On writing: Speaking with 2016 Caine Prize winner Lidudumalingani

Lidudumalingani’s fictional short story ‘Memories We Lost’ is a vital and nuanced take on the difficult subject of mental illness in rural communities. The story looks at schizophrenia through the bond of two sisters, and, with subtlety, treads the line between clinical medicine and traditional healing. Published in Incredible Journey: Stories That Move You, it was for this story that Lidudumalingani won the seventeenth Caine Prize for African writing – the news of which was announced on 4 July, 2016. We caught up with the writer, filmmaker and photographer to talk about the topics in his winning story and the principle of writing only out of necessity.

Before you dive in, read ‘Memories We Lost’ in full here or listen to it read aloud by Tseliso Monaheng below.

In your Caine Prize winning story you examine schizophrenia through the relationship of two sisters: one has the condition, the other protects her. An excerpt from Memories We Lost reads, “The villagers shouted insults at the ‘thing’, as it remained unknown to them”. This raises a pertinent point around mental illness in black communities, where conditions like schizophrenia and depression sometimes get dismissed, are made light of, or chalked up to being the mysterious work of external forces. Can you speak to this from your own experience?

Allow me to begin with confessing a sin: I come into mental illness as an outsider, and as such my view of it, or at least my exploration of it in the story, is not from my own experience. This is not to say that I do not know of relatives who have at varying times and degrees been affected by mental illness, but it would be both disingenuous and disrespectful of me to claim that the story depicts any one of them. The characters are built from the ground up, a combination of research, knowing the relatives and the creative licence that writing allows for. As such they do not resemble anyone I know, and they do not have to. They are, in their own right, within the universe that exist in the book, complete human beings who need not resemble anyone else.

I would be the first to agree with you that attitudes towards mental illness are hugely problematic in black communities, but I would also like to argue against the simplicity at which this is often talked about. There are within the black communities exceptions, and I think that needs to be addressed – because if we make the decision to ignore nuance then we might as well not speak of anything at all.

The story carefully threads the argument between clinical medicine and traditional healers, and does not fall into this colonial trap that dismisses traditional healers as fronts for witchcraft. And as such I am not quite comfortable with the sentence “chalked up to being the mysterious work of external forces” because it assumes that the accepted narrative, the modernist argument that mental illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain and any other explanation is insane, is the single truth to live by. There is nothing more dangerous than single truths. This is the complexity the short story is grappling with.

What do you think needs to be done to shift perceptions and challenge the stigmas surrounding mental health?

The first thing to do would be to talk about it and be genuinely interested in what we all feel about it, not only amongst ourselves but with individuals who struggle with mental illness. The second would be to remove the stigma itself by getting to the root of the problem. Most stigmas are a result of not knowing, so get people to know more about mental illness. That is one side of the coin. The truth is that knowledge exists, and if people wanted to know, they would.

What power do you think writing has to bring about meaningful change in South Africa?

Writing, any art in fact, is useless on its own. It is the people that need to receive the art, force collaboration, form a posse of some sort, engage the art with honesty about its own shortcomings and that of ours as people and then, only then, perhaps the art can channel its power through us.

Wynberg Taxi Rank by Lidudumalingani
Wynberg Taxi Rank by Lidudumalingani

You grew up in Zikhovane Village in the Transkei. How does the social and physical landscape of ‘home’ continue to influence you and your work?

Though I grew up in the villages, I left when I was 18, and have since lived in the city, existing in fact both in the villages and the city, and thus my sensitivities as an artist are made up of these two environments, their physical spaces, the people, their design, the way they function. To claim and even insist that only the villages have shaped me as an artist would be to make false claims, to put a façade, like people who wear African clothes to give the pretence that they are African or that they are at least more preoccupied than others with what it means to be African. That I grew up in the villages and have now lived in the city helps in that, when I am writing or making images, I am able to frame them because I have an understanding of how the two function, their differences and similarities.

Can you shed some light on your process? Once the idea’s sparked, where do you go from there?

I have no process and I have no wish to have one. Processes, though they offer structure and discipline, strike me as obstacles to the way that art wants to go. The way I write is that I write one sentence and it gives birth to another, and then as the writing carries on, the sentences amend previous sentences, and so do paragraphs, and chapters.

Writing for The Daily Vox you said, “It’s important for black people to write, beyond short stories. We cannot read about ourselves from the writing of others. If we do this, we will always read a semblance of ourselves that is distorted and not nuanced. Even more important is to produce literature that defies the narratives that black writers are expected and coerced into writing about ourselves”. How can young black writers get their work out there?

I have no blueprint of how black writers can get their work out there. Out where too? Where does this concrete place where the work needs to go exist? Who governs it? What are their prejudices? Black writers need to write and get the work to the people. How they do this is a mystery to me because it is clear that the current output structures are not sufficiently serving all of us. But there must be a way, there has to be, and if not then black writers need invent a way.

To that point, who are some of the emerging African writers we should all be reading?

Reading is an incredibly personal thing and it would be presumptuous of me to make suggestions about what I think people should be reading. Literature is not difficult to find. Find it. The worst thing to do is to listen to people giving you reading lists or authors to look out for or ‘here are the emerging authors you should be reading’.

London by Lidudumalingani
London by Lidudumalingani

In addition to the prize money, your Caine award affords you a number of opportunities including a month’s residence at Georgetown University, the chance to speak at the Library of Congress and invitations to take part in book festivals in Cape Town, Nairobi and Nigeria. What are you hoping to garner from each of these experiences?

Meet people, form long lasting friendships, write, make images, drink tea, drink wine.

What are you currently working on?

I am always at any given time at work on a number of things. Right now, there are films at different production stages, fiction, non-fiction and photography. Then there is living, which takes most of my time.

Why do you write? And what would you like future generations to remember your writing for?

I write out of necessity and to make an attempt at the impossible.  In this ephemeral society we live in, nobody is going to remember my writing, but on the chance that they do, the memory I want them to hold dear about me is that everything I would have written was out of necessity.

Follow Lidudumalingani on Twitter.

Lidudumalingani at a room at the Lincoln College in Oxford, reading Claudia Rankine's Citizen: an American lyric
Lidudumalingani at a room at the Lincoln College in Oxford, reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: an American lyric

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