Saturday, 11 September 2010

Lewis Nkosi: a giant of SA literature

A giant has fallen with the passing of Lewis Nkosi (Sunday 5 Sept. 2010). He was one of only a tiny few of the so-called Drum writers that lived on into the last five to ten years; not only that, he continued to be prolific and powerful with the written word for this extended period.

In this sense, he was an ongoing resource and a re-energising force in South Africa’s literary affairs and in critical discourses related to it, enriching in distinctive ways the dialogues, conversations and reflections on the emergence and future directions of our literature. He held a perspective and boasted an involvement that spanned several key phases in the development of black writing in Mzansi.

The experience of being a 'Drum writer' – a reference to black writers that worked at Drum magazine in the pre 1960s period – functioned as a powerful platform for Nkosi. It contributed to his qualities of always being engaged and refusing an ivory tower detachment from what fellow black South Africans were living through. Also, something of the wry humour, the twinkle in the eye, the brashness, the willingness to lash out at oppression –qualities associated with the Drum writers – always remained with him.

However, his journey and transitions took him light years beyond the Drum writer categorisation; in other words, he was so much more. Utilising his articulateness and perceptiveness, he has added in immense ways to the understanding of literature and black voices in literature. He was able to embrace the Drum writer identity and at the same time adopt a helicopter vision and critically observe the "Drum writer' phenomenon as well as other features of literary expression in South Africa.

In his literary criticism, he wrote with insight on the ‘schism’ as well as the common ground between the inzile and exile writer. He often bemoaned the fact that repression and censorship in the post-60s meant young writers were deprived of their heritage (access to the work of writers driven into exile).

Nkosi [author of Mating Birds (Perennial fiction library) and Mandela's Ego] was a master with words and a fount of insights; he was inventive, clever, bold in his novel writing and non-sentimental as a commentator. He possessed a deep understanding of the relationship between literature and society and of how the writer is influenced by, and illuminates, understanding of society. He applied this understanding adeptly to the dynamic and ever-charged South African situation. Lewis Nkosi is gone far too soon, but through his works (essays, plays and novels) he will continue to dialogue with us about a diverse range of issues related to our literature and its development as the process of democratic change continues in our society.

(For further reading, see also the following text on Nkosi: Still Beating the Drum: Critical Perspectives on Lewis Nkosi (Cross/Cultures 81) (Cross/Cultures: Readings in the Post/Colonial Literatures in))


Steve Hayes said...

Thanks for that.

I haven't seen an obituary for him, so hope you won't mind if I copy parts of your post (with links and acknowledgements, of course) on books and obits newsgroups.

Frank Meintjies said...

You are most welcome. The achievements and contribution of Lewis Nkosi, this outstanding South African, should be shared and discussed as widely as possible.