Telling black people how to tell their stories is a way of gate-keeping storytelling

March 29, 2016 § 5 Comments

At the beginning of 2016, I had to write a new section for the second edition of my book. In March 2016, Rod MacKenzie wrote what I thought were some good points here and there and some fair criticisms. Yet there is thinly veiled racism that he can’t even pick up in his commentary. It was polite racism. Which is the worst kind.

In the foreword of my second edition (below), I wrote the following, “Does that mean we shouldn’t tell our stories because the style and manner in which we tell them does not meet certain criteria imposed on us by a system not of  own creation? If that is the case, we will never create enough storytellers because gatekeepers will always have rules telling us why black experiences cannot be told.”

I wrote that long before Rod MacKenzie wrote his piece, Can a White Man Tell Khaya Dlang How To Write a Memoir?

He also asks why my book was publishable. He also goes on to say, “Is it simply because Khaya is “black” and therefore more marketable?” I wonder if we listen to Rob because he is a white male, therefore, has a voice that occupies a space that should be and deserves to be listened to. And why in heaven’s name is the word black in inverted commas when he refers to my race? What was this chap implying?

As a black writer, my book was extremely unmarketable. It was precisely because I am a black writer telling his own black experience that I am not marketable. It is miraculous that it made it on the bestseller list to begin with. But guess what? It was the only book on that list by a living black writer. That is disgusting. We are in a majority black country yet there was only one book on the list. Just one. And worse, it was dead last on that list. I felt like the Some of My Best Friends Are Black of books. Look how generous and nice we are, we allowed a black, oops, a black person in the club.

Rod MacKenzie must tell us how that makes me or any black writer more marketable. I am very curious. The black writer is the least marketable in this country. The system is stacked against them. If black writers were more marketable, why aren’t they on bestseller lists? Why are there so few published? Rob forgets his privilege. But then, it is so normal to him that he does need to recognise it. There are many talented black writers who would wipe me off the face off the planet but are locked out of the system, by the system, because it does not want to have black stories told. If these stories are told, we will know who we are. They don’t want us to know who we are (sorry DJ Khaled).  Rob hides behind a veil of privilege that presumes to dictate what stories should be told, by who, how and when they should be told. Asizuva ngawe Rob. And I am not going to translate that either.

I have often seen people who write about their lives accused of name-dropping. It is as if people have to pretend that they don’t or have never met well-known people. Yet the names of people unknown to the critic, even though mentioned much more frequently, get no such attention from the critic. This reminds me of a time when I went to visit my village of Dutyini and posted some 20 odd pics on social networks while I was there. The following week I travelled to a foreign country and posted three pictures. Some commented saying I was showing off when I posted while in a foreign country.

So I asked why it was that posting pictures of my village was not showing off just the previous week, yet pictures of a foreign country was? What if for me my village is a way of showing off? That showed me a warped sense of self that we often have of ourselves. This is precisely the reason we need to tell our own stories in our own manner. Too many of our stories have been told by people unlike us, people who are not us. Their versions tell us that we ought to be ashamed of where we come from, yet showing that which is Western is somehow superior and is classified as showing off. This is exactly why we have to tell our own story and how we want to tell them. Masingaqhelwa kakubi apha.

Below is the foreword I wrote for the second edition of my book in January 2016

To Quote Myself_Front Cover(RGB)

The publication of the first edition of this book came with a few surprises for me. A few weeks after its release, it had the dubious status of being the most stolen book in bookshops across the country. It got so bad that copies were kept behind the counter in many stores. People could only get it when they requested it.

I was actually thrilled that it was being stolen (dear reader, don’t view this as encouragement) because it meant that people were actually reading it. Hopefully. I had not thought that anyone would buy it, apart from my mother, a few relatives and a few supportive friends. Even then, I secretly believed that they would read the first few words and then close the book and never open it again.

Another thing I did not expect was the bestseller status it achieved and that the first print run would be sold out so quickly. I remember being happy but not that excited about making it into the bestseller list because it was the only title at the time by a living black writer. Why was that the case?

