“A Portrait of the Writer as a Young South African”: a Discussion on the State and Future of New Literature / by Nick Mulgrew

Kind of embarrassing but whatevs.

On 12 April 2016, I gave a talk to the University of Cape Town's Connoisseur society on the subject of “A Portrait of the Writer as a Young South African”: A Discussion on the State and Future of New Literature.

A couple people have asked me to make the text of this talk accessible, so I'm doing an Opposite-Hillary-Clinton, and releasing the transcript here. It's very rough and possibly filled with errors of fact and perspective. Nevertheless, it should give you a fair idea of what I gobbed on about. Hope you enjoy it.


I find speaking at these sorts of things a bit funny, because as a UCT student I am your peer, and generally students are very seldom asked to do nice things like this.

I was asked to speak on the topic: “A Portrait of the Writer as a Young South African”: a Discussion on the State and Future of New Literature. I did not pick this topic, and am a bit circumspect of it, if only because it imposes a wide ambit on my talk today, and encroaches onto many things I don’t feel 100% credentialed to speak about.

So please take my take today as pure opinion, with a smattering of fact, and what I hope is a great deal of insight, gleamed as a young person who has worked in the publishing industry and in the journalism industry for the past nine years or so.

I will split this talk into three parts, using the title of the talk as a cue: first, I will talk about the writer, me; secondly, about being a Young South African; lastly, I will talk about the state of literature and where I think we can take it as young artists, organisers, activists and readers.


The Writer

So, a bit about me. I was born in Durban in 1990, and from the time I was 8, I wanted to write. It wasn’t always what I was good at, but it was what I always did. What I was good at in high school was accounting; I actually won the KwaZulu-Natal Accounting Olympiad in Grade 11. Accounting made sense to me. It’s patterns. Something goes in, a corresponding value goes out. Simple.

But I really wanted to write. Writing is also patterns. Patterns of rhythm, narrative. It’s like a jigsaw. I wanted to build jigsaws. I didn’t know how to accomplish this, though – as a career. How do I start this? How does this become something I can live my life by? An opportunity opened for me when I managed to place 33rd in the De Beers English Olympiad in matric, and won a scholarship to the university currently (and then) known as Rhodes. I studied English and Journalism, with minors in Linguistics and History and Sound Engineering. None of it empowered me enough to write, though.

So I played music instead. For four years I played in a folk-pop band. We released an album, moved from Grahamstown to Cape Town, and… well, it fizzled out. I came to UCT to do my honours in Media Theory & Practice, but it was an optional paper in the English Department that caught my attention: narrative non-fiction, taught by Hedley Twidle. Narrative non-fiction studies gave me the tools to analyse and deconstruct exactly how texts work, in terms of narrative construction and verisimilitude, as well as insight into analysing South Africa’s zones of irreconcilable difference.

Simply put, if you are not rich or if you do not live near a city or wealthy town, books are simply not a part of your landscape.

Out of UCT, I landed a job at Paperight, which was a company which allowed photocopy shops to print books on demand, legally. Although the venture wasn’t successful, the ambit put upon us by our funders, the Shuttleworth Foundation, immersed us in the amazing dysfunction of South African publishing and literature. I don’t know the up-to-date figures, but it’s estimated only a couple percent of South Africans who regularly buy and read books. Most schools don’t have proper libraries. Many municipal libraries are a shambles. Simply put, if you are not rich or if you do not live near a city or wealthy town, books are simply not a part of your landscape.

My time at Paperight also introduced me to many of publishing’s most progressive players and initiatives. Without that job I would not be who I am now, and I wouldn’t be able to chat to you all today.

So, currently, as well as a research Master’s student at the department of English here – still looking at narrative non-fiction – I am a Mandela Rhodes Scholar, the founding associate editor of Prufrock magazine, which is a multilingual and beautiful quarterly of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, which I helped found with a number of other UCT grads; the publisher of uHlanga, which is a poetry press; and the Deputy Chair of Short Story Day Africa, which administrates the Short Story Day Africa Prize and publishes yearly, award-winning anthologies of short fiction. I am the author of two books, and the co-editor of one other.

