Weber StudiesHome , Archives , Reading Room , Search , Editorial Info , Books , Subscribe ,  West Links
Spring/Summer 1994, Volume 11.2

Conversation

 

Janice Harris

On Tradition, Madness, and South Africa: An Interview with Lewis Nkosi

Lewis Nkosi was born in Durban, South Africa, in 1937. Educated in Zulu, then missionary schools, he observes that his was "the last generation " to receive their education before apartheid mandated special, government-run schools for black South Africans. Those who argue that it is dangerous to give the oppressed a sound education were proven right in his case. As a journalist/intellectual in the 1950s, he joined other blackwriters reporting on the reality of apartheid in the townships around Johannesburg. In 1960, he was granted a Nieman Fellowship to study at Harvard. Did that please the South African government? Hardly. Initially he was refused a passport. Then, the legal sleuthing of a good friend uncovered a law that would allow Nkosi to leave if he would sign away his right ever to return. He left, assuming the exile would be temporary, that things in South Africa would surely change. Things did not; the years that followed shaped themselves into a rich Odyssey as he studied, taught, and wrote his way from Harvard to London to Sussex to Zambia to California to Poland to Wyoming, where he has been since the fall of 1991. His exile ended dramatically when he flew back to a post-apartheid Johannesburg in December of that year to attend the New Nation Writers Conference. Where is home to him now? Wherever two or three like minded souls gather together, be it in Paris or Laramie, to talk about things that matter: justice, language, ideas, love, friendship, books.

His publications are many and varied, including the well known novel Mating Birds, Tasks and Masks, a study of African literature, the play The Rhythm of Violence, an extensive body of short fiction and critical essays, as well as the forthcoming novel, Underground People, to be published by SERIF Publishers in London and Ambo Publishers in Amsterdam this autumn.

At the University of Wyoming, Nkosi teaches African, South African, and African American literature. As a writer, scholar, and citizen of the world, he generously offers Wyoming students and the community a wealth of insight and experience. More particularly, as a denizen of the English Department's Hoyt Hall, Nkosi brings us, his hallmates, daily surprises: the wit and wisdom of the ever-changing collage of international clippings on his office door, the excitement of hearing a cry down the corridor, "Quick, get Lewis, it's Nadine Gordimer on the phone." How often does a Nobel Prize winner call a member of the UW English Department?!

The following interview took place in my office on a bright Saturday morning in the fall of 1992. Recurring issues include the relation between the current African writer and tradition and making a place in Western literature and culture for the voice of madness. Because neither of these issues has a "solution, " it seemed appropriate to both Lewis and me that this text of the formal interview end as it did in my office, not with a neat conclusion but with the "click" that announced "end of tape." The actual discussion went on, goes on.

Read more work by Lewis Nkosi published in Weber Studies: Vol. 11.2 (one-act play)Vol. 14.2 (fiction).

Janice Harris (Ph.D., Brown University) is a Professor of English at University of Wyoming. Her fields are modern British fiction and Women's Studies. She is the author of The Short Fiction of D.H. Lawrence (Rutgers UP, 1984) and is currently working on Edwardian Narratives of Divorce, forthcoming from Rutgers UP.


Harris: In a talk you recently gave at the University of Wyoming Art Museum, you spoke of the oral tradition in African literature, as you stood surrounded by the stunning photographs of African American women that comprise the exhibition "I Dream a World." Might we begin with a question on how women's voices have or have not been able to speak within the cultural and political conventions of traditional oral literature in Africa?

Nkosi: That is an aspect of tradition that sticks in the craw of modern African practitioners of narrative. Especially women. I know for a fact that one West African woman has written on the disposition of power within the oral traditions and has put forward the view that in certain respects the oral tradition works against women. In my part of the world, for example, it is quite unthinkable that a woman would become an imbongi or praise-singer to the king, which would mean being literally attached to the body of the king, travelling constantly with him in order to act as the official bard.

 

Harris: Explain how that happens.

 

Nkosi: When visiting various parts of the kingdom the king would be accompanied by an imbongi who would sing his praises before the king spoke. Needless to say, the function of the imbongi is more than just singing praises of the king. He also rehearses the history of the founding of the kingdom and recites many historical events that took place in times past. In that way he helps to situate the current king within the spectrum of Zulu history; he also enables the people to recognize the king as an heir of a continuing tradition, which is important for creating a sense of cohesion. Nevertheless, in spite of a bias against them, it is still true that some women, especially of a certain age, can have access to audiences as story-tellers that will include males. The complaint is that women rarely have access to those institutions of real power where they can serve as official bards to the king.

