Nkosi, Lewis 1936–
Lewis Nkosi 1936–
Described in South Africa Sunday Times as a “sharp and gifted writer with an irreverent take on life,” Lewis Nkosi has lived in exile since 1960. He held several jobs in print and broadcast journalism before beginning an academic career that brought him to campuses in Europe, the United States, and Zambia. In his plays, fiction, and essays, Nkosi confronts issues relating to apartheid and its aftermath in contemporary South Africa.
Nkosi was born on December 5, 1936, in Natal, South Africa, and attended a boarding school run by religious missionaries in Zululand, a region of Natal province that is the ancestral home of the Zulu people. He then enrolled in the M. L. Sultan Technical College in Durban. Nkosi’s first job as a journalist was with a Zulu newspaper, Ilanga lase Natal. In 1956 he joined the staff of Drum magazine, an influential publication by and for Africans that attempted to raise anti-apartheid consciousness. As he explained to Kerri Berney in the Brandeis University newspaper The Justice, “We would send reporters [in disguise] to jail or to white farms and have them write about how the prisoners were treated.”
By 1959 Nkosi’s work was sufficiently well-known that the young reporter was invited to apply for a Neiman Fellowship for study at Harvard University. He was accepted, but the South African government refused to give him a passport. “I figured I would just stay in South Africa,” he explained in The Justice, “but a lawyer friend of mine got very angry about my treatment. He…found a very obscure law that let me out of South Africa.” But once Nkosi left the country, he would lose his citizenship and not be allowed to return.
After completing his studies at Harvard, Nkosi flew to London, where he obtained work with the BBC. He produced the radio series Africa Abroad from 1962 to 1965, and interviewed major African writers for the television program African Writers of Today, a series for National Education Television. In London, Nkosi also served as editor of New African magazine from 1965 to 1968. Commenting later on his decision to live in exile, Nkosi told the South Africa Sunday Times that “I couldn’t care about the prospect of not returning. My sense of what was wrong in South Africa at the time remained. But leaving helped me come to terms with the fact that we did not own injustice. I began to see the larger world from a perspective not limited to race,” he added. “To be frank, I was relieved to be rid of the constraints placed on me.”
In 1963, Nkosi’s stage play The Rhythm of Violence was produced in London. When it was published the following year, the play received significant praise. Depicting the plight of characters who are caught up in a spiral of mindless violence, the play shows that
At a Glance…
Born on December 5, 1936, in Durban, South Africa; married Bronwyn Ollerenshaw, 1965; children: Louise, Joy (twins). Education : Sultan Technical College, Durban, 1954-55; Harvard University, Nieman Fellow, 1961-62; University of London, BA English literature, 1974; University of Sussex, MA, 1977.
Career: llanga Lase Natal (Zulu newspaper), Durban, South Africa, staff member, 1955-56; Golden City Post, Johannesburg, South Africa, journalist, 1956-60; Drum magazine, Johannesburg, South Africa, journalist, 1956-60 South African Information Bulletin, Paris, France, writer, 1962-6B; BBC Transcription Center, London, England, radio producer, 1962-64; The New African, literary editor, 1965-68; University of California-Irvine, visiting Regents professor, 1970; University of Wyoming, professor of English, 1991-99. University of Zambia, University of Warsaw, and Brandeis University, visiting teaching positions
Awards: Dakar Festival prize, 1965; C. Day Lewis fellowship, 1977; Macmillan Silver Pen award, 1987.
Addresses: Home —Switzerland; Agent —Deborah Rogers, Rogers, Coleridge, and White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN, England.
understanding between human beings is an attainable goal, but that the rhythm of self-perpetuating violence prevents it. According to a contributor to Contemporary Dramatists, The Rhythm of Violence is an “outstanding first play and an important one,” and caused critics to place Nkosi among the “vanguard of the new black South African theater.”
Nkosi also wrote radio plays during this period, including The Trial and We Can’t All Be Martin Luther King. His television play, Malcolm, aired in Sweden and in Britain. In addition to dramatic works, Nkosi also began writing literary criticism.
Nkoksi’s most famous work for the stage is The Black Psychiatrist, a one-act play that toured several African countries and also was produced at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, France. In this work, a white woman visits the consulting room of a black male psychiatrist in England. In an openly seductive manner, the woman implies that she knows him from long ago, when they were lovers in South Africa. The psychiatrist vehemently denies this, but as the play proceeds, it becomes clear that the woman does have intimate information about the doctor’s past—enough to worry him. Though he tries to fend off the woman’s sexual advances, the psychiatrist finally embraces her, but then reveals his own secret: that her father had raped his mother, a black servant on the white estate, and that he is the woman’s half-brother.
The subject of rape is also central to Nkosi’s celebrated first novel, Mating Birds. Sibya, a young man who has just moved to the city from his native Zulu village, sees an attractive white woman on the segregated beach and begins a silent flirtation with her across the fence that separates white and colored areas. He begins following the woman everywhere, and eventually goes to her bungalow. Seeing him watching her, she undresses in front of him and lies down on the bed. He enters her room and they have sex, but almost immediately he is arrested and charged with rape. Sibya narrates his story from his prison cell, where he awaits the death sentence for this “rape.” The novel attracted considerable attention. Some critics were disturbed by its suggestion that the woman was “asking for it,” but others hailed it as a powerful indictment of apartheid. Nation critic George Packer wrote that the novel “attempts nothing less than an allegory of colonialism and apartheid, one that dares to linger in complexity.” The novel won the Macmillan Silver Pen award in 1987 and has been translated into several languages.
