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Still Beating the Drum: Critical Perspectives on Lewis Nkosi

By Lindy Stiebel; Liz Gunner | Go to book overview

2
Lewis Nkosi's Early Literary Criticism

CHRIS L. WANJALA

LEWIS NKOSI belongs to the list of optimists who have written on the South African reality. A versatile and multi-talented man, he is a literary critic, commentator on African affairs, journalist, dramatist and novelist. This essay, as it focuses on his early work, explores his contribution to African and South African letters largely through his work as an essayist. Nkosi was one of the journalists, and people in the arts, who formed a nucleus around Can Themba (1924–68) and his early colleagues from that now almost too legendary Drum era. The group included Henry Nxumalo (1918–57), called both brilliant and erratic by those who knew him, Todd Matshikiza, a jazz composer and pianist, and Casey Motsisi (1932–77), known to his contemporaries as "the kid," who specialized in off-beat commentary on the shebeens. Nkosi's writing life was, from its beginnings, multifaceted, and perhaps his long stamina and creative and critical range arose from this versatility of voice that the era imposed on him: his early years saw him working as a magazine editor and broadcast journalist in Durban, Johannesburg, London and the USA, where he both studied and wrote. His artistic position lay between that of the above-named creative writers and that of Ezekiel Mphahlele, who, like him, was to make a significant contribution to the South African literary landscape as both scholar and creative writer. In his response to the South African reality, he always poised the social fact against the art. He worried about the style in which to present the mix of violence and glamour of the South African scene, so that one could "sustain a tone of irony and detachment."1 He asked himself the question: "how does one begin to write about apartheid in a way that would be meaningful to people who have

1 Lewis Nkosi, Home and Exile and Other Selections (1965; London: Longman,
1983): Preface.

-27-

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