BORN: 1936, Durban, Natal, South Africa
NATIONALITY: South African
GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction, drama
Home and Exile and Other Selections (1965)
Mating Birds (1983)
Known in the United Kingdom for his analytical studies of contemporary African literature, Lewis Nkosi gained attention in the United States with Mating Birds, his first work of fiction. In addition to being a respected novelist and literary critic, he is also noted for his forthright comments about the cultural and political developments in Africa under the apartheid system. Although Nkosi was exiled from South Africa in 1960 and later settled in Switzerland, he continues to be considered one of Africa's greatest writers.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A New African Lewis Nkosi was born in Durban, Natal, South Africa, on December 5, 1936. He attended local schools before enrolling at M. L. Sultan Technical College in Durban. Nkosi began his career in Johannesburg, writing for the magazine Drum, a legendary publication founded by and for African writers, people whom Nkosi described in Home and Exile and Other Selections as being “the new African[s] cut adrift from the tribal reserve—urbanized, eager, fast-talking, and brash.” According to many scholars, Nkosi himself fit such a description.
Apartheid's Effects Nkosi grew up under a system known as apartheid, which is Afrikaans for “separateness.” This government-sponsored system involved designating certain buildings, areas, and services for use only by certain races and forbade people of different races from marrying. It also led to the segregation of
living areas within South Africa, with black citizens of different cultural groups kept separate from each other; this allowed the white Afrikaners, who made up a small percentage of the population, to remain in control of the large nonwhite population. These were some of the issues Nkosi was concerned with as a writer and as an African.
Because the pieces he wrote for Drum deal with the social and political developments in his homeland during apartheid, Nkosi faced strict regulations on his writing and was eventually not allowed to comment on the regime. When he accepted a fellowship to study at Harvard in 1961, he was given a one-way exit permit, meaning he was forbidden by the South African government to return to his country. After becoming a literature professor, Nkosi held positions at universities in the United States, Poland, and Zambia, all the while continuing to write about and criticize events in South Africa. Settling for a time in England, he taught and published articles about African literature, along with several dramas and screenplays. Since 1994, the year Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president in the country's first democratic election, Nkosi has visited his home frequently and currently divides his time between South Africa and Basel, Switzerland.
Works in Literary Context
Although many would argue that the apartheid system has been the most significant influence on Nkosi's writing, his works have obviously been influenced by other sources as well. For instance, several scholars have compared the surreal, mysterious atmosphere surrounding the crime in Mating Birds to that of The Stranger by Albert Camus. In addition, Nkosi's dramatic works, especially The Rhythm of Violence, reflect the inspiration of French playwright Jean Genet, particularly as seen in Nkosi's technique of using characters who exemplify their own most despicable fantasies.
Apartheid The most prominent recurring theme in Nkosi's work has been the effects of apartheid, the policy of racial discrimination and white political domination implemented by the South African National Party when it came to power in 1948. From regulations affecting daily routines—for instance, which hospitals, schools, and theaters people of different races were allowed to attend—to laws that prohibited nonwhite people from voting or holding office, apartheid ensured the political and economic supremacy of the white population, which was comprised less than 20 percent of South Africa's total population. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., “As a playwright and short-story writer, [Nkosi] is … the most subtly experimental of the black South African writers, many of whom are caught in the immediacy of the struggle against apartheid.” With his documentation of South Africa's apartheid system, Nkosi's legacy lies not only in African literature, but also in South Africa's political history. Academic Alan Ryan offers this tribute: “Nkosi's quiet voice is likely to linger in the ear long after the shouts and cries have faded away.”
Works in Critical Context
From the very beginning of Nkosi's writing career at the Drum, critics have enthusiastically praised him as one of Africa's best writers, one “whose vision of South Africa remains fiercely his own,” says Michiko Kakutani. Much of his work dealing with African literature and cultural concerns is commended by academics who analyze his writing from such social perspectives. Furthermore, Nkosi is highly respected as a literary scholar himself.
Mating Birds Mating Birds, Nkosi's first novel, immediately gained widespread critical attention. Through the story of Ndi Sibiya, a young man attracted to Veronica, a white woman, Nkosi explores miscegenation. Although the rules of apartheid prevent Sibiya and Veronica from speaking to one another, they carry on a silent flirtation, Sibiya growing more obsessed with her every day. Eventually, he follows her home, and Veronica seduces him. However, when their relationship is discovered, Veronica accuses Sibiya of rape, a claim that leads to his arrest and probable execution.
