“I Wanted People to Hate Me!” – Nakhane Toure Chats about Killing off His Characters at the Open Book Festival
Nakhane Touré and his publisher Thabiso Mahlape chatted to Mervyn Sloman about Touré’s new novel, Piggy Boy’s Blues, at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town recently.
Piggy Boy’s Blues is the first novel to be published under Jacana Media’s new imprint BlackBird Books, which, as Mahlape explained, will focus on black writers and black stories.
“I have got questions from a lot of people asking, ‘Why only black narratives?’,” Mahlape said, “but, as I said to a journalist from the Financial Times in New York, I don’t think that’s a valid question. But that article never saw the light of day.
“Anyone that knows the history of our country, anyone that knows the history of our literary landscape – something that’s been heatedly contested this year alone – will know that we don’t have enough black writers, and that is what we inherited as a country.”
Mahlape says Piggy Boy’s Blues exemplifies the work she is hoping to do. “Nakhane was turned down by other publishers, but aspects of his story resonated with me, so for me it was a ‘yes’ from the beginning.”
Touré’s debut album Brave Confusion won a South African Music Award for Best Alternative Album last year, but he started writing long before his music career took off. “It’s just that music happened to become more successful!” he said.
On the different creative processes, Touré said he finds music more collaborative and more conducive to the exchange of ideas, while writing is much more solitary.
“With writing, you spend so much time alone”, he said. “And you have to understand your characters as individuals. It’s almost like method acting, where you have to go back and remember something awful that happened to you when you were seven years old, and how it made you feel, which is not necessarily healthy.”
Touré mentioned an early conversation he had with Mahlape about the dialogue in the novel. “We said the dialogue was too normal for prose that was so lyrical,” Mahlape agreed.
But the clash between lyricism and realism is what Touré insists he set out to achieve: “I personally do not believe it when I’m reading a novel and someone is speaking in such considered dialogue. Who speaks like that? So I was going for some form of … postmodern realism, if that makes any sense.”
Touré says he was tempted to kill off his main character Davide, which was another thing he and Mahlape had a number of 2 AM conversations about.
“I had no real good reason to kill Davide except the I wanted to affect the reader,” he said. “That’s how it is when you write, sometimes. You make a decision because you want to make people cry and hate you.
“When I was in my first band we had a rule: The song comes first. And I realised that that rule is similar to writing a book. The character comes first, the storyline comes first. Not your shock tactics. But my decision to kill my character had nothing to do with the character, it had nothing to do with the story, it had everything to do with me, as Nakhane. And that’s something my editor, Alison Lowry, has helped me with.”
Sloman pointed out the delicate way Touré treated his characters. “Homosexuality is at the centre of everything that happens in the book,” he said, “and the thing that isn’t there is the reaction against that. At no point are any of the characters dealing with homophobia.”
Touré says Njabulo Ndebele’s landmark 1991 essay “The Rediscovery of the Ordinary” was an influence on this aspect of the novel.
“I wanted to normalise homosexuality without going, ‘Hey! I’m normalising it.’ Because the moment you say that, you are not normalising it. You’re othering it.”
“The three main characters have a very strange relationship, but it’s not strange because they’re gay,” Sloman said.
“Exactly,” Touré replied.
Touré also commented on the fact that some readers’ reports, before the book was published, categorised it as “queer literature”. “I honour the fact that there are queer characters in this novel, but when does something become queer literature, when the writer is queer, or when the characters are queer? Usually when the writer is queer, bookshops put it in a corner behind the business section where nobody will see it.
“When I was finishing this novel I read a lot of supposedly queer literature. I’ve read A Single Man, I’ve read Giovanni’s Room, and many others, so I understand the tradition. But to rebel against this tradition.”
Touré says he did not want to write another story about a young gay man rejected by his family who ends up living on the street and working as a prostitute.
“Not that I don’t think those stories are important, they are, and they helped me,” he said. “But I did want to make homosexuality a central theme in the novel, but just in a different way. I wanted my characters to be complex.”
Touré also revealed how an earlier draft of the novel was slated in a reader’s report, which contained the line: “If it was up to me I wouldn’t publish this.”
“Being me, I thought ‘I’ll show you!’,” Touré said. He cut the novel down significantly and, among other things, shortened the chapter length. “I wanted it to be more punchy and accessible,” he says.
“Well I think it achieves that, absolutely,” Sloman said.
Jennifer Malec (@projectjennifer) tweeted from the event:
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- Piggy Boy’s Blues by Nakhane Toure
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