The Interview: Rereading K Sello Duiker

2013-12-01 14:00

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Thirteen Cents by K Sello Duiker has been republished after achieving a certain cult status around the world. Charl Blignaut shares a few thoughts about his friend, the budding literary rock star who committed suicide at 30

‘Security is a false God. Begin to make sacrifices to it and you are lost.’ – Paul Bowles

I met Sello Duiker in a cramped script department on the downtown set of a popular soapie in the middle of a youth revolution.

For a year or so, we’d swivel our chairs and chat, slowly getting to know one another. Emphasis on slowly.

Sello was a shiny, dreadlocked young man of exuberant sweetness and big laughter, but also a guarded person of a million little mysteries and a knack of deflecting personal questions with teasing and lies.

He was a budding literary rock star. Thirteen Cents (2000) and The Quiet Violence of Dreams (2001) had been published to critical acclaim, and awards and trips overseas.

No one at the soap made much of it, though. It wasn’t uncommon to have Mzekezeke or Mafikizolo swivelling in chairs with us while they waited to go on set. Sello was one of the many bright young stars of the cultural revolution we were pumping on to screen.

But out there in literary circles, I thought he was getting too much buzz. It was a lot of pressure for a messed-up young man to cope with, to be the voice of new black writing.

Messed up how? It’s there in the novels. They’re probably more autobiographical than he’d tell interviewers.

Vusi gets the calling

Sello wasn’t a particularly brilliant soap writer, but he once had an idea for a story that had a seismic effect on the set.

It was about dance student Vusi, a clean-living, slightly freaked out young gay character. Vusi gets the calling and must thwasa.

It was a kind of pop-culture reversion of choreographer Vincent Mantsoe’s early solo works, shaped between ancestors and European constructs. In soap terms, it started as a ghost story, with visits from an ancestor.

As the story line found its way into scripts, it became the zeitgeist of the set. Soap stars had voices awakened, and some cast and crew would later also thwasa.

We know that stories have this power. We live by stories. We are stories.

The Vusi story connected with a young crew working in the city, losing touch with their roots. Later it would become Sello’s story.

Obituaries noted that about a month before he killed himself, Sello read the eulogy at the funeral of fellow young novelist Phaswane Mpe.

Mpe’s 2001 novel, Welcome to our Hillbrow, plays out the devastating battle for a post-apartheid black identity.

In the New York Times, Rachel Donadio wrote: “Celebrated while alive, [Duiker and Mpe] became the subjects of intense hagiography after their deaths, seen as martyrs of the country. Before his death in 2004, Mpe began preparations to become a sangoma.”

In the year before he died, Sello also had the calling, but ran away from his initiation school for various reasons. Or so he said. By then we were – briefly – lovers.

Rereading the republished Thirteen Cents (Kwela Books) made me recall Vusi’s story because that’s what happens to Azure too.

‘We must destroy Cape Town’

Azure is a homeless, blue-eyed, dark-skinned 12-year-old trying to survive in Cape Town. The narrator of Thirteen Cents, he negotiates life between gangsters and the white men he has sex with for money.

At first it is a gritty, physical account of the streets. Then Azure climbs Table Mountain and there is an exploration of his mystic self. He is visited by ancestral characters and has a vision of the city destroyed by apocalyptic fireballs.

The brutal portrayal of post-apartheid social inequality and the disarming sex scenes in Thirteen Cents gripped a new generation of readers.

Back at the downtown studio, I had thought Sello was just one of a wave of gritty young writers. I was wrong. A short film has already been made of Thirteen Cents, but I wonder what would happen if someone tried to make a commercial feature today. Lest we forget Of Good Report was banned for showing inexplicit sex with a 16-year-old.

He may not have been 12, but Sello’s onslaught against the colonial city was – according to him – shaped by his own spell of being unhinged in Cape Town.

“My mother died. My father died,” is Azure’s mantra. Sello fled his middle-class influence, moving to Cape Town to study further in 1998.

Writes Shaun Viljoen in his excellent introduction to the other new edition of Thirteen Cents (Ohio University Press): “He was expelled from his college and in fact institutionalised in a psychiatric institution for two months. On his release, he wrote the first draft of Thirteen Cents in less than two months.”

I don’t want to sensationalise Sello, but he said that it was during this time that he experimented in the sex trade, took LSD, even landed behind bars. He gave himself to the streets, in a sense, swinging on a pendulum away from academia and private school.

His characters Vusi and Azure are sacrificial lambs, much like Azaro. Azaro is the young narrator of Ben Okri’s Famished Road. The novel had a profound effect on Sello. We spoke about it often. As Viljoen points out, the names Azure/Azaro are an obvious hat tip.

Azaro is a spirit child who is born to die young.

The middle-class crisis

Tshepo from The Quiet Violence of Dreams is a more resolved leading man, a varsity student, richer and older than Azure but with no fewer problems.

We meet him in a mental hospital, diagnosed with cannabis-induced psychosis. Before we leave him, he will have become a rent boy, a way of testing his sexuality.

In interviews, Sello would move the conversation away from questions about his sexual orientation.

Writes John Hawley in Trauma, Resistance, Reconstruction in Post-1994 South African Writing: “He was once asked if The Quiet Violence of Dreams was autobiographical. He said ‘Tshepo [the protagonist] and I went to Rhodes. Everything else is fiction. [Smiles] Could anybody be as hectic as Tshepo? Well, I suppose I could vouch for the drug experiences’.”

I have a letter from the Amsterdam mayor’s office that found its way to my house after Sello’s death that could probably vouch for the dagga experiences too, but Sello was open about it, much more so than about his attraction to both men and women.

An act like smoking dagga and wilfully triggering his toxic psychosis was another way to swing the pendulum towards the experiential unknown.

It’s part of a bigger crisis he found himself in that December when he became depressed.

In the notes I made while rereading Thirteen Cents, I find this line: “Bra, don’t trust money. It’ll let you down in the end.”

I don’t know if it’s a line of dialogue from the book or something I remember Sello saying before he hanged himself in his cottage on the hill.

It doesn’t matter.

When he died, Sello was working as a commissioning editor at SABC. He said he hated the job. He hated where he found himself – on the other end of the pendulum – with rent, a car payment, policies. He felt trapped by his lifestyle. Commodification and consumerism are common themes in his work.

In private, Sello was intense and honest. In public, he was everyone’s brother, self-deprecating, witty and able to hold his own at the dinner table.

There’s been speculation that he suffered from bipolar disorder, but I wouldn’t know. When I think about it, it felt more like borderline schizophrenia.

Perhaps it was schisms – all of ours, not just his.

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