Harris: Could one say that even though the adult men are telling the tales, they first learned to tell tales from the women who reared them?

Nkosi: The old tradition comprises a whole range of genres. This we sometimes forget. The oral tale, for example, is usually told within the family structure, a genre easily accessible to women; but singing praises to the king would have to be performed in a public arena where certain ritual ceremonies are observed. In some traditions-in the Igbo society, for example-women are excluded from participation, as are persons not belonging to certain castes. Needless to say, a great deal of the oral tradition is linked to certain religious observances.

Harris: Would it be fair to say that Europeans have a mindset that oral literature is primitive and simple, whereas written literature is sophisticated and complex?

Nkosi: Quite. I think that, in fact, we still suffer from this dichotomy between orality and writing. It's quite amusing to see just how it works out. Sometimes there is a reversal of the order that we have come to expect: that orality comes before writing. In some cases stories already known from written sources are retold as part of the oral tradition. Nevertheless, it is true that for Europe orality represents lack of continuous thought or prolonged discourse of the philosophical nature. So, orality is something that belongs to primitive cultures.

 

Harris: And ones with no "history."

 

Nkosi: Right! Nevertheless, from a certain perspective the world of orality is held to be more in touch with natural ways of being and so on. As Derrida would say, speech is held to take primacy over the written word because of the idea that speech is more natural, it represents what is present to both thought and language at the moment of utterance. Yet Europe is paradoxically supposed to represent something much more complicated than orality, and for some therefore more civilized. Europe is now associated with what comes down to us through the written word.

Harris: Let me ask you a few questions respecting your forthcoming novel Underground People. Has "life" in South Africa recently impinged on your "art"?

Nkosi: Yes, the unfolding events in South Africa had a direct effect on how my novel was progressing toward its conclusion. My original ending was dependent on the fact that Mandela was still going to be in jail when the book came out. In the novel the guerillas up on the mountains are obliged to capture two white hostages who have blundered into their mountain hideout for fear that if allowed to go they'd go straight to the police and reveal their discovery. At one moment I envisaged that the guerrilla leader would attempt to effectuate an exchange of the hostages for the release of a famous African leader. Well, I had to change that ending after Mandela's release; it didn't make any sense anymore.

Harris: Tell me about that book. When did you start it? I believe you said recently that you were thinking about Faulkner when you wrote it.

Nkosi: Well, that book has a long history. I started it in, let's say, around 1978. 1 was then at the University of Sussex doing my graduate work.

 

Harris: You hadn't been to Zambia yet?

 

Nkosi: No. In fact, I started it and then put it away as writers often do.

 

Harris: When was it in terms of Mating Birds?

Nkosi. I started it before Mating Birds. When I got to Zambia in 1979, 1 said to myself, "You know this is going to be a long, very complicated book." In fact, when I was still at Sussex, I was already telling myself, "This novel is going to be too much work. Do a short story instead." This is how I started Mating Birds. You can see how tight Mating Birds is; it was really supposed to be a long short story that finally grew into a novella. So, I was just going to have some kind of comic relief by writing Mating Birds when I wasn't teaching or wasn't involved with theorizing about literature. After the publication of Mating Birds, I resumed work on Underground People in earnest. Structurally it was intended to be two novels in one and in the earlier versions you can see the resemblance to Wild Palms by Faulkner. two plots move in parallel lines but keep touching at certain nodal points. One part of Underground People was going to build up a relations between a white South African emigré working for Amnesty International in London and his sister. It's obviously a very close relationship. You m even say an incestuous one. When the novel opens, he is instructed to back to South Africa to look for the black hero of the novel who disappeared. It is presumed that the hero is being held by Security Forces when in fact he's simply gone underground. The Liberation Movement protects the secret of his whereabouts by letting everyone think he i detention. Since the South African government was always doing things like that, it was a nice way of putting the government on the spot. When Liberation Movement makes the demand for the release of the guerrilla leader, it does so in the full knowledge that the government can n produce him because the government does not in fact hold him.

