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The Reluctant Storyteller

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This collection comprises stories that comment on a wide range of pertinent issues such as
xenophobia, substance abuse, bribery and a host of other social ills that wreak havoc on our
communities. A remarkable feature is the author’s quest to address contentious topics such as
male rape, inter-racial relationship, same sex marriages and land repatriation. The author
handles various narrative techniques with outstanding dexterity and imbues the enthralling
stories with suspense that makes the collection a page turner.

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SKU: 9780620865913 Categories: , , Product ID: 328983
Weight 200 g
Author

Nakanjani G. Sibiya

Publisher

Xarra Books

ISBN

9780620865913

e-Book ISBN

9781990961618

Book Type

e-Book, Paperback

Year

2020

1 review for The Reluctant Storyteller

  1. Annie Gagiano (English Department, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa)

    Nakanjani Sibiya is an award-winning and prolific author in isiZulu who, with the text under review here, has for the first time made some of his stories available in English translation. As the writer himself informs readers, he did so under the encouragement and pressure of two friends and fellow authors, Fred Khumalo (who provided a suitably informal and chatty Foreword) and Niq Mhlongo, who in the back cover blurb describes Sibiya’s storytelling style as “hypnotic and unflinching”. Sibiya, who is an academic himself, teases readers concerning the incongruity of literary-theoretical terms regarding his stories in the first (“autobiographical”) part of the opening tale – which segues from introducing the storytelling villager himself into one of the longest and most striking of the stories (concerning upheavals in the lives of three young people who went to school in the village). This story, like the ones that follow (thirteen in all, of uneven lengths), is full of drama (Sibiya is inter alia a playwright). To avoid the biggest mistake in approach in order to savour the stories, readers are warned that they should not be read as if written – by which I mean that to engage appropriately with what they are, the stories need to be imagined as performances: acted out in gestures and intonations to fascinate a listening audience (very likely to respond vocally, throughout). Nor should these stories be read continuously as if they are a novel in sections; several of them have similar plot-lines, and many of the ‘surprise endings’ may be foreseeable, but what matters primarily is to use the opportunity to enjoy immersion into twenty-first century Zulu village life (and the lives of those who leave it), and to recognise the spectrum of contemporary South African lifestyles in which ‘villagers’ and former villagers are immersed, as evoked here.
    Sibiya includes a few digs at the predominance of English in South Africa and the wider world, even as his own collection demonstrates his yielding (however reluctantly) to this linguistic predominance. Not only does he insist, even as he is about to refute the claim in the stories that follow, on “the incompatibility of the Queen’s language with a storytelling tradition that comes from the linguistically rich isiZulu” (5), fondly identified as his mother tongue, but he reminds readers of the manner in which this linguistic precedence was locally achieved.
    Recalling the bitter memory “concerning the confiscation of my forefathers’ land at gunpoint”, Sibiya’s village storyteller mask slips slightly in adding that the matter “remains unresolved” (6). The storyteller demonstrates the subtlety of isiZulu with reference to the name Musawamehlo given to the main character of the first story. The direct translation (“kindness of the eyes”) fails to convey the “deep meaning in isiZulu”, which refers to the “feigned kindness” (7) experienced by Musawamehlo’s mother in a polygamous marriage “where all sorts of maltreatment and pretentiousness were the order of the day” (8). The name and the context provided serve also to indicate that Sibiya’s stories offer no naïvely romanticising image of the Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa, 2021 Vol. 33, No. 1, 70–72
    prevalent condescending expression “traditional village life”. Indeed, the story titled “Over my Dead Body” illustrates the harm done by – and the anachronistic foolishness of – insisting on the maintenance of traditional practices at any cost. In this regard, the storyteller’s stance is notably progressive: respecting gender diversity, being accepting of non-Zulu persons of a variety of ethnicities, and
