Now and again I come across an article that I read and reread, if only to understand why I am uneasy as I read it.
Michael Titlestad's "The pitfalls of literary debut" (Sunday Times, 25 March 2007) reminds me of Fred Khumalo's "Free at last, but slow to fly" (Sunday Times, 21 August 2005). While coming from disparate positions, they essentially argue from a similar vantage point by implying that the relative success of post-apartheid black writing is deceptive. And while Khumalo and Titlestad whine about writers who seem bent on telling the readers about the hardships of being black, the irony of their positions regarding Room 207 is that Titlestad dislikes it and Khumalo likes it! ("Book of the Week", http://www.sundaytimes.co.za/article.aspx?ID=32421).
As I have not yet had the pleasure of reading Gerald Kraak's Ice in the Lungs, my response will be confined to Room 207 by discounting Titlestad's objections to it.
Quite by chance, I recently had the pleasure of reading Room 207, and what struck me forcibly about the narrative was the manner in which it kept reminding me of Phaswane Mpe's Welcome to our Hillbrow. The odd turn of phrase here, an observation there reminded me that both writers come from Limpopo. They write about Hillbrow, and both show how the urban setting in which the characters find themselves has very little to do with the Ipi Tombi-esque narrative of the transplanted and thus bewildered "native".
But this thesis refuses to go away, and its latest advocacy was quite recently published in a letter by Dan Roodt (The Star, March 28, 2007). The books chart the lives of the characters and show fault lines regarding the perceived dreams and the unlikely outcomes as life's verisimilitudes interfere with what was carefully hoped for, at least by their main characters. Kgebetle Moele shows another reality inherent in some other art forms that Mpe only touches on as he concentrates on Refentše's misfortunes. In Moele, the characters of Noko, Matome, S'busiso, Molamo, D'Nice and Modishi interact; they live communally, and have both plans and strategies for achieve them.
This is the immediacy that Titlestad writes of, and I for one see very little wrong with such a structure, for Moele is intent on writing a text that is completely different from Mpe's celebrated one, yet looking at similar situations in which young black South Africans find themselves.
Mpe's key concerns of education and advancement are refracted in Room 207 by the manner in which the characters in the text do not rely solely on education, but are survivors who respond to the harsh reality of Hillbrow, and therefore Johannesburg, on their own terms. Hillbrow here is shown as drug-infested, with huge networks involving prostitution amid the squalor, and decaying infrastructure.
Moele, paying homage to Mpe, does not give readers the same distance we find in Welcome, despite the attendant problems: he moves the reader into the squalor, the smells of the place, and the minute observations of the place reminiscent of Alex la Guma's mise en scène technique. In this, the transmutation of film technique into literary technique, we are exposed to a crucial ability: an ability to address both the intellect and emotions.
Moele further eschews the elegiac nature of Welcome and the near mystical narration, its multiple settings resulting in a spiralling narrative that separates and then conflates times present, past and future, and themes of xenophobia and witchcraft. He focuses instead on the locals in one domicile, whose living and loving together in close proximity strips them of notions of private spaces. They bring with them their own stereotypes, but in the text the banter regarding ethnic identities has little to do with misrepresentation since it is the characters themselves who revel in the received conceptions of themselves.
Why does the omniscient narrator of Ways of Dying readily depict Zulu men and "The Tribal Chief" in the manner that he does, and Titlestad does not accuse Mda of ethnicity, but sees ethnicity everywhere in Moele's book? What Titlestad seems to miss is the wry humour in which these stereotypes are now used to poke fun at a multiplicity of ethnicities in one space without necessarily running "wild". Have we hardly moved from the criticism of Can Themba's "Mob Passion", of which David Maughn-Brown alleged that it "denigrates" Black people, and one that Njabulo Ndebele found unsustainable in his response ("The Ethics of Intellectual Combat", previously published in Current Writing, 1 1989: 23–35.)? Is Titlestad really unaware of this article? As the narrator recognises in one instance of inter-ethnic love: "The Zulu-boy loved the Swazi-girl in ways that I didn't understand, but that's just how our lives are: you don't have to understand everything" (118). With such evident limitations, Titlestad can never understand why it makes sense for some Zulu people to call non-Zulus izilwane.