I was really attempting to deal with the private and the public within same novel. I was conscious of the fact that, as black South African writ we have always been so much more committed to the public sphere in stories we write that we neglect to see how certain pressures of the personal, of the private life, can affect ways in which we perceive the political. This happened recently in the case of Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Their c private life is actually impinging on the public. In any case, the young w South African goes back to Johannesburg in order to be present at his sister's wedding. At the same time he is implicated in the plot because he is also in the country to look for Molapo, the guerrilla leader. The book ends with him being involved in startling negotiations conducted deep in the forest with guerrillas trying to persuade them to lay down their arms. He accompanies someone from the Liberation Movement into the bush to persuade Molapo, the guerrilla leader, to surrender. Molapo's answer is, "I am not going to surrender." And he chooses to die on the mountains instead, but he makes sure that the bureaucrat from the Liberation Movement will die with when the shooting begins.

 

Harris: Do you want to tell us what he does?

 

Nkosi: Well it's an extraordinary ending. It is clear that the man from Liberation Movement is quite sincere about wishing to save Molapo from being killed by the Security Forces who have completely surrounded area. When he fails to convince Molapo to surrender, he tells him, "OK I leaving and in ten minutes the army is going to move in and start shoo and I am not going to be around when that happens; I tried my best to get you out of this mess. Now it's your funeral." Molapo's answer is: "Yours too, J.B." Molapo has decided the Man from Central Committee should not be allowed to leave even if he has to shoot him himself. And then you d know what happens next because soon the shooting starts. Suddenly whole forest is ablaze with gunfire. And in the novel you don't actually read about bodies lying around, no description of any massacre except the voice of the Chief of Police shouting at the man from Amnesty International. "Go away from here, Ferguson. Get back to England. Go anywhere you like but go away from here. Here you will always be in the way. In South Africa the war has only just begun." And these are the last words of the novel.

During my visit to South Africa I remember meeting a white woman, an American, who has been part and parcel of the liberation struggle in South Africa, and even got married to a South African and now works for one of the volunteer organizations. She was saying that the oppressed people of South Africa are now simply tired. They're tired of the struggle, they're tired of fighting, they're tired of dying. Organizations like hers have had to take that into account when they tried to decide how much to accept of this so called new dispensation and how much to reject.

 

Harris: How much energy has our side still got?

 

Nkosi: Yes. When people don't see any movement, they can accept continuing with the struggle, even shouldering new burdens in the future; but once there's possibility of a negotiated settlement, it is difficult for a leader to turn around and say, "No, we should fight on regardless." To do that, you have to give people new weapons, new hopes, new potentialities for victories before they are willing to make new sacrifices.

Harris: Your speaking of "new" hopes and weapons makes me want to return to our earlier discussion of traditional African modes of expression and thought.

Nkosi: Trying to ponder the difficulties of working within the African tradition the other day, I was reminded of a book I had been reading recently by Shoshana Felman called Writing and Madness. She was trying to show that in Western societies, literature is the only place where madness has been allowed to speak, because European Reason and the whole management of the Enlightenment had expelled madness from philosophical discourse.

 

Harris: It's been defined out?

 

Nkosi: It's been defined as counter to rational discourse. She shows you how the novel, especially, has allowed certain voices that we would consider lunatic to actually articulate things that remain inarticulate within the system of western culture. It occurs to me that within the African tradition certain forms of madness have always been accommodated but have not actually been recognized as madness or called such. The trouble then with that kind of tradition is that madness is incorporated within certain religious structures. If you are mad, you are simply speaking as the voice of the other, the ancestral spirits, who are trying to articulate what would remain inarticulate. Therefore, people listen to you. They think, this person may seem to us to be just babbling, and this person speaks to us of things we do not yet understand, but he or she may be the voice of a god. It then requires someone else to explain what may be happening. The danger with this attitude is that it is easy for a politician who wants to mystify the population to assume what resembles the prophetic voice of traditional religion. In Europe such babbling would be pounced upon and denounced as the voice of madness, but in Africa it may be assumed to be the esoteric voice of religious prophecy. And we should never forget that like anywhere else, African religions are sometimes co-opted into systems of power, in which case such narratives just become part and parcel of the political discourse trying to assume the mantle of religious authority. An example readily comes to mind because it's now at the center of a dispute about the writing of South African history. During the struggle against European colonialism certain events are supposed to have taken place which have been reworked into the mythology of anti-colonial struggle by the oppressed. Although modern historians dismiss some of the claims now enshrined in the oral traditions as nothing but imaginative fictions, some people ask whether it may not be useful to embrace such myths so long as they serve the political aspirations of the oppressed. What is now sometimes referred to as "the usable past." In other words, it doesn't matter whether such narratives are historically true or not. In South Africa we have the case of a young Xhosa girl, Nongqawuse, who near the turn of the century claimed to have seen visions and to have heard voices who instructed her to tell the Xhosa people to kill all their cattle as a form of sacrifice to ancestral spirits. The people were told that in the ensuing struggle with the white colonists bullets would not kill them and they would achieve victories over the white man.

