By Bongani Madondo (@bonganimadondo)
Madondo shares some of the books that have shaped him.
1. Enid Blyton’s: The Famous Five (Children/Teen’s Fiction)*
Uhm. I have reason to blame Enid Blyton for a lot of things best left unsaid for now. The one sticking out pertinently, I blame Blyton for, among others, planting what would mature into a second layer of my then as yet labeled, “coconut” personality as it were. Before him, I was 13 or so, year ol’ boy from a village in Hammanskraal.
I was one of the seven children of a single mom (dearest Nomvula RIP). We were always moving from place to another, village, townships, shack, double story, and back, in that cycle. I was a pupil in an all black township Junior High. Mid 1980s it was.
I won the Best English writing and English speaking Award of the entire grade classes that year, and our teacher Mrs Swanepoel, one of the handful of white teachers who dropped in and out our school in neat, annual cycles, presented me with the First Prize: an Enid Blyton set.
I remember reading the entire set that winter of rumbling political discontent in South Africa. It also fed to my already established nerdy character, much to my friends’ jibes. Reading, especially reading non-prescribed books was not particularly cool within the circles I lived and played in.
*(It’s really a toss between this series and “The Secret Seven”, also by Blyton)
2. Almost all of James Hardley Chase books (Pulp Fiction)
No one and I mean NO ONE, Mickey Spillane and later one of my literary heroes, James Ellroy, spun a crime yarn narrative quite like Hardley Chase. His titles were also fantastically fictional, come to think of it: “No Orchids for Miss Blandish”, “You Never Know with Women”, “Lady, Here’s Your Wreath”, “The Dead Stay Dumb”, “You Only Live Once”, “Twice is the Only Way to Live”, “Lay her among the Lillies” and so on.
I suspect I might have blended in some of James Bond’s 007 flicks titles in there…somewhat those two crime and hot women genre cultural signifiers of a that now way-be-gone era1940s—1994, occupies the same space in my being, with Hardley Chase winning the race by a whisker.
Although I am supposed to be ashamed of this and quote some revolutionary text as my root-inspiration as a writer (as is the cool fashion with all these pretentious twerps!), you’d be disappointed to know I’m proud that both James Hardley Chase and the comic books are the single most important activators and nurturers of what I eventually became: a story teller.
3.“I Write What I Like” by Steve Biko (Collected Essays/Philosophy)
Written with an aching soulful clarity, deeply felt, almost religious persuasion, and offering some of the deepest philosophical and everyday life arguments for the radical restoration of the Black Man/Woman’s pride, Steve Biko taught me to be proud and don’t take bullshit from anyone including fellow black folks.
I read it at the age of 15, again in the mid 1980s, and have re-read it over 20 times, since. Words can’t explain what that book did to me.
4.“Two Thousand Seasons” by Ayi Kwei Armah (Fiction)
Almost a magic-realism tale of African pride, healing, slavery and how Africans fought back. The book is written in a surrealist, almost avant-garde manner. Armah is a master, point blank. I have been trying to enlist as one of Armah’s life literary and philosophy students at his Dakar (Senegal’s) seaside camp. This is what I call a blues-surrealist novel.
5. “Notes of Native Son” by James Baldwin (Creative Non-Fiction: Criticism)
You see, lists of whatever nature are really bullshit concepts: “100 Albums to Listen to Before You Die”, “Ten Best Diets for People for People In Hot Climates” “Ten all time Sexiest Women” and so forth.
This one is no different. Same intellectual manure as others: Which serious reader can come up with just five books, or any real music digger can come up with five albums that changed his/her life? D’oh ! “Notes of a Native Son” opened me up to James Baldwin’s work, faith, spirit, ideological configuration, experiences, wishes, dreams, and more of his numerous books in ways I can’t express.
Granted it’s not his best book, although it has some of his best performances as well. I’m a grandson of a preacher man, a reverend precisely. Hear me when I say to read this book is to appreciate the voice behind such preacherly cadences, and lyricism of masterpiece sermons as “The Fire Next Time”, “Blues for Mister Charley” and so on.
Although the Baldwin book that affected the writer in me in transformative ways is his race/sexuality (what others refer to as Baldwin’s “gay opus”) “Giovanni’s Room”, to read “Notes..” was to engage in a process of self-affirmation.
But also it is to blame for what later became my so-called notoriety (when I was much younger) days a cultural critic. His take on the film “Carmen” especially on how Hollywood used and abused the black actress Dorothy Dandrige, is one of the most game-changing works of film criticism I have ever read. Some people are comfortable with just putting Baldwin in their tiny boxes: “Blues Writer”, “Angry Black Man”, “Most articulate Angry Black Man Ever”, “Homosexual Scribe”, “Civil Rights Essayist” and so on. That may be so on some (narrow) levels, alright. But all these labels just don’t do justice on the man’s vast, inexhaustible, talents and spirits. I loved him in his entire being.
If pulp-crime writing planted the writer’s seed in my formative years, Baldwin birthed me as both a storyteller and a critic. The two disciplines “story telling” and “the art of criticism” are quite pertinent to me: As a writer and a human being. They both define me as a writer and as friend, lover, dad, son, colleague, voter, thinker, traveler and so on.
Separately pursued they allow me to experience life in its various potential and limitation. They also help me open up to all kinds of possibilities and experiment with all kinds of literary genres in the process of storytelling: stage musical narratives and characterization, travel writing, journalism profiling technique, cinematic dialogue, street corner fragmentary conversations, comic books colours, writing for animation and so on.
That’s the storytelling brew.
Sometime I employ all these in one piece of work, sometimes mix and match pieces and fragments of each. Woven artfully, the two (story telling and criticism), both have shaped and redirected me from straight journalism into a parallel career as an essayist. That, of course is in addition to my bills paying gigs as a journalist, and sometime, critic. Blame Jimmy for that.
Author Bongani Madondo is, among other things, a journalist, essayist, stage musical writer, curator and reader based in Johannesburg. His books include ‘I’m Not Your Weekend Special: The Art, Life+Style &Politics of Brenda Fassie’ (Picador Africa), and ‘Sigh the Beloved Country’ (Jonathan Ball) which drops this winter. He can’t get over Adele, especially now that all of you are so over her. No kidding.