Meeting Siphiwo Mahala

The first full week of the new decade brought a treat for me: a chance to meet Siphiwo Mahala, author of the short-story collection African Delights, which was my South African pick during my 2012 year of reading the world.

Mahala was in London to interview one of a handful of surviving friends and associates of the dissident writer Can Themba, who died in the late 1960s. Having written his doctorate on Themba’s work, Mahala is now preparing a biography of the great man – the first of its kind.

We walked to Waterstones bookshop in Gower Street. On the way, I pointed out the University of London’s Senate House Library, where I did a lot of research for my book Reading the World (called The World Between Two Covers in the US), and Mahala told me about his research into Themba, which had thrown up some fascinating stories about mixed-race relationships that flouted South Africa’s former morality laws.

This put me in mind of Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s brilliant account of growing up with mixed parentage under Apartheid. When I mentioned it, I was thrilled to find that Noah is an old friend of Mahala’s – yet another reminder of the web of connections that books spin between readers and writers around the world.

Over frothy coffee in the bookshop’s café, Mahala filled me in on his writing over the past eight years. He’s been busy. Despite working full-time for the government and completing his doctoral thesis, he has found time to write a play, The House of Truth. Also based on Themba’s life, it was a run-away success when it opened in South Africa in 2016 and is now being developed into a film.

Meanwhile, he has continued to work on short-form fiction. Last year, he published Red Apple Dreams & Other Stories, a collection combining some of his favourite pieces from African Delights with new work. He’d generously brought a copy for me, in which he wrote a beautiful dedication, and he is keen to find a European outlet for his work. Publishers, take note!

However, Mahala’s enthusiasm really caught fire when I asked him for recommendations of other contemporary South African writers whose work I should explore. Seizing my notebook, he quickly filled a page with a list of the following names: Zakes Mda, Masande Ntshanga, Nthikeng Mohlele, Thando Mgqolozana, Cynthia Jele, Angela Makholwa, Zukiswa Wanner, Mohale Mashigo, Niq Mhlongo and Fred Khumalo.

Always intrigued to test bookshops’ international mettle, I proposed that we see if we could find them on the shelves. The results were disappointing, although, to her credit, the bookseller who helped us did suggest a novel by another young South African writer in the absence of any of Mahala’s picks. This was Evening Primrose by Kopano Matlwa.

The suggestion flummoxed Mahala at first. Although he knew of the author, he had not heard of this book. In the end, however, he solved the mystery – in South Africa, the novel had been published with a much more direct title: Period Pain.

Although none of Mahala’s suggestions were readily available, I did spot a familiar name during our search. Tucked amid the Ms was a copy of my debut novel, Beside Myself. I bought this as a gift for Mahala and we persuaded another member of staff to snap the picture at the start of this post: two authors brought together across thousands of miles, holding each other’s stories.

South Africa: getting a perspective

I can still remember the day I first heard about South Africa. I was eight years old and sitting in my classroom at school when our teacher – a young, smiley woman who reminded me of Miss Honey in Roald Dahl’s Matilda – came in excitedly to tell us it was a great day because a wonderful man called Nelson Mandela had been freed in a country that had been being unfair to black people for a long time and we were all going to write a story about it.

Twenty-two years later, that memory came back as I found myself having to decide which South African book to read for this project. I had a great list of titles kindly suggested by Sophy at South African literary site Books Live, but, for the first time this year, the question of the author’s race seemed significant. Should I choose something by a black or a white South African?

In the end, largely because I realised I couldn’t think of a book by a black South African author I’d read, apart from Mandela’s autobiography – whereas Gordimer, Trapido and Coetzee are regular guests in my imaginary universe – I decided to go with a black author and plumped for Siphiwo Mahala’s intriguing-sounding African Delights. 

Spanning the mid-late twentieth century, this irreverent, gutsy and absorbing collection of interlinked stories paints a picture of life in the townships and luxury districts of South Africa. From witty, local tales of men’s attempts to cover their infidelities, as in ‘The Suit Stories’, to parabolic portraits of the betrayal of the nation for short-term gain in the title story, the pieces span South African society, weaving a complex, rich and vibrant picture of this land of contradictions and unsettled scores.

Mahala’s conversational style is one of the keys to the book’s success. From the very first page, he casts us as characters in his stories so that reading his words is like sitting down at the kitchen table with the protagonists as they tell you the latest gossip, reaching over now and then to tap you playfully on the arm – ‘Ag man, I forgot that you young people wouldn’t know those dresses,’ says the narrator of the first story, for example, as he attempts to describe a girl who caught his eye.

This familiarity combines with a winning audacity to make many of Mahala’s characters irresistibly likeable even as they cheat, lie and pull the wool over other people’s eyes. In ‘Hunger’, for example, an impoverished student’s attempts to impress a Danish woman with his family connections are very funny:

‘”Yes, he’s my grandfather,” I said. Traditionally speaking, I was telling the truth. Mandela shared the same clan name as my grandmother, and that made him my grandfather. But the closest I had come to meeting him was seeing him on TV.’

Behind the bravado, wit and ingenuity, however, lurks a starker, darker truth. Shaded into the background of every story is the monstrous injustice of a society weighted heavily against more than half its citizens on racial grounds. Sometimes this is present only in the fleeting choice of which road to run down after dark because ‘a black man fleeing with a parcel tucked under his arm […] could make a perfect shooting target’. At other times it erupts into the midst of stories, dragging lives off course, as in ‘White Encounters’, in which a maid loses her job for bringing her sick child to work and allowing him to play with the houseowner’s son.

Mahala, however, is careful not to allow his stories to become tales of us and them. Told from a variety of contradictory perspectives, which often see the narrators taking issue with one another’s descriptions of events, they are instead tales of me and me and me. We discover that the pious radio pastor of the previous story is running a racket and that the wronged woman is secretly pregnant with another man’s child. Or are they?

Memorable, fearless and funny, Mahala’s characters burst off the page. While apartheid may have engendered ‘a lingering bond that always brought [Africans] together’, Mahala’s stories prove that it did nothing to erase the individuality of those it sought to oppress. As this life-affirming and engrossing book shows us, nothing is ever truly black and white.

African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala (Jacana Media 2011)