The Xhosa literary revival

Mphuthumi Ntabeni

The writer Mphuthumi Ntabeni's new novel explores the deep history of colonialism and resistance in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa.

Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape Photo by Joshua Dixon on Unsplash

Interview by
Jeanne-Marie Jackson

When cooped-up critics and writers connect on social media, their conversations often demand more room. Such was the case in my correspondence with Mphuthumi “Mpush” Ntabeni, which migrated to various messenger platforms before finding its stride on email. We read each other’s books; we related them to other books; we grew an unlikely discussion of Catholic conversion narratives from a deep love of South African intellectual history. Talking to Ntabeni, it is anyone’s guess how one body of texts will lead to another. He is a literary wanderer par excellence, and yet he is far from unmoored. Born and raised in Queenstown, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, he now resides in Cape Town, where he has continued to nurture a far-ranging knowledge of Xhosa history and culture. His first novel, The Broken River Tent, reconstitutes the perspective of a real-life 19th-century chief named Maqoma, of the amaRharhabe branch of amaXhosa who lived west of the Kei River, and were thus among the first African people to encounter white settlers when they arrived on the Cape’s Eastern shores. Ntabeni’s book uses retrospective narration framed by present-day dialogue to offer a Xhosa point of view on that violent encounter, which gave rise to the century-long period of the Xhosa or Cape Frontier Wars (1779-1879) against the British and the Boers.

Published by South Africa’s Blackbird Books imprint in 2018, The Broken River Tent won the debut category of the University of Johannesburg Prize for South African Writing in English the following year. It is not an easy book to slip into: more of a series of conversational and historical collisions than a self-propelling plot, it pairs Maqoma with a contemporary figure named Phila to parse topics ranging from the relevance of psychoanalysis for Africans to the structure and material composition of frontier wagons. One could be forgiven here for recalling fellow South African J.M. Coetzee’s early novels (In the Heart of the Country, especially), owing not least to Phila’s “hyperanalytical” disposition. Ntabeni’s style, however, is marked not by the stymying force of endless self-reflection, but by the exuberance of a mind eager to unfurl its abundant stores. A single paragraph of the book moves rapidly from Steve Biko to Soren Kierkegaard to the biblical Job, with its dialogue lubricated by cheap whiskey. This is Ntabeni’s approach to fiction in a nutshell: high-octane and expansively informed.

This interview took place on Google Docs between Baltimore and Johannesburg, where Ntabeni has just settled into a four-month writer’s fellowship at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, housed at the University of Johannesburg. With lockdowns still in place internationally and his work on a third novel beginning in earnest, it seemed like the perfect time to present his ideas to the AIAC readership. What follows has been edited for clarity and flow.


JMJ

I’m glad we are finally getting around to this, Mpush—your novel was one of the first I read when the pandemic lockdowns started. I know that it’s intended to be part of a trilogy, so I’ll jump right in by asking you what it is that appeals to you about that format for this project. Are you intentionally in dialogue with other famous African trilogies? (Achebe, Mahfouz, and Dangarembga all come to mind, though Okri is perhaps the closest to The Broken River Tent in its merging of spiritual and historical concerns.) Or is there some intrinsic quality of the trilogy that you see your story as making use of?

MN

Well, I’m happy to be here and finally do this with you. Thanks for inviting me. The trilogy was not my original idea. Come to think of it, even writing a book was never my original intention. I was just eager to know about my own history and so I started researching it on my own. I knew very little about it because we had not really been taught it at school or at home. When I thought I had done enough and was even beginning to form my own opinions about it, I started asking myself how I could make other people aware of it, especially the ones directly affected by it, like myself. That is when the idea of the book came to mind. I didn’t want to just translate the material I found in the archives. I wanted to find a way of making that history live, resurrect it if you like, so that non-professional historians like myself would also be interested in it. There was also the issue of gaps in historical facts I found and wished to fill by what I call an “informed imagination,” that is, by inserting psychological and emotional energy into known or unknown historical facts without betraying their true spirit. In that way the genre of historical fiction chose me.

