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Mandla Langa: The Inspiration for The Texture of Shadows is the Streets of KwaMashu

#STBooks: Writing Textures

By Mandla Langa for the Sunday Times:

mandla langa

The Texture of ShadowsExplaining how I came to write my novel The Texture of Shadows takes me back some forty years to my secondary school in KwaMashu Township where we had to write a long composition on how we spent our summer vacations. Naturally, we were somewhat sniffy about such assignments and would jot down imagined outings with relatives in the farms or train journeys to Johannesburg. Most teachers bought into this laziness. There were however exceptions, teachers who pushed us to reflect on the lives unfolding on our streets.

Possibly suspecting that, without their effort, we would most probably emerge out of Verwoerd’s experiment blinded, twisted and maimed for life, these teachers did all they could to intervene in the lives of a saveable few. One such teacher, Mr Khumalo, was a storehouse of proverbs. Short, sombre with scary eyes that flashed from beneath bushy eyebrows, he would slash the wind with a cane as he delivered a sermon: Don’t take anything for granted. There’s a lesson to be learnt from everything around you. The obverse side of the coin of truth is a devastating lie. Read everything, including classified ads.

And we did. But, even though I read potboilers by James Hadley Chase or Mickey Spillane until I collapsed with suspected brain fever, aiming at increasing my vocabulary, I could never totally get lost in this imagined world. The reality on the streets proved all too vivid, more vibrant and certainly scarier than the heists pulsing in the novels we traded weekly at the Ajmeri Arcade Book Exchange on Grey Street.

The main inspiration for Textures is not the ANC camps in Angola, as might been hinted elsewhere, but the streets of KwaMashu, which taught me everything I know about life. In a strange way, the lazy sprawl of the city of Durban prepared me for Luanda, its frenetic languor. The structure of townships everywhere – the material used to build the shelters, the red bricks and corrugated iron that could come in handy in confrontations with authority – is evocative of violent beauty and resilience.

In the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, from the 1970s to the mid-1980s, it was the late Aunt Phil – Phyllis Naidoo – who continued from where my teacher Mr Khumalo had left off. She guided us with a brand of wisdom never featured in academic curricula – and had a hand in the rescue of countless lives of young refugees and exiles. It was she who inspired Nerissa Rodrigues, the main character in my novel. She had also survived an assassination attempt by the Craig Williamsons of the world.

Certain chroniclers of our past have pushed out of the frame the little man and woman whose contribution towards the creation of democratic South Africa was immeasurable. In our haste to promote an unproblematic and amnesiac Rainbow Nation, we have rewarded murderers with medals and even loosed some of them to speak for us in exalted councils. In the postcolonial Kenya that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o so ably portrays, the Mau Mau rebellion against the British has become a source of embarrassment. Today, Umkhonto We Sizwe (MK) as a force of change has been shunted off to the margins.

The dominant narrative about our long journey reads like a buddy movie. It features a long-suffering, unspeakably wise and forgiving resident of a prison island who succeeds in charming a visionary leader of an intractable but well-meaning volk. While there’s no obligatory kiss as the two men stride off into the sunset, as James Baldwin once pointed out, we’re comforted by the knowledge that they’re on their way to Oslo, to collect their gold medals.

Writing Textures was an attempt at showing that it was all a little more complex than all that.

Book details

Image courtesy of Victor Dlamini


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