Despite using the subject of interracial sex so prominently in his own work, Nkosi has been highly critical of the stereotypical treatment that many other black South African writers have given this theme. He makes this point clearly in his essay “Fiction by Black South Africans,” which criticizes writers who rely on “readymade plots of racial violence, social apartheid, [and] interracial love affairs.” Yet these elements are found in Nkosi’s work, too; critics, however, have admired the fresh and often ironic approach that he brings to this material. His novel Underground People, for example, deals with apartheid-era resistance during South Africa’s State of Emergency, which was declared in 1985 and gave the government wideranging emergency powers, including the power to imprison people without charge. Despite the gravity of this subject, Nkosi’s novel focuses comic characters and situations. Cornelius (“Corny”) Molapo is a dabbler in poetry and politics whose disappearance from Johannesburg is staged by the resistance movement so that he can travel to the countryside to organize an uprising there. Thinking that Corny has actually been detained by the government, a naive human rights worker from London comes to “find” him. South Africa Sunday Times contributor Andries Oliphant described the Underground People as a “mélange of irony, satire and ribald humour” that communicates a “droll attitude to history.” Nkosi’s use of a laughable character instead of a heroic one, in Oliphant’s words, “boldly enacts the license of fiction and breaks with the dull dirges on the historical crisis in South Africa.”
A prominent literary critic, Nkosi has written frequently for New York Review of Books and London Review of Books and has published several volumes of essays. He often criticizes contemporary South African fiction, as he does in the anthology Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995, for its “formal insufficiencies, its disappointing breadline asceticism and prim disapproval of irony, and its well-known predilection for what Lukacs called ‘petty realism, the trivially detailed painting of local colour.”’ This condition, Nkosi adds, is rooted in South Africa’s colonial legacy and, “it is hoped, a post-apartheid condition will set it free.” Nkosi has taught at several universities, including the University of California-lrvine, Brandéis University, and the University of Zambia. Retired from the University of Wyoming, where he was a tenured professor, he now lives in Switzerland.
Mating Birds, East African Publishing House, 1983; St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
The Hold-Up, Wordsmiths Zambia Ltd., 1989.
Underground People, Kwela Books, 2003.
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The Trial (radio play), 1969.
The Chameleon and the Lizard (libretto), 1971.
We Can’t All Be Martin Luther King (radio play), 1971.
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Lewis Nkosi (born 1936) is known chiefly for his scholarly studies of contemporary African literature, and is the author of the novel Mating Birds (1986). Critics enthusiastically praised Nkosi's prose style and narrative structure in Mating Birds, and several have compared the work with Albert Camus's The Stranger.
Nkosi was born in Natal, South Africa, and attended local schools before enrolling at M. L. Sultan Technical College in Durban. In 1956 he joined the staff of Drum magazine, a publication founded in 1951 by and for African writers. In his Home and Exile and Other Selections (1965), Nkosi described Drum's young writers as "the new African[s] cut adrift from the tribal reserve— urbanised, eager, fast-talking and brash." According to Neil Lazarus, the description fitted Nkosi as well. "Nkosi's whole bearing as a writer," he wrote, "was decisively shaped by the years in Johannesburg working for the magazine." In 1960 Nkosi left South Africa on a one-way "exit permit" after accepting a fellowship to study at Harvard University. Now living in England, he teaches and writes articles on African literature. In addition to the novel Mating Birds, he has also produced several plays and collections of essays, including The Rhythm of Violence (1963), Malcolm (1972), The Transplanted Heart: Essays on South Africa (1975), and Tasks and Masks: Themes and Styles of African Literature (1981).
Mating Birds tells the story of Sibiya, who spots a white woman across a fence on a segregated beach in Durban. Although the rules of apartheid keep them from speaking to each other, they begin a wordless flirtation across the fence. Soon Sibiya becomes obsessed with the woman and follows her everywhere. He learns that her name is Veronica and that she is a stripper at the local nightclub. One day Sibiya follows Veronica to her bungalow. Seeing him, she undresses in front of the open door and lies down on the bed. Sibiya enters her bedroom and has sex with her. Shortly after, they are discovered, and Veronica accuses Sibiya of rape. He is then beaten, arrested, and sentenced to death.
Many critics viewed Mating Birds as a commentary on South Africa's system of apartheid. George Packer, for example, observed: "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." Other commentators, however, 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," noted Rob Nixon in the Village Voice. "For in rebutting the prevalent white South African fantasy of the black male as a sex-crazed rapist, Nkosi edges unnecessarily close to reinforcing the myth of the raped woman as someone who deep down was asking for it." For Henry Louis Gates, Jr., even the question of whether Sibiya raped at all remains unclear. This causes problems for the reader, as "we are never certain who did what to whom or why." 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 responded: "We cannot say. Accordingly, this novel's great literary achievement—its vivid depiction of obsession— leads inevitably to its great flaw." Sara Maitland further objected to Nkosi's portrayal of the white woman: "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?"
Despite the novel's shortcomings, Michiko Kakutani concluded in the New York Times, Mating Birds "nonetheless attests to the emergence of … a writer whose vision of South Africa remains fiercely his own." Similarly, Sherman W. Smith lauded: "Lewis Nkosi certainly must be one of the best writers out of Africa in our time."
Exiled after leaving South Africa to study at Harvard University, Lewis Nkosi has written short stories, plays, and criticism from his adopted home in England. Much of his work, however, deals with African literature and social concerns. "As a playwright and short-story writer, he is also the most subtly experimental of the black South African writers, many of whom are caught in the immediacy of the struggle against apartheid," comments Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in the New York Times Book Review. According to Alistair Niven in British Book News Nkosi is "one of the architects of the contemporary black consciousness in South Africa."
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World Literature Today, spring, 1983, pp. 335-337; summer, 1984, p. 462. □