Three battered Manta Ray kites billowed against a turbulent grey sky. A monsoon was threatening to break over Namanga Mori and the air was juicy with ionic interference. Three men in black polo necks and sunglasses smoked bananadine roll-ups on the crepuscular rooftops of the Nebula Shell Sea Hotel. They had the kites rigged up to the little fingers of their left hands, reciting incantations to each other in dead languages while they tangled up the sky. The corpse of a zebra had been strung up on the television aerials some weeks before but the parrots had pecked it to pieces. Now its guts hung like laundry, fluttering down the bricks of the old hotel, gathering flies, moths and inexplicably large beetles of the type the natives ground down for medicine. The hotel itself was a benchmark relic of the downtown waterfront district. It was located in the septic end of the city, where grimy warrens of microwave tenements cascaded drearily down to a gutted boardwalk. The streetlights gleamed like vulture-stripped ribs while neon soaked in hazy pockets along the strip. Fast Food clotted up the air vents. Rotting piers lay like skeletal remains in the hot heaving sea. Jungle vagrants stalked these labyrinthine piers relentlessly, with spears and spiritual disorders, sometimes moving in packs like starving hyenas…. Above the portico of the hotel was a beaten, retro-chic sign from another era. It read SHELL SEA HOTEL in carved stone. Above this legend, formed out of lurid-green neon tubing was the word NEBULA….
—Taty Went West
Nikhil Singh is African. That's one of his previous bands, The Wild Eyes. Nikhil is also a key figure in the Witch House scene, reported in Rolling Stone.
His novel Taty Went West is an African novel, but again, not what you might expect. It's not clear that it's set in Africa. It's not clear that there is a single black character in it—except a panther who is also a healer. What is clear that the author morphs between Lewis Carroll and William S. Burroughs, with a heavy undertow of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
It's the novel that John Lennon or Marilyn Manson should have written, back when anyone cared. The character names sound like something from a Bob Dylan song from Highway 61.
The novel was published last autumn by the redoubtable Kwani? in Nairobi. They have done a luxurious job, including roughly forty-five of the author's full page illustrations. The dedication is to William S. Burroughs, so I was hoping to explore how Nikhil is part of the Nairobi experimental/beatnik scene.
Except that he's not. He visited Nairobi for the first time in 2015 for the launch.
Nikhil does share the typical African facility to work across forms—he's a musician in several different genres from electronic pop to jazz-rock, an illustrator, a filmmaker, and, though this is his first publication, someone who has been writing fiction in one form or another since age nine.
Taty Went West does seem to lack any of the content we expect from an African writer. Mehul Gohil (we met him in Part One: Nairobi) wrote this in a comment in the African Fantasy Reading Group on Facebook. "Who says an African writer has to write about Africa? Why do people want to box us in? We will write what we want to write and nobody has the right to tell us what our subjects should be."
Despite a tendency to overwrite (perhaps in the pulp tradition?) this first novelist has a real talent for describing things, punching sights, sounds, or smells into your imagination:
Miss Muppet finished her cigarette in silence. When she was done she tossed it into the wind.
Taty looked up.
"Close your eyes."
Taty did as she was bid and Miss Muppet raised the hand she was using to hold the gulls. She swung her bloody fist into Taty's face, knocking her unconscious. Up on the cliff a knocking began against the inside of the car's trunk. It was a frantic hammering, the sound of something wanting to be let out.
I haven't seen someone changing the point of view by having one character punch out the other. Miss Muppet has kidnapped Taty and will traffic her to a brothel. She walks up the cliff and keys in a code to open the rear of the car.
Hydraulics clanked as pressure seals were released. A steam of icy haze fizzed out into the turgid sea wind, dispelling quickly in the heat. Kinky Hawaiian music wafted out from the interior.
Inside, a pair of baby-like creatures sit in candy-striped deck chairs.
Two rococo cupids were sprawled across the dirty canvas of the chairs, lacerated by IVs and nasal tubes. Various cumbersome life-support machines blinked and beeped all around them. A pair of colourful cocktails balanced precariously on the ringed-glass surface of the coffee table. One of the bald babies leered, picking at its nose with a clumsy finger. It was evidently the idiot of the two. The other cupid smiled lasciviously behind enormous electronic goggles, thoughtfully fondling maraschino cherries, paper umbrellas and pineapple slices.
The two don't feature in the plot, but that Hawaiian music convinces. Your usual South African suburban couple transformed by nightmare?
Nikhil is a key figure in the musical genre called Drag, spelled "Dr4g"—I guess for clarity in Google searches. Dr4g opens up music for inspection by slowing it to a crawl. Click here to listen to Nikhil's Dr4g remix of a Toni Braxton track.