 

Harris: By this sacrifice?

 

Nkosi: Yes. When I tried to decode that historical episode it became obvious to me that Nongqawuse was someone who wanted to gain a certain recognition for her identity as a woman, and the only way she could do it was to assume the mantle of a prophet; she was, of course, aware that there were all these conflicts with white colonists who were taking over the land. So, the people were already in a state of mind which would accept any voice from out there, especially the voice of someone who claimed to be a prophet or in touch with ancestral spirits; and, of course, people killed all their cattle and mass starvation followed. As a result, it became easier for the white settlers to overrun African villages, and defeat followed. This is an example of African religious observances serving only to weaken African resistance to white colonialism. It is also a good example of how left without external criticism those lunatic voices tied up with traditional religious structures can wreak havoc. Although we want to keep in touch with the African tradition, it is the novel, as Bakhtin has made so obvious, which is able to incorporate within itself other voices that are critical of the dominant ideology.

 

Harris: Yes. In the novel there are always resisting sister voices, or brother voices.

 

Nkosi: In the African traditions there is no way in which the voice of the groit, for example, can be deconstructed from within because there is no internal criticism within the discourse of the groit which would put under question mark or under parentheses what the groit claims to have authority bestowed on him by tradition. As the groit Djeli Mamoridou Kouyate says in the introduction to SUNDIATA, "Groits never lie, royal groits do not know what lying is." In many African traditions, the groit is the mouthpiece of god. Well, the novel as the dominant genre of our times is unable to make such claims.

 

Harris: I'm thinking about how Faulkner would use the prophecy of Nongqawuse. How that kind of a voice coming out of the community would be shown to have great power and wouldn't be simply defined as crazy, destructive, not to be thought of as "human."

 

Nkosi: Well, among the Zulu you would find that a diviner or isangoma would actually assume a different speaking voice when possessed by the spirits.

 

Harris:  Is she a medium?

 

Nkosi: Exactly. It's very difficult within the tradition to deconstruct the claims to truth of someone who is acting as a medium of the gods. The only time you can do it is when the prophet is proved to have been false, and you can't do that until the harm is done, the cattle have been killed,a nd the people are already starving or dying.

 

Harris: Before you went back to South Africa, you said there were things you were particularly curious about. What struck you when you actually got back there?

 

Nkosi: Part of my fascination was due to nostalgia, of course, and my surprises had something to do with having been away for so long. For example, I had forgotten how funny certain jokes can be in my language; that their effect may not even depend on the sting at the end of the joke. The joke may depend on the choice of a single word. In my hometown, Durban, I was sitting in this hotel room early in the morning when I turned on the radio and heard someone singing a Zulu song. The song goes something like, "I warned my sister, I warned my sister, not to fall in love with a layabout." I started to roll about on the carpet of my htoel room. The Zulu word for "layabout" is umahlalela and is virtually untranslatable. It means someone who sits, but sits and waits, and it's very difficult to explain just why to be in love with umahlalcla is such an extraordinarily funny situation to be involved in. In translation it just sounds like a nice warning to a sister.