As for why this became a plan for a trilogy in particular, I realized at some point that I had accumulated too much historical data in my research. The task of tackling it through a narrative form became formidable. Then, one cold December day, while we were walking on the High Street of Edinburgh, my wife wanted to feed our daughter who was only a month old then. So, we left the snowy streets and quickly dashed into a restaurant for a meal, to give my wife also a chance to breastfeed the baby. As we sat there, looking through the window, I realized that we were sitting across from one of the places Tiyo Zisani Soga used to stay in while studying at the University of Edinburgh. (Note to readers: Tiyo Soga was a 19th-century South African intellectual best remembered for translating the bible and John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress into isiXhosa). Then the format of how to handle my research material came as a bolt of lightning to me. I would need to divide it into three thematic units: war, religion, and politics. The protagonist for the war section became obvious to me when I recalled that out of nine wars the amaXhosa fought with the British colonial government over 100 years, at least four of them were led by Maqoma, and he was physically present in five. This is why I used his biographical facts as the skeleton of my first book. Soga, the first Xhosa person to be educated in what we call Western education as a reverend, was also the obvious candidate for the religious section, which I’m currently busy with. And S.E.K Mqhayi (1875-1945), the poet, essayist, biographer, and newspaper editor during the foundations of political resistance that led to the foundation of the ANC, also became an obvious choice for me. I wish to call the trilogy “The River People,” and The Broken River Tent is its first installment.

My writing influences are myriad. In fact, I still consider myself an avid reader who acquired an opinion about the events of our history more than I consider myself to be a writer. I like that it is mostly my readers who make me aware of the literary influences on my writing, more than I do myself. I recall being surprised when a brilliant interviewer asked me if I considered The Broken River Tent to be magic realism. I honestly had never thought of it that way, but as I began doing so I saw her point, especially in the section when Maqoma gets a visit from Nxele in Robben Island. I suspect it is also the reason why you see Ben Okri’s influences on my writing, perhaps more with The Famished Road than any other of his works. The Chinua Achebe reference is understandable since we both write about the impact of colonialism on native culture and history. I also learnt a wonderful trick from him of titling books with lines from popular poets.

JMJ

I want to get back to Soga, so hold that thought. First, though, it also strikes me that you try, in The Broken River Tent, to approximate the cadences and “feel” of Xhosa speech as well as including passages of isiXhosa. This deliberate Africanization of English is often cited as one of Achebe’s key postcolonial innovations. Can you say a bit more about what this technique entailed, for you?

MN

I guess no one can bring forth an African voice in literature without adopting the African traditional style of speaking in proverbs and all. I don’t know how Achebe wrote his characters in his head, but I was deliberate in hearing Maqoma’s voice in Xhosa in mine, before translating it into English. This is why his English is different to that of other people in the novel, like Phila who has been educated in Western ways. I wanted Maqoma’s voice to have raw Xhosa intonations. I felt lucky in the sense that Xhosa is a singing language, so I wanted to translate that for non-Xhosa speakers so that they might be able to understand how the language, like most ancient and classical languages, sings. My sister says I Xhosalized English, and I find this phrase endearing. I was also happy that someone at least noticed the effort I tried to make with Maqoma’s voice. Much of it is acquired from a Xhosa imbongi style of praise singing. Mqhayi has been very helpful in my learning to acquire that voice. I also learn a lot from the Gaelic ancient languages, like Irish shamans and Scottish Picts, my other learning obsessions. I find a lot of commonality in how they infuse English with traits of their traditional languages, which is what gives them distinct and unique ways of speaking English mixed with their mother tongues. I’m afraid I’ll never stop bragging about the richness of the Xhosa language if you don’t stop me…

JMJ

Brag away! You fill me with regret that I didn’t stick with Xhosa beyond an intro course. And I think that you are onto something important, here, about the significance of your role as a specifically Xhosa novelist to the fractious tradition of South African literature broadly. Black South African writing is most often associated with the urban, the cosmopolitan, and the “modern,” from the trope of “Jim Comes to Joburg” in the mid-20th-century; through the “Drum generation” as it flourished in the 1960s; to the Soweto novels of the 1970s and 1980s; and right up to post-apartheid figures like Phaswane Mpe and K. Sello Duiker. And yet, as you suggest with your reference to Tiyo Soga, there is a much longer and less widely read history of culturally differentiated South African writing; it isn’t simply “English,” “Afrikaans,” and “Black,” as one often hears. I am thinking even of A.C. Jordan here, whose 1940 novel Wrath of the Ancestors, as you well know, deals not so much with overt questions of racial or national identity but with intra-cultural dynamics. The historical tensions within “Xhosaness” are also something you explore in The Broken River Tent. My question, then, is this: has South African literature reached a point where there is room for more prominent literary experimentation in a wider range of constituent traditions? What, in other words, is the relationship between Mpush Ntabeni the Xhosa novelist and Mpush Ntabeni the South African one?

