They came on mechanical Fellbeasts, gnarled wings screeching, showering bullets. I fled while shooting back, yelling profanities and, “freedom!”
So often I wonder what ancient evil possessed these people? Harbingers of doom they are, who arrived on boats propelled by the winds of white magic. They spoke of benign and forgiving Gods, whom it appears, do not forgive the dark-skinned. They brought technologies and the promise of civilisation using what was uncovered in Europe: some intertwining of the organic with man-made crafts, using runes, metallurgy and spells to bind. But the bindings were corrupt, and all the dirty work was laid heavy on the backs of dark-skinned men, women and children. Like a battery, the blood, sweat and tears of the dark-skinned was collected and siphoned to hold the New World aloft. The creation of such a scheme; it boggles my mind. Truly, I cannot fathom it, and therein lies the fear. What kind of a person would I be if I did?
I wander the Namibian veldt with my rifle and few munitions; a meagre defence. The pale trolls hound me from the ground as the mechanical Fellbeasts shriek above. I take care with my footprints, so my path might remain unknown. Though they may lack the spells of the Wringwraith, they are still large and vicious.
—from “The Horror in the Bush,” Omenana issue 4
I meet Mandisi Nkomo in Kamili Coffee, a noisy establishment painted red with huge open doors, just up Long Street from the Pan-African Market and Ntone Edjabe’s Chimurenga offices.
Mandisi’s other job is as a professional musician and composer. That’s in addition to publishing poetry, writing on philosophy, and—did I mention—he also writes SFF, publishing with Ivor Hartmann in the AfroSF series.
When I interviewed him in 2016, he was a drummer for two bands. You can hear his work with Simon Tamblyn’s project, Tape Hiss and Sparkle. Mandisi has been drumming with him for several years. You can also hear his work with the band Oh Cruel Fate, described as a storytelling band.
Mandisi: “I write just drum parts for them, no words. Funnily enough I tend to stay away from lyrics because of all the other writing. When I get into music I don’t want to be even thinking about that.”
Mandisi was born in the USA while his parents were in exile. The family returned when he was four years old (1992), and he grew up in Pretoria and moved to Cape Town for university. “We go back and forth a lot. My sister relocated to New York. She’s a dancer. Mom had a position there for about three years I think, at the World Bank.”
His story “The Horror in the Bush,” published in Omenana issue 4, is an original if slightly odd read. We are in a liberation struggle, but the invading evil forces are called Wringwraiths, and their troops called Balrogs. Their aerial mounts are not called the Foul Beasts but the Fell Beasts—and are plainly some kind of flying machine. Instead of references to black magic, the hero fears white magic. The story reads like some kind of deconstruction of Tolkien—who was, of course, born in South Africa.
Mandisi: “It’s actually more like an alternative history taking place as the SWAPO uprising. I had just watched the documentary called Paths to Freedom about the resistance by SWAPO in Namibia. We have our South African history in terms of apartheid and all that stuff. One aspect I didn’t know about was how the regime tried to exert control on the periphery, like Namibia.
“It was about their armed struggle. The core concept for that was being trapped, under-armed, very much like the Lord of the Rings scenario where you are up against Sauron, you don’t stand a chance. I took that and wrote it into the story. I wanted it to be complicated and difficult to get into. You’d need to do research into a lot of different topics.
“The mechanical Fell Beast is in essence a helicopter, but in the form of half machine, half-creature. The other source was fantasy games, so calling the Nazgul the Lich (basically an ancient term for an animated corpse used also by Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith) came from World of Warcraft, which borrows heavily from Dungeons and Dragons.
“The strange thing I’ve realized is that a lot of my writing influences are not other writers, but come from video games, comic books, anime, and movies. Video games are very visceral. They’ve made me want to write very viscerally, and obsessed with set pieces like in video games or movies. I’ve stumbled across some very powerful video games like the Metal Gear games created by Hideo Kojima. There are also Metal Gear references in ‘Heresy’ (his novella in AfroSF). Games have these things called Easter eggs, like little thingies that not everybody picks up on. So I put in Easter eggs. I mention them directly, or just make a reference. In ‘Heresy’ there’s a reference to the Shadow Moses Incident. It’s something that’s in the first Metal Gear game, and all the sequels refer back to the Shadow Moses Incident.”
(Here’s a sequence from the closing of the fifth Metal Gear Game.)
Does he see himself as writing for gamers?
Mandisi: “Not necessarily. I don’t see myself as writing specifically for gamers. I just think my approach might be more towards comics or games, more in that style. I went with a grim ending. In those scenarios, these very difficult situations, people don’t actually make it out, realistically speaking. I like stuff where there isn’t necessarily any redemption. I like the Coen Brothers movies and they tend to have these very deadpan endings ...”
His short story “Heresy,” in the first volume of AfroSF, is a more sweeping tale. A hardline communist future South Africa is in a space race against the softer, state-capitalist Chinese. South Africa would appear to win—except that it turns out that all our cosmology is wrong. The solar system is a finite, enclosed system with a barrier at its end, which the South African ship damages—beyond is a kind of mist which seeps into the solar system and moves swiftly across it. To prevent news of the gas’s extraordinary effects spreading, the South African regime resorts to killing witnesses. One scene has a very contrite security man confessing his crimes of killing civilians. That’s a scene that would be familiar to South Africans, from truth and reconciliation, to ex-regime enforcers writing confessional memoirs.
Mandisi: “With the processes that we had, with the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission), basically you just had to confess and speak about what you did, and you basically received no punishment.
