In this episode Mohale Mashigo describes her relationship with time, imagining a future inflected by apartheid, and her controversial Afrofuturism essay.
[Narrative Futures Intro Music]
Chelsea Haith: How do the stories we tell shape how we think about the future, the present and the past.
What is speculation for?
And how might we construct better narratives for a better future?
Narrative Futures is a podcast coming to you from Futures Thinking, a research network housed in The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities.
My name is Chelsea Haith, I’m a doctoral researcher in the Faculty of English, here at the University of Oxford. Welcome to the second episode of Narrative Futures. With me, virtually and across time zones is Mohale Mashigo to discuss Afrofuturism and an alternative apocalypse.
This podcast is interactive. Following the interview you’ll be treated to two prompts designed by novelist and creative writing tutor extraordinaire Louis Greenberg. We invite you to share your responses to these with us via email at email@example.com. We’ll share these on the blog, where you’ll also be able to find the full transcript of each episode with links to the books, writers and ideas that we discuss. As the world so radically changes we hope these conversations and ideas give you insight and inspiration to think about how else we might live and create collectively, going forward.
Mohale Mashigo is a novelist, performer and singer-songwriter, the author of The Yearning and the short story collection, Intruders. Her first novel won the University of Johannesburg prize for debut novel, and was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Awards. She is also a co-writer of South Africa’s first black superhero comic Kwezi, and has released albums and performs under the stage name Black Porcelain.
She is also the author of the novel-adaptation of the film Beyond the River. Born and raised in Soweto, Johannesburg, Mashigo now resides in a sleepy suburb of Cape Town where as she describes it people either ‘start families or retire.’
What follows now is a short extract from her short story collection Intruders, published in 2018 to critical acclaim. The story you’re about hear a part of is ‘Untitled 3’ and forms a part of a series. This short story is an exploration of the minutiae of an apocalypse, amnesia, speculative space-time transcendence and the consequences of segregation along economic lines in an end times scenario.
[Extract from Intruders, read by Mohale Mashigo]
CH: That’s lovely, thank you. So, thinking a little bit about the ideas that you’re dealing with there, a future Johannesburg, a kind of ‘end of times’ kind of story, what really jumps out at me is the intimacy of the four people living in the Carlton Hotel. I wonder if you could speak a little more about why you wrote those four characters together at the end of the world.
MM: Well, you know, this story, Untitled – I couldn’t give it a title because it was supposed to be just a short story, and it [the book] is a collection of short stories but Untitled is one of the shortest ones, and it’s literally about two sisters and the world was coming to an end. One of them had the privilege of going to great schools and of course she had access to people who could get on ships and fly away from the world as it was falling apart, and she then instead decides to give her sister the opportunity to see a new world, to have something new outside of her world. So one of them stays and one of them goes. That was supposed to be the end of it. But as I was writing more stories for the collection, these two sisters kept on bothering me. I needed to know what happened to them so I wrote Untitled 2 and Untitled 3. In Untitled 3… I mean, Johannesburg is such a densely populated area, it’s just busy all the time, there’s no quiet in Johannesburg city. I tried to imagine what it would look like if a huge part of the population had disappeared. Where would people be, what would they do with those spaces. The fact that that Carlton Centre space is abandoned is crazy for me when there are so many people who need homes. I was exploring what people would do with those buildings. And you know, whatevers left of Johannesburg. I liked these three characters because… One of them obviously has a secret and the other is kind of playing crazy and one is trying to figure out what’s going on, but she’s also recovering from her wounds. I just like this idea of three people who don’t know each other but have become each other’s family somehow.
CH: Absolutely, I love the idea of the chosen family in that and the bonding together that is necessitated by something like a catastrophic event, which we’re all living through now, right? I’m interested also in the introduction to the collection, Intruders. You write: ‘Afrofuturism is not for Africans.’ I think this is really important, and I’m going to read it now. You write: ‘Our needs when it comes to imagining futures, or even reimagining a fantasy present, are different from elsewhere on the globe; we actually live on this continent, as opposed to using it as a costume or a stage to play out our ideas.’ I think the excerpt that you read about Johannesburg is obviously exemplary of that. Could you share a bit more about Afrofuturism and what kind of stories you think are missing here?
