When Lidudumalingani Mqombothi (he coolly goes by his first name) sat down to write "Memories We Lost," the short story that won him the 2016 Caine Prize for African Writing, he’d finished film school having felt frustrated at the lack of creative freedom on which film schools tend to pride themselves. The story, which he previously sought to turn into a film, concerns two teenage sisters, the younger of whom battles an unnamed mental illness in a community that seeks to cure her through traditional means. The older sister attempts to protect her sister from her illness and her community while assuming the role of the narrator. Bookforum spoke to the South African writer, photographer, and filmmaker over Skype about the idea behind "Memories," the role of film and photography in his writing, and the relationship between the Caine Prize and African literature.
Firstly, congratulations on your Caine Prize win. Not only was it well-deserved, but it also stood in good company among the other shortlisted stories this year. In "Memories We Lost," you center the story around mental illness and how it is spoken about and dealt with within a specific South African context. I’m interested to know what brought you to that idea?
The subject of mental illness was always there for me years before I even wrote the story. When I was in film school, I had wanted to make a movie on schizophrenia but I didn’t. Two years before I wrote the story, a friend of mine was trying to write a play about her own father who has Alzheimer’s. I think the play was centered around the idea of the family and the different ideas they had about taking him to a home. So all of those things that happened contributed to mental illness being an obsession of mine, something I wanted to make either a movie out of or write a short story about.
The relationship between the two sisters in the story is an intimate and complex one. You do a really great job of showing a close sisterly bond without resorting to cliches of sentimentality, competition, or jealousy, which tend to dominate literature that deals with relationships between teenage girls. Was gender something you thought about when you came up with the main characters for "Memories We Lost"?
I sat down to write a story and the characters were girls. That’s how it worked out. I didn’t think about the gender. For me, what was important was to have three characters in the story: the mother who represents a different generation, the girl with schizophrenia at the center of the story, and the sibling who then has opposite ideas to the mother. The story is also about the different thinking between an older generation and a younger generation.
You give readers a slice of rural South African life through short, evocative scenes. I think of when the sisters are chasing each other around the rondavel (hut) and the younger sister bangs her head against the wall and bleeds. That moment gives a sense of how this disease manifests itself within such an environment. Has this world which you capture so well influenced you as a writer?
I think to an extent, but I’m quite reluctant to commit myself to being that writer who writes about the villages because I’ve lived in the city as long. My idea of writing about a place is to always write with respect. The idea of it would be to know the village, not to make it up. There’s a scene where they are looking out into the field and the landscape. That would be the same thing I would’ve seen when I was growing up. For that reason, I think it was important for me, and I think generally in my writing, for my characters to be aware of what’s around them. My idea is always to make the characters aware of that setting. They need to know what's around in that setting.
I was struck by the fact that you chose to leave the two main characters nameless. You also chose not to diagnose the mental illness immediately.
Yeah, so I’m interested in names but also I’m so interested in what it means when someone doesn’t have a name. Does it mean they’re not fully human? People want to know other people’s names, right? But I wanted people to feel for these girls even though they don’t know their names. They know their story, they know their pain, and they can connect with them on that level without knowing their names. There was never a point where I felt that the girls needed to have names, so I decided they were not going to have names. In writing about this one community in the story, what their relationship is with mental illness, it was important to present a sense of not knowing. I felt it was important for readers to experience it from the community's point of view.
I’m curious about your relationship is with memory because the name of your short story is "Memories We Lost." Then in the "The Art of Suspense," which is a short nonfiction piece about growing up listening to soccer matches on the radio in your native village of Zikhovane, you write, “Only a handful of things in life are an exact science, memory is not one of them.” Are you fascinated by memory?
Well, one thing: I have a very bad memory. So I think memory is fascinating for me because a lot of it is about how we live. We’re always remembering things. And I can't imagine a life where people don’t remember things. And when we don't remember, what then do you fill in those places? If you grew up in a house that you no longer remember, what do you then picture as the house that you grew up in? And for the people who can remember, which details do they remember? That said though, sometimes it’s convenient to forget. If you’ve had a terrible experience, perhaps sometimes the best thing to do is to forget. So I’m interested in those kind of things. What do we have to forget? What are we encouraged to forget? What won’t we want to forget?
