Book review: Nqobile gets woke

2017-03-05 06:10

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Phumlani S Langa

Nqobile – The Story of Becoming by Mandhla Mgijima


352 pages

R30.42 as an e-Book from the Google Play store and in hard copy for R240 from (SA) or (US)

In this rather complex self-published fiction-slash-lengthy essay on black identity, new author Mandhla Mgijima experiments with literary form. He messes with his characters’ realities, playing biography against fiction, and folds the novel into a meta construct.

Or, to put it simply, the book relates the story of a young Zimbabwean man called Nqobile, and it runs concurrently with the story of Sipho, the “author of the international bestselling novel, Nqobile” and his conversation with Nolwazi, a top journalist from Johannesburg who is focused on new forms of the black consciousness movement such as #RhodesMustFall.

Sipho is of the view that such movements will not achieve their objectives. He and Nolwazi meet to discuss his book, which Mgijima cuts to in between the story of Nqobile. If you think the concept is complicated, you’re right.

Raised in post-colonial Zimbabwe, Nqobile gets to study in the US, thanks to an athletics scholarship, just like Mgijima. Nqobile prides himself on having forged relationships with white people as these connections always seemed beneficial to him – until something, rather small if you think about it, happens to him at the Zimbabwean boarder.

He encounters a white preacher on his way to the country with his family. Pastor Jim presents himself as a white saviour who shields black people from a confrontational situation involving a customs official who gets threatening and aggressive with a group of passengers on a bus. The confrontation is averted. The same pastor then, in his white skin, scolds the black passengers on the bus, and they all buckle to his views. This doesn’t sit well with Nqobile, who embarks on a journey in which he realises his mistake in attributing success to his proximity to whiteness.

He returns home in search of a decolonial black awakening – the idea that black people need to veer away from seeing themselves as subhuman. He searches for this in religion and black consciousness groups, but feels that this isn’t quite enough. In the US, he constantly has to deal with people not being able to say his name correctly, as well as African-Americans who speak about their country of origin with immense disdain.

To Nqobile, black people only ever make small marks in a white world. We have only made it when we’re on the stage and famous. According to Mgijima, we’re only fulfilled when we’re invited into the world the white man has created, and feel snubbed when we’re not included. Nqobile and his fictitious creator Sipho represent Mgijima’s thoughts on the state of black identity, and that’s great.

But Nqobile needs a firmer editing hand. The plot is very convoluted and, sadly, this becomes a frustratingly repetitive read.

He may very well be on to something new and exciting, but his story suffers by slipping in and out of a steady flow. There are moments that sing, but many that sigh. At times, the character of Sipho can get very preachy and his conversations with Nolwazi about Nqobile question many paradigms and issues, where these stem from and how these should be tackled. It makes the whole book feel a bit like an academic essay.

Mgijima is clearly a “woke brother” and this story serves to show that. He poses the questions: “Why is the world so jacked up? How do we fix it?” He then lists all the issues black people face, as well as the steps we should consider to change them.

Beyond that, this is a long-winded reminder to young black and conscious people of our predicament in a white world. That said, this book would make a good gift to anyone who isn’t woke. It’ll give them plenty of food for thought.

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