The Only World I Know Is This One: A Dialogue with Masande Ntshanga
Masande Ntshanga is the author of the novels, The Reactive (2014) and Triangulum (2019), as well as the chapbook, Native Life in the Third Millennium (2020), an experimental collection of poetry and prose. He is the winner of the inaugural PEN International New Voices Award in 2013 and a Betty Trask Award in 2018. He was born in East London, South Africa, and graduated from the University of Cape Town, where he completed his Masters in Creative Writing under the Mellon Mays Foundation. He has received a Fulbright Award, a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, and a Bundanon Trust Award. His work has appeared in Chimurenga, The LA Review of Books Quarterly Journal, MIT Technology Review and n+1.
BY KRIS VAN DER BIJL
This conversation took place via email with both Masande and Kris being in Cape Town, South Africa.
Kris: I thought we could begin at the end by discussing a passage from your latest work: Native Life in the Third Millennium. It reads: “I’d need to model new variations. I’d need to understand that black freedom was inconceivable in this world, and as such, to imagine it was to imagine the end of the world.” This comes in the third and final part of the text where the characters are talking about their pasts and their futures. The phrase blends time in that it utilizes the past, present and future tense. It seems to speak to a commonality in your work—if I can say one exists—of an engagement, or perhaps an occupation, with time, space and place. Would you say that your work engages with such things?
Masande: I think the three are important because each is an avenue through which a writer can explore the subject they are interested in. For me, that subject is the region I am from. I think one of the preoccupations I have is an attempt to make sense of myself and my environment, and of others who share that environment, and through literary treatment, concepts such as time, space and place can become conduits through which to tap into a region’s past, present and [possible] futures.
Kris: As part of using speculative fiction as a means to write about what goes unseen, or at least might be forgotten?
Masande: Yes. That’s a good way of thinking about it. In the absence of alternatives, I think the act of speculation itself, whether it relates to the past or to the future, can stand in as a legitimate form of producing knowledge. Even if it is conjecture, it springs off fact and is better than absence by being theoretical. I think the histories and futures of oppressed people often require improvisation of this sort since their records are the first to be destroyed or warped. For better or worse, this improvisation is natural to storytelling.
Kris: The improvisation is for the better, if only because your stories are good. Writing futures, especially of oppressed people, does require the end of the world to some degree. At least that is what I read from the quote. One might say that the future of persons of colour under apartheid was inconceivable without the end of the world of apartheid. But one is presented with the risk of becoming quite Derridean in positing an answer to what an end is.
Masande: I would say that even the Derridean question of what an end is could be used as a point of departure for speculation in art. It is not a problem in fiction, in other words, as it is in philosophy. That quote in particular was inspired by Aimé Césaire’s poem, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land, which is quoted in the third movement of the chapbook. In Césaire’s book, the narrator, on returning to their native land, reflects on the idea of beginning, before concluding: Begin what?/The only thing in the world that’s worth beginning./The End of the World, no less. That said, that’s a good point about apartheid. It’s the reason I believe that imagination is an important instrument for revolution. Not only for strategy, but for its aftermath, its thinking. For example, it is from Césaire’s imaginative work that, almost a hundred years later, “the end of the world” is picked up as an idiom by black studies theorists and used as a discursive tool against anti-blackness. In essence, it is a call for a radically reimagined order where the world is not this world and all people are liberated. That is what that character, the programmer, is in conversation with.
“In terms of technology and the remoteness and togetherness it provides humans, that is a theme I have been interested in ever since I wrote my first story, “Electrons”, in high school. I think it is as much a consequence of the art and media I was exposed to as a child as it is of growing up in the 21st century. The only world I know is this one.“
Kris: I am disappointed in myself for missing the connection with Césaire. My readings changed a bit: the out-of-the-blue message that the narrator receives from the engineer at the beginning of the story can be read as their past messaging them. Again the past is present, but this time via phone. A connection is created, or recreated, of “an accomplice and then as a brother” once separated. The story has the person receiving the message be someone who has the idea to create a game where “users nurtured a humanoid population from single-cell organisms to intelligent life, before creating institutions to safeguard them”. Césaire’s négritude being given a contemporary lens? The remoteness and togetherness that technology provides to humans in this millennium is something your novel Triangulum also brings up.
Masande: It might be a South African sentiment, but the past feels inescapable to me. Its existence is affirmed daily in my present, both personally and politically. I think that comes out instinctively in how I write. I really like the idea of a contemporary imagining of négritude, though, which is one of the game’s possibilities, but in terms of technology and the remoteness and togetherness it provides humans, that is a theme I have been interested in ever since I wrote my first story, “Electrons”, in high school. I think it is as much a consequence of the art and media I was exposed to as a child as it is of growing up in the 21st century. The only world I know is this one.
