The emphasis in new African writing is away from politics towards how the individual responds to events, says South African novelist Mphuthumi Ntabeni, author of The Broken River Tent and The Wanderers. He picks out five outstanding books of African writing, including novels that paved the way for new genres, a book of short stories from across Africa, and a work of nonfiction that he recommends to "anybody who wants to know what is happening in South Africa."
For people who don’t know much about it, can you tell me a bit about African contemporary writing in general?
I think that African writing has mostly been postcolonial. Perhaps it started with Chinua Achebe, who was writing in reaction to aspects of colonialism. That has been quite popular in African writing. Now, at this stage, African writing is moving away from that colonial theme. It’s getting more into what I call historical fiction, because Africa is still trying to reckon with its own history, especially the recent history.
From Achebe, then, perhaps through the likes of Ngozi, you have African literature about the immigrant experience, whose roots are from Tayeb Salih. I like the new writing because now the emphasis is no longer too much on politics, the emphasis is on the individual, and how the individual reacts to historical events.
The thing I still complain about regarding African literature, even contemporary writing, is that we shy away from the novel of ideas. Our novels still neglect intellectual tensions, preferring dialectical drama.
Tell me how you chose these particular five, because there must have been a lot to choose from across the whole of Africa.
Yes! I consider myself a reader who has developed an opinion, because I read a lot. It was a very difficult task for me to decide which ones to choose. I wanted books that I thought were genre-defining books in African writing. For instance, Tayeb Salih is basically a founder of what we call African immigrant writing, stories that are very popular at this particular time.In my opinion, Season of Migration to the North is amazing. As far back as the 1960s, Tayeb Salih was already tackling, in a vivid manner, the issues migrants to the West are confronted by: it’s hard to integrate because of cultural and religious differences, xenophobia, and the difficulties of getting employment or housing for not-properly-documented immigrants. If you read most of Abdulrazak Gurnah’s books, The Leavers by Lisa Ko, The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, Second Class Citizens by Buchi Emecheta, Imbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers, etc.: they’re all haunted by the writing ghost of Salih. South Africa has been resisting the genre a little but I recently read Paperless by Buntu Siwisa about the experience of Africans in Oxford.
And then, if we go to José Eduardo Agualusa, he is a founder of what I call the African stream of consciousness and the mixture of genre structure. He likes to write in different tones and even in different perspectives in one book. You’ll see that he uses the first person, he uses the second person, and he uses the third person. That is quite popular now in African writing, especially since Damon Galgut’s book, The Promise.
I also chose a collection of short stories because I thought there was a lot of diversity in the voices there. I wanted people to get the most diverse voices in African writing.
I chose only one non-fiction book, which is Tembeka Ngcukaitobi’s The Land is Ours. I like that book. I always recommend it to anybody who wants to know what is happening in South Africa, the historical context and how it is now, the status quo.
That’s a great introduction. Let’s go through the books individually. You’ve already mentioned Season of Migration to the North by the Sudanese writer, Tayeb Salih. I think it was written in Arabic and came out in 1966. Is there anything else to add?
As I mentioned, I chose that book because I feel that African contemporary writing is in an age of restless migration to the North. You know, those stories of how people go to the North for different reasons: economic, political upheavals, all those things, and the issues migrants to the West are confronted by. Almost all the themes that he put there are what most writers at this particular moment are talking about. You can read Abdulrazak Gurnah, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature: Most of his themes are based on that. It’s as if he is haunted by the ghost of Salih.
Then you can go to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, from Nigeria. It’s a very popular genre now, but I found that Tayeb Salih was the one who established it, especially from the African perspective.
And is it a beautiful book to read?
Oh, it’s a very beautiful book because it’s poetic also. Another thing that I complain about most of the time, because I read a lot of African writing, is that most writers don’t pay enough attention to the language. He does. He pays a lot of attention. His prose has a quiet wisdom with tinges of poetic lyricism. I love that about his writing.
For people who don’t know it, it’s about a man who leaves his village, goes to the UK for a few years and gets a PhD, and comes back, and then becomes obsessed with someone called Mustafa. Was that his name?
Mustafa, yes! I think there was an element of autofiction to the book because Salih himself worked in the UK for the BBC for some time. He always felt he lent his experiences to his protagonists.
