African Storytelling, Minority and Inclusive Narratives: A Dialogue with Lidudumalingani Mqombothi
Lidudumalingani Mqombothi is a writer, filmmaker and photographer from South Africa. He is the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing winner, for his short story ‘Memories We Lost’ published in Short. Sharp. Stories: Incredible Journey: Stories That Move You. His work has been published in literary journals Chimurenga Chronic and Prufrock. His films have been screened in film festivals and he also writes non-fiction and critiques for Mail & Guardian and Africa is A Country.
Gaamangwe: Lidudumalingani, Let’s start from the beginning, when you wrote “Memories We Lost” were you consciously aware that this story will assert minority narratives, by virtue of rural Africa realities and rarely explored African understanding of mental illness?
Lidudumalingani: Not right from the beginning. In the beginning, the story was a way in which I wanted to speak about mental illness in a black community, a community that I am familiar with, and know its relationship with mental illness and found it problematic. It was only later when engaging with people that one begins to realize how far the story stretches. I would also like to point out as well that issues surrounding mental illness exist in the urban setting too. From depression to bipolar, there is still, even in other races, not only black, a stigma associated with it.
Gaamangwe: Yes, that is true. Generally speaking, it is very difficult to understand and manage the aspects of human lives that cross over what we term the norm. Our fear for that which we do not know breeds our stigma. And mental illness throughout the ages has always been something we struggle with understanding as well as talking about. You have been attending different types of readings, I imagine your work has opened dialogues about mental illness, what dialogues have your short story opened, or do you hope it will open?
Lidudumalingani: I could not agree more and this, I think, the obsession with keeping things quiet and somehow hoping they and their effects go away, is at the heart of the problem. If you think of rape, nothing destroys us more than the silence, it has to a large extent kept the victims, those who perhaps want to speak up, quiet, for fear of being disowned by family, community and being let down by the justice system. And so I think at the heart of the story is a cause of many of social ills or at least of the way we have largely chosen to deal with them.
The conversations around the story have been varied. On one side there’s the literature merits of the writing which writers and critics, some of them, have been focusing on and then on the other hand there’s the discussions about black communities and mental illness. All these have been really amazing, with some important observations coming out of it. There’s been also, which I think is perhaps the conversation that I am obsessed with right now, the thinking that this is a problem unique to villages, given that the story is set there, but I think not. The stigma and the absence of conversations are present even in urban setting. Someone with depression refusing to go out on Friday night is mistaken as a decision to not want to spend time with friends. Only when the loneliness absolutely consumes someone do we care and often it is too late by then. We need to have these conversations. I also hate that people say that we don’t know how to speak about mental illness or that there are no words for it, of course there are, we can have it in our own language, in fact, it’s important to so we can in that process refine our language when we speak of mental illness and get rid of the stigma.
Gaamangwe: I absolutely agree. Silence is not serving us in any way. And we see this because lately there has been a surge of riveting and powerful dialogues on the social ills in our communities. And as you said, we have to start in our own communities, using our own languages, because that’s how we include everyone in the dialogue. It’s paramount that we create inclusive dialogues especially on issues that affects all of us. We need to use both open spaces and art for these kinds of dialogues.
As it is when we look at our culture, we have always utilized storytelling as a tool to meditate on our existence and open dialogue on the aspects of human lives that are difficult to integrate in daily conversations. Modern literature is definitely doing that but you do find that African literature is often written in the language of our imperialists, I mean even this dialogue is in English, which in some way it’s excluding the majority of Africans who might not be exposed to the language.
I think we need to create a literature of inclusion, a literature that educates, celebrates and informs our African realities especially with our language. I wonder, did you ever consider writing your story in your native language? How do you think that will have changed your writing process? How does writing in English enlarge and diminish your creative process?
Lidudumalingani: My writing has never been in Xhosa and this is largely to that growing up writing presented itself as a thing that can only be done in English. Even though there were books in Xhosa that one came across every now and then, their appeal was not as great as the English. This is not so much an effect of the language but that English literature was in abundance and that in a way books in English were literature and the Xhosa novels were less so. One of my favorite books is titled Indlala Inamanyala and it is an epic tale of two women who are suffering from poverty and the ways in which poverty can lead one into doing the most despicable things to alleviate it. That of course, the unappealing of Xhosa novels and poetry, is not the case anymore, it has not been for a long time, because one grows up and realises that literature is not English and a result Xhosa literature is always something that I think about and read when I can. It is as important to me.