MM: Well you know, it’s so funny, because when I wrote this essay I nearly didn’t put it in the collection. I told my publisher about it and she said, ‘Well you have to put it in the collection.’
I didn’t think anyone would really read it or have a strong opinion about it, and then suddenly people were saying it’s controversial. I thought, ‘What’s controversial about saying that all black people are not the same, and that our needs are not the same, and our need to imagine our futures is not the same’? Afrofuturism – I don’t have a problem with it and I think we can consume and interact with each other’s art without it being called one thing, I’m very wary of cultural imperialism and I talk about that in the essay as well. I just think that in my stories about the future, I don’t have to talk about the fact that these people have a language that they’ve been speaking for a long time, or they have their own culture. I can actually get down to the nitty gritty of this is what it actually may look like.
So in Untitled 2 – it’s a story about Kamo’s sister who ends up on this space ship. The rich people left Earth and they took a couple of poor people with them and in the context of South Africa, it was, for me anyway: apartheid is not something of the past. So what would that mean for people on the ship? For people with no power. Would that mean, would there be an apartheid 2.0? Monolo says this interesting thing, she says: ‘As it is on Earth so shall it be in heaven.’ And she’s literally talking about whatever crap they’re dealing with in South Africa, before the world fell apart, they’ll deal with that on the spaceship. On the spaceship there’s no rules, there’s no government, there’s no African Union, there’s no politicians or whatever. So it’s a different kind of navigating of post-apartheid South Africa, in a space ship, when the world has fallen apart. So those are the kinds of things I like to deal with and I think Afrofuturism is great, I do like to read Afrofuturistic work, but I don’t think what I do is Afrofuturism. I still maintain that Afrofuturism is not for Africans living in Africa. I don’t know what our thing is called, I’m not a namer of things, I just wanted to point that little thing out.
CH: Yeah, and as you say it was controversial but so important to register these kind of differences in what it means to be black in world, in different places and with different levels of access to privilege. Your evocation there of an apartheid 2.0 or what will or might a post-aparheid or post-colonial world look like if we left the planet is very interesting. It’s obviously a part of that very rich heritage of politics that imbues sci fi. You deal with the past really beautifully in The Yearning, your debut novel, for which you won the University of Johannesburg Prize in 2016 and you were shortlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award. In that you mix traditional and secular views. You seem to be writing a future, or a future/present, that relies on facing past traumas. This seems like a recurring theme in your work?
MM: The other day I saw something, and I don’t know who wrote it, they said there is no before or after, only during. That’s how I like to think of time. That’s why sometimes my stories are not linear. Sometimes we’re in the past, and then we’re back in the present and then we’re in the future - I don’t know how to write a linear story because that’s not how time works for me. And I didn’t know this about myself as a writer until I started The Yearning, and then this came up again in Intruders. I’m interested in time as something that has no past or present, for me. Sometimes when I’m writing – I don’t know how to explain this – but I like to think of everything as during. It’s all happening right now and it all has an effect you know. It becomes very tricky when people try to write without any knowledge of the past, or to be like ‘I’m going to write futuristic things’ without thinking about the past and how history keeps repeating itself. That’s why I like to think of things as during as opposed to before and after.
CH: I love that, the permanence of time rather than the linearity of it, and the inhabiting of time rather than it passing us by, which is one of the ways we articulate it. I love the analogy that you give of wearing takkies, or trainers, that fit us, versus, resisting, or wearing these takkies to resist US and UK cultural imperialisms, and choosing to wear the shoes, the takkies, that fit. I wanted to speak a little bit about your work with Kwezi, South Africa’s first black superhero. How does that fit with that, and what has your experience of writing South Africa’s first superhero been?
MM: So Loyiso Mkhize and Clyde Beech started Kwezi together, I think it was in 2014, and they kept saying ‘Kwezi is South Africa’s first superhero’ and I love telling this story. Kwezi is not actually South Africa’s first superhero. South Africa’s first superhero was a dude called, I think it was Mighty Man. This was a part of apartheid propaganda, so Mighty Man was a ‘good black person’ under apartheid and he was basically an instrument of apartheid propaganda, he basically went around telling other black people: ‘Carry your passbook, don’t litter, don’t do this, be a good citizen.’ But people never really took to Mighty Man, because, if you’re so mighty, you aren’t you stopping apartheid? [Laughter]. I love that story of Mighty Man and I am still to this day trying to find a copy of Mighty Man.
