The JRB Editor Jennifer Malec speaks to Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu about casting spells, writing with empathy, and winning one of the world’s richest literary awards.
The Quality of Mercy
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu
Penguin Random House, 2022
Jennifer Malec for The JRB: Hi Siphiwe, and thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. We last spoke properly about your work just after The Theory of Flight was published, and I’m in awe of what you have accomplished since then.
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: Hi Jennifer. It is my pleasure. Yes, we last spoke in December 2018, in the pre-Covid halcyon days. Thank you so much for your kind words. I just have so much respect for the JRB. What you and Ben Williams continue to do and have done for African writers—giving us this much-needed platform—is truly amazing.
The JRB: We couldn’t do it without you. I must ask you, first, what life has been like since you were awarded the Windham–Campbell Prize in March last year. At the time you said it would change your life, adding: ‘One day, I will have words to speak of this’—do you have those words, yet?
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: Winning the Windham–Campbell Prize does come with its fair share of visibility, that’s for sure. You would think that since it’s been almost a year since I learned that I was one of the 2022 prize-winners I would have the words to speak of how momentous a thing it is, but I still haven’t found those words. All I know is that I am truly grateful and honoured to have received the prize and I will be so for the rest of my days.
The JRB: The prize citation described you as ‘a chronicler and a conjurer’, which seems quite apt. Do you see this combination of ambitions in your work?
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: As someone who has, so far, written mostly historical fiction, I definitely consider myself to be a chronicler not only of my country’s history, but also the history of our region and the modern history of the world at large, because all these histories are connected.
I must say I really like the idea of being a conjurer—of being a magician of sorts, performing sleights of hand and occasionally casting spells. I would like to feel unique in this, but I do believe that this is the writer’s lot—we see images and make words appear and those words touch people in many different ways. Being a storyteller is a truly wonderful and wondrous thing to be.
The JRB: The Quality of Mercy, the final book in your City of Kings trilogy that began with The Theory of Flight, has just been published. How does it feel to complete this literary project? It seems an ambitious undertaking—was it something you felt in control of the whole time?
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: This question makes me laugh because I rarely, if ever, feel in control when writing. I cannot count how many outlines I have faithfully written only to have the characters take the story in a very different direction.
I often say that if I had known as I was writing The Theory of Flight that I was embarking on a trilogy, I never would have completed that first novel—the idea of writing three interconnected works would have been too daunting to even embark on the project as a novice writer.
What I love most about writing is the discoveries one makes along the way about the characters, the plots, the story itself, and so on. What I have appreciated about the City of Kings trilogy is that it let me realise it was a trilogy once I had started writing it—that was a very kind thing to do to a writer who is just starting out. The characters have always been kind enough not to overwhelm me.
The JRB: Each of the books in the trilogy are written in very different styles, and the genres are distinct too. You hinted in a previous interview that for the first two novels the form of the story was guided by the principal characters, by what kind of story they would like to appear in. Did that hold true for The Quality of Mercy, too?
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: The Quality of Mercy grew out of a story that my grandmother told me about a man who, upon first sight, fell so in love with a woman that he followed her all the way to her village. Once he got to her village, her father set him a task—in order to win his daughter’s hand in marriage he would have to solve a long-standing mystery. My grandmother was such an absolutely amazing storyteller and when she passed away I felt myself wanting to tell this story as faithfully as possible. So when I started trying to write the story in 2014 I knew that it would have some whodunit elements in it.
The JRB: Spokes Moloi, who we first meet in The History of Man, is the lead character in this book, I think it’s fair to say, and we find out how he got his bicycle-inspired name: ‘something that carried on after the journey had ended’, which I love. Is his nature a hint to the kind of characteristics you feel we should be taking forward, as we imagine our future after the ‘journey’ of colonialism has ended?
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: Most definitely. I think there is an unfortunate amount of space-clearing that every generation does in order to believe that there is something new under the sun, that they are creating a new world, that they are experiencing a new order, but really there is nothing new under the sun. We need to be humble about both the past and the future—we need to learn from what came before in order to have something to give to what will come after.
Spokes Moloi is a character, who, even though colonialism tried to make him a boy, is a man; who, even though colonialism tried to take away his humanity, is humane in all he does; who, even though colonialism and postcolonialism try to erode his values, is still filled with integrity. There is a lot to learn from such a character because even though a certain kind of colonialism has ended we all know that another system of unfair, oppressive, exploitative power has taken its place—and this system asks us all to compromise ourselves in many different ways. There is nothing new under the sun.
The JRB: There are many characters that recur over the three books, and some of them feel very real indeed by now. Will you miss them? You’ve mentioned a series of six to eight interconnecting novels about Zimbabwe’s ‘past, present and future’—will we see our friends (and foes) again?
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: Apparently, I am extremely bad at letting go of characters, so I think I never shall completely do so, which is to say, yes, you will see some of the characters you have grown to love and hate in future novels. I say this with authority because I am working on the fourth novel and know this much to be true.
The JRB: Ah, this is excellent news. Despite the differences between each novel, there are also similarities; in the poetry of the writing, the compassion for the characters, a gentle humour and an astute political eye. How important was it for you to have these kinds of threads running through all three books?
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: Again, thank you for the kind words. I think what you are describing here are actually the things I have absolutely no control over—my writer’s voice and the things that determine and shape my political self. It is important to me, especially given the kind of history we have inherited and the kind of present we live in, to try to see things from multiple perspectives, to practise empathy and to be honest even when the truth is difficult or hurts.