I do not think writing in Xhosa would have changed that my writing process. It would have largely remained the same, perhaps, only different in sentence structure and poetry because of the difference in the way that the language works.
The obvious thing, of course, is that English allows for a wider reading of the story. I have had, over the past few months, conversations about Memories We Lost with people in Russia, France, Iran etc. I say that with some reservations because as a writer I am interested in both the reader being allured by the writing and the story. And the latter, I think, happens at a much more intense level when the story reaches the people it is about, the villagers, in my case, in their language, a language they can understand. And so writing in English is a fragile process of doing a dance, a tango, telling stories about people, who might never get to read it, not only the language being the barrier but also the way in which the stories are packaged and sold, and you are in that process attempting telling the story but also have the responsibility not to misrepresent them in any way.
Gaamangwe: I think that African storytelling is a very complex and ever-evolving dance, with ample variables that influence the stories we write about, the way we write them and why we write them. We are definitely on the infancy stage when it comes to abundance and accessibility of African literature. Which can be a little frustrating because we grow up reading other works by writers from other continents, especially the west and because they have that high level of accessibility, abundance and appreciation, there is a certain kind of freedom of expression that has minimal barriers that we have here.
Traditionally, African storytelling has always been an education of our traumas and the moral virtues we must adopt so we never experience our forefathers traumas. Which is good of course but not entirely the holistic purpose of literature. As an African storyteller, what are your thoughts on African literature, its current purpose and it’s potential. And bringing it down to you as a writer and a creative, what kind of stories are you interested in writing about?
Lidudumalingani: My interests vary, and I intend, if time allows, to write about as many things as possible. There has been of late an interesting debate about who is entitled to a story and why and I think that as an artist, not without responsibility, I am entitled to any story. Telling an artist that a story is not theirs to tell is censoring and I am completely against that. It goes without mention for me that the artist ought to understand and be compassionate to what they are writing about and that is the thing we need to demand from artists instead of demanding that they must not become artists.
I think that every generation thinks of itself as being more special than the ones before it and as such I think carefully about what is happening in African Literature. I think every generation of writers, publishers, editors, book designers etc. have done incredible things that at the time were pretty ground-breaking. I think that the internet is assisting in making African Literature widely accessible, even though we need to figure out a way to cater for the community that cannot afford books and is not connected. By virtue of having a handful of publishers of African Literature, we are seeing a lot more people publish works of fiction, non-fiction and photography and that is ultimately a great thing.
Gaamangwe: Thank you for saying that. Especially the part about making African literature widely accessible for the people who cannot afford books, and who are not connected. People in rural parts of our communities don’t usually have the opportunity to read stories that mirror their own experiences, which is really a sad thing. So then how do we change that?
Lidudumalingani: That question has plagued me for a long time and yet I am not anywhere near close to the answer than I was when I began to think about it. But also the approach to it should not be archaic, assuming what people in the villages are and asserting stereotypes. I have some copies of the Short. Sharp. Stories anthology and the Caine Prize anthology and looking to give these to my former school in the villages and a copy for my own family. It is really difficult because growing up we had to share books at my school. I remember reading Chike and the River under someone’s armpit because there were only about ten copies of it for the entire school, and we did not have libraries to store them.
Gaamangwe: Because at the end of the day, readership is as important as publishing. African literature is important because it validates and celebrates our African experience. And that’s vital right now as we currently have a skewed narrative of our historic and current experiences.
I think this is why “Memories We Lost” meant a great deal to me. Because the narrative of schizophrenia in children has a skewed narrative. Actually that narrative is non-existent. So when I was reading your work I was like “I know this story” and that’s powerful because then the narrative of “poor little Thabo or Maria who is not like the other children”, is given an explanation and a space of interaction. And from my interaction with the story, I got an understanding, education, validation and a healing.
