‘There is one thing that can never be controlled and that is the imagination.’
A Q&A with The Theory of Flight author, Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu
Author Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu shares her thoughts and feelings on a wide range of topics related to the novel, including what inspired her to write it, the issues she wished to explore, her interpretation of the motivations of the main characters, what she believes the work suggests about its major themes, and the importance of getting to know yourself and holding on to yourself when influences like history, circumstances, other people, and the state try to shape and change you.
English Experience: What prompted or inspired you to write The Theory of Flight?
Siphiwe Gloria Ndlovu: In 2007, my aunt, Sibongile Frieda Nkomo, passed away quite suddenly and unexpectedly. She was four years older than me, and we had always been very close – like sisters. Needless to say, I was devastated by her passing. When I attended her funeral and talked to family and friends, I realised that while we were all grieving the loss of the same person, we were remembering her differently because she had been someone different in all our lives – a daughter, a sister, a mother, a wife, an aunt, a cousin, a friend, a work mate etc.
It became clear to me in an immediate way that had not really been there before that, while an individual has a ‘self’, who that individual is, is made up not only of that ‘self’ but also of the other selves that that individual is in other people’s lives. In other words, the self is something that is constantly being negotiated through the different relations that we have – it is not created in a vacuum.
The Theory of Flight was, therefore, prompted by my desire to understand what this idea of a negotiated self means for both loving someone and losing someone – who exactly are you loving and who exactly are you losing and what happens to that person’s own sense of self in the process? The novel, of necessity, became an exploration of these ideas and questions and in the process, as we shall see in what follows, came to examine more than the self’s relation to itself and its relation to others – it also came to examine the self’s relation to the state.
EE: How long did it take you to write the novel?
SGN: For me, a story begins its telling when the first character appears or when the first incident takes place in your imagination – writing is not just words on a page, writing is the entire process involved in getting those words on the page – so I often say it took me ten years to write the novel. I started seriously writing the novel – sustained paragraphs and chapters in a notebook – in 2010 and finished the first draft by the end of 2015. I then made revisions and submitted it to publishers in 2016. But, as I mentioned earlier, the idea for the story had germinated in 2007 and I would often jot down a character trait here, a sentence there, a line of dialogue somewhere else. It was difficult for me to see the entire story world because I was a PhD candidate at the time and had to dedicate most of my time to academic pursuits – but the story was always there at the back of my mind. As the story world became more vivid, the characters became more assertive, and I had to start dedicating more time to the actual writing of the story.
EE: What are the main themes you set out to address in the work?
SGN: The Theory of Flight addresses many themes: selfhood, love, loss, family, community, belonging, freedom, creativity and imagination being chief amongst them. These themes are examined within the context of a history beset by civil war, genocide and HIV/AIDS. What is the legacy of such a particularly violent and devastating history on our sense of self, on our ideas of belonging, on our ability to freely express ourselves etc? With so much loss how can we continue to love or create a sense of community?
The life of our protagonist, Imogen Zula Nyoni, Genie, is intimately touched by these three events – she is born during the civil war, is a survivor of the genocide and is HIV-positive. Who should she be in light of all of this? How should she relate to others around her? Should she let this violent history shape her or should she hold on to her own understanding of who she is beyond this history? … Is there a self beyond what has been created by this history? Similar questions could be asked of all the characters in the novel because these histories have touched their lives as well. For some characters, these questions are complicated by their feelings of guilt, complicity, collusion and denial.
‘Who should she be in light of all of this? How should she relate to others around her? Should she let this violent history shape her or should she hold on to her own understanding of who she is beyond this history? … Is there a self beyond what has been created by this history?’
EE: Why did you choose this subject matter for the novel?
SGN: I chose this subject matter because I find history and our relationship to it fascinating. What should we do with the legacies of the violent and unjust histories that we inherit? This is a pertinent question because the past in southern Africa is particularly brutal and cruel.
‘What should we do with the legacies of the violent and unjust histories that we inherit?’
In Zimbabwe, the state/government makes every attempt to control narratives of the past through what historian Terence Ranger calls ‘Patriotic History’. To this end, certain narratives, experiences and memories are either erased, silenced or omitted because they are deemed too dangerous. The danger here is often presented as something that might potentially be damaging to the nation, but really what would be damaged is the image of those in power. History then becomes not the memory of a common past that we all share in, but the product of power.
This occurrence is not unique to Zimbabwe, most states, especially those with uncomfortable histories, attempt to control narratives of the past – and as I have already said, the past in southern Africa is particularly unjust. So, it is not only important, it is imperative, that we determine not only our relationship to the past, but also to the impact that its legacy will have on our sense of self, on our ideas of belonging, on our ability to freely express ourselves etc.
‘It is not only important, it is imperative, that we determine not only our relationship to the past, but also to the impact that its legacy will have on our sense of self, on our ideas of belonging, on our ability to freely express ourselves.’
EE: How did you decide on the title of the novel?
