Beyond the Literature of Protest
Lewis Nkosi's Underground People1
IF THE AIM OF LEWIS NKOSI in drafting Mating Birds was originally to write a 'short story' rather than a more extensive novel, there was at the same time the intention on the part of the author to engage in, and give life to, a full-length novel, which became Underground People. However, the first project became a novel in every respect, while the second text was momentarily set aside, in favour of the completion of Mating Birds. Outlined in rough in 1978 when Nkosi was at the University of Sussex studying for a degree in English literature, Underground People had as its objective the exploration of a theme which immediately revealed itself to be more complicated and delicate for the author than he could face during his years of academic study. The complexity of the novel's content emerges clearly from the definition that Nkosi himself gave some years later when the novel had still not yet been published: "The theme itself is the life that was lived by the oppressed, the people who were all around you but were invisible as far as the apartheid State was concerned, except when it wanted to use the whip."2 He then had said to himself: "This novel is going to be too much work. Do a short story instead."3 The result of this choice was the publication of Mating Birds in 1986.
1 This essay is drawn from a dissertation written in Italian. Translation from Italian
to English was done by Lori Barausse, Department of French, German and Italian,
University of KwaZulu–Natal.
2 Kevin Goddard, "Lewis Nkosi interviewed by Kevin Goddard, Johannesburg 3
December 1991," in Out of Exile, South African Writers Speak, ed. Kevin Goddard &
Chris Wessels (NELM Interview Series, Grahamstown: NELM, 1991): 34.
3 Janice Harris, "On Tradition, Madness, and South Africa: An Interview with
Lewis Nkosi," Weber Studies 11.2 (Spring–Summer 1994): 23.