Correspondence with Lewis Nkosi, 2002

A long time ago I was fortunate enough to conduct an interview with the great, now late, Lewis Nkosi (1936-2010), via a series of emails. Below is that correspondence. It is forthcoming in a Festschrift for Lewis Nkosi, edited by Astrid Starck.

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E-mail correspondence: Lewis Nkosi and Lucy Graham, March – April 2002.

Lewis Nkosi to Lucy Graham, 25 March 2002

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lucy Graham,

I have your message via Janice Harris. Needless to say, I am delighted you plan to present a paper on MATING BIRDS. I would be happy to answer questions about my work but if possible would appreciate knowing in advance the questions you have in mind so that I can do a bit of reflection before the interview. The reason is that I am not a very articulate person.

Then we also need to discuss the kind of set-up you have in mind, date and time, etc.

My personal interest includes a consideration of the ways in which MATING BIRDS was received in South Africa in contrast to reviews outside the country, the social and political circumstances which framed these receptions. I am also in possession of leading reviews, from The New York Times Book Review and Washington Post, to British and Continental newspaper reviews.

Last week, Mating Birds was reissued in France by Muse Dapper in Paris and a German Publisher is to reprint the German translation in September.

Kwela Books is preparing publication of the second novel, UNDERGROUND PEOPLE in October. Let me know what help you may require.

Sincerely, LEWIS NKOSI.


Lucy Graham to Lewis Nkosi, 26 March 2002.

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lewis Nkosi,

Thank you for getting in touch! I was thrilled to hear from you, and was very pleased to hear that you agree to an interview.

I would suggest a series of emails, to which you can respond at your leisure. If you have any other ideas (e.g. emails and a telephone conversation or two) then please let me know. If you are coming to the UK for any reason, it would be great to meet up.

I am considering a doctorate, with the provisional title of my thesis: “Rape in South African Literature: Segregation, Apartheid and After”. Partly, I am examining the ways in which certain narratives were produced, circulated, used for political purposes, banned, legitimised, ignored or criticised in South African history.

I find Mating Birds to be a fascinating book, and particularly subversive when it comes to the so-called “black peril” theme. And your personal interest – the different responses to Mating Birds inside SA and abroad – happens to be my interest too. Andre Brink’s critique of Mating Birds is particularly problematic and amusing (in what it reveals about a white male SA critic).

The reviews you mention would be of great interest to me, perhaps you could list references, indicating where they may be found?

I am interested in correspondence you may have with the publishers of Mating Birds, in SA and abroad (esp. St Martin’s Press and Ravan). If you no longer have the correspondence, could you remember whether they suggested any changes to the original manuscript, before it was published? These changes may have been suggested in the name of prospective readers, and with the market for certain types of narratives in mind. I know for instance, that Doris Lessing’s publishers Alfred Knopf in New York tried to force her to make major changes to The Grass is Singing, which she refused.

I suspect that the subversive nature of the novel accounts for attempts by certain white critics in SA to dismiss aspects of it. Did the apartheid censors have anything to say about Mating Birds, before or after it was published in SA?

I look forward to hearing from you.
And of course I do not believe for one second that you are an inarticulate person (!).


Lucy Graham.

Lewis Nkosi to Lucy Graham, 4 April 2002

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lucy Graham,

I wanted to reply to you sooner, but alas for the past three weeks and all through (appropriately if you believe that Christian story) Easter holy days, I have been undergoing a crucifixion of a kind rewriting passages of UNDERGROUND PEOPLE. I am bleeding, I am exhausted, with only Kafka’s DIARIES for consolation: “Headache, slept badly. Incapable of sustained, concentrated work.” Et tu Kafka! Again: “Wrote a little today and yesterday. Just now read the beginning. It is ugly and gives me a headache…wicked, pedantic, mechanical, a fish barely breathing on a sandbank.”

