Tuesday, August 9, 2011
HECTOR KUNENE AND DEON-SIMPHIWE SKADE TALK LITERATURE, ARTS, CULTURE
Hector Kunene and Deon Simphiwe Skade...two of South Africa's most promising and talented wordsmiths. Here Hector Kunene Interviews Deon-Simphiwe Skade over the forthcoming release of his (Deon's) book, A Series of Undesirable Events, and about other matters of importance. The interview was conducted through the wires of the Internet as the interviewer is based in Free State, while the author in Cape Town. This blogger might be biased but this is a monumental interview!!!Below is what the two passionate writers shared...
Hector: I understand that this is your first publication in a book form. I have seen your poetry in one publication when I visited Cape Town last year, which was of various contributing artists. What prompted the idea to publish your own book?
Deon-Simphiwe: I think it’s only fair for me to openly concede that I had been reluctant to publish some of my work, more so a complete book. But this choice was for a number of reasons. For one, I had been keen on learning various ways of approaching and presenting stories through literature for myself in a way that I would believe stories I tell. I don’t have any issues with what the institutions teach as means of telling stories for those finding relevance in such teachings. I just wanted to define story telling for myself first, so that whatever information I encountered to that effect would have a base for myself, upon which my own understanding of my work could be consolidated further. I think it’s very important for an artist to understand the dynamics of their craft so that they may know where and how to carve a niche for themselves through their expressions. It is one thing to just present work of art that only perpetuates the sameness, and definitely another to offer an alternative view on such matters.
Perhaps I should point out at this stage that I’m in no way saying that with the release of my book, A Series of Undesirable Events, that I’m offering an alternative of storytelling. The approach I had is different no doubt, but the reason was not to appear fresh or anything like that. I had a complete story I wanted to tell and chose to present it in fragments, which worked beautifully well for me. I think it would be fair to state that were it not for the Centre for the Book, part of the South African National Library, I may have not published my first book yet. My debut complete book would have been a novel that I had been writing since the latter part of 2008, which I hope to finish by year end.
I came across some communication on the Internet that one could submit a manuscript to the Centre for possible publication, and that’s where some ideas I had about the Series of Undesirable Events were refined and led to my writing and submitting my manuscript. As for the poetry part of things, I decided to stay away from that art form until I’m in the right frame of mind to refine the many poetry drafts I had written. I’m very pleased that the New Coin published few of my poems.
Hector: Where is the book going to be published and why this particular publisher?
Deon-Simphwe: As I indicated above, the book will published through the Centre for the Book in terms of the process followed in selecting the publishable manuscript from the pool they had, and funding the whole project. My manuscript along with about eight others was selected from about 70 entrants, I think. In essence, the whole project is a self-publishing initiative, one I would highly recommend for authors, emerging or otherwise, because through it one learns so much about the book industry. I’m not quite sure how creative freedom and artistic independence is handled in mainstream publishing; all I know is that self-publishing offers that platform which may enhance one’s vision and output in the end. Seeing that Centre for the Book is housed in the Cape Town branch of the National Library, and I’m also an adoptive Cape Town resident, I would say the book is published in Cape Town. Besides all the work on it was done in the elegant Mother City.
Hector: Please tell us more about yourself
Deon-Simphiwe: Interesting question Mr. Kunene. Mmmmhh... Let’s see. I think it’s best to present myself as a dreamer. Other than that, I’m life’s most enthusiastic student who prefers giving back to the same life that inspires me so much. I’m a concept, a pulse and a belief. I’m a belief that I can be the best me I can be if I continue nurturing myself. I’m a commitment to that self-concept through love because through love all is possible. I’m grateful for the love I have been given by loved ones all these years. Through that and new people I meet, I feel I’m becoming a better person. I hope this helps (chuckles)
Hector: You were born and bred in Klerksdorp, but later moved to Welkom where you spent a considerable amount of time. Which writer/s from your hometown would you say have paved a way for you?
Deon-Simphwe: This question is interesting too and sadly puts me on the spot. In spite of the fact that I had been a very vigilant kid who always went out there to absorb whatever information that came my way, I won’t quite say I had a favourite author, especially in both primary and high school years – we did not read much. Many other things occupied my consciousness that to single one out as having being paramount to my reading habits would be misleading. I could point out the books that made a huge impact in my childhood because I could relate to them with acute profoundness. And both were prescribed for the school curriculum.
