ONKE Mazibuko recently won an award. A South African Literary Award, to be exact. The Second Verse was not written or marketed as a youth novel but it's in this category that it won the esteemed Sala. For a delicate coming-of-age book; a debut that never really should have been.
Mazibuko connects precisely on the second for our online conversation. Impeccably neat, not a beard hair out of place. Shirt and smile equally white. He loses cellphone signal, walks around to get better reception, apologising for wasting my time. Everything happens in flawless English — the part of his growing up that made him an eternal outsider. That makes or breaks him, perhaps depending on who you ask. Stuck in the middle. The side of him that could hinder his chances during initiation with the ancestors, or so he believed until his father enlightened him: “It doesn't matter what language you speak. They just look at your heart."
Reading The Second Verse, you sense that heart. Listening to his life story, his stories, his love for his work and people… pure heart. When you hear him talking about his deceased sister, oh man. So many feels. But in the same breath, he is purposeful and professional. After all, he is the director of transformation, diversity and inclusion at the prestigious Kingsmead College in Johannesburg. Two master's degrees behind his name, in psychology and public health, now pursuing a PhD in creative writing. He practised psychology for a long time, but, he sighs, he is unable to say no to people. He saw too many patients for free, so it didn't make financial sense. Also, he wanted to be part of the community, to make a difference there.
This is the same guy who, years ago, gave up almost all his free time to do volunteer work. It was during a soul-crushing period when he worked for a corporate state institution. He had to find ways to counteract the monotony and stress of his boring profession. He started writing every morning for at least two-and-a-half hours before his colleagues eventually showed up for a dull workday.
On weekends and during school holidays, he was a mentor at youth camps. One school programme stood out: it placed underprivileged students in one of the country's best private schools and assigned a mentor to visit the child every week. Onke was assigned to a Grade 8 girl at St Stithians Girls' College. This experience gave him energy on various levels, also with his writing: “While we hung out, we talked a lot about my book and I could naturally observe many different teenage emotions. She had a best boyfriend but it was challenging — he was in love with her but she wanted nothing to do with romance. It made me think a lot about my own experiences in high school. It was wonderful to share parts of the book with her because she provided valuable feedback."
Another mentoring experience shaped the perspective of the book. A boy from a township indicated that he had never read a book: “When I finally approached the book, I deliberately wrote it so that someone like this boy could read it and feel surprised by a newfound love for the written word. This while he believed that reading wasn't really his thing."
This book that began as a fantasy love story with teenage werewolves and aliens took several twists and turns to become the story it is: a retelling, with occasional embellished reality, of Onke's life story. A young isiXhosa boy who, in the late nineties, was too white for his black friends and too black for the white kids in his suburban school. A forced outsider who struggled with cultural masculinity and his alcoholic father, a challenging family dynamic, finding it hard to identify positive male role models and simply not entirely fitting in anywhere.
At school, he had to act in one way, at home, he had to be completely Xhosa. Forever trapped in the middle of two divergent worlds. Suffer in silence and excel in silence. Like Bokgang in the book, art and music were the lifelines, the urgent passions. The Onke persona wanted to study fine arts after school but his mother thought he was way too smart for the struggling life of an artist. After a year of studying quantity surveying, he dropped out and made rap music for 18 months under the name Ramses. But his academic brain still wrestled with the creative heartbeat. He worked at Nedbank and enrolled in psychology. And at the weekend, Ramses could have free rein again when he performed as a rapper and hip-hopper, beautifying the streets with graffiti. At the age of 20, he could at last find a perfect middle ground.
While writing the book, he was initially content to keep himself out of the story. However, feedback from friends and readers left him stunned: “‘How did you manage to revisit your childhood without having to go through all the trauma again?' And I was like, what are you people talking about? This book is not about me. My goodness! And then I remembered." How he would sit for hours and think about all the trauma he had been through. How he wrote those emotions and feelings into scenes. And in doing so, how he placed himself at the forefront of the story. Even though he really never meant it that way.
Catcher in the Rye
But it was ultimately his therapy — his way of processing the loneliness of his teenage years, the psychological discrimination of post-apartheid South Africa, the perpetual outsider status. The constant knowledge that his parents sacrificed everything so he could receive the best possible education. The peer pressure to be initiated, his understanding of his heritage. His own Catcher in the Rye moments, right here in good old RSA. Our own Holden Caulfield, a fictional character who would consistently influence his life.
He had to read the book at school, yes, but he hated it. Holden's negativity upset him terribly. “I just couldn't understand what was going on with this kid." At the age of 22, he took the same book off his shelf. “I was blown away." He could finally identify with Holden's pain and growth. At 33, he read it for a third time, and that's when he decided he also wanted to write a story that would touch people. A lasting piece of therapy that would make them realise exactly how far they'd come in their lives. How resilient a person actually is, even when stuck somewhere in the middle between nothing and possibly everything. And right then and there, he gave up his PhD in psychology for one in creative writing so he could do something for himself once and for all. Write. He really only wanted to write.
And he does it every day, as routine as he is. Along with that, he's crazy about a bit of PlayStation, exercises and spends time with his loved ones. But every day starts the same way: at 4am he lights candles at his altar, in gratitude to God and his ancestors for the man he is. One of the missing middle, a group often criticised as people who don't know their place and culture or who are labelled coconuts. Too white or too black, right in the middle of difficulty.
“But I think I can teach you a few lessons about fitting into different environments. It's actually people like me that South Africa needs today because we are, after all, a community of mixed cultures. The sooner we accept it, instead of hammering on the differences, the easier life in South Africa will be for all of us." Perhaps so. But a little bit of heart will also help.
Who, what, where and how much?
The Second Verse by Onke Mazibuko was published by Penguin Random House SA and costs R330 at Exclusive Books.
♦ VWB ♦
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