Tag Archives: Unathi Slasha

Much with the Dead & Mum with the Dying, or: Rigidities of Rationalism, Camaraderie Criticism & Contemporary South African literature


Unathi Slasha

 

I have to say something
Or stay suffering – Elfuge
For Jijana & Joja

 

A careful reading of the fictions that are being published in South Africa today reveals a harrowing truth, whose theme-handling hideousness, lack of linguistic heartiness, only the insincere and halfsighted would deny. Novelists are inextricably ensnared in a web of overfamiliar and old-fashioned tropes, images and modes: the well is dry. Reading South African fictions, I am often shocked at the obscene comfort that characterises the writing. Either we are convinced that there are no productive possibilities outside old outlooks or lenses, or our stamina for stagnancy and sedentariness is brainnumbing, to the point where the common sentiment among many writers is that there is no need for rethinking old or originating new names or myths or modes, perhaps because, we believe we have appropriate grammar to grasp the gaping grave that is the present moment. Yet the work we have been producing points out our own pitfalls and prove the inverse.

I am aware of the inconclusive nature of the debate around aesthetics: around which convention is capable to confront the process of both the historical past and the elusive politics and problems of the present. As far as my knowledge stretches, the debate has always been marked by discrepancies in vision and practice: so that critics like Njabulo Ndebele, Lewis Nkosi, and others, though critical of certain South African realist fictions, still believed there were ways to make realism effective: a minor internal burst, a crack or, more precisely, a way to make it work w/out destroying the machine. The kind of fictions being written and published at this very contemporary moment suggest that this hope has not died and been buried with Nkosi. That our stale tales and the modes in which they flow have ‘reached the dead end in the inarticulate sounds of panic’ [1] is not untruthful a description to ascribe to the sorry state of our literature. To mark my ground, following the footsteps of Lewis Nkosi’s meditation on the intersection of the political and cultural – how the former determines the dynamics of the latter – I am also not convinced the problem is strictly about genre or form or merely an inability to grasp or invent certain syncretic complex cultural codes. It is much more complicated, I concede, but this does not excuse and encourage critical indolence and a sterile sense of the creative. Of course I have no faith in flogging back to consciousness conventions I consider not comatose, but irreparably dead, deadening, always terrified and dodging intimacy with the body, death or the unknown. Like some faceless critic, a cretin may call this dogma: my response is thanks, anything but monotony and robotism. Seems we have settled for and are complacent with what Taban Lo Liyong termed ‘pervasive robotism’, to the extent that this rottenness arouses in me, each time I am confronted with the cringe-worthy thematic clichés and predictable storylines and pedestrian structures that plague South African fictions, not only sympathy, but support for Abel’s meditation on South African literature:

Lesego Rampolokeng pic by Muntu Vilakazi

‘Most South African literature is dead. Across race, genre, generation…i draw no inspiration from it. I am not knocking people but stating what is to me, as writer and avid reader, a fact. This to me is a jump off point & point of entry into this. I did not come into writing because some SA writer fried my brains but precisely because they did not. I wished for more. Starting out, I wrote because i could not stand what i was reading – uniform in its dearth of imagination even as most reflected my lived reality, I felt like I was locked behind a marshmallow wall. The padding could be eaten from here to sugar diabetes…’ [2]

No translation needed here. Barrenness and the incapacity to invent are perceptible across literary genres and this malady pervades not only our very composition of and writing on literature, but also, to a larger level, our cultural life. Current narrative strategies, the telling of our tales, with their stubbornness and predilection for sticking to the traditional representation of the real, disclose an impoverished imagination packaged in technical clumsiness. Indeed, as Nkosi has mentioned, the deficiency in in-depth engagement with indigenous forms, cultural theory and foreign literatures places the writer in a dangerous disadvantage, although, if approached from a different critical vantage point, the very disadvantage could be fertile ground for developing new strategies of seeing. Absent is this amalgamative engagement that would help unearth and cultivate new possibilities and potentialities. At the heart of South African literature today is the demon called Reason: our literary meditations seem to enjoy flirting with the rigidities of rationalism, narrative-wise and theoretically. We are indeed still living under the reign of logic. [3] One simply needs to revisit what Pumla Gqola describes as the ‘most misread essay in the history of letters’ [4] – Njabulo Ndebele’s “Rediscovery of The Ordinary” – to see the refusal to get rid of ready-made forms and invent an alternative: a framework that moves and operates outside the language and logic that favour Ndebele’s authorial realistic outlook and didactic narrativising. The very idea of the ordinary, the everyday, the daily, is undoubtedly crucial here, and of course, Immediately, I am reminded of Georges Perec’s conception of the infra-ordinary, in his 1973 text ‘Approaches to What?’ [5], published 11 years before the appearance of Ndebele’s text. Perec urges us to transcend the surface, go behind the scene and zoom in and focus and engage the supposedly insignificant details behind the ‘event,’ ‘the explosion,’ the ‘essential,’ the true ‘scandal’ – to give attention to the ‘habitual’ which we have ceased to question due to either our overfamiliarity with, or repugnance to, its presence. It’s a conception of the everyday that, though it cannot be said to be, in Louis Aragon’s expression, ‘a sense of the marvellous suffusing everyday existence,’ but, in the re-worded words of Bellos, can be construed as ‘a surreal take on the everyday minutiae, which is neither ordinary nor extraordinary.’

Elsewhere, I argued against Njabulo Ndebele’s constricted conception of the day-to-day – this comprehension and confinement of the ordinary to strictly ‘sobering rationality’ and gave a different conception and illustration of the ordinary:

(a) that does not refer to the recycling, manipulation of socially available facts w/out transcendence, dedication, determination, painful patience, spirit of inventiveness, syncretic vision or ‘carnivalesque style’ that accompanies the strife and strain of sculpting an actual artwork. Not unsophisticated caricatures or insipid sermons or political propaganda and sloganeering packaged and paraded as radical creative literature;

(b) that refuses the myopia of locating and restricting the restlessness and randomness of the ordinary within what Dambudzo Marechera refers to as the ‘evidence of our own eyes,’ for such a reading proves contracted and ‘provisional,’ susceptible to fade into oblivion, as soon as inevitability imposes ‘permutations and transformations,’ [6] on both the thing seen, and the thing doing the seeing.

Dambudzo Marechera & Charles Mungoshi

Among plenty of problems facing South African literature today, including, but not limited to the language question, there is none more lethal than the lack of a radical reading of the politics of the present: a practice that would translate into a collective and coherent project whose objective would yield alternative strategies of seeing, of weaving narratives in a fashion, or rather, in a representational mode that incorporates or carries or engages or shows awareness (not necessarily narcissistic or self-conscious) of the attributes or symbols or signs or dimensions that include, but are not limited to, what Nkosi sums as the ‘past and the present, the living and the dead, the poetic and the prosaic, the fantastic and the realistic, the tangible and the intangible, the truthful and the imaginary, the magical and the authentic, the fictional and the historical, the plausible and the implausible, and the historical and the legendary.’ This, I argue, is the heightened performance of the carnivalesque, the Menippean manner of Bakhtin, Marechera encouraged, which is missing in the strait-jacketed vision and fiction of Ndebele. For in the final analysis, when his literary meditations are dissected, they are exposed to be nothing but the logical outcome of thoroughly rational preoccupations about reality. [7]

In short, the interest and intention is not to invent a provisional defiant and deviant device, but the idea is to bring forth a total termination of the current trend or trajectory. Breathe new life into the lungs of literature and chart out a new current, fed from the vein of the past and the present, so to avail avenues to communicate with the beyond, the Unlanguaged, the long endless night of the Rimbaudian unknown. But the engine of our current machine is too fucked up and dysfunctional to transport us there, for as the poete maudit wrote, in a letter to his friend, ‘the inventions of the unknown demand new forms.’  Frankly, it is a frustrating experience reading the embarrassingly mediocre fictions and poetries that scoop awards and receive celebrations and false praise from corrupt critics, year after year, in South Africa. The lacuna in our literature means a compromise and bartering of the critical and creative impulse, for something else other than the drive to discover what’s beyond or behind the borders of the banal, or ‘Toward the Edge of the Hermetic.’  There is a literary limitation that has been planted like a boulder against the black writer, in this country, in which the black writer is stuck in a status quo that does not allow space to stretch, explore and trek the distance of our interminable imaginations. Moment the writer jumps over the boulder, crosses the limit-line, the writer discovers that s/he has violated and betrayed the National Narrative.

