Caine Prize Interviews: Magogodi Makhene

Magogodi oaMphela Makhene was born in Soweto, South Africa. She came of age during the turbulent years marking the fall of apartheid. She was raised in Johannesburg, eventually making her way to New York, which she now also calls home.

Magogodi is currently completing a collection of inter-woven short stories exploring the inner lives and loves of ordinary South Africans making a life in a time and place most often inhospitable to their journeys. She’s on the 2017 Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist. In this interview which we had via email, we talked about her short story – The Virus, language and how writing can be a means of processing our experiences.

Congratulations on making the Caine Prize shortlist, Magogodi. Having won a couple of other prizes in the past, does being on this Caine Prize shortlist make you feel any different?

Each prize is important and unique to me. I don’t take people honoring my work lightly, especially when some of those people have been lifelong teachers and beacons of light I long admired, like Professor Elie Wiesel. The Caine Prize feels special for many reasons. Whatever criticism it receives, the Prize remains an important champion of African art. That matters, not least because it’s so rare. Being named to the 2017 shortlist is an honour and has been a delightful experience.

Your shortlisted story, The Virus, is about loss and wars in South Africa. This takes me back to the apartheid stories in history class. Is The Virus your own way of speaking out against vices in the South African society or is it purely an imaginative story?

The Virus is fiction and like all fiction, it speaks to and is informed by the world around it. Unfortunately, apartheid wasn’t history class for me, it was and is my lived experience. I write because I’m grappling with this experience, in tandem with everything else it means to be human. I don’t approach my work with an agenda of “speaking out”. For me, it’s much more about listening — both to a story’s inherent and intrinsic dictates and to the character/s animating the story.

I do agree with writing being a means of processing one’s experiences. I’ve often wondered too how writing sometimes may be more important to the writer than the reader. I’m pretty sure a lot of research went into the writing of the story. I’m fascinated at how you were able to combine history, fantasy, science and even a bit of humour in one fictional story. I’d like to know what went it into the writing of The Virus and how you were able to achieve such an innovative piece.

Thank you and I don’t know, Lol. You’re right though there was research. It hardly felt like “research” because I’m so nosy about people’s inner lives. I followed my curiosity about the Afrikaner experience in books–Herman Charles Bosman’s curious life and cultivated brand of country writing still intrigue me. A lot of my research led me to repulsive corners of the internet–there’s a dedicated community of Nazi-styled verkramtes I find quite disturbing, but they are in the minority and more than hatred even, they are fueled by fear. My job writing The Virus was taking that fear apart without giving into its fangs.

I’d like to think you achieved that. There’s also the narrator who appears to be detached from the happenings he describes. Would it be that he’s lived through so much pain, he becomes numb?

Sure, that’s one reading, but I also see this character as someone who is quite engaged and enraged with what he sees. He is by no means a passive observer of what he describes.

Again from him, we meet other characters. The whole story is told from his perspective. Would the story have been different if you’d adopted a different voice where the characters exist as full persons who speak for themselves?

As you point out, that would have been an entirely different story. Forcing this piece into that storyline would have meant missing the dictates of both this character and his narrative.

I indeed enjoyed his narrative, especially how he personalised his use of the English language. It provided a bit of humour for the sad tales he told. There are expressions like , ‘The situation is bad. Made worser by spineless Boer.’ ‘Anyways, there we is,’ etc. It’s also hard to miss the many Afrikaans words he used. As a whole, I found The Virus peculiar in its use of language. And though I’d like to believe you aren’t solely writing for a South African audience, do you not worry that such a style might limit your readership to largely Afrikaans speakers or those familiar with the language?

I write for myself, and since I am a black South African, I suppose I am solely writing for that audience. It’s funny that we seldom take the same issue of Russian greats for example. Tolstoy was certainly not writing for an American or South African readership. And yet his Russian and French infected characters with impossible names for someone foreign to Russian do not get in the way of our accessing their universal humanity. When I encounter literature that demands meeting the other as they present themselves, and not as I’d like to imagine them, my delight as a reader is learning to speak their tongue. Beloved for example, taught me this. Eurocentric as many literary circles can be, the global North (and English) is not the center or monopolistic source of human experience and stories. The Virus delights in the language and cultural currency of its protagonist. As a writer I’m sensitive to not shutting out a monolingual reader, but my fidelity is very much to the veracity and accuracy of my character. Language is in service of that — it has to be true to the character and their story.

That’s an interesting perspective, Magogodi. But since the Afrikaans words come almost without warning, I found that reading and grasping the story at a sitting might be a bit tedious for a reader who isn’t familiar with the language. How do you think (African) writers can savour the experience of infusing local words into their works and still be able to captivate and carry their non – indigenous readers along?

I can’t speak for other writers, especially not other African writers given the continent’s rich diversity. I will say not every piece of literature can or should be digested in a single sitting. If something slows you down and makes you uncomfortable using your usual reading tools — it may be stretching you as a reader by challenging you to engage in a different way. It may also be trash, Lol. Or simply not for you.

Ha ha. I guess at the end, we actually do read to learn. This line from your story stuck with me, ‘The bush fucked you. Made you FUBAR… Somehow, all of us, we was totally fucked up beyond recognition.’ It is for me, the summary of The Virus. Struggles, wars, betrayals and losses, all unforgettable. And like JP Clark puts it in his poem, we are all casualties. But the war still doesn’t end. Like a virus, it spreads and spreads as even ‘after the war, the fighting went on.’ Where then lies the hope, Magogodi?

Lol! Hope is in the writing itself. I wouldn’t trust a writer who doesn’t have hope. The Virus is very much about hope–about a man grappling with his faint glimmer of hope, his hope to heal, to return his tribe to glory and to restore an order he was taught is Bible truth. It might not be Hallmark happy hope, but it’s definitely there.

And in the midst of all that pain and loss is still the narrator whose biggest dream is to join the circus. Although he’s too ashamed to admit it. For me, that dream represents hope, the thought of a better and happier life that keeps humanity going despite all the troubles. What can you say about that?

I’d say that’s interesting. For me his circus dream speaks to his complexity. Who doesn’t have odd and inexplicable dreams they are ashamed to admit? But I don’t like telling readers how to read anything–that’s the story’s job.

Away from The Virus, you’re currently working on a collection of short stories. Still exploring the lives of South Africans in hostile environments. Do you find yourself obliged to tell these stories?

No, not at all. It’s a privilege to tell the stories inside me. Your question also gets back to that “Who do you write for” business. Writing for myself means freedom. The only obligation is meeting my own standard of truth and beauty, being true to the heart and soul of my characters.

It’s been lovely talking to you, Magogodi. With the Caine Prize in mind, what would you say is the bigger picture for your career as a writer?

Prizes like Caine are a nice nod but certainly not how I think about my writing career. My big picture is quite simple: to write. The beginning and end of my career ambition is to write.

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