“South African people should read more South African and African fiction before reading anything else”

The five-writer shortlist for the Caine Prize for African writing was announced recently. Young South African writer, LIDUDUMALINGANI MQOMBOTHI is included on the list for his short story, Memories We Lost. It’s a story about mental health, with other themes coming into play. He spoke to Mbali Phala about his name and writing.

The following day the entire village gathered outside our house for yet another ritual meant to cure my sister. She had been through all these rituals and church sermons and nothing had changed. Each time sangomas and pastors promised that she would be healed within days. There was once, at least according to the elders, a glimpse of these sangomas healing. The tobacco, meat and matches that had been put in the rondavel for the ancestors to take at night, in one of the many rituals, were not there by morning, leading them to believe that the ancestors had healed her. It was not long after that this thing came again, proving that the tobacco, meat and matches had simply been stolen by thieves.
– excerpt from Memories We Lost

It’s important for black people to write, beyond short stories. We cannot read about ourselves from the writing of others. If we do this, we will always read a semblance of ourselves that is distorted and not nuanced. Even more important is to produce literature that defies the narratives that black writers are expected and coerced into writing about ourselves.

My name, Lidudumalingani, means “there is thunder but no rain”. That’s a literal translation but I’m always reluctant to answer what it means because it makes me feel like I am dismissing my name’s entire history and the history of my people. The literal translation does not capture its depth. I grew up in Zikhovane Village in the Transkei where I herded cattle, moulded goats from clay and later grew fond of words and images. I am fascinated by the way with which we can make use of words and visuals to ask questions, to wonder the strange, the familiar, to attempt to figure out things and to put them together.

My short story was inspired by a combination of things. The first might have been mental illness, or at least the way in which villagers speak and deal with it. Then there were conversations with friends, texts and visuals that suddenly were on my radar, memories of extended family members who struggled with mental illness – many of them on and off and at varying degrees.

Writing has enabled me to do several things: to wonder about things, to question, to interrogate, to meet people, to pay attention to people and to explore the deeper workings of things. Being shortlisted for the Caine Prize has been an overwhelming feeling. It keeps getting reignited every time I meet someone and they congratulate me on the achievement or there’s a notification from my social media accounts. The greatness of the Caine Prize is in that it thrusts one’s writing into the world far more forcefully than any other platform. Suddenly, a lot more people are interested in reading your work and want to know what you are working on, and that is great. To paraphrase [rapper] JR, it makes the circle of reading bigger.

I’m often asked how I hope the reader feels or reacts to the story, but honestly, I do not have such hopes. I only hope the reader reads the story unhurried. I am, however, interested in how people feel and find the story, but I want to play no part in that process.

I think South African people should read more South African and African fiction before reading anything else. There seems to be a growing list of new black writers being published at the moment and this is encouraging. I wish to see an independent publisher that focuses on young black South African writers and is willing to take risks, not with a new author but with reinventing old ideas about the novel.

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