Novelists are condemned to feed the reader the same staleness. There is no confidence for any alternate substance to the staple, no space or stomach for anything other than the usual niceties. To venture forth and create we are afraid, Taban Lo Liyong has got that right.  No need to mention the designation ‘poet’ – a lot of these writers have got nothing to do with the development of the word, tongue, voice.  Choir time: ‘everybody is sounding like some third-generation ape mimicking. . . The sooner we drop that, the better, then we don’t have to be aping.’ [8] Too much talk has drained our collective energies and no mind has yet invented something worth mentioning. Current debates around the decolonization of literature are not helping us make sense of the elusive present moment. If anything, they cause more confusion and chaos, rather than recommend a radical route out of this rut. Whenever writers write in columns or talk at platforms about decolonization, it often quickly descends to the level of the shambolic. At the end of the empty rhetoric, when the work of writers of the Decolonized Book, is examined, one is shocked to discover, among other hair-raising problematics, that Mothobi Mutloatse’s confrontational notion to ‘donder… to pee, spit, and shit on literary convention’ [9] is not put into practice, as a modus operandi, to ‘break away from the prison of petrified aesthetics,’ as protagonist Sekete writes. [10] Bringing into mind what Andile Mngxitama observed that:

‘It seems too that there is a disjuncture between the actual literary practise and the political stance of the black writers. In other words, the rebellion against white racism is not integral to their literary practise, rather it’s external. The art itself is not rebelling at the level of the author’s public statements on decolonisation. It’s like the writer had dropped the pen and grabbed the microphone. If one were to read the books of some of these authors without being privy to their utterances about decolonisation, one would search in vain for decolonisation in their writing.’ [11]

Nongenile Masithathu Zenani

Intention is to invent multiple machines of confronting what Mam’ Nongenile Masithathu Zenani sees as The World and the Word. Reading her own versions of known and unknown isiXhosa folktales, myths and legends, reimagined and reinterpreted, to reconcile the past, the present and uncertain possibilities of the impending, her compelling ‘panga-duel’ with theory on story-telling, refuses and rejects the dim division-line drawn between the creative and the critical, a gap Frank Wilderson has dismissed as ‘false dichotomy.’ Zenani’s project is not a reflection of someone whose understanding of the World and the Word is stuck in the nostalgic trappings of an idealised past. Her work cannot be categorised as an amorphous thing, stranded in nothingness, or nomadic in nowhere, with no spine, or instinct to improvise, or more precisely, trapped with no back-up of ‘tradition, whether indigenous or, alien.’[12] It’s a kind of Marecheran attitude of seeing, understanding ‘literature as a unique universe that has no internal divisions’, therefore refusing to ‘pigeon-hole it by race or language or nation.’[13] As Lewis Nkosi says, following Ezra Pound’s emphasis on the significance of literature in his exchange with Marianne Moore, that, ‘Not because the roots are unimportant, but because literature is more important.’ [14] So that this syncretic, non-divisive, non-discriminatory manner of viewing not only literature, but the entire spectrum of cultural praxis as one, so that the work of the artist or the artist itself defies categories, something that brings into mind what Lewis Gordon wrote about Sylvia Wynter, namely that, ‘She doesn’t worry about whether she is a philosopher, a literary critic, a novelist…and it is also true that she has worked as a dancer, an actress, and she has written plays and novels.’ [15]

Lewis Nkosi

More than anything, Zenani is conscious of the complicated trajectories of traditions, and she misses no chance to make sense and use of the manifold indigenous forms, to bolster a distinctive and compelling literary vision, for as she explains to Harold Scheub, ‘When those of us in my generation awakened to earliest consciousness, we were born into a tradition that was flourishing. Narratives were being composed by adults in a tradition that had been established long before we were born.’ [16] What Igor Stravinsky observed about tradition not being a ‘relic of a past that is irretrievably gone,’ but, ‘a living force that animates and informs the present’ is true and applicable to the work of Zenani. This awareness does not, in Marechera’s words, ‘cram and confine [her] imagination,’[17] or vision, so that she ends up considering African traditions moribund and inflexible in the face of the changing world, but instead, she [re]turns to them for invigoration, and transformation of her vision and versions of reimagined and reinterpreted, old Nguni myths or legends or folktales or fables, to speak to the modern moment, in a manner that rouses aesthetic anxiety and vertigo, a mark missing in the literary articulations of Njabulo Ndebele. This is, therefore, to remind the reader that there is no such syncretic vision or ambition visible in Njabulo Ndebele’s rather rigid, true-to-life theory “Rediscovery of the Ordinary,” or in its accompanying illustration, or dramatization, in his township tales Fools and Other Stories. That he relates what Soyinka says about the rational and nonrational sharing the same space or plane of consciousness in African lore, does not help unmake his vague vision as shown in his own often ordinarily realist fictional works. What Ndebele claims of Bheki Maseko’s Umamlambo, that it ‘reminds [him] of Haitian paintings: vibrant with colour, a combination of naturalistic and fantastic elements…represent[ing] this living continuity between the past and the present,’ [18] unfortunately, cannot be said about his own fiction. Indeed, as Kelwyn Sole has pointed out in “Reading the Nation,” that, Ndebele’s conception of the everyday, and to an extent, his realist approach to fiction, suffers an absence of what I call a Tutuolaesque vision, because, among many loopholes and leakages, it has no desire for the ‘examination of formal devices emanating from indigenous oral narratives which may be potentially useful for written fiction… [no] assessment of genres such as imilando, izinganekwane and izinsumansumane.’ [19] To be sure, the fiction and vision shows no attempt to examine Nguni oral literatures, as typified in the tales of Masithathu Zenani.

Mamlambo And Other Stories by Bheki Maseko

Masithathu Zenani does not bestride the space between the two so-called diametrically opposed practises, but reads, the critical and creative impulses, as originating from the same source, ‘the great black flood’! With Masithathu Zenani’s perceptiveness and profound philosophical commitment to rethinking indigenous forms of knowledge, the past, present and the futures of fictions, one is bound to sense that this intense urge for overhauling and replacing of already existing categories and concepts, present in the tales and theory of Masithathu Zenani, is criminally absent in our literary practises. Even absent as a conversation that should be taking place in the contemporary cultural circles. Someone seems to profit from the insistence on dim divisions, non-communication among diverse cultural mediums and the perpetuation of proliferating boundaries of culture and thought that predispose and confine people to certain forms of literature and writing, thereby imposing and emphasizing national-cultural communities. [20] Beyond chit-chat: separations must be challenged and the titanic task of theorising and originating forms must be executed. ‘Not now, but right now!’ – as Phyfe Dawg would rightfully emphasise. Is literature capable of undergoing internal developments, w/out the intervention of intense dialogue, or discussion, taking the place of the current reticence, lack of improvisation, cowardice we are showing in the face of the sordid conditions of the present moment?

Sometime ago, at the Open Book Festival, a group of panellists were having a conversation that I found trivial. Besides, I had felt that the rest of us in the audience were tacitly excluded from this chat: we were seated still and watching mouths moving w/out wisdom or wit. Stood up, interrupted the chat, and asked a question as a way to change the content and course of the conversation, hoping to harvest a different and more animating dialogue that had something substantial to say about the state of our literature. Should have read the signs. Cannot recall the precise question I posed but remember asking something about literary predilections and traditions, after listening to Martin Egblewogbe uncritically dismissing the oeuvre of Ayi Kwei Armah, while extolling Kojo Laing’s short story Vacancy for the Post of Jesus Christ. Remember the diminutive and dismissive response some of the writers provided. There is no hope for sincere intellectual exchange, I thought, when short story writer, Lidudumalingani, found it appropriate to respond that he finds discussion on literature pointless. Frowned, head fell and my chin slept on my chest. From the bowels of the earth, I could hear, feet could feel the vibratory screams of Antonin Artaud against the ‘worst kind of pigs’ and ‘their trick of turning backs on questions’![21] The soulman is right to ridicule such trickeries: they will not, cannot stop the advent of the Unlanguaged, the infinite night of the Rimbaudian unknown, whose dead path is riddled with a dead language of ‘aggressive wails’ that ‘pause and scream at something no-one sees, at something everybody feels.’ [22]

A while back, at the Time of the Writer Festival (themed ‘Decolonising the Book’), novelist and short fiction writer, Niq Mhlongo, in response to an audience member who was not happy about the way Mhlongo responded to a question, told the interviewer, Danyela Demir, that he is not ‘philosophical’ he’s just a ‘writer.’ Clarification: no thoughtful answers in mind to mouth. What do we make of the University professor of literature, who told her student that the student must go seek answers from a certain philosophy professor, for she was strictly trained in “literary studies” and not well-equipped to deal with the political or philosophical musings in the text? Appears that it does not matter or help that this perennial escape mechanism of saying that a literary scholar and a philosopher for example, are trained in literature and philosophy respectively, not in politics or ideological analysis, [23] has been severely assailed and dismissed.

Unathi Slasha

Years ago, when my unpublished novel The Seamy Side was rejected by a mainstream publisher, on the grounds that my main sufferer, Mxa, was too intelligent and “exceptionally well read and somewhat grandiloquent,” for he quotes “Dostoevsky, Duiker” and “references the lives and writings of authors such as Céline, Kundera and Kerouac, amongst others and alludes to various philosophers,” the reader told me that I “would do much better by sticking to the lively, contemporary township lingo,” and even though the reader thought that my writing “show some promise and [my] knowledge of literature is impressive for an undergraduate student (or a post-graduate one, for that matter),” I should put a hold on writing, and “spend some more time reading contemporary African…authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Petinah Gappah, Niq Mhlongo, Kgebetli Moele, etc.,” so as to “get a sense of the benchmarks and possibilities created by new fiction in the past decade and allow [myself] some more time to develop a voice that is less beholden to the work of others.” [24] The publisher, on the body of the email, suggested that I cut out all the “literary references,” and Mxa’s philosophical “extended interludes and digressions,” so as to “streamline” and “tighten up” my storyline. No explanation necessary. Besides the condescension accompanied by unapologetic philistinism, the homogenising of township experience is intolerably sickening. I cringe at the advice and I ask if it is unpatriotic to take pride in pessimism, rather than in the poor and proud suffocating and ‘schizoid’ South African literature that loves living within limits and restrictions?

