Writing Back to the Industry
Poet Sihle Ntuli ponders the role of a young black poet in a society that is in tradition and an industry that requires a serious shake up.
Jacaranda flowers announce a quiet afternoon as they line the pavement outside the entrance to South African poet and writer, Sihle Ntuli’s Grahamstown flat. Inside, tucked away from the noise of passing cars and commuters, sits a robust green couch, a small desk covered in pages with neat words, and a few copies of Ntuli’s first anthology, Stranger.
Ntuli is soft and considered in conversation. Above him is a Madonna and Child type image that Ntuli says is present in most black children’s homes in South Africa. “Ja this image always reminds me of my grandmother’s house,” he says softly, hands resting gently on knees. He listens intently and collects his thoughts before answering.
“I was born in Durban in the KwaMashu township. Being born in the 90s in South Africa, you sort of experience the end of the apartheid era,” he begins. “I moved to the suburbs in ’97 and then I was in a place where I was very unsure. You have this passive aggressive sort of anger and violence behind closed doors. You don’t greet your neighbours or say hello, but you assume every one’s business. Then you’re back in the townships and you know everyone and everyone’s business because they tell you and they help you. I think the term ‘double consciousness’ sums it up pretty well.”
Drawing on much of his time growing up in KwaMashu, Ntuli’s poetry speaks back to a life in Durban, from its taxi ranks and close- knit communities, to its very streets. Ntuli’s poetry is not geographically limited however. He writes of memory and music, and of bad break ups and generational aspirations. Stranger, when read in its entirety, is as much a personal collection of words as it is a shared experience. When asked how he thinks the residents of KwaMashu would experience his anthology, he raises the sad reality of education levels in the township, and states that while not everyone would be able to access it and understand it in the same way, he just wants the anthology to inspire.
“I’d like them to read it and see that they can be something like a writer or a musician, just to take themselves out of the space of KwaMashu, but still rep it. We have various celebs who come out of our community and forget about it. But hey, your township will always remember you, that community gave birth to you and they will always support you. I need to put KwaMashu on the map. That’s what I wanna do.”
Certainly, Ntuli’s experiencing growing celebrity within the Eastern Cape where he’s currently finishing his studies. His anthology currently circulates Grahamstown, Johannesburg, and wherever they ship off to from online purchases, with plans to sell in Nigeria soon. In the Eastern Star gallery at his launch, Ntuli’s writing is read out and well received by the crowd, albeit a very white, and very sheltered audience.
“At the back of my mind, I knew this audience was like ‘Ay I like to see this black man act black’. But it’s also about perception and how you see it. Some people like this whole exotic thing, but whatever man, I like to look on the positive side. That crowd, for them, a poem like ‘Mob Justice’ exposes them to things they don’t know about from the comfort of their Mercedes Benz and people need to know about that.”
Ntuli shifts a little in his seat and considers what he’s said. The literary scene in South Africa is one that is rich in history and steeped in tradition, but it’s a kind of tradition that works for a select few. As a young, black writer, Ntuli forms part of a growing network of writers who are continually having to work within the confines of an industry that has, from its inception, been crafted exclusively for wealthy white men.
“The local literary industry is run by, not so much colonialists, but traditionalist white structures and white gatekeepers that don’t really allow other voices in. It would be very interesting to maybe stumble upon an Indian poet writing on Chatsworth, but you won’t really get that, because the gatekeepers won’t allow them in. I guess my project is just trying to show that that can exist. Like we can go there,” says Ntuli leaning forward slightly. “We can write poetry about nightclubs, we can take it there. We can take it to this green couch where we’re sitting…and talking. We can take it there. From there we can take it to some deeper levels. Lost love – a lot of people have experienced break ups recently, but in a contemporary way. Not so much ‘she loves me, she loves me not’, but in a more complicated way. So ja, this is why I feel we’re existing in a very old school place in our literature.”
And where do these complications begin? Where most writers discover their love for language—in the schooling system. Ntuli slides into the back of the couch as he brings back his high school days. A model C schooling may have been the result of a mother’s good intentions, but Ntuli recalls a then unknown constriction in his writing—a preference towards the old, classical poets and their styles which Ntuli would have to spend years unlearning before finding his own.
“Well before, in the 90s era, I was writing a lot. There was a lot of hip hop then and I enjoyed the way that they put their lines together. More so than wanting to be a Keats or be a Wordsworth, I wanted to just sort of express myself in contemporary ways that people in my time could understand and that was sort of the main motivator for being a writer. But of course when you’re in high school, you start to experiment with the Keats structure, the Wordsworth structure and it’s only now once I’ve grown up that I’ve started to develop my own voice,” he says. “Could they not have given us some Zulu poetry? We have to sort of co- exist with the English language all the time. As much as it was necessary to see how those guys wrote, I would have preferred it if they had a little bit more of African poetry and poets. Especially coming from a Model C school which was very traditional, you sort of stifle the African voice, which could’ve actually inspired some other students to write their own stuff. You don’t get a lot of poets in our era because of that I think, because of what goes on in that crucial development stage.”
We sit for a while more and swap stories of our respective high school experiences. We talk about the recent student led protests and demonstrations and the need for good writing around them, but how even then, the focus remains on white writers penning misinformed and far removed think pieces or performing lofty spoken word. ‘Something needs to shift here’ we conclude, ‘but how?’ Ntuli sits uneasy for a while before a small smile forms and he concludes.
“Tradition doesn’t like to move too far from the norm. I think that maybe we have to reapply our understanding of tradition and to create new traditions. I want to give you your Keats and your Wordsworth, but give it to you from the township,” he says. “The industry will only have you if you fit their idea of a black writer and many black writers are starting to write against that you know? I might have to start writing against them as well. I’ve always tried to navigate it, but it might just be time to flip the table.”
This article originally appeared in Ja. Magazine.
All photos by Niamh Walsh-Vorster
Illustration by Illustration by Amy Slatem