Then of course I was struck by the differentiations that have developed in the language, certain linguistic changes even in terms of rhythms. The language has now been co-opted by a high-powered capitalist system for the selling and distribution of goods. When you are part of a system which is very rational, a language which refuses to recognize a certain rationale of efficiency suffers interminably, and Zulu used to be such a language, very ceremonial, very slow. In fact, I satirized just this characteristic in Mating Birds when the young protagonist is visited by relatives in jail; he's trying to explain that he's not really guilty of rape, but the way in which he explains himself (as I'm doing now), is so erratic, almost so incoherent at times that he is not believed. He speaks too fast to be a good Zulu. A good Zulu speaker doesn't gobble up his words. He pronounces on events with good care, circumventing others endlessly before getting to the heart of the matter. It means you have a lot of time. I keep talking about how different cultures have different culture-times. What we have in South Africa is a super imposition of two or more different culture-times. The Zulu language can't cope very well with such different time-scales. Listening to these radio broadcasts and radio commercials, I thought that the language sounded so ugly. The man trying to make you buy Sunlight soap or something was speeding up the language so much in order to get the message across within the allocated advertising time that it sounded like someone had swallowed a potato. It really played havoc with the language. With Sibiya, too, in Mating Birds, when the relatives listen to him, they are convinced that something has happened in his life that has alienated him from his culture. They think he might very well have done what he is accused of. He is no longer like one of us, he speaks too fast, he sounds too erratic. And, of course, it is that lunatic voice at work. They judge him on the basis of speech.

 

Harris: In fact, something has happened to him. They are right.

 

Nkosi: Yes, he has become westernized by his university education. The prima facie case against him is built on the basis of speech alone, not on any evidence one way or the other.

Harris: Could you speak a bit more on the choices contemporary African writers are faced with regarding the language in which they write? What, for example, is Ngugi wa Thiong'o's current thinking on this?

 

Nkosi: Ngugi, I think, is rightly frustrated like many of us have been. We recognize a part of us wants to be continuous with our traditions and yet we use European languages. Ngugi carries the argument to its logical conclusion; how can you be said to be working within your people's traditions if you use a language that does not entirely embrace the cultural norms of your own society? How can you be certain you are creating a literature that belongs to your own people? Nevertheless, some of us feel that you cannot, as someone put it, emigrate from your own time. For Africa the question of which language to write in is very difficult. First of all, it has something to do with how many languages are spoken in Africa. In one country along, you can find over 200 languages. If you wish to assume an African identity, which is, by the way, a European invention (because a Zulu and a Yoruba in their traditional settings did not think of themselves as African), then you are not thinking primarily of a localized readership but the wole of Africa. So, it's easier for me to write in English if I am thinking of myself primarily as an African. Ngugi is so committed to his program of anti-imperalism which sees language itself as an instrument of European imperialism that he has gone back to writing in Gikuyu. But he's having problems with that too because there are more than 40 national languages in Kenya, and Gikuyu is spoken by only 4 out of 18 million Kenyana inhabitants. Among the 18 million, there are those who say, "What has literature written in Gikuyu got to do us? We're not Gikuyu, we're Kenyans." So, you already see that this is not as ideal a solution as Ngugi thought. Personally, I have always thought that we ought to put a lot of resources in the way of African languages so that they can compete on equal footing with European languages, but for purposes of nation-building we have to recognize that we need languages of national unity. Were an African language exists, like Swahili, capable of being adopted by 80% of the population as in Tanzania, then the solution is ready-made. In South Africa you can imagine what would happen if someone were to say Zulu ought to be the lingua franca. Immediately you would be involved in a political struggle. What you can say is that if you are white you ought to elarn at least one or two African languages. Black Africans already speak English or Afrikaans as well as their own African languages. The other question is technical. It involves  what you can do with the African languages at a given historical moment.

 

Harris: Are you thinking of the ways in which a particular language might influence the writer's choice of genre?

 

Nkosi: Yes. We were talking about this at the conference in Johannesburg [New Nations Writers Conference 1991]. Some of us were trying to fight off prescriptions from people who think we should all go back to African tradition. We were trying to argue that it is not as simple as all that. If you have arrived at the stage we're in now, you really have to do battle not just with language, but with the structures with which indigenous languages are themselves involved. There are certain things that you can't say to a person of my age if you are 16 years old. There are references which are taboo to certain lineal branches or age groups—names you can't use to refer to your aunts or uncles, a whole range of names which protect the hierarchies of age or authority and so on.

 

Harris: So, it would be understandable but it would be an insult?

