The Armchair Critic

Down Literature Avenue

In this heartfelt recollection, ART STATE Senior Writer Thato Rossouw takes us “Down Literature Avenue”, as he retells his own journey with books, their companionship and everything writers may never read about anywhere else, but here.

Death’s cold and wet aftershock, its bitter and sour aftertaste, has an uncanny ability to make even the toughest of souls rescind into a dark existentialist and deeply contemplative place. The cold shadow it leaves in its trail can darken even the brightest of lights, and always leaves one aimlessly floating in the abandoned corridors of their mind—corridors that have for many years been haunted by ghosts of a bloodstained history of blackness one has been avoiding to roam since birth, hoping to never one day find themselves sucked into the black walls that enclose them.

But, as if to show off life’s everlasting duality, it is sometimes during those unforeseen visits by death that a person actually finds themselves walking into the illuminations of a life they never thought possible before. It is during those times that a person, while aimlessly roaming the corridors of their soul, shivering under death’s cold shadow, finds life.

It was during one such time that a chapter of my life that has, thus far, shaped me into the man that I am began; it was during one such a time that I found books.

It all happened during a year unlike any other I had had before. It was in 2008, and the year had begun with a crippling visit to our family from death’s younger and equally tormenting sibling: sickness. Out of the shadows under which it lurks, idly waiting to spread pain in the lives of those it touches, sickness, right in the infancy of the year, took hold of my aunt and took her on a painful journey that ended with her being placed on death’s dark door. In a time period too quick for me to recollect with absolute certainty, my aunt, under the weight of sickness, went from being a bubbly and energetic person to one whose time on earth was prolonged by a machine with a monotonous beep that still brings tears to my eyes at the slightest hint of hearing.

Her death, even though it was preceded by a prolonged bout of sickness, came as a shock for everyone in the family. It left the entire family mourning at death’s worn out feet, desperately asking for its intentions for visiting this family and leaving us short of a member who kept us together during times when all seemed to be falling apart. It was a dark time for all of us, and it was during this same time that I rescinded into my own pain-plagued internal darkness; it was at this time that the dark corridors of my mind finally echoed with the sounds of my footsteps and I desperately needed to find a way out.

At the point when the darkness readied itself to totally consume me, an unexpected light found its way into the darkened tunnels of my consciousness, and I saw a way out. This light, as unexpected as it was, was brought by an even more unexpected place: the library. After years of having casually walked past it, and because of a recommendation made to me by my English teacher at the time, I decided to walk into the library and see what new possibilities it could bring for me.

Those initial steps I took into that small building (itself a somewhat lonely and dark place) provided for me an opportunity to see myself beyond the melancholy left behind by death’s painful visit. I walked through the library’s doors reeling under death’s cold shadow, completely unable to bring myself to a point of knowing what to expect when I got inside; but, through my discovery of the wonders of literature, I walked out of that place a different man.

As soon as I walked into the library I was confronted by a new and exciting world, taking my initial steps out of the clutches of death’s residual darkness and into life’s abundant light, I was to be later guided by Chika Onyeani’s somewhat totemic offering called Capitalist Nigger. The book, found through a mixture of pure luck and attraction towards its dark cover, provided a reason for me to exist outside of the pain I had found myself in at the time. It opened up my life to a wonderful world of literature. It kicked off my journey as a reader and led me to becoming a literature blogger and book reviewer.

This journey, started by pure luck, was to later be fueled by my discovery of a group of pioneering ‘50s writers called The Drum Boys. It was from these writers that I eventually found the first book I planned to read with the intention of sharing my experiences of it: Es’kia Mphahlele’s first autobiography, Down Second Avenue. I had come across it during an unplanned rummage through the “African” section of the library, and from the first page to the last, I was hooked.

My reasons for wanting to share my reading experiences of the book came more as a result of me wanting to share my journey as a reader than they did as a result of me wanting to provide a critical analysis of the content found therein. Nevertheless, those very same reasons later introduced me to an exciting new way of reading books – a sort of new culture of critically engaging with the books that I was reading – which later turned me towards the possibility of being a book reviewer. It was, therefore, right after my reading of this book that my journey as a book reviewer began.

