Born in 1973, Niq Mhlongo is part of a young generation of black writers who depict their country without concession. In a casual style made of humour and powerful dialogues, Mhlongo never hesitates to tackle the heavy issues South Africa is plagued by – joblessness, AIDS or latent racism to cite only a few. A prize-winning author, Mhlongo has authored a number of novels, including Dog Eat Dog, which was translated into Spanish under the title “Perro Come Perro “in 2006, winning the Mar des Lettras prize. His latest novel Way Back Home which has just been published by Kwela Books, reads as a fierce critic of the corruption of the South African elite. In this interview with Africa Book Club, Niq Mhlongo talks about his literary endeavour, today’s South Africa and the expectations that lay on the shoulders of young black South African writers.
Your style is sometimes described as “raucous” or “darkly humorous”, yet your novels tackle heavy themes. Is it easier to approach such themes through humour?
Humour is not something that I employ consciously in my writing. But I’m happy that my readers find my books funny even when I engage in heavy themes. I guess it helps them to reflect positively on these issues. I’ve been told that my strength in writing comes from the dialogue, and my characters. I try hard to make my characters lively and believable through dialogue.
One can feel a lot of pressure on young black South African writers to open new ways and become “the new voice” of the post-apartheid era. How do you deal with these expectations?
Honestly, I do not read too much into such categorizations and brandings. As much as they are sometimes a positive encouragement, they’ve potential of destroying one as a writer. They can put an unnecessary pressure on you and inflate your ego. The great thing about South Africa today is that there are a number of great new writers that have come up. The pressure, if there is any, is shared amongst us. Coming to think of it, before 2004, you could not count more than five young black South African writers. But today a lot have emerged, and this is a great achievement, and this is great for the nation.
The only thing is that our government has to start taking literature seriously, especially South African literature. This is the important heritage. Unfortunately at the moment, our government is concerned about who gets the business tender instead of focusing on literature and encouraging people to write. The wealth of the country cannot only be measured at the stock exchange, but also through its rich arts and culture. The reason everyone knows and admires countries like the United States of America, UK, and France is that those countries have successfully managed to sell us their culture through arts. It’s time South Africa also started taking its artists seriously.
Your new book “Way Back Home” denounces the corruption of the ruling class in your country. Its main characters are dodgy “tenderpreneurs”, past revolutionaries who are obsessed by stuffing their pockets with public money. Why was it important to write that story?
It was very important for me to depict the present South Africa. The divisions in terms of class have widened significantly, such that even the graffiti on the street will tell you that ‘the rich get richer, and the poor get children’. Corruption of the government officials and the people that are connected to the highest echelons of power has engulfed the post-apartheid South Africa. That is why the underlying themes of this book are nepotism, corruption, politics, lies and crime. By writing this story, I wanted us as South Africans to cross-examine ourselves. Hopefully, we will be able to root out this moral decay that is threatening our well-being.
“Way Back Home” subtly mixes elements of tradition, such as the magic of ancestral beliefs, with the depiction of a contemporary reality. Does that reflect your vision of today’s Africa?
In including the traditional elements and ancestral beliefs in the book, I was trying to look into another dimension of healing. Traditionally, for a person to heal completely, certain rituals have to be observed. My main character Kimathi and some of the characters in the book are not completely healed. That is why Kimathi is haunted by his past in the form of a ghost, and in order to deal with this nightmare, he has to confront it. It is this ghost that Kimathi is trying to hide that takes us through the journey of his past deeds.
Therefore, Kimathi is the metaphor of South Africa as a nation. South Africa pretends to be completely healed from the ghost of its past (apartheid, racism and so on), hence we came up with fancy terms like the ‘rainbow nation’. We want to be seen as this colourful nation that can easily forgive and forget. We want to be known as the role-model and the true leader in the eyes of other African States and the rest of the world. The truth is, the past is still haunting us; same as my character Kimathi is haunted by the ghost. We are still bleeding inside.
The rainbow nation does not exist, it’s a fallacy. There are still issues of racism, inequality, xenophobia, crime, corruption, unemployment, access to education, landlessness, homelessness that we still have to address in this country before we can talk about the rainbow nation. This is why a week does not pass without violent protest against poor service delivery in this so-called rainbow nation. We need to address issues of the past in their entirety before we can heal as people. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was a great attempt, but it failed dismally.
The South Africa you describe is ruthless and your characters often choose to bend the rules to reach their goals. Is your country as tough as that?
