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Stories and activism: Sisonke Msimang

Sisonke Msimang commutes between South Africa and Australia where she is Programme Director at The Centre for Stories, which collects, preserves and shares stories about migrants, refugees and diverse people and places linked to the Indian Ocean Rim. Sisonke is a writer and activist who worked as the executive director of the Open Society Initiative for South Africa and the Sonke Gender Justice Network. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Mail and Guardian, The Guardian and Daily Maverick.

In October this year, Sisonke’s first book, which is tentatively titled “Always Another Country”, will be published by Jonathan Ball in South Africa. Her book is a memoir about her exile childhood in Zambia and Kenya, her student years in North America, her return to South Africa and her experiences of family, romance and motherhood. Last year Sisonke featured in a very popular Ted Talk titled “If a Story moves you, act on it”, about the need to not just write and listen to stories but to take action against all forms of social injustice. Heather Robertson interviewed her for Nali’bali.

In your TED talk you spoke about the strengths and limitations of storytelling. Why do you believe we have come to place so much emphasis on likeable characters and fiction over fact when reality is so much more nuanced, more gritty and complex?

We are living in an era of over-simplification.  Reality is nuanced and gritty but also hard and painful often.  So in our fiction many of us are looking to escape, and in our non-fiction many of us are looking for answers.  The rise of self-help books is a great example.  And so as more and more new outlets begin to play in the space of storytelling – in order to make certain kinds of stories more accessible – there is a huge temptation to make those stories and those people more palatable, easier for ‘mainstream’ audiences to relate to.  

What are the ingredients that make a good story and what makes a shoddy, mediocre or downright bad story?

A great story is authentic. Its written in a way that is true to the vernacular of the person telling it.  That’s pretty much it.  A shoddy story is one that seeks to hide or project things about its teller – it is invested in things other than itself. I guess I’m realising that a good story is one that is true to its own rhythms and cadences, and that completes itself.  A story can’t be written until its teller has enough distance from it to tell it truthfully.  

How can stories work as an antidote to bias? Can you give examples of stories that do this?

Chinua Achebe writes about how Africans are not often depicted by Europeans as "quite simply as a continent of people – not angels, but not rudimentary souls either  – just people, often highly gifted people and often strikingly successful in their enterprise with life and society.”  For me a story is one that does what Achebe says - elevates people beyond the notion of rudimentary souls.  A story that does this is one that addresses bias without preaching about bias.  The complexity and nuance of a good story is the antidote – not “the message.”  Does that make sense?  One of my favourite books - The God of Small Things – by Arundati Roy does this beautifully.  It doesn’t give us Kipling’s India.  It gives us two wonderful, wounded children and in the telling of their story we understand the wounds of colonialism, nationalism and the birth of post-colonial India.  To be honest though all great literature is an antidote to bias – because its complex.  That’s what makes it great. And that’s what explodes myths about people and places.  

How can stories move listeners and readers, the audience of stories to act for social justice?

On their own, they can’t.  That is why for me, initiatives like Amandla Mobi are so excellent. Started by a young black woman who was tired of hearing people whine about stories as a way to make themselves feel better without taking any action.  Koketso Moeti is one of my heroes.  She’s all about story-telling and action combined.  

What book or authors have inspired you and how have they inspired you?

Arundati Roy of course.  She’s lyrical and her prose is so evocative.  As a young woman I loved the poetry of Nikki Giovanni – she’s smart and quirky and plainspoken.  The plainspoken-ness really appeals to me. I wtry to write simply because I want as many people as possible to understand me, even if the ideas I am expressing aren’t always straightforward.  Ursula K. Le Guin’s commitment to story-telling has always inspired me.  The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas is one of the most haunting and yet simple stories I’ve read.  Of course in terms of non-fiction, Jimmy Baldwin is virtually unparalleled.  His writing burns – it’s incandescent with fury and passion and ‘message.’  It is always also deeply personal and accessible and beautiful from the point of view of craft.  

When did you start conceptualizing “Always Another Country” and what inspired you to write it?

It’s a memoir.  I started writing it in 2013 after a sabbatical at Yale University in the US.  It felt like the easiest way to write a first book - to write about growing up, to reflect on what it was like in exile but not from the point of view of an activist.  I thought it was an interesting story – to recall a childhood spent moving from place to place, and then to have been able to return and build a life in a place you weren’t sure you’d ever see.  

How is post democratic South Africa different from the country you imagined when growing up in exile in Kenya and Zambia?

You’ll have to read the book to find out! In some ways the heart of the book is in the dissonance between the SA of our dreams and the SA we have built.