At times, the prose read like an extended monologue because of its lyricism and use of verse. The Nigerian critic, Ikhide Ikheloa, expressed that some of the stories from the Caine Prize finalists read “as mere reportage with hints of creative nonfiction.” What’s your take on that?
Usually when I read, I’m just a reader. Ikhide [Ikheloa] read those stories as a critic. I think like any reader, I have my own preferences when it comes to literature. My personal one would be poetry in the writing. That’s all I’m interested in when I’m reading. So I suppose I cannot write any other way, otherwise I wouldn't be able to stand it. I’m also open to the idea that people are not like me. My story, at some point, people accused of not being sentimental enough. And I’m completely fine with that idea because that’s what that reader likes. But I don’t like that and I’ll never write that kind of story. I like to think of myself as one of those writers who cares about every single sentence and who cares about the poetry of the story. The way that I think about writing is in terms of movies. So you get a movie that will have a sex scene or a love scene and that’s enough. Then you get movies that have a love scene that’s in slow motion and there’s romantic music and there’s flowers in the air—that’s a bit too much.
It’s interesting you mention film because you’re also a filmmaker and a photographer. I get the impression that film and photography could help with imagery and narrative, because you’re so used to thinking about the mechanics of a story and how it moves from scene to scene. Do these mediums play a role in how you write?
I’ve been asked this question so many times and my answer has been different each time! I’m beginning to tell lies, actually. I think to an extent they do. For me, a photograph is a perfect sentence. I then think of my writing like a movie because the story has to go forward, it has to move. A photograph is the poetry and a movie is how it goes forward. That’s how I think about it, or least in this interview! I admire writers who try their hand at understanding art and composition and the way artists think, because it can be beneficial to writing. All these things come together when I have to write anything because my brain is already wired in that way. I’m already thinking in those terms about how the story has to be visual.
The Caine Prize is considered one of the most prestigious awards for African writers writing in English, but there’s been some debate about whether it deserves the prominence it’s bestowed. I recall the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina once stating in an interview that he felt the Caine Prize was held in too high esteem in some literary circles. Do you think it affords African writers a larger platform for their work to be read?
I think it certainly does. The way I think about the Caine Prize is that it’s the very last step in the story. I wrote my story way before the Caine Prize was involved. My story got published. The book came out. People read the story and the Caine Prize picked up on that story. So I don’t know if it’s fair to blame the Caine Prize for the stories that African writers produce. The Caine Prize is simply there to pick up on stories that have already been published. I don’t even like the argument of how the Caine Prize is destroying or not doing justice to African literature. There’s no way that it’s not doing things for African writers. You look at all the past winners who’ve gone on to produce novels. So I think the Caine Prize is good for African writers but I also think that African writers should not be concerned about the Caine Prize when they write their short stories.
When we discuss African literature, it can feel like a comparative exercise. A lot of emphasis is placed on the West and whether some writers are perpetuating age-old stereotypes of the continent, or disregarding the realities of many in favor of stories that document the lives of traveling African elites. Either way, a menacing presence of the West is always assumed and elevated in these conversations, which is not always helpful or entirely true. Sometimes I fear that the imagination and creativity of young African writers is at stake because they have to be painstakingly aware of all these considerations.
I think we have to be careful of these ideas because what tends to happen is African writers end up not writing about things that matter to them. There are rituals in the West that I look at and go, "These people are fucking crazy. Why would they even do that?" But some will say, "This is what we do." And that’s how I think we should do it. There are the conversations that we, as Africans, are having and they're not strange to us because we know about them. I have no interest in people who read my stories and get shocked. "Oh, did that really happen?" I’m like, "Yeah it happens, but really, don’t be shocked because I’m not even interested in your shock." People are people, and people get up to different things around the world. So it’s quite a delicate thing to balance.
Do you have any projects in the pipeline?
I’m working towards a novel and I have been even before the Caine Prize. I’m also going to be on the eighth draft of a script I’ve been writing for the past two years which I hope will be my first feature film. It’s just a lot to think about and I’m trying to make a movie that I’m going to watch.