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The Journey Beyond Embo PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 05 March 2007 01:34

The Journey Beyond Embo: the construction of place and identity in the writings of Lewis Nkosi

 Litzi Lombardozzi – University of Kwa-Zulu Natal


Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen. I am reading for my PhD at the University of Kwa -Zulu Natal, and I am fortunate to have as my supervisor Prof Lindy Stiebel. When I began to consider a possible research topic, Prof Stiebel suggested the writer Lewis Nkosi, because I had focussed on black writing to some extent for my Masters degree, and was considering a black writer. Nkosi interested me because he was a South African writer native to this province, but was largely under-researched.


I began to search for primary texts and related material by this writer, and was surprised to find so little available. I managed to obtain his novel Mating Birds, which I read and promptly disliked -and this dislike is partly what inspired me to decide to look at this author a bit more in depth. I decided to do this by investigating the development, perception and experience of place and identity in the works of this writer, because Lewis Nkosi’s bohemian outlook and maverick behaviour was not representative of the masses; and the freedoms he enjoyed as a writer for the populist Drum magazine, were not the norm.


Through my research I will attempt to examine the ways in which this writer self-consciously participates in the construction of place and identity in terms of post colonial theory and I will look at the construction of place and identity in terms of post colonial issues and how this perception of place/space/identity manifests in the writings of Lewis Nkosi


Some of the critical questions I intend to consider are, inter alia -

1.  How does the writings of Lewis Nkosi reflect the construction of place and identity, if at all?

2.  What is the role and position of Nkosi’s writing, viewed from a postcolonial perspective?

3.  How does the writer express and explore the loss, pride and the longing of his South African identity

4. Is this writer typical of his generation of exile writers, both in South Africa and abroad?

5. How is this writer situated in terms of his South African context of Black writers and how does this

    impact on his construction of identity?

6. How applicable is this study within the context of postcolonial theory in terms of the exploration of

    issues surrounding colonisation, independence and exile?

 I have spent the greater part of this year collecting research material from NELM, various libraries, media and electronic resources, and reading extensively on theorists such as Bhabha, Fanon, Edward Said and other authors  who particularly discuss notions of space and place from a post colonial perspective, and also reading the  primary texts of Lewis Nkosi.


Although Nkosi has known Africa and South Africa as his home, he has lived much of it mostly through displacement and exile, albeit by deliberate choice. He has spent most of his adult life abroad and currently lives in Switzerland. From what I have read thus far, his writings seem to cover an eclectic range of cultural discourse, as he is not only a writer of novels, but he is also an accomplished essayist and literary critic (and also a bit of a poet).


I decided on the title for this thesis after my recent meeting and interview with Lewis Nkosi, who at the time managed to convince me that a trip down memory lane, the lane being Embo’s winding and narrow slippery gravel roads, would serve to broaden my horizons. Lewis Nkosi as a young child spent much time in this little village of Embo, which lies lost in the folds of the Valley of a Thousand Hills, and during this trip I was afforded a small glimpse of what lies behind the mask that he wears. I was afforded a mosaic of his early life and how Embo, as a primary site had inscribed his life, because Embo had been hissocial place, his place in time, and his place in the universe during his formative years - and had informed his first sense of belonging somewhere. I think that a sense of place is also a sense of orientation, because it is both the beginning and the end of knowing. From our conversation, whilst sliding down and groaning up the hills, it became clear to me that our passion and commitment to familiar places are part of what makes us human. Our memories, whether good or bad, of places we have known are part of what makes us individuals because, if you don’t know where you are, you cannot know who you are. Hence I will argue that the writings of Lewis Nkosi is also a space where the imagination and the memory meet, and in his words: “all of those are strands of memory about place and it automatically gets into your writing, because I think, it is both the terrain of consciousness and the orientation to reality.”


