Ntshanga’s debut novel, The Reactive, came out in South Africa from Umuzi in 2014, and was published in the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy. Triangulum, also published internationally—in the United Kingdom by Jacaranda Books and in North America by Two Dollar Radio—is a mysterious coming-of-age story, a mash-up of science fiction and historical fiction. The author chatted to Ndlovu about his obsession with triangles, interactive fiction, and apartheid as a B-movie.
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu for The JRB: How did the world of Triangulum come together for you? What was the process of writing this novel—do you remember where it all began?
Masande Ntshanga: It started with two things; the first being the setting. I’ve always wanted to write about the Bantustan system, specifically the Ciskei homeland. It’s where I spent some of my childhood and I find its absence in our literature quite conspicuous. The second thing was a poem I read in my first year of university that likened living under apartheid to living inside a B-movie. It was meant to describe the ersatz unreality of the European side, of course, but I found an overlap in my memories of suburban life in the Ciskei capital, Bhisho. A kind of eerie tranquillity that glided over a foundation of violence. It’s something I hinted at with a story I published called ‘Space’, and after that, at the end of 2013, I knew that I wanted to write about apartheid using science fiction, to emphasise those elements of it that were surreal or hard to believe. To capture both its many disparities and this sense of unreality.
The JRB: The main character in your first novel, The Reactive, also comes from the Ciskei, and the post-apartheid setting that you draw on in that book also has an eerie quality. How did the writing of The Reactive lead to the writing of Triangulum?
Masande Ntshanga: In my first book, my preoccupation was with narrative voice. Even though it was plotted, that wasn’t its emphasis. Rather, it aimed at creating an immersive simulation of reality that brought the reader close to the protagonist through following a psychological logic rather than a plot-based logic. It was also about the language being in service, first and foremost, to the narrator Lindanathi’s individual sense of perception, his sensations and emotional reasoning; and how the three converge—together with his use of mood-and-mind altering substances—to demonstrate the development of one young man’s consciousness at the beginning of twenty-first century South Africa. Hinging it on voice was imperative, then, since it sought to make sense of its era and place through an ‘inside-out’ approach—from the interiority of a particular individual, in other words, a citizen, and then outward towards the nation state he was a subject of. It’s something that reaches back to a modernist influence as much as this new novel—with its intertextual links and mixed language—reaches toward a postmodernist one. In Triangulum, I wanted to take a more ‘outside-in’ approach toward the individual. I deliberately set out to study the three-act narrative, which I’d always eschewed before, dismissing it as trite and contrived. Even pernicious. After my first book, I began to wonder if my judgement of it had been premature—or even, which is more to the point, I think, if it was something I felt intimidated by and was defending myself against. This question then grew into an obsession, which is when the book’s structure started to come to me, along with the triangle motif. To answer the question for myself, I decided that I’d learn as much as I could about the three-act narrative and then test this knowledge through three different genres, in three different voices, with three different narrative threads—all in one book divided into three parts. That was the structural and conceptual goal of the novel. To investigate the effect of the state on the individual from the ‘outside-in’, this time, but then to also pull apart the three-act narrative, the nation state’s most popular storytelling device, and interrogate the oppression-leads-to-liberation struggle-leads-to-freedom chronology of our history.
The JRB: I know writers do not always like having their work categorised and defined for them because of the limiting nature of genre and the fear of being ‘pigeonholed’. At the same time categories are important because they help the reader know something about what it is that they are holding in their hands before they start reading. How would you define or categorise Triangulum?
Masande Ntshanga: I find categories more helpful than limiting at this point. For example, for this book, in preparation, I studied what I could about the plot dynamics of mystery, science fiction and historical fiction as genres—each of which took up its own third of the narrative. I’m fine with any of these genres taking up the role of describing the book. I’m also fine with coming-of-age and literary fiction. It doesn’t matter that much to me—all of them are fitting—although, if I had to choose, science fiction does bring a certain satisfaction to a certain adolescent I remember.
