Hello friends. I continue to read Black South African novels. Wait, did I even mention this was something I’d started doing? I’m not sure. I read both of Es’Kia Mphaplele’s Penguin Classics: In Corner B and Down Second Avenue. I read Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka. I read Peter Abraham’s Wreath for Udomo, which is his roman a clef about the African revolutionaries he knew–Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, and Kwame Nkrumah.
Black South African literature is quite different even from other Sub-Saharan literatures, mostly because white South African literature has achieved so much worldwide recognition. There are two white South African nobel prize winners. And, of the rest, Olive Shreiner and Lauren Beukes are much more famous than any Black South African writer. The struggle also went on much longer and was more intimate in South Africa than in other regions.
Which is to say, Black South African literature remained a protest literature for a very long time, something that critic Njabulo Ndebele railed against in his book Rediscovery of the Ordinary, which I also read.
The thing is, I like protest novels. I think they’re a genre that can be aesthetically pleasing, like everything else. It’s a bit odd, because I’m one of the least political queer writers I know, but I enjoy a good overtly political novel! A protest novel usually isn’t that morally complex. Or when it is, the complexity can come off as schmalzy and false. Like in Alan Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country (which seems to be the South African novel most disliked by other Black South Africans), the novel goes out of his way to humanize the white South Africans, and you end up feeling like this is a racism with no racists. And the ending is bizarre–it implies that all you need is scientific farming techniques and Black people can achieve prosperity!
But in a good protest novel, you find ways of telling a story within the framework of this social evil. So in Wreath for Udomo, you have the eponymous hero’s struggle to maintain power, after he becomes President, without compromising his principles. Or in the first few stories in In Corner B you have the complex relations between white employers and Black employees, as in the case where a white farmer purposefully pushes and alienates his critically-needed Black overseer, simply because the white farmer needs to feel in control. The truth is, the world does contain many unambiguously evil and immoral situations, and there’s no harm in using those situations to provide emotional heft to the book, so long as you’re able to find complexity and nuance somewhere.
This is something I think about myself, as I write trans YA novels. There is no way I can portray these anti-trans laws as sensible or well-meaning. They’re unambiguously evil. And I’m also not simply going to ignore their existence or the harm they do to kids. But within this world, it’s still possible to tell good stories that don’t just boil down to: “a bad evil thing exists and is bad.”
I think that’s what draws me the most to Black South African literature–that overwhelming need to address “the race question” while still maintaining your artistic integrity.
That being said, the best novel I’ve read recently is Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka, which was written in Basotho, the language they speak in Lesotho (so clearly not for a white audience) and takes place before white settlement and has no white people in it. The book is entirely a morality tale about the rise of Chaka Zulu. In the story, Chaka, who is initially (much like a young Genghis Khan!) rejected by his own tribe, eventually gets revenge, with the help of a sorceror, Isanusu. And the sorcerer keps telling him, you should stop now and enjoy what you have, because if you want bigger kingship, it’ll cost you everything you love and hold dear, and Chaka keeps being like, I don’t care. Here’s an example (Noliwa is Chaka’s betrothed):
[Isanusu said] ‘Very well then. Think well and decide which you will choose: the kingship you now have which you may enjoy in the company of Noliwa, and the one which surpasses it, but without Noliwa. To make this quite clear to you let me tell you that there is a kingship which surpasses what you have by f ar, but you cannot obtain it without killing Noliwa, you, Chaka, with your own hand.’ Isanusi laughed and said: ‘Today, Chaka, we are teaching you witchcraft, how sorcerers kill their own children or their parents in order to ensure that they shall be efficient in their sorcery.’
Chaka, when he was all by himself and thought about Noliwa, and about the kingship just described, found that Noliwa was as nothing, and he further told himself that in a kingdom so big he would, without a doubt, find many beautiful girls, or even one more beautiful by far than Noliwa. For that reason he decided to make her the most efficacious component of his medicines. As soon as they met that evening Chaka said: ‘To tell you the truth, in this world there isn’t anything I love other than kingship, war, and commanding armies. Therefore I will give you Noliwa in order to remove any stumbling block from the path leading to my kingship. I have considered this matter and concluded: the medicines will be mixed with Noliwa’s blood.’
It’s a great novel, a true work of art in every way, precisely because it shows us a Chaka who is evil and bloodthirsty, while also being a great man. And maybe, in fact, his greatness cannot be separated from his murderousness.
Also worth mentioning is Muriel at the Metropolitan by Miriam Tlali. The book is a slice of life portrait of a Black clerk working at a radio repair shop in Johannesburg. I enjoyed its portrayal of the complex social dynamics of ordinary working life, but it did drag a little because there’s no story. The book is more easily available under the much inferior title Between The Lines
I read Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow for a book club. When the book opened I had the same “This book is meant for me and nobody else” feeling that I usually only get from novels about trans women. Nerdy, half-Korean Sam just seemed so much like me, so full of inchoate longings, things he couldn’t bring himself to say. He’s also about my age and played mostly the same games that I played!
But the book dragged. About a fifth of the way through, I was like, I get it: Sam and Sadie have a complex relationship–a creative partnership–and because their relationship is so undefined and doesn’t have a societal analogue, they continually struggle with their obligations to each other (do they have any? To what extent?) They squabble and feud, but they also know that this relationship is important and make a continual effort to come back together. I get it. I understand the book.
And yeah, that’s essentially what happened. The book could’ve been a novella. Instead it’s a rather long novel. But I forced myself to keep reading it (I listened to the audio book at 3.5x speed), and I enjoyed the wistful feelings it aroused–the memory of all the friends I’ve had who meant so much to me, and who I don’t see often anymore. I’m glad the book exists, but I do think it was wildly overwritten, to the point where it came off as episodic and soap operatic rather than a cohesive story.
As far as I can tell, organization is just a slightly more sophisticated form of procrastination. When you procrastinate, you avoid the work. But when you organize, you dream that you’re making the work better and more efficient (as a way of avoiding the work).
I’ve always been very into organization. I used to keep a detailed log of how much writing I did every day, which eventually expanded into me having fields where I recorded all kinds of random stuff, like whether I’d used Facebook or Twitter that day. I eventually stopped the whole thing when I realized that it wasn’t making me any more productive, and it wasn’t fun anymore.
Since then I’ve toyed with different productivity systems. I like to organize my files, even though they always sprawl out and get messy again. I have various systems for organizing my signed contracts, even though ultimately I always end up just searching “XXX contract” in Gmail when I need to refer to one.
Now I’ve gotten back into organizing, using Obsidian–a powerful markdown text editor that’s mostly used as a note system, but is just a great tool for storing any kind of text that’s less than novel-length. I spend hours downloading and configuring the right plug-ins, making everything just so. For instance, the core of Obsidian (at least the way many people use it) is the daily note, where you store everything that occurs to you on such and such day (I write my blog posts in the daily note, for instance). But you can have the Daily Note pre-filled with certain information, if you use a template. So I configured mine to tell me what tasks I have to do today and what tasks I’ve already completed today, etc. All this takes hours of fiddling around with query languages and looking through the plug-in documentation on GitHub.
But you can’t work all the time! That’s the strange thing. Somehow, no matter what, without much pushing, and with no crunch time, no long nights, no weekends, the work always gets done.
There’s only one real task-management principle I’ve needed, which is to start a task as soon as I get it. And I mean literally just start, just do a few minutes of work on it. Then I can put it away for weeks or even months. But somehow as the due date approaches, the task floats back to the top and it gets finished. This is something I literally read in some SEO content-mill article, but it really works. Once something is started, something in you always wants to finish it.
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