Masande Ntshanga’s existential experimentation

The author speaks about his third book, Native Life in the Third Millennium, establishing a pop-up publishing platform and daring to be fully human.

Masande Ntshanga first dreamed of becoming a scientist. Before he would complete his master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Cape Town, he had enrolled for a BSc in computer science, planning to work in the field of artificial intelligence. Ntshanga has since become an internationally published author who has received a Betty Trask and the inaugural PEN International New Voices awards and been shortlisted for the Caine Prize. Yet the landscape, concerns and explorations in his novels reveal that he has never left science and technology behind. 

This year, Ntshanga also established Model See Media, or MDL SEE, calling it a “public sphere intervention and the world’s first pop-up publisher of experimental literature, art and code”. According to its website, it “operates both as a funding platform, and a mechanism to safeguard experimental literature against market forces”. 

As part of its launch, MDL SEE has published Ntshanga’s debut poetry and short story collection, Native Life in the Third Millennium, his third book after the acclaimed novels The Reactive (2014) and Triangulum (2019). With 100 numbered and signed copies of Native Life in the Third Millennium released, the book sold out in two days. The proceeds will go to organisations advocating for racial justice and environmental conservation. 

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The collection contains three movements, as Ntshanga elegantly shifts between the protagonist as poet, philosopher and programmer, each mode grappling with its own experiences of systemic oppression within its contexts.

In his work across poetry, short stories and novels, Ntshanga assembles compelling chronotopes – a literary term for how an author configures time and space in their work. From Sea Point apartments and the former Ciskei homeland to a gaming convention in Johannesburg, each setting is eerily familiar and simultaneously foreign. This is because of the specific way that Ntshanga shifts back and forth between the present and the past, working with time in elastic ways. 

Ntshanga conjures the past as artfully as he visions the future, reflecting what historian Hayden White calls “the new consciousness of history emerging in our time”. Each book whirrs, resonant with imagination and information, seamlessly connecting and conducting both politics and poetics in a closed circuit of current affairs, historical surrealism and science fiction.

It was fitting, then, that our conversation was mediated by a machine: a live text-exchange on Google Docs.

Undated: Masande Ntshanga’s debut poetry and short story collection, Native Life in the Third Millennium, forms part of the launch of the author’s pop-up publisher, MDL SEE. (Image supplied by Masande Ntshanga)

The machinery of poems

“A poem is a small (or large) machine made of words” – William Carlos Williams 

According to poet and physician William Carlos Williams, there is nothing sentimental about either a machine or a poem as “there can be no part, as in any other machine, that is redundant”. Ntshanga’s poems demonstrate this logic, pruned as they are to a tight economy that calls as much attention to well-crafted lines as to jarring idea compositions that jump and jolt against each other, producing evocative images. 

Compared to the short stories in Native Life in the Third Millennium, the poetry is extremely concentrated, free from the necessary demands of prose, which often has to distill the drama of metaphor to move the plot along. The simplicity of lines like “it’s 10 a.m. and full of office dread. processed rice cakes and cottage cheese” easily conjure the dullness of corporate culture, while other lines are more loaded:

i need rent and a healthcare plan for a low-income beginner household and to give back to the woman who raised me.
i need to charm the dissident children of boston brahmins.
i need to write her a book that’ll be taught at harvard. 

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The Boston Brahmins, or Boston elite, are members of Boston’s traditional old upper class, often associated with Harvard University, where Ntshanga’s two novels have been assigned as part of a course on contemporary African writing. When asked if there is any theory he would use if he were teaching that course (he teaches part-time at the university currently known as Rhodes), Ntshanga replies that he has spent a considerable amount of time learning how not to answer that question. He says this is because, “for years, I’d been steeped in the richness of literary theory – the practice of dissecting texts – and what felt to me then like the opposite of writing, which was about bringing things together, and was more intuitive than analytical”. 

He continues: “In the end, the former feeds into the latter, but a good amount of distance is required before theory can work its way into one’s writing intuitively. That distance, for me, comes in the form of reading theory, but never reading my own work through it. In terms of theoretical concepts, I’m independently interested – that would be decoloniality and Africana philosophy of existence.”

Feminist poet and critic Adrienne Rich describes poetry as “an exchange of electrical currents”. This current travels through language “from the nervous system of the poet … to the nervous system of the one who listens, who reads”. Within this exchange, the reader is an “active participant without whom the poem is never finished”. And of all the currents travelling through Ntshanga’s poems, the philosophical is most luminous.