Taty Went West could be thought of as a Dr4g novel. Science fiction prose is often slower and more descriptive than prose in literary fiction—so much of the pleasure of reading SFF is in seeing, hearing, feeling this new world. Sometimes Taty Went West stops for a full page to look and listen. The descriptions have an authority that convinces you of the reality of the fantasy elements while showcasing their strangeness. A new drug, actually an engineered interdimensional parasite, spreads by sex and turns people into aliens. Numbers Nun and Taty have taken Cherry Cola to Daddy Bast's surgery ship to be cured.
The nurses were all clad in ritualistic dinosaur-leather aprons and strap-swatches, their faces obscured by suffocating masks from which gurgling tubes overflowed. Their disturbing appearance seemed at odds with their role as nurses. Tanks on their backs fed gas and fluid to their faces via pipes while they limped painfully through the darkness on poised metal foot-braces. These rickety, spring-loaded contraptions, which kept the nurses perpetually en pointe, mimicked the legs of large cassowary-like river birds, lending each a sinister swagger.
Daddy Bast is an intelligent panther who smells disease and works with fangs and claws.
Daddy Bast uncorked the bottle, releasing a cloud of noxious green fumes. He took a mouthful, gargled deeply and then spewed it over Cherry Cola's exposed back… the cat man seemed to undergo some form of suppressed fit, his large yellow eyeballs rolling back to show their intricately veined undersides. His heavy paws sank down onto the skin above the tattoo…He began to probe around her insides, hissing and spitting to himself like an old radio.
The languid pace suits the heroine. Taty has powerful reasons for fleeing to the Outzone. She has killed her brother. But that sense of urgency evaporates once she is in the Zone. Taty is also escaping her schizophrenic, alcoholic mother who keeps seeing white rabbits.
Taty is Alice's daughter in many ways. Like Alice, once in Wonderland Taty seems to want nothing at all, is at first unfazed by anything that happens either fantastical or terrifying. But Alice is a proper Victorian Miss while Taty wants to languish by the pool in a bikini, smoke dope, listen to music, and take things in her stride—things like riot, murder, new sexual perversions, and being the Messiah. These things come to Taty—they drive the plot, Taty does not.
When first kidnapped asleep in the car with Miss Muppet, she hears herself say "Mother." She says it again much later about Numbers Nun, a reprogrammed religious robot that is blown apart by the villains. The Nun's phone communications continue to work. So through most of the book, she counsels Taty, despite lying in fragments at the bottom of the sea. Midway in the book, Taty can no longer get a signal.
'Come in, Number Nun…'
She eventually gave up and fell asleep. She woke up in the night as she often did, holding the communications device to her breast and speaking in her sleep.
My own reading is that deep down, Taty is searching for another family. But then there are people who tell you Alice is about a girl who wants to get into a garden.
Taty accepts becoming a new kind of prostitute, one that panders to the innermost being. The first half of the novel is about a gang war. Taty works for Alphonse Guava, a pointy-eared imp (rhymes with pimp) from another dimension. His rival Mister Sister had introduced the new drug, unaware that it has been engineered by Dr Dali to bring the world to an end. The disease brings almost unbearable pleasure but gradually turns you into an alien. Unless you eat a lot of carrots.
The second half of the novel is something of a quest story in which Taty is enrolled to help fight the sickness. Over 400 pages, Taty semi-saves the world, almost inadvertently.
The novel is at heart more African than is at first apparent.
Nikhil: "South Africa is so old you are nothing compared to it. In Europe it feels like you have a comfortable way into the past. But Table Mountain is six times older than the Himalayas. There is a sense that there could be dinosaurs in the woods. The feeling in Cape Town is that it is paradise, but it's a paradise that has rejected you. There is a feeling of trespass. The civilized world shies away from danger. But South Africans are attracted to offensive things, including apartheid, xenophobia. Racism is endemic.
"The town I grew up in was Pietermaritzburg. There were no Afrikaans people there. It was so much like London, even the climate in winter, and I was reading English books like Dracula. I got confused between English and SA culture. In some parts of South Africa they hate the English.
"Zululand is a model for the Outzone. The town of Namanga Mori is based on Durban, which is full of art deco architecture. It has the strongest strain of marijuana in the world. It doesn't feel like Africa, but is this weird Jurassic town. It feels like the woods are full of dinosaurs. The mountains nearby, the foothills of the Drakensberg cast long shadows so that twilight lasts for an hour and a half. The place is full of predators—sharks, black mambas, and tokoloshes.
