Causing Confusion: Nthikeng Mohlele and Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho Chat About Memoir and Fiction at Time of the Writer
Nthikeng Mohlele and Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho took part in a discussion entitled “Blurring the Lines: Memoir and Fiction” at the Time of the Writer Festival in Durban recently.
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The discussion was facilitated by Karabo Kgoleng, and began with the authors readings from their work (see videos below).
“I wanted to be at liberty to write as much as I wished and to be creative with the story, to the extent that I could broaden up the story with some social ills that might not have happened to me directly but those I viewed in society,” Mukwevho said.
“However, writing a fictional book based on some aspects of your life does blur the lines. Because a reader tends to overtly confuse the author with the work.
“At some stage I launched my book in Polokwane. And the next week on Wednesday the paper was out, Capricorn Voice, with my picture and the caption ‘former prisoner and ex-rapist Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho’. And I was never in prison for rape. Even the character, Gift, was never in prison for rape. But he has previously committed another crime that was considered as rape. So it’s dangerous for a journalist or a reader to confuse the work and the author. I ended up being labeled an ex-rapist. Being taken as Gift.”
“The book has shocked a lot of my friends, because my character has got … gentlemen entertainment tendencies. That being so, people who are close to me tended to confuse me with my character. And I haven’t been to such establishments. But it would be nice to go. It’s good to be educated,” he joked.
“However, it doesn’t bother me too much if readers confuse me for my character. As a rule I don’t put myself in my books. I don’t see the point of it. Yes, personal eccentricities would creep in, because it does come from some subconsciousness of myself, so my love for music, for instance, my fascination with landscapes, cerebral characters – I’m very turned on, as in tickled, by intelligent people that I learn from.”
Kgoleng pointed out that both The Violent Gestures of Life and Rusty Bell deal with the idea of prison, both as a physical confinement in the real world, and a confinement of the mind.
“When you construct the idea of prison, confinement, to what extent do you think that your social condition creates those prisons, and at what point do you think human being can transcend them, if at all?” she asked.
“That’s not an easy question,” Mukwevho said. “On my part, I was focusing on crimes committed by the youth and the discord within family life. The constructs in themselves are such that there is just disorder, within the familial and societal system, relating to children and youth. They are committing crimes that we do not even want to think about, unimaginable crimes, and they are children themselves.
“So we find that in such stories I am not just writing from a vacuum. I stepped in and tried to write stories based on my own personal experience. And then I would think about the reader as well, that even though I am writing about my personal circumstances, there is a reader who is going to pick up the book as well. So I needed to accommodate that reader as well.”
Mohlele agreed, saying that it was the degrees of confinement in society that interested him, his character being trapped in an unhappy marriage and in a society with values he cannot seem to connect with meaningfully.
“I think that prison is a very subjective thing. And confinement has got many attributes to it. And for me, from a creative point of view, I was dealing with issues of degree. So that confinement itself was as important as the degree of confinement, as well as the tools available to break that confinement and create new meaning.
“But it’s not so much the confinement that interests me as what it echoes and what it means in a philosophical reading of what the theme is, or what it signifies to the story on a thematic level, or just plain narrative. Bearing in mind that there are things in society, value systems and what have you, that are constructs and it is only when they are broken that we come back to confinement and prison. And that is why there are such things as divorce. It’s a breakaway from prison.
“There are such things as revolutions, in which an entire nation gets pissed off and says ‘fuck this, we’re tired of it, we would like something new, something better’, and I think that is breaking away from a prison. So there is a question of degree, which I think can be deceptive.”
During the question and answer session, Mukwevho was challenged as to why his character, Gift, despite being victimised by everyone he knows – especially by the women in his life – by the end of the novel is “reformed” and feels that he is “guilty as charged”.
“There came a time where Gift accepted that he had wronged all those people, even though in some instances he felt that he was wronged. I can’t say you are misreading the book,” Mukwevho said.
“As a writer, when I write, I just want to be able to give all those pictures out. There are some other areas where the reader out there will feel that ‘you did not cover them in a way that, as a reader, I was expecting them’. As a writer I just have to accept that, okay, there are some areas that did not go in a way that the reader was expecting. But that does not mean that, perhaps, that the next reader will feel the same. At the end of the day, the book is the book and the reader is the reader. The book is open to criticism.”
In Rusty Bell, Mohlele’s character is also victimised by a woman; specifically, he is subjected to non-consensual sex by a women as a teenager, and struggles to decide whether or not it could be considered rape, leaning towards holding himself accountable.
Mohlele said: “I respect the opinions on rape and sexual violence. But I think it might be limiting, misleading and unfortunate to think of it from a statistical point of view, I don’t think it’s statistics to say ‘so many from this gender are raped’. If that were true we couldn’t begin to have that conversation, because women are in the majority in terms of suffering at the hands of men. But even if it were 800 000 women perpetrating such crimes, it wouldn’t make it right.
“And the whole point literature is not to answer everything, but to give a reflection, problematise, as well as – in fact – cause confusion.”
Watch Mohlele and Mukwevho reading from their work:
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Pictures from the event:
Jennifer Malec tweeted from the event:
- The Violent Gestures of Life by Tshifhiwa Given Mukwevho
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