When Titlestad adds that the text lacks a plot and character development, he imposes aesthetic considerations of his own. I mean, was Moele interested in writing about life in Hillbrow, or was he keen to reproduce, say, Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place (1981) in a local setting, or show Hillbrow as the place where, for some, dreams come to die and for some to flourish? Was he not interested in an exploration of communal bonds, showing in turn the evanescent nature of friendship in a neighbourhood where characters are on some hustle, hence the structuring of the text?
Comparisons between the two texts are in order. In The Women of Brewster Place, Mattie Michael, Etta Mae Johnson, Kiswana "Melanie" Browne, Luciela Louise Turner, Cora Lee, Lorraine and Theresa all ultimately leave, but – crucially – they take with them the remains of unrealised dreams and desires. In both texts, place acts as metaphor for the characters' larger strivings and yearnings: maimed souls searching for solace in Brewster Place, and souls in the process of being maimed in Room 207.
The two authors pay particular attention to the gender orientations of the characters, and thus the settings are made to speak through the characters, with sanctuary in one seen as opportunism in the other. Each of the settings in turn confirms the characters' economic statuses, limiting the choices they can make as a result of their race, and each novel lacks a clearly defined "plot".
The similarities really ought to end here. The Women of Brewster Place might rightly be seen as a novel of seven stories in which all the characters articulate their lives in their own voices, whereas in Room 207 the focaliser is Noko, from whose perspective all things flow, even as his flaw concerning the "Jewish Channel" is taken by Titlestad as evidence of the narrator's ingrained ethnicity. Perhaps reading about Michelle, a young, rich Jewish character drawn to D'Nice and seen strutting about in the room full of young black (therefore virile) South Africans in her underwear proves too much for Titlestad!
How is the text, in part, a rewriting of Welcome by Mpe?
The setting of this now "suspect" novel is Hillbrow, which is the same setting for Welcome, Yizo Yizo in its second season, the play Cards, and the television series Gaz'lam. How is the representation of Hillbrow in Room 207 different from the stylistics of Yizo Yizo and Gaz'lam, Welcome and Cards? Consider, for instance, that:
a) In the second season of Yizo Yizo, Thiza and Bobo, and Gunman, are depicted in one of the scenes waking up next to each other, demonstrating that for them this is home and that they share this space. Nothing unusual in this act if one considers the straitened living quarters of the single-sex hostels of old. One of them, Gunman/Bazooka, acquires HIV/AIDS and provides us with his "Z3" explanation regarding his weakened self. Thiza becomes attracted to Thapelo and Bobo ends up working as a puppet outside a chicken shop, again demonstrating choices of sexual orientation and the limited economic choices of the characters.b) How is the treatment of women in the text that he complains about and set in Hillbrow (un)related to the misogyny of the play Cards directed by Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom? Does the explicit nature of the graphic scenes from Cards subtract from the inherent message that without any chance of earning a living, the human being is a unit of production for those involved in organising, and making a living out of, women who, just like Noko, come from the rural areas with all manner of dreams that somehow fail to materialise? The reviewer for [email protected], Malena Amusa, wrote that "Cards is full of it: women abused physically because they refuse to have sex without a condom; poor children resorting to using their bodies in exchange for shelter; jaded hookers on junk; a radical hooker who enjoys her work – the list goes on. With no single message to convey about the lives he portrays, Grootboom succeeds in teaching a lesson about inner-city risk. Ultimately, one has to think more than just, 'as long as I'm not a prostitute' ...” (www.chico.mweb.co.za/art/2005/2005may/050513-cards.html).c) In what ways are the dreams of urban youths treated any differently in Room 207 from Gaz'lam – directed by Barry Berk - in the characters of Sifiso and Khetiwe, amongst others? And how can Titlestad simply say, "the novel is a window on a world commonly hidden from view, particularly the view of middle-class white South Africans" when the television series ran some two to three years ago to critical acclaim? Nicole Temkin writes of the show that: "The series charts the journey of Sifiso (Siyabonga Shibe) from rural KwaZulu-Natal, where he leaves his true love, Khetiwe (Mbali Ntuli) – who has been promised in marriage to the village chief – and joins his cousin Welile (Sipho Mzobe) in the big city. There Sifiso makes his choices confronted by all the temptations, pitfalls and various lifestyles that Jo'burg has to offer" (www.chico.mweb.co.za/art/2002/2002nov/021108-soaps.html, emphasis added).
