Masande Ntshanga is the winner of the inaugural PEN International New Voices Award in 2013, and a finalist for the Caine Prize in 2015. He was born in East London in 1986 and graduated with a degree in Film and Media and an Honours degree in English Studies from University of Cape Town, where he became a creative writing fellow, completing his Masters in Creative Writing under the Mellon Mays Foundation. He received a Fulbright Award, an NRF Freestanding Masters scholarship, a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship and a Bundanon Trust Award. His work has appeared in The White Review, Chimurenga Chronic, VICE and n + 1. He has also written for Rolling Stone magazine.
Why do you write?
This might be becoming a cliche, I feel I have to. It’s a compulsion. I don’t feel as at ease, or as capable of joy, without arranging the world in the manner in which writing provides.
Tell us about the first thing you ever wrote.
There are too many to reach back into memory for—that vie for that position—but the first thing I ever published was a story about teenagers who broke into people’s houses and painted manifestos on their walls. I wrote it in one sitting, I think, home from boarding school, and it was close to me.
The Reactive was so immersive; there are moments where the reader is literally getting high with ‘Nathi. How were you able to narrate it all in so clear a voice?
Thank you. I appreciate that. To be honest, and I don’t think I’ve mentioned this before, but the structure of the book, or how Nathi perceives the world when he’s both lucid and high, is close to my own experience of reality; to how I experience it when I arrange it in my head. It wasn’t that difficult to translate that into what the book needed; the challenge was mostly in figuring out how to maintain it for the length of a novel. I’m glad you picked up on it.
In your writing career, has there ever been a time when you wanted to sound or write like someone else? Who was it and why did you want to sound or write like them? What changed?
Definitely. In university, especially, I was taken by Ralph Ellison and Dambudzo Marechera. I was in awe of what they’d achieved in Invisible Man and The House of Hunger, respectively. Though Ellison is sometimes identified as an impressionist, I was enthralled with how the two of them had reshaped modernism for their own ends; and how they’d done so as black artists. Of course, this also came from the visceral impact their work had had on me, and in the end, I couldn’t resist. I was a student preoccupied with being “high-minded”; and the two of them gave me plenty of that, while also being searing and experimental. Theirs felt like the only way to do it for a long time, but I was mistaken, of course.
Throughout history, we have always recognised certain geographical places as points where artists seem to thrive – Athens, French Riviera, New York; Cape Town has been spoken of as such a haven. Do you feel living in CT has had any sort of influence on your work?
I think you’ve just made me want to move back—almost. Cape Town operates well as a microcosm of South African society in that all the fractures that exist within it are brought out in high relief. They’re far reaching as well, given its legacy of slavery and colonialism, and these surroundings can make solid contributions to your work, if your subject matter is that way inclined, but as far as it being a city that takes care of artists in general, I would have to express my reservations. I wouldn’t give that to Johannesburg, either, most likely. You still have to brace yourself in the grid.