An Interview with Masande Ntshanga
In May (or June, but probably May) of 2016, we are publishing an electrifying debut novel by a 29-year-old named Masande Ntshanga, who won the PEN International New Voices Award and was a finalist for 2015's Caine Prize for African Writing. The novel, titled The Reactive, took South Africa by storm upon its publication, where it was dubbed "the hottest novel of the year" and named a finalist for the Etisalat Prize for Literature.
The story follows a young HIV+ man grappling with the sudden death of his younger brother, who makes his living selling his anti-retroviral medication on the street. Ntshanga employs luminous, lucid prose and a sharp eye for revealing the class disparities in South African society. It is a very passionate, striking work that reveals Ntshanga as a ferocious new international voice.
Following is an interview with the author.
The Reactive was published by Penguin Random House in South Africa, but rather than be content with letting them submit the novel abroad you were pro-active and took the reins. You were the one who submitted your book to us.
That was a deliberate choice. I’d been a follower of Two Dollar Radio for a while and had also grown acquainted with the recent developments in publishing in the U.S, both in terms of the independent as well as the mainstream presses. It seemed, all in all, like a time of varied, daring work, and also a time of increased engagement from readers. Even though Umuzi, the imprint that published me under Penguin Random House, is a premier publisher in South Africa, with a great team as well as a great track record, I was under no illusion that the novel would gather as much reach as it could in the country—that it might have to travel a little farther to discover some of its other allies. Even though the book has an overt focus on place, as far as content goes, its loyalties are a lot more scattered when it comes to form, and that isn’t something that’s expected from most of our writing, at present, especially from big presses, and not to mention from a debut author. I needed to work outside of that, I think, and in the end, I was still surprised to find that the book did have more reach than I’d anticipated; pleasantly surprised.
You won the inaugural PEN International New Voices Award. Did you find receiving the award to be affirming of your career direction, or did it add extra pressure to really deliver with your first novel?
It was affirming. I was already working on the novel at the time, but had reached a standstill. I used “Space”, the story that won the award, as a canvass to work out some of the problems I’d encountered in the composition of the novel. That worked better than I thought, and by the time I’d finished and submitted that story, it didn’t take long to finish the first draft of the book. Following the announcement of the award—and after receiving a note of admiration for the story—I was invited to a meeting with Umuzi, who would become my publisher after they asked me if I had something longer and I said yes.
The Reactive was a break-out success in South Africa. How did that come about, and were you surprised at how it elicited such a strong reaction with both readers and critics?
I was surprised. I was fortunate in that I had strong readers from the beginning, critics who could peel through the book’s layers and see into what I was trying to do, at times revealing new aspects even to me, and also casual readers, with whom the language, the characters and the story resonated. The book took a lot for me to write: not only did I want it to be its own thing, I also wanted to walk away from it with the feeling that I would be content if it was the last thing I ever wrote. This meant that I couldn’t evade anything it led to, and it had to feel honest, if nothing else, and I think some readers may be responding to that, which is something I’m grateful for.
You actually got some substantial TV time to discuss your book. In this interview with SABC, the interviewer seemed to concentrate on the drug use in the novel, which was surprising to me. Sure, the characters abuse a laundry list of drugs, but in my mind that is a minor aspect of the book, and more representative of how Lindanathi is electing not to face his grief or family.
You saw that? I think he was trying to pull out my own laundry list, but my mother was watching and I had to behave. No, but on a serious note, I think some readers haven’t come to terms with the idea that recreational drug use can be included in a novel without the intention of making a moral point about substance use, but as an extension of the novel’s simulated reality, and in service of a greater theme. In this novel, for example, I thought the drugs could be argued to serve four functions: one, to bring the characters together, two, to facilitate Lindanathi’s evasion as you’ve mentioned, and three, as a parallel to the unaffordable pharmaceuticals that the three characters sell and the government withholds, and four, to explore the fluidity of consciousness and memory.
In terms of putting things into context for American readers, the novel takes place during a period in South Africa when the government wasn’t directly acknowledging AIDS. Lindanathi and his friends sell his anti-retroviral medication to others who don’t have easy access to the medication. The epigraph you’ve chosen to include in our version of the book is from former South African president Thabo Mbeki: "We need to look at the question that is posed, understandably I suppose: does HIV cause AIDS?" Can you talk about why you chose to set the novel during that time period?
In the end, there were a number of reasons that lay behind choosing that period, but most importantly, I think, is that it became my understanding that the ARV crisis of the early 2000’s was one of the more defining historical moments of my generation—followed, now, by the student protests of 2015—and personally, since the project was intended to also educate me about empathy through the process of writing it, it was important for me to find a socio-historical parallel for Lindanathi’s narrative; something that included other people and rooted him within his society. From memory, I remember that time feeling like a post-liberation interregnum, a deadlock that spread a feeling of general malaise as the country became reacquainted again with absolute state power—and it’s new national identity began to disintegrate. That felt like the right setting for the story, and it also helped in that I wanted to place Lindanathi in a position where he could help and even save others, but not himself. In the end, being able to weave him into the country’s fabric through this shared historical point—where drugs surrounded both a personal and national kind of grief—felt fortuitous and essential.
The Reactive is not like much of the writing by African writers or writers in the diaspora that is published in the United States. It feels much more contemporary and fresh than that.
I’ve never been able to adhere to tradition, I think, or at least I’ve never been able to do so with a recognizable amount of success or joy. I think, for me, there comes a point during the process that calls for allowing the work to follow its own logic. It’s also important to me that the sensibility of the work translates from my own. Even though the book isn’t autobiographical, it’s important to me that it carries a sensibility that’s similar to mine, since there was never much of that in the literature that was celebrated as representative when I was still a student—work that could at times elicit admiration, but little in terms of a creative charge. Looking back, I had to read further and wider before I discovered those voices, and I hope, in my own way, I can offer a bit of solace to others who might have felt the same thing; that they wanted to read something they felt was capable of recognizing them, that understood the media they’d consumed, the conversations they’d had on drugs, the people they’d slept with, and the nightmares they still woke up from. In the end, I feel like if it’s true, what Arjun Appadurai argues, that the imagination is a social force that works across national lines and creates resources for new identities, then it’s the least I can do, I think, to try and make work that aims at developing its own language.
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