In an interview with Charles Cantalupo, Ngugi wa Thiong’o says that “writers need to return to the languages actually spoken by the people to enlarge the space of people’s understanding to include more experiences.” One of the writers who have heeded this call is Treasure Mndeni Ngobese.
Treasure is known writing poetry in isiZulu. When explaining why he has opted to write in an African indigenous language, Treasure echos Ngugi, “you must write in a language that you understand better.” For him, writing in isiZulu is also about preserving the culture, history and mysteries the language carries. When most poets express themselves in English because of the belief that they will reach a wider audience, Treasure asserts that “IsiZulu is my sole form of expression.” In this interview Treasure Ngobese talks about his experiences as a writer and what inspires him.
Did you see yourself becoming a writer as a child? What attracted you to writing?
Of course not. In our schools such a vocation is not encouraged. Even the teachers are not interested in writing, students are not inspired. Maybe it’s the kind of literature that is taught or the methodology itself. Taban Lo Liyong once said, “It is said that the African royal drums crave to be beaten, to be taken to the dance arena to be played. If they waited for a long time they beat themselves.” So, I guess I had to beat the drums before they beat themselves.
When you started writing, what were your expectations in the field? Was it just a hobby or did you have intentions of making it your profession?
I didn’t expect writing to be as difficult as I’ve found it to be. I started to participate in training to be a writer in the Femba Writing Project that was organised by CLN (Community Life Network). That is where we were told that we are not writing for ourselves only, but a bigger, clever audience; the world. I also realised that there are giants who have paved the way long ago, so what are we? I had never intended to make writing a profession neither a hobby.
What inspires your work?
In the writing workshops they also told us that as a writer you need to be alone and be spiritual. By being spiritual, you become clear. I strive for clarity in my writing. I’m inspired by things that become something to me; that which I read about, hear, see, taste and that which illuminates from within-feelings and experiences. I try to capture the emotion while it’s fresh and fan the spark until it’s fire.
Who is your favourite poet and how do they influence your writing?
They are countless; from the ancient Egyptian to the great Nguni Poets; B W Vilakazi, S E K Mqhayi, Nonsizi Mgqwetho, Mazisi Kunene, Angifi Dladla, Pitika Ntuli, D.B.Z Ntuli, and many more. These poets have exhorted me to write more than to say influenced my writing.
Looking back at all the poems you have come across in your life, which one is your favourite and which one has spoken to you most?
It is difficult indeed to choose one favourite amongst the vast poetry out there. But I will select one from the “meditative words. That when one chants these words will understand the joy, the musings and will be witness to the fulfillment of spirit…” Mazisi Kunene, Igudu likaSomcabeko.
Isiqalekiso sawokhokho (Izinyembezi zabo)
Sekukhona ubukhona obukhona engibuzwa ngosiba
Ngize ngibulalelisise ngizwe ngibuzwe ngemisindo yabo
Ngicubungule amazwi akhona ngizwe elomfana
Ngizwe elakhe elithi: ”Ngahamba kudaleni, ngiyobuya”
Esho ongathi osekade afa, esho emalokotho
Nempela ngibe sengizwa izigubhu ezimnyama
Ngabe sengizwa bethemeleza abadala sebesho nokusho
“Thina esife ngalelo langa nezingane zethu
Sesiyakubuya, siyakubuya sibathele ngezinyembezi
Kuze kube yibo sebeyakukhala njengathi
Njengathi ngamhla lowo sesibaphelezela abantwana bethu”
translation by Macingwane Vusi Mchunu
In my dark dream, my night sweat was gleaming like my sensor feather
As I stretched my ears to sensitively listen to groans of forgotten humans
Straining hard to identify familiar voices, when I heard a boy saying:
“I have long departed, but I will return”
Screeching like a soul from lost catacombs, a distant echo in the valley.
And then the shock and explosion of massive, black cowhide drums
Lifting still higher the musings of bitter ancestors, who told me,
“Yes we perished with our children on that day of the massacre,
Yes, our return will be a return of unceasing tropical storms, of tears
That shall drench our tormentors so that they also may taste the salt of pain
And just like us, they will also sway in the procession of grief,
carrying their lifeless children.”
To what extent does your writing reflect your personal experiences?
Angifi Dladla said in an interview with Michelle Mcgrane: “Poetry is the language of the soul, the lingua franca of dreams”. That inspired me to be original and find ways to concretise my work.
Can you tell us more about your poem Umsanguluko, published in the collection Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story! volume 1?
Mazisi Kunene once wrote, “From the days of early clashes with Europeans, African poets have set out to define tasks, explode myths of invincibility, and reaffirm the values of their society”. So, Umsanguluko, which means, “Coming into Senses” assumes that technique of resistance. It rebukes the injustices in South Africa. After a visit to the Apartheid Museum and seeing the intimidations and brutality of the police force, like in Marikana, I came to the conclusion that black [people] are still subjugated.
What are the challenges that you have faced in your writing career and what have been the highlights?
Writing itself is a challenge; it’s tough to be a writer. My highlights have been getting published in Short Story is Dead, Long Live the Short Story volume 1 and getting an interview with the incarcerated voices at Goenpunt Maximum-Security prison.
Are you working on any new projects?
I’m working on incorporating my poetry with other forms of art such music, film, painting and sculpture.
What should African writers do, in your opinion, to gain more international recognition?
Well, there are African writers who have gained the international recognition but I feel that they are not much recognised at home. Translation of other undiscovered work [into other languages] could help us understand each other’s values, beliefs and so forth. But our task is much more difficult, I will allow the great giant Theophile Obenga to clarify: “…what is required is a complex, difficult work process aimed at exploring every cultural area of the black African world, examining, unifying linkages between all these areas, re-establishing the African philosophical tradition in itself and for itself…”
Any words of advice for budding writers?
To my fellow budding writers; as a budding writer too, I don’t have much to say. Except that you can’t be a writer if you don’t read; read everything and every time. Those are the commandments of writing.