13 Sep A bewitching boy and his words: In conversation with Nikhil Singh
Talented across numerous creative disciplines, Nikhil Singh is an imaginative writer, musician, artist and filmmaker. My first encounter with him was at a vintage collectibles shop in Cape Town where we became fast friends. I knew few locals and he was kind enough to take me on a tour of the city bowl. What I remember finding most charming about him was how he was able to imbue every moment with his own magic – even the everyday event of walking along Long Street felt more colourful and multidimensional when experienced alongside him.
Nikhil’s latest illustrated novel Taty Went West is the first of a planned trilogy published by Kenyan literary foundation Kwani?. It details the unlikely adventure of a troubled teen, Taty, who runs away to the ‘Outzone’, meeting an evangelising robotic nun, a transgender hoodlum, and many other strange characters along the way. This novel became the springboard for the following conversation, which offers a glimpse inside the engrossing and surreal worlds that Nikhil is interested in (and often seems to inhabit himself).
Where are you right now?
Currently I am orbiting a mountain crag at the outer edge of Saturn’s ring. Not many people know this, but a mountain range circles the outer ring of Saturn. Countless centuries of centrifugal spin created this monolithic range and I sometimes leave my body to hang out here. My body is in London though – where I have been working on a new mermaid book in the 100 yr old attic of the old Screen on the Green cinema in Angel (and it’s teeotally haunted! (tho the ghost is, I tink, friendly)).
What sort of environment did you grow up in? Can you see the effect this has had on the work you’re making now?
When I was two weeks old I travelled to London and lived there for a bit as an infant. My teen home life was a bit tense – often I was escaping and hitchhiking here and there, ending up in weird places (in a miniskirt, lol). There’s a lot of the character of Taty in me – the sort of vagabond wanderer chasing visions. I also wanted to write a bit about the experience of paranormal perception and psychic stuff. But ya, there is definitely a lot of dark psychological stuff going on in Taty Went West which I was only really able to decode after I had written it. Sometimes writing can exist as a kind of cartographic effort. One creates maps to the most remote and deeply buried secret islands of the mind and memory and then journeys there. I am on this road I guess, lifting lids and poking around with a flashlight. Also to go back to the places where one grows up and the Burroughs quote at the beginning of the book – which is from his book The Place of Dead Roads. This book had some meaning for me in relation to the question because I had worked on it as a teenager and then resuscitated it recently, uncapping so many memories and experiences. In Burroughs’ book the ‘dead roads’ refer to roads that we, at one time or another, travelled daily – like the rode home from school. Yet, once we move or relocate or use other roads, these roads become what he calls ‘dead roads’ – existing only in dream, and memory.
Your writing and illustration explores the dark side of fantasy. When did you discover your affinity for all things gothic and macabre?
Ha ha. My Venus is in Scorpio. I’ve always been a darkling. Yet I am so comfortable there in the darkness that it starts to take on Halloween-y soft and fuzzy qualities – all handy when facing demons and things. I remember when I was really really REALLY young I had my first, what one could call lucid dream, that I can recall: my family used to often travel from Pietermaritzburg to Durban (my dad had some clubs in Durban – a jazz place and an in-house synth band steak house). At night that road can be really strange. I dreamed that I was in the darkness on the side of the road running from a monster made of many electrical cables with dead lightbulbs for eyes – the only light came from the headlights of passing cars. I saw my whole family in a car and ran to call them to fetch me, but my voice refused to come out clearly and they didn’t see me at all. In the end, the car passed me by and I receded into darkness. I realised – that’s it – I’m alone out here in the wasteland. So I stopped running and turned around. The monster slowed down and as it drew nearer I became quite fascinated by the intricacy of its wiring and way of moving. We became friends and it showed me secret places and I went to live out there in the wastes. In the end, you see, the monster was there for me.
Would you say you’ve got a good sense of humour?
No, I’m a terribly serious person. I should, like, really just end it all now.
Tell us about creating your most recent illustrated novel, Taty Went West…
When I was younger I consumed sci-fi novels at a terrible rate. Sometimes I would stay up late and cover them with mustard and ketchup and just eat them right up. Anyway, I liked the long form epics a lot – stuff like Dune, Gormenghast and whatnot. When I started working on Taty, I had been writing a lot more serious (twisted!) stuff. I really wanted to go back to the nostalgic teen kicks I got reading sci-fi. So I decided to plunge headlong into this idea I had worked out a bit when I was 16 – which was this film script about a teen runaway. So with the novel I really wanted this fantasy epic feeling (the book is 408 pages!). Also I wanted to write it in more complex English than one is used to finding in most contemporary sci-fi. Mostly because I grew up reading things from more antiquated eras – where lush prose was, like, a thing.