Lidudumalingani: I could not agree more with what you just said. And this is why the view that we need more happy stories, as if not all our stories are important, is an argument I found problematic and now it does not interest me at all. What this also shows is something that Masande Ntshanga pointed out in an interview with Saraba, that we seem not to read books thoroughly if we can, with conviction, say a book is only about one thing.
You are being overly generous and I appreciate it. I think it is important, especially, that we are now, perhaps, being more open to other worlds, beyond our villages, old ideas, teachings, that we write these stories. I cannot say I have always felt like that about mental illness. I certainly remember as a young child not being as hugely upset about the way in which my own community were treating people with mental illness and how dismissive it was of children with depression. And so it is an ongoing process for all of us, me included, and conversations like these are as helpful to me.
Gaamangwe: Why did you write this story, in particular a story about schizophrenia in children? Was this something you gave careful thought? Especially the choice of the characters, that being children? Did that make the writing of Memories We Lost easy or difficult?
Lidudumalingani: Years before writing the story I had been hugely bothered by the way people with mental illness were treated and the views people held of them and that was my first departure, to give nuance, both of mental illness and the way we speak about it. Juggling these in an artistic medium, which is what writing is, is difficult because there is the obvious importance of the politics of it and then one is also concerned about the poetry of it, the beauty of it, and so this is what I was carefully crafting and navigating. I had carried the story for a long time, years before sitting down to write it. At first it came to me as a scene, in a movie or on its own, and then that did not happen and then I moved on to other things but I never forgot the story and it never forgot me and so we carried each in our hearts and heads. In that time I continuously adjusted my own views, plotted the story and would every now and then jot some notes. Interestingly, the mother was the first character, and then the girls and the father was never even supposed to be there until he was suddenly in the narrative. For some reason, not deliberate, it was always girls, never boys, and throughout writing them, not once did I feel the need to justify it, not on the page and certainly not in my mind. I think carefully plotting the politics of the story was far more important, not difficult, but something that I focused and not so much the children. The two girls formed themselves, in the way that children become fully functioning human beings right in front of our eyes, the way that my own four year old is figuring out the world and becoming a human being.
Gaamangwe: Lack of infrastructure and systems that support literature, like libraries are major aspects of why African Literature is not thriving as much as it should. It perplexes me because in my romantic view of the world Literature should be on the strategies put in place to diversify our economy . We should be building as many library as schools. I have found myself over and over again in Literature. My history, identity, culture and humanity all immortalized in Literature. So I often fail to understand why African governments are not investing in Literature. I guess this is why I am having this conversation because my philosophy is storytelling should be ascended, celebrated and recognized as a great form of human expression.
Lidudumalingani: It is truly baffling and telling of a nation that does not care for literature, which in essence, a nation that cares for literature and art is really caring for the well-being of its people. We have to get to a point where literature, including art as a whole, is easily accessible to kids and not a thing that other people do. I was born in the villages and found books very late in my life and thus my reading is playing catch up. Even in school, the idea that there are writers and artists living in this very word was foreign. Even as I read the books, there was never a sense that these are people like me. Often to explain this I think about the feeling having dreams gives one, that you are, in the dream, holding onto a stack of money, or as is always in my case, a bird, and it feels very real and then you wake up and it is a dream and you are without money or the bird. And so I have always known that the books did not write themselves but the idea, the real idea, that there is an author out there writing them never occurred to me because the authors were out of reach, inaccessible, not so much their own fault but a result of the system that is designed not to familiarize kids with writers of their own skin. Conversely, which is interesting, I think of my late reading as beneficial in many ways. Apart from the Eurocentric texts we had to read in school, William Shakespeare, John Donne etc., my exposure to writers not my colour is limited because when I began reading I had begun to question the clear absence of writers that had the same skin as me. And so it became a deliberate decision for me to read non-white authors from around the world.
Gaamangwe: The recent celebration of my country’s independence has brought that concern up actually. Are we really free from colonization? How can we say we are, when we still subscribe to the education, literature and history that is not ours? Why is the majority of the texts we study predominantly Eurocentric?
This lack of introduction, study and accessibility of creative works by people of colour from an early age, in our schools reflects that we are still shackled to our colonizers’ ideologies. We are still adopting a way of thinking, living and being that is not innately ours. This is a crisis of our time because as a child born after colonization, I do not know any other way of being, any other reality but this. And I know I desire for something different but how do we get there?
