Q+A with Masande Ntshanga about Triangulum
It was our great pleasure and privilege to publish in North America the debut novel by Masande Ntshanga, The Reactive, in 2016. Selected for inclusion in Poets & Writers 'First Fiction' annual, which profiles debut novelists, the author Naomi Jackson praised the work, saying that "with exquisite prose, formal innovation, and a masterful command of storytelling, Ntshanga illustrates how some young people navigated the dusk that followed the dawn of freedom in South Africa and humanizes the casualties of the Mbeki government's fatal policies on HIV & AIDS."
In the fall of 2016, we were also fortunate enough to bring Masande to the U.S., for events at the Brooklyn Book Festival and City Lights Bookstore, as well as many points in between. For the Midwest leg of the tour, we drove with Masande to events throughout Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin, on a trip that proved to be exceptionally fun and surprising. In Davenport, Iowa, he read in an old town hall on the banks of the Mississippi River before two folksy American bands played. In Columbus, he spoke to the radio station WOSU about South Africa's strife and where his work fit within its history. And in Fairfield, we ate Ethiopian food at a YMCA dining hall with the author of Found Audio, N.J. Campbell. The experience of hosting Masande was one of the more memorable and enjoyable experiences of my 14-year publishing experience.
Now, I couldn't be more thrilled for the opportunity to publish Masande's ambitious and genre-bending second novel, Triangulum, a work that I've been describing to anyone who will listen as a South African 'Stand by Me' with maybe aliens. Following is a Q+A with Masande about the work.
Q: Triangulum is a mystery, has elements of science fiction, and is also a coming-of-age story. Where did you begin, and was there anything that you ultimately left out?
Masande Ntshanga: It’s strange. I didn’t leave anything out, which is rare. Technically, I began with the coming-of-age story, but to be honest, how it really started was that, after my first novel, I became preoccupied with the idea of the three-act narrative. Obsessed, almost. That’s where the motif of the triangle came from. In my first book, as well as in stories I’d published before, I’d always viewed both its nature and predominance with suspicion. It sounds naïve, now, but I favoured narrative voice over what I felt was a contrived and limited narrative structure. That’s what mattered to me at the time: looser structure, ambiguity, a more accurate simulation of reality, etc. But fiction can never be reality in the end. Not the reality of the senses, anyway. It can only be fiction, and that’s a strength, not a weakness, I came to realize. Once I’d made peace with that—that the three-act narrative was a valuable literary device in its own right, with enough great stories in its repertoire—I began to wonder what it would look like if I tried to befriend it. Most of the novel’s structure and drive is derived from this preoccupation, including its use of mystery, science fiction, and coming-of-age. I wanted to explore the three-act narrative using three genres, and to see what emerged on the other side. These are the book’s formal preoccupations. In terms of content, once I got going, my preoccupation with narrative structure naturally grew into a preoccupation with memory and recollection—and with time; and this idea that the imagination could be a memory of the future. Mystery, then, became a choice because of its strong adherence to the element of discovery, and science-fiction because of its adherence to speculation. The former was provident in picking apart and exploring the past, and the latter was provident in imagining the future.
Q: What were some of your polestars in terms of music, movies, or other books in crafting this story?
MN: This was meant to be an Easter Egg, but I can’t resist. Here’s a partial list:
Q: Did you feel any pressure on the heels of the success of The Reactive, which seemed to be a generation-defining novel in South Africa?
MN: The reception of my first novel is something I still have a great appreciation for, but to be honest, I didn’t feel any external pressure. I don’t really get to interact a lot with readers and other writers in general. I don’t have a fraternity or a school I belong to, so most of the time I’m on my own, with a single writer friend, or with non-writer friends, or artists in different mediums. I’ve had this novel in my head for a while now, and during that time, I only knew that I wanted to write a book that demonstrated the sum total of what I’d learnt about fiction, as well as one that was honest in its exploration of the questions I had about our past, present, and future. Usually, once I have the story together, form or structure is where I apply most of my reading. Things I’ve gathered from other writers. The novel, then, becomes a vehicle I use not only to satisfy a number of personal questions, but also whether or not I’ve understood what I’ve learnt about the form. And whether or not I’ve made something new of it – something singular and of my own.
Q: An early review of the book at Booklist compared Triangulum to 2666, which is one of my all-time favorite novels, so I was pretty tickled. While they’re extremely different, I’m curious whether you have read 2666 and see any similarities there?
MN: I actually haven’t read it, yet. After reading The Savage Detectives in graduate school, I decided to work chronologically through Bolano. I did read Amulet while writing, though, and now I’m more curious than ever about the opus. I admire his facility with voice and structure greatly.
Q: In addition to the elements of sci-fi, mystery, and coming-of-age stories, you also tackle issues of the environment, now and in the not-so-distant future. With South Africa experiencing severe water shortages last year, was that an inspiration for this aspect of the story?
MN: Definitely. I feel like the water crisis in South Africa is something I’ve grown up with; way before the shortages in Cape Town. I worried about it as a child, and I still do. It’s always been present as a threat in our region, and its inclusion as a feature in the book’s future was inevitable. For example, in 1982, five out of nine of the current provinces were declared drought disaster areas. Now the threat is rising again with climate change—a consequence of which is us seeing more dry periods now than we’ve had in the last thirty years. According to environmental scientists, global warming is predicted to double in the next 50 years, tripling the risk of drought. Of course, what this means for us is that our present water supply system is stressed and overwhelmed, since it was designed for a stable climate. And as it stands, it’s hard to tell whether or not the government will intervene in time.
Q: The history of Apartheid and the Homeland System, as well as the lingering effects of these systems of oppression, play a role in the book. You also imagine how corporate interests could potentially steer us back toward a similar structure. Is this something you believe is happening now, under our noses?
MN: To be honest, I wouldn’t be surprised. My thinking is that where there’s a precedent, there’s a possibility. That’s what I admire the most about speculative fiction, I think. That the imagination can be posited as a form of recollection. Philip K. Dick is an example of this “prophetic recall," and so is Arthur C. Clarke. Like much of the world, South Africa finds itself at a crossroads, where the population is reconsidering whether or not capitalism is a viable economic system for its society. Those are the basics. The evidence against it is strong, but the powerful and comfortable disagree. It’s an ancient proposition, of course, and not without a home in sci-fi, where lots of narratives are premised on stratified societies like our own. In the novel, what I postulate is only a possibility, but most of it is drawn from past and present political currents. In other words, even though it’s an imagined, fabricated future, most of its elements can be traced back to our present moment and what ails it. Including us.