In 2014, in my first year of working full-time as a writer, I had a weekly beer review column in the Sunday Times, and I won the National Arts Festival short story award, the prize money from which went to starting uHlanga. In 2015, I was shortlisted for the White Review Prize in the U.K. & Ireland, and the Ake/Air France Prize in Nigeria.

In writing – in art – visible success is only the tip of a vast iceberg, which consists mostly of invisible failure.

It sounds impressive. It kind of isn’t, though. Despite my life being far and away better than I ever thought it would be at the age of 25, the truth is, in writing – in art – visible success is only the tip of a vast iceberg, which consists mostly of invisible failure, strife, unhappiness, dissatisfaction, anger, disappointment, brief triumph, lucky breaks, soul-searching, semi-alcoholism and daily hard work. Sometimes the peak won’t even break the surface of the waves. If the peak of that iceberg pokes out the water, then great; but remember what’s holding it up. The peak is predicated by the stuff under the freezing ocean. That’s why you’ll never meet a happy writer when they are talking about writing. You’ll find smug ones. You’ll find arrogant ones. You’ll find happy ones when they’re talking about sport or politics. But writers satisfied with their work? Never.

That said, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

When you decide to become an artist full-time, in many ways you’re booking out of traditional capitalist ways of existing. Money is irregular, both in terms of payment and amounts. Work stagnates and flows. Your hours are completely dependent upon your project or projects. You are no longer a servant to the system, you are a servant to work.

This has its pros and cons. Pro: you are in control. Con: there is no safety net. Pro: you define your own success. Con: artists are terrible at setting targets. Pro: your life is yours alone. Con: your life is yours alone. There are reasons why our society has norms: they’re the most comfortable things for the most people, and that usually includes artists. Artists are not a special breed of person, despite what many of us think of ourselves. A salary that is not dependent completely on the quality of your work is awesome. Paid-for medical aid is awesome. Paid sick leave is amazing. But you trade these things for ostensible freedom.

I say ostensible because being a slave to your art is much like being a slave to a traditional career. It’s being pushed out of the whitewater river into the ocean. There aren’t rapids any more, but there are tides and currents. You can get lost. You can get ripped out from shore unexpectedly. There are sharks, etc. This is a good metaphor, but not exactly true, but truth should never come in the way of a great metaphor.

Making a living as a writer means you submit to a life of piecing together work from many disparate sources. With the Sunday Times, and with a couple other regular jobs, I have a basis upon which I can financially support myself. The scholarship helps in other ways. Once I graduate, God, who knows? Your life is always uncertain, and that brings me to my next point.


The Young South African

Despite my accent, I promise you I am South African. Of my almost 26 years, I have spent roughly 24 of them in total within the bounds of this here republic. For nine months as a child my white family white-flighted to a small town in New Zealand before we decided South Africa was actually pretty fantastic and we came back. My parents are British – from parts of Britain few of you have ever heard of and even fewer of you would ever like to visit – and as such I have also spent a lot of time there.

I am also a card-carrying member of the Scottish National Party; I am this because I can be one and because I would like to participate in party politics, but not here. Why?

Well, South Africa is not a nation. It is a collection of nations and sub-nations, forced together by accidents and very purposeful incidents and crimes against humanity over hundreds of years. The only thing most of us have in common is the shared narrative of a traumatic history, whether it be the looming spectre of colonialism and its offshoot apartheid, or the Mfecane, Nongqawuse, the death of Makana, or indentured labour – or for those who are less worried about our recent history, the Anglo-Boer War. A country of migrants and settlers, of drifters and wanderers, of those evicted and killed. A country of ghosts and ignorance. It’s too much to fathom.

How does one reconcile their place in this non-nation nation?

More young people today are becoming more cognisant of the fact that the Rainbow Nation dream was indeed just a dream. An incredibly useful and inspiring dream that got a lot of people through some very difficult times of compromise and discomfort. The time of the Rainbow Nation, of Tutu and Mandela, has passed. That does not mean they failed – I love both thinkers very much – but rather their influence has a half-life.

