"After" may be the most important word in South African writer Kopano Matlwa's novel Spilt Milk. The book focuses on the "Born Free" generation — those who came of age in the post-apartheid era, which began 18 years ago. As the first passage of the book highlights, this generation's story begins "After all the excitement, after the jubilation, after the celebrations..."
A Dream Or A Lie?
In a conversation with Tell Me More host Michel Martin, Matlwa she will never forget the euphoria of that historic moment. "I was 9 or 10 years old in 1994 when the new democratic government was elected and Mandela was president, and it was such an exciting time, and there were so [many] prospects. We were the 'Rainbow Nation,' and kind of the 'golden children' of Africa." She remembers her parents telling her that her life would be so different from their own. But soon, Matlwa and other South Africans started to feel "deceit and greed and corruption" creeping into society, and she began to wonder "whether the dream was a lie."
It was this disappointment that led her to write Spilt Milk. The novel is centered on Mohumagadi, the successful black principal of her own "School of Excellence," and her relationships with her students and with a white priest who has fallen on hard times.
Matlwa says these characters and relationships symbolize the political and personal disappointments she and other South Africans endure. "It does represent the love lost between white and black South Africa, and the promises that we all made to each other in 1994 that none of us kept.
"We would never admit to each other that we actually need each other," she says, "that we can't build this country without each other."
A Writer And A Healer
In addition to her work as a writer, Matlwa is a physician. She regularly sees South Africa's inequalities in the country's hospitals. "It's shocking the extent of poverty in a very wealthy country ... and we can't keep using the excuse of being a young democracy for very much longer." She also acknowledges that the current trouble in the country's platinum and gold mines "demonstrates how ... people are so dissatisfied, let down and disappointed. A lot of promises were made post-apartheid, and perhaps they were unrealistic, but they were made, and people are now fed up."
Matlwa points out that medicine has always been her first love. Writing "was really just a hobby, and I am really grateful to God that it turned out to be more than that." She borrows the words of another doctor who was also a famous writer to explain her twin careers. "Anton Chekhov said it best: 'Medicine is his wife and writing his mistress.' I don't think I'll ever choose between the two," she explains.
Apartheid may have ended, but Matlwa is acutely aware that political inequality has only given way to economic inequality in contemporary South Africa. "What's made us dig deep and ask ourselves hard questions is that this inequality has slightly worsened post-apartheid, and it's always been easy to be the victim of apartheid, to blame everything on apartheid, but now we have to ask ourselves hard questions on what we are doing as a country."
Honesty is important to Matlwa, as she does not feel that there is enough of it in her life or in her country. "The conversations I'd have in a room with black friends would change if a white person walked into the room. ... We live apart, we live around each other, and we've learnt to be tolerant. We've learnt words we're no longer allowed to use. ... We've got affirmative action in place, but ... I think there's a lot of anger in the country," she says.
"There's a lot of hurt and disappointment, and I think we just need to start talking."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, as the summer comes to an end, so too does our summer reading series. We've been taking a look at fiction from countries that are on the rise on the global stage, the so-called BRICS nations - Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. We hear so much about the political and economic strategies driving those countries, we thought it would be good to hear what fiction writers in those countries had to say.
Today, for our final chapter, we go to South Africa, which has been in the news lately after 34 platinum miners who were striking for better pay and working conditions were shot dead by authorities a couple of weeks ago. The episode was shockingly reminiscent of the kinds of violent protests and response that marked the fight against white minority rule under apartheid, only now the targets are institutions led - or at least including - black South Africans.
The wave of protest continues. On Monday, rubber bullets were fired to disperse miners at a gold mine. Those are exactly the kinds of tensions very much a part of life for South Africans that are captured in the novel "Spilt Milk." It's a book focusing on the so-called Born Free generation, those who came of age in the years after the country's first all-race elections 18 years ago.
Kopano Matlwa is the author and she's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
KOPANO MATLWA: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: The theme of what happened after the end of apartheid really is at the heart of "Spilt Milk," and it starts with some very poetic - it's almost like a prose poem, if I can kind of describe it that way. Do you have the book in front of you and could you just read one or two of the sentences?
MATLWA: After all the excitement, after the jubilation, after the celebrations, after they had finished with the laughing, the sweet tears of joy, after they had sobbed in pure gladness, after they had yelped in ecstasy, after they'd sniveled at the beauty of it all, after they had lit candles in reverence of the time, after they had knelt down on their knees and kissed the ground, after they had exclaimed to all and sundry the victory they had won, after they had howled at the mastery of their success, after they had thrown their fists into the air, after they had roared with triumph and screeched at the supremacy, after they had torn down old street signs, after they had paraded into the streets and sung those songs that could only be sung by those who had suffered before, after they had stood in front of the television flicking between the two channels hoping to catch it again, after they had held hands and flung them into the air, after they had all stood in lines changing back from names that rolled out the nose easily to those that slickly use the tongue, after they'd embraced complete strangers.