In the underbelly of the mainstream, poet Khulile Nxumalo explains his philosophy that consist of what he calls a ‘multi-vocal way of writing or telling stories’: a move that runs away from the misconception that ‘rational thought – or even the idea that rational thought is a reflection of reality.’ Nxumalo believes that, artistically, anything can happen if we approach the world and word with this outlook. In short, in what he refers to as ‘psycho-narration,’ Nxumalo grapples with the difficulty of ‘trying to make language do new things.’ Sympathise with Seitlhamo Motsapi, as ‘I continue to despise the horizon of worn familiarities.’ [25] And we learn that:

joy has no generation gaps

nor silences in between

like broken dentures. No owls’

bleak eyes blinking

when the question in the air

stings the eye [26]

 

A Half Century Thing by Lesego Rampolokeng

Certainly, the question that stings the eye remains the same: ‘What to do with this mountain…of mediocrity?’ Poet, playwright and novelist Lesego Rampolokeng talks about ‘Writing the Ungovernable’ – which we witness when we watch him perform his ‘sewer-bound poetics’ on the page. His literary vision and philosophical outlook is articulated in his work (see The Bavino Manifesto (Ars Poetica versus the Arse-Poet-Dicker). Forget Citashe and Wauchope, mobilising an army of penmen. Pens are brittle they break easily in the gutter. Rampolokeng knows this very well, for he clenches and writes with both ‘sledgehammer and scalpel’, so that, when the reader is faced with the following fusillade, extracted from ‘Bavino Street Hymns’, the naive reader, if not cautious, may get their brain easily ‘smashed and dissected,’ [27] in this process of magnetic ‘hermeneutic confrontation or interpretive encounter’ [28]:

INTERLUDE

birth-bone/death-zone                     home is a psychodrome

internalised hate negativity domesticate

confinement rendered upbeat

wonder-instant horrific thunder distant body beat falling limb-part

rolling rim-fart

healer fingers in killer hands all equal

revolution of the individual

lament is gun-hum the hymn freedom anthem truth is sacrifice [29]

 

Only frenzied fools in ‘bow-ties and mean tuxedos’ wonder what is wrong with our literature and why it remains an irritating question mark, a formless ‘something’, only a few seem to confront for the benefit of constructing and shaping a radical poetics. Analysis: certain writers are busy protecting or pursuing careers/ no time to talk vision for the word/ no original reading of the world. Other writers are heavily experiencing the emptiness of existence: are trying to end the world-word as it is given: are searching for grammars of narration that would respond with a forceful vigour to the weight of our collective negation. Discrepancies in life and literature are things of the day. Discussions, at platforms or page, are important at this very moment, because, our intellectual isolation, silence, and distaste for thoughtful debate, have proven impractical in invigorating or radicalising our messy modes of reading and narrating the disintegrative nature of our so-called ‘nation.’

We should have taken heed of Nkosi’ harangue: fixed our problems and focused on producing feasible, fluid narrative strategies. But the ways in which our fictions are formed are evidence enough that we are still obsessing with telling the tedious, didactic tale, narrating no matter how mundane the manner or mode. Maybe we need D.O. Fagunwa or Sony Lab’ou Tansi or Ibrahim Al-Koni or Kojo Laing or Amos Tutuola to introduce us to the ‘mythic imagination’ that, as Rene Menil says, has the quality to ‘overcome each and every boring mediocrity.’[30] Perhaps not everyone has the ability to read the creative and critical purpose and political urgency and implications of the ‘mythic imagination’ needed to combat the suffocating rifeness of sterile sensibilities.

Sony Lab’ou Tansi

That, in his essay “Natives on the Boat,” Teju Cole problematizes the ‘ghosts and forests and the unidiomatic English’ of Amos Tutuola, w/out any critical complexity, is an embarrassing disappointment. Perhaps it points to a dearth of critical depth and naiveté in understanding the problem the work poses, on numerous levels, one being the mark Cole misses, that is reading Tutuola’s alleged ‘unidiomatic and minor’ tales, against what Chantal Zabus, explains as ‘the vast spectrum of post-colonial English language experimentation in the Nigerian novel.’ In the same vein, one is reminded of Gabriel Okara’s ‘lexico-semantic and morpho-syntactic relexification,’[31] in his novel The Voice (I will not dwell for too long on the matter, critics such as Taban Lo Liyong, Lewis Nkosi, among others, have intriguing critical insights on the work of these two writers. Not necessary for me to have long comments on Cole’s schizophrenic misreading). Spirit of this kind of formidable experimentation is criminally compromised in the fiction of Cole. An absence also applicable to most mainstream fictions and poetries coming out of South Africa today.

Amos Tutuola’s fiction points to the very inadequacy and futility of existing aesthetics. Here is an example of aesthetic anxiety: the rigid edifice of meaning-making finds it impossible to develop a grammar that articulates what it considers an artistic anomaly, so that this failure causes a collapse of criticism, of aesthetics, in relation to the work in question. New language is required. Is catastrophe not fertile soil for planting and growing seeds of fresh vocabularies and radical poetics that could lead to learning being intimate so as to communicate with the unknown, the Unlanguaged, which can only be ‘communicated with through a language spoken by iziporho and izithunzela’? The poet who has nothing comfortable to share with the world is right to claim that w/out catastrophe or paralysing death that strikes you suddenly [32] there is little faith in inventing a language that speaks to the present. Is not Kamau Brathwaite right to maintain that art often arises from a place of disaster, and if one’s eyes are attentive enough, one can ‘glimpse a kind of radiance on the other end of the maelstrom’[33]? Keeping this in mind, it is, therefore, impossible to accept Eusebius McKaiser’s opinion and portrayal of Cole, in “A case for Curiosity and Generosity,” as an incisive and critical reader whose sharpness for detail is extraordinary. Instead of interpreting the implications of the aesthetic anxiety Tutuola’s fiction stirs, Cole falls deep into the trap of unhelpful reading that is incapable of bringing forth illuminating insights, open up avenues to further probe what Tutuola’s fiction implies today… Not forgetting Cole’s acclaimed ‘curious and generous’ reading of the work of ‘great writers’ such as…well. Maybe McKaiser ought to brainteam up with Cole and his list of ‘greats’ and help us answer Nkosi’s resounding question: What is The Palm-Wine Drinkard? Until then, I suggest Sole’s advice be put into practise, learn to ‘hear more acutely’ and follow poet Jeremy Cronin’s caution to ‘assume niks.’ [34]

Harry Garuba wrote that if Amos Tutuola did not write, African literature would have had to invent him. Indeed, in terms of, among many other attributes, inventiveness, timelessness, rareness of vision, spirit of improvisation and resistance to any known literary categorization, Tutuola cannot be touched and tamed. It is not exaggeration to claim that there is more linguistic originality and imaginative power found in any random chapter picked either from The Palm-Wine Drinkard, or My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, than in Cole’s entire fictional oeuvre (and the same could be said about most South African contemporary novels and books of short-fiction). It is striking, then, that Cole accuses Tutuola’s fiction of pandering to Western sensibilities and stereotypes of Africa, yet Cole’s sensibility, his fiction that flounders around the fatigued leitmotif of the Afro-immigrant-experience, on closer reading, is rooted in the very rotten politics he pretends to disparage. But this forked-tongue writer-rhetorician is common enough in the country. No shock here. Tutuola’s imaginative fiction is self-reflexive and its freshness and reason for being does not need to be justified by any other text outside itself. Following Susan Sontag’s conception of ‘style,’ we could say that, because Tutuola’s fiction is ‘autonomous’ and ‘exemplary’ and ‘exhibits a certain deviation from the most direct… insensible mode of expression or being in the world’ it has got ‘style.’ [35] In another idiom, though the above statement is true, I wonder if giving an Afro-Pessimist reading, of both the fictions of Amos Tutuola and Sony Lab’ou Tansi, would make any difference, in a time governed by ‘panic-stricken shouts from the rooftops,’ rather than, ‘well-considered critical analysis.’ [36] Politics that inform Tutuola’s narratives are far from Cole’s claim, that they ‘confirm the prejudices of a European audience.’ That Cole does not even bother following any set of coherent interpretative or analytical steps, is either a mark of intellectual decadence, or a trending critical aesthetic I need to catch up with. But I doubt the likelihood of the latter, for Cole could not convince me of his statement of seeing Amos Tutuola monkeydancing for Europe on reality TV.

The Palm-Wine Drinkard by Amos Tutuola

Children have had enough of flat fireside fables that start with ‘Kwathi ke kaloku ngantsomi.’ They demand a different telling, that is not dull, does not arouse drowsiness, in the teller and hearer, a fantastic tale that did not, does not, happen only in fantastic tales or fables, restless tales that roam the puzzling paths that make up the past, present and the uncertain, tales walking hand in hand and talking with izithunzela neziporho.

Are not there other available methods or modes of reading, of seeing, of beginning, of ending, of wailing, screaming, telling, a tale, alias ‘prophesying rains and thunderstorms…in a language no-one remembers’? [37]

Another way, like Nassir Jones, in “Rewind” telling a tale starting not at the beginning, but raps from the ending, an experience reminiscent of Julio Cortázar’s playful fictional peculiarities and penchant for puzzling narrativemazes. Another word and world: like the dystopian vision of Deltron the Funky Homosapien, and the Automator, in the Year 3030 – (crises precipitate change). Another way: an unprecedented pattern, like the linguistic proficiency and playfulness in the calculated prose of Oulipo mathematician that wrote a novel in French w/out using the letter e.

