The Spark is a series of guest blogs highlighting new African fiction with authors writing about what lit up this book in their heads.
Nakhane Touré is the author of Piggy Boy’s Blues and a multimedia artist born in a small town in the Eastern Cape called Alice. He was raised predominantly in Port Elizabeth and is now based in Johannesburg. After beginning his studies in literature at The University of Witwatersand, he embarked on a music career, resulting in him releasing an album – Brave Confusion – which went on to win a South African Music Award for Best Alternative Album. Here is Nakhane on his latest novel.
The Spark for Piggy Boy’s Blues by Nakhane Touré
My mother was and still is a very important influence on almost everything I do creatively. She influenced my taste in music from infancy, and although I never saw her read a book when I was a child (only later, in my teens, when we were both devout, conservative Christians reading Benny Hinn), she remains an incredible story-teller. Her vivid descriptions and ‘Xhosasation’ of the Bible made me look at it as something more personal than what I had always thought it was. When I read it (in English), as a result of how my mother retold it to me, it became real, it became something I could hold on to. In my mind the characters were alive in the present, the characters were my uncles and aunts, they were people I saw and heard in my neighbourhood. Their speech was imbued with the same cadences I understood and used. Their gestures and expressions were ones I knew and recognised. What always struck me was her commitment to the characters (their voices, their mannerisms), the painstaking attention to the set-up and the drama. I saw everything. It was no longer distant or mythological. It was not – as the imagery in every church I attended was – white. It was ours. We owned those stories. We took ownership of their laws (for better or worse), we infused them in our daily lives, mixing them up with our culture.
When I began writing stories as a very young man, the Bible became a familiar reference point; not always in subject matter, but almost always in tone, atmosphere and sometimes language. The first version of my novel was called To Whom Shall We Go?. It was modelled on the sweeping, epic atmosphere of books like Kings 1 and 2 of the Old Testament. I couldn’t distance myself from it, which inevitably rendered the story impenetrable and somewhat self-righteous. It was when I ended my relationship with Christianity that I could look at the Bible as a piece of fiction, look at it from an amoral point of view, take what I needed from it and write a novel inspired by it, but not one that would hammer some religious, moral point to the reader. When I read it I read it for enjoyment, not to get some philosophical direction from it.
I finished To Whom Shall We Go? and sent it to Thabiso Mahlape, my publisher, who liked it and a contract was signed. The publication date of the novel was agreed upon and the book was sent to a reader for a reader’s review. The review was mostly negative, to the point that my publisher feared I would fall apart. I read it, and there flashed the first spark. What my publisher thought would deflate me only engendered a raging defiance. I took the parts I agreed with on the review and used them to help me strengthen what I had. I took the parts I disagreed with and transformed them into the fuel I knew I would need to revise this novel.
I knew very well that I would not be able to work in the noise of Johannesburg. And so I bought a bus ticket, made fun of myself for choosing to travel by bus – in my mind the long trip would help me figure things out, Jack Kerouac style – and travelled to my uncle’s house in East London. When I arrived, I dropped my bags in one of his children’s bedroom and we shared a greasy breakfast. That conversation became the second spark: My uncle told me stories about our people, he told stories about our family, including some very tasty secrets and helped me where I lacked knowledge on tradition and ancestory. When we finished the meal, I took a quick bath and sat down in his study to work. That conversation became the source of what ended up being the prologue of Piggy Boy’s Blues.
After I had finished writing the prologue, I understood that this trip was not just for the sake of revision, but a complete ripping up and starting again. And so I called my publisher and asked for more time. I worked tirelessly on what was no longer To Whom Shall We Go?, but Piggy Boy’s Blues.