The JRB: It seems to me that the rather dystopian future that science fiction warns us about is actually our present and current situation. Triangulum wonderfully plays with this notion through its interplay of past, present and future. Can you give us a sense of how you are using the genre of sci-fi to comment on our present?
Masande Ntshanga: If I had to isolate the most important factor, for me, when it came to that, it would have to be the fact that I realised, as I was writing, that South Africa’s dystopian future could easily be imagined through its dystopian past. In the sense that we’ve already been through it—the kind of tiered and oppressive technological society that’s a trope in a lot of science fiction narratives about the future. Including human experiments and large-scale environmental disasters. The present is where the two converge, since South African history occurs as a continuum (with apartheid overlapping into the post-apartheid moment and so on) instead of as separate, conclusive chapters. In other words, in order to imagine what could be, all I had to do was research what had been and crib it.
The JRB: You seem to have some common themes and concerns running through your two books: illness, the ailing and diseased human body; the Ciskei homeland and collaboration with the apartheid government; drugs and self-diagnosing and misdiagnosing used as coping mechanisms; education and the miseducation that happens in Model C schools. What are you saying through these ideas about the post-apartheid world that has been inherited? And how can you connect these common concerns to what Thoko’s boyfriend says to the protagonist in Triangulum, ‘We weren’t released into a world where our ideals could hold.’
Masande Ntshanga: That’s an excellent question. I suppose these are the themes that interest me the most at present; and the themes my own life interacts with. Part of what drives writing for me is an interrogation of my experience—my existence and meaning, while I’m still here. For example, in terms of style and content, the two books explore the difference between self-medicating and being medicated, both of which I’ve crossed paths with. I’m also of the belief that our society remained dysfunctional even after our great historic transition from apartheid. That this is the case not only with the state, but also with us—our minds and our bodies. That’s the connection to the quote: among other things, the miseducation of Model C schools meant that the native population would maintain a perpetual ‘immigrant status’ in industrialised South Africa. That it would hardly be accommodated, and yet there would be a ‘philosophical soundness’ to that position, according to the culture. Not that it’s all bleak, however. I also find that our own particular calibration—this strange fractured state of ours, as well as its juxtaposition of the old and the new, is a great lens through which to interrogate modernity as a whole—on a global scale—which is something else that I’m interested in.
The JRB: Another common theme is intergenerational relationships and dynamics. At some point the protagonist says of her parents, ‘They’d both been born with languages that I would never speak.’ Could you elaborate on this, and how you see it playing out in the parent–child relationships you have crafted in both novels?
Masande Ntshanga: Another great question. I suppose it’s true. In the two books there’s a preoccupation with recasting the generation gap as a language gap. Not that one is less adept or knowledgeable than the other, but rather, to hint at how rapidly our society changes on the surface. In the end, whether or not this change is for better or worse is inconclusive, but one thing is certain: each generation has had to take up different arms. That’s something that the narrator realises in that moment; that her parents have been armed against adversity in a way that will always be foreign to her.
The JRB: You seem to be playing with the notions of fact versus fiction, what is known and what is unknown and so on, in Triangulum, which ties into the very academic beginning of the novel. Could you talk a bit about why you chose to use a Foreword and not a Prologue?
Masande Ntshanga: It was important for me to do that because it’s built into the structure of the book, this question of authority, or ‘author-ity’, when it comes to facts. The novel deals with a world where information is mined and controlled and doctored and traded and I wanted that to correlate to the book’s structure. There are a number of writers in the text, and each one’s authority is put under question at one point—including mine, Masande Ntshanga’s. The dedication, for instance, could be read as either mine or Dr Buthelezi’s or even the narrator’s. The epigraphs, too. In the end, I liked the idea of the Foreword, how it speaks to fact and is an attempt to exempt itself from the story world with academic authority, while at the same time, of course, we are aware that not only is Dr Buthelezi a fiction writer, she’s present on every page of the manuscript, too, as she’s the one who collated and edited it.
The JRB: You also treat the entire text as a ‘found object’, made up of different records and documents—letters, dream recordings, narrative, journals. Why did you decide to structure the novel this way, and what were the possibilities and limitations you experienced with these different forms as you were writing them?
