colonial takeover and, I suppose, resistance to colonial removal,” Pikoli says. “And then I thought: ‘What helps empires more than anything else? Language.”

The story of the Children without Tongues is echoed in the experience of Nthabiseng who, with a Tswana mother and an Afrikaans father, is exposed to her friends’ laughter when she speaks Setswana. But the parable of the Children without Tongues has a deeper resonance throughout the novel and, although the context may be out of whack, I can’t help thinking of 18th-century French journalist Jacques Mallet du Pan’s oft-quoted aphorism: “The Revolution devours its children.”

Born Freeloaders is a fictional take on the post-apartheid lived experience viewed through the prism of millennial privilege. Ultimately, it explores what happens to these Children without Tongues when they are regurgitated into a world in which they have to forge a new voice for themselves.

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