Another way, a sudden outburst of unpredictabilitylike an ancientenigma conjured in the realm-reality of Kamau’s “Kumina”: (‘First it is knife in the kitchen/the thick one w/the long bright blade and the thick wooden handle/that knife wdn’t stay flat/ each time I wash it/put it down/it drop or ramp up on it spine w/the singing edge of the blade running thin & straight-along like some spiteful future & horizon’).

Mxolisi Nyezwa

Another manner of making the children crack their lips and laugh, like my stomach, when that Zim window of fiction opened, revealed the great chief commanding his court comedian to suck his cock. Another way: like the resistant sufferers that refuse death in the fiction of the writer who maintained and believed that to die was to dream a different dream.  Are we prepared to die and become izithunzela okanye iziporho? Are we not already dead but alive at the same moment? Listen to the lyrics of the New Brighton poet Mxolisi Nyezwa singing about the SS Mendi:

 

i must speak, said i, for daylight is near,

for the earth has swallowed the black berry

that looked like black gold,

and there’s the odour of dead fish

with its dark halos

there’s a nimble despair of hard foibles and hushed crimes

a maiming without cause

that ceased when the child sang –

and there by the vast magical sea (said i) –

witchcrafters spread their horoscopes

foretold their birth and displayed

their three stones (white sand over the black sand and over my

Eyes) said i –

 

I can almost feel the heaviness of the black sea of the dead and the living. My memory is encircled with blood. My memory has a belt of corpses! [38] Kodwo Eshun’s idea of ‘liquid Dystopia’ is a compelling one. Follow and admire his exploration of, and elaboration on the mythos invented by Detroit-based electronic music duo Drexciya. Reading Eshun’s engaging ideas around Drexciya opens up avenues and poses more difficult questions and problems in the imagination. Eshun, in “Marine Mutation across the Black Atlantic,” quoting from the sleevenotes accompanying a Drexciya double album, The Quest, briefly described the Drexciyans – the ‘subaquatic aliens’ as:

‘Descended from pregnant American-bound African slaves’ thrown overboard by the thousands during labour for being sick and disruptive cargo. Could it be possible for humans to breathe underwater? A foetus in its mother’s womb is certainly alive in an aquatic environment. Is it possible that they could have given birth at sea to babies that never needed air? Recent experiments have shown mice able to breathe liquid oxygen, a premature human infant saved from death by breathing liquid oxygen through its underdeveloped lungs. These combined with reported sightings of Gillmen and Swamp Monsters in the coastal swamps of the South-eastern United States make the slave trade theory startlingly feasible.’ [39]

Drexciya

I imagine the wretched earth being absorbed by the ocean, ‘the great black flood,’ like a new Noah moment of violence, a cleansing wave, an end of the world, to borrow an idiom belonging in the Afro-Pessimist parlance. Black Life sprouts out the deadwaters of, lives in and through relentless rush of utterdisaster. Mystery and magic move me. Wherever I am, they are. My mind moves towards Nguni cosmology: contemplate the respect given to the river for its mystery and magic. Strong is the belief in the existence of sprawling villages under the waters: the existential certainty has always been present: that there are several customs and traditions and practises and myths revolving around the idea of a place and people worthy of reverence – existing underwater – in the same way we live on, and off, land. Enough proof, this is no novel wisdom. We could look at it this way and say the difference here is that Drexciya is an invention of improvisational motion, in the after-experience, or afterlife, of catastrophe, the Drexciyan mythos is a radical approach, borrowing the words of Jared Sexton, to speak of about a type of living on that survives after a type of death. Here, myth, like the Osirian that is ‘too big for time and space,’ [40] transcends the period, pain and place of the tragedy; transforms itself into a fiction that travels to the future. Not time-place bound. Myth here symbolises the persistent power and inventiveness of Blackness. ‘Ah! The black magic which conquers all magic!’ [41] – Always eternally returning – though it is never [42] really gone. Haunts the psyche of the very world, whose health is built on our collective negation. Blackness as revolutionary improvisational motion: defying predictability; remaining resilient in the face of death or degradation?

Not the exotic anymore, but the endotic, says Perec.                                                                                             You are the alien you are looking for, writes Eshun.

The poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile is on point to argue that ‘music is always ahead of literary art.’ Nkosi in his criticism of certain Fiction by Black South African writers observed something similar: the gap between African music and dance and literary arts – a case in which music and dance were advanced, in that they borrowed or adopted certain traditional elements and created new ways of expression, whereas the literary arts legged behind and suffered cos of its disfavour for tradition. I find myself faced with a similar situation and forced to respond in the words of Larry Neal, that indeed, we do need a system of politics and art that is as fluent, as functional, and as expansive as black music. No such system now exists; we’re gonna have to build it. And when it is finally realized, it will be a conglomerate, gleaned from the whole of all our experiences. [43] Imagine it would be a radical poetics, or rather, according to Fred Moten, a “radical sensuality,” which is “rooted and out there, immanent and transcendent,” in the “face of a technologically induced exhaustion, a malaise brought on by a general inability to escape the strictures of reproduction.” [44]

It is not unfair to lambast Fred Khumalo for missing an imperative opportunity. In his recently published novel about the sinking of the SS Mendi, Dancing the Death Drill, he explores the tragic historical moment that befell the Black soldiers who were on their way to Europe to fight for whites in the 1st World War. Khumalo is completely concerned with the details of history, the so-called real, what Nkosi refers to as ‘real-life incidents,’ and not in the least preoccupied with how to transcend these social facts, or newspaper reports, and transform them into an imaginative monstrosity. I agree with Amina Cain that the imagination is the determining factor in fiction. Not facts. But we cannot deny the tyranny of social facts and the existence of people who are averse to the ungovernable imagination. One is reminded of a similar case, in Izwi, with Rev Isaac W. Wauchope reviewing Sek Mqhayi’s now lost, first novella, USamson – an adaptation of the Bible story found in 2nd “Book of Judges”, reimagined and retold so to speak to Mqhayi’s contemporary condition. But Wauchophe’s review ends up being an attack on Mqhayi, for not sticking to scriptural facts and, instead, writing a story ‘containing many things that do not appear…in the eternal book.’ [45] Going through the review, one gets a sense that Wauchope’s reading of USamson was that of someone searching for facts, in a fictional work, to enjoy the satisfaction of either confirmation or correction of a certain reality.

Not convinced our desperate times allow us to offer humble contributions, when the volatile present moment has proven to have grown tired of received and repetitious recitals, that render no revolutionary re-imagining of the past, but reduce it to rainbow nation romance. Sometime ago, in a Creative Writing class, I heard, ‘But it happened!’ from the throat of an irritated writer, whose text was weighed and found wanting. He was mad and did not understand why the intention and internal make-up of his text was being questioned when all he did was have his facts fictionalised. One worries, one wearies.

In Dancing the Death Drill, Fred Khumalo’s prose settles for the easy and direct journalistic rendering, lacking in any provocative or radical aesthetic – a South African standard failure regarding fictionalising historical moments. Khumalo’s novel presents itself and reads as a ‘social document which utilises the resources of fictionalisation only superficially or simply as decorative forms which seem to exist for their own sake.’ [46] The sad twist here is that Simon Gikandi’s above criticism of the anthropological approach or critical tendency to treat African productions as documentary, thereby, in the phrasing of Mabogo P. More, ‘locking African thinkers and their productions in the biographical moment,’ [47] becomes a statement describing Khumalo’s novel. It becomes a sad sight watching a writer or thinker who participates and plays into this problematic ploy, presenting their work as a textbook packed with facts that could contribute more light to the little that is known about the SS Mendi.  The historical novel, says Khumalo, is the most supreme form of history. That this form should be taken and treated as an opportunity to write an accurate, autonomous account of history and to expand on the footnotes in history books. [48] Is not it the task of the novelist the opposite of what Khumalo suggests with seemingly concrete certainty? One is forced to recall Susan Sontag’s severe criticism of certain American literature that she deemed averse to any avant-garde sensibilities:

‘Most…novelists and playwrights are really either journalists or gentlemen sociologists or psychologists. They are writing the literary equivalent of program music. And so rudimentary, uninspired, and stagnant has been the sense of what might be done with form in fiction and drama that even when the content isn’t simply information, news, it is still peculiarly visible, handier, more exposed. To the extent that novels and plays unlike poetry and painting and music, don’t reflect any interesting concern with changes in their form…’ [49]

