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‘How I Write’ – by literary legend Lewis Nkosi

Lewis Nkosi in Command
Image: Victor Dlamini

 

Writing HomeUKZN Press has shared an excerpt from the recently released Writing Home: Lewis Nkosi on South African Writing, edited by Lindy Stiebel and Michael Chapman.

Lewis Nkosi, who died in 2010, was a writer and essayist who spent 40 years in exile. He returned to South Africa, intermittently, after the unbannings of 1990, but his critical eye never left his home for long.

Writing Home showcases Nkosi’s wit, irony and moral toughness. In it, he assesses a range of leading writers, including Herman Charles Bosman, Breyten Breytenbach, JM Coetzee, Athol Fugard, Nadine Gordimer, Bessie Head, Alex la Guma, Bloke Modisane, Es’kia Mphahlele, Nat Nakasa, Njabulo S Ndebele, Alan Paton and Can Themba.

The following excerpt is taken from a chapter titled “How I Write”.

Enjoy!

* * * * *

How I Write
from wordsetc: South African Literary Journal, First Quarter, 2011

It is not so long ago that European modernists, especially in France, used to say that when we read literature writing is everything. When we read books or listen to stories, we have access to the world through words or the word made flesh, as the Bible put it. The mystery, of course, is how something that seems as immaterial as words can be made flesh.

Recently, I twice broke into tears over the death of two fictional characters during a re-reading of a novel and a play; first over Anna’s death in Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s famous novel, and then over Cleopatra’s suicide in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. In both works the two women commit suicide over love affairs that have gone badly wrong. Shakespeare’s character is, of course, supposed to be based on a true historical personage, but reading about her in a historical textbook had left me more or less indifferent. So what was it about reading the play about ‘The Serpent of Egypt’ dying defiantly in the throes of love, and trying to avoid humiliation in the hands of the Roman imperialists, that so moved me to tears? Cleo’s pride, her revulsion at being dragged triumphantly through the streets of Rome, achieves a height of sublimity in her self-induced death by the bite of a snake.

Some modernist theorists have sometimes gone so far as to suggest that writing is all, and they claim that beyond writing itself, there is nothing. Maurice Blanchot, then Roland Barthes and, certainly, Jacques Derrida became famously associated with the view that there was ‘nothing outside the text’.

In these discussions, society and the material world are sometimes grandly referred to as the real. The material world is seen as the very ‘outside’ of writing. But is it really? Is the real world that ‘outside’ of what we do when we write and are the effects that writing provokes so beyond comprehension?

After all, my tears shed over two women at the very limit of their despair, over Cleopatra’s suicide and Anna’s death, ground under the wheels of a railway train, were real enough; but how does the creation of illusion manage to produce such real effects? Sympathy, you will say. Empathy. A bit of psychology that goes some way to explain the mystery of the effects upon us of artistic representation, but psychology finally explains nothing.

When it comes to wielding a pen or a brush, how does the manipulation of words or paint finally bring them into contact with the real? It remains a mystery. The mirror is often used as a metaphor, but it is an inexact, even a misleading, metaphor.

The problem of ‘an inside that searches for an outside’ is not confined to art, but extends to questions of political representation. Not surprisingly, critiques of modernity, as two political scientists have told us, reside ‘where the blackmail of bourgeois realism is refused’, going beyond what already exists. Writers certainly and the world or the real resistant to any attempt to capture it through words.

I imagine the same is true of painters and sculptors. In artistic representation, ‘mirroring’ reality became a political issue with the arrival of modernity and the question of political representation. Consequently, what is called ‘true’ representation of reality is linked to the question of ‘authenticity’.

In black America and black South Africa what became prized above everything else in literature was referred to as ‘truth-telling’.

The joke and the irony is the attempt by white South African writers to ‘authenticate’ their works by trying to capture the reality of township life, of which they knew very little, while dismissing the parables of fellow writers such as JM Coetzee as far removed from this ‘reality’.

Nadine Gordimer’s rise to literary pre-eminence was based primarily on the perception in London and New York that she was able to describe life as it was lived by ‘real people’, black and white, in South Africa, but most importantly by black people in the township. When being questioned on Dutch television whether she felt comfortable about describing life in the township when she did not live there, she angrily retorted that she had at least slept for one night in the township!

Gordimer’s problem can thus be seen as the reverse of the black writers who created the so-called ‘township novel’. Not all but many of them began to think it was enough to have lived in the township to produce good novels about township life; craft could look after itself.

For me, writing is primarily a struggle with language; words refusing to be made ‘flesh’. When Shakespeare writes: ‘Full fathom five thy father lies / Of his bones are corals made!’, while I know that English people in the sixteenth century did not really speak like this, I find the lines true because of their music: that alliteration of the ‘f’ sound convinces me that a certain man lay in the depths of the sea as truly as if his body had been detected by laser beams.

What is Anna Karenina to me that I should weep for her? Why do I mourn Cleopatra?

A lot of it has to do with how words are put together. The rest is a mystery.

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