- Still Beating the Drum: critical perspectives on Lewis Nkosi
Over twenty years ago, at the height of the apartheid era, I was taken to task by Lewis Nkosi for having suggested in a generally favourable Times Literary Supplement review of his critical study of African literature, Tasks and Masks (1981), that he seemed to be heading South, and towards respectability. Scenting an innuendo suggesting that he might - like his old Drum comrade 'Zeke' Mphahlele - have some thought of returning to South Africa and perhaps a more comfortable position than the one he then held at the University of Zambia, Nkosi reacted immediately and with feeling, penning a strongly-worded letter to the TLS to the effect that he was hardly likely to risk the prison term awaiting returning exiles by going home.
Not that I really thought he was. But I wondered . . . and now, it seems, he has at last gone back to South Africa. Or has he? As a novelist, yes, but otherwise perhaps only in the sense that he is liable to turn up at a literary conference or festival and indeed it would be disappointing to learn that this most remarkable of South African writer-critics had finally foregone one of the things that has made him distinctive: his cosmopolitan, exilic and peripatetic way of life, always somewhere else and therefore always situated at an ironic, apparently detached, angle from the place and the culture of his origins, about which he has nonetheless not ceased to comment, directly in critical essays, indirectly in fiction and drama.
Whether or not Nkosi has taken up residence in the country (he is depicted proudly displaying his new, post-apartheid South African passport in one of several photos decorating this book), what is clear is that the [End Page 127] present collection of 'perspectives' is designed to relocate his life's work from within the new South African context while duly acknowledging the travelling, intermittent nature of his career. The editors explain that it is not their aim to produce a commemorative volume, but rather to 'draw attention to a distinctive, dissonant but always perceptive critic and creative writer' whose work has not been easily available - especially, as they might have added, in South Africa. Their intention is to provide 'both a resource and a critical intervention'. Thus they include scholarly papers about Nkosi as a critic and creative writer, key articles by Nkosi himself, together with recent interviews, a timeline and an extensive bibliography.
The timeliness of the book is clear: not only because Nkosi is a major figure in South African writing however conceived, about which to date only fugitive or passing comment has been made - the most extensive, perhaps, in Ursula Barnett's undervalued 1983 survey of Black South African Literature, A Vision of Order; but also because it was only last June that his third novel, Mandela's Ego, was launched at the first Cape Town Book Fest, and this not long after he had delivered himself of his thoughts upon 'The Republic of Letters after the Mandela Republic' (no less) - first as a seminar paper at the University of Cape Town, subsequently reprinted in the Journal of Literary Studies and which now becomes the concluding essay of this collection.
As Nkosi suggests in that essay, the relation of the present to the past is a central preoccupation of the 'new' nation and if there is a dominant theme running through Stiebel and Gunner's book then it has to do with the continuing struggle to create a sense of identity despite the fractures and divisions inherited from the past, a struggle which, despite his very long absences from the country, Nkosi is well placed to articulate, even if his conclusions are, as always, provocative; for example, when (in conversation with Achille Mbembe and Nuruddin Farah) he dismisses the idea of a South Africa having a shared cultural space that anyone could 'remotely call a nation'.
For Nkosi, exile has provided the potential for discovering and creating new identities, initially as an...