Koffi Addo 2017 Winner: A Dialogue with Charles King

Man with a beautiful mind: Charles King is a Cape Town-based writer and lecturer at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology where, amongst others, he teaches how to report climate change and homophobia. While he knows the world’s not perfect, it can be improved. This he aims to do via what Chinua Achebe calls ‘words of meaningful optimism.

This conversation took place between a green bedroom in the sweetspot of Gaborone, Botswana and a peaceful, silent and plant-filled flat in Woodstock, Cape Town that looks straight at Devil’s Peak while, ironically, it was raining during what’s ostensibly the worst drought in 100 years.

Gaamangwe: Congratulations for being shortlisted for the Koffi Addo Prize. How are you feeling about being shortlisted? Also what does it mean for you that this particular story is shortlisted?​ 

Charles: Thank you, I appreciate it. I am feeling both excited and apprehensive. I feel apprehensive because I’m feeling exposed; this is new to me and I have always preferred to keep a (very) low profile. I’m the guy who prefers to be at the back of the bar or coffee shop, the one who is quiet but watchful in the shadows and ideally going unnoticed. It’s when I suddenly realise that there’s someone in the crowd watching me, that I panic and that awful sense of exposure punches me in the gut and causes perspiration to erupt across my scalp. On the other hand, I’m excited. Because I’ve learned from life that whenever you complete something there is always something that comes of it… it’s what the ripples bring back on them when a stone is cast into a pond. And, because I’m an optimist, I always expect the best (and I mean that in the humblest sense); my daily affirmation is ‘my heart is wide open to Life’.

This is my first story. To be frank, I have NO idea how it’s perceived by anyone else. I’m also terrified to hear others’ opinions about it. This is an intensely personal piece that I was petrified to put out in the public domain, but I submitted it to the competition not to have it short-listed or even noticed; I used the competition for its guidelines, it’s deadline and its word count. I needed a specific sword to hang over my head because I have resisted writing this story for year, and this is the block I needed to vomit out or else I would never write again. I needed to go back to my ‘beginning’; not unlike a plumber having to clean the gunk and shit out of a horribly blocked pipe that reeks of that which is repressed and hidden. So, in answer to your question of how I feel about this story being shortlisted, I feel exposed, uncomfortable, yet aware that it’s now or never. And, should it have been ‘never’ that I chose, I would have eventually exploded like a constipated drain pipe or hyena.

Also, I am over the moon about this opportunity to visit Kampala, Uganda. If nothing else, this would have been rewarding enough for me.

Gaamangwe: First, how is this your first story? Wow! I cannot believe it.​ The writing is incredibly polished. Every line perfectly situated. How long did it take you to write it?

Charles: I have kept notebooks since the age of 12 and just before starting high school. As a result, I have racks of them. A recurring theme throughout all of them, and for all of these years, has been me grappling with how to become a writer (again, I mean this in the humblest I-need-to-write-or-else-I-will-explode sense, not the writing for prizes and money and recognition sense) and, even more importantly for me, was what do I actually write about, what have I possibly got to say that would be worth writing down.

This is the first time that I have sat down with the purpose of writing a story. In terms of forcing a sword over my head so as to get the bloody words down on the page, I began writing this story with the intention of submitting it to the 2016 Commonwealth Writer’s short story competition. But no go. It was a process fraught with terror and utter disbelief in the fact that I was even capable of putting the words down. I shelved it, enormously sorry that I’d told someone else (for encouragement) that I was writing it. Then, in February I dusted it off again. By now I had thought to myself that I either get this piece written or I must give up any notion of writing, whether I exploded or not. That thought, of giving up, was more a few degrees more horrible than the thought of actually completing the piece. So, I set my goal of completing my piece by the stipulated deadline of 31 March, and of writing an exactly 3500-word piece. I also promised myself that I’d strive to keep my ego and it’s insecurities out of this picture as best as I possibly good. Thus, I had three goals: write the piece and complete it on deadline; write the exact amount of words that were the limit; then I should submit it irrespective of whether I thought it was any good or not. Just submit it Charles… that’s all I ask of you.