The first one was a book called Tahleho, a Sesotho novel which we read in standard four, I think (Grade 7). Then followed The Calf of the November Cloud and Love, David, both in standards six (Grade 8). I think the fact that we were very active and creative kids (me and my twin brother) we would usually be telling stories to friends and this came from all that we were exposed to as kids. I could mention Mr Sibuyi, my former High School English teacher, as a catalyst in my interest in the English language which may have subsequently led to my writing today. It is through his continued mentoring on the use of the English language that I grew attached to this language and eventually encountered amazing writers in my young-adult life. I also owe a lot to my beloved cousin, Abe Skade, whose witty command of the English language presented a beautiful and colourful world of a need to express myself better. My highly cherished twin brother Dean-Sipho, had been my lifelong inspiration to this day – he’s the most intelligent, witty and loving man I know.
Hector: What kind of books do you read?
Deon-Simphwe: I read anything that is honest in its presentation, but mostly fiction. I used to read like a mad man before: markets, IT, politics, etc. But through that I also learnt to see through agendas that the communicators of these messages embedded in their stories. That’s when I somehow got disillusioned for a while, until I got back to reading again, but minimally this time. The work I come across ought to be honest enough for me to warrant it my interest because somehow I’ve become a very fussy reader. Whatever is presented needs to be done in such a way that it does not reproduce what has already been there in terms of presentation, style and all those sometimes inhibitive disciplines of writing. A story may be hackneyed in terms of its subject, but as long as it’s being told with honesty and independent identity, I will read it. What normally threatens to give me a heart attack are these formularistic stories that we see everywhere. Oh! I also dislike anything with motivational talk (self-help books) or formularistic philosophy, not that I read any philosophy books anyway.
I think I also need to mention that my reading goes beyond books. It goes as far as great movies (there are so little of them), music, social dialogues, and anything where people tell stories – those are my books.
By the way, I’m currently listening to Saul William’s Volcanic Sunlight. Now, that’s a record I would listen to for a long time because it is truthful in its presentation. He opens the album with a short and powerful poem, which seems to be the only conventional slam poem as the tradition of spoken word suggests. What follows is what feels like a cosmic journey into the pleasant unknown, once the listener gets the piece much later. The opening track, Look to the Sun, plays a beautiful narrative of heavenly bodies in the manner that engages one’s consciousness and leads to pondering. I get reminded of the late Lewis Nkosi’s thoughts on the significance of the heavenly bodies like the sun that he used in his masterful novel, Mating Birds. That kind of relationship people have with nature interests me because it offers an important reflection of people’s fears and other emotions. I have used some of such narratives in my book, trying to demonstrate the relationship we have with nature beyond flowers and other conventions.
I suppose that is why Volcanic Sunlight is on the repeat mode on my music player. Those who know Saul’s earlier work as a spoken word poet may find him to have evolved into a mode that challenges them to find him again. But he’s reached a much more profound terrain that sees him loom large over many art forms of conventional expressions we see perpetuated mainly by television. I’m drawn into such honesties and confidences. Saul may have chosen to ride the crest of the slam poetry wave he helped spearhead after the immense contribution of the Lost Poets and Gil Scott-Heron among other forefathers of this art form. But Saul looked inside and discovered these intense expressions that elevate him to a position of an ultimate leader of thought and creative output. It’s like Bilal Oliver Sayeed, the soul singer. His latest project, Airtights’ Revenge is a majorly profound shift from his previous brilliant releases (if you consider the leaked Love For Sale album to be a release in spite of being available on the Internet) That’s what true artists do, I think, they always shift the bar, not for anyone but themselves, because if they are honest enough, people would relate to their creations. So, it will be difficult to confine by response in terms of what I read to literature. I read music and all these other beautiful pieces people create.
Hector: You chose to publish fiction. Does this make you only a fictionist?
