A former high school teacher, Ndumiso Ngcobo has penned two best-selling collections of sharp, satirical essays on contemporary South African issues, ‘Some of My Best Friends are White’ and ‘Is It Coz I’m Black?’, both published by Two Dogs. This urban Zulu spear-chugger is a regular blogger on ‘Thought Leader’. His blog can be found here.
EB: Ndumiso, I read in an introduction to an interview with you that you had a traditional Zulu, conservative Catholic upbringing. How much of that finds its way into your writing?
NN: If you’re asking me whether I walk around chanting Zulu war cries or sedately mumbling the mysteries of the Rosary, then the answer is ‘no’.
That was just my way of pointing out that, like most people in this country, I was brought up straddling more than just one culture. It is a dualism that I’m pretty certain finds its way into my writing, whether I’m consciously aware of it or not. Besides, Catholicism and Zulu traditionalism have significantly more in common than anyone ever acknowledges.
EB: What role do you think traditions, cultural and religious, play in the new South Africa?
NN: They play a disproportionately larger role than they deserve or is widely acknowledged. Positive or negative or not, good or bad; most people universally are victims of a herd mentality that influences their worldview and everyday decisions. Most people go through life without much interrogation of the triggers that determine their paradigms.
EB: Has your wicked sense of humour landed you in much trouble? You once described being lectured by men bearing copies of Chinua Achebe… Are you left browbeaten by these encounters, or do you roll with the punches?
NN: … and I’ve been browbeaten by men with copies of Byron, Shakespeare and Tolstoy under their armpits too. The Achebe reference was an analogy representing anyone who takes himself/herself too seriously. I’d like to heroically declare how encounters with the Serious Brigade and the Thought Police never shake me up but that would be a rotten lie. After all, I am not immune to the hilarious idiocy I ridicule. I often realize (too late) that I am one of these idiots who take themselves too seriously.
EB: What inspires you to write?
NN: This is positively, unequivocally the most ludicrous question I ever get asked.
It’s a lot like asking Usain Bolt what inspires him to run or why Bles Bridges made recordings of himself wailing. I write because that’s who I am, what I do. I write purely out of compulsion, the same way a dung beetle is compelled to spend its days rolling balls of excrement around. If nobody ever paid me to write, I’d still be writing. The best response I’ve managed to conjure up as to why I write is; the source of inspiration for my writing is human beings. Forget aliens, technology, tsunamis or any other phenomenon.
I am completely obsessed with the human condition and the extent to which we are completely blindsighted to our true nature i.e. self-delusional nitwits.
EB: Who/what do you read? Do you find that what you read influences how you write?
NN: I have discovered that people have an expectation that because one is a writer by profession, it follows naturally that one is a voracious reader. Not necessarily.
Look, I have read literally thousands of books, especially during my high school years and in my 20s. I have slowed down somewhat and have become a more judicious reader – purely because I don’t have as much time. I do not stick to a genre nor do I have favourite authors.
My tastes include the classics such as Dickens, writing from our continent in the form of the Okris and N’gugi, American literature from Hemingway to Mailer to Steinbeck, political biographies and the more ‘whimsical’ literature such as Bill Bryson etc. But I will confess that I tend to gobble up practically every biography I can lay my grubby hands on. And I’m not a literally snob either because I’ll ravenously consume so-called literary junk such as chic lit or horror novels etc.
EB: You were a high school maths and science teacher. Have you had much feedback from young people regarding your blogs and books?
NN: A fair amount, yes. Young people tend to provide the most vocal and forthright responses to anything. That’s because most under-30s possess that self-assuredness and absolute belief that they have life figured out. I envy that because my worldview consists of narrow band of black-and-white and a broad band of grey in the middle. This is why I love engaging with people barely out of their teens. Unless, of course, they are young English Literature PhD candidate types inviting me over to their dorms for purposes of taking advantage of me sexually. For her own selfish reasons, my wife insists that I say ‘no’ to most of those requests.
EB: What advice do you have for young people who would like to write and be published?
NN: Many young people email me and ask for just this advice. They often walk away from the encounter with a fair level of dejection because my standard advice is not what they expect or want to hear.
That advice is, write, write and write some more. The best way to become a published author is to always be writing, every single day. Yes, writing requires a fair amount natural talent and a flair for it. But like most other endeavours in life, writing is a skill that one has to nurture through practice, among other methods. The more one writes, the more one improves the hit-and-miss ratio between the crap and the nuggets of good writing. I’d venture that for every 100 words I write, 70 of those words are rubbish. For instance, to produce the 12 chapters in my first collection, ‘Some of My Best Friends are White’, my publishers and I had to sift through 50+ chapters of dog excrement.
EB: You have the knack of pointing out the absurdly funny in everyday life in South Africa, and your readers have the wonderful gift of laughing at
themselves. Does this fill you with hope for the future, or is it simply a comfort to know that people will buy the books, which means you can buy more beer?
NN: I like to call myself a cynical idealist which sounds like an oxymoron. But what I mean by that is that at my very core I am a naively optimistic believer in human resourcefulness. I often say that most human brains are Ferraris being driven Miss Daisy style by their owners.
In other words I believe our potential supersedes our performance by a mile. When I poke fun at, say Indian people or the religious right, and people from that demographic respond by laughing at themselves it leaves me with a great feeling. It makes me believe we’ll be alright, after all. And when people laugh at themselves and contribute to my beer fund during these recessionary times, even better. The amber nectar of the gods does not come cheaply.
EB: There’s a story about a bard in ancient Ireland who satirized a chief for not being a very good chief. Apparently, satire was something of a curse, and boils appeared all over the chief’s face. The boils only healed when the chief mended his ways. Is that something you would like to be able to do, or is making people laugh at the culprits good enough for you?
NN: This is the best question I’ve ever been asked in an interview.
Being laughed at is, I believe, the most effective way of modifying behaviour. Much more effective than sermons from Brylcreemed, sweaty men on a thousand pulpits. My grandmother taught me that lesson. When I was two and a half, I still wet my bed. My granny, the greatest satirist I ever knew, laughed at me for four straight hours. I never wet my bed again. A case of crisis
bringing about change. And there isn’t a bigger crisis than being mocked and ridiculed. So yeah, I hope to get these boils off me.