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How to write a city with Lidudumalingani Mqombothi

Dave Mann is an editor and award-winning arts journalist.

On a dry and windy afternoon in Johannesburg’s Maboneng, Lidudumalingani Mqombothi is seated in the corner of a small coffee shop, watching the day play out on Fox Street. Inside, it’s quiet and secluded – a bit of respite from the city, and a room to write in for the afternoon. Outside, people are struggling against the wind as a large cloud of dust kicks up and sweeps down the street.

Lidudumalingani Mqombothi writer author South African

‘I don’t know Joburg like this, to be honest,’ he says. For Lidudumalingani, the photographer, filmmaker, and Caine Prize-winning writer, cities are something of an obsession. You’ll find parts of this obsession spread across his visual work, as well as his writing. Most notably, you’ll see it in Inner City, a digital publication focused on African cities that he founded back in 2018. 
     ‘Inner City is my obsession with the city, but from the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up in the city. It’s making sense of myself through the city,’ he explains. ‘I’ve lived in three cities in my life. I’ve visited other cities. I would like to see more cities.’ 
     Outside of this love for cities, he also has a great deal of interest in football, film, and photography and makes a point of writing about all of these things as often as possible. For Lidudumalingani, writing (like photography, film and the vast, concrete reaches of the city) is a means of exercising the thoughts, ideas and observations that are dear to him, and which help him to better make sense of himself.

Lidudumalingani Mqombothi writer author South African

     It was 2016 when Lidudumalingani’s short story Memories We Lost won him the Caine Prize. That same year, he was awarded a Miles Morland Scholarship for African Writing. While the Caine Prize provides financial support and opens doors to an international readership, the Miles Morland scholarship provides a financial grant allowing for the necessary time off to produce a novel. For (mostly cash-strapped) writers on the African continent, they are two of the most sought-after literary prizes currently available. Memories We Lost was Lidudumalingani’s second published story, a work of short fiction grappling with the treatment of mental illness and traditional beliefs set in the Eastern Cape. Here are the opening lines of the story: 
     ‘There was never a forewarning that this thing was coming. It came out of nowhere, as ghosts do, and it would disappear as it had come.’  
     For Lidudumalingani, being a young writer with these two prizes already behind him and a debut novel on the horizon is both a great honour and a unique challenge. 
     ‘I think that once all of [the excitement] dies down, there’s the fear of having to produce work,’ he says. ‘The things that I obsess about and the things that I want to write about can feel like they are very unimportant to anyone else, you know? You have to be like “Look, even if I am the only one who will read this, I am happy to be working on it and I am happy to get it out of me.” For me, it’s a story that I think is important to tell and I think it’s important to tell it in the way that I’m telling it. It’s the pressure of the Caine Prize that one has to deal with, now. Publishing a novel can be a big deal, you know? It’s hard work.’

Lidudumalingani Mqombothi writer author South African

It’s 2019 now, and Lidudumalingani says that his novel is essentially done, save for the long and arduous editing process. The story? A bildungsroman of sorts, set in the rural reaches and seaside cities of the Eastern Cape. ‘It’s a novel in three parts,’ he says. One of these parts takes place in East London, a city where Lidudumalingani himself lived and studied. Merging his love for cities, architecture, and the art of storytelling – that strange process of re-imagining the contemporary to an extent where it seems foreign and captivating – Lidudumalingani has essentially fictionalised East London. 
     ‘If you’re familiar with East London and you read how I’ve configured it, it won’t make a lot of sense. One street flows into another, but if you’ve been to East London you’ll know that that street is in another part of the city. And I enjoy that because, often, we make the mistake of wanting to understand fiction as being non-fiction. That’s the world in the book, that’s the world you need to familiarise yourself with. So, I’ve deliberately reconfigured East London in the book and that’s been a lot of fun for me,’ he says. 
     Recently, Lidudumalingani’s joined the writing team for Scandal, one of South Africa’s most well-known television soaps. His time, he explains, will be split up between writing for television, working on the novel, and working on his photography, too. 
     ‘That’s what writers do, right? We work on a bunch of different things and finish them at different times, always starting new projects at once,’ he says. ‘It’s the only way to work until we get to a point where writers are getting paid enough to be able to sit with one piece for a few months, but for now, we have to write different things all at once, which can be stressful, but it’s necessary.’

Lidudumalingani Mqombothi writer author South African

We get to talking about the state of South Africa’s literary industry. It was in the pages of Prufrock, a South African literary publication that published new writers, poets, essayists and more, that Lidudumalingani first published a piece of creative writing. As of this year, Prufrock is now defunct, joining Aerodrome, The ITCH Creative Journal, New Coin and other local literary publications gone by. The reasons for these closures are nothing out of the ordinary: lack of funds, time, and resources. There is, however, no shortage of new writers in South Africa. So where do they go? 
     ‘Find a soapie to work on, man,’ he laughs. ‘I mean, I think outside of South Africa there is a lot happening and so I think any writer should be looking into other outlets especially in places like Nigeria or Ghana, you know? There are also a lot more diasporic publications that are putting out work by African writers and I think that’s a space to explore. But there aren’t a lot of publications in SA these days that are publishing new writers. It’s getting tougher and tougher for writers, especially younger writers who are just starting out and can’t really send their writing to The New Yorker or The Paris Review. You need spaces like that in your own country and we seem to have killed the few that were at least consistently publishing young writers. It’s hard, it’s hard.’ 
     It is a particularly difficult patch in South Africa’s literary landscape. At a glance, nobody has any money, everybody is tired, and faith in the written word is, arguably, at an all-time low. Despite it all, South African writers like Lidudumalingani continue to pursue the craft, winning prizes and awards as they do and paving the way for more writers across the country to do the same. And often, all this happens from inside a quiet coffee shop: whole worlds being built or picked apart while dust storms blow through the middle of the city.

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