Dango Mkandawire lives and works in Blantyre Malawi working in finance even though he is sure, without a doubt, that it is in Art where the soul lies. He is the author of The Jonathan Gray Affair, published in GAMBIT: Newer African Writing, an anthology by The Mantle Books.
DANGO: Interestingly, that part in the story alluding to David and Goliath invites quite a bit of commentary even though I didn’t expect it to do so as much. The story precipitated in my mind in fragments. During that time I was considering themes of courage and dignity and what these notions meant. What is Courage and when is it real and when is it fabricated and mimicked? Who is really brave and what constitutes dignity. How entrenched is bravery and courage within the troubling arena of Masculinity? Why do men especially, almost universally find it a deathblow to be referred to as a coward. These were the billowing clouds floating in my head. I decided to write a story around these themes set during a time when people feel amplified and often confusing and conflicting emotions – adolescence.
ABR: You mention in a previous interview that you make a point of choosing less drastic/ hard-hitting topics to center your work around. Do the quieter themes you choose to work with influence the depth of your work? That is, do you find you’re forced to pay more attention to character and style than you perhaps would if there was a dramatic resolution to anchor the narrative?
DANGO: I believe that the causes of events are always much smaller than the scale of the actual events. A whisper here; a misunderstood glance there; a butterfly flapping its wings here; all these subtleties and nuances build up to events and then people act out their roles in the respective theatres of Life they find themselves in. This is ultimately what fascinates me about people and why literature excites me. How will he or she act in this situation…and why. It is at the crossroads, at the points where a change in the direction of a life is possible where we find some evidence and some insight into the true nature of people. This is what I try to explore and understand. So to me it’s the essence of things that is paramount. Whether it be a man standing in Tiananmen Square boldly facing a multi-tonne tank defying the State and all its powers at the peril of his life, or Pempheroyanga in The Jonathan Gray Affair standing upright before the taunts and clenched fists of a bully. The lessons learned condense to the same truths.
In addition, I feel I am in unnatural garb, as ridiculous as a bear with feathers, whenever I write about anything I deem too far stretched from my own experiences. Yes, it is the writer’s trade to stretch his own eyesight to encompass the experiences of his or her fellow people, but stretch too far and the string snaps. Personally I am uncomfortable and don’t trust myself in such situations. I cannot write in discomfort. So do I pay more attention to character and style? Possibly unconsciously. To me as long as the words gel and flow smoothly together and capture a reader’s interest for whatever reason that’s a good story. When I write I only ask myself whether what I have written is interesting or not, and that relates to the previous sentence. If it’s interesting enough I proceed. If it isn’t I discard, retreat, look around again, then proceed. That’s the binary procedure I repeat until I finish. It’s tiresome though rewarding. And what determines whether something is interesting? That’s a matter of taste and it would be pedantic to explain taste. If you like the taste of fish that’s what you like. You could try explain it but you would fall short. You like the taste. That’s explanation enough.
ABR: You also mention a different story Voice of the Gods, which explores the idea of a select group of leaders chosen based on their grasp of language. Do you think living in a world where so much information is so available that we’re often forced to condense and assimilate rapidly has influenced our grasp of language and the power of words?
DANGO: I think that we condense things far more readily than we assimilate them.
What I have recently been surprised with is not so much the amount or ‘volume’ of information that exists but the amount of fragmentary and disjointed Knowledge . Knowledge without context or proportion, if we can even call that knowledge…. It takes courage and discipline to deliberate. It’s a culture built over time. For instance Mainstream News has been telling us about the Middle East for so long but I have met only three people who smoothly explained to me why the region is so tumultuous. Only three people. Almost everyone just has a vague idea. Mass Condensation of a very complex dynamic.
And when it comes to assimilation we assimilate very little. A writer said ‘To look at something is different from seeing something.’ We look at many things but see very little. We know that we should be exercising more but we don’t do it. We haven’t assimilated that knowledge fully. We merely looked at it. This is why writers are relevant in every age. To remind mankind what they thought they had learned but had forgotten – or ignored. This was the idea behind Voice of the Gods. An Aristocracy of Memory and Eloquence. Men who rose in society and increased their wealth and prestige based on their ability to speak and remember. Men whose sole purpose was to be the endless voice of the Ancestors reminding the Living that though they are currently under the sun, the darkness will come and they too will vanish, but one need not fear the dark for all along they were part of one long narrative.
