“Relateable” is the go-to word of my students, signaling instant placement in the narrative we’re reading. A perfect fit, like Cinderella stepping into her missing shoe. Or like praying to the same god, or having roots in the same neighborhood or culture, or having similarly surrendered a body-part, or risen from the same—or similar—grave.
It means identification has taken place.
But something slightly different occurs when the writing itself uproots a reader, steals them away from all memory and place—and grounds them squarely in the provided locale and headspace of an imagined reality. This wresting quality of strong fiction outruns the reader’s resistance, mesmerizes her so that she walks the plank or leaps from the high dive, trusting the writer’s words to keep her afloat.
Nabokov would say they’ve climbed the mountain together—writer and reader—but on opposing sides, meeting at the top.
The onus is on the reader to suspend her disbelief, but the first onus is obviously upon the writer, her capacity to intuit the demands of her characters and to attend to the needs of her readers.
Kagiso Lesego Molope, a writer celebrated in Canada, where she moved some years back, and whose book is published by Mawenzi, a Toronto based press, is one such writer. Her world envelops the reader. Her most recent novel, Such a Lonely, Lovely Road, like the others before it, takes us to South Africa, where she was born and raised, and presents us with the story of two young men who fall in love with each other. It is a world that is gendered and racial, and while gay love is acceptable in the white world of South Africa, it’s not as easy for the two young Black men from a township—the main setting in this novel—where the two were raised.
The book begins in the seaside town of Durban where Kabelo Mosala is in residency. Like his father, he’s a doctor. Before we get too comfortable we find out, as does Kabelo—from his lover, Sediba—that his father has died. Kabelo must return home to take over his father’s practice in the township, where Sediba, who makes his living as a hairdresser, still lives. They’d grown up together—we hear it all from Kabelo’s point of view—the harrowing journey of these lovers, and how each of them travels this road. They are to some extent opposite, both of them only children of adoring parents; however, the self-acceptance as manifested by Sediba seems hard to come by for Kabelo, who checks himself at each turn, careful to cloak his attraction to men so that no one catches on. Kabelo is a man of many secrets, those that he keeps from others but that haunt him until he finds his path toward a reckoning. Here is the central conflict of book, the divided self, the price he must pay for love, along with the negotiations between self and community, and between the self and the beloved.
I read Molope’s work devouringly, like a traveler taking in the nuances of a street where children are laughing, the husks in their voices striking you, and the sound of a lone musician comes from a window somewhere, and you are piecing together a world that you’ve just stepped into, coming from a place that is not that dissimilar but in fact is nothing at all like the world you have just entered. I read it coming from a world that I am newly in that in itself is already defamiliarized by the virus, and by the opening created by George Floyd’s martyrdom. I am coming from a place seeing how similar the world of post-apartheid South Africa is to our USA with the window opened for white supremacists to have their day, for the spotlight on our own glaring national inequity, the blight that we have lived with since the founding of our country.
It is one thing to read a book as a first introduction to the author, and it is another thing to read a book after you’ve met the author. I’ve now read three of the four novels of Kagiso Lesego Molope. She had flown into New York City from Toronto to hear her mentor and friend, the prize-winning, prolific South African writer, Zakes Mda speak about his work at 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair.
I, too, had come to hear the lecture—but for me it was just a short drive. Dr. Mda himself had flown in from Athens, Ohio, which is where, about ten years ago, I’d studied with him.
I have also taught the work of Zakes Mda. But his answer to a question he’d been asked opened up more than just his literary world for me, when he explained the meaning of the Zulu term “Ubuntu.” We are not born human, Dr. Mda explained, but this process of becoming human—by learning how to be generous and to show compassion—this is how we gain personhood. This shared dignity, this sense of being part of all humanity, this experience of life is what teaches you to become more human.
When asked who his audience was, he said that he wrote for South Africa, “for my people.” He spoke about how the “universal springs from the particular,” which I took to mean that we who are not South African, if we are good readers, may take part in this Ubuntu.
And now I’ve read many more books—notably Kagiso Lesego Molope’s books. I’m moved by the subtle and yet cinematic way she squarely situates me in a country and culture. Her words invite me into the world of a Black township that will become ravaged by AIDS, where the community envelops itself around each person, where weddings and funerals are communal, where the entire town behaves as a unit, as extended family. I connect with this kind of communality. I grew up in such a town. I grew up in such a family. I relate. I find my way to connect. But the feeling of community in the characters, by way of Molope’s words, allows this to happen. She allows both those who are in the know and those who are not to come to the gathering, to read her book and be part of this world. Her characters are so fully present.