Masande Ntshanga: Primarily, I wanted to show the narrator’s consciousness, or its development, at different points—as more and more information was loaded into her—using different iterations of the same voice. Early on, when I knew that I wanted to cover a great portion of her life, a model I had was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where James Joyce was able to demonstrate Stephen Dedalus’s development through gradual and subtle changes in the narrative voice. I didn’t want to repeat what he’d done, though, and I didn’t want to draw too much from modernism this time around, like I mentioned. I wanted each stage to stand on its own and feel complete, but at the same time, I had no interest in having it be linear, with long chapters that demonstrated a predictable trajectory. I wanted reader participation, instead. I wanted readers to help put together and even question Dr Buthelezi, Dr Hessler and the narrator’s compilation of this manuscript and its consistency. In the end, this structure is what I came up with that ticked those boxes for me.
The JRB: The found object belongs to a narrator or protagonist whose name we never learn. Why did you choose not to provide the first-person narrator with a name?
Masande Ntshanga: For the story world, primarily, in that exposing her identity could be a threat to her, given her ostensible links to terrorist cells. Aside from that, however, I also wanted to play with the book’s plausibility. To give the reader the opportunity to immerse themselves in the experience, but without the option to then attribute that experience to an external, closed identity with its own name. In other words, I wanted the story to belong to the reader, too. Instead of belonging to someone, it now belongs to no one, which, hopefully, can easily blend into everyone.
The JRB: At one point a character, Emilia, says: ‘throughout our history, our oppressors have always relied on our willingness to barter each other. From the Middle Passage to data.’ This could apply to the narrator herself, who is morally elusive and ambivalent. Is there a reason you made her so? What exactly does this accomplish, a connection to history, perhaps?
Masande Ntshanga: Thanks for picking that up. I think for me, personally, it’s the moral core of the novel, and one of its central interrogations. How do we battle oppression while inhabiting a society that necessitates our complicity in it? Is this something that should concern us—that has repercussions down the line—or is it something that we should navigate pragmatically? It’s a question I still find myself asking more often than I’d like.
The JRB: History is another important element in Triangulum. A particular kind of history (The Left Hand) has led to the devastation of the environment and also to our treating of the human body as a machine, an entity that we can ‘mine’ for data, in much the same way land was mined for minerals. Your critique of the history we have inherited and the present it has created posits an alternative (The Right Hand). How feasible is this alternative, do you think?
Masande Ntshanga: I wish I knew the answer to that. Essentially, The Right Hand is about humankind submitting to being a component of the universe, instead of its driver. It’s about the comprehension and preservation of our shared habitat. I’m deeply sympathetic towards The Returners, of course, but because they’re idealists and compromise less and less as time goes by, they incur more and more hostility from a world that has no interest in changing. Of course, in the novel, as in our world, this might not be a matter of choice, but of survival. Part of the book’s push towards being interactive—the reason for inviting all the reader participation and interpretation—came from my interest in juxtaposing these two histories and ideologies in order to see if readers could imagine and then posit a third. In fact, that’s a large part of what the novel tries to investigate. This idea of whether or not humankind is capable of imagining itself out of its current quagmire, or if we’re doomed to regurgitate ‘ostensibly’ improved reiterations of oppressive and corrosive systems.
The JRB: Towards the end of the novel, you write, ‘The human animal is poisoned, but not dead.’ This seems to be an optimistic view. Given the state of our past and our present, what makes you so optimistic?
Masande Ntshanga: The fact that I’m still here. The fact that I’m talking to you and we’re engaged in this intellectual inquiry, right now, together, as writers. Your concise and insightful questions. The human imagination as a whole. The fact that the past is memory and the future is conjecture and neither is ever solid.
- Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean writer, filmmaker and academic who holds a PhD from Stanford University, as well as master’s degrees in African Studies and Film. She has published research on Saartjie Baartman and she wrote, directed and edited the award-winning short film Graffiti. The Theory of Flight, her first novel, was published by Penguin Random House in 2018. Read an excerpt from her work-in-progress here.