Lewis Nkosi

Lewis Nkosi who was born in Durban, South Africa, in 1936 is considered one of Africa’s most important authors as well as literature and culture critics. He has been critically commenting on the cultural and political developments in his country and on the African continent since the 50s, when still in Johannesburg, writing for the legendary magazine ‘Drum’. Nkosi was soon prevented from writing his criticisms of the regime from inside his country.  When in 1961 he received a scholarship to study at Harvard, he was forbidden by the South African government to return to his country. From this point on, Nkosi resided as a literature scholar in the U.S., in Zambia, and in England, from where he wrote and commented on the events in his homeland.

In addition to essays and scholarly writings, Nkosi has written short stories, theater pieces as well as novels. In the novel ‘Mating Birds’, which was translated into ten languages, the author thematizes the explosive political force that sexual relationships between blacks and whites have in a regime under apartheid.  In his death cell, the first-person narrator Sibiya looks back and tells about his relationship with the white Veronica, who has accused him of raping her. Nkosi contrasts the main theme, the segregation of sex partners on the basis of their skin color, with the background motif of the birds who seem to enjoy more freedom. From his cell window, Sibiya watches the birds freely pair up with one another in flight.  In this novel is portrayed the sharp racial division at the time of its appearance which rendered white South Africans incapable of fully understanding the plight of black South Africans. This is explicitly underlined in Sibiya’s relationship to the psychologist Dufr� when the protagonist reflects amusedly on how the whites often attempt to to interpret foreign cultures by means of European models of understanding, in Dufr�s case by using the psychoanalytical ideas of Freud.  He remembers his father’s warning: “Our ways are not the ways of white people, their speech is not ours.  White people are as smooth as eels, but they devour us like sharks.”  In its structure as a prison report, as well as in the distanced and detached way the protagonist follows his uncertain destiny and tells his story, the novel is clearly reminiscent of ‘The Stranger’ by Albert Camus.  The text also employs postmodern narrative techniques, for instance, when Sibiya reflects on his own narration, taking an interest in the unfolding of events as if he himself were uncertain of what happened.  The style is precise and laconic and emphasizes the opacity of events.  Nkosi’s second novel ‘Underground People’ was published to unanimous acclaim in 2002 and was shortlisted for the Herman Boesman Prize. He recenlty published ‘Mandela’s Ego’ (2007).  Nkosi divides his time between Basel, Switzerland, and South Africa.

The author died on September 5, 2010.

Dirk Naguschewski

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