South Africa now is a far more complicated beast than any of us could have imagined before society became even partially integrated. I don’t really need to tell you why – you probably have your own stories.

So how does one reconcile their place in this non-nation nation? I hear a lot of people ask, “Well, how do I contribute to society as someone who has privilege?” “How do I contribute as a white person?” “How do I contribute as a middle-class black person?” “How do I contribute as a poor person?” “As a man?” “As a trans person?” I think that’s something very serious that every citizen of this country has to figure out for themselves. They need to figure out their position in society.

A position is not an opinion. It is the ever-changing, always-thinking-through set of values and practice of education and self-awareness through which you necessarily engage with the various intersections of politic and identity in South Africa. It is the basis on which you act. Without a position, a thought-out position, you will never amount to anything seriously in intellect or art. This position might change throughout your life and career, or shift to take in new information.

I acknowledge my position as a white cishet male of British heritage living in Cape Town in the decades after the fall of formal apartheid. This position informs what discussions and discourses are helped by my presence, and helped by my absence. It informs what perspectives are accessible to me. As a writer, it informs to what level I can inhabit a fictional other without inappropriately appropriating the experiences of people who are like that fictional other but who really exist.

Being in this position doesn’t make it difficult or impossible to write about women or poverty or blackness or queerness. I used to think, back when I was an honours student here in 2011, that that kind of empathy or inhabitation of someone other than you was impossible. Now I understand that blanket self-censorship is self-defeating, both for your art and your personal growth.

My writing is informed by my upbringing in Durban. Although Stations is set throughout the South African coast, its idiom is unmistakably Durban. I was also raised Catholic, and I use Catholicism, like my favourite short fiction writer Flannery O’Connor, as a lens to depict the flaws and foibles in people and the society people make up. I am not a religious writer, but I do take a culture that is unmistakably mine, and use it to engage with the wider world.

Lots of people say “write what you know”. That’s not specific enough. I say “write using what you know to get to know other things”.

Most people in this kind of university campus, with half a brain and half a stick of empathy, can begin to begin to understand the experiences and perspectives of people unlike themselves. People really aren’t unknowable. Shame, anger, injustice, triumph, love – these are universal experiences at the base of it; only their manifestations differ. I can never pretend to truly know other people – and by other, I literally mean everybody but myself. Because we’re all just brains in vats. But that doesn’t mean I can’t depict those people as I see them, and as they present themselves. To contemplate, not to pretend to immerse.

The subtlety comes in not misappropriating or misrepresenting someone or their experiences. I can’t tell you how many pieces of writing I’ve thrown out because I’ve misappropriated something that I hadn’t myself experienced, or because I thought I was representing something it wasn’t my right to represent. Until people point that out to me, or I come to that realisation in self-reflexion. Then I know my position better.

I think that’s one of the bigger challenges facing South African artists, especially young ones: I think that, in general, in my life experience, people are sharing more and living with each other more, inhabiting each other’s lives more. The larger discourses on our campus obviously show that this isn’t true all or most of the time. This is still a sexist, white supremacist, patriarchal, heteronormative society. But in certain loci, that’s changing, and it’s certainly defeatist to ignore that fact. If I were not to write trans* characters, queer characters, black characters, women characters, people who don’t speak the languages I do – characters, in other words, who are like my peers and loved ones – I would not be fairly representing the world I see and know and live in, and the one in which my readers live. It’s more dishonest for me to write vanilla whites standing around a braai – which I sometimes do, but only to other ends which explode the idea of the white laager.

In fact, that’s the ultimate dishonesty, one that’s been perpetrated too much by South African writers: although it feels like it in terms of the power they wield, South Africa is not really the domain of white men. Artists shouldn’t represent it as such, or treat it as such.


