South Africa, Literature, 2020


Photo: Jasper Kettner

Niq Mhlongo, born in 1973, was raised in Soweto and studied African Literature and Political Science at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in the early 1990s. This places him within the first generation to come of age after apartheid, and his novels and short stories also grapple with that aftermath. This is also relatable to Germany, which shares a recent history of censorship and an upheaval with which the country is still grappling. In literature as elsewhere.

The New York Times has called Niq Mhlongo “one of the most high-spirited and irreverent new voices of South Africa’s post-apartheid literary scene.” He is a man who, instead of explaining his country, tells us its stories. Like their author, those stories’ protagonists are often the first in their families to have studied at elite universities. Great opportunities collide with even greater expectations, while familiar desires for fun and sex rub up against the pressure to be productive. In his novel After Tears, the character of Bafana drops out of university in Cape Town and returns to Johannesburg, where his family assumes he is now a qualified lawyer. He does not disabuse them. And Dingz, the main character of the novel Dog Eat Dog, knows he is walking a tightrope between two worlds: one sparkling with possibility, the other his native township. Niq Mhlongo writes from experience about the difficulties of this generation, which abruptly gained access to a world for which it was categorically unprepared.

In the novel Way Back Home, Kimathi returns to South Africa from exile in Angola and celebrates his newfound freedom before being haunted by a ghost disguised as a series of women. The political novel is simultaneously brimming with facts. In other stories by Mhlongo, ghosts, ancestors, and traditional healers coexist with such problems as corruption, unemployment, and crime, but also the latest smartphones, car models, clothing brands, and pop songs. Niq Mhlongo leaves no topics out; he weaves it all in. Just as tradition is ubiquitous in modern life, so too is death. We often come across ordinary scenes that could happen virtually anywhere in the West—until circumstances shift, sometimes teetering into absurdity, or else brutality. In the short story collection Affluenza, a young man meets three good-looking women at a bar and invites them to join him and his friends for a bachelor party. Some posing and flirting follow. The whiskey is pricey, the women are confident and sexy, and the young Black middle class seems to be reveling in its prosperity—until one group kidnaps and robs the other. And when his characters ponder white female tourists’ fetish for dreadlocked men, Mhlongo’s take on Europe is the ultimate comedy, even if this story is likewise tragic.

In 2019, Mhlongo was honored with the Nadine Gordimer Short Story Award for his collection Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree. South Africa’s two Nobel Laureates in Literature, J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer, have offered a global audience glimpses of South African realities in their work. As a member of a younger generation of writers, Niq Mhlongo shows us a new perspective: that of the young Black voices of today.

Text: Jackie Thomae
Translation: Jake Schneider

Dog Eat Dog
Kwela Books, Kapstadt, 2004

After Tears
Kwela Books, Kapstadt, 2007

Way Back Home
Kwela Books, Kapstadt, 2013

Way back home
Das Wunderhorn, Heidelberg, 2015 (Ü: Gunther Geltinger)

Kwela Books, Kapstadt, 2016

Soweto, Under The Apricot Tree
Kwela Books, Kapstadt, 2018

Black Tax
Jonathan Ball Publishers, Johannesburg, 2019

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