I wrote it for long and re-read it many times and edited, even more times than that. Also, it was my goal to keep my writing as sparse and as arid, as what I recalled the landscape I was writing about to be. I don’t believe that I succeeded in that particular goal.

Gaamangwe: That’s incredible. I do think that writing is scary and the publishing aspect of it even scarier. So I understand your mixed emotions. But the story is always bigger than our emotions. It’s a life on its own that must be birthed out to the world eventually. And as the old saying goes, go where the discomfort is at.  

I am drawn to a couple of things you mentioned: are the events in the story inspired by your real life experiences? Which aspects of this work did you resist the most? Which one terrifies you the most, now that it’s out? Also how was the creative process of writing a story that is intensely personal?

Charles: Writing is scary. Publishing is scary. I even find tweeting to be scary, hence the fact that I mostly only retweet or like posts. Yes, I cannot even imagine what it must be like to actually give birth to a baby, but this creature (that I thought was mine) has a life of its own, that I’m certain of. Also, as a result of this birth, I am changed: I feel streamlined, that my purpose is more clearly demarcated before me. I know what the path is that I must tread. I am also freer. In terms of going where the discomfort lurks, that is what I’m most afraid of: my truthful, honest life existence is, on one hand, a horrifying one that I don’t believe anyone will be able to believe or cope with it. How on earth will I ever have the balls to be totally honest about who I am on the page? That is true and ultimate freedom in my eyes. The ability to not care what anyone thinks. That, or a thick enough skin.

This is a non-fiction story. It’s one of my life stories, it’s true in the sense that it is how I remember the things that I wrote about unfolded, took place, all of those years ago. It was a turning point in my life that has remained at the forefront of my mind and one that I’ve only rarely spoken about, and, when it did sometimes surface from me, it always did so without warning and with breathless, explosive force. I found it extremely difficult to provide hints as to my sexuality. That closeted-ness links directly back to then, when it was both illegal and dangerous to be who one truly was, to love whoever one wanted to love, even though love is love. I also found it difficult to remember that I was unenlightened and protected and privileged and downright ignorant for the majority of my youth. In terms of the creative process of writing the intensely personal, even now I wonder what I subconsciously chose to leave out for fear of being truly truthful. Also, memory is such a fickle bitch… how different is the/my ‘truth’ that I have recorded here, than what actually transpired back then. But, then again, does it matter? It’s my truth and it’s the truth that I carry around in my head, my non-fiction, my memory of my life. Then again, everything is smoke and mirrors anyway.

Gaamangwe: On reading your reflection about going to the discomfort, I thought perhaps the space we ought to hold for ourselves should be more about ourselves and what we grapple with. That Charles writes first for Charles. That Charles be only afraid of Charles struggling to cope with his truthful, honest, and horrifying life experience. It is all philosophical, but I do think that when we create such spaces for ourselves, we can actually find true and ultimate freedom. Because, can we really be understood and perceived in the way we yearn for by everyone? That pursuit sounds too overwhelming for me.  

Yes, memory is a fickle bitch…which world? which I? am I remembering. But I applaud you Charles, for as a young writer I struggle with exploring my past memories, in particular, the ones that terrify me the most. The ones I sometimes wonder if they “happened” to me. Even spending minutes in those trauma spaces dizzies me. So I can’t possibly imagine what that process of writing your memories as you remember them felt like.