I think South Africa has lost its moral compass because of the corruption. We have become the so-called “double-speak nation” whereby it is becoming difficult to separate between the truth and lies. We have some corrupt leaders who undermine everything South Africa has achieved in years. They lie to us every day while fattening their pockets with tax-payers money.
In the eyes of the world we have become this exemplary rainbow nation, but if you look deep inside, you’ll see that we are far away from what we preach. We are actually a ‘Dog Eat Dog nation’. A rainbow nation is supposed to accommodate everyone, hence its attractive colours. But our part of the rainbow is ravaged with xenophobia. In South Africa, only the fittest and fattest survive and to achieve this you have to bulldoze all the smaller opponents on your way up the ladder. It is the unfortunate nature of the game.
Lies are a recurrent theme in your writing. The plot of your second novel “After Tears” was based on dissimulation and “Way Back Home” is centred on deceit and the search of redemption. Why is this so?
As South Africans I think we have been living under a web of lies. Apartheid was a lie to us. It forced us to believe that there is a superior race which is white and the inferior race which is black. We have internalised that as a nation. After the end of apartheid there was another lie that the politicians came out with, called Rainbow nation. We were meant to believe that we are all equal under the constitution, but some people are more equal than the others.
Book professionals regularly moan about the lack of readership in South Africa. Are the people you write about, these “township characters”, reading your books? Or is literature too remote from mainstream preoccupations?
People do read in South Africa. The problem is that they do not buy books. Let me rephrase. They do not buy books by South African authors as much as they are buying literature by authors from the West and US of America. This is very unfortunate. I don’t think the problem is about books being expensive either. Honestly, I don’t think books are expensive like many people think. People just have other preferences. Except for John van der Ruit (author of the successful series “Spud”, ed.), I don’t know of any South African author who has sold more than a hundred thousand copies.
My observation is that there are some books that are widely read in South Africa, like Fifty Shades of Grey, Harry Porter etc. I have no idea how to change the reading mindset and get people to read more of South African books. But I guess this is not only a problem in South Africa alone. Our main book chain store “Exclusive Books” would rather order five-hundred thousand copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, and five copies of Niq Mhlongo and other African writers in their store.
Also, people in the township do read my books. However, very few people buy the books. You’ll be surprised to learn that one book in the township can circulate amongst twenty people. That is how my readers do. I don’t know how to make people proud to own a book by a South African author. If people can afford an expensive electronic gadget like an Ipad, I guess they can also easily pay for a book. But I must say that the culture of reading is slowly creeping in amongst black South Africans. I see this in my readings, I attract many of them. Also with the introduction of e-books, there is hope although the pace is slow. Things are looking better, and I’m very optimistic.
On language: you write in English, which is not your mother tongue. How do you feel about that? Is writing in English the only way to get published?
I’ve been asked that question many times. Some people feel that I’m betraying my mother tongue by writing in a foreign language. But I just laugh it off and ask myself, ‘what mother tongue?’ English is no longer a foreign language to me. Even in my writing one can see that I have bastardized it, and made it my own. Yes, English is my second language. But it is the only language that I’m comfortable to write and speak in.
What I mean is that growing up in Soweto had robbed me of the so-called mother tongue. Because of the way Soweto was planned and developed, I can tell you that no one can claim to have a mother tongue in Soweto. A mother-tongue sounds like something pure and static. People can claim to be Zulu, Tswana, Sotho, Tsonga, Venda, Swati, Ndebele, etc, but the language that is spoken in Soweto is not pure. Of course there are schools that teach mother tongues. But the moment learners come out of that classroom, they revert to a lingo/scamtho, which is a Soweto mother tongue if you like.
Scamtho is hybrid or bastardised Soweto language that borrows from different South African languages. Personally, I speak half of every South African language. The only unifying languages where I grew up were English and Tsotsitaal (South African street slang, ed.). The difference is that English is easily accessible because we could learn it in school. But one could only learn Tsotsitaal on the streets. So English became the language of literature to me, while Tsotsitaal was the language of survival on the streets.
When I decided to be a writer, English became an obvious choice. It was not a deliberate choice per se. It was something that came automatically because I don’t think I could have written in another language. That is why my books are in English and Tsotsitaal. I mean, I studied everything in English since I started school until I graduated at the university. The so-called mother-tongues were oppressed since I started school. They were never promoted from the books we read.
