Award-winning young novelist Masande Ntshanga has released a second book – a curious blend of everyday black life and sci-fi. Charl Blignaut took his pen and paper and asked the novelist some questions
You’re a bit of a new-school literary star. Was it a lot of pressure to follow the success of The Reactive?
I’m always more aware of the people who engage and draw something from my work than I am of the people who uphold our literary infrastructure.
Whenever I start to feel a vague pressure, I remind myself that, aside from being a meditation on history and society, literature is also, quintessentially, a human endeavour: from me – the author – to the readers; the people who’re willing to follow my work.
My job as a writer, then, is to disregard that pressure and concentrate instead on working to the best of my abilities for one, and, secondly, on keeping the communication between myself and the reader honest.
The Reactive is a unique mix of black South African life, mystery and the narcotics trade. It’s as easy and uneasy as Triangulum, a curious mix of everyday black life with the supernatural and futurism mixed in. Do you deliberately choose the least comfortable narrative spaces?
I remember Gordon Lish once saying that if a piece of writing doesn’t make you feel afraid, or at least intimidated, then it isn’t worth pursuing. I think I have a natural affinity towards that dictum.
The reason is that, whenever I work on a book, I make a decision to work on it as if it’s my last – who’s to say, really, that it isn’t? – and part of that includes not only instilling in it the range of my cumulative knowledge about fiction as a craft, but also mining from the gamut of my perceptions and experiences when it comes to being alive. For me, that also involves those spaces we’d rather avoid, and what those might reveal about us.
I often feel like there’s a vitality there that we often speak over in everyday life, but which pulses and speaks back to us when it’s distilled in literature.
It could be generational, too, having grown up in an era when it was often seen as a virtue to be quiet about the uncomfortable – even if that virtue was to the detriment of entire communities.
Are you consciously adding to the archive of authentically African sci-fi here?
Hopefully, I’m adding to science fiction in general. That and to the scant writing that revolves around the Eastern Cape and its various histories. That said, I’m excited by the prospect of an expanding canon of African science fiction. The genre is a great tool through which to engage with the various anxieties and disparities that plague our continent.
Do you experience a tension between genre and realism?
That’s a beautiful question. I think I both experience and appreciate it. I view the liminal space between the two as an ally of the imagination, which helps one avoid the overstated, while also bringing out the understated.
The interplay between the two, which is how I choose to characterise the tension, is a lot more consolidated in Triangulum.
For example, if one is able to take a step back from our painful history for a moment and take in the absurdity of a black man [Lennox Leslie Sebe] receiving the apartheid republic’s highest accolade [the Order of Good Hope], then it might be possible for one to take a step even further back and, as a result, discern parallels between settler colonialism and alien invasion.
You said you were working on two novels after The Reactive. How did you choose which one to finish and is that how the process works for you – several texts at once?
To be honest, at the time, Triangulum was the stronger of the twins and, because they shared at least one central theme, it had to go first, while the other had to be reconfigured. It is often like that. Multiple projects.
The ideal, of course, is that the texts are completely distinct, but, just as often, because they share an author, they turn out to be different approaches to the same core material. Not that this was the case, this time. The other twin needed its own room, that’s all.
Anything you’d like our readers to know before they read Triangulum?
Now that it’s done, it’s as much mine as it is yours. It’s a novel that’s designed to invite reader participation. I was telling a friend that, at times, it felt like building an intricate Lego structure – and that I couldn’t wait to invite friends over and have them see it.
Take it in, in other words, but please also remember to have fun.