I also suspect that much of Lewis Nkosi’s humour and often brutal wit evident in his work and in his interviews is a mask behind which he conceals, or attempts to conceal, a very real nostalgia for his homeland, for the old haunts, because he eagerly returns to these places whenever he visits. He claims he has never been homesick because he has always been able to find places which quickly become home to him. He has no sentimentalist notions about the soil of his birth, and has never suffered from the desire to want to kiss his native earth. He feels that homesickness is just that, a sickness, and does not consider himself as a sick individual. However, his being “thrilled” to be back in Durban, belies this sentiment. He says that “you suppress memories of what really shapes your conscience, but it always comes through in your writing which is always linked to early experience - in fact whole worlds of experiences that mediate your writing but they don’t thrust themselves in the foreground.”


Lewis Nkosi was raised in a colonial space in South Africa, and therefore a highly complex space, particularly to a black man. All his novels are placed within a South African context, and this, together with the fact that he only writes in English, supports my contention that he does this to universalise his experience and extend this into that of group identity because his goal is ultimately to reach a shared world. His writing provides him with a way to cope with living his life away from Africa and home. He admits that South Africans, in particular black exiles, rarely write about the societies in which they live, because, he explained “you can take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy - which basically means that if one is interested in ‘mining’ one’s memories, what one remembers of the country is what comes to the forefront of your consciousness most of the time”. Lewis feels that perhaps he has never felt close enough to the places he has lived in, to want to devote his life writing about those societies. He found that British society, for example, was too complicated for him, and that emotionally he was not linked to that kind of thing. So, I think Nkosi writes about Africa to maintain a sense of interconnectedness with both his shared and private places. His writing clearly embraces Africa, preserving and celebrating its cultures and its ravages he has remained familiar. He admits that he does not write to expunge or to heal a wound, but writes to situate himself. At the recent Time of the Writer Festival, Nkosi admitted that he was thrilled to be back in Durban: “For me its also drifting about in the Durban streets and looking at some of those broken down colonial houses - just shows how colonised my mind became - all the smells, and also seeing how parts of Durban, that were out of bounds for people like myself when I was growing up, suddenly seeing how they are being occupied by a new army and we know that these new spaces are also an arena for forging new identities.”


Joan Didion said that,  “A place belongs forever to whomever claims it the hardest, remembers it the most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it....” And this applies to much of Nkosi’s writing. It was H.I.E. Dhlomo, who once said that the act of writing is the ‘reconstruction, the recreation and reproduction of the great experience of a people ... and it helps them to live more abundantly”. This experience Dhlomo refers to underpin the writings of Lewis Nkosi. His novels and essays are at once a discussion on history, community, environmentalism, philosophy, geopolitics, human ecology and culture, reconstructed with the memories of Africa as backdrop.


Living in and away from Africa exposes an acute realisation of loss and gain, and Nkosi addresses both the painful and positive emotions that different places evoke for him - from anger to hope to acceptance - a personal narrative which speaks with an urban voice and opens the door on the history of a place, simultaneously affording him the luxury of observation without active involvement.  Thus his Mating Birds is a bitter piece of writing, in which he explores a segment of history through the eyes of the black man, crucially capturing the consequences of being black and living in the apartheid hegemony.


However, place and identity are immutably concatenated, so that what is said about place must also include the construction of identity. The urge to protest against prevailing political dispensation is constantly interwoven with the urge towards self-discovery, and Lewis in particular employs essays to embody his biographical fragments, as the question of identity is one of the leitmotifs of his autobiographical writings. In his words, “to be a black South African is ... to live in perpetual exile from oneself.” He has said on more than one occasion, but perhaps in different words,

When you leave your own country to live elsewhere you discover certain things about your own country, which you didn’t know or have suppressed. Being of the country, but also already outside of the country, you are able to see the country from a distance, something that is not permitted to people who had never left the country. Thus writing releases him into a wider world where he is able to discover new alliances, creating both new and shifting identities.


Nkosi has likened his leaving South Africa (he was 22 years old at the time, leaving the country in1961

on a one way exit permit to take up residence abroad) as being a kind of Ulysses in transit, not pre-

empting the difficulties he may encounter on his journeys, but looking forward to the freedom to be

himself, to escape from things that have inhibited his life, even if at that point he could not  know what

that self was going to be or what it should be. He admits that exile has enabled him to discover

many things that he had missed out on and failed even to reflect on - it has equipped him with an extra

sense of the importance, the value and the meaning of one’s native place.