The New Literature

Just about the entirety of South Africa’s literary industry is tailored to and made palatable for white people. If you do not acquiesce to these tastes – no matter your race or background – it’s not going to be easy going for you, and that’s relative to something that’s already very difficult. I wouldn't call myself a fan of Khaya Dlanga, but he recently raised an honest and cutting point about the reaction to the success of his book, To Quote Myself:

As a black writer, my book was extremely unmarketable. It was precisely because I am a black writer telling his own black experience that I am not marketable. It is miraculous that it made it on the bestseller list to begin with. But guess what? It was the only book on that list by a living black writer. That is disgusting. We are in a majority black country yet there was only one book on the list. Just one. And worse, it was dead last on that list. I felt like the Some of My Best Friends Are Black of books. Look how generous and nice we are, we allowed a black, oops, a black person in the club.
...
The black writer is the least marketable in this country. The system is stacked against them. If black writers were more marketable, why aren’t they on bestseller lists? Why are there so few published? 
The entirety of South Africa’s literary industry is tailored to and made palatable for white people.

People talk about decolonising the book. I prefer the term “de-white-ifying”. This isn’t a pejorative against white people, obviously, because I am a white person and I don’t hate myself; rather it’s a damnation of the kind of whiteness we see festering in our society; the whiteness that is treated as invisible; the tropes and knowledge and epistemology middle-class society sees as “normal”; the pervasive and damaging ideas about race and often masculinity that most white people in this country have been brought up in.  The whiteness that sees their culture as under threat even though it is the dominant culture. The whiteness that sees groups of students protesting against outsourcing and violently attacks them in public, on a rugby field, during a varsity rugby game. The laager mentality; us against them, and you know what white people mean when they say “them”.

Most times, when something that is not white-friendly is introduced into the literary imaginary, it is either written off, ignored or demonised by literary society. Thando Mgqolozana made a few enemies last year when he made a similar point at the Franschhoek Literary Festival: the industry is white-centric and resistant to change. African languages are erased; blackness and, often, femaleness and queerness are ignored. I’m taking part in three panels this year at Franschhoek. Of those three events, only one of them has a black person on the panel, and she’s from Sudan.

So, why don’t I book out like Thando did? I’ve thought about this a lot. But if white writers, who are the very people this industry panders to, reject participating, I suspect that they would also reject the opportunity to change it from within, and their agency to do so.

I’m not massive on Biko. I mean, I’ve read him, I like him, but there are certain things in which he fell short in his tragically too-short writing career. (And understandable, and forgivable, obviously.)  But, I like this: in response to the idea that white people – or “verligtes” or “liberals” – can participate alongside black people in the struggle, Biko writes:

“The liberal must fight on his own and for himself. If they are true liberals they must realise that they themselves are oppressed, and that they must fight for their own freedom and not that of the nebulous ‘they’ with whom they can hardly claim identification.”

I cannot claim identification with the struggles of black writers. I just can’t – it would be dishonest. I listen, every day. I act, every day, in the service of a more equitable and less white supremacist literary scene. But I cannot claim that I am with them, because I benefit from the very system that neglects them, by virtue purely of luck, that I am born as I am.

The system, of course, cannot work as a white space, but yet it continues. Luckily, it makes me happy to see a robust, intersectional space that currently being built that stands in relief to the hegemony. It also can change the scene from within. You can see this in Durban, where many of my friends and colleagues – including Tiny Mungwe and the Centre for Creative Arts at UKZN – have revamped the Time of the Writer festival, and is taking literary discussion outside of the elitism of university campuses.

I believe these two spaces can integrate one day, but not with the gulfs that currently exist within and between them. For those of us who can access and change the hegemonic space to make it less hegemonic, well, it’s our duty to do so. For those of us who can access and build another space which literally rewrites the system, well, it’s your duty to do so. I suspect it’s unrealistic that the current system will completely die and vanish in the shadow of a new one. That just doesn’t happen in South Africa, and we can see that, day to day, of white systems that won’t die, from city planning to basic education to university exclusion. And these are public institutions. What makes us think that will change with books, an almost wholly privately-run space? The more of us who can change the system but who leave the system, the more irrepressible the laager mentality will become. It will calcify, and remain unmovable.

But that’s just my position. You need to find your own position. Every artist in this country must.