"In high school I wanted to make a short movie about hitchhiking from the interior to the coast. I took a trip to help write the film. All along the highway the forest encroached. The land gave me the vision and brought me back to write about it."
From about the age of two, Nikhil moved back and forth between London and South Africa—from such a young age that the pilots even awarded him with a booklet for being the youngest person to ever travel on their plane. Fresh inspiration for Taty Went West came after he returned to South Africa from London in 2009.
"I came back to the atmosphere I'd felt in school as a teenager. All my old notes for the movie were there. First I tried to write it as a screenplay, then as a trilogy, but I had a kind of war against self-indulgence and I boiled everything down to a single book.
"I was much influenced by Credo Mutwa. He is a Zulu shaman or sangoma, and an artist. He made massive metal sculptures but he also wrote books about mythology that read like Star Wars. They have praying mantis gods. There was an amazing psychedelic element to his writing. I could recognize the land in it.
"I met him when he was in exile and had a curse on him from other sangomas. It's a varied culture but there is also a secrecy to it and they don't reveal things to outsiders. He was a huge influence on me."
Nikhil's own biography is riveting.
"My mom lives on an island in Sweden and my Dad killed himself in London. My grandfather on my Dad's side was a diamond smuggler in Shanghai in the forties—true!—while my Mom's Grandfather was a yogi, who would often bury himself for a week, hang himself, or claim to levitate. My Mom often told me she saw UFOs and I wholeheartedly believe that I AM an alien—or at least some kind of hybridisation of one.
"As a teenager I tried to turn myself into a vampire. I ate nothing but human blood for a week. I had very understanding friends. I got sick and hungry and stopped being a vampire. I became a vegan. Which has similarities when you thing about it. With raw vegan cuisine, you are trying to eat things that are still alive.
"In Durban my dad ran clubs on the beach, a jazz club and a synth club that did things like Duran Duran cover versions. From age nine I'd be forced to sit through the soundchecks and gigs. So when I was in a band I really hated soundchecks and post-gig parties. So I never felt like I was getting away from anything by being in a band.
"I am not religious and never have been, but I really got into music because of the church, and in school they had an amazing chapel with a huge organ and I joined the choir. I got into contemporary music as a teenager, always into some weird look like Doctor Who."
I interviewed Nikhil at the Africa Writes festival in London in July 2016. Africa Writes is very respectable. Some visitors wear traditional dress but it is in its own way as conservative as any literary festival.
For his panel on genre with Leye Adenle, Nikhil wore a faux-leather onesie that dipped low to reveal his nipples with slashes across the legs and stomach and binding leather laces at strategic points. The shawl over his shoulders hung to his knees and looked rather like dreadlocks. The effect was like a more smoothly made-up, better-looking, sweet-natured, and erudite Alice Cooper.
During the interview he confirmed that part of his witchboy look is derived from the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. This triggered a long conversation about Gothic elements in the Oz films. This is a shared enthusiasm.
He speaks about walking around late at night in Durban in high heels: "After all the xenophobia hit South Africa, it got weird. I started getting thrown out of clubs. It's dangerous for me but I don't give a fuck."
Would he describe himself as trans?
"No. I refuse all labels. I will do what I want. They try to box me as a trans when I wear a miniskirt and heels. I would drag up as a girl with my girlfriends and I have girl memories cause I was a girl. What I love about Burroughs is that he's not making any statements. Neither am I. I like whatever I like."
There is a lot of prostitution and rape in the book. Does he fear that his work will be read as a rape fantasy?
"It's extreme, but rape is a reality. I never leave Taty's point of view when it happens so it's never viewed from the outside as something exciting. There is so much rape in South Africa, they practically sell rape. There are very few support systems and people just have to deal with it on their own. I have many friends, acquaintances who were raped. Some of them tested positive for HIV. In South Africa, rape is in my face—drug-induced date rape, gang rape, in middle class clubs, in townships—aggressive misogyny everywhere. To say it doesn't happen or we shouldn't write about it comes from a position of privilege."
Then I asked my Leverhulme questions about how he got into fantasy and science fiction.
"As a kid, I loved Peter Pan and Roald Dahl. Later I became obsessed with SF and fantasy—John Varley's The Barbie Murders, Philip José Farmer, Lucius Shepherd's amazing Life in Wartime. I loved Alfred Bester, Fritz Leiber, Harry Harrison—the list is endless.
"Recently, I found myself in alignment with [Ballard's] The Drowned World. He was a disenfranchised colonial and he understood the culture-shock of a wild place, zones that civilization can't integrate with."
