Tell the truth, laughing

Niq Mhlongo’s character Dingz in Dog Eat Dog is semi (very) autobiographical, and you can imagine him doing exactly what Niq did to get his book published. He took his diaries and transformed them into a novel and then just took a train down to Cape Town to go and get it published. Very matter of fact, but still an adventure. Niq summed it up – he was bored, lonely, broke, even alienated, and a little desperate. Here comes the writing bug – when you are forced to translate your diaries into fiction because there is not much else to do, the life you were leading that made the diaries has stopped for a while, now there is nothing for it but to derive a story from the diaries you derived from your life.

To jump in, one of Niq’s favourite books is Dambudzo Marechera’s House of Hunger (click here to read an extract and buy it) and the writer/book division becomes thin once again as he describes how he likes that Dambudzo is an Oxford drop-out turned hobo whose novel has become a prescribed book. He likes people that aren’t too pristine or perfect or rounded, so his characters too are sometimes as mean or nasty as the story itself, which is told almost as a series of anecdotes or snapshots of contemporary urban life. But there is essentially nothing too terrible there, they play pranks and make fun and make the best out of a raw deal in a dog eat dog world.

There is flippancy about things like Aids and sexually transmitted diseases and love and drinking throughout. It is good to laugh about those things and absolutely about time too, but Niq manages to balance it out well with scenes that seem to come out of nowhere, and show more about the character’s internal life than he would ever reveal to his friends at the bar, where they seem to be for a good third of the novel. Suddenly Dingz remembers his father dying, in a quick breather in the middle of one of his escapades – and describes holding his hand while he tries to speak in a few short, gentle sentences that will probably stick with you for a long time.

“Niq likes the idea that the role of the writer is to observe and reflect on society, hence his story is made up of other stories overheard in the loo, on the bus, on the street, through cubicles”

So there is lots of tenderness, when Dingz decides in the middle of the night he misses his girlfriend, and walks across to her house to fetch her and bring her back to sleep with him under the dining room table, sure that no-one will notice them as his brothers get up before it is light, to go to work. By the time he has paid off the little sister she is meant to be looking after, and the friends he passes on the street that will rob him if he doesn’t give them money, it was a pretty expensive trip. But worth it. The book ends with him and his friends in the bar again, his new girlfriend “not used to them”, sitting and eating chips quietly, reminding you that while not much has changed in their lot, there is growth and movement, and that the love they all have goes a little deeper than just drinking-buddy level. But he avoids making it sound as soppy as that, by sticking to simply describing the scene, describing their interaction beautifully.

Niq likes the idea that the role of the writer is to observe and reflect on society, hence his story is made up of other stories overheard in the loo, on the bus, on the street, through cubicles, discussed around tables, the constant circulation of beliefs about and perceptions of South Africa. There are moments of real emotional power intermingled with darkly humorous escapades involving sadistic teachers and opportunistic taxi drivers. These are all familiar South African situations in a book that is a long way from flawless, but who cares, it should get a chance at going global as a riotous blast of reality. Maybe this is why it won’t be. It is far removed from the novels picked up by the now defunct Heinemann African Writer’s Series, for example. It is a potential trendsetter and literary equivalent of some of South Africa’s great semi-educational TV for teenagers, but it is also a lot more than that. The characters are complicated, Dingz is a genuine, often unlikeable anti-hero. There is a great feel for context and scene, Niq also mentions loving Marechera’s ability to describe space, something he aspires to be able to do even better as he writes more.

Niq also loves Ben Okri but thinks that “writing beyond yourself” is not the way for him – he believes in experiencing or at least knowing what you write about, for him it is the township reality in a completely unglamourised, unromanticised way. There is no sentimentalizing of their lives or personalities – Dingz is a complicated and not completely likeable boy, pretty deceitful and angry and funny and drunken, but recognizable. He also deliberately sets up most of the interaction through conversation, conversation that often gets steadily drunker and drunker, to give himself the room to talk about whatever he wants to talk about. This is a really accessible piece of writing, perfect for young adults. One review said that they would recommend it be a senior school textbook if it wasn’t for the swearing.

What Niq Has on his Bedside Table. Angela’s Ashes and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Both funny, one an observational account of extreme poverty, the other about how to ostracise yourself. The perfect combination for the writer who created Dingz, bouncing around broke and tirelessly annoying authority figures, from university vice-chancellors to aunts to the police.

His next book is a work on HIV/Aids – something funny and honest and loveable. He mentioned this nervously, there is a lot of pressure for the second novel. But he is on the right track, maybe we can get a South African version of the urban writer telling the tales of the dark underbelly of society with a wry grin and a worldview going beyond worries about whether it is a hopeful story, or an uplifting reshaping of reality. It is what it is, it is life, and life has a lot of death and drinking and ambiguity and young people being loud. And, at the end of the day, if you don’t like what you’re reading, as Niq says, you can say: “Oh that’s not the author, that’s just a drunken fool.”