The JRB: I’d like to come back to that idea of empathy in a bit. Flashbacks notwithstanding, The Quality of Mercy is the tightest of the three books, timeline wise, with events running from the civil war ceasefire in December 1979 to independence, on 18 April, 1980. What was it like writing this more chronologically compact story?
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: I tend to like intersections and crossroads—they are spaces and places for a lot of possibilities. Intersectionality, which apparently is a bad thing in some parts of the world, is for me the perfect way to understand both our similarities and differences as humans. The only thing I remember with fondness from maths class are the Venn diagrams, because they are concerned with where things intersect.
Writing a more chronologically compact story that takes place over five months meant that I was not only writing about a country’s transition from being a colony to being a postcolony, I was also writing about this great moment when different characters, all on their own particular journeys, find their lives intersecting as they have to suddenly contend with this thing called independence. So while the plot is very compact many things are able to happen within that timeframe and the story itself then becomes complex.
The JRB: The title of the novel comes from The Merchant of Venice, from a line spoken by Portia, who is trying to convince Shylock to abandon his demand for a ‘pound of flesh’ from Antonio. ‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d,’ she says, ‘it is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes’. This, I think, resonates strongly all through the trilogy, but especially in the last book, as a story of transition.
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: Most definitely. For me The Quality of Mercy is primarily about a dilemma that is common when a country is decolonising and wondering what to do about the many wrongs of the past—do those who were once colonised seek vengeance—their ‘pound of flesh’—or do they seek justice—their exercise in mercy? The title was chosen with very deliberate care.
An added bonus was that I could play on the title in a way that paid off for the reader at the end of the novel.
The JRB: Ah yes. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t see that coming! Something that I think feeds into this idea as well is how you would write the same scene from different perspectives over the three books. Do you think these kinds of stories can lead to understanding, even empathy, in the postcolonial moment?
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: It is certainly my hope that they can. The wonderful thing that literature gives us is the opportunity to see the interiority of another and the ability, if we so wish, to walk a mile in their shoes (if you’ll pardon the cliché). Given that the colonial enterprise was interested in creating binaries and obfuscating realities, I think it is imperative to use whatever tools we have at our disposal to understand ourselves and each other better.
The JRB: In a recent review of Etienne van Heerden’s A Library to Flee, Mphuthumi Ntabeni wrote (I paraphrase) about how translating our cultural backgrounds in literature completes our humanity, in other words:
we should not be shy of imagining other people’s lives; people whose backgrounds are different from us due to obsessing too much about the question: ‘Whose story it is to tell.’
This made me recall the surprise from some corners that greeted The History of Man, which is a colonial story told from the perspective of a white man.
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: To say ‘surprise’ is to put it very kindly and mildly, I think. I understand that to write is to wield some form of power. I understand that some stories have been told and allowed free reign. I understand that some stories still struggle to come into the world, not because no one has written them, but because no one is willing to publish them or give them a platform. I understand that there is a long history of certain groups (those with power) speaking for the disenfranchised and the ‘voiceless’. All this is to say that I understand why we get uncomfortable when we perceive that someone may be trying to speak for a group that they do not belong to.
For me, The History of Man is a novel that critiques settler colonialism and the way that it created certain ideas of power, race and manhood. It is a tragedy that charts the rise and fall of a protagonist who is shaped by this particular kind of colonialism. Because settler colonialism concentrated its power and privilege on the white, heterosexual male, my protagonist had to be a white, heterosexual male, otherwise there would be no tragedy to chart. At no point was I speaking for the white man or trying to make settler colonialism seem to have been more palatable for the colonised than it really was.
In the three books I have written so far I have written about characters who are very different from me and whose experiences are very different from my own. I want my work to reflect the diversity I see all around me. If all I could write about were characters who are Zimbabwean, black, middle-class women in their forties who have dreadlocks and love making fudge then I wouldn’t have to write, and everyone would be excused for not wanting to read those novels.
I think colonialism (and its inherent racism and sexism) confined us all into very narrow boxes and definitions and we have to find ways out—we have to free ourselves. I choose intersectionality, I choose diversity, I choose multiple perspectives, I choose Venn diagrams to chart the way out and free myself.
The JRB: I don’t want to introduce any spoilers, but I’d like to touch on the ending of The Quality of Mercy: you return to that ethereal scene from The Theory of Flight, where Genie, as ‘a flash of colour and light’, runs into her father’s arms and he lifts her above the sunflowers. I think I just want to say ‘thank you’ for giving us another glimpse of Genie! But how did this ending come to you? Was it always something you wanted to return to?
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: Thank you. I had always been curious about Golide Gumede’s return to the Beauford Farm and Estate. How did he manage it? Where had he been for all those years? And then one day as I was writing The Quality of Mercy I thought … What if … I will leave it there because I also don’t want to create any spoilers, but I will say that the ending was one of those joyful discoveries that happen during the writing process.
The JRB: Finally, since writers tend to be readers, we like to ask writers what they’re reading. What have you been reading recently that you would recommend?
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: This is such an exciting time for African literature so I have been trying to read as many new books coming out as I can get my hands on. I would highly recommend Onke Mazibuko’s The Second Verse, Jarred Thompson’s The Institute for Creative Dying, and Okwiri Oduor’s Things They Lost—all are amazing debut novels that show the exciting road ahead for African literature.
The JRB: Some great recommendations. Thank you very much for your time.
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: Thank you for this wonderful conversation.