I always think about the idea of Mighty Man being a ‘good black’ person under apartheid and influencing the other black people and then I think of the story of Kwezi. He’s a kid from the Eastern Cape, who moved to Johannesburg, we call it Gold City. This guy is like lots of young South Africans who come from rural communities and move to big cities for opportunities. He’s doing what a lot of young people are doing, which is hustling, you know, Pressa, Pusha, Phanda, they are doing all of this kind of stuff. Kwezi’s got to find himself, you know he’s wrestling with his parents’ traditional belief and what he thinks is cool. He’s also very reluctant to accept the ‘chosen one’ story, though he is the chosen one. He’d really rather be an influencer, and have lots of Instagram followers and do cool stuff. I like the idea of Kwezi because it is very South African – everybody wants to be a star. You just have to spend time in Johannesburg to see that everybody really does believe they’re a star. I liked the idea of Kwezi being the antithesis of South Africa’s real first superhero which was Mighty Man. For me, Kwezi is us wearing those proverbial takkies and staying in our lane as opposed to just copying and pasting something that is cool from somewhere else.
CH: You’ve said elsewhere that you’ve had really positive feedback on Kwezi from your readers, I presume that that readership spans generations?
MM: It’s really interesting because when we do readings we expect a much younger crowd, but then there are people in their twenties. When we write it we do have subtext, so the kids of course will enjoy the bright colours and the car chases and whatever. But there’s also the subtext of living a dual life in South Africa as a young black person, where you’ve got all of these Western ideals but you also have a traditional family who want something different from you. There are two [cultures] that want something from you and you have to decide which way to go, and we have lots of parents saying they love Kwezi too. It’s always interesting for me that so many people across so many ages groups are really in love with this story.
CH: I think’s really universal… or maybe not universal, but universal to South Africa because of this worldview that anyone can make it in Johannesburg, and that Johannesburg is the city paved with gold, which has for the longest time been part of the country’s mythology. And then there’s the reality of multiple cultures and people trying to mix your traditional and your family expectations with the Western ideals.
I’m going to repeat one of your own questions back to you. You don’t answer it in the introduction to Intruders, so I’m really keen to hear what you think now. How does who we are right now affect an imagined future?
MM: Oh, okay! [Laughter]. I don’t know, I’m working through this in my work. The more I write, the more I feel like if we don’t imagine a different world, based on who are and the kind of past we’ve had –and maybe I’m speaking specifically about South Africans – if we don’t acknowledge where we come from, then how do we imagine? Because we have to know what things we don’t want.
Here’s a basic example: apartheid. We don’t want that, right? It’s part of who we are, it’s part of our past. So when we imagine a future, one of the things is zero-apartheid. But, what were the things that happened that made apartheid so… I won’t say successful, but it definitely went on for far too long… what were the circumstances that made that happen? In order to imagine a future, we need to know all of that stuff. It’s nice to know that Verwoed came up with a couple of laws, but what was happening before? Would I go as far as the Anglo-Boer war? Probably. You know?
So I think if we have an understanding of who we are, what we’ve experienced and what has shaped us, and we want to imagine futures, we need to understand that first. So I don’t know if I’m answering your question, I don’t know if I’m answering my own question! [Laughter]
CH: That’s absolutely the case, you do a beautiful job of digging into the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ of the characters to figure out what kind of future they might inhabit.
Thinking now about what you might be reading, watching or interacting with media-wise at the moment, what kind of imagined futures are you looking for?
MM: Well, you know, I’ve been thinking about love, this idea of love and the world is… when we think about love we think about romantic love. And this is because my new novel, the work in progress, is about love, but not just about romantic love. It’s about the work of love. Given what’s happening in the world a lot of people are saying ‘teach me, I want to be different’ but also ‘I’m so sensitive to my privilege.’ And love is undoing that, right? Love is unlearning and love is learning. When I think about futures, specifically in this book that I’m working on, there’s a lot of learning and unlearning. But it’s all rooted in love, and love is work. For me right now when I think about futures I’m thinking about the work of love. Whether it’s love for planet, love for your yourself, love for your community, love for your gender… For me right, I’m thinking if there’s any future to be imagined, we need to start looking at what the work of love is.