Lidudumalingani: It would appear that we are on the same boat, being jolted this way and that by violent waves. Here too the benefactors of Apartheid often remark that things were better under Apartheid that at least hospitals and universities were working. This is nothing surprising. What is gravely concerning is that even black people, especially those who work for white bosses, which would be the majority of black people in South Africa, remark that it is better to have a white boss than a black one and this makes me sad but it also shows the extent at which racism affects people.
At its most basic, we have to tell our own stories. There are other things to do but we have to tell our stories and write our own history for the next generation so that they are reading the biased history written by colonisers or the fiction that is not written for them or when it is it presents them it distorts them.
Gaamangwe: To frame the next conversation, I want to go back to what you said earlier about the complexities of books. I agree with you and what Masande Ntshanga said, the complexity of literature reflects human lives. How our lives are often more than one thing. How we have many lives within our one life. And how we must pay homage to that. One thing really means many things to different people. I love that. Which makes me wonder, what are the many things in your short story? What are the stories you wrote in Memories We Lost?
Lidudumalingani: I refrain from saying what I was attempting to do with Memories We Lost, some things were quite subtle, which is what I prefer in art, more than I do the laying out of details over pages and pages. I do this, the refraining, for the fear that I might be committing a rookie magician mistake, which is to reveal the trick after having performed it. And so I will ask you that question, beside the overarching narrative of mental illness, what else do you think was going on in Memories We Lost?
Gaamangwe: To answer your question, more than anything for me, Memories We Lost was about sisterhood. The bond between sisters. The secrets they keep. The worlds they create for each other, for themselves. And the same world the main character was trying to preserve. It’s about this innate love and responsibility that sisters have for each other. I could relate to it because I have a sister and I imagine I might have done the same thing the main character did. Because our siblings are often the only constants in our lives. The people who often witness most of our lives. Even much more than our parents. And the bond between us are more likely to be deeper than with most people. So that story was more alive for me in your story than other stories. I mean of course there was the exploration of superstition. Which is also quite interesting. Our lives are intricately layered with our belief systems. In fact as a psychology graduate, I know how you cannot separate spiritual and religious beliefs from mental illness. Our inner worlds are often governed by what we believe about reality. So that exploration of mental illness and traditional healing was a story within your story that I loved.
Speaking of love, you are also a lover of photography. Not just a lover but you are a photographer. I am interested in whether this art form informs your writing in any way? Because nothing is ever separate from the other, right? Especially art. So I want to know are there subtleties that exists, seep in from your photography to your writing, and vice versa?
Lidudumalingani: I agree that nothing is separate from the other but I am yet to find a definitive relationship between the two. Ask me this in a few months and my answer would have changed. On some days it is clear and on some it is not. The other day I thought that perhaps making images and photography are the same thing. One frames a picture, making a decision to exclude and include things, or one waits until things move into or out of frame and then take the image. This is true to writing as well, that one writes sentences, makes a choice what to write and what not to write, what to reveal in the next sentence, as with the next image. Photography has also taught my writing patience, exactness and beauty. I have started shooting on 35mm film now and find the process to be exactly what I would like my writing process to be, deliberate and scrutinized before writing anything down. At the heart of it all, I think, is that I am interested in stories and photography is a form of storytelling. There is also something about photography, at least for me, that renders it as a medium that is absolutely concerned with beauty and politics and this what I think of my writing.
Gaamangwe: You have brought up some illuminating perspectives here Lidudumalingani. There is so much we have to do as Africans, to make our reality and experience here better, more fulfilling. This is the task for all of us. But of course we have to start here, by telling our stories, by saying our thoughts, sharing the world we inhabit, within and outside ourselves.
And we have to be kind, to ourselves, to each other. I want to talk forever about the many points we have brought up here but it is fine because you have planted some seeds, and that is all we can do for now. Any final thoughts?
Lidudumalingani: Thank you for being kind. It has been a stimulating conversation. We could go on for months, there is a lot to be said about a lot of things but I think we have covered some important ground and I could not be happier.
Gaamangwe Mogami is a poet, filmmaker and founder of Africa in Dialogue.
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