 

Nkosi: It would immediately be an insult. You have radical kids that are trying to write in Zulu, or Xhosa or Sotho. They have to cope with all of those linguistic practices and taboos. Not that it can't be done, but people who want to go back to writing in African languages from the perspective of the late 20th century have to recognize that they have to transform the languages in a more fundamental way than they usually suppose, and that is going to require enormous amount of work. Now there are certain users of African languages who are not interested in social change as such. They don't see it as a priority. So, when they write, they are writing about village life as a primordial but changeless organism. People like that have fewer problems than the people who are trying to transform society—people who are interested in the women's question for example. If you're writing a novel in which a woman cannot refer to certain things, linguistically because the tradition doesn't allow it, it means that the woman character, in order to break with tradition, would have to be invested with a type of consciousness that is not automatic in the traditional structures. That is why I am teaching a course in African modernism and its relation to tradition. That is one of the outstanding questions that we have yet to resolve. How to read modern literary works against African tradition.

 

Harris: Who are you reading in that class?

 

Nkosi: We're reading a very good Nigerian poet, Christopher Okigbo and the late Tchicaya U'Tamsi, a Congolese poet who was one of the major surrealist poets Africa has produced. He died about two or three years ago in Paris. Tchicaya wrote in French, but he wrote verse about the Congo and the politics of the Congo. There are others: Ayi Kwei Armah and Kofi Awoonor, both Ghanaians. There is, of course, Chinua Achebe whom we read not because we think he is a modernist, strictly speaking, but because we see him as someone against whom the modernists have defined themselves. He's one of the greatest modern African realists, but his greatness depends on using the 19th-century English fictional forms to reconstruct traditional or per-colonial African societies. He enables us to see just how these societies used to function, what was good and what was bad in them, so that the modernists could then define themselves against all those reconstructed modes of behavior. Some people see novelists like Achebe as being necessary at a time when African states were emerging from colonialism to independence. He is seen as someone legitimizing the new African modern states, but already African modernists are beginning to question not just the foundations of that, but the means with which you can accomplish representations of African society. They say if you want to create something new, you have to change your very structures of representation. Then we have people like Yambo Ouolouguem, the Malian novelist, who in fact has used the tradition of the griot to subvert that very tradition. In his hands the novel turns out to be an exuberant satirical attack on the tradition. Le Devoir de Violence is a paradoxical novel which denounces the cycle of violence in a fictitious African state in which the griots are employed primarily to justify crimes committed in history. European scholars do not escape his lampoons either: European anthropologists who are so crazy about Africa that everything African in their eyes is beautiful and Africa before the arrival of the white man is a Garden of Eden. Now, novels like these operate on the verge of the post-modernist. They are full of quotations and citations of other texts and parody some of the earlier novelists.

 

Harris: Are those works accessible to readers in the United States?

 

Nkosi: I don't think nearly enough. Talking for myself, I think Mating Birds could have sold more copies if it had been properly distributed and enough copies had been made available to people here as in England. I've met so many people here who say, "We can't find your book."

 

Harris: It's true.

 

Nkosi: In Europe and America, there is always a perception that you're an outsider, that unless you achieve the status of the "big boys and girls" like Rushdie, you're not going to sell books. Mating Birds, which has won prizes and gone into ten translations, was rejected by one publisher in England on the basis that the name Nkosi is unpronounceable by European readers.

 

Harris: Incredible!

 

Nkosi: It is true. They write to me and say, "We think that no one will be able to pronounce this name, and people can't buy books whose authors they can't pronounce."

 

Harris: How well will Underground People be distributed here?

 

Nkosi: It gets better and better, of course, once the publishers realize that African books can sell a lot of copies.

 

Harris: Right. What is the Henry Louis Gates, Jr. collection that you're contributing to and when will that be out?

 

Nkosi: This is an essay for the journal, Transition. I'm writing a piece on culture and politics in South Africa, joining the debate on the plight of trying to write out of the post-apartheid situation. There's been a big debate in South Africa since the collapse, not just of apartheid, but of the Soviet Union. We had a very strong Communist Party in South Africa that was in some ways strongly Stalinist. At the same time, it made great sacrifices and shouldered much of the responsibility for the armed struggle against the apartheid state. Nevertheless, the influence of the Party on writing and the arts was often deleterious. Party commissars were obviously in favor of socialist-realist type fiction as against texts that were seen as bourgeois, experimentalist or elitist.

 

Harris: How did the Party practice this influence?

