Small Things was nearly no thing at all, after Nthikeng Mohlele’s computer crashed and took most of the book with it – but here he writes about how music not only saved his life – but the story. He calls it “The Robyn Fenty Affair”, but I’ll let him tell you about it in this week’s Spark, the guest blog where African writers talk about what fired this particular book in their imagination.
The Spark: Small Things by Nthikeng Mohlele
The thing with literature is this: no one, not even the writer knows, for certain, how a manuscript, later to be a book, will turn out. This is true of Small Things, a deceptively small book supposedly about implications of historical transitions in post apartheid South Africa, a theme that would have been laborious and torturous, were it not for the inclusion of intimate grains of obscure love affairs. In a way, by no means conclusive, the writing of this novel was at once exhilarating as much as it was daunting. Exhilarating because I for the first time in the practice of authorship, came face to face with the dictatorial yet pleasant impossibility of confining what should be a long and rambling theme – intricate and not always charming – to a hundred odd pages.
That impossibility, or at least a sense of it, was as follows: how would I handle a theme (apartheid totalitarianism), well documented and somewhat universal, in a way that is without cliché and cheap shock tactics? Where would the points of emphasis be and why? If I got that right, a mammoth task still remained: how would the exploration of that theme work, if I took into account that historical time is not static, that it has contradictions, that it is open to conflicting interpretations? These questions were weighed and counterweighed against the deceptions of literary creation, suppression of personal feelings and sensibilities (I detest all forms of oppression), for artistic integrity, philosophical neutrality – if such a thing exists. I lost 80% of the manuscript when my laptop crashed, swallowing my still fluid observations with it, never to see the light of day.
The pain, agony, and helplessness that followed this mishap, a tragedy really, will be with me for a long time to come. But there was one thing I never lost: the heartbeat of the story. It, weeks later, began throbbing once more, more crystal, more urgent, but still often more confusing that before, until I could mentally connect the spiritual and cerebral anchors of the narrative, which as I later learned, kept shifting and threatening total collapse. This is when I discovered yet another trick, which I wish to share to remind and amuse myself of the terrors and charms of art. I, while driving in my neighborhood, listening to Robyn Fenty (read Rihanna), mused at how some friends quipped that Robyn was just not me, that the mere presence of Jimi Hendrix and Mandoza on my play list was profanity, sacrilegious.
WTF, I protested, I love Robyn’s music, her sensual theatrics, and phrasing so effortless that I would have been more the poorer if I didn’t occasionally indulge in her brilliant and at times puzzling tracks. This, though seemingly unrelated, is what unlocked the tonal pulse of Small Things, similar but on many levels different from The Scent of Bliss, my debut novel. Robyn doesn’t care, I thought, she just sings her music the best way she knows how: diamonds in the sky, Jameson binges, umbrellas. But, but, the songs were, for me at least, not only about the umbrellas and Jamesons (Cheers to the Freakin Weekend, I will drink to that), but about the power of extended metaphors. ‘Mathematically’: Diamonds equaled purity and value, Jameson’s cowboyish drunkenness with a touch of class, umbrellas the best known human invention against rain – and on it went – until a moment of revelation stuck me off key: melody is nice, but so is silence, grand themes are unavoidable, but they can be broken down into smaller thrills and obsessions.
Some of my best friends confused my Robyn fetish tendencies with romantic ambitions, which is not so. Lesson: What the hell, I could mess around with narrative pace and outcomes, on thematic expectations vs. contradictory disclosures.
But being a novelist is work, hard work. Think of it this way: a midwife cannot leave an expectant mother in the depths of contractions and palpitations to buy Mandoza concert tickets. That is a firing, loss of medical license offense. An extreme example, but accurate principle.
In other words, it was not enough discovering all these light beams that often led to red light districts and cemeteries of the mind, but to look for vague footpaths that circled treacherous mountain passes, that elevated the creative charge to a view from the mountaintop. It was, from that vantage point, easy and a lot of fun to name a dog after Benito Mussolini (I hope he has no surviving relatives?!), wrestled for a grand panoramic narrative feel without resorting to a 700 page tome, suggested sexual innuendo without it being trashy, moulded a lonesome and nameless bloke to project post apartheid moral landscape and iconography, played Robyn’s music on repeat to piss off my friends, acquired mythical powers that made some readers, young and old, think I could solve love skirmishes! Imagine. Flattering, but simply untrue. I simply do what other wordsmiths do: write manuscripts that become books. Small Things, born out of interesting times, is such an effort. That’s it.