The life cycle of a literary vanguard

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A new edition of Sello K Duiker's Quiet Violence of Dreams prompts Siphiwo Mahala to reflect on how the 'poster boy for black writing' outlived that label WAS BORN at Baragwanath Hospital and my parents are Judah and Meikie Duiker.

I was named Kabelo Sello Duiker. I was given my second name after my grandfather, who unfortunately died four months before I was born. My birth date is the thirteenth of April 1974." This is an excerpt from a school project entitled, My Life Story, dated 1987. It is reported that the book was neatly bound, and on the cover the following words were written in bold capital letters: AUTHOR AND PUBLISHER KS DUIKER."

This is when a writer took residence in the boy who would grow up to become multi award-winning author, K Sello Duiker. Duiker must have been 13 at the time, and in retrospect, this is the number that would prove to be very special to him. His dream of becoming a published writer was only realised 13 years after he had written this school project. Since 1995, Duiker had been interacting with Annarie van der Merwe, publisher at Kwela Books, a new imprint established at the time of our country's transition to democracy in 1994.

Kwela Books was established with the purpose of "looking for fresh young talent," a statement that could be interpreted as a euphemism for "young black writer". The dominant notions in our literary discourse during apartheid were largely informed by binary opposites as a result of living in an oppressive state. The narratives of black and white, hegemony and anti-hegemony, and the victim and perpetrator had to make way for new transitional themes.

The South African literary landscape was desperate to discover an "authentic" black voice that would go beyond the paradoxes of the apartheid narrative. For Kwela Books, that voice came in 1995, in the form of Duiker, then a student at Rhodes University in Grahamstown. Although Kwela could not publish his first manuscript, Duiker's potential was obvious and he struck up a very good relationship with Van der Merwe.

They soon started working on his next project - The Quiet Violence of Dreams. It was during the process of pruning this manuscript that the aspirant author came up with another new manuscript. In typical publisher response, Kwela told Duiker to focus on nurturing The Quiet Violence of Dreams before looking into other projects. However, they did not forbid him from taking the new manuscript to a different publisher. David Phillip publishers accepted the manuscript, and Thirteen Cents was published in 2000 to critical acclaim. It won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book in Africa Region.

Thirteen years later, Kwela had to buy the publishing rights of Thirteen Cents from David Phillip - though surely not for thirteen cents. The Quiet Violence of Dreams, which Duiker had been working on with Kwela books over the years, was finally published in 2001. The publication of Duiker's two novels in quick succession marked a turning point in the South African literary landscape. He was young, black and presented fresh and unconventional stories of the marginalised.

He was soon to be paraded, perhaps justifiably so, as a poster boy for the so-called "black writing" in post-apartheid South Africa. Thirteen Cents chronicles the journey of a 12-year-old homeless orphan in the streets of Cape Town. Azure is exposed to the cruel world of gangsterism, and substance and sexual abuse. This fantastical novel resonates with the work of Ben Okri, one of Duiker's major literary influences.

Duiker was never shy to admit to his admiration of Okri, and even the naming of his protagonist, Azure, is obviously appropriated from Azaro, the protagonist in Okri's The Famished Road. The number of years Duiker spent on The Quiet Violence of Dreams is evident. It is a thick book - the Second edition that came out earlier this year is a staggering 609 pages. The effort is even more evident when you get to read the book, which you flip through without noticing its length. Duiker adopts quite, an experimental approach in The Quiet Violence of Dreams, which is narrated by multiple characters.

The central character is Tshepo, a Rhodes University student who suffers mental illness and is confined to Valkenberg Hospital in Cape Town. One of the most remarkable aspects of Duiker's writing, especially in The Quiet Violence of Dreams, is the graphic manner in which he depicts homosexuality.

This probably earned him a reputation as a courageous writer in some quarters, and a certain notoriety in others. The sentiments of the latter group could be best captured in Osita Ezeliora's assertion that: "The black literary intelligentsia have largely ignored his work, perhaps, to avoid getting involved in the ethical problematic of sodomy and the politics of sodomistic narratives that largely fascinate Sello Duiker." Ezeliora's general assertion is that his work has been overlooked because homosexuality is deemed by some to be "un-African".

The recent adoption of the antiHomosexuality Act in Uganda demonstrates quite clearly that such assertions are not isolated views. On the other end of the continuum, there is Zakes Mda, who reveals in his latest novel, The Sculptures of Mapungubwe (Kwela, 2013), that homosexuality has always existed in African societies. Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina also came out recently in defence of homosexuality as a human right. One can venture to say that Duiker was the first to write a novel that extensively explores homosexuality in post-apartheid narratives.

In subsequent years there has been a lot of literature that grapples with these dynamics, most notably Damon Gulgut in In A Strange Room (Penguin, 2010) and Gerald Kraak in Ice in the Lungs (Jacana, 2006). Duiker's spectacular entry into the world of letters precipitated a new wave in the South African literary landscape. He was soon joined by Phaswane Mpe, another young writer who debuted with Welcome to Our Hillbrow, published by UKZN Press in 2001.

