This is our first interview series with the 2017 Caine Prize shortlisted writers. Here, Tolu Daniel engages Magogodi oaMphela Makhene on her story and writing. Magogodi oaMphela Makhene is a South African writer and she is the author of The Virus.
Tolu Daniel: Congratulations again on your nomination for the 2017 Caine Prize for African Literature, how does it feel?
Magogodi oaMphela Makhene: Thank you. I’m delighted to stand alongside such fine writers, both fellow finalists this year and writers the Caine Prize has recognized in the past. It always feels good for something you’ve written to find new readers. With the Caine Prize, it especially means a lot because the readership is African. Telling our own stories matters, but imbibing them is how we move forward.
TD: In The Virus, language was central to the execution of the narrative, and for a speculative fiction buff like me, I spent most of my time beaming with happiness at being able to finally read a story which combined a little bit of everything. Was that intentional? Or could it be that the narrative may not have been able to emerge any other way?
MoM: Thank you. Language really matters to me. There are many reasons for this, seminal being that English is not my mother tongue–there are many languages inside me. That’s in no way unique to me. Faulkner spoke so many kinds of English you’d be forgiven for thinking him a foreigner to the language. This said, when I sit down to write all I’m concerned with is the character in front of me–listening and trying to hear this person as clear as a spring. Focusing on that dictates everything else. The “little bit of everything” you mention in The Virus would have crippled me if I thought about it consciously before or as I wrote. I just listened to this crazy Afrikaner man–with equal parts shock and delight–and followed him where he led me.
TD: There’s been that argument by some people about how to categorize works like yours, are they African Sci-fi or horror or like some authors would prefer ‘just a story’.
MoM: LoL! Honestly, this is not my terrain. I write. Full stop. I’m as amused and surprised as the next person that I wrote something speculative/sci-fi/horror/Afrofuturist. I’m not sure what such categorization achieves, but if one label suits the reader better than, “Here be fiction”, then dragons it is. Where writers are smart to push back is in how such work is marketed. I once stepped into an excellent, very tightly curated bookstore hunting for Toni Morrison. I worked up a sweat trying to find her on the shelf, skimming every aisle until I stopped looking and asked the nice lady how on earth she had no Morrison. She pointed me to a small section separate from all the other fiction. There Ms. Morrison sat. I was not amused. Yes, Morrison is black and proudly writes for African-Americans. But her work is nothing if not the heart of America. Any one of her books could be called “The Great American Novel”. Wouldn’t it be a sort of brazen robbery then, to deny a red-headed American kid who wanders into that Philadelphia bookshop the pleasure of knowing her country by serendipitously coming upon Beloved or Sula because it was categorized as something outside fiction, because it was shelved in a desert land that is essentially proclaiming, “Danger! Here be Dragons (read: The Other)”?
TD: Also, is there any element of reality to your own fiction. What I mean by that is that, are you one of those writers who subscribe to the belief that all kinds of writing are autobiographical.
MoM: I think of the great Maya Angelou quoting the Berber playwright Terence who worked in the time of the Roman Republic, “I am a human being. Nothing human can ever be alien to me.” I am not a cantankerous Afrikaner man and I’m certainly not this particular Oom. But, I am a human being. Everything ugly and frightening about what we’re capable of as a species, every bit of our small acts of kindness and brave beauty are part of my autobiography. It comes with the DNA. Writing gives me legal license to investigate that. Every human being who’s ever landed on this side of the cosmos is capable of the same (and who knows, maybe aliens can too?). All stories are autobiography–both the reading and the writing. Why else would readers resonate with the lives and concerns of characters as seemingly far removed from their lived experience as Bulgaria is from Botswana? And yet, I am no cantankerous Boer.
TD: Your story painted a picture of South Africa, not unlike what we’ve seen exported in form of movies and stories in the past but also a careful obeissance to identity. Was identity a key element in the execution of this narrative?
MoM: Not sure I understand this question but I will say that in the case of South Africa, identity is an elemental and hotly contested aspect of our self-story. All humans grapple with identity, but I cannot imagine another society where making heads and tails of everything from the cost of milk today to complex issues like urban development, is so inextricably linked to and determined by identity. In some way, you could say our narrative is identity.
TD: Good luck to you on the shortlist
MoM: Thanks Tolu.