Critics unanimously recognize Mating Birds as a comment on South Africa's system of apartheid—and acknowledge Nkosi's courage in writing such a public political condemnation of South Africa's racial intolerance. George Packer, for instance, observes, “Mating Birds feels like the work of a superb critic. Heavy with symbolism, analytical rather than dramatic, it attempts nothing less than an allegory of colonialism and apartheid, one that dares to linger in complexity.” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. asserts that Mating Birds “confronts boldly and imaginatively the strange interplay of bondage, desire and torture inherent in interracial sexual relationships within the South African prison house of apartheid.”
Other commentators, however, have attacked the novel's ambiguous depiction of rape. “Nkosi's handling of the sexual themes complicates the distribution of our sympathies, which he means to be unequivocally with the accused man,” notes Rob Nixon. For some, even the question of whether Sibiya committed a crime at all remains unclear, which causes problems for the reader, as “we are never certain who did what to whom or why,” says Gates. Sibiya himself is unsure: “But how could I make the judges or anyone else believe me when I no longer knew what to believe myself? … Had I raped the girl or not?” Gates responds, “We cannot say. Accordingly, this novel's great literary achievement—its vivid depiction of obsession—leads inevitably to its great flaw.”
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Nkosi's famous contemporaries include:
Nathan M. Pusey (1907–2001): As the president of Harvard University from 1954 to 1971, Pusey led the largest fundraising campaign in the history of higher education in America.
Jack Kerouac (1922–1969): A leading figure of the Beat Generation, Kerouac was the author of On the Road, an autobiographical novel that gave voice to the young, dissatisfied generation of the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Kwame Nkrumah (1909–1972): Nkrumah was the first president of Ghana when it gained its independence in 1957.
Toni Morrison (1931–): Known for its epic themes and vivid dialogue, Morrison's fiction explores the roles of black women in a racist, male-dominated society.
Dario Fo (1926–): An Italian playwright, director, and actor, Fo's dramatic work incorporates elements from ancient Italian comedies.
While many critics praise Nkosi's portrayal of Sibiya's feelings for Veronica, scholars including Sara Maitland object to Nkosi's depiction of the white woman. Says Maitland, “Surely there must be another way for Nkosi's commitment, passion and beautiful writing to describe the violence and injustice of how things are than this stock image of the pale evil seductress, the eternally corrupting female?” Nixon agrees that in refuting the conception of the black man as a sexual predator, “Nkosi edges unnecessarily close to reinforcing the myth of the raped woman as someone who deep down was asking for it.” Despite such negative commentary regarding sexual relations, however, reviewer Alan Ryan writes, Mating Birds is very possibly the finest novel by a South African, black or white, about the terrible distortion of love in South Africa since Alan Paton's Too Late the Phalarope.”
Responses to Literature
- Read one of Nkosi's novels. Write an essay in which you explore three different instances in the text that reveal Nkosi's longing for his South African life.
- With another classmate, research the etymology of the word “miscegenation.” Then, discuss what kind of role this term plays in South African history and culture. What kind of role does this term play in Nkosi's work? What are the similarities and differences between miscegenation and taboo?
- Nkosi is a highly respected literature professor. Assume the persona of Nkosi and write a course outline/syllabus for a semester-long class on the history of African literature during the 1900s. Include works by specific writers that your students will read. In order to complete this assignment, you will need to study examples of syllabi you can find on the Internet, as well as research major twentieth-century African writers and literary movements during this time period.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Miscegenation, or the intimate relations between a man and woman of different races, is the focus of Mating Birds, Nkosi's most famous novel. Listed below are other works that deal with miscegenation and its consequences:
The Last of the Mohicans (1826), a novel by James Fenimore Cooper. In this novel about race and the problems associated with overcoming racial divisions during the French and Indian War, Cooper suggests that interracial relations are dangerous, yet strangely desirable.
To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), a novel by Harper Lee.compassionate, humorous, and moving, this novel deals with serious issues of racial inequality and rape in 1930s America.
God's Stepchildren (1924), a novel by South African writer Sarah Gertrude Millin. The plot of this novel presents racial mixing as a new kind of original sin.
Nkosi, Lewis. Home and Exile and Other Selections. London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1965.
___. Mating Birds. New York: Harper, 1987.
Soyinka, Wole. Myth, Literature and the African World. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1976.
Watts, Jane. Black Writers from South Africa: Towards a Discourse of Liberation. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989.
Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “Mating Birds (book review).” New York Times 135 (March 22, 1986): 13–15.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Mating Birds (book review).” Village Voice 34 (July 29, 1986): 46.
Maitland, Sara. “Hidden Agendas: Theory, Politics, and Experience in the Women's Movement.” New Statesman (September 5, 1986): 28.
Nixon, Rob. “Mating Birds (book review).” Village Voice 34 (July 29, 1986): 46.
Packer, George. “Mating Birds (book review).” Nation (November 22, 1986): 570–74.
Ryan, Alan. “Passion in Black and White.” Washington Post Book World (June 8, 1986): 14.