A philosophy of time 

“Hence we are all handymen: each with his little machines.” – Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in Anti-Oedipus

In a long-term collaboration that sounds more folk-rock band than critical thinking duo, philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Felix Guattari wrote a number of works together, exploring definitions of and distinctions between the human and the machine. They viewed the unconscious as a machine: a desire-producing factory, plugged into all sorts of other social machines, like the “language-machine”, the “school-machine”, or the “capital-producing workplace-machine”. Desire, here, is not necessarily sexual but more like an overriding impulse, a will to connect. They later replaced the term “desiring-machine” with “assemblage”.

Ntshanga’s assemblage is a well-oiled one. Inside it, two things stand out. The first flagship feature is how time as non-linear comes through strongly, in different ways, in each of his books. He brings to life the idea of a “broad present”, caught in a kind of limbo, or a “limbotopia” where the past, present and future are all simultaneously caught in a never-ending story of now. 

Ntshanga explains that despite the time lapses between their publication, his three books “are in communication with each other” in the same way that the three distinct characters in Native Life in the Third Millennium are “composed as a single story”. In his latest work, the three modes of storytelling – poetry, philosophy and programming – are woven together, refracting brightly as “different consciousnesses responding to the same environment, or they could be a single consciousness refracted through different lives”, he says in our interview.  

Programming and publishing

The second standout feature of Ntshanga’s style is the way he thinks of space as something to simultaneously critique and make safer. The establishment of MDL SEE illustrates this. It exists as “a device of 2020”, a product of and response to this year, the coronavirus pandemic and the limitations of the publishing industry and its prohibitive market estimates of literary value. 

“Little is done for the sake of developing our literature itself, and because of our history – conquest, Bantu education, the literacy crisis, and the alienation of the Black avant-garde – development is what our literature needs,” says Ntshanga. “In a country afflicted with vast racialised poverty, with the majority of the population toiling from the bottom of the structure, the notion of the market and its desires is inherently exclusionary, favouring the spending patterns of a minority on top of the pyramid. This dismantles the idea of literature as a communal benefit and also stunts its growth.”

As a non-profit publisher, MDL SEE’s proceeds go towards actions, movements or communities in which collaborators are invested. It does not accept submissions but collaborates instead. “MDL SEE sees the problem of money vis-à-vis writers and artists in general as an opportunity for sharing as well as for creative and communal solutions. In this way, it’s twofold. Money is first raised for the project [in service of the movement]. Then it’s filtered to the movement through experimental writing which aims to grow our literature,” Ntshanga explains. 

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In this sense, the idea of “experimental” is programmed into MDL SEE in ways that go beyond simply editorial or aesthetic choices and instead challenges what it means to be. 

“It’s also from the idea that for a lot of us, South African identity itself – at least as far as having the room to exist and be [is concerned] – is an experimental undertaking. It’s hypothetical, and even dangerous, since the society maligns certain bodies and the majority of the country’s population only gained citizenship in the late 20th century. The experiment is to dare to be fully human, where it once wasn’t allowed, to be a previously untested idea, and as far as literature goes, tapping into this often means having to neglect the logic of ‘the market’,” says Ntshanga.

Existential experimentation

“Tinkering with the way we construct and understand the world, an occasion to ‘hack’, to reroute” – Ntshanga, via a live text-exchange on Google Docs

The space created by MDL SEE is a factory for existential experimentation. The name comes from “model C”, evoking the apartheid school system and its legacies for a generation reckoning with what it meant to have to integrate into an oppressive system for survival. Ntshanga reveals that “during childhood, when applied as slang, ‘model C’ was both a term of derision for a generation whose assimilation was leeching them of what were regarded as their black sensibilities, but at the same time, it could also be used to assign reverence, owing to its proximity to whiteness and centralised power”.

Ntshanga’s kaleidoscopic aim “to offer a truthful rendition of native life in the third millennium” feels in kinship with Kimberly Drew and Jenna Worthham’s recently published book, Black Futures, which attempts to answer the question of what it means to be Black and alive right now. For Ntshanga, it might mean “figuring out who we are, or experimenting with who we are”.

Playing with centralised power by programming space and time at will, weaving together poetry, philosophy and prose, Ntshanga’s work reverberates with technical confidence. It comes through in how he describes his vision for MDL SEE, which also applies as a description of his ‘assemblage’ as a whole: “agentic, communal, loving and committed to change.”

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