Nqo­bile gets woke

CityPress - - Voices - PHUMLANI S LANGA pum­lani.sithebe@city­press.co.za

Nqo­bile – The Story of Be­com­ing by Mandhla Mgi­jima Self-pub­lished 352 pages R30.42 as an e-Book from the Google Play store and in hard copy for R240 from mandhlamgi­jima.wixsite.com/of­fi­cial (SA) or store.book­baby.com (US)

In this rather com­plex self-pub­lished fic­tion-slash-lengthy es­say on black iden­tity, new author Mandhla Mgi­jima ex­per­i­ments with lit­er­ary form. He messes with his char­ac­ters’ re­al­i­ties, play­ing bi­og­ra­phy against fic­tion, and folds the novel into a meta con­struct.

Or, to put it sim­ply, the book re­lates the story of a young Zim­bab­wean man called Nqo­bile, and it runs con­cur­rently with the story of Sipho, the “author of the in­ter­na­tional best­selling novel, Nqo­bile” and his con­ver­sa­tion with Nol­wazi, a top jour­nal­ist from Johannesburg who is fo­cused on new forms of the black con­scious­ness move­ment such as #RhodesMustFall.

Sipho is of the view that such move­ments will not achieve their ob­jec­tives. He and Nol­wazi meet to dis­cuss his book, which Mgi­jima cuts to in be­tween the story of Nqo­bile. If you think the con­cept is com­pli­cated, you’re right.

Raised in post-colo­nial Zim­babwe, Nqo­bile gets to study in the US, thanks to an ath­let­ics schol­ar­ship, just like Mgi­jima. Nqo­bile prides him­self on hav­ing forged re­la­tion­ships with white peo­ple as these con­nec­tions al­ways seemed ben­e­fi­cial to him – un­til some­thing, rather small if you think about it, hap­pens to him at the Zim­bab­wean boarder.

He en­coun­ters a white preacher on his way to the coun­try with his fam­ily. Pas­tor Jim presents him­self as a white saviour who shields black peo­ple from a con­fronta­tional sit­u­a­tion in­volv­ing a cus­toms of­fi­cial who gets threat­en­ing and ag­gres­sive with a group of pas­sen­gers on a bus. The con­fronta­tion is averted. The same pas­tor then, in his white skin, scolds the black pas­sen­gers on the bus, and they all buckle to his views. This doesn’t sit well with Nqo­bile, who em­barks on a jour­ney in which he re­alises his mis­take in at­tribut­ing suc­cess to his prox­im­ity to white­ness.

He re­turns home in search of a de­colo­nial black awak­en­ing – the idea that black peo­ple need to veer away from see­ing them­selves as sub­hu­man. He searches for this in re­li­gion and black con­scious­ness groups, but feels that this isn’t quite enough. In the US, he con­stantly has to deal with peo­ple not be­ing able to say his name cor­rectly, as well as AfricanAmer­i­cans who speak about their coun­try of ori­gin with im­mense dis­dain.

To Nqo­bile, black peo­ple only ever make small marks in a white world. We have only made it when we’re on the stage and fa­mous. Ac­cord­ing to Mgi­jima, we’re only ful­filled when we’re in­vited into the world the white man has cre­ated, and feel snubbed when we’re not in­cluded. Nqo­bile and his fic­ti­tious cre­ator Sipho rep­re­sent Mgi­jima’s thoughts on the state of black iden­tity, and that’s great.

But Nqo­bile needs a firmer edit­ing hand. The plot is very con­vo­luted and, sadly, this be­comes a frus­trat­ingly repet­i­tive read.

He may very well be on to some­thing new and ex­cit­ing, but his story suf­fers by slip­ping in and out of a steady flow. There are mo­ments that sing, but many that sigh. At times, the char­ac­ter of Sipho can get very preachy and his con­ver­sa­tions with Nol­wazi about Nqo­bile ques­tion many par­a­digms and is­sues, where these stem from and how these should be tack­led. It makes the whole book feel a bit like an aca­demic es­say.

Mgi­jima is clearly a “woke brother” and this story serves to show that. He poses the ques­tions: “Why is the world so jacked up? How do we fix it?” He then lists all the is­sues black peo­ple face, as well as the steps we should con­sider to change them.

Be­yond that, this is a long-winded re­minder to young black and con­scious peo­ple of our predica­ment in a white world. That said, this book would make a good gift to any­one who isn’t woke. It’ll give them plenty of food for thought.

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