Monica Arc de Nyeko once said, "a story that must be told never forgives silence". Professor Mbulelo Vizikhungo Mzamane made sure this was emphasized in Words Gone Two Soon, a publication published last year to celebrate the lives of Phaswane Mpe (Welcome to Our Hillbrow) and K.Sello Duiker (Thirteen Cents, The Quiet Violence of Dreams). Mzamane went on to quote another doyen of African literature by paraphrasing Nigerian author Chinua Achebe's phrase by writing, "when the young begin to spice their talk liberally with proverbs, you know the time to dress them in diapers is past"
These might have been spiced references made to the two departed young souls that thought outside the box and positioned themselves as authorities alongside equally gifted writers like Niq Mhlongo (Dog eat Dog). Mpe and Duiker achieved more than most of their peers and beyond in a short while and redefined a whole genre of contemporary adult literature.
In 2007 Mzamane's words easily refer to 28-year-old novelist Kgebetli Moele who hails from the township of Shatale in Bushbuckridge. Moele's first novel Room 207 was published in September last year by Kwela Books and is already ruffling a lot of feathers and redefining what should be contemporary urban writing. Moele has physically lived in Hillbrow in room seven on the second floor, in Seshego (Polokwane) and Atteridgeville but home is a sprawling township of Shatale in Mpumalanga.
Kwela posted this comment about their new release, "Room 207 is a startling novel - the prose is dense and some of it reads like poetry. It paints a vivid, engrossing picture of six friends in Hillbrow, and their sense of hopelessness - despair in fact - of having to compromise their lives"
Room 207 is actually a sad story of life in Hillbrow, as the author relates, and some of the characters are still alive and can be traced to many successful and failed avenues of business South Africa. Moele tells the story of his rise to what should be prominence and the tale behind the book that, while it is not yet acclaimed, it should be mentioned that it stands a good chance of being made into a film as it is visually strong and seems to have a cinematic quality that sells off the untold story of how Moele once worked with Sello Maake ka Ncube and Mcedisi Shabangu on popular stage productions Call Us Crazy and Koeksusters.
"That's a little known story about me because we never made money out of those productions. I used to be frustrated with Sello during rehearsals when we were doing Call Us Crazy because the guy hadn't been doing theatre for some time but when the opportunity came he was often fluffing lines. I got mad", Moele, the film school drop-out remembers many years ago when Grahamstown Arts Festival was his pilgrimage as an aspiring theatre practitioner.
Simply put, Moele is almost arrogant, actually difficult which explains his problems with his teachers throughout his schooling life. He can't say 'yes' to anyone and that's also why he never made it in the film industry regardless of knowing so many people and having worked on many little known productions. He claims to have told a top soapie producer one day at the SABC that his drama sucked, even though he was starving and wanted work on the same soapy. "He said to me, 'it might suck to you but I'm making money and many people like it'. I told him it still sucked" , he says laughing.
D.H.Bopape's Sepedi book Bogobe bja Tswitswi is the book he still rates as the best he ever read. It is a book he read in matric but which to this day he can still relate with the passion some people reserve for Chika Onyeani's Capitalist Nigger or Steve Biko's I write what I like. Another writer he rates high is Bessie Head, "I read so many times Maru, The Cardinals and Question of Power. I like her because she wrote about real people in the context of South Africa, her plot was universal. She would document the suffering and exploitation of the Bushpeople in a way that appeals to everyone. While Bopape's writings were not reflective of the country's apartheid at the time, it is refreshing that he wrote about what he knew", says this son of a career teacher. Kwela posted this additional information about him, "He had a love of listening to people reading because his mother had read him many books and, even though he could be a bully, he always had a friend. His friend Sentsho read because he, Sentsho, was an avid reader and Kgebetli loved it every time Sentsho read Mahlontebe or Mpudule, he even bribed him to reread some of the funny stories"
Another writer that he says he adores is Angolan Simao Kikamba, "the way he writes about the state of foreigners in South Africa is touching and engaging. You come to realise that they have a life to live like everyone else". And what about Room 207?