Deon-Simphwe: I’m not quite sure about the fictionist part of it. All I know and believe in is that fiction, contrary to what may be a popular belief out there, is one of the most powerful ways of reflecting our world with all its victories, tragedies and all that burdens it. Movies are works of visual fiction, so are many other aspects of our lives. And I suppose that is why to some extent I have some problem with the so-called biographies or autobiographies. I don’t wish to dispute what has been established as this genre by the names given to it, but wish to say that there’s so much fiction in our lives we’re even fictitious about how we embrace some of these defined concept – we’re creatures of habit as they say.
Fiction for me presents a vehicle to reflect the world as I see it, in the manner that no other platform has afforded me thus far. The closest to that confidence I have with telling stories is through music, it’s a pity I cannot play any instrument or can sing. But I write about music which helps my course a great deal. If I could play, music would be my kind of fiction. It still is in some ways. I suppose that is why I weave music into my work in general. As the saying goes, “good writing should sing”. I hope to master my craft so that I can sing well too.
Hector: You chose to write your book in English; any particular reason?
Deon-Simphwe: Well, like I hinted earlier, I had a very incredible English teacher who instilled the love of this language in me. I think I was heavily drawn into how he made English his own by speaking or reading it in the most amazing manner I had ever been exposed to a black person speak or read it. It was so honest it did not feel like it’s an acquired language after all. He spoke the way he would speak his own language, except his tone and presence was music to one’s ears – and his wit (I’m drawn to witty people). He did not change his accent or assume a conceited position where he twisted words in pronouncing them and attempted to turn up the nose like some black people do when they want to appear a certain way. So, I was drawn to the richness of the language which I liked a lot because the material around us had been predominantly in English – still is, to the gloom of traditional African languages. The world of English grew in me as I needed to acquire more knowledge about our world as you know that a very limited volume of text is available in indigenous languages. In a nutshell, I think my need to learn about the world beyond my domestic frontiers made English my language of choice. But I wish to write in Sesotho one day. For this book’s purpose, the stories I related in it needed a much wider audience, which would have greatly disadvantaged non-Sesotho speakers had I written them in Sesotho, my Father-tongue.
Hector: Would you consider writing in your mother tongue? Looking at the emergence of your peers like Jah- Rose, Teboho Masakala, Vonani Bila, Maxwell Kanemanyanga, Mbalenhle Xulu, Skietrekker and yours truly (Hector Kunene) etc, they have all published texts in different languages including their mother tongue. Are we not loosing touch with our roots by neglecting our indigenous languages?
Deon-Simphwe: Well, like I said earlier, I would love to write in Sesotho, and to date have begun getting into that space through various vehicles like e-mail, SMS and so on. I recently had an attempt of writing a flash fiction piece called, Johnny, which I published on Acoustic Strings. That piece opened my eyes wider on how some aesthetic of language are lost through simple things such as thinking in a certain language for a prolonged time. I mean there was appoint when I was writing the short piece that I literally had to bring my thoughts into an environment that was completely devoid of English, and it was very interesting and challenging at the same time. But with that difficulty, a set of new challenges present themselves: the choice of words, the arrangement of these words, and the manner in which the story is being told, are just a few things one pondered over quite seriously. But, I’ll get there in the same way as I have done in English.
I admire writers who publish in their mother tongue because that way a language and one’s heritage are preserved. The names you mentioned are an inspiration to me because they are a very small percentage of people trying to fight a course which should be handled by a large body of a people, government included. Besides, language is the power. But I also don’t want to write in Sesotho for the hell of it. Otherwise I would not be helping the course. Besides, I don’t want to look back and regret ever publishing a badly written piece because it had to be in my mother or father tongue. Like with other things, there has to be great discipline in this language.
Hector: What can be expected from you in the long run?
Deon-Simphwe: Well, I can’t say. All I know is that I just wish to tell many stories. I hope to finally finish writing my novel. I have invested so much time and dedication into it. It would be very fulfilling for me to see it published. Hopefully I may finish by year end.
Hector: How is the culture of reading and writing in Cape Town?
