The Ancestors Claim South African Writer Lewis Nkosi, 73, Author of “Mating Birds”
I reviewed Mating Birds in the early Eighties for the San Francisco Chronicle. His themes were not only race, but sexuality, relationships, politics, and the thin line between fantasy and reality, identity and commonality.
[…] In the novel Mating Birds, which was translated into ten languages, the author thematizes the explosive political force that sexual relationships between blacks and whites have in a regime under apartheid. In his death cell, the first-person narrator Sibiya looks back and tells about his relationship with the white Veronica, who has accused him of raping her. Nkosi contrasts the main theme, the segregation of sex partners on the basis of their skin color, with the background motif of the birds who seem to enjoy more freedom – from his cell window, Sibiya watches the birds freely pair up with one another in flight. In this novel is portrayed the sharp racial division at the time of its appearance which rendered white South Africans incapable of fully understanding the plight of black South Africans. This is explicitly underlined in Sibiya’s relationship to the psychologist Dufré when the protagonist reflects amusedly on how the whites often attempt to to interpret foreign cultures by means of European models of understanding, in Dufré’s case by using the psychoanalytical ideas of Freud. He remembers his father’s warning: “Our ways are not the ways of white people, their speech is not ours. White people are as smooth as eels, but they devour us like sharks.” In its structure as a prison report, as well as in the distanced and detached way the protagonist follows his uncertain destiny and tells his story, the novel is clearly reminiscent of The Stranger by Albert Camus. The text also employs postmodern narrative techniques, for instance, when Sibiya reflects on his own narration, taking an interest in the unfolding of events as if he himself were uncertain of what happened. The style is precise and laconic and emphasizes the opacity of events.
Lewis Nkosi had suffered a massive stroke last year, the effects of which had progressively debilitated and weakened him. The funeral was today, September 10, in Durban, South Africa, his hometown.
Starting his career as a journalist at the Zulu-language newspaper Ilanga lase Natal, Nkosi joined Drum magazine in the early 1950s.
When he received a Nieman Fellowship to study at Harvard University in 1960, he was forced to leave South Africa on a one-way exit permit, exiling him from his country of birth for the next 31 years.
He held teaching posts at several universities including Zambia, Warsaw, Wyoming, London and Brandeis.
Among his works are the novels Mating Birds, Underground People and Mandela’s Ego, plus several volumes of essays.
His plays include The Black Psychiatrist, We Can’t All Be Martin Luther King, and The Rhythm of Violence.
At a memorial service a few days ago, his family and friends lauded his intellectual capacity, his humor and his warmth as well as his courage.
During his memorial service in Newtown, Joburg, Nkosi’s twin daughters, Louise and Joy, 39, remembered “wild jazz records as bedtime lullabies”, being eight-year-olds trying to teach their father to swim, and how he tried to teach them to speak isiZulu.
“Dad, life with you was/has always been a life of partings, with the fear that each time might be the last, and now here it is. We have to say the final goodbye to our beautiful, beautiful dad,” said Louise.
Many recalled Nkosi’s refusal to toe a party line.
“He was committed to truth, committed to Africa. But he would not bind himself to the trends of the time. He was free,” said [Vusi] Mchunu.
“He seemed to transcend barriers,” said [Glenn] Masokoane.
Professor Liz Garner said his unique literary style had always encouraged the reader to continue reading and to connect with him.
“Lewis has now become our ancestor, and he has left us a fantastic legacy that we must now carry forward,” she said.
Arts and Culture Minister Lulu Xingwana sent condolences.
“Prof Nkosi made major contributions to our literary heritage as a playwright and novelist,” she said in paying tribute to Nkosi in a statement.
“The world has lost a great writer and intellectual. He will be deeply missed, though he will continue to live in us through his work.”
She added that, like almost all the writers of his generation, he had started off as a newspaper reporter.
Unfortunately, as the South African paper, The Sowetan reports, writer Lewis Nkosi died practically broke. For one who rose to national prominence during the Treason Trial (a trial in which 156 South African anti-apartheid activists and cultural workers–including Nelson Mandela–were accused of treason) and was forced into exile, it’s ironic that for all of his excellence and courage, he wasn’t rewarded in his lifetime for it. The hat is being passed right now to offset his medical expenses. And his publisher isn’t talking.
But when you learn that a prolific writer of the calibre of Lewis Nkosi made a paltry (South African rand) R140 ($19.48 U.S.) in royalties from his book in one year, the reality hits you that you cannot make a living out of writing, unless your name is JK Rowling.
When you’re sitting with a manuscript – albeit half done – and a handful of book ideas, hitting the big time seems within reach.
With a lump in her throat, Nkosi’s [French] widow Astrid [Starck] shared the pain of taking receipt of a cheque “that you can’t even go to the bank to cash.”
When he sighed his last on Sunday (September 5) from medical complications brought on by a stroke he suffered last June, Nkosi had accumulated a medical bill he just wasn’t able to service. A benefit fund was duly set up to try to offset this challenge.
A colourful Drum journalist of the inimitable 1950s era, that he went on to crack an invite as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard was proof of his rare knack for the written word.
He then wowed the literary world with his debut Mating Birds, which was translated into French. His CV, in fact, is a road map many of us have only touched at the starting blocks. We’re likely to need several lifetimes to achieve half of what his body of work entails.
Mandela’s Ego, his third novel, is the source of the meagre earnings Astrid couldn’t dare attempt to transact at the bank. No one is saying the proceeds of the book should have bought him a villa on the French Riviera and ample writing time on the beach, but his publishers, Random House Struik, consider every question about the cash so confidential you’d think the secret service was an open book.
He only left “literary riches.” Those riches, however, are mostly out-of-print. His common law wife Astrid was shocked to learn that a generation of young South Africans are thoroughly unacquainted with Nkosi’s books.
Before his death, however, Nobelist Nadine Gordimer, among other cultural luminaries, visited the writer who passed his final days at a hospice in the Parktown area.
As an example of Nkosi’s refusal to toe the line, on the literary website Transcript, Nkosi challenged Nelson Mandela’s idea of South Africa being a “rainbow nation.” The term “rainbow nation” was first coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. It sounds a lot like the term multiculturalism here. Later, President Mandela elaborated on this term in a famous speech. What Mandela said was, “”Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
This stuck like a burr in Nkosi’s hide.
‘[South Africa’s] past [is] a paradise lost that nobody wants to go back to,’ says Lewis Nkosi, a South-African writer [once] based in Switzerland. Despite Mandela’s ‘Rainbow Nation’ [term], Lewis Nkosi, a South-African writer based in Switzerland, claimed that the people of South-Africa cannot be described as a nation. “The idea is so unfamiliar, so very astonishing even in contemplation, that the existence of a South African nation, rainbow-coloured or not, is like some rumour that has yet to be confirmed,” said Nkosi. Referring to the past as a paradise lost that nobody wants to go back to, he quoted Jonathan Steinwand, who claimed that “nations make use of nostalgia in the construction of national identity” and pointed out that the South-African novel, for one thing, has traditionally been homeless and characterized by a striking lack of nostalgia. “Until now the principal expression of our South African literary culture has been a novel of refusal and resistance, apartheid its particular cross and its affliction,” said Nkosi.