Something similar seems to be operating in Zakes Mda’s The Heart of Redness, whereby dry dialogue, dismal dramatization (appearing to exist as a strategy to sling facts or characters are eager to recite facts e.g. Qukezwa’s lesson on indigenous plants in a dialogue with Camagu, the history teacher’s lesson on the origin of the name NomaRussia etc.) – that is to say J.B Peires’ conclusions on the Nongqawuse affair and the Cattle Killing massacre (The Dead Shall Arise) – are paraded and performed w/out any radical alteration or new illumination. Mda himself conceded: ‘I did look at other historians who dealt with the period generally and the Cattle Killing events in particular. But Jeff’s treatment appealed to me most, and suited the kind of magical story I wanted to tell because it was very romantic…I was going to go with Peires’s version of history because it suited my fiction…I went out of my way to interweave my narrative with Jeff’s account in my historical segments, but most importantly with some of Jeff’s primary isiXhosa sources.’ [50] The result is a project that explores the same thematics (Ubuqaba, Ukungena nokunwenwa kwempucuko yaseNtshona, ubuGqobhoka, etc.) which are central explorations in early isiXhosa novels such as, amid many, AC Jordan’s Ingqumbo Yeminyanya and W. K Tamsanqa’s Ukuba Ndandazile, w/out a decisive breakaway or pushing and stretching these old strands to new terrains. Mda does not take the textual torch and thrust it further, does not raise radical questions or pose problems. Sets his story and tangles his themes around the same findings and facts found in the pages of Peires, so that his novelistic vision is bound by Peires’s own historical conclusions. The text is a one-character stage play whose script was written by JB Peires. On closer reading one sees how The Heart of Redness over relies on tropes of the rural, not only as a place of non-progress, backwardness, but strangely enough, as the custody of certain African cultural authenticity. Narrative does not locate the borders of demarcation unnecessary… for the sole purpose of pissing on them and bringing to dust the rural-urban mirage. [51] In his Acceptance Speech for the Oliver Schreiner Prize, Mda states: ‘A lot of my work is set in the rural areas, because they retain that magic, whereas the urban areas have lost it to Westernization.’ A respite is required to think things through. I wonder about Mda’s conception and restriction of ‘magic’ to the rural. One needn’t waste mental energy and refer to poets or philosophers or novelists when Daily Sun tells a different narrative about the township. Tokoloshes invade my dreams all the time – where do they come from? [52] Were there urban societies – specifically townships in pre-colonial Africa? A rather silly question Mda corners us to pose. I suppose the Westerners invaded the South, skipped the rural and left it to retain its magic, its cultural ‘authenticity’ intact and gone where? How more absurd could it get? Mda’s above statement seems to suggest that what is today designated as the ‘rural,’ (since, in the African context, the urban is an invention of the project of colonisation), has never been negatively impacted by what Hortense Spillers calls ‘the initiative strikes,’ that ‘interrupted hundreds of years of black African culture[s],’ more descriptively, strikes that have engendered ‘the fundamental effacement and remission of African family and proper names.’[53] ‘Colonisation disrupted that life,’ [54] Thabo Jijana is dead-on. A memory of who [we were] yesterday, writes Nkosi, has been so outrageously erased because of the almost total dislocation of the tribal structure and system of values following large-scale industrialisation of the country and the urbanisation of the Africans. [55] In the South African context, that is to say, Segregation, and later, Apartheid, ‘heightened the dissemination’ of the remnants of what we refer to as ‘African cultures to the cities.’ [56] Reading Mda’s fiction, particularly the novel in question, one gets a sense of his rather limited logic and self-defeatist vision that entails, as he says, ‘[an] attempt to preserve folk ways or excavate a pre-colonial authenticity that is lost’  – besides the grand delusion (reminiscent of Achebe, Ndebele, Ngugi, Mphahlele etc.), or the exaggeration or presumption of the power fiction or literature has in not only shaping a new consciousness, therefore, a new social experience, but the possibility of restoring or repairing ‘an existence gone wrong.’ This is a disposition that Eshun has lambasted within Afrofuturism – this ‘continuous excavatory search for the obscure and virtuous object that can be archaeologically excavated and affirmed’, which is, as Eshun explains, ‘not the most powerful or dynamic aspect of it.’ [57] Mda’s fiction is fond of flirting with this disaster-prone disposition, that, when faced with the critical vocabulary of Afro-Pessimism, falls face flat.

Thabo Jijana

Brian Evenson has pertinent points with reference to the relations between fields, specifically philosophy and literature. [58] That where one field fails to find a grammar to grasp and grapple with the crux of a certain focus of probe, the other one dives in: rescues the day and takes the discussion to a different dimension or direction. Nothing of this nature takes place in The Heart of Redness or in Dancing the Death Drill. One does not see this relationship effectively at play. The reader is confronted with a case whereby the novelists miss the essential. Now the novelists are not only fascinated by historical facts but flirt and become lovers to, or rather, as Milan Kundera would have it, ‘valets to historians.’ Rigidity and refusal to forget facts and formulas, writers are locked deep in the trances of torpor. Possibilities and potentialities of the unknown – forever in the process of be-coming, no consummation – are crippled and crushed at the exact moment writers overly rely on historical records. I read despair and death everywhere. It’s within this dimension that I insist Khumalo, like Mda before him, has missed an important opportunity to invent and generate a myth as rich and reflexive and ‘too big for time and space’ as the mythic fictions conceived by Drexciya.

Even with his cognizance of Bantu – Nguni cosmology, Khumalo, like Mda, failed at exploring and exploiting such richness that makes up Nguni cosmology while not forgetting the determining factor of fiction: imagination. No moment of rupture here. No aesthetic anxiety. The Heart of Redness and Dancing the Death Drill cannot be read as inspired, visionary, imaginative works of fiction, that seek to break away from the stranglehold of sterile sensibilities. Ndebele’s The Cry of Winnie Mandela suffers from the same tyranny coupled with a peculiar itch to dramatize, or even pontificate a certain feminist framework so that characters, in the text, from the onset, seem to exist solely for this purpose. Beyond the presence of characters as props, perhaps to highlight the unexplored “ordinary” private lives, ‘of four unknown women, and that of South Africa’s most famous woman, who waited,’ [59] the weaving together of the myth of Penelope, a character in Homer’s Odyssey, and the ‘waiting life’ of Winnie Mandela, is unexciting and poorly executed. The Cry with its frail attempt at manipulation and subversion of ‘quotations from some non-fiction texts,’ presented in simplistic scenes is not alive with any imaginative inventiveness that stimulates or shocks. Like the two above texts, does not escape the conventions of fact-giving nor transcend the vulgar limitations and simplicities of realism. [60] In the words of Artaud, these above texts do not possess a certain superior lucidity [that] enables them, in all circumstances, to see farther, infinitely and dangerously farther, than the immediate and apparent reality of facts. [61] The unimaginative-ness irritates this reader til I notice something even more irritating – translation or glossary or italicisation of all the isiXhosa or isiZulu phrases or sentences. A practise that perhaps implicitly acknowledges the marginal status of the native languages in question? A kind of reading and narrating that, as Dambudzo Marechera’s Chris suggests, ‘should be blown right out of [writers] lives’? [62]An encounter with the above texts does recall Andre Breton’s words:

‘The realistic attitude… clearly seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. I loathe it, for it is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit. It is this attitude which today gives birth to these ridiculous books, these insulting plays. It constantly feeds on and derives strength from the newspapers and stultifies both science and art by assiduously flattering the lowest of tastes; clarity bordering on stupidity, a dog’s life.’ [63]

Taban Lo Liyong, Eating Chiefs

The point is not to try and portray the image of what occurred, or render a verisimilitude, or a narrative that betrays the imaginative for a tale that is ‘packed with facts’ as Khumalo boasts of his novel. Facts need a clear vision of the past, the present and the possibility of the unknown. Before we forget, both the critical and creative impulse should use the historical as base, a jump off cliff, or as Taban Lo Liyong, in the introduction to Eating Chiefs, makes it known that he has not been interested in collecting Luo traditions, myths, folklore, but his concern has mainly been to make use of what the anthropologists or historians have ‘collected and recorded.’ Findings or facts work like raw material from which writers could base and develop their imaginative fictions: not to confirm historical findings or facts, but to plunge into the unknown, the Unlanguaged World, w/out abandoning what Antonin Artaud terms the essence of existence. Sony Lab’ou Tansi is right to maintain that even though fictions are a manufactured work of the imagination, the latter still has to be grounded somewhere in reality. As evidenced by the problems posed by the fiction of the aforementioned writers, it is obvious this is in no way an encouragement to stick to the insipid true-to-life way of reading and narrating the world that typifies contemporary South African fiction.

Have seen plenty of plays which are creative renditions of the SS Mendi. None have entirely engrossed and appeased my imagination. They always repeat the same known and tired facts, often with the script sounding a lot like a monotonous historical moral being imparted to retards that have no idea what aesthetics means. Jumped into the pages of Dancing the Death Drill with pessimism, suspicion all a serious reader has. Indeed, I admit my mind was searching for something different, something that all the plays I’ve seen failed to offer. Was at once disappointed. Spent a great stint and energy, wandering up and down the narrow streets of the tedium, my township, brooding over the missed opportunities. Our loyalty to facts is what cripples and compromises our creative endeavours. It would be a lie to say Khumalo offers a radically different dimension to what has been presented by the plenty plays that claim to reimagine the tragic experience that befell the SS Mendi.