MN

This is an interesting question that I doubt I’ll be able to answer, but I’m going to give it a go. I think all writing cultures that write in English, not as a mother tongue, or perhaps it is better to say those whose background is not necessarily Anglo-Saxon, have a love/hate relationship with the language. Though they understand its usefulness as a lingua franca, they tug on the leash of its dominance and hegemony. They also sometimes find it to be an insufficient means to express their own philological roots. I am not even talking about the language politics here, which Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o argues convincingly even though proper solutions still elude him also. I am talking about the sheer frustration of someone who has been raised and nurtured in say, German or Xhosa, with a much more comprehensive variety of words and phrases to transmit the spirit of their thoughts precisely and succinctly in their own language, and which often are not translatable to English. (Note to readers: The character of Phila in TBRT was educated in South Africa and Germany.) When writing The Broken River Tent, whenever I encountered that challenge, I chose to use the Xhosa or German phrase alongside what I regarded as a weak explanation of its meaning in English. I don’t see why I should rob words/phrases of the richness of their meaning just to serve the monolinguist.

To answer your question properly, though, the genius of the English language, why it became so popular, I think, is because it is adaptable. It gleans words from various languages to enrich its vocabulary. There’s no reason why that adaptability should only be limited to Germanic, Frank, and Latin languages when English is also spoken in Africa and Asia. South African literature therefore has no choice but to adapt also, it must grow its African roots, and those cannot only be limited to Afrikaans when this country has 11 official languages. Of course, the attitude of some gatekeepers within the publishing industry is not completely convinced about this. They still come with tendencies of recognizing only occidental trends as seeds of progress. But they’ll be compelled by the ruthless hand of necessity.

My going back to the roots of our literature, I mean beyond the so-called Drum Renaissance, was necessitated by my handling of our older historical material. I guess you can say it was serendipitous in that sense. But it was deliberate also. I feel the writings of the Drum generation are too American, black US American to be precise. I hold nothing against them doing what they needed to do with the tools at their disposal then. In fact, I dream of writing a literary biography of Bloke Modisane one day as my excuse to interrogate the zeitgeist of that era, but that’s a topic for another time. Then our cultural issues developed into political ones for the necessary expediency of our freedom. I think it incumbent on us now to revisit our unresolved cultural issues for the sake of mending our identity, especially the crucial parts that were vandalized by colonialism. Your Jordans and your Jolobes interest and influence me more because they were dramatizing Xhosa oral history. To date it is very difficult to distinguish between their writings and that of J.H. Soga, who wrote non-fiction books like The South-Eastern Bantu. J.J.R Jolobe and your Mqhayi dramatize that history in their books. Not only that, they also close the gaps by what I have called their informed imagination. Hence their narrative tonality is closer to the oral history and recitations by imbongi of the amaXhosa because they wrote closer to the transitional period when all that was changing. This is why at this moment of my writing they interest me more than the Drum generation. I find in them a certain Xhosa literary tradition that got truncated into the Americanized cosmopolitanism of the Drum era when our writers moved to the big cities. I wish to trace and follow that tradition. By the way, I was named by my paternal grandpa, who taught himself how to read through Jordan’s book. Hence, I am called Mphuthumi, after the wise counselor of the king in Ingqumbo Yeminyanya.

JMJ

This is a fascinating response, especially seeing as there are such tricky questions circulating right now about the uses and limitations of a US-originating racial vocabulary in articulating social justice claims within African contexts. I’m quite drawn to your idea of returning through reading and writing to a truncated but robust intranational tradition, veering off course from the more typical emphasis on South Africa’s international visibility during the apartheid years. It suggests a way of getting some intellectual distance from what can feel like overwhelmingly urgent political and cultural entanglements, at the same time as it speaks directly to some of their most prominent concerns: the decolonization of knowledge, black cultural reclamation, and language justice. In this way, The Broken River Tent is quintessential of the historical novel genre, reconstituting the past to advance crucial claims on the present. It also partakes in an ongoing “boom” of African historical fiction, appearing within the same few years as Fred Khumalo’s Dancing the Death Drill (2017), Ayesha Harrunah Atta’s The Hundred Wells of Salaga (2018), and Petina Gappah’s Out of Darkness, Shining Light (2019), to name just a few examples. The Broken River Tent, however, does something bold and unusual: it introduces Maqoma as a character in the present, while leaving what we might call his “historicity” intact (his speech, frames of reference, etc.). What motivated this choice, and how would you describe your particular (and wonderfully peculiar) re-engineering of the historical novel?