Are black writers given enough opportunity to write and publish their voices? When their stories are published are they given the support they deserve in bookshops or are they relegated to the back of the store where no one can find them? Can the people who decide what books will be published relate to stories that are written by black writers, or do they reject them because they cannot relate even though they would resonate with a black audience? Are black readers buying black writers? Are white buyers of South African literature supporting local black literature as much as they support white writers?

It is not right that we live in a majority black country and yet we don’t find the stories of more black people on shelves. And when we do find them, they are not always written by black hands, in their own way, their own style and in their own voice. Now, a lot of us black people were not able to get certain levels of education; we had to teach ourselves. Does that mean we shouldn’t tell our stories because the style and manner in which we tell them does not meet certain criteria imposed on them by a system not of their own creation? If that is the case, we will never create enough storytellers because gatekeepers will always have rules telling them why black experiences cannot be told.

As Africans we have been storytellers for millennia. Nobody can tell me that we can’t tell stories. We have to tell our own stories otherwise our era will be defined by other voices.

It is also important to note that my story is not the story of all black people. This is my experience that I happened to go through. Even though it is mine, there are thousands of people like me who went through what I went through and who can identify with what is written in the pages of this book.

I did not expect how many people told me that their parents took the book from them and refused to give it back once they were done reading it. I imagine many people’s parents could relate to the life I describe at the beginning. The rural life. As I say in the pages of this book, when I read about Nelson Mandela’s village life in Long Walk to Freedom, I realised that my own village life was no different from the kind of life he had lived some 60 years before.

After reading the book, my mother called me in shock at how much I remembered from my childhood. What got me the most was the reaction of my uncle, Mvume Dandala, former Bishop of the Methodist Church in southern Africa. His mother and my grandfather are siblings. He thanked me for writing about where we both come from and for writing so accurately about events and people we both knew. For him, most importantly, was how I had given tribute to my mother. The one person most readers want to talk to me about after they have finished the book is my mother.

I had driven down to Mvume’s brother’s funeral in Dutyini in 2015 when Mvume spoke to me about the book. He had suffered a stroke. He was lying in bed and he held my hand as he spoke to me at length.

At one point he mentioned a time when he came to see me while I lived in Cape Town when he was there for a visit as a Bishop. I heard the pain in his voice as he said that he remembered how happy I was when he handed me R50 all those years ago. He was pained because he felt that he should have known what I was going through when I lived in Cape Town.

I told him that there was no way he could have known because I hid what I was going through from everyone.

‘I could not understand the inexplicable happiness you had when I gave it to you. You were so happy. So very happy. It was like the most important thing you had ever been given. I thought you were just being a happy child because you have always been a happy child. But when I read your book, I realised why you were so happy.’

Behind the smile I had given him, I was hiding the fact that I was recently homeless and I desperately needed this unexpected R50 he was giving to me. I remember that after he had given me the R50, he prayed for me.

Late in 2015 my former pastor in Cape Town, Stephen van Rhyn, called me to apologise for not picking up that I was going through a difficult time. He felt that, as my pastor, it was his responsibility to be able to see what people in his church were going through because the church could have helped me.

Again, I shared that I did not want people to know my shame and I didn’t want to feel like I was a burden. Instead, I preferred to hide in plain sight. A smile and a laugh can hide a lot. My smile and my laugh hid a lot in those days. Two days before the launch of the first edition of this book, I bought a smoothie, sat down and took my first sip. I got the greatest brain freeze known to humankind. At that precise moment my heart started beating fast.

I thought that my body was shocked from the sudden brain freeze. The brain freeze ended but my heart continued racing. Ten minutes later it had not stopped. I drove from Morningside to Sandton City, thinking that if I walked around a bit there my heart would calm down. It didn’t. I ended up sitting down at Stuttafords where a lady by the name of Laura, who was working at the Tom Ford counter, asked me if I was okay. She gave me a chair to sit on and called the mall’s paramedics. In the meantime, I downloaded an app to check the pace and rhythm of my pulse. It was erratic. My heart was beating at 143 beats a minute

with no pattern. It beat fast and then slow and then fast.
By now I was getting worried and I called my friend and personal

physician, Dr Tshidi Gule. I explained to her what was happening. She dropped everything and came to see me in Sandton. When Dr Gule arrived she called one of the top cardiologists in the country, Dr Motara. We sent him the read- ing of my heartbeat from the app. He wanted to see me the very next morning, even though he had initially said he wouldn’t have time until the following week. He also prescribed some medication, which brought my heartbeat back to normal.