To get to the point. One cannot read and remark on the fictions being published today w/out wrestling the urge to equally criticise the writing on poetry or prose published in the form of short book reviews, extended essays, or any other cultural commentary, whether in mainstream media outlets, or in independent literary journals – online or in print. Soon one notices the worrying regression in critical thought, the lack of a coherent and imaginative vision regarding writing and commentary on cultural production. Obviously our creative and critical engagements with cultural production are not driven by, nor purveyors of, what H.I.E Dlhomo describes as a ‘chastening and helpful power of criticism,’ [64] but are, as Susan Sontag has shown, ‘motivated by cultural good will,’ [65] rather than by any creative or critical impulse. Is this what affects our capacity to actually create and sincerely scrutinise the process of creating at the same moment? Is this the origin of our lack, disaster, the Liyongan Literary Desert, the seemingly impenetrable impasse that seeks to swallow us like a Noah moment, if we fail to improvise?

There seems to be one condition whereby criticism is allowed and accepted in the South African cultural milieu: only when it is a euphemism for praise-singing and camaraderie – valid, warm-welcomed, con-structive. Yet when commentary comes down chopping, like axes of lightning, pointing out pitfalls, and in the same vein, generously recommends a way out of the bog of doggerel – such practise is greeted with scorn and labelled. But much more baffles me. I read Current Writing: “Beyond 2000 South African literature Today” [66] (‘Judging New South African Fiction in the Transnational Moment’) and suddenly a clean image materialised before my eyes. There was the ‘paucity of response’ Kelwyn Sole spoke against. Pedestrian, if not petty comments conveyed in a lukewarm language – often showing extreme ignorance of modern stylistics and exploration and execution of thematics – that may possibly belong to rotten rubrics, invalid, out-dated value-judgments. Leon de Kock writes that, ‘I asked several judges, on email, to provide, “off the top of their heads,” a brief summary of the implicit literary values and implicit critical methodology [you] employ when making [your] calls for the [prize] shortlist.’[67] Here one is exposed to different ways that reveals how texts are either valued or undervalued. It’s probably important to mention that de Kock believes that the judges ‘would have retained their core criteria had they been given 10 days and 10 pages in which to respond.’ One Judge opens her comment this way, ‘the questions I keep in mind when I am reading the submissions are: could I teach this novel (or poem, or memoir, or whatever else it might be) to my university-level students? Does it have the complexity, ambiguity, and metaphorical originality and richness that could sustain a series of lectures? Is this the kind of text on which I might be inspired to write an academic article? ’[68] The rest of the ‘literary values’ and ‘critical methodologies’ provided by the variety of judges, are rather vague in vision, with most marked by the absence of certainty or concrete evaluative tools. Reading the “off the top of the head” responses and the commentaries on the fictional works submitted for the M-Net Prize 2009 in English category, one quickly sees a problem that is already pervasive in cultural circles, a certain approach of dismissing or praising works of prose or poetry in un-concretised claims. It should be stated that I have no interest in arguing whether the books in question are excellent or not, but my interest is in the rubrics or criteria, which are used to either cheapen or embrace texts. Going through each Judge’s criterion or response is an exhausting exercise that requires time and sustained tolerance for all the underdeveloped or outmoded text-weighing ‘critical methodologies.’

But these problems are pervasive. Everywhere they pop up and rouse pique. But – somebody comes, armed with critical pretention, assumptive readings and what Samuel Delany calls ‘corrupt’ criticism, in which aesthetically exhausted writing is ‘praised for worthless…nonexistent reasons.’ [69] Delany, in ‘Critical Methods,’ shares an interesting notion, that ‘The development of a particular literary technique or theme over several decades through several writers, often in several countries, is not completely solved by a chronological listing of who did what first.’ In the same vein, it can be stated that name dropping big writers names alongside the poet or novelist whose work is being reviewed, does not necessary entail any poetical or critical illumination about the poet’s work: it is preposterous narcissist-exhibitionist pretension on the part of the so-called critic. My interest, lies in pushing to the surface, the ambience, the adopted reading, lacklustre language, noncompelling critical or literary lexicon, traditional or otherwise, that allows or elicits an aesthetically poverty-stricken poetry from creative, and a ‘paucity in response,’ or to be exact, what I call ‘camaraderie criticism,’ as far as the extremely naïve commentary of our cultural critics is concerned. About Koleka Putuma’s Collective Amnesia, Bongani Madondo writes:

‘While she is Rimbaudian in pose, prose, and posture, and while as a young black poet she clearly works, whether consciously or unconsciously, in the tradition of the Medupe poets, or Ursula Rucker even – certainly while she flips and decks her heart-hitting lines with architectural loftiness reminiscent of the West Coast Poet Bob Kaufman – you will understand why it distresses me no end to have to revert to the dead white man to refract and re-place, both Keats and Koleka.’ [70]

Madondo is confused and confuses everybody. Try this trick, an attempt at alliteration: indirect parallels between Keats and Koleka are kitschy. Not substantiated, another con-jecture. Besides his sentence-level poetic pretensions, the preposterous claims, absurd comparisons, his unbearable assumptions cannot be left unattended. What Kelwyn Sole said is sadly true that: ‘Stated baldly, critics of South African poetry do not have a modus operandi perceptive or embracing enough to deal with what is transpiring in the South African poetry scene at a general level.’ [71] It is difficult for me to read anything reminiscent of Kaufman, or Rimbaud, in the following lines Madondo praises, and even suggests as having ‘magic realist’ features, that would blow writer, Sello Duiker, out of his deadbrains. Putuma writes:

‘this one time,

in your office,

spread reckless across your deadlines

we made love like we were being chased like wolves

like the wolves were on your desk with us

like the wolves were in our hands

circling around our clits

and dripping down our legs

like the wolves in our mouths,

devouring all flesh and bone.’ [72]

 

Madondo’s assessment teems with absurd exaggerations, or excitement paralyses his critical faculties. Anybody whose vision is not myopic or insincere and has read Rimbaud’s poetry, or more accurately – since Madondo sees Rimbaudian proselike features, in the above – Rimbaud’s prose, anybody can attest to the absence of parallels in Collective Amnesia and in A Season in Hell, or anything Rimbaud has produced. No suggestion of internal struggle, against trites of language, of imagination – is apparent in the poems. Most of the poems in Collective Amnesia border on the banal, w/out the urge or perceptiveness to investigate, or explore the inner workings of the subject of probe, some read like diary entries, at times, a collection of facts comes, arranged and ordered in the ordinary way of conventional stanza-making. Facts remain stale and still and refuse to come alive on the page. Other times dotted and numbered lines, beyond these Microsoft Word tricks, there’s little finesse, reading the collection and upon reflection, I wonder about its acclaimed experimental-ness. Somebody told me the book is indeed innovative because it uses footnotes and endnotes and dots and digits. Perhaps this is what led the critics, and in this regard Madondo, to see Kaufman or Rimbaud in a text whose meagre penmanship proves no strain, or struggle, with the word? In the Rimbaudian expression, the poet, in pursuit of the poetic – proven by her present penwork – has not succeeded in ‘making [her] self into a seer by a long, involved, and logical derangement of all the senses.’ [73] What is going on and what is to be done? Does not matter how much I try I can’t agree that there is life or force, in ‘Black Joy,’ in which Putuma writes: ‘We were spanked for each other’s sins//spanked in syllables and by the word of God// before dark meant home time//my grandmother’s mattress// knew each of my siblings// cousins// and the neighbour’s children’s// morning breath.’

It is hard to accept Madondo’s appraisal and implication of Collective Amnesia’s experimental, innovative status, when, for example, in ‘Hand-Me-Downs’, the opening stanza reads: ’In January//birthdays are celebrated// with a bucket of KFC//a simple cake and Coca-Cola// Schools open in January// so do not even consider throwing a party// if you were allowed to invite your friends from next door you were lucky//but even January Syndrome// we made sure to not attend the first day of school// in our November uniform or December braids//even if they were still in good condition.’

And another example of poetic flatness from a poem simply titled ‘Inheritance’: ‘I do not know you when you are drunk//you are a mess when you are drunk//you are quicksand when you are drunk//when you are drunk you become someone different//when you are drunk you become something different.’

Of course, there are moments of pleasant surprises, moments when, certain poems, in the book, work well, lines alive, especially when the poet’s sentences are short, powerful, to the point, thematically and treatment-wise. In ‘Local,’ Putuma writes: ‘My mother tongue sits in my throat like an allergy//It feels like I will die if I speak it//It feels like I will die if I don’t.’

Or another example, in a one-sentence poem, broken and forced to make four lines, titled ‘Memoirs of a Slave & Queer Person,’ she writes: ‘I don’t want to die

with my hands up

or

legs open.’ These moments, whose subject matter is treated with tender attention to the possibilities of language, are very few. But what one finds often is the tyranny of township facts, tossed from page to page, w/out any care for craft. Statements and slogans in stanzas – unbearable to read, can’t take the fact-slinging, anymore, skip pages, no traces of any ‘strange musicality,’ ‘architectural loftiness,’ or ‘Rimbaudian pose, prose and posture,’ alive in this text.