Nikhil is a compulsive writer. "I tried to write my first book at about nine after reading a lot of SF. It was about a 'Rust Ranger' called Denguin who destroyed thousands before escaping into a robotic funfair planet. I thought if I got to about a hundred pages it would be a book so I slaved away. It taught me a lot and got me hooked on writing sci-fi.
"Right now I'm concentrating on two new novels: Club Ded is a sort of meta-portrait of Cape Town, exploring the notion of insiders and outsiders in an increasingly Ballardian society."
This book was developed out of Nikhil's no-budget Ballardian feature film called Trillzone, shot in 2014 in Cape Town and originally commissioned by the National Arts Festival for a J. G. Ballard symposium.
The second book is about a magical island called Casanegra, "influenced by the darker aspects of Peter Pan mixed with teleportation, arcane cartography, gothic mermaid art thieves, and time travel abuses.
"I've also recently completed a trilogy of horror novellas inspired by Thomas Ligotti, William Hope Hodgson, Poe, and Lovecraft focusing on doppelgangers and parasitic entities."
Finally—he's working on the sequel to Taty Went West.
"It's largely set in space stations and zero-gravity beaches around the moon. In the first book we are introduced to Taty's role as the messiah of an ancient reptile race. There are dingy space-cube 'spook' settlements, orbital oxygen farm jungles, and a mysterious wormhole subway system called the Jellicoe Jimblejoog. Taty becomes the flower of the world."
During the writing of this article, I learned I was sick. It was somehow utterly distinctive of Nikhil that he wrote back with this advice.
If you are still going to S Africa—there is a herb called African Potato (its not a potato at all)—this has wonderful healing properties for the urinary tract, especially if mixed with a certain water lily called umkhuze. There is also a Namibian stone mushroom used specifically to deal with cancer. There is a rooftop market (quite a dingy but relatively safe affair) atop the bus/train station in town—it's above an adjoined mall called golden acre—when you are at the top there is a line of stalls running close to the escalators going back into the mall and a rastafarian has a stall there dealing these herbs and tonics. He's the only rasta herbalist up there so should be easy to find.
To understand Nikhil's writing, understand his connection to place. He has a terrific memory for detail, yes, but his fantasy inventions go beyond that. The fantasy makes the atmosphere of a place solid.
Right now I read Taty Went West as a dreamscape of white South African psychology. The sense of being separate from the land, a land still Jurassic with dinosaurs in the woods. Young people listening to pop in authoritarian suburbs long to escape it.
… lots of girls her age must have shared the urge to escape the locked-down routines of the Lowlands: the subterranean suburb-bunkers, the regimentation, and factory food, all those sky malls.
But the Outzone not only offers Jurassic landscapes—its city offers music, drugs, creativity and style but also violence, exploitation, sickness, and death. It is unambiguously a colony.
Before the colony had broken down Namanga Mori had been a thriving centre of trade… Now it was decrepit, populated by smugglers, sleepwalkers and those who came staggering out of the trees looking for work.
The Zone combines urban vices with provinciality; decadent and superficially thrilling but cut off from any culture of depth, inheriting a violence that is normal and therefore invisible. Here Taty talks to Alphonse Guava, who has trapped her in a life of psychic prostitution.
He regarded her with a sardonic smile unable to help himself from picking at her passivity, much as one would pick a scab.
'You seem angry with me,' he teased.
She looked away, hunched like a bedraggled squirrel in her mangy fur.
'You let those monsters do things to me,' she eventually spoke up.
'Was it fun?'
She blinked at him, unable to understand his reaction for a moment.
'No it was horrible,' she murmured darkly. 'You let Number Nun get shot. Everybody is dead because of you.'
He sniggered without a hint of reproach—and it was at times like this she could see his inhumanity outlined in a sharp, unforgiving clarity.
'I suppose,' he admitted. 'But I had a ball doing it.'
To come back to the book's dedication to Burroughs: "With Burroughs there is such a strong sense of dream, of how dream works. Burroughs had an amazing way of describing dream reality. Dream is the atmosphere of a place made solid. Which is what Zulu storytellers do anyway."
Told you. African.
More online resources:
- Taty Went West has a soundtrack called In With the Outzone that you can hear for free here. It contains songs that Taty listens to in the novel and is credited to Coco Carbomb, her favourite pop star. Coco is played by Nikhil's long-time collaborator Carmen Incardine.
- Or you can listen to Nikhil's work with Cape Town jazz musicians—at times like a fragile Tom Waits, at times a Gothic Threepenny Opera, at times straight up garage rock. He suggests starting with the track "Eye to Eye."