I joked with my girlfriend that if I died two days before my book launch I was pretty sure the book would be a runaway success because people would feel pity and buy it. I laughed. Alone.

‘That’s not funny.’ Silence followed by the coldest side-eye.

When I saw Dr Motara the next day, he conducted extensive tests and couldn’t find any reason for my heart beating the way it was. His conclusion was that there was some misfiring of the electricity into the heart and my life was not in danger, but he cautioned me not to strain myself.

Looking back, I realise that the idea of pouring my life story out in the book had freaked me out completely. I was scared of the publisher’s threats regarding deadlines, but nothing put the fear of God in me more than the impending launch. I could not ask my publisher to unpublish the book – plus I had spent the advance. The lesson I learnt is that writing about my life has been the most dangerous thing I have ever done.

Even though To Quote Myself is my second book, after In My Arrogant Opinion, I came to realise that it is impossible not to be nervous about what people will think about your writing. It is inevitable that people will read the book from different perspectives. Some will read it purely because they want a story of someone they can relate to, another will look at it from an academic point of view, and still others will see it as just another book written from the perspective of a man.

Whatever the case may be, and whatever the shortcomings of the book, this is my story. To write about yourself is to expose your insecurities, to stand naked in front of the world – or, at least, in front of a tiny bit of the world. I thought no one would turn up at the book launch and, worse still, that no one would buy the book.

To my surprise, it was both bought and stolen. And for this, I thank you.

§ 5 Responses to Telling black people how to tell their stories is a way of gate-keeping storytelling

  • Nqobani says:

    Khaya, once again you have left me feeling excited and very nervous about my future. I’m a black Copywriter working at The Jupiter Drawing Room, just like you once did. I love your blog, and I have a blog of my own.

    I’ve stopped writing because I found there were a lot of critics who cared more about my errors then they cared about my stories. You are one of the very few black writers I look up to, simply because I want to be like you one day; I want to write my stories and hopefully, get as many black people to pick up a book and empower themselves (obviously, this task is not an easy one).

    At the office I feel like my white colleagues are patiently waiting for me to make a faux pas at every opportunity I get to be great, and at first, I thought that would be an interesting challenge, but I don’t know if I can keep this up for much longer. All I want is to enjoy what I do because I love what I do, but being black ain’t easy.

    Though you may not see this comment and you most likely won’t reply, it gives me comfort that there is hope for people like me, because there is someone like you.

    You invisible fan.

  • André says:

    Why is the pigment of ones skin even a factor in this argument? “Can a White Man Tell Khaya Dlang How To Write a Memoir?” I’d say yes, yes he can, I don’t think skin colour can make an opinion valid or not valid. You can choose to agree or disagree but what his skin colour has to do with it is beyond me. Perhaps I’m being naive but surely the only criteria for one to enter the bestsellers list is to sell books? I don’t think it’s a club and that membership can be with held because your not western enough?

  • Jenny says:

    Khaya, I read your book, inclusive of “In my Arrogant opinion.” and its a well written. Like Rod wrote in his article, it should be read by students in South African schools.

    Also, I agree with some of the things Rod mentions in his article.
    I have read some bad memoirs, not only by black writers, but white writers too. As a reader, I feel that a memoir should transform people into the writer’s world. The reader should be angry, happy, sad, capturing the writers every emotion.
    As I read Rod’s article about “memoir writing” (if I can give it a different name) the more I thought, shouldn’t his criticism be aimed at the publishers?
    He also compared your previous article about Mandela, where a lot of heart was put into that piece of writing. We know that after a book has been published, we the readers get an edited version.

    So, on my part Rod’s article is good guidelines for any person wanting to write a memoir; however, it’s his ending that throws his entire article out of the window.

    If any black writers were published due to entitlement, surely this is an insult not only to you Khaya, but Can Themba, Zake Mda, Ngugi wa’Thiongo, just to name a few.
    Did they get published because they’re are black?

    Keep writing Khaya, I’ll be first to steal or buy your book. 😃

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