The fact that Mpe was published by a university press introduced a new dynamic to the South African publishing landscape, expanding the markets of the new brat pack of South African literature to academia. At this point many publishers were already positioning themselves for this new wave of writing, but it is probably Kwela that capitalised the most in this resurgence. The likes of Niq Mhlongo, Zukiswa Wanner, Kgebetli Moele, Nthikeng Mohlele, Duduzile Cynthia Jele and Sifiso Mzobe are some of the young black writers who were published by Kwela Books after Duiker.

The emergence of this generation of writers coincided with a simultaneous upsurge of activity in the literary landscape. The period between 2004 and 2010 saw the book sector become a hive of activity, with the emergence of book fairs, literary festivals and the publication of hordes of new authors. Other publishers such as Jacana Media, UKZN Press, Pan MacMillan and Umuzi also introduced a crop of dynamic new authors who put South African literature back on the global map.

These new voices became the vanguards of our national narrative. They had the daunting task of forging a new idiom in South African letters. They were a generation that straddled two very important periods in the history of South Africa. This is the generation that could authoritatively posit the narratives of an oppressive state as well as that of the dawn of the democratic order with confidence and unparalleled erudition.

Duiker was a formidable part of this emerging paradigm. It was towards the end of 2004 and the beginning of 2005 that this apparent literary reawakening suffered its first major blows. Phaswane Mpe, who was touted as Duiker's literary twin, died on December 12, 2004. His memorial service was held at Wits University, where he studied and worked for many years.

On my way to the memorial sery ice, I ran into Duiker in the parking lot, and we exchanged some pleasantries as we walked across the campus. I had first met Duiker in 1997, when he was a student at Rhodes University, and from 2002 we had several encounters in Johannesburg literary circles. He was now working as the commissioning editor for SABC 1 and I had just joined the Department of Arts and Culture as head of books and publishing. It was also on this day that he read publicly from his third novel, The Hidden Star, which was a work in progress at the time.

After delivering his eulogy to Mpe, Duiker whispered into my ear, "Sorry, I've got to go." He had some work deadline to chase and could not wait until the end of the service. We agreed to meet in January 2005, as it was almost the end-of-year holidays. On January 18, I called him to arrange our meeting.

After leaving a message on his cellphone, I decided to send him an e-mail proposing that we meet soon. Two days later I woke to the shocking news that he had died by his own hand on January 19, 2005. It did not make sense that Duiker would extinguish his own flame at the apex of his career. He was the brightest star in the galaxy that had emerged in the democratic dispensation. He was on his third novel and had a desirable job at the national broadcaster. I called his cellphone several times just to listen to his lively voice.

After a while, I had to face that he was gone and the best we could do was celebrate his life. A commemorative publication was produced later in 2005, paying tribute to both Duiker and Mpe. The anthology, Words Gone Two Soon (Umgangatho 2005), edited by the late Mbulelo Mzamane, features tributes by the likes of Lewis Nkosi, Zakes Mda, Fred Khumalo and a host of other local and international writers.

In his tribute, Mda argues: "Many critics said Sello Duiker was treading on my footsteps: but I say he was going to be much greater. He had achieved greater things than I had at his age." Those of us who were not born yesterday know there is inherent danger in being celebrated for being the first in anything, simply because there is nothing to benchmark against. In any society, there are people whose exploits are often received with much adulation. Very few artists possess the aptitude and tenacity to remain part of a public discourse for generations.

Duiker belongs to this special pantheon of artists. Almost 10 years after his death, new editions of Duiker's work are being reproduced and adapted for stage. Last month, The Quiet Violence of Dreams was translated into French. The resilience of Duiker's work may be derived from the fact that his stories are timeless. They are human stories and will remain germane to our lives for as long as humanity exists.

This is what differentiates Duiker from the many writers who wrote moving stories about the "here and now" in a desperate attempt to remain relevant. Duiker wrote incisively about apartheid as much as he wrote about the post-apartheid order. As we celebrate 20 years of freedom and democracy, Duiker stands tall as a shining example of a writer with great vision. His voice still echoes from a distance, providing a guiding light on our troubled paths.

In The Quiet Violence of Dreams, he warns: "There comes a time when we must face who we are boldly, when we must listen to the music of our dreams and delight ourselves with courage as we grasp our destinies firmly in our hands." The last words in this seminal text seem to suggest his realisation of his own talents. The narrator states: "I know where my greatest treasures lie. They are within me." If Duiker was still alive, he would be celebrating his 40th birthday today.

This means he would have lived 20 years of his life in apartheid South Africa and another 20 in the post-apartheid dispensation. He would no longer be considered as a post-apartheid writer, neither would the labels of being a black writer or a young writer be relevant anymore. He earned his stripes through his magnificent body of work. He was a great mind. And great minds shall never be forgotten.

Mahala is the author of African Delights and When a Man Cries VISIONARY: While his career was cut short by his death, Sello K Duiker was a leading light in post-apartheid literature


Article Source: SUNDAY INDEPENDENT, Dispatches