While the book is about the lives of six young men living in a dilapitated block of flats in Hillbrow, Moele is quick to mention that each character reflects ten real people in Hillbrow. People who have had the privilege of studying the manuscript before it was a book have complained about the recklessness with the story and socio-politics Moele displays in his interrogation of some his characters and their near-imperfect lives. "The book is five percent autobiographical. I took many people and put them into one character, so going through the text you are actually going through the lives of 60 people," relates the man with a sister based in the suburb of Sunnyside (Tshwane) and a dreadlocked nephew of pre-school starting age.
The conversation with the author came two weeks before the publication of his book and took place in Pretoria (not Tshwane) at Schoeman Street on Room 401. Moele thinks that not enough is being done to encourage novice writers in this country. He says that competitions for writers should be structured to benefit the art and not just the artist. "When it comes to people reading and writing I think the facilities to foster that are in place but they are not spread to the people on the ground. Competitions should be structured not to just throw money at achievement but to take the winning writer to a writer's residence anywhere in the country or world where they can focus on writing and sharing ideas on writing while they are afforded a stipend to survive through six months to a year, putting together a book that should be published after they come out of the programme. Throwing money at writers is not helping because whatever they produced might be the last they did". He urges people running award committees to take them to as down to the ground as possible, thinking about scholarships for development and not just monetary benefits.
Moele urges PEN South Africa award administrators to make sure that not only should they be content with the few regular entrants who are forever the ones exposed to opportunities, he says even rural people should be targetted, through radios if possible as there are no newspapers in the outlying areas of Manyeleti (Mpumalanga) and Makwarela (Venda).
"Read Week must also be an active ongoing engagement, not just for seven days", he warns. His frustration is with the black middle class, who are rumoured to number more than a million with cheaque books as big as their bellies and their apathy towards books. "The black middle class does not have a reading attitude, they lack an interest to read. They should understand that I am not saying money can buy knowledge which they need, but a situation like the current one where we require a miracle to encourage them to value books should change. Parents should encourage their children to read and the children as well should encourage each other. Reading should go beyond academic stuff", Moele pledges, obviously not happy with the fact that his publisher will first print less than 5000 copies of Room 207 because blacks with money rather spend it on buying luxury cars than books.
He shifts and mentions Duiker's Thirteen Cents as a book that every child must read. "Look, many people can actually write they just lack channels to see their work published. For Duiker and Mpe it's been an achievement on their part given the struggles they faced," he says.
Moele's point is poignant as Duiker himself said he had three manuscripts rejected before his first novel was published. Mpe told journalist Liz McGregor that a week before he decided to start working on his first novel some friends had gently talked him out of suicidal intentions, something often worrying even with Moele who, before Kwela published his book was nicknamed 'the hobo with the script' as he always carried his writings wherever he went, even when hiking for transport to either Polokwane or Johannesburg.
This author of Room 207 comes into the literature fold with all the knowledge, if it is not an assumption, that most writers die lonely or take their own lives because no one understands them. In the tribute to the already two departed souls minus Moele, poet Righteous The Common Man tellingly wrote, "writers whose main concern is the state of society are the ones more likely to feel the heaviness of the cross". Room 207 is such, and Moele is waiting for better days, not for someone to write his obituary. He's looking forward to next month's launch of his book in the United Kingdom.
At the end of the interview at around 19h07 he leaves for the comfort of Atteridgeville, which might be another Room 207 for this nomad who says after all the lights and screams he only needs a private time alone, or with the same group of corner dwellers he shared his dream with in 2005. Back in Shatale.

1 comment:

  1. kgaitsedi1/17/2007

    Jaa neh! Room 207 is definitely one to read. After finding out what happens to each character, I was reminded of that saying about how if you can't be a good example, then be a horrible warning (or something like that). Kgebetle, Niq, those guys rock. Someone, please write a review on Zukiswa Wanner's 'The Madams' published by oshun?Have a restraint of trade where I work (can't write book reviews - oh, the bondage that comes with earning a regular salary...sigh)


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