Kris: “The only world I know is this one” might be an apt title for this conversation.
Is there any particular memory from your childhood of art and media that stands out now? Like a particular story that blew your mind or even a pencil sketch you found in the margins of a school dictionary.
Masande: I like that and thank you for mentioning that pencil sketch. It’s everywhere, isn’t it? In terms of art, I can think of several memories from high school, but one has to be seeing Ghost in the Shell for the first time, and in terms of media, one has to be the capture of Onel de Guzman, the 24-year-old author of the infamous ILOVEYOU computer virus. After watching Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 film, technology felt inextricable from humankind’s remoteness or togetherness for me. In that same sense, the capture of Onel de Guzman in 2000—an introverted working-class computer science student who authored a global pandemic, infecting more than 45 million computers—gave me an interest in how the marginalized interact with technology. Later, it would come out that, because he couldn’t afford it, de Guzman had written the code to steal passwords in Manila so he could access the internet for free. It was an idea he’d salvaged from a thesis proposal that had been rejected at his college the previous year, which deepened that interest for me.
Kris: I find the ILOVEYOU case fascinating partly because Onel de Guzman’s virus did not do anything that has not technologically been done before. By this I mean that computers and information have been hacked, and likely will be hacked, by far more complex codes. But de Guzman incorporated the human desire for connection, for love. The virus synthesized humanness with its technology and used it against us. I did not realize his first goal was to gain access to an internet that he could not afford though. That’s quite interesting.
Masande: He was a poor student. He thought it would be a useful tool. He wrote it up as a thesis subject proposal before his department rejected it. It’s true, though, that is what made this case stand out. He said he’d looked around him and seen loneliness. That’s what inspired it.
Kris: Loneliness, in the sense of lacking connection, is found in two of your novels. Despite the friends surrounding Nathi in The Reactive, for instance, he strikes me as being lonely. He wants a connection that was lost at the death of his brother. This death, lack, or absence, haunts him. The unnamed narrator from Triangulum has a similar absence that haunts her in the figure of her mother. You are pointing towards loneliness, towards something lacking, by presenting absences. (I’ve always been deeply fascinated with ghosts, so perhaps I’m presupposing a reading here). Perhaps these absences are better called spectres. Specifically, they are spectres that cohabit with living, directing their future possibilities. We have discussed the time aspect of this above, but we are yet to approach the emotions that this renders onto the characters, readers, and, I suppose, on the writer.
Masande: Loneliness, isolation and alienation have animated my writing ever since I started. Perhaps, at first, because I had an intimate knowledge of them, but later, I think they became a useful means through which to examine the relationship between an individual and their society, as well as to examine their interpersonal bonds and how in a sense we are each condemned to a solitary experience of the world. In terms of the characters in my novels, I can agree. It is possible to argue that it’s from loneliness that each of them locates a ‘spectre’ by ruminating on the past, and that in turn, those ruminations influence their present and future.
Kris: Meaning can be found with loneliness, isolation and alienation. This sense of something other than the depressions of the day cast by the relationship between an individual and their society might help structure one’s solitude. But with your works this meaning is a meaning after the end, a point of departure towards a fantasy? A specifically unknowable avenue of an aftermath.
Can I use this to approach some questions on the literature around you? Specifically the 21st Century Novel?
Masande: Please do.
Kris: To start simple: Are there any books written in the last 21 years that have stood out to you as being particularly influential to your own work?
Masande: There might be too many for me to remember. I think I have a near-equal number of books from both centuries (the 20th and the 21st) that have influenced me. If I were to pick, however, I would nominate The Ecstatic by Victor LaValle from 2002 and Big Machine, which he published in 2009. Those two books were turning points for me in terms of learning about the sentence—how to use diction and metre to construct a narrator’s voice and how far to go with images—as well as what’s possible with genre in literary fiction. Not to mention that, despite their inventive and subversive nature, they both had enough candour and humanness to often stun and stop a reader in their tracks.
Kris: Would I be simplifying things to say that, like Césaire, LaValle presents a strategy for how to write their worlds? You incorporate what surrounds you, your world, and process it with strategies gleaned from some of what you have read? But obviously your own genius is sprinkled in with the mix.
Masande: No, I don’t think it’s a simplification. In fact, LaValle’s first book, slapboxing with jesus, which was published in 1999, is an excellent demonstration of that. It is a collection of stories and in it LaValle takes the Queens, New York of his childhood (his world) and filters it through James Joyce’s Dubliners (his reading). The epigraph is this great quote from “The Dead”: “—And haven’t you your own land to visit, continued Miss Ivors, that you know nothing of, your own people, and your own country?” For Victor, that land is Queens, but his own genius exists not only through his intimate writing of it, or through his assembling of these parts, but also from further filtering that writing and assembly through rap music. The title of the collection is a line from Ghostface Killah, for example, about which LaValle admits that the rapper—as is expected of all good poets—captures in three words what he tried to cover in two hundred pages.
