Bwesigye: When you won the Caine Prize for African Writing, did you feel any pressure to share the prize money since Namwali Serpell, the previous winner, had done so the year before?
Lidudumalingani: It was clear to all of us, even before the night of the awards, from the conversations that we had about the prize money – which we had largely as a result of everyone else talking about it and Namwali’s generous spirit hovering above us – that sharing the money was not something any of us considered doing.
Bwesigye: You have also not made any controversial statements about African literature and the Caine Prize specifically, as previous winners tended to do…?
Lidudumalingani: I only speak my truths. That can be uncomfortable for some people, but I have no desire to be controversial. If something is done for controversy’s sake and not to speak our deepest feelings, I think that is being dishonest and deserves no amount of conversation.
Bwesigye: Fair enough. What is your interest in exploring ‘the rural’ in the 21st century in your fiction when development experts, activists, policy makers and practitioners are inundating us with projections of rapid urbanisation in Africa? In fact, a number of previous Caine Prize-winning stories are set in urban Africa and/or the diaspora.
Lidudumalingani: Contrary to what some may believe, the villages have not been left barren. The old people still live there, people I grew up with still stay there, my siblings still stay there, even those who have migrated to the city, for whatever purpose, still return there. My memories, my life, are there and that is enough for me to set my work there. I have lived in the city and the village for equal periods in my life, and my writing is set in both places. It would also be a waste of time, I feel, on my part to worry about development experts, activists, policy makers and practitioners who have never set foot in a village.
Bwesigye: It is rare for male writers to create believable female characters as you have done in your story. Can you tell us your secret?
Lidudumalingani: I am a keen observer of people, which is a necessary trait for a writer, but I am also invested in not misrepresenting people or writing contorted characters.
Bwesigye: How does your multi-media approach to story-telling through film, photography and fiction influence your work?
Lidudumalingani: I think the one idea that dominates my writing process is that the writing has to mould images in the reader’s mind as they read and naturally this idea is also the defining concept in photography and filmmaking.
Bwesigye: You are the first male South African writer to win the Caine Prize. What does this mean for you, for the Caine Prize and for South African writing, given the contemporary discourse around decolonisation of literature, education and politics in South Africa? Would you consider yourself as part of the movement to decolonise South African literature?
Lidudumalingani: In a publishing industry that favours a certain narrative, even a certain colour in the writers it produces, promotes and considers to be producing literature, any black writer creating work that does not undermine black people and is not willing to compromise the nuance of black characters is already doing enough to decolonise South African literature. Without, if you think about it, doing anything special at all.
At its simplest, to me, the discourse means that as a black writer I must be considered, even if my writing has no interest in pandering to the tastes of middle-class white readers. It means that at festivals, black writers must not be invited on the basis that they must explain their blackness and that of others. It means that short-story competitions in South Africa must diversify their judging and editing panels and not only include people whose only experience of black people and writing is via books that have been published because they feed into the narrative of black people as ‘the other’. It is not enough that a short-story anthology is made up of equal numbers of black and white writers, yet all the stories are selected by a judging panel that is white – because then the process becomes a game of balancing numbers.
It means bookshops having black authors as hosts during launches, not only radio and TV personalities. It means that black writers are not asked to speak for all black people.
Decolonising South African literature should also not benefit only black male writers. It also means, as equally important as the points above, treating black female writers with the same respect that black male writers get.
It means organising our own festivals and publishing platforms and reading black writers – and doing so not as some form of ‘venturing out’ in our reading.
Bwesigye: Thank you, Lidudumalingani.