Deon-Simphwe: Well, it’s not quite easy to say. There is definitely a culture of reading as reflected through book launches around Cape Town. But my biggest concern may be with the small number of young people from these events, especially black. But again, I could be moving in the wrong circles. I think people read which is very important. The content of what they are reading may be a subject of another time for those keen on dissecting such issues. We need people who may create as beautiful literature, if not better than our predecessors. And this need not be confined to this discipline called literature, but may be in various forms of expressions. Sello K. Duiker and Phaswane Mpe, whom I both admire (I still speak of them in the present tense because they are that important to our course) added formidable voices to literary legacy. We need much more and Cape Town is offering that on a number of platforms, be it poetry, music and so on.
Hector: You have met and shared conversations with great writers in South Africa, one such distinguished writer is Aryan Kaganof, who seems to have had a great influence in you, kindly elaborate.
Deon-Simphwe: From an artistic point of view, Kaganof is for me a consummate artist who is deeply dedicated to his art forms. I greatly admire his work ethic and honesty, all which is reflected in his many projects. As to how he does all that he produces puzzled me a great deal. I learnt invaluable lessons from his honesty and dedication. I think we share what I may term similarities in some of our motivations and perspectives, which is what I may say for many other artists I admire. I find Kaganof’s work very engaging and perhaps provocative for other people. But because he’s a bona fide artist with a beautiful heart, which like some great artists I know, puts him in a very good position where I’m concerned; he’s a pleasant inspiration for one to have – an artist should inspire. Oh! I admire his profound and effortless wit too – you should read his work!
I met Vonani Bila too, whom I respect immensely for the work he has done through his Timbila project. Allan Kolski Horwitz comes to mind also for great work done through Botsotso. So is Sis’ Malika Ndlovu and many other inspirational people, all whom showed me love through our varied engagements.
Through my book, I was very blessed to have had contributions from amazing people in the calibre of Victoria Collis-Buthelezi, Daniel Rosmat Kubayi and Graeme Arendse. They all showed me so much love and shared invaluable lessons on book issues with me.
Hector: Your own perspective of the role of critics in literature?
Deon-Simphwe: I’m glad that you asked this question Hector. Before I address it, rather allow me to focus on the aspect of general reviewing first, which much like criticism, rests on looking at the presented work of art from a certain point of view. As a person who writes reviews myself, I personally believe that as a reviewer, I should not impose my views on the readers of my reviews. My fundamental responsibility is to share my take on a work of art as honestly as I can. What people should never forget is that reviews and criticism are but opinions of the reviewer or critics. It is not fact and cannot be passed on as such. Criticism or reviews should be a basis on which the created work may be dissected for various reasons. Some people would appreciate the motive behind the story while others would appreciate language and other aesthetics. Invariably and perhaps inevitably, there’d be those who would dislike certain things about the work of art before them. All those views, whether positive or not, form part of a social dialogue that the audience should have – an author is part of this audience too. Also, such debates should not be confined to academics. For we all belong to this world.
Criticism, much like reviews, look at aspects of the whole which is interesting if you think of it because no story is complete. You may have written 150 000 words and call that effort a novel, and someone may reduce all that effort into a perspective of a mere 1000 words at best; which if you apply rationale, would realise just how superficial reviews and criticism may be at times. Even this restriction of 1000 words I made and example of above is generous in some publications because there are space issues and the capital vehicle to maintain with others. That is why when I review, and perhaps that is why blogs are so important because they are not regulated by people with ulterior or vested motives and interests, I don’t have any restrictions. If I write a review or an essay of 2000 words, I hope someone would read it someday. Even the opinions shared in a 2000 worded piece are just mere pieces of a very large whole. Besides, no one would ever articulate the motives of the story and all the tools used to construct it than the author of the work. But there are sometimes unintended consequences from one’s creation that may result in people discovering themes that the author may not have had in mind when creating his/her stories.
All in all what I’m trying to say is that reviews or criticism are needed in a society in order to better aspects of our lives. Regrettably, other reviewers and critics go about these tasks in an authoritative and repulsive manner that lacks an element of being constructive. Stories are constructed and plans were made to create them. But at times one gets an impression that some reviewers and critics overlook this aspect or at best deliberately ignore it so that they may tear other people’s efforts into undignified reflections. But they are entitled to their opinions in the same way as everyone is. I suppose it’s just a matter of preference. Look at all these words in this interview. We’re sharing opinions that some people may not agree with us on. But the good thing one can do is to take in the criticism and see if the critics had a point by evaluating one’s work for flaws that may have been pointed out. And if the author is convinced that those are not flaws with regards to what he/she was trying to create, then they should not be bothered. Besides, next projects usually present an opportunity for one to do better.
