The last of SA’s literary Mohicans

2010-09-11 10:33

Writer and scholar Lewis Nkosi was the last of the literary Mohicans who blazed a journalistic and artistic trail as members of the Drum school during the fifties; an era he famously and fondly referred to as the “fabulous decade”. As the last surviving member of that generation of writers who pioneered contemporary black journalism his death at 73 marks the end of an era.

As a literary critic, playwright, composer, novelist, poet and actor he was arguably the most versatile and multitalented of his generation. He remembered Drum as a “curious institution” that was peopled by “urbanised, eager, fast-talking and brash” journalists.

“In their work they were alive, go-getting, full of nervous energy, very wry, ironic, and they brought to South African journalism a new vitality which none of the white writers had seemed capable of achieving,” he later observed.

Despite their literary genius, their fast-living and bohemian lives were characterised by tragically premature deaths. There was Henry Nxumalo, the original “Mr Drum” and the doyen of investigative journalists, whom Nkosi remembered as a writer “who could go down to hell to bring back a story”.

He died in the hands of panga-wielding thugs at the age of 39. Then there was Nkosi’s childhood friend and fellow Nieman Fellow, Nat Nakasa, who fell to his death at 28 from a New York high-rise apartment in 1965, ironically the year Nkosi gained international prominence as a literary critic following the publication of his collection of essays, Home and Exile, which included reflections on his Drum days.

Then there was Casey Motsisi, “a small, bright young African who wrote the most satirical paragraphs in the paper”. He died in 1977 at the age 45.

Three years after Nkosi went into exile on an exit permit following the Sharpeville Massacre, Motsisi expressed his friendship and longing for Nkosi in an article titled We Remember You All (Drum – March 1963). “And ah, how I miss that angriest Angry Young Man, Lewis Nkosi!”, wrote Motsisi. “He was offered a scholarship to study at Harvard University in the US – refused a passport, but being a great lover of knowledge, he decided to leave us to struggle on for good without his curt comments in the backroom taverns. Now the man who used to wear his heavy overcoat through heatwave and hassle – I would have sworn he took it to bed with him had he not shared my bed with me occasionally – had just written a book, Alien Corn.”

When Nkosi left his Durban hometown to join Golden City Post and Drum in 1956 as a young reporter he stayed with the Motsisi family for two years in Western Native Township. Bloke Modisane, who died in Germany in 1986 at the age of 63, referred to Nkosi as “the boy I had privately and unofficially adopted as a brother” and Nkosi recalls the honour of being the only friend who was allowed to accompany Modisane to Park Station when he went into exile in March 1959. The rationale behind this decision was that a group of friends would have aroused the suspicion of the Special Branch.

The previous year the pair had starred in Athol Fugard’s No Good Friday, with Bloke playing the role of Shark, a short-tempered, violent gangster, while Nkosi assumed the part of a white priest. He had his face coloured white to satisfy the prejudices of the all-white audience in accordance with the laws of the land.

Around the same time the acting talents of Nkosi and Modisane also found expression in US filmmaker Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back Africa. They had collaborated with Rogosin in the producing and scriptwriting of the award-winning film.

He also expressed high regard for Todd Matshikiza, “a small, breezy and musical writer who turned language into metaphors for the jazz figures about which he delighted in writing.” And of course, there was Can Themba, whom he referred to as “the romantic nihilist of the house” and Eskia Mphahlele, “magisterial and concerned”.

Like Mphahlele, the longest-surviving member of the original Drum school until his passing in 2008, Nkosi was more concerned with “the profounder issues of life and literature than with Drum’s sleazier prose”, as he puts it in his celebrated essay, The Fabulous Decade: The Fifties.

The two somehow managed to escape the hard-drinking, shebeen-crawling lifestyle of their Drum colleagues and went on to conquer the world of letters as professors in top universities across the world. “The year I went to Johannesburg to work for Drum under editor Sylvester Stein, then later for POST under Cecil Eprile, I neither drank nor smoked…On the whole I was very sober, very young and fiercely ambitious. I was reading an incredible amount; reading sometimes for the sheer beauty of the language”. His all-time favourites included Faulkner, Dumas and Marryat.

He also wrote about his generation’s need for literary heroes and though he had expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of a rich literary tradition in the black community that the Drum generation could look up to he had acknowledged the influence of pioneering writers like Peter Abrahams and the Dhlomo brothers, under whose joint editorship he served his apprenticeship as a reporter in Durban for Ilanga Lase Natal.

In Mating Birds (1987) his highly acclaimed award-winning novel, he projects his ambition to pen the great South African novel on to the protagonist, Ndi Sibiya, who wonders: “Would I be languishing in this prison cell now, awaiting death by hanging, or would I have lived to fulfil my ambition of becoming the first truly great African writer my country has ever produced – a future that so many of my friends and teachers had so confidently predicted for me?”

Born in Durban and raised by a grandmother, Esther Makhathini, after losing both parents at a very young age, he dedicated Mating Birds to the woman “who washed white people’s clothes so that I could learn to write”. The book is a psychological courtroom thriller about a condemned black man who is accused of raping a white girl in apartheid-era South Africa.

While the segregated beaches of the Indian Ocean, the Immorality Act and Death Row were familiar features of the apartheid system that the author employed in crafting Mating Birds, he has also acknowledged writers who inspired him in the process of conceptualising and writing it. “I wanted to write the story of an obsession in which the sea, the sun and bodies on the beach combine to form an image,” he wrote. “Ever since reading Albert Camus’ The Outsider, then Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, I had become obsessed with the idea of a fateful obsession in which even the weather plays its part…”

Mating Birds’ successors, Underground People (2002) and Mandela’s Ego (2006) are great works of literary merit. But they lack the magic, magnificence and spellbinding power of his debut novel. Only time will tell whether his fourth novel, After, can live up to expectations. After all, Nkosi was an extraordinary writer who worked hard to craft literary works of exceptional quality in any genre he chose.

He is survived by his partner, Astrid Stark, a translator and professor in Yiddish and German studies, and twins Joy and Louise, born to his late wife, Bronwyn Ollernshaw.

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