Mine is not to talk about what is poetry or what is not, such engagement interest me little, than the quality of thought-imagination. There are ways of exploring the ‘explicitly’ political poetically w/out necessarily falling into the trap of filling up the pages with screaming and numbered headlines and dotted statements. Such as in the poem ‘On Black Solidarity’: ‘Black solidarity does not include making my spine a doormat// so that you can stand or have a backbone// Black solidarity at the expense of black womxn’s anything, is a farce, a rip off// the kind of violence they shred into my laughter// at the police station// and replay in front of you// just to make sure you got the joke.’ I am sick of hearing about poetic license, or some other lame “erasure” excuse used to support an evidently mediocre work, while every critically sincere reader can tell the execution-work of the poet does not carry the sensitivity, constrictions and mutilations and callouses and weight implied in the same thematics of her explorations. No thought-provoking imagination setting the pages on fire with unique poetic craftiness. Often it does not feel like the poet is thinking carefully about the themes of her choosing – as though somebody gave the poet a concept and challenged her to free-write within a period of five minutes – lots of the poems actually do give an impression of a writer not motivated by the drive to invent, to discover, to duel with language-strictures, but rather a writer propelled by a strange and primitive urgency to document the experience. No epiphany or transcendence. No profound reflections beyond or behind the poems. What you read is what you get.

The so-called “Black Rimbaud”, Bob Kaufman, his lines burst with freshness of thought, of sentence, of images and “craxioms.” Even when he does not ‘poeticise’ his statements. Language says laugh or chuckle, when in Abomunus Craxioms, the Ancient Rainmaker writes:

Egyptian mummies are lousy dancers.

Alcoholics cannot make it on root beer.

Jazz never made it back down the river.

Licking postage stamps depletes the body fluids.

Fat automobiles laugh more than others, and frink.

Men who die in wars become seagulls and fly.

Roaches have a rough time of it from birth.

People who read are not happy.

People who do not read are not happy.

People are not very happy.

 

Or the Ancient Rainmaker’s word-wise gymnastics and breathless cadence when ending his poem Unanimity Has Been Achieved, Not a Dot Less for Its Accidentalness:

I ring against slate and shell and wood and stone and leaf and bone

And towered holes and floors and eyes – against lone is lorn & rock &dust &                                                     flattened ball & solitudes of air & breath &hair & skin fed halves & wholes &                                                   bulls& calves & mad & soul & new & old & silence & saves & fall wall &                                                   water falling & fling my eye to sky & tingle & tangle.

 

The Ancient Rainmaker’s poetry teems with cleverness, originality, and is swathed in sarcasm, humour, unpredictable images, turn of coined phrases, creating weirdwordsmazes. Indeed, his work posed a different manner of responding to the social conditions of his time. No sermonising or sloganeering. As critics such as Franklin Rosemont and Robin D. G. Kelley, have shown:

‘Kaufman fearlessly embodies a no-holds-barred critique of the consumer society, government, militarism, Hollywood, law ’n’ order, greed, bigotry, and other forms of authoritarianism and exploitation. In short, he issues an all-out challenge to white Christian-capitalist civilization. Instead of the tyranny and conformity of what he and his friends called “the square world,” he urges nothing less than a truly free and poetic society: an anarchist, or surrealist world‘. [74]

We can mention or analyse the Medupe poets, Dickinson, Okot p’Bitek, and others, whose work Bongani Madondo references poorly w/out elaboration and corrupts as a way to validate his rather uncritical reading of Collective Amnesia. But any true thinker knows this is unnecessary. Each text talks for itself: if it is dull it will pique your brain, if it is dope it will scream its difference from a distance w/out external intervention. But, instead of assuming the actual role of being a critic, and perform either ‘hermeneutics… or an erotics’ on the text, Madondo seems to derive pleasure in pointing out the obvious, the petty: ‘There are few  dummy runs in Collective Amnesia, i.e., Lifeline, a heartfelt but misplaced ode to heroic women, which simply is not poetry, bad or good.’ One tires, one fears. It is painful to read Madondo trying hard to position and plot Putuma’s work outside the spoken word ‘tradition,’ which according to him, is nothing but a ‘stewing pile of shit.’ It’s as if the only way to promote Putuma’s ‘talent’ successfully, there is a need for Madondo to extricate her work from the spoken word tradition, which is excreted on, dismissed and reduced to nothing but boiling bullshit, while on the other hand, with the same breath, Putuma is extolled as the ‘ruler of the underground and overground poetry scene,’ which makes me believe that Madondo is either sincerely ignorant or strictly schizophrenic in his reading. For what he criticises in most spoken word poetry, that is to say, the failure to come alive on the page, or as he puts it that it ‘does not hold up well on page’, with a sharp and sincere evaluation of Collective Amnesia, the same could be concluded about the entirety of Putuma’s collection. A closer evaluation of Putuma’s collection proves that her very ‘poetry-making style’ owes dues to Madondo’s ‘stewing pile of shit.’ Madondo confesses that he is not a ‘poetry critic or literary critic.’ The penman tells us that ‘seasoned readers can tell the difference between sublime work and good work, good poetry and terrible,’ but, in his regard this knowledge helps nothing, for in Portrait of the Poet as a Young Genius, a review of Collective Amnesia, Madondo keeps firing warped interpretations and ludicrous assumptions and cringe-worthy exaggerations, bringing into mind what Henry Chinaski said about certain individuals who could not imagine themselves ‘physicians’ or ‘engineers’ but strangely enough they could picture their pathetic selves writers or critics. Poor attempts at ‘criticism’, because, ‘you can count our literary critics on one hand’ – Madondo’s motivation is absurd! One cringes. One agrees with Charles Peguy, via David Stephen Galonne, that not all writers tear words ‘from the guts.’ Many pull words out of their ‘overcoat pockets.’ But Bongani Madondo is not alone in this camaraderie circus or loony concritical cypher or trick of pulling words out of pockets. One needs to simply read Nwelezelanga the novel Thando Mgqolozana praised as ‘nothing short of a masterpiece . . . a well-written and philosophical book…’ Read the reception, that is to say, the reviews – a soul-sickening impoverishment in critical and creative vision is obvious here. An ahistorical engagement with the text is apparent. It is impossible to read or glean anything profoundly philosophical or any new spiritual illumination in the text, even harder to notice the traits that make this novel a ‘masterpiece.’ Reading Nwelezelanga was an excruciating experience, I could not stop seeing a writer struggling to speak – no original voice – a poor parody or comic caricature of almost all the novels I’ve read telling the mis/adventures of the Abiku, or the spirit child-narrator, or the child whose eyes penetrate the present and the beyond or, as Garuba puts it [he or she who] journeys through worlds known and unknown, the world of the spirits, the gods, the dead and the unborn. [75] We could mention My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. We could mention The Famished Road. It’s everybody’s wisdom that these books do justice to the theme. The very first page of Nwelezelanga points to a tweaked travesty:

‘I’m thirteen years old; however that’s a distortion on its own. I’m young yet old; I’ve experienced the cycle of birth and death many times than I care to count. I’ve donned and shredded many skin colours in my lifetime.’ [76]

Khulile Nxumalo

We should have mentioned Thirteen Cents before quoting the author Magubeni’s opening lines. But why does it matter? This is not a matter of intertextuality or the urge to engage or expand or build upon or challenge certain ideas presented by previous writers or philosophers or novelists. That is to say there is no conversation taken from one context and placed in a different one. No question pushed to a different dimension or direction. Not a case of Sherman Pew or Pecola or Azure or Azaro or Nwelezelanga in an implicit or explicit conversation. Not a case of nodding and moving on to create something anew, as in the case of Lo Liyong in his ‘Lexico-Graphicide’, following Amos Tutuola’s ‘The Complete Gentleman’, giving a nod and moving on. Nwelezelanga lacks a live and a unique voice, its theme is not well-handled or executed, left hanging, and I cannot help think of better novels that have handled the same theme with much perceptiveness and literary vigour and vision. Even when read as a children’s book as McKaiser once suggested, on a Facebook review of this book, comparing it to Sello Duiker’s The Hidden Star, Dambudzo Marechera ‘Fuzzy Goo’s Guide (to the earth)’ has more energetic thrust, imaginative peculiarity, than Nwelezelanga. The Moses-cliché of abandonment and rivers and inherent special-ness is really exhausted or perhaps needs a new strategy of engagement, a different entry point. Such failures are pervasive. I am thinking of Mgqolozana’s epistolary novel Hear Me Alone. Contrary to Siphiwo Mahala’s claim that it is ‘highly imaginative…twist to the well-known story of the conception and birth of Jesus Christ,’ [77] in terms of style and technique, the novel cannot justify its own existence, cannot bring forth any novel radiance, nor claim grounds and stand firm, as far as explosiveness of the imagination is concerned, especially when put up against another intensely imaginative reconceptualization and retelling of the life of Jesus Christ, in Jose Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. Perhaps another essay is needed to thoroughly engage the failures of our fictions, not to take delight, but trace and try to find a way to create something substantial out of the ruins. There are many other authors, creatives, concritics, whose work is not examined here, who willingly participate in this camaraderie criticism, pulling out words from their pockets to paste onto the page – a practise that delays cultural developments? According to certain critics’ work, there is need for precedents, which, I suppose, easily helps them premise, exercise their lethargy, by drawing parallels, stylistic and thematic links, where there are none. This approach must be abandoned on the wayside. Kelwyn Sole’s critical approach is but one example of this kind of engagement. Though his commitment to criticism is undoubtedly important, it does not come alive on the page without faults. Sole is no god, as Charles Bukowski had conceived of Jean-Paul Sartre or John Fante; the man has got his own analytical blockages, short-comings (some of which he is aware of) on the varying range of black poetic experiments, such as his certain critical approach that appears always haunted by the strange search for precedents as premises or points of departure for poetic evaluations. See, for example, his half-way home critical vision-writings on Lesego Rampolokeng, Seitlhamo Motsapi, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Khulile Nxumalo, Isabella Motadinyane, Ike Muila etc. On Mxolisi Nyezwa he writes: ‘Mxolisi Nyezwa’s use of Vallejo in his early work (especially the collection song trials) illustrates this phenomenon… Nyezwa follows Vallejo in a heightened use of parataxis, swiftly associating between macrocosm and microcosm, the familiar and surreal, thus weaving the quotidian and mundane realities of life.’ [78] And Rampolokeng’s work is described in light of the ‘far-ranging and eclectic nature of his influences – stretching from a knowledge and extension of the example of previous black South African poets (especially the poets of the Black Consciousness era), plus other influences stretching all the way from the moral posture of the traditional praise poet, through Sotho song forms and rapper influences, to Césaire, Johnson, Mutabaruka, the work of William Burroughs and the Beats, Acker, Pasolini, Artaud and others.’ [79] Perhaps a different entry point into the works of our writers is needed? A ‘cockroach-eyeview’ into the text? Does a writer have to read all our so-called greats the classics in the World-cannons to produce something worth a thought? I support Dambudzo Marechera’s notion of viewing ‘influences,’ not as ‘pernicious,’ but as a sort of ‘apprenticeship.’ Brian Evenson has shown that there is no critic or reader who will have what Evenson calls ‘unmediated experience’ with a text, because, as he writes ‘we read from contexts, from positions, and as we read we consider books we have read before, books we have heard about, movies…’ This does not mean a writer’s distinctive individual world and work and voice cannot be read-heard and assessed outside this matrix of influences and frame of references.