When the narrator comes back home, he finds that as much as he misses his culture, he can see how much he doesn’t fit into that culture anymore because he stayed too long in the West. But then, when he goes to the West, he finds that culturally and religiously he doesn’t fit there, either.
There are also the elements of xenophobia and so much difficulty. Initially, when he’s undocumented, he can’t get a job. It’s all the things that we’re experiencing most of the time, as Africans, when we go to Western countries. I mentioned Paperless, by Buntu Siwisa: it goes into depth on that topic.
Let’s go to the nonfiction book next: The Land is Ours: Black Lawyers and the Birth of Constitutionalism in South Africa, by Tembeka Ngcukaitobi. He’s a lawyer and he’s written this book about the first Black lawyers in South Africa. Is it a group biography or more of a history, would you say?
I don’t want to call them biographies because they are too short. Let’s call them ‘personalised histories.’ He writes the personalised histories of the first Black lawyers, who he claims were founders of constitutionalism and the universal Bill of Rights in South Africa. He showcases how they were affected by their naivety of thinking this would deliver universal justice, political and otherwise during the British colonial era of our history. They were trained overseas in the West, and they came back with the notion that they were going to change things because of their misconception, despite everything, that the British Empire had respect for the law.
They had a rude awakening. They came to understand that not only did the British not respect the law when it came to people of colour, they manipulated it. They only respected it when it supported their purposes. So they were always kicking the can down the road. It’s so painful when you read about their personal histories because most of them died in shame. Out of the six of them, five died as alcoholics because they couldn’t even make money as lawyers. There was just no space for them as Black people in the system.
The system just couldn’t accommodate them. As a result, one of them, Henry Sylvester Williams, who was Caribbean, chose to go back to England rather than stay in South Africa because he could see that there was no way he could practise law and pursue justice. In the end, all of them came to the realisation that practising law where there’s no justice is pointless. This fight has to be political rather than legal. This is why they became foundational members of what became known as the ANC, the African National Congress, the current rulers of South Africa.
Is the book very relevant today? You said you recommend it to everybody who wants to understand South Africa.
Yes, for me, historically, it is relevant. I suppose it is also relevant, even today, because Tembeka Ngcukaitobi is, I think, the youngest senior counsel in the land. His success has been prominent, but he himself is an exception to the rule. For most of these professions, the culture is still not accommodative to the Black people. But I think most people will argue that things are much, much better than they were in the late 19th and early 20th century.
I hear the book is being turned into a TV series. It’s going to be interesting to watch that.
Let’s go on to Disruption: New Short Fiction from Africa, edited by Jason Mykl Snyman, Karina M. Szczurek, and Rachel Zadok. Tell me a bit more about the kind of stories that are in there. I was reading the first one and my husband looked over my shoulder and was like, ‘Whoa!’
The thing I like about Disruption is the diversity of the voices. The voices themselves come from all over the African continent.
Another thing that interested me is that most of the stories in Disruptions chose the theme of climate change. It means that climate change is really a threat on the African continent. Most Africans, especially the rural ones, who are the majority, still live by the soil. Their self-sustenance is still from the soil, so climate change affects them directly more than any other person. That part fascinated me, to see that most of them indirectly chose the theme of climate change, whether from drought or floods.
Also, what I like about it is the way the stories themselves showcase that the Africans are not helpless, passive individuals. They are adapting to this changing world. They are coming up with solutions to make their world even better.
Unfortunately, I feel another theme that is common in all of the stories is how the African governments let the individuals down and let the communities down, by not giving them support, by corruption. That is another theme, but I like the stories themselves. They come together very well as a collection.
Some of them are sci-fi, some of them are fantasy, they might be any genre, right?
Yes, that’s what I was saying. The genres are very diverse, and they are different. I’m not too much into sci-fi myself, but I found the stories very interesting. I like that they put me out of my comfort zone. I found that I enjoyed them despite myself.
Let’s go on to A Library to Flee, by Etienne Van Heerden. I think this was written in Afrikaans and then translated.
Yes, it was translated into English last year. There is something that we call here the UJ Prize for Translation, which is awarded by the University of Johannesburg. The translator, Henrietta Rose-Innes, won that prize this year. It’s quite exciting.
