Interview: Masande Ntshanga Ponders What it Means to be a Native in Past and Future Millenia
In his latest book, the poetry-prose hybrid 'Native Life In The Third Millennium', South African author Masande Ntshanga discusses life pre-COVID-19, colonial takeover and the limitations and the existential relationship between man and machine.
Masande Ntshanga is an award-winning writer best known for his two novels The Reactive (2014) and Triangulum (2019). The former follows the protagonist Lindanathi and his two friends Ruan and Cecelia as they sell pharmaceuticals around Cape Town while Lindanathi works through the psychological toll of living with HIV and the death of his brother. Triangulum is a work of speculative fiction in which a mathematics prodigy in the Eastern Cape is haunted by the death of her mother. An apparition called "the machine" visits her and sets off a chain of events that examines South Africa's terrible past and a dystopian future.
In both novels, Nthanga's swirling prose poses philosophical questions about what it means to be alive, the different mechanisms we use to keep the heaviness of being at a remove and how the freight of our colonial past reaches into the future.
In December 2020, the author released Native Life In The Third Millennium. The lean collection—a chapbook of 41 pages—is a poetry and prose hybrid that covers much ground in the short distance it travels. Written in three "movements", in it, Ntshanga uses his three characters (the poet, the philosopher and the programmer) to discuss life pre-COVID-19, colonial takeover and the limitations and the existential relationship between man and machine.
"After Triangulum was published, I took a break so I could process what it is I was actually going to do next with my writing," says Ntshanga over the phone. "I was also going through some personal things and, by the time COVID came around, I had this personal prompt to 'go back to writing'. All the things that I'd been thinking about and reading, they kept coming up either in thought or conversation. Native Life In The Third Millennium was my attempt to answer those questions on my own terms."
Like Triangulum, parts of the book can be classified as science fiction. Throughout the book, there is an underlying tension between man and machine. "These were the things I was thinking about after publishing Triangulum," says Ntshanga of the book's themes. "that a version of microsoft word could walk up to this poem and draw a red line beneath the word 'nigga' and change it to 'nigger'," worries the poet in one of the stories. In another section, the philosopher remembers (with some anxiety) "mit paying me to imagine a future for us". In the third movement, the programmer is at pains to explain how the video game he's building is the first step in a new order of human life: one that's more equitable.
"I was trying to figure out my own role in society: in regards to the environment, people around those close to me," says Ntshanga. "In interrogating that, I had to interrogate my position in society (which is through my labour). I also wanted to discuss the idea of tracing machines to the colonial moment or future where they're in service of humankind. Is this something that humankind can do? To alter a doomed course?"
In the book's first chapter/movement, an unnamed poet catalogues a list of needs and memories from unspecified times and places. "i want to create something beautiful," the poet declares. "i want to create an ornament to stand above my laptop and i will sleep while it writes misnomers without passion." Later, the poet wrestles with what it means to be Black, upwardly mobile and still carry the psychological freight of colonialism. "but that i'm black and need to recover from the lesions borne on the hearts of all colonised men...i need therapists to restore me from the nightmare imagination of whiteness to the child it made me abandon."
Ntshanga decided on publishing the collection as a chapbook because it best represented both the reading he'd been doing and the demands of the writing he was producing. He cites works such as Sol Plaatjie's Native Life In South Africa (1916), Billy Ray Belcourt's A History of My Brief Body (2020) as inspiration for his chapbook. "All these works were cross-genre and they're interesting in how the writers respond to the colonial order," he says.
The book's second movement discusses memory, its malleability and its use as a means of understanding our day-to-day experiences. In one particularly compelling stanza, the philosopher muses:
"i remember not thinking about human beings as a species of monsters like i do now...or of crowds as patterns of bones stacked inside mounds of flesh; contaminants running restless over the earth's crust."
The stanza, in its condemnation of the human race, brings to mind the declaration by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that "man is the cruelest animal".
"I think this part of the book is the most third millennium," Ntshanga says. "I wanted to give a literary treatment to a character that could be seen as a member of a particular milieu. He's obviously a millennial, but I still wanted to interrogate the idea of native and what it means now. Even for a character like this, who seems isolated and caught in a niche experience, part of his larger historical experience begins with colonial contact."
Is it possible to simultaneously forget, remember and survive? In their accounts of native life in a distant millennium, Ntshanga's characters find themselves both trying to live a life unencumbered by the long arm of colonialism while also reckoning with the effects it has on their psyche and bodies.
"i remember being at the hague in 2017;" says the philosopher. "sharing a cigarette with a blonde poet before we went inside and told the audience the world was ending; to applause….talking race with their professor and thinking of all the race abuse i would never know about at home."
Part of what the characters communicate is that perhaps there is no direction home. The native's inheritance is the journey itself: the search for what it means to be a native in past and future millenia.
Only 100 copies of Native Life In The Third Millennium were released. If you are lucky, you can buy the book here.
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