When we first meet Sediba we are taken back to when Kabelo has first met him, “the best dressed boy our age that we had ever seen,” Kabelo notes. “I was enthralled. He wore navy blue shorts, a white t-shirt and a blue scarf with white dots that was carefully tied around his neck, a little bit to the side. My first thought was that he looked like someone form a magazine.” Lelo, Kabelo’s friend, is put off by the way Sediba sits “like a woman.” But Kabelo, who is “downright mortified” by Lelo’s calling this out, is moved by the way Sediba dismisses the critique: “The most astonishing thing to me was—and this is what I thought of a lot throughout the next few years—that instead of uncrossing his legs, Sediba shrugged, stayed in the same position, turned up his chin like he had done earlier….” This nonchalance, this self-acceptance, an exemplary quality if there ever was one, along with his beauty—the way he lives in his body—is what continues to charm both Kabelo and the reader.
Partly, I want to talk about making connections in a time of Covid-19.
And in a time of Black Lives Matter.
I want to talk about weaving. I want to talk about viability.
It’s because we’re living in a world so broken that many attempts to forge connections are now happening, now that the fraying cloth of our humanity is more shredlike than clothlike.
How I see it.
How I long for us to have grounding as we repair.
I believe we’re in a time of repair. It feels like a time of a slow explosion, a slow-motion tsunami. It’s a desperate, grave time now. We will look back and see this.
It is a time to learn about each other. It is a time to give each other the benefit of the doubt. It is a time to put down all weapons. It is a time to appreciate how fragile we are, how vulnerable we are.
It’s time to redefine freedom in such a way that it resembles Ubuntu. In such a way that there is no room for opposition, for the binary.
Reading Kagiso Lesego Molope’s novel, I’m in a place of total absorption. I’m in a place where I’m totally listening, totally all ears, learning about a culture that at first seems so different from the one I was raised in. I’m taken aback. I’m lost inside a world of trying to find something to say other than—“read this book.” I’m silent for lack of an angle, but oh, here is plenty of context—and of course, here we are in global pandemic mode, here we are in Black Lives Matter, where a history cannot bear another day longer without reckoning, here we are with a president so incompetent, he makes all the others I lived to despise look seaworthy.
Here we are.
The blankness of the space is so forbidding. Nothing seems worthy of filling it. All is a sidestep away from the current intense desire to hear from someone saying Yes.
I am saying yes to this story of hers that pulls me in by way of character, by way of a mapping of place and time, and I struggle to clear my view so that I can take it in.
The outright and the insidious nature of racism.
These are deeply interesting characters. You tend to want to know what they are thinking. You like being their company for the depth of their feelings and the fullness of their concerns, the depth of compassion, the sense of the whole—the community, the way to both fit in and be oneself, even when that self is going against the norm, even when the penalty is stiff. There is a kind of soulful wrestling that Kabelo undergoes, but no self-pity. Kabelo is a haunted soul. To some extent he comes by it naturally. He’s haunted by his parents, he’s haunted by his preference for the same sex—and sometimes it seems he is the only thing his parents have in common.
He’s haunted when he’s with Sediba, and he’s haunted when he’s without Sediba.
He’s worried, if he should come home to Kasi, to the township: “who would come to a gay doctor….I thought of my mother and her reaction…”
There is a moment when his mother finds out—when that confrontation must of course happen.
There’s a consequence. Of course, there’s a consequence, the inevitable crushing moment when that which is possible becomes a fact, a thing done.
The book, however, resolves in such a way that honors all concerned, that finds a way for love, with consequences. Not without pain, not without sacrifice.
But love, as in the title, is “…a Lonely, Lovely Road.”
Geri Lipschultz’s work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, L.A. Review of Books, New York Times, the Toast, Black Warrior Review, College English among others. She has a story and a poem included in Pearson’s college anthology, Literature: Introduction to Reading and Writing, as well as a story in Spuyten Duyvil’s The Wreckage of Reason II. She teaches writing at Hunter College and Borough of Manhattan Community College. She has an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as well as a Ph.D. from Ohio University. Her novels have been finalists in a number of contests. She was awarded a Creative Artists in Public Service (CAPS) grant from New York State for her fiction, and her one-woman show (titled ‘Once Upon the Present Time’) was produced in NYC by Woodie King, Jr.