Toxin that contaminates the textualair is known. Yet it appears that nobody cares that there will be a stage when there is no clean textair to consume: the fiction I read today tells me we already subsist in that crisis of the imagination. Nobody is inventing a strategy to obliterate the impurity. Running around and rolling our tongues about how there is a need for new strategies of seeing and reading will not command the soil to spring forth the desperate demands of our time and text.

Dambudzo Marechera reading in First Street Mall, Harare Zimbabwe ca. Aug. 1983

I have written about the Unlanguaged World, a way of seeing, of reading, of creating, of criticising the thing in the process of being created – of screaming, of faltering falling finding the voice of the dead. Soon the only voice that will matter will be that of the man or woman with the weight and strength of Death. Dambudzo Marechera is right to argue that to actually see anything takes time. My interest rests within this dynamic.

 

So then the deadman is a being who lies, one must suffer still, now is not

the moment, says the voice of consciousness that dreams, and those who

speak are they deadmen or living-men?—One can no longer tell.[80]

 

Can the absent, the neglected, negated – the ones whose very life is lived in dearth, disaster and death – these bodies or flesh that move up and down w/out urgency or impact on earth – the ones whose way of life is stuck in the region of nonbeing – that is to say the ones who ‘could not get anything right’ – whose ‘existence (is) wrong. & everything else stems from that ’[81] – the ones who cannot be recognised and accommodated – we who do not have value and cannot exemplify value in the world our very death created and continues to maintain – can we imitate the man who claimed to think and be-came? – Can we claim to imagine ourselves into existence w/out suffering eternal death and shame?

Slasha is a writer from Despatch, Port Elizabeth. Jah Hills, his first novel is being published by Black Ghost. Soon come: January 2018.

Jah Hills coming in January 2018

 

NOTES

[1] Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, ‘Introduction

[2] Lesego Rampolokeng, Bird-Monk Seding

[3] Andre Breton, Manifesto of Surrealism

[4]  Introduction to Eusebius McKaiser’s Run Racist Run

[5] Species of Spaces and Other Pieces

[6] The African Writer’s Experience of European Literature

[7] William Barrett, Irrational Man, “Testimony of Modern Art

[8] Lesego Rampolokeng & Miles Keylock,  ‘No easy stroll to freedom for SA poetry’s restless howler

[9] Mutloatse, Mothobi. ‘Introduction’. Forced Landing: Africa South, Contemporary Writings. Ed. Mothobi Mutloatse.

[10] Lesego Rampolokeng, Bird-Monk Seding

[11] “Towards Blacks Only Literary Festivals?”

[12] Lewis Nkosi, “Fiction by Black South Africans”

[13] The African Writer’s Experience of European Literature Lecture

[14] Lewis Nkosi, “Fiction by Black South Africans”

[15] A Philosophical Account of Africana Studies: An Interview with Lewis Gordon & also see: Is the Human a Teleological Suspension of Man? Phenomenological Exploration of Sylvia Wynter’s Fanonian and Biodicean Reflections

[16] Nongenile Masithathu Zenani, The World and the Word

[17] Dambudzo Marechera in After the Hunger and the Drought [documentary]

[18] Rediscovery of the Ordinary

[19] Reading the Nation

[20] Mxolisi Nyezwa, “Trauma and Image”

[21] “All Writing is Pigshit”

[22] Ari Sitas, Rough Music, ‘Jazz, Bass and Land’

[23] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, “Introduction”

[24] The Seamy Side Reader’s Report

[25] “Menjik” published in Imprint, no 1 Winter 93

[26] Khulile Nxumalo, Ten Flapping Elbows, Mama, ‘Into the Whistle’s Nostrils’

[27] Lesego Rampolokeng, ‘Review in Dub – a life and a half’

[28] Kodwo Eshun with Christopher Cox

[29] Head on Fire

[30] Rene Menil, ‘Introduction to the Marvellous’, Black, Brown, & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora

[31] Chantal Zabus, ‘Mending the Schizo-Text: Pidgin in the Nigerian Novel’ (published in Kunapipi, 1992)

[32] Mxolisi Nyezwa, “Trauma and Image”

[33] Poetics, Revelations, and Catastrophes: An interview with Kamau Brathwaite

[34] Jeremy Cronin, Even the Dead: Poems, Parables & A Jeremiad

[35] Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation ‘On Style’

[36] Mxolisi Nyezwa, ‘Letter’ (published in New Coin vol 34, June 98)

[37] Ari Sitas, Rough Music, ‘Jazz, Bass and Land’

[38] Aime Cesaire, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land

[39] Kodwo Eshun, More Brilliant Than The Sun

[40] Naim Akbar, The Osirian Myth

[41] Mxolisi Nyezwa, ‘Mendi’

[42] Jared Sexton, “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism”

[43] Black, Brown, & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora

[44] In The Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition

[45] Jeff Opland, “The First Novel in Xhosa”

[46] Simon Gikandi, Reading the African Novel

[47] Mabogo P. More, ‘Biko: Africana Existentialist Philosopher’, Biko Lives!

[48] Literary Crossroads; Fred Khumalo on the importance of “telling stories which have never been told” (Published in Books LIVE, Marc 10th, 2017)

[49] Against Interpretation

[50] Sometimes There is a Void: Memoirs of an Outsider

[51] Thabo Jijana, ‘The Rented Grave: or: Looking beyond the rural-urban dichotomy’

[52] Thabo Jijana, ‘The Rented Grave: or: Looking beyond the rural-urban dichotomy’

[53] Hortense Spillers, Mama’s baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book

[54] Thabo Jijana, ‘The Rented Grave: or: Looking beyond the rural-urban dichotomy’

[55] Lewis Nkosi, Ezekiel Mphahlele’s The African Image

[56] Thabo Jijana, ‘The Rented Grave: or: Looking beyond the rural-urban dichotomy’

[57] Christopher Cox & Kodwo Eshun, Afrofuturism, Afro-Pessimism and the Politics of Abstraction: A Conversation with Kodwo Eshun

[58] Brian Evenson, ‘Notes on Fiction and Philosophy’ (Fiction’s Present Situating Contemporary Narrative Innovation)

[59] Njabulo Ndebele, The Cry of Winnie Mandela

[60] Virginia Woolf, Bradbury, M and J. McFarlane (eds). 1978. Modernism

[61] Antonin Artaud, “ Van Gogh: Man Suicided by Society”

[62] Black Sunlight

[63] The Manifesto Of Surrealism

[64] The Evolution of the Bantu

[65] Against Interpretation, ‘The literary criticism of Georg Lukács’

[66] Michael Chapman & Margaret Lenta, Current Writing vol 21, 1&2

[67] Leon de Kock, ‘Judging new ‘South African’ fiction in the transnational moment

[68] Leon de Kock, ‘Judging new ‘South African’ fiction in the transnational moment

[69] The jewel-hinged jaw : Notes on the language of science fiction, ‘Letter to a Critic’

[70] Bongani Madondo, ‘Portrait of the poet as a young genius’

[71] The Endless Deferral of Value. ‘Formal’ vs ‘Sociological’ Criticism in Black South African Poetry.

[72] Collective Amnesia

[73] ‘Letter to Paul Demeny’

[74] Black, Brown, & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora

[75] ‘And the Books Lived Happily Ever After‘ (published in The Chronic  “A new Cartography for Africa”

[76] Unathi Magubeni, Nwelezelanga: The Star-Child

[77]  Mail & Guardian, ‘A literary soldier

[78]The Endless Deferral of Value‘, Wasafiri

[79] “Here it is safe to assume nothing at all”: aesthetics and the impasse of South African poetry criticism

[80] Antonin Artaud, Letter to Peter Watson

[81] Lesego Rampolokeng, Whiteheart: Prologue to Hysteria