Niq Mhlongo’s fourth book Affluenza, is establishing his reputation as one of the ‘irreverent new voices of South Africa’s post-apartheid literary scene’. But it’s been a journey…
Words: Nancy Richards
“My computer crashed. All I had was the one hard-copy manuscript, which I’d left with a publisher. Months later when I went back, the guy I’d given it to had resigned.” Niq Mhlongo’s career as a writer got off to a rocky start. It was his first novel and he had no idea how these things worked.
“They told me they only published educational books so it would be in among the rejects and, if I wanted it, I’d have to find it. There were thousands, it took me four hours, but I wasn’t leaving without it.” From there he took it to Kwela, but it didn’t get easier.
“There was an intern from the UK who took an interest – we developed a kind of working relationship – but they still rejected it ten times.” Dog Eat Dog finally made it into print in 2004.
Twelve years later Mhlongo’s fourth book Affluenza, is cementing his name as ‘one of the most high-spirited and irreverent new voices of South Africa’s post-apartheid literary scene’. But it’s been a journey.
Soweto-born and seventh of nine children, he says, “There were no kids books in the house when I grew up – there was the Reader’s Digest and my brother Elvis had a collection of African writers. I’d read those when I was bored. But a lot of things happened that got me writing. When I was studying (African literature and politics and first year LLB) at Wits, a close friend committed suicide. I wrote to try and work through it – it ended up as a short story called The Dark End of Our Street (included in Affluenza). I moved to UCT to get away, but I kept writing as a way to heal. I failed the course, but by then the writing had kicked in.”
It was during this time that Niq wrote most of Dog Eat Dog, about life in the complicated kwaito generation of 1994, growing up in a nation of turmoil. What also helped with the healing was keeping a diary. “From my first year at Wits until now. I like to look back on what’s gone on in my life…” He describes his writing ‘like episodes stitched together’.
His subsequent books, After Tears (2007) and Way Back Home (2013) have scored him a robust following, locally and abroad, not least in the US where, in 2006, an extensive article on post-apartheid fiction in the New York Times suggested that he and the late Sello Duiker and Phaswane Mpe, both of whom died tragically within months of each other, were part of South Africa’s emerging cohort of Young Black Writers. Ten years on, Mhlongo is by no means alone bearing this flaming torch, but he’s respected as one who lit the way.
As a key speaker at this year’s Time of the Writer festival in Durban, themed ‘Decolonising the Book’, he said, “People may not like it, but what I write reflects what’s going on in South Africa… about whatever I experience… about gossip… hearsay… about my view of the world.”
In Dog Eat Dog and After Tears he was already prophetically writing about the ‘kind of pressures’ that more recently gave rise to #Rhodes Must Fall, and ‘the life that underlies corruption’.
But in the long-awaited Affluenza short-story collection, Mhlongo carves into post-democratic phobic South Africa with a laser of reality. The stories may not reflect a pretty society, but he writes, in unflinching detail, about what he knows to be so, and you’d better believe him.
Affluenza is published by Kwela www.kwela.com