In a world flooded with new books daily, it is difficult to find a voice as unique as that of Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu. With much acclaim and a big prize for her first novel, one could have expected some hesitancy with her second attempt. But this writer outsmarted us all by completing this latest novel even before all the accolades for the first started pouring in. DIANE DE BEER revels in her story and The History of Man:\
If you have read last year’s winner of the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu’s The Theory of Flight, you would have recognised a unique voice.
Her latest, The History of Man, is further evidence of that. In fact, it’s hardly recognisable as the same writer and took me completely by surprise – fortunately in the best possible sense.
These past few years, reading as much as I did, I realised that what I loved best was for writers to overwhelm me with their originality. Siphiwe does that and so much more. After all, originality alone won’t make it. But she has already shared her abundant writing skills.
Often a second novel after the success of a debut can be a bit of a downer –from the writing or reading point of view, but this writer outsmarted us all. The second was already written when she won acclaim for the first!
Asking about her choice of follow-up story, she responded with the explanation that the question assumes she has any say in the matter. “For me the wonderful thing about writing is that it is something that happens to me. The character, Emil Coetzee, first came to me in 2007 or 2008 – I remember jotting down a few things about him then. He plays a role in The Theory of Flight, albeit a small one. That said, I had no idea that I would write The History of Man as a follow-up to The Theory of Flight.”
She notes that as her first novel was a critique of the post-colonial moment, it made sense to her, given her love of history, that she would want to explore and critique the colonial moment.
“Given what I wanted to explore about the colonial moment and the narrative it creates – its effects on the coloniser and the colonised; its particular kind of masculinity; its dependence on the idea of progress; its insularity and superficiality; its many inventions and dichotomies (white superiority/supremacy, black/other inferiority, active men/passive women etc.); and, most importantly for me, its privileging of certain voices (white/male) over others and the many silences that that creates – it just made sense to have a white, male protagonist through whom the story would be focalised. And that is how Emil Coetzee’s story became the follow-up to Imogen Zula Nyoni’s story.”
What fascinated me in the reading was how seemingly comfortably this black female author crawled under the skin of a white supremacist male. I can see some conjuring up all kinds of dilemmas, the way we appropriate voices etc. but especially in Siphiwe’s case, didn’t it make her skin crawl? For me when reading, my mind kept going to specific South African characters dubbed Prime Evil and Dr Death in the press.
That’s why we need fresh voices telling specific stories. What she set out to do was write a character that was multi-dimensional, complicated and believable, she says. She ticks all the boxes.
In fact, what I loved about the character was that he wasn’t stereotypical – the kind of person one would imagine could commit the worst atrocities against his fellow human beings. If anything, he almost disappears into the background, or as a man apart.
“When Emil Coetzee’s character first came to me I admit that he was not a particularly sympathetic character. He was a stereotype and a caricature – a womanising, racist and sexist white man with power – and, quite frankly, offended many of my black feminist ideals and sensibilities.
“At the time, I think I thought that that was a strong enough character to build a story on, so I am very happy that I did not write it then because that is not a novel that even I want to read. The saving grace came when I moved beyond the what – womanising, racist and sexist white man with power – to the how (how does someone get to be this way) and most importantly the why (why does someone get to be this way).”
And that she achieves brilliantly. While I was still trying to work out what she was trying to do because the writing and telling of this particular story was so different from her first outing – with The Theory of Flight in my mind – I was drawn into the intriguing life of a man whose actions seemed to be determined by things outside of him rather than an inner driving force.
“I was writing a character whose experience, for the most part, is different from my own. However, I found entry points, similarities in our experiences that allowed me to empathise with the character and begin to understand his inner world on a deeper level. These are a few of the entry points that I used – the boarding school experience, growing up in the City of Kings, falling in love with the savanna.
“Once I could empathise with Emil Coetzee, I understood his character fully and knew what kind of narrative he would like to exist in – in terms of plot, tone, imagery etc. For instance, I knew Emil Coetzee would only be fully comfortable in a realist novel with a linear plot because that is what makes sense to and of him. I also knew that he could not be surrounded by language that seemed too poetic because he would be deeply suspicious of that kind of language and very uncomfortable in it.”
And that’s why she says the style of a book is determined by the characters. “I have to be true to the characters in my story,” she notes. “I know this is a (frustratingly) writerly thing to say, but I listen to the characters and let them guide me. I am also guided by what the story is ultimately trying to achieve.”
And while she says she worries about how the realism of her second book will received after The Theory of Flight, which many read as magic realism, she needn’t worry.
As a writer, she is a creative force. Even though I lost my heart to her first book, this second one stayed with me for the longest time. South Africa had its own Emil Coetzees and perhaps that is what I found so disturbing on meeting this man who seemed uncomfortable in his own skin and seemingly almost thoughtlessly allowed outside forces to determine his life.
With lockdown in full swing by the time The History of Man appeared on bookshelves, Siphiwe describes herself as being in the best place to have a productive lockdown. She was lucky enough to be on a writing fellowship. “In February I arrived in Johannesburg as part of an international cohort for a four-month-long fellowship at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study (JIAS). My plan was to work on the first draft of my fourth manuscript, which I did. Then lockdown happened and JIAS kindly extended their fellowship until all of us could safely return to our home countries and so I had time to polish up and finalise my third manuscript, which I wrote last year.”
And if you are wondering how these stories just keep tumbling out, she’s ready with an answer: “There is a fifth book in my head. I think it definitely helps that I am writing a series of interconnected novels because until the series is done there will always be the next book.”
So get onto the second one now. If her record holds fast, you will be just in time for the third one to drop.
And this reader certainly feels blessed to have discovered this author who not only writes about a world that is sadly familiar, but also masterfully achieves making sense of it.