The narrative is told from the perspective of Taty, who has been described as a “new modern literary heroine akin to Lara Croft, cast adrift in a futurist Game of Thrones”. Who and what did you take inspiration from while developing this character?
Well, when I was a teenager I got a drama assignment and I had this friend Taty who was 14. At the time I was going to a lot of goth clubs and had this idea for a short film where Taty ran away from home and was hitching on this jungle road (the North Coast is teeotally primeval!) and this sort of overweight, sinister goth woman picked her up in a vintage Caddy with teddy bears lashed to the bumper and she would go on an adventure. That was the seed. In fact – I didn’t really know what to call it so I just called it Taty Went West as a sort of jokey-working title. Later his title gathered speed and started to sound rather epic to me. When I started writing the story out I began to model the character on a kind of contemporary jungle Alice in Wonderland meets vintage Wim Wenders. I decided to keep the name because it was a relic of teenage-time and I liked the title. But I wanted a character who was quite iconic in their realism. She is a bit nihilistic and has dark secrets – but also has high hopes and dreams. She is also not really driven by purpose – rather she is a bit lazy, is only really interested in eating and hanging out in the pool and watching movies etc. The vicious nature of the Outzone forces her to change – but rather than becoming a victim she sort of goes with it, transforming into a kind of predator herself. I thought that this shift was weirdly South African, or even Antipodean. There is a basic savagery inherent in the subtropics, often predicated by a basic need for survival within hostile environments.
Your illustrations are beautifully intricate. What sorts of things do you think about while drawing?
Tinx yu! Well, I like to evoke atmospheres that are dream-like, but I also have a kind of personal agenda where I like to blend realism with impressionistic or iconic imagery. Perhaps this is because I have a history in comics – both in creating and collecting. Comics are a form of sequential visual narrative – not unlike hieroglyphics, which I feel are at the root of comics. Images are simplified in order to evoke subconscious symbolic cues, which when mixed correctly, trigger/convey unspoken syntax’s. This language of sequential imagery is very ancient and predates language itself. So I usually think about how much I will be able to fuck with whoever is looking at the drawing’s mind. Maximum mental corruption is my goal, I would say. Lol.
You’ve spoken on the sellable stereotyping of characters within sci-fi and African fiction. How is Taty different from the concept of a cliched female protagonist?
Well, the majority of published work comes from people with either academic or commercial backgrounds. The result is that female characters (as their history in sci-fi attests) are usually either created as a sort of pleasurable texture to a narrative or are over-sold on ‘isms’. I really wanted to have a girl who was basically just real, but caught in an unreal place. I believe that resistance to oppressive stereotyping is sometimes a reversal trap. Real resistance for me is indifference and a hearkening back to the core of experiential existence. So I wanted someone who was at various crossroads – the book has teenage energy for me because I formulated so many of the characters and concepts as a teen, and tried hard to preserve that in the text. And teen-hood is in many ways a kind of extreme crossroads, where one is faced with many life-defining paths. I wanted to focus more on Taty’s internal changes and spirit of rebellion rather than outside forces which attempt to force themselves upon her life-path. I don’t see that much in sci-fi.
Do you think there’s a particular theme or topic that’s central to your work?
I wouldn’t say there was one particular central theme or topic, but there are certainly recurrent themes which I find myself returning to. I share a lot of views with Ballard, in some ways in that I like this idea of a character being transformed completely by a strange environment. I also like to explore sexuality as an act of transformation – though often from an internal perspective. For example, often if I write a sexual episode I like to show characters that are transformed entirely by the experience. I feel that although sexuality is explored in a kind of detailed hedonistic approach these days in popular literature, it is rarely explored at a deeper level. Rather than get into surface details I am more about the consequences and psychological motivations underlying extreme behaviour. I am a fan of writers like Viollette Le Duc, Harold Brodky and John Varley in this area – which is not necessarily erotic writing, but writing that explores the mystery of sexuality. I am also interested in the concept of blending realism with supernatural perception. I believe in a great many things that your average person would find insane – like magic, fairies and aliens to name a few. So I like whatever I do to reflect this kind of perception. Not to preach though, you understand, but more as a sort of controlled theatre of dreams wherein one can experiment with reality…
You’ve fronted several alternative South African bands such as The Wild Eyes. Are you working on any musical side projects at the moment?
Well, yes – but that’s a secret! Ha ha. Also Taty the novel comes with a soundtrack – which is actually part of the book. Coco Carbomb and I (under teh name WItchboy) created this soundtrack to go along with the text. You can listen to it here.
What are your current fascinations?
I’m one of those people who are pretty much fascinated by everything – I am all about getting deeper into the experience of reality. Everything can reflect this. And everyone you meet is a teacher.
What do you hope to be remembered for?
I don’t care if I am remembered. Though I wouldn’t mind my work leaving an impression.