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Andie Miller

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

In the Footsteps of Bosman and Dickens, via Hillbrow

On the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, I’m thinking of Phaswane Mpe, who loved him so.


Kaffirs? (said Oom Schalk Lourens). Yes, I know them. And they’re all the same. I fear the Almighty, and respect his works, but I could never understand why he made the Kaffir and the rinderpest. The Hottentot is a little bit better. The Hottentot will only steal the biltong hanging out on the line to dry. He won’t steal the line as well. That is where the Kaffir is different. Still, sometimes you come across a good kaffir, who is faithful and upright and a true Christian and who doesn’t let the wild dogs catch the sheep. I always think it isn’t right to kill that kind of kaffir.

This is Phaswane Mpe, author of Welcome to Our Hillbrow, quoting from memory the beginning of ‘Makapan’s Caves’, the first Herman Charles Bosman story he read as a teenager and one that remains a favourite. I am a little shocked. I can hardly bring myself to say the K-word out loud, let alone repeat it over and over, and I was never at the receiving end of apartheid’s brutality.

‘I don’t think words in themselves are bad,’ says Phaswane. ‘I’m more interested in how those words get used. We need to distinguish between insults and ironies.’

I have a feeling Phaswane would like Sixties American comedian Lenny Bruce, who said: ‘Satire is tragedy plus time. You give it enough time, the public, the reviewers will allow you to satirise it.’

For the majority of South Africans, though, there has not been enough time, and just a few years ago a schoolteacher was dismissed when parents accused him of setting a ‘racist’ exam paper based on Bosman’s story ‘Unto Dust’.

But Phaswane is able to laugh. He laughs a lot.

‘I think it may have something to do with my experience of apartheid,’ he says. ‘I didn’t experience it in the same way, for example, that people in Soweto experienced it. I was living in a rural village, Ga-Molepo, about fifty kilometres to the southeast of Pietersburg, in the Northern Province. And most of the terrible things I heard on the radio rather than actually coming into direct contact with them. Apart from Bantu education, I experienced it indirectly. Part of what that did for me, I think, is that I never developed bitterness. I just thought about it as something that we needed to do away with, and move on.’

A teacher who introduced Phaswane to Bosman has been one of the most positive influences in his life. She is the Catholic nun, Sister Mary Anne Tobin, to whom Welcome to Our Hillbrow is dedicated.

‘Our school library wasn’t very well stocked, so my introduction to literature was really through Enid Blyton, particularly the Famous Five series. I read almost everything in that series. I liked George, and Timmy the dog. I also had a dog that I was very close to. I could relate to the characters on an emotional level.

‘Then I read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and I found it a great book. I keep on going back to it. I loved the magical nature of the characters, which spoke to my enjoyment of folk tales and, on another level, its subversive humour. Mary Anne moved me away from Enid Blyton when she introduced me to Herman Charles Bosman. And from there I moved on to Charles Dickens.’

It was the opening passage of Great Expectations that captured his imagination: ‘My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.’

‘I don’t know exactly what it was,’ says Phaswane. ‘I suppose part of it is just the confidence of the child. Knowing what he cannot do, but being able to improvise and feeling that he’s doing it well. Achieving great success at something that seems so small.’

In 1988, at the age of seventeen, during the school holidays Phaswane visited Johannesburg for the first time. ‘I never got to Hillbrow that year. There were bomb scares in town, and my brother and cousin wouldn’t hear of me going there. So it was a very dull three weeks I spent in Highlands North, where I was staying with my brother. I was very bored. There wasn’t much that was exciting in the street. People were very quiet, and I’m not a great fan of shopping centres. I didn’t know at the time that I could use the library.’

The following year Phaswane moved to Joburg to attend Wits University, and though Welcome to Our Hillbrow is not autobiographical, the walk the novel’s hero Refentše makes – from Vickers Place to the campus in Braamfontein – is the walk Phaswane made daily as an undergraduate when he lived in Hillbrow. These days he lives in Braamfontein, and doesn’t have far to go to get to campus while he does his doctorate, but he is still committed to walking. ‘I think I’m a great walker partly because I had to walk; there was just no other way out. And so walking became both a necessity and a pastime. If there’s a distance that I can walk I prefer to walk. I want to see the world around me. It’s how I find my stories,’ he says.