Your message is delightful in so far as it uncannily captures some of my many reflections on the plight of MATING BIRDS. The reception of the novel is a subject that deserves a paper by itself! Outside South Africa the novel was almost unanimously perceived as one of the best pieces of writing to emerge from South Africa. The novel was the Thursday’s weekly choice of the best new fiction by THE NEW YORK TIMES influential critic Michiko Kakutani (March 22, 1986); a lead review in THE NEW YORK TIMES SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW by Henry Louis Gates,Jr, (Sunday 18 May 1986); Critics’ Choice of the WASHINGTON POST and reviewed by Alan Ryan on June 8, 1986 who called it “very possibly the finest novel by a South African, black or white, about the terrible distortion of love in South Africa since Alan Paton’s “TOO LATE THE PHALAROPE”; Gabrielle Daniels of Stanford University, then teaching black women’s literature, in a review in the EXAMINER-CHRONICLE of San Francisco on May 4, 1986; Norman Shrapnel for the LONDON GUARDIAN 1.8. 1986, who after summarising the novel reported: “So stark an outline can give no account of the subtlety and skill that have gone into the structure of this searching – and remarkably, given its dire theme, undepressing – first novel.” From Hugh Barnes in the LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS (7 August 1986) to Margaret Walters in THE LONDON OBSERVER (27.7.86) and Paul Pickering in NEW SOCIETY  who thought “the moral implications of MATING BIRDS are as disturbing as the writing is brilliant.” And then was Channel 4 Book’s Choice reviewed by Andrew Hislop. In Holland was a best-seller that went into two printings; was chosen one of the best 100 books published in 1986 by the NEW YORK TIMES at the end of that year. Sweden, Norway, Finland, Italy and Germany got similar reception. Was not reviewed in France for peculiarly French reasons when it comes to foreign books by “Third World Writers” but got a review in CANARD ENCHAINE. To crown it all, finally an International Pen Prize.

I mention all the above not out of vanity. In fact, I find it unfortunate that the views of foreign reviewers should play such a decisive role in the shaping of our literature. All the same, there is something disturbing, to say the least, about the hostility shown toward MATING BIRDS by South African, almost all of them white, and surprisingly, most of them people of the left. Rob Nixon who has since tried to make amends by his favourable mentions of me in his book about Sophiatown and Hollywood tried to destroy the book in THE VILLAGE VOICE, calling it an exercise in nostalgia, etc., etc. Josephine Dodd’s dismissal of the novel as  rehearsing “some more old scripts from the patriarchal stockroom” is the kind of critical and “intellectual” disgrace that gives a bad name to South African “feminism”.

Jacqueline Rose, one of the editors of LACAN AND FEMINISM has been teaching the novel in seminar after seminar. This past year it has been taught in a Postcolonial Literature course at the Universities of Zurich and Basel by the feminist scholar Prof. Therese Steffen and author of a book on Rita Dove. Admittedly I am not a neutral reader of the novel but even so one is bound to ask why MATING BIRDS created so much animosity among WHITE South African “feminists”. Something smells here!

As for dear Andre Brink, my guess is that it was a revenge review. In the past I had given A DRY WHITE SEASON a bad review and a collection of his essays in THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT. What annoyed Brink even more was that in Sweden the big Sunday newspaper DAGENS NYHETER paired in a picture and interview in a rather mischievous way that suggested a struggle over literary representation was going on between black and white. In any case, Brink’s revenge tactics were so transparent and farcical he was reduced to attacking MATING BIRDS for having a scene of joyous mating while flying! No such birds exist in South Africa!  As if it matters. This is SUPER-REALISM gone crazy! There is an interesting book I have recently come across in the University of Basel Library called BIRDS IN LITERATURE by Prof. Leonard Lutwack (University of Florida Press) which cites the use of bird symbolism in literary texts around the world and mentions MATING BIRDS among others. Brink got so silly while scraping together my juvenilia he even thought my story in CONTRAST was set in South Africa and involved an interracial couple when in fact I had deliberately written a story of a white couple, one of whom is a writer, holidaying in the Caribbean. It was a light exercise in Jamesian irony about the possibilities of being undone by one’s assumed worldliness when it comes to chance encounters. But what is eating Brink about interracial sex since he deals in it all the time?! Suddenly he was behaving not like a literary critic but like a white BAAS protecting his women folk from the black menace! Your theory about the “Black Peril” seems to me dead on!