Kris: By extension, would you say that the filtering done by LaValle impacts your own incorporation of his writings? This is to say that Ghostface Killah is also present in your works due to his presence in LaValle’s. Of course, this type of palimpsest thinking can go on and on, but I mention it to raise the notion that sometimes we do not know who we are speaking with, or alongside, us. And that is quite a magical part of words. Even if we’re alone, there might still be something in the way we speak.
Masande: That is a beautiful idea. His presence does filter in, I think, as is often the case with the influences of a writer one admires, even though those influences might not be immediately apparent in one’s own work. It follows that to inherit a writer as an influence is to inherit their influences too, which results in the ever-expanding palimpsest you mentioned. In that sense, slapboxing with jesus, which was written by LaValle and filtered through his influences, could be said to offer information from Ghostface Killah about how to capture and distil a time, mood and place into a single sentence. In that same breath, it also contains information from James Joyce about how an environment can inform the identities and behaviours of its inhabitants. Those were both important lessons for me. LaValle himself once described influence as a kind of ‘fire’ that a writer catches before passing it on to another. I believe that fire is lit from different torches. That each writer’s voice contains a chorus of different voices that have acted as tutors, allies and even friends to them.
Kris: There is something quite heroic, easily mythic, about writers bringing fire together and passing it one to others. But I also think of the unnamed narrator of Triangulum. How real is the fire that they have been given? A similar question can be asked about Ghost in the Shell. But it does not matter to know whether it does or does not exist. Story telling remains elusive, and in this way exciting. Innate to storytelling is creation. Sometimes we might not know who is speaking. Would it help to know?
Masande: The strength in stories being elusive, I think, can be found in how it makes use of the reader’s powers of interpretation and imagination, which in turn enriches the text and makes it more generative. For example, while it might be different for another reader, for me her fire is without a doubt real. It manifests through an alternative logic, sure, one that exists alongside the prevailing scientific arrangement of the world. However, it is also true that we do not always need to know who is speaking. The presence of a voice and its message can suffice. In Ghost in the Shell, when Major Kusanagi merges with the uploaded consciousness, The Puppet Master, the being has travelled through so many different networks, “shells” and consciousnesses—each of them leaving a trace—that the merge means their new consciousness will be comprised of all those disparate parts, while also being a new being altogether. In that case, it is not important to trace where each component of this new consciousness emerges from – what matters is that it exists and it has a message.
Kris: This draws us nicely towards what I hoped would be the final question. It’s from your debut novel, The Reactive, and mentions the end of the world:
“Cissie and I sometimes go to the cemetery, where we test the ground and tell each other to choose sites. My friend Cecelia, the smart one, the artist, she’s the reason for this, and she tells me we’re preparing ourselves for the end of the world. Today, she’s all orange flowing hair and marijuana. She squints at the sunset bleeding behind the hills and tells me, when it comes, it won’t be mass destruction; the end of the world is the destruction of the individual.”
Nathi, as the book’s narrator, is relaying to us, the reader, what Cissie said. But what’s fascinating here is that final sentence, precisely because it can be either Cissie or Nathi (the I) speaking. Is Nathi quoting her exact words? Is he summing up what she said? None of these questions call for answers. What is significant is that both consciousnesses of the characters are present. Their individuality is destroyed, but not lost. It remains meaningfully elusive, perhaps accessible only after the destruction.
Masande: Thank you for reading close enough to remind me that the end of the world is an old preoccupation of mine. I am not sure where it comes from, or if it is informed by having been born into a precarious country and time—each year, we ask ourselves, when is it all ending?—but I have come to think of this ending as a moment of change, now, a transformation of our reality as we know it, which cannot be bad. I am also intrigued by what you said about an individuality that is destroyed, but not lost, and the presence of twinned consciousnesses. In Triangulum, the narrator is unnamed, and one of the reasons this aspect of her identity is muted is to allow more room for the reader to inhabit her experience. In enabling the projection, I could get as close as I could to combining the reader’s consciousness with that of the character’s, which would be in service of a stronger form of communication, I thought, as well as a new message about the destruction.
Kris: Thank you for writing such incredible stories. It will be interesting to see what avenues they, and yourself, travel in the coming years. That is, if a world is still here.
This dialogue was edited by our Contributing Editor, Wambua Paul Muindi.
Kris Van der Bijl is currently reading for a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Cape Town. His interests lie in African Literature in English. He writes short stories, poetry, book reviews and interviews. His writings have been published in the likes of Brittle Paper, LitNet, Lucky Jefferson and JA Magazine. He hopes to one day be called up-and-coming.