Earlier this year, we sat down to talk over Zoom with award-winning South African writer Masande Ntshanga. Masande’s second work of fiction Triangulum featured in a Heady Mix collection back in September 2019, titled Afrofuturism. The thematic context behind this book box was to showcase stories written about the African continent that were free from Western stereotype and constructs, such as famine, corruption and poverty. We wanted to celebrate those writing from a place of experience about their Africa, and putting diverse African characters at the forefront of their work – helping to readdress the imbalance in stories we more often in popular Western culture.
In Part I of our fascinating conversation with Masande, we touched on stereotypes and their ability to flatten experiences and human beings, South Africa’s colonial past and why writing a Black queer female character into his fiction was important to him.
So, after brief introductions and a discussion on the drizzling British weather compared with sunny Cape Town, we began our questions to the brilliant Masande Ntshanga.
Your book Triangulum featured in our Afrofuturism collection, where the focus was to share stories that narrated a futuristic African continent free from negative Western stereotypes.
In your mind, what role should African writers play in breaking down these stereotypes and how did you approach that in your work?
I think for African writers, breaking stereotypes is relatively easy because Africa isn’t really a place that the world has properly met yet.
What that means for us is basically all we must do is simply be. The way that stereotypes operate is that they flatten individuals and experiences: they can’t accommodate for human beings. So, I think all we have to do as writers is really as write honestly, and be true to our experience and be true to our environment. And within that, it’ll almost work automatically to kind of dismantle preconceptions, because as you said, they can’t really contend with the reality. So African writers or artists in general really just have to write truthfully.
That’s a really interesting insight. Do you think writers are conscious of writing that way?
Well a way to get rid of that type of thinking is to read, to expose yourself to as many different writers from the continent and elsewhere. It’s about feeling that you can depict reality truthfully, instead of kind of inheriting stereotypes, tropes and cliches -avoiding the impression that this is the only way you can organise your reality for it to be consumed by others.
I think once a lot of writers realise that that’s something that they can do, then it suddenly clicks and the closer they are to the experience, the farther they are from stereotypes and cliches.
Thank you Masande, that’s so eloquently put. So talking specifically about the book and the characters, the unnamed protagonist and narrator of Triangulum is identified as a queer Black woman.
Why was it important to you to write a character that maybe doesn’t often feature in this sort of fiction?
It was pretty important. I think early on when I realised what the book was going to be about and what the book was going to be doing, especially regarding the point where it was positing the future of the world on the fate of Africa.
That was very deliberate because you never actually see the continent regarded as one of the thinkers, leaders or visionaries in terms of determining what’s going to the future of our planet.
It then hit me that if I can do it for the continent, then surely I should take this further and explore it in my characters as well. The more I thought about it, the more the character started to form in my head. I don’t think some people are more important and therefore worthy of being suited in narratives about saving the world. My challenge as a writer was to write this character truthfully so that it could communicate to people that even if you are marginalised, you’re queer, you’re Black, you have a mental illness, you have an eating disorder, it doesn’t make you any less worthy or any less important in terms of your contributions. It was a challenge to me as well, so that I could figure out and challenge my own blind spots as someone who wouldn’t be as marginal as the character.
Do you think writing this type of character is potentially more surprising in the South African context it was written in, as opposed to European narratives?
Surprisingly it wasn’t. We don’t have a vast literary tradition, but in the tradition that we do have, there have been notable books before where writers have gone across gender and sex, whether it’s a woman writer or it’s a man writer and it just kind of fits into what it feels like to exist as an artist in South Africa.
You have a society that’s highly fragmented. We live adjacent to each other, but hardly in communication. So in order to figure out the society, it’s been a challenge for most artists to be able to cross boundaries, to attempt to take on the experience of someone else.
Having that contextual insight is really fascinating to someone outside of that culture, thank you.
The second half of our conversation with Masande, along with a reading from his book Triangulum – will be available next week.