As for the interference with the text by St. Martin’s Press or Ravan Press I can truly say there was absolutely none. It so happens that MATING BIRDS was actually bought by a woman at St. Martin’s Press, Victoria Skurnik, who adored the book and was very proud of having acquired it. A senior editor, Skurnik was so careful with the manuscript that once or twice when she had occasion to break up a sentence that she said was over-long she had the changes sent over to me in Lusaka for approval.

Along with other writers like Angela Carter, Harold Pinter, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, etc., I donated the original manuscript to the Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa for the Anti-Apartheid Campaign. Ethel de Keyser was the person in charge of the sales. I mention these facts because it would have been very useful for you to compare the original manuscript with the published texts. I am extremely annoyed with myself. What I ought to have done is photocopy the typescript for preservation for future inspection. I don’t even know who the buyer was. If you are interested you could track it down.

I could fax some of the items mentioned if you are unable to track them down (interviews, etc) I have one or two letters from Victoria Skurnik somewhere but am too busy to look before sending this e-mail off!

Needless to say, I do not see MATING BIRDS as being about RAPE but certainly about the difficulties of policing desire where language was not allowed to act as a channel of communication between the sexes of different races. Without being able to ask “is it Yes or No” how are you supposed to know until it is too late? Surely, the scene in the tobacco shop on the beach is an attempt to spell out the mutuality of that desire and how it got to be perverted by the system of apartheid.

Thank you for the sympathetic things you say about MATING BIRDS.

With best wishes, LEWIS NKOSI.


Lucy Graham to Lewis Nkosi, 6 April 2002.

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lewis Nkosi,

Thank you for your wonderful response!

I agree with all your observations regarding the schism in responses to Mating Birds. I’m going to try and track down that manuscript, but in the meantime have a few more questions, though I must add that I’m reluctant to distract you from Underground People.

Anyway if you have the time:

1) from what you say – I gather that Mating Birds was not called into question by SA censors? why do you think this was not so?

2) I read somewhere that you were either present at Sharpeville or that you covered the story as a journalist. Could you clarify this, and comment on your reactions to Sharpeville? Was the massacre one of the reasons for your departure from SA?

3) If you have the inclination to answer this – I am also interested in your opinion/ comments regarding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Have you been back to SA since your visit to Cape Town in 1994?

Though I agree that Mating Birds is not about rape (although the protagonist has been accused of rape), I am interested in Mating Birds as a subversion of “Black Peril” narrative. So, as well as responses to the novel, I would like to explore the ways in which it circles back upon a history in which a black man who had sex with a white woman would have been accused of rape.

I came across some articles written by you in the Southern African Review of Books and very much enjoyed your description of a visit to Cape Town and your encounter with (among others) John Coetzee:

“J.M. Coetzee, the novelist, looking skeptical, is mutely contemplating the dancers on the floor.” (!)

I wish you well with the rewriting of Underground People, in my experience writing is mainly rewriting.

Funnily enough I’ve also been reading Kafka’s diaries, and recently recommended these to a friend.

All the best,



Lewis Nkosi to Lucy Graham, 13 April 2002.

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lucy,

As for answers to your questions:

(1) The end of the 1980s was very nearly the end of censorship as we knew it in South Africa. Although I was on the list of proscribed writers (I think about 90-odd) some were already being taken off that list. The rest, like myself, required a special permission from the Censorship Board for a specified time or for a specific publication. I think Ravan Press asked and received permission to publish. I also think – but I am not sure – that some some laws like the infamous Immorality Act were being taken off the Statute Book or being inflicted on the victims with a fair amount of discretion! For some of these reasons I think MATING BIRDS slipped through the net relatively more easily than would have been the case before. After all Gordimer’s books, including A Sport Of Nature, were being sold openly.