    acknowledging both criminality and stupidity wherever manifested – also among his fellow villagers. Nevertheless, at least one of the stories (“Toyitoyi”) vividly depicts what is presented as a morally and politically principled decision by an “induna” to offend (at enormous personal risk and cost) a ‘progressively’ generous white farmer who is his employer, in order to maintain worker and ethnic solidarity in a demonstration against wider social injustices.
    These are fully contemporaneous tales, related in awareness of what seems like almost every kind of issue, pressure and possibility of life in twenty-first-century South Africa, including unashamed manifestations of gender diversity encountering prejudiced responses; AIDS;
    emotional barrenness and the ‘blesser’ culture; a range of consequences or contexts of unrestrained sexual indulgence; ruthless cheating of the poor and vulnerable by the wealthy; male rape; success stories in business or music; the brave crossing (in love and commitment) of
    existing ethnic and racial divides; the tragic consequences of obsessive sexual jealousy; and the delayed rewards of unselfish acts and committed love. The sexual predation with which a desolate woman – a deeply faithful spouse and a mother desperate to improve the family’s reduced circumstances for her school-going children – has to contend is the central theme of the story titled “Just Once”. The extract below features near the end of the story, when Nokwazi has driven the family rattletrap to the assignation that she has to meet to ensure that a tender goes to her and her husband’s struggling business venture (one of a few) – instead of to what the despicable man holding the purse-strings has termed one of the “the ever-readys” (132):
    She drives to town in a blur and her heart is pounding violently against her chest as she approaches the entrance to the self-contained upmarket simplexes where Sabelo stays. She can already see his shiny top-of-the-range SUV dominating the parking lot. Ill-gotten gains!
    She decides to park next to the road near the entrance, and treads wearily along the driveway to the entrance gate. Her hands are shaking and knees weak as she approaches the intercom on which house numbers are written. She takes a deep breath and glances around. No soul in sight. No one will see her enter. A lone hadeda glides freely overhead and her eyes follow it, envying its freedom, until it disappears behind the nearby bushes. Her eyes look beyond the bushes and scan the sky. Can she be sure no one will see her? Tears start welling in her eyes as she reaches out her sweaty hand towards the intercom. Her finger quivers as she stretches to press. A sudden rush of guilt engulfs her and she withdraws the finger before it presses the button. She wails hysterically, retreats and runs to her car as if some fierce dogs were chasing her. (135–136)
    This kind of visceral immediacy is characteristic of most of the stories, although the perspective of course varies from empathetic (as in the above extract) to ironic, disdainful, sardonic, or whichever stance our storyteller deems suitable to the conduct described. In the concluding story of Sibiya’s collection, the matter of attacks on supposedly ‘foreign’ truck-drivers is the all too literally burning issue evoked. The hapless victim in the story concerned is actually local, but this purportedly central point of identity is never checked by the attackers and looters before the truck he is driving (which he does not own, though the modest income earned for doing the driving is his last hope for surviving economically) is stopped and torched. This is how the circumstances leading to the event are introduced:
    As you may be aware, the burning of trucks has escalated over recent months, resulting in sleepless nights for truck owners and drivers. Like many drivers, Phikelela had been hoping that the matter would be resolved quickly. But the bone of contention has always been thorny, with no immediate solution in sight. So, the burning and looting have continued and will not abate until such time that not a single foreign driver sits behind the wheel of a local truck. The demands from the so called concerned local drivers are very specific and unwavering on this matter. (240).
    The tales in The Reluctant Storyteller reflect (as above) the brutally competitive ethos of too many fighting about too little, while remaining aware of both corruptly and ethically achieved success stories. Many of these tales have a Maupassant-like final twist of irony or poetic justice, rather than (to my mind) recalling Herman Charles Bosman, to whose short stories Khumalo refers as Sibiya’s model in his Foreword (v). But the stories connect through the humane understanding of the greed and need that permeate South African society. In this respect, Sibiya’s purportedly innocent ‘village tales’ astutely measure the state of the larger nation.

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