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“Writers Can’t Control Everything Related to Their Work”: Interview with Masande Ntshanga, Author of The Reactive

Author pic of Masande Ntshanga

The ReactiveMasande Ntshanga, who won the 2013 PEN International/New Voices Award for his short story “Space”, had his debut novel The Reactive published a few months ago.

He chatted to Books LIVE’s Jennifer Malec about the speculative fiction allegory he started before The Reactive, the “tyrannical” tendencies of the novel form, and Albert Camus.

Hi Masande, thanks for agreeing to be grilled a bit by Books LIVE, and congratulations on publishing your debut novel. How does it feel?

Honestly, I expected to have more friends and money, by now. No, I’m joking. It feels good.

In your interview in the Mail & Guardian you mention a novel you started set in the rural Eastern Cape in the near future that “wasn’t taking off”. Was that a foray into speculative fiction? Or, if not, why did you decide to set the book in the near future?

I suppose it was, though in my mind I always thought of it as an allegory. Not that I have a problem with spec fic, or even science fiction, for that matter. I don’t. I like them. It’s only that the project invested a lot less in world-creating than it did in trying to make a point about education and socialisation. Maybe the terms are interchangeable, but for models, I was going less for 1984 than for a combination of Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids by Kenzaburo Oē and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey — from which I’d also taken the title (naming it after his harvester metaphor). I set it in the near future because it was supposed to span 30 years in the narrator’s life, starting from 1997, when the protagonist is orphaned and sold by a distant relative into an experimental school in the region. The children are bought with cash payments and land parcels in the North West, and upon reaching adulthood, are signed under an indefinite form of indentured servitude in the major cities.

Sounds intriguing. A bit Kazuo Ishiguro-ish. Have you abandoned that project, or do you think you’ll be able to salvage it?

For some reason, I can never salvage an entire project. I usually start from the beginning with something else, and realise only later that it’s a different and improved version of something I’ve tried. In this case, I allow the new project to follow its own logic and only when it feels right, do I then re-contextualise the older material and allow it in. To answer the first part of your question, though, I’ve abandoned the hundred or so pages I wrote of that manuscript, but not the setting or the themes. Unfortunately, a novel isn’t in the intention or the planning, it’s in the language, and if that doesn’t hold, then it doesn’t succeed, at least to me.

You’ve cited Albert Camus’ The Stranger as an influence on The Reactive. People told Camus his book was existentialist, and he disagreed. Have people confidently told you things about your book that you disagree with? How do you deal with questions like that?

It’s funny, in a way. It reminds me of how Jean-Paul Sartre made a point of rejecting the Nobel Prize — rejecting it as an institution — but to this day, remains listed as an affiliate and the 1964 winner for literature. Of course, Camus was justified in his sensitivity to the misconception, being a philosopher himself, but it betrays the same fact; that writers can’t control everything related to their work. I feel like art can only be guaranteed to interact with culture, at the very most, but it can never be guaranteed to effect or guide it in any particular way. Fortunately, for the kind of novel I wanted to write, one that tries to distil scenes from the imagination into a feasible simulation of experience, and then preoccupies itself with transferring this experience to the reader through the effects made available through fiction, I’m not as put out when people get things wrong, as long as they aren’t imposing them as absolutes. That does happen, though. The book is not a cautionary tale on drug abuse, for example, and in fact, makes no comment at all about drugs.

Camus famously claimed that “there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide”. This seems to resonate strongly with your novel.

That’s a good observation. It’s true that Nathi does look at his life as something to be handled or maintained, to be evaluated, rather than to be protected. He’s also aware of its limitations. Camus went on to say that judging whether or not life is worth living is one of philosophy’s most fundamental questions, and I suppose that’s always stayed with me, and is more or less a preoccupation in this book. I wanted, similarly, to create a character for whom living and dying were interchangeable in value, and then to use that character as a way to explore this question in my own way. Amongst other things, The Reactive is more or less a result of this.

The interlude back in time to when LT and Nathi play video games through Werner’s window really stands out for me. The episode should be horrifying, but something about their obviously close, if troubled, relationship seems to invoke a weird sense of nostalgia. I suppose since the book doesn’t go extensively into the brothers’ relationship, these pieces really have to resonate through the story, in order for us to understand or care about Nathi. Did this passage seem special to you as you were writing it?

Thank you. I’m glad you liked it. It was actually my publisher who first drew my attention to it. I remember it as one of the few sections that seemed to have written themselves. I know authors say that kind of thing a lot in order to throw people off, but there’s a reason for it in this case. In general, I find it easier to write in the past tense than I do in the present tense, and secondly, I associate childhood memory with the senses, I think, and adult memory with language. In other words, revisiting the latter often feels like the interpretation of an interpretation, whereas with the former, you have access to something more instinctive and visceral. I’m also glad it felt nostalgic to you. That’s a quality I also enjoy in fiction. For something imagined, it’s always a sign that it’s working.

Nathi’s sense of “exile” seems to stem from his guilt at the loss of his brother. But his friends are in the same kind of aimless funk. I remember at the PEN event at The Orbit recently, Michele Magwood put it to you that the novel was influenced by a kind of fugue state being experienced by young South Africans living in post-apartheid society, which can be compared to a state of “exile” from the meaningful or significant moments in the country’s history. What are your thoughts on this?

I like that reading. I’m always surprised, though, when people show concern over characters being aimless or listless. To me, a lack of motivation has always felt like a legitimate response to capitalism, especially in societies where the consumption is exacerbated by keeping the culture as ahistorical as possible. In cases like those, it can even seem humane to me, to hinder your own participation, almost in the Buddhist sense, where allowing a strong desire to manifest at all costs leads to conflict; to the harm of someone else. For my characters, I guess nothing in their immediate vicinity warrants that kind of desire, and because of their removal from history, and from history’s significant moments, they can’t channel this feeling into creating a counter-narrative — a proposition for a different society — because they don’t have the vocabulary for it.

That about sums it up, I reckon. To move onto more general questions, what do you think you learnt about writing in completing your first full-length novel that was different to what you’ve learnt about writing from short stories?

Short stories are a lot more democratic, in the sense that you can leave a lot unsaid, and that in general, you can do a lot more with the form. Novels, on the other hand, are necessarily conventional, and more tyrannical about structure and having a point, since, because of the time and effort they require, they’re often a bigger investment for the reader to make. In this sense, you have to work a lot harder within their confines in order to keep things interesting for yourself and the reader, whereas for short stories, that’s seldom ever a concern.

What part of the whole process of bringing this book into being did you enjoy the most?

I enjoyed reading the proofs and having the pages feel more alien than they were familiar, which for me was an indication that the novel was working.

Are you working on something new at the moment?

I’ve started working on what I hope will be my second novel.

Are you going to be at the Franschhoek Festival this year?

Yes, I’ve been invited to attend.

Great, then we’ll catch you there. Thanks so much, Masande, and we hope to see more of your work soon.

Thanks for having me.

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