MN

In the first draft of my manuscript Maqoma was the one telling the story alone. It felt too monologic and like an excuse to retell historical events that affected his life. It was missing the element of clear impact on current events and the status quo of our history. I needed a way to visibly link our present status quo as consequences of those historical events. That is how Phila was born, a character that would not only ask questions to suss out what we need to know from history, but that would also provide a historical tour of the present-day situation to Maqoma and his past era. I am sure you’re aware of this trick from Dante, how he used the ancient poet, Virgil, as his tour guide to his imagined life after death. Because I wanted to talk about this life, I re-tooled that trick a little and made it so that it is Maqoma who comes back as an ancestor to help Phila in this life.

The idea of ancestors as guides for the living is prominent in Xhosa spirituality. Our culture is impatient with numinous things that only speculate about life after death with no bearing on the present situation. I’ve since been pleased to discover that Diana Gabaldon has done a similar thing on her Scottish Outlander historical novels that have been turned into a popular TV series in the UK. I am also aware of the African historical novels you mention though I wanted to introduce the element of what others are now calling magic realism, most popular in Latin American literature of the likes of Gabriel García Márquez. Somehow, he definitely influenced me because I had a period in my life when I was obsessed with his writings, which I had forgotten.

My aim was to also expose the truth of rootlessness even on those who are educated if they’ve no solid sense of their own identity. You know the proverbial saying about a tree without roots. The presence of Maqoma in our times was to give Phila a cultural background and deeper sense of his own identity as a means to assuage his weltschmerz, world-weariness. So, in a way, the book is some sort of bildungsroman for Phila whose character starts out slightly emotionally stunted, something I hope is clear in how he relates to his girlfriend Nandi.

JMJ

I so admire the easy breadth of your references and reading, which also comes through in the novel itself. This feels like an important reminder that there is no need to choose between centering African traditions and richly engaging with others, Western or not. I want to return, though, to this matter of “roots” and “rootlessness,” which you’ve referenced a few times here. There is a certain skepticism, in your work, of secular and cosmopolitan ways of viewing the world, and particularly of secular modernity’s propensity to find meaning primarily in the self. (It’s no coincidence that Nandi is a psychologist.) While there is, of course, a long record of “troubling” modernity in African writing, you have also been open about your debt to the Catholic intellectual tradition. We might, then, go further afield and think about The Broken River Tent alongside some classic Catholic texts and writers for whom rootlessness was also a paramount concern—G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, even Graham Greene in his attempts to work through the mechanics of redemption in a British colonial setting. How has this part of your life informed your fictional practice, in ways that might be surprising to some readers?

MN

Thanks for the complements. I get worried when people, more influenced by so-called “cancel culture,” think the process of, say, decolonizing ourselves means that we need to disregard all Western thinking in order to allow African thought to emerge. As if African thought and vision is too weak to stand its own ground against other world streams of thought. In fact, as a staunch humanist, I strongly believe that global thought, Goethe’s world literature if you like, awaits African thought traditions to be properly assimilated to it.

The human condition is my preoccupation. I have also invested a lot of learning in classical literature. And yes, there was a time classical literature was used as a weapon to propagate imperialism, patriarchy and all that rubbish whose aim was to put a white male on the pedestal to be worshipped and admired. But there’s so much more in it there that speaks to the human condition, including the African condition, that it seems to me a disservice to just throw its baby out with the dirty water of occidental historic faults. So much of it also can be used, and is being used, to counteract all of its wrongs. Hence you see this exciting bloom of the retelling of Homeric stories in particular from the feminine point of view by the likes of Madeline Miller, Pat Barker, and Natalie Heyns, among others. You earlier mentioned Petina Gappah’s Out of Darkness, Shining Light, and I am sure you noticed that she has also begun to turn toward ancient classical themes and language to depict the African human condition. Chigozie Obioma, in The Orchestra of Minorities does the same. You shall notice in my next novel, The Wanderers [to be published in April/May], that I delve into this a little deeper also, to depict the notion of the absurdity of the human condition, which though popularized by Albert Camus, and elaborated through thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard (another strong influence in my thinking), goes back to the classical era of literature and is a Socratic imperative. Camus was greatly influenced by the church fathers, St Augustine in particular. My thinking is also greatly influenced by Augustine. In fact, my conversion to Catholicism has something to do with my immersion into history. Perhaps the major difference between Camus and me is that the absurdity of the human condition has never managed to extinguish the flame of hope within me, not yet anyway. In fact, I define hope as that mysterious and incomprehensible energy that remains in a person when human reason has been defeated by the absurdity of their human condition. Chesterton, of course, is necessary in religious thinking in particular, so that one doesn’t take oneself too seriously to their detriment.