(2) Yes, I experienced the anguish of being a witness to the Sharpeville Massacre and the public funeral later. Nat Nakasa and I were there on what we thought was going to be a routine journalistic coverage for our newspapers and ended up carrying bodies to nearby houses on stretchers improvised from blankets. I narrated all that for a short film shown on Channel 4. No, I did not leave as a result of Sharpeville. Interestingly enough I had no particular desire to leave the country just then; I was invited to forward samples of my writings to the Nieman Foundation at Harvard which had fellowships for journalists and once you got there you were allowed to pursue any line of study that suited you. The Government refused me the passport and Harold Wolpe who was later to escape from prison with Joe Slovo thought he would test South Afrcan law to determine if the Government could hold people in the country against their will if they wished to leave. As my lawyer he gave Pretoria a week to respond. The rest is history. I think I wrote about this in the special issue of the Times Literary Supplement in 1994.

I have been back in South Africa three times since 1994 when I wrote about my encounters with John Coetzee and others: for the Arts Biennale in 1997 when I was on the panel at the University of Cape Town named after my book Home and Exile; I taught a semester on African Modernism in the early part of 2001 at UCT and returned again for two months, this time to the University of Durban-Westville to participate on a CD-Rom project with Dennis Brutus to bring together our published works for the university archive.

(3) It’s hard to take an unequivocal position on the TRC. While I consider it important bringing to light what happened, I find obscene the way some of the perpetrators of torture can sound almost boastful when recounting these crimes with the certainty that they will not be prosecuted. Gillian Slovo gave me her book about the way her mother died, with pieces of her flesh spattered on the ceiling of her office in Maputo, and wondered if Ruth would have approved her murderers being allowed to go free and boast about it. Former Nazis are still being pursued and being brought to justice for their crimes. So it is with the war criminals in former Yugoslavia.

To circle back to your theme of the black peril, you are right, of course, according to racist lore (law) no white woman in her right mind could consent to having sex with a black man; if sex did take place her body or her mind must have been “raped” anyway. The cocktail of race and sex is so powerful that William Faulkner was able to put an interesting gloss on it in LIGHT IN AUGUST when Joe Christmas (whose white/black identity remains indeterminate) travels across the country sleeping or being kept by women; in Southern brothels if the women are white, to avoid paying them he tells them “I’m a negro!” Usually all he risked was a cursing from the woman and the matron of the house, though now and then he was beaten unconscious by other patrons, to waken later in the street or in the jail. That was in the South. But one night it did not work. He rose from the bed and told the woman that he was a negro. “You are?” she said. “I thought maybe you were just another wop or something.” She looked at him, without particular interest; then she evidently saw something in his face: she said, “What about it? You look all right. You ought to seen the shine I turned out just before your turn came.”

In 1991 during a visit to South Africa I suggested in one interview that for some white critics it was all right for white male writers to narrate on black bodies but for black male writers to narrate on white bodies was a bit too much even for some progressive white critics; when you described a white woman’s body too intimately in fiction you were actually fondling her body. Instead of being physically beaten unconscious like Joe Christmas you were critically ambushed and beaten unconscious by white critics.

But good novels are also about so many other things besides the themes that loll too readily on the surface. When I was writing MATING BIRDS (which actually started as a short story) I was thinking a great deal about the effects of the weather on human conduct, perhaps encouraged by a reading of Camus’ L’Etranger; then about the sea in Durban which always obsessed me both for itself as well as a route of symbolic escape from apartheid South Africa; all those ships coming and going on the blue waters of the Indian Ocean! Sexual desire and escape to freedom seem on reflection so intimately bound up. The sea, love and death in Venice! And rewriting Gordimer’s love bungalows!

With best wishes, LEWIS NKOSI.