‘The thing that strikes me about walking is that, no matter how often you travel one route, you always observe something new every time. It might be a very small detail, which at the time perhaps doesn’t matter. After a couple of days, a couple of weeks, months, perhaps even years, it just comes back to you, and during the course of time it has become so significant, without you making an effort to make it significant.

‘At one time on my walks through Hillbrow there was something like a dog kennel outside the city shelter. And then they moved it. Now that corner of Kotze and Hospital Streets is sort of changed for me. When something changes, that’s been part of your consciousness, it’s as though you’re walking a slightly different route, now that the familiar landmark is no longer there.

‘I’m very bad with dates. If I write something, I tell a story. As long as I know I got the sequence right, I don’t care very much about the exact time. I want to concentrate more on the meaning of place for me. I tend to use incidents and events to locate myself in terms of time. You never know at what point an event or an incident will become significant in your own life. And it’s mostly only in hindsight – with the exception of the things you have planned for, and if you don’t achieve them, they become significant because of your failure!’ he laughs as an afterthought.

‘But place, of course, has a lot to do, not just with the landmarks but with the people who are in that place. And your experience of meeting those people. The social interaction. Your experience of those interactions. When I began writing the book I initially thought I was just doing a portrait of Hillbrow. And I realised as I started working on the map that actually I can’t have a map with no one to move around in it. That’s how I ended up putting Refentše into the map.’

Refentše was a character from Phaswane’s earlier short stories. In one of them, ‘Occasion for Brooding’, Refentše had committed suicide, so Phaswane decided to ‘resurrect’ him by having the book’s narrator in dialogue with the deceased. His use of the word resurrect and his friendship with Sister Mary Anne make me wonder if he’s religious.

‘There are things about Christianity I don’t agree with,’ he says. ‘One of my biggest problems is the idea of original sin. I just can’t accept that I’m born a sinner, so I’m not Christian.  I became aware as I was growing up that increasingly I was going to church because I wanted to meet my friends there, and I realised I could make arrangements to meet them after church. And then at some point I decided there’s no God, but I’ve sort of changed my mind. Now I’m not sure. Either way it doesn’t actually bother me. I believe in the power of the ancestors. I subscribe to elements of Christianity and elements of traditional belief; I think they both have their own limitations. Maybe I’m just an opportunist,’ he laughs. ‘I like the Bible as a collection of stories, though. I think it’s great.

‘In one of his essays, on why black South Africans shouldn’t really care about being called ‘Kaffir’, Bosman points out that the word actually means unbeliever; it was only at a later stage that it began to accumulate these political meanings, so we should be thankful for not being associated with conservative Christianity.

‘I think what I particularly like about Bosman is the way he captures the complexity of the rural mentality. The prejudices and gems of wisdom.’ This mentality, that feeds so much on second- and third-hand stories, often mythology, is something Phaswane explores at length in Welcome to Our Hillbrow.

When I ask him how he deals with issues of safety while walking in the inner city, he reminds me that, like Refentše, he had been warned often about the dangers before he left home, and while Hillbrow is not quite the menacing monster he’d been told to expect, he too has had his share of violent experiences. ‘I’ve had several,’ he says, as though this is completely normal. And then proceeds to list a number of incidents, all cellphone-related.

There’s a line in Skin Deep, a recent play at the Market Theatre, where one of the young women asks if a potential lover has the three Cs: a car, a cellphone, and a credit card. This is what will make him successful in her eyes. Though probably, to muggers, cash is still king.

‘When they took my first cellphone, they had guns,’ Phaswane continues. ‘That was in the daylight. The second time they had knives. But my third cellphone was quite an interesting case. I actually felt I wasn’t safe, so I decided to catch a cab. The driver called someone over, and I thought he was just saying goodbye to his friend. I had the door open, and was about to get in when this guy, the taxi driver’s friend, took out a knife and robbed me and the driver just kept quiet. In the end I didn’t get into the car, I went back to drink where I’d left my friends at my drinking hole.

‘If I’m carrying a lot of money, I’ll carry it in a book. For some reason criminals don’t like books,’ he laughs. ‘There was one day, I had just come back from Germany, where I received a stipend, so I ended up not having to use my own money. I had about a thousand euros. I carried it inside The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, which I was reading at the time, and walked quite safely to deposit it in the bank.’