MARTIN: And it goes on to some other powerful images about - after the purchasing of German cars, filling up the cabinet, changing the neighborhood, and the neighbors buying new wardrobes. So a lot going on there. What started you on this particular story?
MATLWA: I guess because, I mean I was, I think, 10 years old in '94 when, you know, the new democratic government was elected and Mandela was president, and it was such an exciting time and there was so much prospect and, you know, we were the Rainbow Nation and kind of the golden children of Africa. And I remember my parents just being like, you know, this is new. This is a new time. Your lives are going to be so much different.
And then we kind of waited and there was lots of money and, you know, lots of BMs and Mercedes on the streets, but as I described in the book, you kind of see, like, sort of deceit and greed and corruption kind of creeping into homes and offices, and you wondered whether the dream was a lie.
So I think that was where I was at when I was kind of - you know, the prospect of this new South Africa, and all this had happened and we were so excited, but then sort of some sleazy kind of ugly stuff started to creep up.
MARTIN: As we are describing this, though, we are taking kind of a very bird's eye view of it and we're talking about all these massive social changes, but I think that the genius of the book and I think what many people will respond to is that it focuses on a few people and their personal relationships.
At the center of the book is Mohumagadi, who is the principal of a school that she has founded called the School of Excellence, but at the center of it is a relationship, a personal - a very intimate relationship that she had with a white priest who has fallen on some hard times, and four precocious, brilliant students who are at her school.
When you were conceiving of the book, what was front and center in your mind? Was it their personal relationship, which I think was also a bold choice, by the way, or was it who they represent?
MATLWA: I think it was different elements. I mean it was on a very - this kind of the very personal day-to-day disappointments that one sometimes feels about our own relations in South Africa, between white and black South Africa, between black and black South Africa, between our present and our past. And then there's also kind of on a national level, and I think I knew, when I began writing the book, that the thing about South Africa is that we have lots of kind of broken relationships, but yet we realize that we need each other.
And I think Mohumagadi and Father Bill were the same, that they have this - even though it's a painful history, it's a history that they share and only the two of them know about. And I knew from the start that it had to be an intimate relationship - that that kind of hurt can only be experienced from someone who you care about. Also, it does represent kind of the love lost between white and black South African; promises made that we all made to each other in '94 that none of us kept.
MARTIN: And the students are fascinating too because they say very blunt things to each other and to the adults about the conditions of their lives. Could you talk to me a little bit about that?
MATLWA: So if I remember, I think was in varsity when I started writing "Spit Milk" and kind of - it's another element of kind of my sort of dilemmas, and the things that I was grappling with personally while writing the book, was growing up in a country with such a painful past. And the book asks is it just all spit milk? And that's, I mean, I know if I were to say to my parent's generation they would be really upset with the idea that how do you call years of sort of suffering and pain spilt milk, you know? And that's what Mohumagadi was saying, but at the same time how do we move forward if we don't just clean it up and forgive, and because we can't build a country on sort of these broken relationships.
And, yeah, so the book was kind of exploring it at the level of the children and how we do grow up and how we kind of inherit this anger that we don't even understand, which kind of makes it worse with these they kind of inherit. They have this hatred and this anger that doesn't even actually quite make sense. It's kind of based on stuff that they themselves have never experienced and don't even really understand.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're wrapping up our BRICSion summer reading series. That's where we dug into the fiction coming from the so-called BRICS nations with South African writer Kopano Matlwa.
When you wrote "Spilt Milk," South Africa had just turned sweet 16. It had just been 16 years since apartheid officially ended. And, you know, after this triumph over political inequality, there is now this whole question of economic inequality. The World Bank says that South Africa is now one of the most unequal countries in the world as far as wealth distribution is concerned. And as you and I are speaking, it's been a couple of weeks since this very traumatic event involving the South African miners who were striking in demand of better wages and working conditions who were fired upon by the authorities there. And as I understand, this has been a very traumatic event for the country.
And I wanted to ask whether this whole question of the inequality is something - is that something front and center in people's lives there? Is that something you talk about luck with your friends, for example?