Hector: What would you say is the best remedy to bring back the love of books to young people? As of late it is all about the Internet, Facebook, Skype, Mixit, Tweeter etc?
Deon-Simphiwe: It would be autocratic of me to prescribe to others what to do with their time and life. I’m not part of any of the communities you mentioned except for my use of the Internet for other things. So it will be unfair to make recommendations really. Besides, my blog is hosted on the Internet which is the mother of these developments and communities you mentioned above, all which serve a huge role in the lives of millions in spite of what we may think of such developments. Besides, people are engaging each other through such platforms which is good – people thrive on contact.
All I can say is that the best discoveries one may make are through books among other products. People need to read in order to have a complete perspective of the world they are living in. There’s nothing as tragic as a person living in a glass house but throws stones at a world tremendously bigger than his imagination. If you wish to unlock some key aspects of this world, do so through reading; that’s my only advice. In spite of what the many had predicted at the birth of the information age, books are immortal. They may be changing form and have resulted in e-books and other developments; what is key is that the power these products have to unlock puzzles for us may never end. The Internet has just widened the reach of the book albeit other distractive features hinder such discoveries on the net.
Hector: You are a master behind a world class blog called Acoustic Strings, what inspired it?
Deon-Simphwe: Gees! I did not expect this question. Well, first of all thanks for your flattering comments about Acoustic Strings. I feel other people deserve such generous credit for their inspirational efforts though. I started blogging in the latter part of 2009 after what I may term a period of great need to celebrate life, particularly black life (there was a lot of negativity in the air – there still is). I remember telling a dear friend that I would love to run a website where I would collaborate with other writers to highlight the beauty about black people I feel is often overlooked or simply less celebrated. But for that I would have to get a hosting company which I would have to pay for such services. So I created Acoustic Strings as a blog platform instead, a free tool to do exactly what I wished for. And the very fact that it’s free inspired so many other aspects of my life. We borrow books from the library for free; we breathe free air and enjoy the benefits of many other free things – it would have been improper for me to pay to celebrate others. Besides, the fact that blogs are free, is a political statement in every sense of the word, a subversive development that is still reflective of the fact that not all people are driven by the need to amass wealth. I would like to thank Google’s Blogger for such a free and powerful platform – we seldom say thank you.
That is how the blog started – I wanted to fundamentally throw my little weight in celebrating black life and other people who do inspirational work across the colour line, but more so for the black mass for reasons found from our history and our present. Besides that, I would also note these very interesting aspects of Cape Town’s life that I would write down or capture through my camera phone, or I would have thoughts about a particular product of art that I would want to share my views with others. I also wished to reflect some aspects of our lives as I see them, hence the by-line of the blogs says: strumming on life with all its victories and follies. Oh! I also wanted to write about music – I love music greatly.
There had been various changes on the blog as I began to find my place and refined what I was trying to do, and I love the form the blog has taken. I’m thankful to the readers too who have inspired me to be more focused, disciplined and dedicated through their very flattering remarks that they share with me behind the scenes and on the blog itself (their contribution in posts, comments and so on). What came out from my blogging initiative was a discovery of other amazing blogs like the Kagablog.
Hector: This blog has reflected work of various people, low and high profile individuals. What was the aim and has it lived up to it?
Deon-Simphwe: There is so much to put out there and celebrate, so much that the little that I have done so far to that end seems insignificant. I wish I could have more time in my hands to widen the scope of my interest. By that I mean things that inspire me greatly that I believe inspire others too – all our people, black, yellow or blue, as long as it’s human beings, people are too beautiful man. In terms of the people whose work is featured there, I made it clear from the beginning that no person should be treated better than another one because they are widely known. For me “Everybody is Famous” (That’s a title of one movie I adore by the way), that is why I treat everyone the same and afforded them the same attention. In fact, I feel “non-famous” people are marginalised and this is tragic because great and inspirational stories come from the so-called unknown people. Even the famous began little. Everyone matters, that is why I have set that principle from the word go. Now I remember how I would go out there at some shows or events and getting back home to write about them and publishing them. That was great fun. It’s a pity I don’t have as much time as I had back then.
