Somizi’s & Bonang’s books

2017-08-20 06:17

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Dominoes: Unbreakable Spirit – The Somizi Mhlongo Story by Somizi Mhlongo and Lesley Mofokeng

Brand Arc Media

112 pages

R180

Thabiso Bhengu

‘Iyhoo impilo ka Somizi! [Yoh, Somizi’s life!]” These are the words that I used when I called a friend to discuss Dominoes, a book so short that you could finish it during your lunch break, but powerful enough to humanise a trailblazer like Somizi. Dominoes is accessibly written by Lesley Mofokeng, opening up new audiences and able to reach those people who never seem to finish the book they’re reading. Plus, it’s a valuable addition to our queer literature.

Somizi started working in the entertainment industry at the age of six, and this is a book by someone who has seen the highs and lows of fame. He has performed all over the world. He has been exposed to large amounts of money, a smart young man who, at the age of 15, during apartheid, could save R20 000 to help his mother. He has been friends with every it-girl in South Africa. He recounts his friendship with Lebo Mathosa and Brenda Fassie. He does not at all talk about Bonang. His former bestie remains a ghost.

However, Somizi has lived such a complex and rich life that the omission takes nothing away from the book. After all, Somizi was a star before Bonang was in nappies.

He tells of growing up with 24 children in a house with famous parents; of being a working child trapped in the Bantu education system; of the uprising of 1976 through the eyes of a four-year-old. Somizi shares intimate information about the construction of his world view. He tells a tragic story of his brother who escaped from prison, but later dies, and the conundrum of whether his clothes ought to be buried or burnt as tradition requires. That the question still haunts him shows the reader that he is an African, rooted in culture, who believes in ancestors.

And he’s gratefully frank about his sex life. In a section titled First Gay Connection, he talks about sharing an intimate moment with a famous, older man while his girlfriend is on the other side of the bed. He grapples with fatherhood while still dating his lover Bonginkosi, a masculine man who demanded public affection, even though he was disowned by his father for being gay.

Fast-forward many years and Somizi is accused of sexual assault. He loses the case and chooses to not appeal against a homophobic legal system, even though he insists that he is innocent. He loses friends and gigs and falls into debt. He cannot sustain his lifestyle. He has fallen.

This is a fascinating account because heterosexual men such as Makhaya Ntini and Benedict Vilakazi and countless others continued to have careers after similar accusations, but a femme gay man suffered the full social cost. The book is able to unpack such jarring contrasts of gay life without the academic analysis.

As much as it’s also a positive thing, the shortness of the book compromises his story. We don’t even get to hear about his drag queen life that made Somizi synonymous with queerness. Ungu Somizi? Are you a Somizi?

Somizi does not tell us what the illness is he is suffering from. He leaves the reader to guess. I hope that one day he will emerge with his voice and help give people the courage to overcome this too.

However, the book leaves you with the inspiration to get up and change your life, because if Somizi’s losses, public humiliations and poverty could fall like dominoes, so could yours.



From A to B by Bonang Matheba

BlackBird Books

220 pages

R225

Rhodé Marshall

Oh, to see the faces of your peers on the bookshelves of stores. It’s a beautiful time for young, black people who are enjoying the luxury of being able to own their stories and tell them in whichever way they see fit. For businesswoman and media star Bonang Matheba, to join the fray at the age of 30 is exciting and an obvious move.

Bonang’s From A to B looks at how a girl from Mahikeng climbs her way to the top of the industry, an inspirational and necessary story. These are the stories that young people should read. But it’s not all good news, I’m afraid.

While there are a few pages with painfully noticeable grammatical and spelling errors, the story left me disappointed.

One thing is crystal clear ... Bonang was loved. All eyes were on her from the moment she was born. She has been prepared for the limelight since she was an infant.

But, while Bonang has this amazing family structure, a lot of her fans don’t. They don’t have a hardworking mother who teaches them how to save, they don’t have the option of good primary and high schools or trips to Disneyland. So, somewhere in the story, the girl from Mafikeng seems to lose touch with “normal” people.

It felt like this book is a print version of that Nicky Greenwall TV show, The Close Up – all a bit plastic.

A big part of the problem is voice and tone. Bonang opted for a conversational tone in the book, which can work if it’s done as well as, for example, Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes. Rhimes writes simply and in a compelling way, drawing you in like she’s your friend or that cool auntie – she’s right there in your ear telling her story. She lights a fire in you as you read.

This is something that Bonang completely misses. Translating speaking into writing can go horribly wrong. Bonang’s voice here is not even her radio twang, it does nothing to humanise her and, in turn, doesn’t make us identify with her story and have a fire lit. It ends up colourless and the reader is even more confused about who Bonang really is. Which version of her is real? Can I believe what she’s written about her journey to stardom?

And then there’s that common South African nonfiction malaise: her “writing” (the book was ghostwritten) is repetitive to the point of indulgence. Her long-winded account makes it feel like she’s trying to help us understand. But we get it. And it comes off as patronising.

This is a short and unintellectual read. It doesn’t need to be explained over and over.

And I know I’m supposed to look beyond the errors, but how can I? There is even a sentence in chapter four that’s duplicated in its entirety in chapter five. (“I started missing lectures, missing and failing tests and practicals, because Live was so all consuming (sic).”) Not a great contribution to a reputation and career painted as flawless...

Overall, the book lacks substance: the story of Bonang, the drama of her personality as portrayed on her show Being Bonang, is a much-needed and very missing element. Where is that Tswana girl we can relate to?

A little thread of a real person with emotions would have done wonders for the book.

But worse, by acting like she’s on camera the whole time she “writes” her story, she glosses over her failures and hardships – and fails to show us, the readers, how to overcome the odds and make it in the world like she did.

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Read more on:    bonang matheba  |  book review

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