MATLWA: No, it is. I mean, definitely and it's I think what's made kind of dig deep and ask ourselves hard questions is, you know, this inequality sort of has slightly worsened post-apartheid. And it's always been easy to be the victim, to be a victim of apartheid, to blame everything on apartheid. But now we're having to ask ourselves hard questions, and what are we doing as a country? Because I do think that South Africa in some aspects is a lie. I mean, we're kind of an upper middle income country and we've got great infrastructure and stuff, but yet only sort of a very small percentage of the population actually enjoy that. I'm in the health sort of profession and you see it all the time in the hospitals and it's shocking that, you know you, the extent of poverty in a very wealthy country - and that we can't keep calling ourselves a new South Africa for very - like we can't keep using the excuse of being a young democracy for very much longer. We need to actually start this sorting stuff out. And I think the shooting at the mines demonstrates how bad it is and how people are so dissatisfied and let down and disappointed. A lot of promises were made post-apartheid. And perhaps the promises were a little bit unrealistic but they were made and people are now fed up. People can't wait any longer.
MARTIN: And I did want to mention that you just alluded to it. I was going to bring it up later but I'll just bring it up now. You're not just a writer, you're also - not just - that would be enough - but you are also a doctor.
MARTIN: And, of course, we all want to know, how do you fit it all in? But I'm interested in how your career as a doctor influences the work as a writer of fiction. This is your second novel. I just want to mention to people, this is not your first; this is your second novel.
MATLWA: Yeah. I kind of want was younger I didn't really know you had to kind of choose one sort of career, so I never thought I had to. I kind of wanted to be many things growing up and medicine is something that I've always loved and always wanted to do. And this was really just a hobby and I'm really grateful to God that it turned out to be a little bit more than that. And I always wrote when I was younger and had lots of diaries and journals and read a lot, but I never planned on making a career out of it. I'm really grateful that it has worked out this way. Anton Chekhov sort of sums it best - he was a writer and a doctor as well - and he said, medicine is his wife and writing as his mistress. And I think that kind of sums it up really well. I don't think I'll ever choose between the two.
And in terms of how it - how - I mean I wouldn't say that there is any obvious connection except that I guess in medicine you speak to people and you listen to their stories and I think perhaps that might be the link, but they're just both two sort of different aspects of my life that I both really enjoy.
MARTIN: And I cannot bear to let - to - we have to keep something secret, you know, because the novel takes some very interesting turns and I don't want to spoil that for people. But it has an ending that - I'll just - how - I'll just put it this way. Feels very shocking and profound at the same time. And I did want to ask how people in South Africa are reacting to the novel. And are you getting the same reaction from people overseas? Is it the same or as a different overseas?
MATLWA: I must say I don't, I try not to follow too closely because then I don't fix how I write. I try to write without thinking that there's an audience because I read a little bit more honestly So I tried not to kind of dig too deep into how it's perceived.
MARTIN: I just did. It makes sense...
MATLWA: Yeah. I think it has been slightly. Slightly, it has.
MARTIN: Well, it makes sense. But before I let you go, I did want to ask, what would you want people to draw from this novel if you could steer them in any direction? Is there something you would want South Africans to draw from then novel? And is there something that you would want others to draw from the novel?
MATLWA: I guess I would like us to start speaking honestly in South Africa; I think we're not doing that. I mean, I think the conversations that I would have in a room of just black friends would change if a white sort of friend or person walked into the room; those things that we feel comfortable talking about that we wouldn't. And I think that's unhealthy. I think we don't have a sort of common identity or so. We live apart, we live around each other and we've learned to be tolerant. We've learned words that we're no longer allowed to use. We've changed street signs. We've got affirmative action in place. But there's a lot of - and like Father Bill in the book, there's a sense of either white apathy or a sense of not having a place in this new South Africa. And then there's also sense of resentments of the Born Free white South Africans who feel that they had nothing to do with this and why should they be punished and why should they be reminded? And we don't talk about that stuff. And it is painful and - but I think not talking about it, it bubbles up in other ways, like the xenophobic attacks we have and these, the violence that we have. And, you know, you get these sort of every once in a while you get news reports about this kind of like racist slurs that happened all of a sudden at a gym or somewhere random or in traffic. And I think there's a lot of anger in the country and it's - and we are - we have a very, we live in a very violent country. There's a lot of hurt and there's lots of disappointments and I think we just need to start talking. And I guess, yeah, that's what I look like, just for us to start having kind of really honest conversations because I don't think we can continue this way. I think the Rainbow Nation kind of dream is proving to be a little bit suspicious. So we need to kind of go back to the drawing board and kind of have some real hard conversations.
MARTIN: Kopano Matlwa is the author of the novel "Spilt Milk." She also is Dr. Matlwa - worth mentioning - and she was kind enough to join us from our home in Johannesburg.
Kopano Matlwa, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MATLWA: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.