“Another South African-ish thing. I remember reading a Sarah Lotz story about corruption, and that’s a huge problem here, corruption and incompetence. You will not necessarily get any big punishment for your failures. You come back and they offer you another position. You get reallocated. That was one of things that was in my head in the ending, where Masemola merely gets reallocated.
“The fantastical element of the story is that beyond the barrier, basically there is just nothingness there. We have no understanding of what to do with it or how it even operates. The stars, the galaxies, the black holes aren’t there, they were just like images on the screens.
“Just in terms of personal beliefs, I don’t think that might happen where we realize that everything we thought we knew is wrong. But. There is always that possibility. We do like to think that we’ve very advanced, but we’re not the centre of the universe. There is a lot that we do not necessarily know. I used that less as something I really believe, than as just a narrative device.
“What I’ve found in conversations with my parents and also because I did politics while I was in university is this: the sad thing is you can buy scientists. You can get somebody to read the data, and get the result that you want. That’s what a lot of politicians do, or Big Pharma. Misusing science because you’ve made up your mind before getting the data.
“I read a review (of ‘Heresy’) that said I was making fun of both science and religion, and I guess I was. My own reading would be away from a spiritual reading.
“If there is a god it’s probably some kind of thing we wouldn’t necessarily understand. It wouldn’t be a religious or spiritual god. It would just be something we haven’t yet managed to fathom ... or wouldn’t be capable of fathoming.
“I’ve been reading Embassytown by (China) Miéville. In his story the universe is actually easy to cross, but you have to be able to navigate across it and we humans can’t. If we misinterpret it’s disastrous, like thinking a lighthouse is there to draw you in rather than warn you off.”
Mandisi’s favourite novels include Perdido Street Station, also by Miéville, and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
“I spend most of my weekends writing and then the weekdays are on music. I’m still trying to make music my day job. I’m still getting financial assistance from my parents. I also compose and produce, so that’s where I’ve been trying to move. There are opportunities behind the scenes in selling instrumentals for film, games, or TV shows produced here in South Africa. I’m trying to get into that. You can’t make enough money from your CD sales. The rates for usage on TV are much higher. Basically, you get more of a bang for your song.”
Mandisi studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Cape Town. The Honours Year in South Africa comes between a bachelor's and an MA. His year was spent studying Justice and Transformation, with Conflict Resolution.
Mandisi: “A lot of that stuff tends to filter into my writing and that might be why some of the stuff is so brutal, especially after doing conflict studies where the outcomes are pretty rough some of the time.
“I’m obsessed with games, so I started studying computer science when I was a kid. I taught myself Java. I did whatever the equivalent of computer science was in high school, and then for a year in university, but I hated it and flunked it. I did it for a year, but it was all maths, all coding. That made me see that I really liked the narrative stuff, making up worlds.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do so my parents recommended PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics), so I did that. My third year was when I first did conflict studies.
“It was fascinating to me but I had to ask if is this what I want to do, day in day out. When I was an undergrad I still had lots of free time. So I was writing, doing my music on the side. Honours year was the first time that I could not do anything else but study. After that, I took on a couple of music courses and it just kind of spiralled from there, drumming and writing music. I realized that I was obsessed with it and that became my main focal point.
“I have really really nice parents, like ridiculously nice parents. You don’t often get to do the kind of crazy that I get to do. My folks are interesting because they had a Struggle background, almost being forced to study what they had to study.
“Me and my sister were more about us having opportunities and choosing to do something that you were passionate about, because they never had that. Not that they don’t enjoy economics, but they both sort of fell into it. They didn’t have that space to find out what they really wanted to do. I don’t have huge financial success but they are still very very happy. They’re both economists and they sometimes don’t understand how they had two very creative children.
“My sister studied African dance and is in New York now, started her own dance company. Even among friends in high school, even people who were fairly well off such as myself, there was no option. It was like: you will be a doctor, you will be an economist, you will be this or that, no option.
“There was a point when I was going to make writing my full-time job, but there’s a lot of industry stuff that you have to be doing. Doing it more on the side, I don’t think I would have written ‘The Horror in the Bush’ because I would have thought no one will publish this. Then Omenana magazine happened.”
We went on to talk about fiction he was revising. He did mention what he called a horror story called “The Wild Dogs,” which has since been published in Wole Talabi’s Lights Out section of The Naked Convos.
Other recent developments: he’s been published twice in the pan-African The Thinker. First, a piece on the Fees Must Fall movement (The Thinker Quarter 2, Volume 72: A History of Cultural Violence), and second, a poem. Another poem has appeared in The #Coinage Book One.
He adds in 2017: “I'm still playing in Tape Hiss and Sparkle, I've launched my solo act, The Mad Drummer, and I'm still writing music. I’m not sure I should say this, but I’ve got a story being edited now for AfroSFV3.
“I suppose I would add that there’s such a momentum and energy around African spec fic right now, that, despite my love for music, I’d be a fool not to capitalise on. It’s almost infectious. I feel like I accidently fell into this wave via my love for spec fic, and now it’s swept me up, and I have to see where it goes. Music will always be there (I hope), and you never know, the African spec fic momentum might accidently filter into my music career too. I mean, The Mad Drummer thing is a narrative music project as well, much like Oh, Cruel Fate was, so who knows, maybe it will just fall into place.”
(You might like to read Mandisi’s take on a key lecture on decolonization and the video of that lecture by Mahmood Mamdani at UCT. The lecture is amazingly informative on decolonization, and Mandisi puts it into an Afrofuturist context.)