Personally, I’m against any prepared information especially the one that purports to be objective and all. If it’s really objective and democratic, we should not read about the same people in the news and other mass communication media. I don’t listen to the radio anymore, one tool I used to love more than a lot of mass communication media because of its engagement before I discovered its preparedness too. Listening to the same artists because entertainment industry politics favour them more than others really “sucks”. We should hear so many artists being played on radio that if for example you hear one artist today, you’ll hear them again next month because there are so many great artists who are not being played on the airwaves. But this will never happen because we’re governed by capitalists who tell us we’re living in a democracy yet they monopolise aspects of our lives. The key to survival in our times is to live outside the conventional means. Besides, life is fulfilled and exciting like that. Everything has become “much of muchness”. But Acoustic Strings and other platforms are there to offer alternative views, and if our efforts are not recognised, we’re happy with a few audience that would support our courses. I suppose that is why I appreciate blogs so much. They are very independent; more so than what is passed on as independent out there – you know corporations and all that stuff.
Personally, I have a problem with the so-called authoritative or official voices for number of reasons. Such existences suggest that people outside what is considered to be an official position are dumb and don’t have an insightful opinions about matters of this world. Some of these people forget that the world is ruled by opinions. Look at the recent Twitter exchange between Western Cape Premier, Helen Zille, and musician and activist, Simphiwe Dana. According to the reports, if they are true anyway, Premier Zille is said to have said the following regarding Miss Dana’s take on the way the Western Cape is run:
“She is also a great musician, and I am a fan of her music, especially Bantu Biko Street, which means a lot to me for obvious reasons,” Zille said.
“She is not a politician, nor a political analyst, nor does she pretend to be. So I am not surprised that we have differences on this front.”
Now if this is true, it would be very tragic. It would be a means of continuing to silence the voices of the multitudes. Why is Miss Dana not entitled to air her insightful views about the province? Is it because she’s a musician and not a politician? Well, artists played significant role of advocacy across the world for a long time – they helped bring many changes in social dialogue and politics alike. As far as I have seen texts written by Miss Dana, I’d say she’s a lady well versed in the political and social matters of our country – one of a very few musicians who speak their minds and help carry the weigh of the many people who continue to suffer in the so-called “New South Africa”. She has an interesting insight which needs to be listened to like the many politicians and the so-called officials whom some don’t make sense at all; incoherence is even an understatement; oh! And some political analysts, who all of course, are entitled to their opinions.
I think we’re living in very interesting times. We’re said to be in the democratic South Africa, but a lot of contradictions to that end arise. Voices are silenced; people are labelled as racists when they are frank about some subjects of great importance, especially when they have to do with the divide between rich and poor and many other ills of South Africa. I suppose that is why I also don’t consume the news anymore – that stuff takes away a lot of ones energy one could channel to creative output. Besides, there’s fiction (through various disciplines) which I think is a perfect tool to reflect and at times mock our lopsided reality. Acoustic Strings sees and recognises everyone equally and tries to cover anything consistent with what its by-line proclaims – including the links shared that direct the readers to other thoughts, perspectives and things authored or created by others. Like I said, “Everybody is Famous” (chuckles)
Hector: Briefly, your book is going to be released and launched in Cape Town. You plan to do another launch in Bloemfontein too. What is the motive behind this intended move?
Deon-Simphwe: People in Bloemfontein, or should I say the Free State, have shown me great love and support through Acoustic Strings. Their contributions to that platform and their words of appreciation have been overwhelmingly beautiful. Chief Bolaji has been phenomenal in that regard too, through sharing a wealth of information with me and other “emerging” writers. So, to say thank you to all of them, a book launch would only be appropriate.
Hector: Your future aspirations in literature?
Deon-Simphwe: I just wish to tell many more stories. There is just so much to share and I hope my growth would allow me to present these stories I have in appropriate and befitting manner, because each needs just the right voice to articulate and at the moment I’m listening to many such voices in my mind.
Hector: Thank you Mr. Skade, your contributions means a lot and I wish you the best in your future endeavours.
Deon-Simphiwe: Thanks to you too Mr Kunene. Let’s all be love.