Lewis Nkosi

Lewis Nkosi was born in South Africa in 1936. Awarded a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 1961, he was given a one-way ‘exit permit’ by the apartheid government. His first novel, Mating Birds, came out in 1986. It won a Macmillan/PEN award and was banned in South Africa. He taught at the University of Wyoming, the University of California-Irvine, and universities in Zambia and Warsaw. He died in September 2010.

Between the end of World War One and the Great Depression there occurred in Harlem such a flowering of music, dance, theatre and painting as to change white American perceptions of African American artistic expression. In a little over a decade, more books by black Americans appeared in print than had been published in the entire history of black American writing. In December 1923, Opportunity, the mouthpiece of the National Urban League, declared in its editorial: ‘There are new voices speaking from the depths and fullness of the Negro’s life, and they are harbingers of the new period into which Negroes appear to be emerging.’ Opportunity’s editor was Charles Johnson, a key figure in the New Negro movement, who thirty years later recalled the Harlem Renaissance as ‘that sudden and altogether phenomenal outburst of emotional expression, unmatched by any comparable period in American or Negro American history.’‘

After thirty years of exile I returned to South Africa in 1991 to participate in a literary conference in Johannesburg. I took the opportunity to revisit the Natal village where I went to school. It is part of what is called the Valley of a Thousand Hills. I was astonished by the extent of the overpopulation and land hunger. Some households were scratching a miserable living on plots of ground the...

At the Crossroads Hour: Chinua Achebe

Lewis Nkosi, 12 November 1998

There are times when the act of writing becomes a burden, a fate, even a retribution for the need to be recognised or honoured; when what at first was the joy of creation and self-realisation turns into an affliction; when, in Africa especially, the vocation of writing takes its revenge on those who have tasted the thrill of representing the drama of a vast, unwieldy and refractory continent – a drama of becoming. Chinua Achebe has not escaped this penance. Reading through millions of words of public statements, of reviews and interviews, of adulation and accusation, one is struck by the high price he has paid for being Africa’s greatest indigenous novelist.’

Turns of the Screw

Hugh Barnes, 7 August 1986

The first novels of Lewis Nkosi and Catharine Arnold raise issues that have been in the news of late: racist oppression in South Africa and the ugly behaviour of the smart set at England’s...

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