A Dark, Post-Apartheid Novelist
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it sure isn’t easy to handle dark stuff like this with aplomb.
By Sanjena Sathian
On the page, novelist Songeziwe Mahlangu is masculine, staccato, occasionally violent, often upsetting and frequently a bit madcap. You might imagine him as a Hemingway: romantic but troubled, bold, brash. In real life, he has a tentative face and is almost painfully shy and sweet, like a young boy, not a nearly 30-year-old man.
South African Mahlangu’s sparse debut novel, Penumbra, is just beginning to get some legs. It won the new Etisalat Prize for Literature, which already has a nice track record of finding and recognizing new voices. (The previous year’s winner was NoViolet Bulawayo, who was later short-listed for the Western-reader-approved Man Booker Prize.) He also took home last year’s Sunday Times Fiction Prize back in South Africa. All this as the world seems finally to be craning its neck toward the African continent as a hotbed of new international talent. Well, not exactly new, but new to Western latecomers.
And the African writers of this generation have a taste distinct from their predecessors. Like Mahlangu, many are writing confidently about the quotidian, not to teach foreign folks about the politics of the continent. The running theme: You oughta know what’s up over in Africa already — and a novel’s job is to tell a story, not educate you. That’s what Mahlangu says in kinder terms: “If people outside of South Africa want to get involved, well, they can,” he says. “But I’m not concerned about writing for them.”
Raised speaking the Bantu language of Xhosa in the Eastern Cape — he didn’t learn English until age 5 — Mahlangu is new to the global literary scene. He’s about to leave for the United Kingdom, which will be his first time outside the continent. Heading to Nigeria to collect the prize was itself a whole new experience. I speak to him while he’s in Cape Town, where he works as an accountant. Like any good African boy, he was good at math, but secretly preferred writing — mostly poetry, at first. He managed to get accepted to a creative writing program (one far from the ilk of America’s Iowas and Columbias), where he honed his skills and wrote part of Penumbra. He was lucky: Plenty in his position — boring job, small-town kid, creative writing student — would never make it out of oblivion and into the book pages. But that’s the point of prizes like the Etisalat.
My phone beeps twice. It is a message from Paul inviting me to men’s ministry at seven. I am now ready to attend. I text back to Paul: “I’m coming.” This is too presumptuous. Jesus could come before the meeting. Ndlela is also going to call me at seven. Is there any significance to that hour? Will I be judged? The number seven is perfect. God took seven days to create the world. —excerpted from Penumbra
The lit world has no shortage of conversations about the post-postcolonial generation. Mahlangu doesn’t think of himself as political — “If it was political, it came out incidentally,” he says. But his work can’t be apolitical, says Ellah Allfrey, one of the patrons of the Etisalat Prize and the former deputy director of Granta. “If you are the postindependence generation, there isn’t that clear focus on a colonizer you need to get rid of,” she says. “So the politics looks and sounds different.” She cites, for example, the novel’s difficult handling of mental illness. Readers, she says, will or should ask themselves: What is it about this new society that has allowed such madness to take hold?
Speaking of mental illness, that’s not the only part of Penumbra that might give you the willies. It’s some dark shit. The protagonist, Mangaliso Zolo — who Mahlangu says is in part autobiographical — is a desk-job malcontent who begins the novel parsing his surroundings for signs of the Apocalypse. There’s the lurking presence of HIV and AIDS, a few frightening sex scenes, drugs and an overall sheen of the eschatological. Mahlangu, for his part, grew up going to “traditional churches” — aka noncharismatic ones, those that involve tongue-speaking and much earthquaking talk of Satan himself.
Though he’s forthcoming about his personal connection to the work, he doesn’t spare many words. He doesn’t want to talk about his father, he says, with whom he doesn’t have a relationship. He was raised mostly by his grandmother in a middle-class household; she was a teacher who studied art, and cousins were always around. He only began to know his mother at the age of 15. As a child he was bookish at his boys’ schools, and “met poetry” in high school, where he realized he could “help people feel strong emotions” if he wrote.
Mahlangu is about to quit his accounting job and hop on that flight to the U.K. It’s the dream. He can finally live on his own talent. But there’s much still ahead for him. Allfrey says his style should (and will) evolve from its current young, “immediate” first-person-present voice, which often comes with a debut autobiographical novel. He also has to, well, sell some stuff. Only 2,500 copies have sold, though part of winning the Etisalat is getting more copies bought and distributed globally. Then there’s the truth that literature from the continent still has far to go to get out of Africa.
But let’s not conflate. If we acted as though Mahlangu were Africa itself, that wouldn’t help much either.