This last thematic concern joins all the examples provided above. Would Titlestad extend his censorship, as is implicit in his article, to these art forms which also, by the way, work with immediacy of representation? Or would he continue as Professor of Literature only, not realising or caring how these other art forms have grappled with the harsh realities visited on the inhabitants of Hillbrow, beginning with the television film The Line in 1995, and how they mediate the this terrain with greater degrees of emphasis and clarity?
Despite strenuous objections even from conservative South African parliamentarians, Tebogo Matlatsi's Yizo Yizo went on to demonstrate the importance of authentic representation, and Cards has just finished a run in the State Theatre in Pretoria/Tshwane. At no point was the form of authentic representation in either film or play regarded as reprehensible. Why does Titlestad insist that the view of white middle-class South Africans be privileged in assessing texts that intensify what other art forms have done, art forms he so eloquently shuns while still wishing to be in judgement of those that expand in minute detail on what it means to be black, poor and living in Hillbrow today?
Where has our illustrious judge been all this time? For when it comes to Room 207 the "gritty post-apartheid reality" is mocked, the misogyny conflated with the author, together with the "tribal" nature of the characters. The text is represented as "shapeless pastiche" by a self-confessed "middle-aged white academic", one who was taught by "astute critics of African and other postcolonial literatures". Despite his African literature credentials, there is silliness in Titlestad's subject position disclaimer here precisely because nowhere in his article does he attempt to reflect on the kind of cyclicality, hopelessness and lack of plotting one finds in Room 207 with a similar message in, say Thomas Akare's The Slums (1981).
Titlestad's reasons for mocking the text cannot be left unchallenged, reminding us as they do of the unevenness of our past of privilege and under-privilege. Coming up with his "race" to explain away his musings even before the competition is over is a trite excuse. There is no point in using one's "race" to explain what comes across as reprehensible rehearsed postures of conviction: “I am white, ditto I cannot understand poverty and the dreams of these natives, their mode of living, the treatment of women - it's all too much for me." This is akin to saying he does not like the text because he is not black and therefore only black people would find to their liking. To resort to one's "privileged" education as yet one more reason for dismissing the text, as though only the privileged of his ilk must then know what represents good literature, is so 1970s, so Ullyatt!
More to the point, Titlestad is subtly railing against what he sees as the development of "the democratic dictatorship of mediocrity" (after Carol Iannone). When he claims that it "seems accepted as orthodox that no white critic is permitted to be critical of new black writing" he wishes to clinch his already flawed argument, because, first, he posits this accepted orthodoxy without saying why it seems so, and second, he completely ignores the fact that others, such as Annie Gagiano, have rated the text highly.
Kelwyn Sole and the late Nick Visser wrote incisive essays on To Every Birth its Blood by Mongane Serote. Did they, too, do so with full consideration of their "race"? Do "white" academics now require permission to be critical? Since when is this normative, and towards whom are they to genuflect for this permission?
I have yet to come across any "white" critic who discounts the grittiness of Welcome with the same vitriol visited on Room 207. And yet, scrutinised closely enough, Welcome it is not that far removed from Room 207 with its reliance on melodrama, the intricate insider cultural knowledge and a smidgen of popular culture. However, it differs from Room 207 in that it insists on a sometimes wearisome intermingling of the characters' lives, and in that all the characters are deliberately disposed of by the author, with those who die earlier in the narrative being able to view the lives of the living from a transcendental space, whereas in the latter the characters actually achieve various levels of commercial and relational emancipation and failure.
The strain of economic survival by any means in Room 207 is what lifts it above the merely sensational. While living so close to one another, no one allows their secret desires to show; everyone keeps their counsel even as they brag of how they will eventually make it.
We do not know how Matome achieves his stupendous success through Brain Records, and yet we see the effects of such wealth on him (and he is deliberately the most secretive of the lot); we do know that S'busiso is up and about, but are not privy to his inner workings, except that he later acquires "the three names" and invites Noko to his own funeral. The morose Modishi, a borderline psychotic, cannot change, simply because he got married to Lerato and thus panders to character development. And Molamo, the failed writer, ultimately succumbs to Tebogo's refusal to live life by his dictates.
