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We spoke with South African novelist and journalist Masande Ntshanga about fictionalizing social crisis, his country’s literary generations, and the ghettoization of its writers.
Fulbright scholar and winner of the inaugural PEN International New Voices Award in 2013, Masande Ntshanga (b. 1986) has emerged as one of the brightest young South African talents. His debut novel, The Reactive, tells the story of an HIV positive man who, along with two friends, sells anti-retroviral drugs on the black market. Along the way he bears witness to Cape Town’s socio-economic disparities, and himself braves the storm of his cultural identity. The Reactive was called “the hottest literary debut of 2014” by Cape Town alternative newspaper City Press, and has been published in both the US, with a UK edition forthcoming. Ntshanga’s work has appeared in VICE, n+1, The White Review, and Rolling Stone. We emailed Ntshanga a few questions about the book, its reception and his future and influence as a South Africa writer.
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The Reactive brought to light the troubles of drug use and AIDS in South Africa, as well as inflections of tradition (circumcision). Could you talk a bit about the cultural context of the novel and what inspired you to put it into fiction?
I wanted to write about the country in a way that wouldn’t only capture what feels like its contemporary moment, but would also speak to the history that informs that moment. Having decided that, I had to take into account that South Africa—given its fragmented nature as a society—necessitates that historical narratives, especially Grand Narratives, are contested almost as a matter of course. In other words, they can’t be accepted wholesale, but rather, approached with an air of questioning and even re-evaluation.
In the end, I chose 2003 because I wanted to explore—both in the contemporary moment and the historical moment that preceded it—ideas around individual autonomy within the state (through public health policy and access to pharmaceuticals), the tension that arises when traditional rites are set up against modernization (through Xhosa circumcision and urbanization), and finally, the sense of disillusionment that fell on our national narrative over the past twenty odd years (through those who were amongst the first to probe and discover that the promise of an unencumbered post-apartheid future remained unfounded).
Do you see your generation of writers as separate from the post-Apartheid generation? What do you see as its trademarks?
Even though, for the most part, “post-apartheid” is still used to prefix a lot of the writing that comes out in the present—because, I suppose, it’s an era or a state of being that persists—I do like to imagine that there are certain distinctions that exist between some of the writing taking place now and the writing that took place sixteen years ago. In terms of trademarks, it might be too early to say, but I suppose I feel closest to being part of a generation for whom certain things can be taken for granted as public knowledge for the reader, or knowledge within their reach, at least.
It isn’t so much the writer’s role to translate the country, or even a particular city, as was the case in the recent past, but rather, to immerse the reader in a particular rendition of a smaller and more personal context. One that can be drawn on from what the writer has seen, experienced or taken on as inspiration in the hopes that, in the end, this small narrative grows to offer something vital—but necessarily unique and singular—about the country as a whole.
You’ve become one of the most talked about writers in SA and have written journalism for a number of international culture magazines and you’ve also obtained a Fulbright. How have these success and opportunities guided your evolution as a writer?
Thank you. I think that besides the boost I got from it in material terms, it’s given me the room I’ve always wanted to follow a vision that was more personal—and grew from my own pre-occupations—as opposed to one that responded to the market in some direct or indirect way. I mean, as a young writer, there’s something affirming in receiving praise from artists as singular as Sjón and Alain Mabanckou—writers one not only admires, but who’ve truly created and occupied lanes of their own. It’s also been a good way to keep in touch with the international writing community, which is how I came to writing fiction in the first place—through reading widely and from anywhere I could.
It’s been interesting to me that writers such as Coetzee and Gordimer remain the most known SA writers, despite a long history of your country’s literature. I’m wondering if you feel that there is a ghettoization of SA writers in English literature? Do you feel that you’ve had uphill battles in order to be successful that that writers from the US or UK might not have to worry about?
To some degree, I’d have to agree. I think it could be said to be a global problem. It’s no secret that most of the world’s cultural infrastructure is put to use in service of upholding the Center’s imagination, rather than that of the marginalized; and that we all lose out in some vital way as readers from this imbalance.
In my view, it doesn’t have that much to do with the quality of the work, per se—which is important, of course, but which we’ll take for granted, here, for the sake of argument—but rather with its desirability as seen through the dictates of the marketplace: i.e. its desirability as influenced by 1) how much it reflects the appearance of the Center, 2) how much it upholds the worldview of the Center, and 3) how much, if it comes from the Other, it centralizes the gaze of the Center in evaluating itself.
In terms of uphill battles, it’s common that you’ll encounter challenges in sales if you eschew the above points, for example, but it’s also true that books often do go against them and still find a way to connect to their readers, regardless.
Who are some of your contemporaries that you are excited about?
Songeziwe Mahlangu. His debut novel Penumbra came out in 2013.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a second novel, right now, that deals with the collapse of the homeland system in South Africa, specifically the Ciskei, while also using science fiction and an experimental structure to explore ideas around time and contemporary sexuality.