Since reading Down Second Avenue, my journey as a reader and reviewer has seen me contribute my unquestionably unimportant opinions about literature – giving my somewhat armchair critical analysis of a wide range of topical and historical interests – on national, continental and sometimes international platforms. That book started a chain of events that have led to me writing the column you are currently reading.

Since then I’ve read and reviewed many books and, even though all the books I’ve read and reviewed throughout the years have played a significant role in my development as a reader/reviewer/writer, there are a couple that have stood out for me, and continue to influence me even today. Chief amongst them has to be Chika Onyeani’s Capitalist Nigger—not so much because it’s where my journey as a reader began, but mainly because of the role it played in helping me get out of a place that, at the time, I saw no way out of. Capitalist Nigger is a book that gave me my praxis in all things literature; it gave me a foundation on which my understanding of literary engagement has been built and maintained over the years.

Another book that heavily influenced me and sparked a desire in me that would later sustain the lives of three personal blogs is Nat Nakasa’s posthumous collection of writings, The World of Nat Nakasa. Himself a member of the Drum Boys Club, Nat Nakasa had a way of writing that encapsulated the emotions of his characters, and by extension of himself. This unique skill made me fall deeply in love with his work.

This affection towards Nat Nakasa’s emotionally charged work came because of the fact that my journey in literature was one that was initiated by deeply emotional circumstances. Nat’s ability to convey emotions the way he did drew me towards his work. His work showed me a possibility of me becoming a writer, of me writing from a point of vulnerability and, ever since my first encounter with it, I haven’t stopped working towards achieving that possibility.

These and the many other books I’ve read and reviewed over the years did more than just influence my reading and writing life, though. They also taught me a number of important things about the art of writing and how to identify elements that constitute good literature.

Reading them taught me that it takes more than just having “a good story to tell” to write a book – to write a brilliant book – and that without a perfect synergy of the different elements that make up the art of literature (things like the use of language, story-telling skills, writing techniques, etc.), you might as well take a toddler, have them scribble words on pieces of paper and call that a book!

They taught me that books are more than just compilations of words which later turn into badly written sentences, then crappy paragraphs, then, lastly, ill-thought out pieces of trash. Writing is a skill that takes years to perfect and master. It is a mechanical manipulation of language by a person in order for it to carry their story in a comprehensive and worthwhile way. So, to reduce the art of writing to the random patching together of words that sometimes rhyme or sound good together is to reveal to your readers just how ignorant of the complexities of the art form you are. It is an undermining of their intelligence and a waste of their money.

Books such as Nwelezelanga by Unathi Magubeni (whose poetic genius is rivaled only by a few), Down Second Avenue by Es’kia Mphahlele (whose narrative brilliance is on a league of its own), and Towards the Mountain by Alan Paton (whose literary prowess can only be the work of a true genius) are only testament to the fact that good literature is more than just words put together to tell a story: it’s years of hard work put together to produce an unparalleled reading experience for anyone who chooses to read the book.

When all is said and done, though, reading is a very subjective activity. You, as the reader, bring to the process your own experiences and history. A writer brings theirs too. These experiences then intersect to create a reality of their own. It is because of this fact that I’ve always believed that there can never be a universal way of reading literature. A reader reads from a book what they bring to it, and no one person’s experiences are better than those of the next.

But this is no way a get-free card for writers. The fact that your readers will read your work differently doesn’t mean that you have to write badly. Crappy writing is the fault of the writer. What remains with the reader is how they read what has been written.

At the end of it all, then, literature can be judged to be good based on more than just how it is composed; it can also be judged based on what it can do for the reader.

For me, literature helped me get out of a dark place in my life during a difficult period, while for others it has had a different impact. What matters for the reader in the end is more than just how a book is written, but also what it has the potential to do in their lives.

As for the writers, though, the tune we need to sing is a totally different one. For the writer, a good book should have a combination of attributes that will leave readers begging for more. Anything other than that should be called what it is: crap!

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