To me the word mother tongue sounds like a romanticised term. It has some resonance of ownership. Where I grew up in Soweto, it is difficult to claim the word as there was no sense of ownership. There was a lot of inter-dependency of languages, cultures and a sense of communality. We borrowed everything from one another, especially our languages and traditions. So I did not write in English because I wanted to be published. I wrote in English because it was the only language that I felt comfortable telling my story in. I find English to be the language of the market, and not only book market.
On a more personal level, when did your passion for literature arise? Have you always been writing? Have you always known that you wanted “to be a writer”?
When I lost interest in law around the year 2000, I guess that’s when my passion for literature rose. I have not been writing before, and honestly, I did not want to be a writer. Although I grew up reading novels, I wanted to be a lawyer. You know, I grew up under apartheid. I was seventeen years old when Mandela was released from prison in 1990; and I was already doing matric then.
The reason I mention this is that I studied under BANTU education, which meant that our career choices as black people were limited to being a lawyer, a police man, a journalist, a government clerk or a teacher. When our guidance teacher at school told us about different careers that we could pursue, she never mentioned other careers beyond the one’s I mentioned. Or if she did mention them, it was just in passing, and the tone was that we must not be over-ambitious or try to be like white people. We were not encouraged to be scientists, astronauts, accountants etc. So I was more confused about what I wanted to be.
Luckily, I had a neighbour who was a well known “Sowetan” newspaper journalist. He was a friend of my brother in Chi (‘Chiawelo’, a Soweto area, ed.). I grew up wanting to be like him because he was famous and his name was always on the newspaper. He also had easy access to famous people that he was writing about. Sometimes he would come with freebies that he gave to my brother – free tickets to soccer and boxing games, music concerts and so on. But then I looked at him. He was still living in Soweto in his father’s matchbox house, he drank a lot, and he didn’t have a wife or kids. Then I said to myself, I don’t want to be as poor as him. That’s when I lost interest in journalism.
By then most lawyers that I knew were doing well at that time, and they spoke more sophisticated English than the journalists. All of a sudden, I wanted to be a lawyer. When I applied to study at Wits, law was my number one preference. But unfortunately they took me for my second choice degree, which was Bachelor of Arts. I didn’t know the courses that I wanted to register for because I wanted to do law not BA. So I wrote an aptitude test and passed it. I decided that African literature would be my major because I had read most of the books that were prescribed. I thought it was going to be easy for me to pass this BA so that I could register for law when I graduated.
Indeed it happened that way. When I finished my degree in 1996, I decided to do law as a postgraduate degree. So I registered to do LLB, Bachelor of Laws. I then changed universities and went to UCT. Cape Town was a very lonely place for me. Although I made new friends there, the environment was too foreign for my liking. I was alienated in terms of language and culture, which I felt was too European. Then I rediscovered literature. I read a lot of literature until I could no longer balance it with my law studies.
Then on what was supposed to be my final year in 2000, I failed some of the law courses. This meant I had to come back again for another year. By then I was also writing my novel, ‘Dog Eat Dog’, which was born out of boredom in Cape Town, really. Instead of going back to Cape Town in 2001, I decided to sit at home in Chi and do nothing but write the book. So, my passion for literature was ignited by my failure to become a lawyer. That is why it is safe to say that I did not plan or choose to be a writer, but writing chose me.
Where are your literary influences to be found? Are there writers who spurred your desire to write? Which one(s) would you recommend to Africa Book Club readers?
My brother Elvis used to have a collection of books published by the African Writers Series (Heinnemann). I used to devour those books. Before I became a writer myself, I used to read nothing outside the African Writers Series unless it was prescribed in school or recommended to me. It is difficult to pinpoint which writers influenced me specifically. All the African writers of the older generation; and of different origins had influenced me in one way or the other. From Nigeria to Kenya, South Africa, Angola, Mozambique, and Cameroon – I read most of them. I was also influenced by some of the writers that I discovered along the way, who are not necessarily African writers. I was influenced by American writers, Irish writers, English writers, etc. Even now the influence has not stopped as I discover new things and new writers every day through reading. Translations have also made this possible.
And finally, you write books that get published, something a lot of us would love to achieve. How did you get there? Do you have any advice for wannabe writers?
My advice to wannabe writers is to write, and write more and more. Do not try to sound like any writer except yourself. The world is waiting for your unique story that is still trapped in your head. Get it out before it drives you insane. How did I get there myself? There was a story that was troubling me and giving me sleepless night. After getting it out, I felt healthier again. Reading a lot of literature will only help boost your confidence and give you an idea of how to write. But you must still write. I write stories that get published because I believe in my stories. I don’t tell the story like other writers. I use my original voice.