During an interview, Nkosi stated that he had no compulsion to maintain what

is called an African identity. He sees himself as African, of course, but basically as a South African:


           “Identities are very complicated things - there are times when I don’t even think about whether I’m an African or not. I definitely have never thought of myself as a European, but, there are times when I don’t think of my African identity - when I just think I am me, or when I think I am a writer, or when I think I am a novelist and or, you know, but then there are times when I hear people denigrating what is supposed to be African, so they are telling lies about Africa or about my country, when suddenly that other identity rears up, which is a defence of my heritage, if you want to call it that - so, I mean, identities are contingent - meaning that they rear their heads when they are needed for, you know, one reason or the other,  they are like clothes that you wear - I mean, you don’t wear the same clothes everyday?


 Although Nkosi lives and works abroad, he continually reclaims his identity and function within his human community through his writing by saying this place is my place too. He is a native to this part of Africa, in a space and place that he is not quick to turn on his dreams or ignore the pull of the landscape, a landscape which does not balkanise its people by religion, class, gender, region, but draws them together as South Africans.


It is the memory of place which I think essentially prevents one from being homesick, because one carries within oneself an own sense of definition, it is the memory of place which nurtures one with identity and special strength, and it is here that we always will return to find the clearest deepest meaning and identity of ourselves. Nkosi writes of his African experience and presents challenging themes such as politics, prejudice, racism - themes of racial and cultural stereotypes in which he convincingly demonstrates his innate love of his country. His writings are a search for community and a desire for a sense of belonging, a sense of closeness- Nkosi comes from a traditional community- and he seeks the opposite of alienation and meaninglessness pervading our current society. He may live abroad, but remains a member always, of his home country. He has an obvious need to represent the world for himself and others, and this need is expunged by creating a parallel world to the one that exists, using himself as a mirror, and the one which will represent him best is the one which will become independent to itself.


Questions of identity are at the heart of many recent works such as Zakes Mda’s Madonna of Excelsior, AP Brink’s The Other Side of Silence, and Mongane Wally Serote’s  Scatter the Ashes and Go. It would appear that contemporary writers are questioning the changes in society and exploring themes of belonging and alienation. This is evident in Nkosi’s Mating Birds.


Hence, at the core of much of Lewis’ writing lies the important question of identity and place. In as much as worlds create words, so do words create worlds, in as much as a writer is affected by a place, place can also be affected by the writer. The writer allows us to see a particular place differently because we see a place through the writer’s eyes. Writers also shape the landscape by recreating the landscape, as Lewis has done in Mating Birds. Here he has created some very angry landscape at times, underpinned by a great sense of alienation.


Finally, the question I will be considering, is how does Lewis create a sense of place, and what, for

him, gives meaning to a place? Here I will explore the impact that place has on our

understanding of who we are - Lewis’ concept of place and identity will be analysed as they

are reflected first in the journalism of Drum magazine and other journals, and subsequently

in his primary works of autobiography and fiction.


Lewis’s works have not been as widely researched as possibly those of his

contemporaries, despite his local and international profile and reputation as an astute scholar

and writer. Having spent some time reading his writings and extensive commentaries on

African and English literature, I think that he certainly merits research, particularly in respect of his

construction of place and identity, as a study focusing on these aspects of his work has

not been done to date.


Despite his years, Nkosi, - who has written since the early 1950s, is an active writer whose

work is outside the current local tradition and who still generates much critical interest, and

it is felt that an investigation into place and identity in respect of his work will be of

scholarly interest, especially as he is of  the last remaining survivors of the South African

exile generation. 

I would like to conclude my paper with the words of TS ELLIOT:

“   We shall not cease from exploration

and the end of all our exploring

   will be to arrive where we started

         and know the place for the first time”

T.S.ELIOT (Little Gidding 1942)


Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your time.