If not conventionally religious, he is fatalistic. ‘I walk through Hillbrow at any time of the day or night,’ he says. ‘If it’s your turn, it’s your turn.’ Perhaps this is influenced by coming from a rural area, where nature can be more of a threat than one’s fellow man. One of the biggest dangers in the wide open space, while walking, is lightning. ‘Shortly after I wrote my first short story, ‘Brooding Clouds’, a story about witchcraft and lightning,’ he says, ‘my mother got struck by lightning. She wasn’t fatally injured, but nevertheless I started feeling guilty, and I put the story in my briefcase for a while before it was published.’

On the question of owning a car, Phaswane says he has no need. ‘I’ve been teaching at the university, so I don’t have far to travel. And if I need to travel a long distance for any reason I catch a cab. But when I do travel long distances, it’s usually to far off places, where I use a plane.’

In 1997 he spent nine months in Oxford doing a diploma in publishing studies. He didn’t realise that this was the home of Lewis Carroll, author of the Alice in Wonderland that he so loved, but a friend, knowing his love of Dickens, invited him to visit London for a few days. ‘I went to see the Old Curiosity Shop. I didn’t recognise anything in London from Dickens’s work, not in a physical sense anyway, but I did have some sort of emotional response, which worked wonders for me, because I didn’t actually like London. It’s too congested and too busy for my liking. Hillbrow is congested,’ he adds, ‘but there’s a lot of social life in Hillbrow. I didn’t feel that in London. There’s a lot of busyness, but…’, he trails off, hinting at a loneliness in the London crowd that is very different from Africa.

Bosman once related a story of meeting a South African on a bench in Hyde Park who ‘told me the funniest Afrikaans story I have ever heard. It was about a predikant and the district drunkard. Afterwards, I thought much about the man. I wondered how long he had been there, sitting on that park bench, in childlike faith that some day a stranger would come past who would know about the veld and who would listen to his story.’ And then he continued in his usual irreverent fashion: ‘It’s queer how London always seems to lead the world in art and literature … Here I have to come all the way to London, to Hyde Park, to hear the world’s best Afrikaans story.’

Bosman’s years abroad, it is said, ‘seemed to offer less of the stimulus of a fresh environment than a re-affirmation of love for his old one’. Though Phaswane has travelled a fair amount, I get the impression the same may be true for him.

Back home, Phaswane realises that he may at some point be forced to learn to drive. ‘I’ve not had a strong motivation to do it. But I may one day end up working far from Braamfontein, and then it will become unavoidable. Public transport in South Africa, if you are under time constraints,’ he concedes, ‘can be a problem.

‘The only people who have responded with a sense of surprise when I tell them I don’t drive have been my students. ‘We thought you were successful,’ they say. But from very early on I defined success in my own terms, by the kind of things I do, rather than what I don’t do. That’s another thing I got from Mary Anne. If I had followed what others have told me constitutes success, I’d probably have stopped teaching much earlier and done something that made a lot more money.’

Commenting on his doctoral thesis, on representations of sexuality in post-apartheid literature, he says: ‘I particularly like K Sello Duiker’s novel The Quiet Violence of Dreams, because it deals with issues of black homosexuality, black identity and masculinity, but he does it in a way that takes homosexuality for granted, in a context where many people argue that homosexuality is a white man’s disease. I like the honesty with which he treats the issues.’

Throughout our conversation, his 2-year-old daughter Reneilwe has been peacefully sleeping in his lap. She stirs, and our attention is brought back to the room; to the sun fading outside his office window. It is time to get the little girl home. He gathers her things together, picks up his cellphone, and prepares for their walk, ready for any stories they might encounter on the way.


This conversation took place on 3 November 2004. Excerpted from Slow Motion: stories about walking (Jacana, 2010).


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    February 7th, 2012 @23:01 #

    Lovely, Andie, although with hindsight, this makes me feel such retrospective loss. I remember that year, losing both Phaswane Mpe and K. Sello Duiker, lights winking out.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Andie Miller</a>
    Andie Miller
    February 7th, 2012 @23:30 #

    Thanks for the kind words, Helen. I've been thinking about him so much over the past few days -- what a singular individual he was, how little I knew him, and how much I miss him. He got me reading Herman Charles Bosman.

    And as an aside: how many writers have been influenced by Enid Blyton!


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