There are a handful of authors looking to right the South African literary ship by putting local stories on the map. Phumlani Pikoli is one of them. His use of the written word and illustrations captivates and puzzles Phumlani S Langa, who sat down with him for a one on one.
It is while battling thoughts of not being a published author myself that I head to Killarney to speak to Phumlani Pikoli. I’m thrilled; he has two titles out, including his latest, Born Freeloaders, and we share a name.
After a few minutes of waiting for the enigmatic writer to find his keys, I’m allowed into his domain where we sit down and discuss the wonders of words. Frida Kahlo and Miles Davis grace the walls of his living room, with Basquiat and Gabriel García Márquez scattered on the coffee table along with a see-through space case and a pack of Marlboro Reds. He looks like he just woke up. Everything about the man screams rebellious writer.
“No story that has been written needs to be rewritten. My idea is the diversity of interest. You have to let it take you there some times,” he explains his writing process while stifling a series of yawns.
He tells me there isn’t a lot of money in creating projects such as the illustrations he uses in The Fatuous State of Severity or Occupying The Fatuous State of Severity: A Mixed Reality Exhibition, showing at TMRW on Keyes Avenue in Rosebank.
“It was super wild to be able to get Bale Legoabe. Her work is fantastic and I can’t thank her enough. Her work is top-form and knowing that she’s only 23, I’m excited by that. I gave her a story, To Shy Away in Silence, and what she did with it ... the animation is...” the sentence dies as he stares at his Persian carpet, shaking his head as though he can’t fully fathom the work put into that animation.
I ask him about his latest book.
“It’s the cynicism that our parents’ generation sees in us. The problem stems from what they can allow as boundaries and parameters,” says the celebrated writer.
The book incorporates an array of writing styles which keep you engaged and allow for the story to move fluidly.
The styles were troubling. Compact content is what people want, which makes creating a book difficult, he admits.
The character work comes across as vast and genuine. Characters say things people would say in real life. Sounds simple enough, but it requires a focused writer to execute.
“By the time I got to some of these characters I could literally see them. I could see Camilla walking in my mind,” says Pikoli.
He then pauses for a yawn before enquiring what the question was.
I remind him and he says: “Ah yes, I mean, it’s like those cyphers in the beginning.
Nthabiseng is taken to Sammy Marks Square by Thami, an aspiring photographer who she is at school with.
This square is where older heads and artistic school children rap in cyphers, which is actually somewhat of a real street tradition and still goes on today.
He encapsulates the language used in these circles. He even shows off his love for local hip-hop by referencing Cashless Society’s Hottentot Hop in a sneaky way that only those who know the song will be able to latch on to. He used to rap not too long ago.
Pikoli is already working on a new book project.
“Yes I am. It’s coming along in bits and bobs, but yeah.”
We talk a little about his exhibition. I always knew he was a smart guy, especially when he used a quote of mine on the cover of that book.
“Crisp, experimental and beautifully weird...” The Fatuous State of Severity is all that, but not as hard-hitting and as gritty as Born Freeloaders.
There’s a brashness to Born Freeloaders, the kind you might experience as a young black person in Pretoria. Our taboo fascinations with intoxicants and the ever-murky waters of love play a significant role in this novel too.
Pikoli effortlessly explores these ideas and, to a reader, it feels like you’ve been given a portal to 2012 and inside the lives of these siblings and the people they associate with, unfolding in disjointed synchronicity.