The outsider figure in Lewis Nkosi's Mating birds and Underground People.
This thesis will examine the trope of the outsider figure in Lewis Nkosi's two novels, Mating Birds (1986) and Underground People (2002). Since both novels are set in South Africa and are informed by the political context of this country at particular junctures, the thesis will focus on the. effects of apartheid on the two black protagonists - central characters yet 'outsider figures' - in these novels. This thesis will argue that Lewis Nkosi's own position as an 'outsider figure' in South African letters plays an important function in his writing. In support of this point, I will therefore also refer to his non fictional books, Home and Exile and Other Selections (1965) and Tasks and Masks: themes and styles of African Literature (1981). These books are particularly important because they document Nkosi's comments on South African literature and his position as the 'outsider' acerbic critic. Nkosi can be seen as an outsider figure being a young, black South African living in an apartheid South Africa, and also, later, as a writer in exile. I have chosen Mating Birds and Underground People to illustrate my argument because they are not simply 'protest' novels, (in the sense Nkosi argued in Home and Exile and Tasks and Masks that so much black South African literature of a certain era was), but rather they examine the complex effects of exclusion, with regard to race and politics, on the individual. As the 'outsider' figure found full expression in French existentialist writing, I will also look at constructions of the outsider figure from an existentialist perspective. In his preface to the 2002 edition of Mating Birds, Nkosi reveals that the novel was to a large extent influenced by Albert Camus' The Outsider (1942). In writing The Outsider, Camus explores questions raised by the philosophy of existentialism. Similarly, Nkosi looks at black existence in a hostile apartheid environment, the absurdity of Sibiya's predicament and how he came to be there. He also explores the harshness of the physical environment which is a literal representation of Sibiya's anguish. Postcolonial analysis of 'othering', a logical extension of existentialism's 'outsider' figure will be used to support my argument. Mating Birds (1986), among other accolades, won the prestigious Macmillan International Pen Prize. Set between the 1950's and 1960's, it explores the divisions and prejudices that were experienced between white and black in a country steeped in racism and division. It deals primarily with the obsession an educated, young, black man, Ndi Sibiya, has for a white woman, Veronica Slater. Their illicit sexual relationship results in Sibiya being tried and convicted, by a white court, for rape. Underground People (2002), Nkosi's second novel, set in the late 1980's and early 1990's, takes the reader into the world of politics and underground resistance during the apartheid regime in South Africa. It narrates the adventures of Cornelius Molapo, an awkward member of the "National Liberation Movement", the fictional name of the African National Congress. Chapter One of this mini-dissertation will focus on a definition and exploration of the outsider figure in selected literary and theoretical works. Chapter Two will focus on the life and works of Lewis Nkosi in an effort to link the trope of the outsider figure to Nkosi's own life experience. His books, Tasks and Masks and Home and Exile, both collections of essays, help the reader to develop a picture of Nkosi, not only as a writer but also as a literary critic whose writing developed while in exile. Chapter Three and Four will provide a literary analysis of Mating Birds and Underground People, respectively. The analysis will deal with the outsider figure as a prominent feature of both these novels. Post-colonial analyses such as forwarded by Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha will be used to advance the thesis. The conclusion (Chapter Five) will refer briefly to Nkosi's current writing projects and situate them in the post-apartheid South African context. An assessment of the on-going potential for the 'outsider' figure in Nkosi's contemporary work will be made.