 

Nkosi: The Party had first operated as a separate entity, but after wholesale banning of political organizations in the '60s many leftwing organizations, including the Party, decided to merge with the ANC [African National Congress] in order to offer a united opposition to apartheid. As a result many writers who were promoted or legitimized in Europe as progressive artists from South Africa were people who would utter hardly a squeak of criticism against the organizations of the left for fear of being seen as breaking ranks with the liberation struggle. In our literature there came into existence something called solidarity criticism. This is the sorry chapter we reviewed at a recent conference in Seattle [Annual Convention of the African Studies Association, 1992]. Solidarity criticism was based on paraphrasing the plots of novels showing in what way they were against apartheid and how the heroes of those novels were either good guerilla fighters or people engaged in resistance against the apartheid state. Anyone who wrote a novel simply about love would be denounced as a believer in art for art's sake, or whatever. So, with the end of the influence of the Soviet Union this also meant the relative decline of the Party and its influence within the Liberation Movement. It also meant, of course, the end of this form of ideological blackmail. With the dismantling of apartheid, people began to break ranks. Some members of the party actually resigned because they wanted more freedom of discussion. One of those individuals was Albie Sachs, who had an arm amputated after being hit by a bomb sent in the post, presumably by South African Security. Sachs' criticism of "solidarity criticism" repeated what I had been saying for a quarter of a century but when expressed by someone who had the credentials of the Communist Party and ANC membership, this ensured his remarks the widest ramifications possible! In fact, his remarks were made in an in-house paper for the African National Congress seminar. Sachs jokingly proposed that we ought to put a ban on our people saying that literature is a weapon of the struggle.

 

Harris: Can you say more about your own stance on this?

 

Nkosi: I had been in the forefront of the opposition to this type of prescriptive, normative requirements of what should be considered good progressive art.

Harris: Could you explain further the basis and the form of your opposition in, for example, Mating Birds, The Black Psychiatrist, your short stories, the essays in Tasks and Masks?

Nkosi: In my creative work, of course. It was not the case that I didn't see apartheid as an oppressive structure pervading every aspect of our lives. I just didn't think that it was always necessary to attack it frontally in order to be effective. In Mating Birds, for example, what I wanted to illustrate was the fact that love takes place within language. That is, if speech is curtailed, it is very difficult to even know whether you are raping someone or not because if someone can't talk to you, if one is prevented by law from proposing or making love to someone across the colorline, then it also means if there is a mutual attraction the situation becomes extremely ambiguous as happens in Mating Birds. This is precisely because the State interferes with language and speech. In my novel you never hear explicit denunciations of apartheid and you never have examples of obvious resistance to apartheid. You hear, at the ending of one chapter, freedom fighters who have been in prison awaiting execution singing freedom songs. Most people who have heard black prisoners singing on the eve of their execution, usually late at night, say these are the most moving moments when the prisoners sing collectively. They say their singing is so moving, so full of hope, that even prison authorities have found this most extraordinary coming from people about to be hanged. In my novel just before these political prisoners are executed you hear voices singing of a future where everybody is free, and they are the only moments in the novel when you have voices addressing themselves to the issues of liberation. Otherwise, it comes out through an evocation of an atmosphere, through allusions. Those moments are very elusive indeed in the novel.

 

Harris: Does that same strategy apply to your play The Black Psychiatrist?

Nkosi: Oh, I love that play. I'm crazy about The Black Psychiatrist.

Harris: I have seen a recent production, here in Laramie. What were you aiming for in that play?

Nkosi: Well, just as Mating Birds is partly about narrating, the play tries to illustrate the very important principle that he or she who narrates is the one controlling a version of history. In The Black Psychiatrist this is obviously the case. But I also like the play because it's funny. I like plays that say a lot of what is serious without being too earnest about it.

 

Harris: Right, and there's no party line.

 

Nkosi: You think, what would happen if you're sitting there in your office and this dazzling woman comes in. And mind you, 'dazzling' is not quite the word you should use, not to the character in my play. She immediately J . umps on the psychiatrist for using it: "So, dazzling am 17 And she starts narrating her whole life, about herself, about how the black psychiatrist was part of it, involved in it, and he can't remember anything about her. The question which is always in the mind of the audience is, Who is telling the truth?

Harris: It's a very provocative play. It seems like it is a play about where the voice of madness comes in.

Nkosi: Right. It is a very good addendum to Shoshana Felman's Writing and Madness. It is an interesting moment in any text when you're compelled to test the limits of what is narratable, and one of those moments occurs when texts are in difficulties, or when they reach moments of aporia and certain thoughts become unspeakable or are just too difficult to speak about logically. It is then that I try to let the voice of madness speak in the text.

 

Back to Top