Lucy Graham to Lewis Nkosi, 15 April 2002.

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lewis Nkosi,

Thank-you so much for all your comments, they are extremely helpful and insightful.

What you say about the morbid fascination of white male critics (and, for that matter, white women such as Pippa Skotnes in her “Miscast” exhibit) with the “black body” strikes me as entirely true. Have you read Brink’s T’kama Adamastor, and heard of Cyril Coetzee’s painting based on Brink’s book, now hanging in the Cullen library at the University of Witwatersrand?


In Brink’s rewriting of the Adamastor story, “T’kama Adamastor” is a black male with a penis so long it has to be wrapped around his waist twice! So it’s very ironic that Brink criticises Mating Birds for exploiting “one the crudest myths of sexist racism, the size of the black penis”. In Coetzee’s painting, the size of the black penis is slyly suggested through the positioning of an ostrich’s neck, which juts out from behind the black male body.

Mating Birds seems to deal with the complex enmeshment between race and sex (or, as you put it, “the cocktail of race-sex”) in a more humanely ironic manner. And as you say, one of the central encounters is where Sibiya and Veronica exchange a glance that acknowledges, rather than denies, the other’s humanity.

Rereading Mating Birds in preparation for my paper of course reminds me that academic criticism can only clumsily approach and seek to apprehend the plenitude that is a good novel.

In particular, I am struck by the image of Sibiya remembering a view of the sea – watching the oceanliners on their way from foreign exotic shores, “in a mood of profound despondency”: “… I was thinking, planning, and dreaming of escape from South Africa, from the life of oppression and wretched exploitation. The girl, too, who appeared so unexpectantly on this strand of beach was perhaps part of this dream to escape. Life plays us so many jokes.”

I also agree with your view of the TRC. Behind the discourse of forgiveness lies the betrayal of justice. The obscenity of amnesty. This abomination of “grace” is well elaborated by Jacques Derrida in “On Forgiveness”. Did you hear that Wouter Basson’s TRC files “went missing” before his trial, and that he has just been acquitted?

About the weather, I’ve just read your essays in Home and Exile, and the account of the biting cold in New York. I’ve also just read the essay on Sheila Jordan – I saw her at Ronnie Scott’s in London in July last year, she was fantastic.

All the best,



Lewis Nkosi to Lucy Graham, 22 April 2002

Subject: Mating Birds

Dear Lucy,

It’s a disgrace I took so long to respond to your last message! The past week or so has been quite mad in Basel. The lITERAHAUS was hosting readings by African writers and private correspondence seems to come to a halt for a while.

I am so thrilled MATING BIRDS has you as its reader.

I was signing copies of the new French edition of MATING BIRDS across the border in France last week and we will be in Paris for more of that from Thursday.

No, I hadn’t read or seen Brink’s T’kama Adamastor; but the real shock was the news that Wouter Basson was acquitted. I had just read in the local papers that two members of the Secret Intelligence had secretly visited South Africa without informing their superiors and it was revealed that Basson had worked with Swiss Intelligence. So that caused quite a scandal.

What good news you provide! It’s  really wonderful you were able to hear Sheila Jordan and it made me quite nostalgic about nights in New York!

Way back I think I was more than responsible for Sheila coming to sing at Ronnie Scott’s for the first time. Armed with a proof copies of MATING BIRDS I used to badger Ronnie everytime we went to the club until he brought her over to London.

I hope your work is coming on fine. Keep in touch. I am hoping Durban-Westville is able to arrange for two visits for which they have applied for funding. Lindy Stiebel at Durban-Westville is (was) preparing an article with photographs in connection with my visit to Durban last year with a view to retracing the itinerary of the two main characters on the Durban beach. So we went back to the sand dunes of that fatal beach and got reenchanted by the armada of cargo ships queueing up to enter or leave the harbour but no sign of harassed Veronica or Ndi Sibiya except young people of many colours disporting themselves in the blue ocean!

With best wishes, LEWIS NKOSI.

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