Charles: Yes, I agree with you: Write first for yourself, not for some perceived audience, as you’ll be left fraught with fear (of the unknown). Your truth is your truth and you need to remain in integrity with yourself and your truth. Everything else is essentially irrelevant—of course, it’s very easy to say that right now, once the baby has been born, not while it’s still in gestation—and any thoughts drifting away from you at your own centre will become a stumbling block, a distraction. It’s difficult enough to write what you have to write without those additional pressures. A lot of these challenges are, I believe, wrapped up in a parasitic relationship with one’s ego. Also, that space we create for ourselves is often, at first, a lonely one. However, from my perspective, I learnt in that initially lonely space to listen, and to centre myself and to find the quiet, still space where The Voice may be heard and where your truth – over what’s currently in fashion – can be discerned. While I often have to plug into the crowd, and the noise, it comes at an enormous cost. I strive to be just far enough away from the madding crowd. Of course, I don’t always succeed. Such as recently as last night, when I planted weeds, not corn. Here follows one quote of two that I keep on my writing table: Gore Vidal – “Many writers who choose to be active in the world lose not virtue but time, and that stillness without which literature cannot be made.”

‘Biographical prose’ is a term I once came across; I have a feeling that the roots of everything I ever write will emanate from my lived experience/s and from what I’ve thought about that experience. I have to write my life out of me before I can, perhaps, be free of me. This brings me to my second quote, from poet David Whyte, which (in my mind) is about overcoming fear… i.e. choosing to overcome the fear of being who you truly and unashamedly are, which takes courage, which I believe is what very few realise in their lifetimes: because only then will one be free.

“You must learn one thing:

the world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds

except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet

confinement of your aloneness

to learn

anything or anyone

that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.”

You see, we’ve come a full circle: I must write or I must explode from not writing.

Also, in terms of coming the full circle, earlier I referred to the fact that unlike when I was much younger (and dumber), neither fame nor fortune now drives me. It’s much more like what the translator André Naffis-Sahely wrote about South African poet Antjie Krog. Krog, he said, stressed that a writer should not concern themselves as to whether they are read or not, since “one writes so that you don’t die of shame, that you didn’t say something when a girl is cut up somewhere in a parking lot and raped …You know that a poem will achieve nothing, but at least you will get through the night.” Those words pretty much sum up where I currently find myself in the world of Trump, climate change denialism, rabid materialism, the treatment of migrants, also the gross corruption, social inequality and xenophobia in my country, and— even worse—the violence and hatred that is currently my country, where it’s regularly in the news that toddlers are raped before being murdered and their bodies dumped; where young women are assaulted, raped and then have their bodies set alight in dumpsters; also where lesbians are ‘correctively raped’ before having their throats slit and/or being battered, hated to death. The list is such an endless one, is such a bleak one, that I’ve not even begun to strike the head of the match alight.

Gaamangwe: That poem by David Whyte opened something in me. The idea that we should only ever want to allow ourselves to do and be with those that make us feel alive. It is so powerful. And now I am thinking about this concept or rather this feeling of being alive. What do we mean exactly when we say something makes us feel alive? Is it not that because we are here, breathing, we are already feeling alive?

I remember being struck by how you were quite certain that you will die young. And how at some level that didn’t seem to bother you. I am interested in this quiet pursuit of the annihilation of your personhood. The desire to die. Which I think, sometimes, we all desire.

Charles: My biggest fear all my life has been to fall foul of complacency: life IS short. I fear that by choosing comfort zones over life that one becomes one of the majority, i.e. one of the living dead… which I interpret as the inability to stare into one’s own abyss. It’s when you’re so terrified of that confrontation with yourself that you perpetually fill your life with noise and busyness—numbing materialism and gross superficiality play a massive role here —that you lose touch with yourself, with your Source / Creator, whose voice and promotions are quiet, are still. It’s also the broken connection with Nature. Hence the mess the human race currently finds itself in. That’s when every day becomes like identical beads on a necklace: yes, we might be breathing but our nerve ends are not raw and jangling with life, we are no longer alive. That is Death. And it’s synonymous, I believe, with this late capitalist world we have crafted for ourselves.