Also, I suppose when we speak of information, we must inevitably address one of our greatest inventions: The Internet. We take it for granted because we connect to it on our mobiles, PCs, TVs etc but the Information Revolution has caused a paradigm shift in how we learn, understand and interpret our world. For me personally, my realization of this unprecedented transition was when I downloaded the Apocrypha & the Gnostic Gospels – for free. For those unfamiliar with the Apocrypha, these are the books that did not make it into the official Canon of the Christian Gospels for various reasons. There are books such as The Apocalypse of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas etc., I was so curious about the fact that I had never even heard about these books and as a consequence I began to research on my own about the history of these things when it hit me. Here I am in Malawi sitting in front of a pc divulging the most intimate thoughts of centuries, thoughts that led to wars, and yet I have no teacher. I realized that prior to connecting to the internet, all my life up until that point everything I had ever learned I did so in the shadow of someone telling me, or recommending a physical book to me. Knowledgeable people were people who had access to a physical library and this inevitably localized and monopolized knowledge away from the more inquisitive and mentally hungry masses who had no passport to the world of literature. The interesting thing is that, as has always been the case, people who thirst for knowledge and Truth will seek it, and some people use the internet as a powerful tool to build and enrich themselves. The rest use it for pornography, watching videos of kittens and following the Kardashians. But to each his own.
ABR: As a Malawian writer, how has Malawi influenced your works and what do you think the future of Malawian writing will be? What ideally do you want it to be?
DANGO: Having been born and living in Malawi, I suppose my outlook of things and my experiences are shaped by the history of the country. I was not born in colonial times but my childhood overlapped with people who were, and these are the same people who raised me, that is to say my father’s generation. In our case it was British Colonialism. After the formal collapse of the Colony, we went through a dictatorship and when there are changes in the halls of power it trickles down to the people and sets a mood. Malawians are a friendly and accommodating people on the whole, sometimes to a fault.
Cases are different and in our case I believe this is partly due to what happens when people live in a muffled and tense environment when people are overcautious of every word they speak and are suspicious of not only their neighbors but even their own families. In a dictatorship one must stand with the accepted posture, even when that posture is uncomfortable or deceptive. During The dictatorship not much writing was done. It was a risky business. Writing is exposure. Exposure in a dictatorship can be tantamount to suicide. Silence is refuge. Writers fled into exile or hid within their impenetrable minds. What is happening now is that those muffled voices from beneath the surface are beginning to rise and take form. My parents’ generation see it as lewdness and stand askance at a more ‘daring’ generation and they probably share the same anxieties that all traditional people have when faced with the sway of modernity.
Some complain endlessly of decline. Moral decline. Spiritual decline and the loss of discipline. Others smile quietly, watching their children able to breathe as they never did. But we are still waking from the dream. Much has happened in our past that was undocumented, or only sparsely so. Many stories need to be told and retold. What it means to be a ‘Malawian’ (previously Nyasaland within a federation) was first told us by The British within the colonial system. Then by a strong handed dictator. Now it must sprout from within. From ourselves. From the beating hearts of living people free from the fear of self-expression. People not frightened of mirrors, so that they see themselves. This is the future of Malawian writing and no single person can control it. We will watch as it unfolds.
ABR: Do you have any favorite African novelists or writers? And have any influenced your works?
DANGO: As of now I must say I really enjoy Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s work. Her stories have layers and that’s what really captivates me about them. She has a surgeons eye and can cleanly slice things without hurting you or making a mess. It’s almost fashionable to mention her these days but she is really entertaining. And when you read her you get the sense that she was immersed in the work when she wrote it and is presenting to you the golden threads of her cloths, her very best. Sincere and authentic.
I also think it’s worth mentioning that I consider myself to have started reading late. What I mean is reading for leisure. I only began in university actually. Second year. This means I have a whole world of books I have never encountered which I am trying to catch up on. So there are many authors I hear of but have never actually read. In fact if I had the freedom to spend a lifetime reading I would count that a most excellent life. I am trying to catch up with people who began reading and even writing since they can remember.
It’s hard to define ‘African’ and can be problematic as many debates I have encountered in the past have proved. This is a scintillating question. What is an African Writer? Is it Nationality, what your birth certificate says? Is it what language you speak? What I do know is that if anyone had the observant eye of Balzac, and the shattering wit of Wilde, one might be the greatest writer of all time. African or not.