In contradistinction to what is portrayed in Welcome, Moele shows us (primarily) single-sex living conditions unalloyed by sensibilities and niceties of individualistic and professorial class that Mpe articulates, which is a key point to the "room" itself. Noko's final departure is not a celebration, but a heartfelt disaster in his eyes: he has failed where others have succeeded to varying degrees.
So while Welcome ultimately comes to celebrate Hillbrow as dynamic and clear-sighted in its expressions, and where people might just survive, and the lack of prejudice they aspire to, Room 207 avoids saccharine preachments for reality. In this sense I read the texts as complementary rather than antagonistic, with the latter paying homage to a literary ancestor.
I should also add that Annie Gagiano's questions regarding the issue at hand are important (Sunday Times, letter to the editor, 01 April 2007). Her first question she poses relates to the ethical implications of a judge in a literary competition singling out two particular texts (and an editor and publisher) as examples of how not to write and what not to publish. Gagiano should also have asked: In what way can a judge of a literary competition commit the cardinal error of discussing texts under consideration with readers while still involved in the judging process? As he eloquently says in the third paragraph: “I am in the process of judging a literary award …” Then to go on and disparage some of the competition constitutes grounds for dismissal; if he is serious, he should recuse himself from the rest of the process and hopefully pocket the honorarium.
It stands to reason that writers need to be assisted in the technical aspects of their manuscripts, and it would be foolish to have an argument with this observation. It makes sense if the publisher wishes to make the right decision and come out with a good text. However, even in an endoglossic society such as South Africa there will be writers working with editors and publishers who will come to a realisation that their work is being wrested from them. That is a problem of linguistic plurality, and not one of allowing the authors to publish works without the so-called "path of frustration and travail". This smug assertion ignores serious structural imbalances even at the level of literary appreciation in the depressed communities (read: lacking resources, underprivileged). How many black writers have MAs in creative writing? Equally, just how many copy editors working in the publishing houses are competent in the language(s) of their authors? How many academics specialising in literature would agree to read for a publishing house for free, nogal? Here the need is for intervention at the level of craft, but not for censorship.
We might further ask: How many academics, approached by a young aspirant author, would sacrifice time to read through and recommend changes to the manuscript of those without money, as part of their social responsiveness duties? How many might agree to conduct writers' workshops in depressed areas if the National Arts Council changed its policy and made provision for such ventures? Es'kia Mphahlele routinely conducted writers' workshops from the 1960s to the 1980s and developed texts such as A Guide to Creative Writing (1966), Let's Write a Novel: A Guide (1981), Let's Talk Writing: Prose: a guide for writers (1987) and Let's Talk Writing: Poetry: a guide to writers (1987). For it makes little sense to accept gleefully the judging aspect of literary appreciation and ultimate canonisation of some texts, as Titlestad has already started doing, but fail to help those who may need help early on. Grandstanding about the texts of young writers' debut novels without thinking of ways of ameliorating the very paths of frustration and travails so easily recommended is rehearsed posturing, which, alas, seems to go quite well with being selected to be a judge of a literary competition and from which a judge might choose, in the process of making pronouncements, to discuss some of the texts prior to concluding their mandate. In effect, the judge becomes a “Taste Manager”. Titlestad has broken the rules of cultural play in awarding prizes regarding South African literature. In effect, he rubbishes questions of etiquette and protocol and replaces these with negative affirmation.
Concerning the judges in particular, in his monograph The Economy of Prestige: Prizes, Awards and the Circulation of Cultural Value, James F English eloquently writes:
It would be a great mistake to imagine prize judges as cynical. But this does not mean that their work is free of self-interest or beyond any economic reckoning. In fact, the two views are merely obverse and inverse of the same fundamental misconception of the relation between habitus and field, a relation which normally secures a “good fit” between one's genuine inclinations, one's designated role, and one's best opportunities for advancement. Judges routinely list their appointment to a prize jury on their résumés or their biographical blurbs, counting it as a credential and an index of status. While their involvement with the prize is not a matter of performing work in exchange for payment, it is an economic transaction insofar as they lend or invest their prestige, put it into circulation, in order to realize a return. The prize itself also realizes part of the total return, profiting symbolically from the transaction. (2005:122)