- Letters to my Native Soil: Lewis Nkosi writes home (2001 2009) eds. by Lindy Stiebel and Therese Steffen
This precious book comes as a sequel to the seminal collection Still Beating the Drum: critical perspectives on Lewis Nkosi edited by Lindy Stiebel and Liz Gunner, and published by Rodopi in 2005. It is entirely different in tone and materials collected, yet it positions itself as a necessary corollary to that earlier work. Both books have in common the main object of their analysis the South African writer Lewis Nkosi – and both reflect the perceptive and loving presence of Lindy Stiebel, who weaves around him a fabric of critical attention and affectionate friendship. Letters to My Native Soil, however, germinated from the intent to devote a posthumous homage to the writer, who died in Durban in 2010 after a long year of illness, and never managed to write down his memories into the book he had planned and provisionally entitled Memoirs of a Motherless Child.
Lewis Nkosi lived outside and far from South Africa for almost 50 years from 1961, and was only able to go back there after the end of apartheid. He refused the definition of 'exile writer' for his own experience, yet he was in fact cut off from his homeland and the culture that had raised him. Maybe in his youth it was good for him to get away from the stifling and provincial atmosphere of South Africa where colonialism was clinging on and apartheid raged, and face the world at large where he soon managed to emerge and make himself heard. But he never grew new roots in any other country and kept wandering from one place to another, to the point that even his regained homeland seemed strange to him. He had developed the sensitivity of an outsider and, as a truly postcolonial intellectual, [End Page 150] placed himself in the interstice and the in-between. Possibly he would have laughed at this new definition of his position in the world because he liked to make fun of all definitions and labels.
It is also true however that, after visiting what was then proudly called New South Africa, he never settled there, and moved in and out of the country as a temporary visitor, although the correspondence published in Letters to My Native Soil proves his desire to find something of his old self there, even if this only meant tracing his way back to the grave of his grandmother who had brought him up and sent him to school in a situation of great hardship.
This correspondence also shows that the only thing Lewis Nkosi could accept and appreciate as he did in fact appreciate was a 'native soil' of the imagination, passed on through literature. Literature had become home for the restless writer who trusted the power of the word well above anything else, as he says in his inspiring speech 'In Defense of the Study of Literature' given at the University of Zambia in 1983 and republished here as Appendix One:
I would like to defend the study of literature as a mode of intellectual activity whose results […] have a special significance for society. […] I would like to defend a cultural practice, a critical activity, a discursive practice whose object is literature. […] Literature is a specific mode of appropriating reality, a legitimate form of cognition, and therefore we can say that it provides us with a specialised form of knowledge.(207-210)
And it is indeed through literature that Lewis Nkosi was engaged in the correspondence reflected in the book. It was the only way to go back home to a country which had forgotten him and expelled his work from literary histories and anthologies. His two correspondents professor Lindy Stiebel and the then doctoral student Litzi Lombardozzi helped him to assemble the scattered elements of his biography into a consistent timeline and to retrieve lost pieces of writing. It is funny, but also somewhat painful, to read how Lewis, when questioned about the whereabouts of...