I do not fear death, it’s but another season. Right now I relish that I am in the late summer of my life. I can clearly see where the sun sets, it’s no longer an endless horizon in which all things are (or at least appear) possible: I am not as I once naively believed, going to read all of the books that are important to read, I am never going to travel the whole world and the seven seas. And I’m fine with that…because that pressure is off, I am rather choosing to travel lightly, without baggage weighing me down, and most certainly no desire to gather possessions around me. I’ve chosen, instead, to simplify and streamline my life. Which, again, brings us full circle back to White’s words: The world was made to be free in…give up all other worlds except the one to which you belong. In other words, what—for me in the humblest sense— is my purpose here? I have sought that answer because only then was I able to begin living fully, passionately, purposefully. That’s now what I deem to be aliveness, Life with a capital L.

Gaamangwe: Brilliant reflection, thank you. This is our lives, as they are, and we belong here. My final question is now that you have written “Meat Bomb”, have you found peace with your personal life journey? I am asking, after writing and sending your experiences out into the world, after going to the deep abyss your personal tragedies, have you forgiven yourself for your part in the events that happened during apartheid? How did you arrive to a reconciliation between your younger, naive self and the you of today?

Charles: My story is, in essence, a coming of age story; it’s about that point in a person’s life where the scales fall from their eyes and that they confront a fork in the road: something happens that transforms them forever, although it depends very much on the choice they will then as a consequent make. It’s the transformation from childhood to adulthood, it’s the loss—not at all in a bad sense—of one’s innocence. Literally days before his 21st birthday the character—me—has his Road to Damascus moment, wherein he gains his sight (one of my prayers ever since has been for the ability to truly see). Suddenly he had 20/20 vision (I write about ‘him’ in the past tense because he really is another and completely different person…I’ve written this 28 years later) and—in that moment—he could either have chosen the fork in the road towards denial or the other route, that he did, in fact, take, that of accepting responsibility (for his perceived ‘innocence’, perceived ignorance of and passivity within The System). The following year, about 8 months after this watershed moment, apartheid (I refuse to ever write the word with a capital letter unless it’s at the start of a sentence) was, in principle, over. Of course, it’s extraordinarily easy to write in hindsight, but up until that night on the edge of the circle and facing outwards, it was like having been brought up from birth in a weird cult…it was difficult to separate it, and the lies, from ‘reality’ and ‘the truth’; the lie, the infiltration of The Truth takes place at every single level. So, much more than anything else, my process was an acknowledgement of responsibility: I took responsibility for my ignorance and for my perceived ‘innocence’ as a youth; as a result, I thereafter chose to walk an utterly different path to the one I was ‘groomed’ by The System to tread. Also, critically, I acknowledged that—on countless levels—I benefited indirectly from The System. Most of this was, at the time a form of unconsciousness… however, that never allows for the relinquishment of responsibility: it’s never an excuse. I am reconciled, and accept that now—as a writer (in the humblest sense)—that I have an enormous responsibility going forward in terms of the path that I’ve chosen to tread: As Oinam Anand writes, “The writer’s role or we can call it the writer’s mission in the modern society is complex. Even so there are certain features shared by all writers of the world…”The writer’s mission today is, as it always has been, to testify about man and his circumstances, and to seek to leave a mark in literature by striking a blow at the indifference and ignorance which doom society and the world to stagnation and mutual misunderstanding.”

Regarding my story, it’s as African Dialogues’ Joy Mogami recently tweeted: That ‘but to feel ourselves, the alive and valid beings we are, we ought to write ourselves. Document who we are and where we’ve been.’ That’s a massive part of why this story was birthed from me… it’s where I come from: my Big Bang.

Gaamangwe: Thank you so much for an insightful reflections. It’s been really expansive for me. I look forward to reading more of your works! All the best with Writivism.

NB: This interview is part of a collective book project with all the incredible and talented shortlisted writers for the 2017 Writivism Prizes.

DOWNLOAD BOOK: Writivism Prizes 2017 Shortlists Interviews

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Africa in Dialogue is a weekly online interview magazine, that engages in dialogues with Africa's leading storytellers in the fields of literature, poetry, film, theatre, television and art. Africa in Dialogue is created by Gaamangwe Mogami.

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