JMJ

You formulate this belief in decolonization as cultural capaciousness so passionately, and it calls to mind the famous quote by the Roman playwright Terence, himself an African and freed slave: “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.” It is, of course, easy enough to cite this in a pat and cliche way, as a conversation-ending shortcut to universalism rather than as a reminder of how much work it takes for a writer to approach something like what you call “the human condition.” I take you to be suggesting that African writers, far from being peripheral to humanism, may in fact have a particular claim to its fulfillment. The title of your forthcoming novel, The Wanderers, is resonant here as well, because it is also the title of a sprawling and ambitious 1971 novel by Es’kia Mphahlele. In this light, what goals for African writing and critical thought broadly do you see your work as advancing? And, more specifically, where do you feel most “at home” within the current South African and continental publishing landscape?

MN

I am extremely happy you picked up my association with the quote of Terence, because I had it exactly in mind when I mentioned my preoccupation with the human condition. And yes, I strongly believe the humanistic thread of world thought will only be fulfilled by something whose seed is the African life attitude of ubuntu. And yes, there are deliberate parallels on my forthcoming work with that of the late professor Es’kia Mphahlele in that they’re both exile novels, with mine in Tanzania whereas his was in Nigeria. But far be it to me to dictate where my work will eventually end up within African writing. That will depend on my readers and the generation that follows us if we’re lucky enough to be of any interest to them. For now, I feel my writing experience is drawing me towards the fractured narratives that are part of our heritage we dropped during the early parts of the 20th century and before. I feel part of our true literary roots are left stranded there and calling to be assimilated to our contemporary thoughts.

Within the current trend of continental publishing it would seem as if Nigeria is the continental trend setter for African literature. There might be many things informing this, like the fact that it is the most populated country on the continent, and so has more people in the diaspora also. And the migrant story is the flavour of the day in the global literary market. But I like what Ghana writers, who by the way you introduced me to, like Nana Oforiatta Ayim, are doing in books such as her debut The God Child, infusing philosophical and psychological substance in their writing that gives its literature more gravitas, rather than merely writing about big social issues without treating them with the deeper thinking they deserve. The charge I am making here is that made by James Baldwin against American writers, “… that they do not describe society, and have no interest in it. They only describe individuals in opposition to it, or isolated from it.” Most of our African migrant writers, especially those writing from the US, seem to have caught this disease. Like Baldwin I am beginning to find fault with it.

As for South Africa, the only way for us to move beyond the schizophrenic bipolar nature of our literary identity is by respecting what came before. It is imperative that we honestly deal with our past in order to gain our roots, a true sense of identity we can successfully depict as our assimilated literature tradition. This separate literary development of the Afrikaans of Afrikaners doing its own things, and that of colored writers doing another, or the black Africans doing theirs, though good for diversity, has not provided us with an assimilated national literary voice also, hence I call it schizophrenic. The problem is we’ve not yet distilled our identities deeply enough to go beyond politics into the understanding of not only our commonalities but our indispensability to each other also. And going to our historical foundations helps us rediscover this.

JMJ

While I am tempted to go off on a tangent about Ghanaian writing, here, this seems like an ideal and provocative place to stop and let readers process the many points you’ve raised about how literary traditions can and should enrich each other, about the primacy of African histories for seeing that such exchange happens justly, and about historical legacies both recent and long past. I am sure that many readers will also want to read these issues’ fuller exposition in The Broken River Tent! I, for one, am grateful to you for lending me your mind across these hours on other sides of the earth, and eagerly await publication of The Wanderers. Enkosi, Mpush.

MN

Wonderful, Jeanne. Thanks for taking time to read The Broken River Tent and talk to me about it. Now that I am busy with my third manuscript, I feel The Broken River Tent is still the book that gave me the most trouble with research and writing process. It tested not only my intellectual but psychological strength also. I was not ready to encounter the rawness of the archives. It took some getting used to working with the material objectively, disregarding the anger it provoked in me as a Xhosa person, because hardly any of these historical sources ever try to see things from the perspective of the amaXhosa. That is what inspired me to write the book, that wanting to tell things, for once, from our perspective.

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