The genre of this book is the most popular one at the moment. Now, let me first make you understand what kind of a genre it is. There is this thing that is happening now, especially in South Africa, whereby stories are also set in some global cities outside of South Africa. And we’re no longer only looking west; apparently, we’re also looking east, so there are a lot of stories now that are set in China. This one is part of that movement: It’s partly set in China, and generally set in South Africa.
The most popular one in this genre at this particular moment is C. A. Davids’s How to Be a Revolutionary. I’m sure you would have heard of it because it’s published in the UK by Verso. It has won quite a lot of prizes in South Africa: the Sunday Times Literary Award and the UJ Prize for Writing in English.
But what I like more about Etienne Van Heerden’s one, A Library to Flee, is that I find it’s a little bit more nuanced and the prose has got more finesse to it. It follows a Black woman who comes across some kind of data harvesting business. She realises that her father is involved in this, and there’s some corruption because it involves the government during the Zuma years of our presidency. It follows the sniff of this corruption to China, and that’s where tragedy strikes.
What I love most about it also is that it’s got a lot of diverse characters: a Xhosa woman, an Afrikaner man, an English man. It mixes and intermixes these characters together and it all comes to a very beautiful ending – I can’t mention it, but it’s plotted very well. It’s got a very surprising ending. It’s a thick book, but actually, by the end, it rewards your patience.
It’s about 600 pages, isn’t it?
Yes, it’s a very long book. It helps that the prose is written in pleasing poetic flashes, so you hang in there. I can understand how readers might be discouraged because it’s got a lot going on initially, but if you have patience, the plot has got a very pleasing, rewarding end, where it brings everything together.
But you wouldn’t describe it as a crime novel, even though it starts with a murder?
It mixes a lot of genres. It’s a spy novel also; it eavesdrops on history. It’s got a lot of things going on. And then, it’s contemporary in the sense that it interrogates how AI will affect us, especially security clusters because of the cameras on the streets, the cameras in shopping malls. Also, it showcases – it’s almost a legal drama in itself – arguments about how ethical data harvesting itself is.
The last book you’ve recommended is A General Theory of Oblivion. The author, José Eduardo Agualusa, is an Angolan journalist and this book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, I believe?
Yes, and it also won the International Dublin Literary Award in 2017. This book is brilliant. It’s set during the time when Angola was getting its independence. One woman locks herself in a room and then she looks outside at the world as she meditates on the past, on the present, and on the future. That’s the plot, but the way it is written, in a wonderful stream of consciousness, you will not believe. And what she does is she plants vegetables on the balcony. She never goes out of the room. She never goes anywhere. She’s just waiting for everything to subside. Coming from the years of lockdowns due to the pandemic we relate very easily to her condition.
Initially, why I chose the book is because I wanted to introduce your readers, and even South African readers, to Lusophone literature because it’s not very popular here. Most people don’t know Portuguese literature and I think it’s one of the best books of Luso literature.
And then, the writing style of it – it’s so varied. Sometimes she writes journals; sometimes she writes letters. Sometimes it’s written in the first person; sometimes in the third person. I love the third person more because of the beautiful remove on it.
She suspects she’s not going to make it. You are rooting for her, but she does not care if she’s going to make it or not. She’s okay with whatever happens, which is where the ‘oblivion’ in the title comes from, I think.
Is it a comment on the history?
Oh yes, and not just Angolan history, also Portuguese history. She tries to show how the mess she’s trying to avoid came through the colonial history itself. But she also does not absolve the cruel actions of Angolan comrades who worked for the liberation, when they betrayed the people as they started to imitate their colonial masters.
It’s a beautiful book. It’s what I would call apocalyptic literature, about the end of the world. It’s got a surprising ending, also, that has a metafictional twist to it. I was trying to find a way of mentioning it without spoiling it. I decided that if I mention it, it will spoil it, but throughout the book, that is the thread that the book is pulling on. It gets tighter with every chapter, and it’s just so surprising at the end.
It’s funny because I usually don’t care about plots, but the books I’ve chosen for you are all very plot-driven. They’re also written in beautiful prose, which is my minimum requirement for enjoying a book. Ngcukayitobi, for instance, especially in his latest book, The Land Matters, comes close to the demands of James Baldwin that the prose must be clean as a bone. His thinking is very clear, which must be why he’s so successful as a lawyer.
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