Mining the archives of our lives – seminar by Mandla Langa

15 March 2016

“South Africa is a country where so much waits to be unearthed and put out in the open,” said poet and novelist Mandla Langa. “There are not enough hours in the day to explore the lives of men and women in their daily struggles with poverty, hunger and disease.”

Mandla Langa and Nuruddin Farah
STIAS Fellow Mandla Langa after his seminar with Somali novelist and guest Nuruddin Farah

“Storytellers will never go out of business. It’s all a work in progress. An egg waiting to be hatched.”

Langa was speaking at STIAS where he is currently Artist-in-Residence while working on his latest novel with the working title The heartbeat of a storm. Describing the work as semi-autobiographical or a novelised account that is part reality, part fiction, Langa aims to use the novel to move away from presenting the view of the activist as an unthinking agent “without anchor, history or family”.

“Much writing on the armed struggle has been in journalistic style without interiority,” he said. “I’m aiming to use fiction to reflect on real events.”

Stressing the need to move away from a mythologised narrative, he continued “I strive to write realistically to bring out the fact that these were human beings with complexities and all sorts of sides to them. They told jokes … went to the toilet … betrayed each other intimately.”

Langa read excerpts of his work in progress which starts with a man who goes on a journey to find out if the remains exhumed from an unmarked grave are those of his father who might (or might not) have died in the 1980s. It is written as an extended flashback with the man seeing events through the eyes of his 14-year old self and aiming to make sense of the past and future.

Reflecting on the challenges of writing in the first person for the first time, Langa stressed that “it is difficult to write about things that happened intimately to you and come up with a coherent narrative. It’s a bit like bungi jumping – you just have to let go.”

Asked whether it was easier to write about real events he replied: “It is enough to have imagined, but it helps to have lived through the circumstances”.

“So much about the past will remain unknown. We will have to reconstruct and build a reality that may or may not have taken place.”

Langa described the power of self-reflection to locate ourselves within and come to terms with the brutality that may have surrounded us. Describing some of his own experiences, he reflected that sometimes “the enemy would stare at you from your own bathroom mirror”.

“A certain schizophrenia rules in armed struggle because you might end up doing something that haunts you for the rest of your life,” he said. “So many things happen in the context of a liberation struggle. If you are a human being the huge ethical debates will rest with you in the snarling loneliness of midnight.”

He also gave some personal reflections of being in exile where home becomes an idealised, perfect universe that you carry in your head “with the music of paradise, where the women are lovelier and the food tastier”.

“Home and exile are not geographic places,” he added. “You can be at home but in devastating exile, and you could be in Vladivostok and be at home.”

Constructing by reconstructing

Reflecting on current South Africa, Langa said “Post-apartheid South Africa has failed to take advantage of the goodwill of the world and harness African solidarity. We have to reach a comprehensive narrative of what happened and what could still be happening”.

“The role of introspection today is about reconstructing the past so that we can move to an envisioned future” he continued.

However, warning against scepticism and a bleak outlook he quoted Stephen Colbert, who said: “Cynicism is not wisdom. It is self-imposed blindness because we are afraid the world will reject us. Saying yes leads to knowledge and to things growing”.

In conclusion Langa said: “So many people find themselves mute without the possibility of telling the story of their family and the lives they have lost”.

“As a writer I’m lucky,” he added.


Mandla Langa is a poet, novelist and short story writer. His novel The Lost Colours of the Chameleon won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, African Region.

Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Christoff Pauw

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