CH: That’s very powerful, I love that idea. I’m really looking forward to the next novel. When… Is there a due date on that and can you give us any teasers? [laughter]
MM: Both my agent and my publisher think they’re going to get something soon, but I’ve been doing so much unwriting. Just going back to things and going, ‘Ag no.’ Going back to it, and this was many years ago when I first wrote it, the ideas seemed good, but I’ve grown so much I’m doing a lot of rewriting. It’s becoming a different story. So I don’t know when it will be out in the world.
CH: That’s kind of your process isn’t it? You write something and you live it along for a bit and then you come back to it later?
MM: I’m one of those people who cannot be working on one thing only. So right now I’m working on Kwezi, and I’m working on this novel. But I’ve also started another writing project that will probably be novel number three. I like to do that because then I don’t have anxiety about… ‘Oh my goodness, can I still write?’ And I’m sure this side-thing that I’m doing for fun, I’ll come back to it in two years and think, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ I always like to have smething in the wings.
[Narrative Futures music]
CH: For those writers and speculators listening, stay with us now for writing promps and exercises designed to encourage putting pen to paper, or hands to keyboard, as well as reflection on the writing process. This section is designed and presented by Louis Greenberg.
Louis Greenberg’s writing prompts
- The end of your world
In Untitled 3, Mohale Mashigo re-imagines her home city of Johannesburg in an apocalyptic time.
Writers and film makers are very aware of the pleasure of destroying our home towns.
For your first prompt, describe an end to your home town, city, neighbourhood or village.
You might like to write a few paragraphs of key description and action and then write some brief contextual notes. As always, the word count is up to you – but for the purposes of this exercise, I’d like you to keep it local.
Imagine an apocalypse in a place you know intimately; maybe even to the extent of boredom. It may just be a few streets or a familiar field. Or it may be an entire city centre you can commute with your eyes closed.
Remember that apocalypse isn’t necessarily complete destruction. What does apocalypse mean to you?
You may like to pause now, and come back when you’ve written.
When you’ve written your apocalypse, ask yourself:
What have you chosen to destroy? Why?
What have you chosen to change? Has anything grown or prospered?
What have you chosen to describe? Has your focus been on buildings, nature, people or anything else?
List up to ways your familiar place will be worse. List up to five ways life there might be better.
As always, please feel free to share your results with us.
- Biddle, mend and eginning
Mashigo says she doesn’t know how to write a linear narrative. ‘There is no before or after,’ she says, ‘only during.’ This interplay between linear and non-linear and nested narratives is a common theme throughout these interviews.
For your second prompt, practice playing with temporal form. Take the Genesis myth – or any other famous linear, cause-and-effect plotline – and rewrite it in a non-linear way.
I often think of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians in Slaughterhouse 5 when I think of non-linear narrative. They teach Billy Pilgrim to become ‘unstuck in time’. They see humans as stuck on a railway car, travelling in the same direction at a constant speed, looking only in one narrow direction, whereas Tralfamadorians can visit any part of the temporal net at will.
Mastering Tralfamadorian time would allow us not only to write stories in an interesting new way, but also as a by-product it releases us from the concepts of fate and destiny which one might argue have caused a number of problems in the world.
How would the creation of Adam and Eve and Original Sin look different if cause was unlinked from effect?
Consider the technical – and philosophical – repercussions of being unstuck in time.
[Narrative Futures Music]
CH: And that concludes our second episode of Narrative Futures. If you have any comments or would like to submit work to be featured on our blog please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow us and Tweet us @ThinkFuturesNow. Your host on this podcast is Chelsea Haith, and you can tweet me @chelsea_haith, and Louis Greenberg is also on Twitter @louisgreenberg.
Thanks to Mohale Mashigo for joining us on this episode. Next week I’ll be speaking to Sami Shah about djinns, Pakistani myth, and whether or not we might replace our governments with benign AI.
Music credit: The sounds used in this podcast are Technological Vibe and Cyber Technologies by Ricky Rombino, sourced from Premium Beats.
Production credit: This podcast was devised, recorded, and edited by Chelsea Haith. All writing prompts were designed and presented by Louis Greenberg.