SGN: This is like the chicken and egg question for me. To be honest, I can no longer remember which came first, the title or the many instances of ‘flight’ in the novel. There is a play on the idea of ‘flight’ throughout the story: Baines, Genie’s grandfather, has a wanderlust that makes him ‘flighty’. He also has a love of aeroplanes that inspires his son, Livingstone/Golide, to not only draw sketches of planes and build wire models of planes but to eventually also build a giant pair of silver wings so that he can transport the woman he loves, Elizabeth, to Nashville, Tennessee to fulfil her desire to be a bona fide country-and-western singer. Golide and Elizabeth’s daughter, our protagonist, Genie, ‘takes flight’, that is, flees the Beauford Farm and Estate after the sojas with the red berets come; she again ‘takes off’ when she leaves the Masuku’s home and goes to save Jesus/Vida; eventually, she flies away on a giant pair of silver wings when she dies. Various characters, now living in the diaspora, fly in and out of the country via plane. The novel also treats ‘flight’ as a symbol and metaphor for liberation/ self-realisation/freedom.
‘The Theory of’ part of the title was not a little influenced by the fact that I was a PhD candidate at the time and immersed in theories of all kinds.
EE: Why did you choose the particular narrative structure you did to tell the story?
SGN: There are several elements to the narrative structure of the novel and they all serve a purpose.
The Two Books
The story is divided into Book One and Book Two. Book One mostly delineates the past – both the personal and political histories that are part of our characters’ lives – and Book Two explores the legacy of those histories on the lives of our cast of characters. To help emphasise the break between past and present, Book One is narrated mostly in the past tense – the only section not told in the past tense is the one titled ‘The Present’ – and Book Two is narrated in the present tense. In addition, Book One also deals with the circumstances that led to Genie’s coma, Book Two deals with the consequences of Genie’s coma.
Book One and Book Two are further divided into several parts that deal with various ways of remembering, recording and explaining life. Book One has five parts: Genealogy, History, The Present, Teleology, Epidemiology. Book Two has two parts: Epistemology and Revelations. These parts emphasise the interconnected nature of our characters’ stories and histories. As the Prologue states, ‘Like any event, what happened to Genie did not happen in a vacuum: it was the result of a culmination of genealogies, histories, teleologies, epistemologies and epidemiologies – of ways of living, remembering, seeing, knowing and dying.’ (p. 9)
The Multiple Perspectives
The story of each part is then told from a variety of perspectives. Although focused on Genie, the story is actually focalised through various characters who include: Golide Gumede, her albino father who is a freedom fighter during the civil war; Vida de Villiers, also known as Jesus, her Coloured bisexual life-partner who lives a large part of his life as a street dweller; Valentine Tanaka, her disabled friend who is a dedicated civil-servant; Marcus and Krystle, members of the upper-middle-class Masuku family that adopted her and is helmed by Dingani and Thandi Masuku; the upper-class and white lifelong friends Beatrice Beit-Beauford and Kuki Carmichael who befriend Genie in the latter part of their lives; Jestina Nxumalo who works as a maid but later emigrates to Australia; Bhekithemba Nyathi, a reporter from a wealthy African family whose circumstances have been somewhat reduced; Dr Mambo, an HIV specialist; Goliath and the Survivors, a band of street kids who are a part of Vida’s street life; the poor and disenfranchised war-veterans that have taken over the farm that belonged to Beatrice Beit-Beauford and, finally, Mr Mendelsohn, a Coloured undertaker made wealthy by the HIV/AIDS crisis. These multiple perspectives very intentionally, in turn, showcase the diversity in terms of race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability and age of the characters who make up this story and, therefore, the people who make up this history.
‘These multiple perspectives very intentionally, in turn, showcase the diversity in terms of race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical ability and age of the characters who make up this story and, therefore, the people who make up this history.’
Biblical Allusion: Genesis & Revelations
Another aspect of the narrative structure that I will briefly touch on is the fact that the first chapter of the novel is titled ‘Genesis’ and the last is titled ‘Revelations’ so there is a definite allusion to the Bible. I will leave it to the reader to make what they will of this.
EE: Why did you decide to incorporate a prologue?
SGN: The novel has thirty-two characters, which, in a novel in which the narrative is focalised through one or a few central characters, is not a problem, but, which, in a novel told via many different perspectives can be challenging for the reader. As I have already mentioned, the different characters’ perspectives show us how histories – both personal and political – in this place are intertwined and interconnected; however, in the process of being interwoven, these histories often interrupt each other, as depicted in the first chapters of the novel, which can, therefore, make the beginning of the novel somewhat confusing and perhaps even difficult for the reader. The prologue – by telling us at its very beginning how the story ends, by making the importance of the idea of interconnectedness very clear, and by introducing some of the characters and letting us know what happens to them in the story world – helps give the reader the lay of the land, some idea as to how the characters relate to each other and the tools with which to manoeuvre through the story before they start reading it.
EE: Ideally, what would you like 17-year-old South African students to gain from reading the novel?
SGN: Although the novel has as its protagonist an HIV-positive heroine and the story deals with such issues as civil war, genocide, displacement, homelessness and the many challenges of the colonial and postcolonial state, the story is not a tale of doom and gloom nor does it traffic in clichés and stereotypes about Africa. The story is more concerned with the creation of community and the shared sense of belonging that particular histories create. In this way, it brings together characters who belong to different categories of society in terms of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ‘ability’ and age, who, through their interactions with Genie – whose life is touched by civil war, genocide and HIV/AIDS and, therefore, acts as a symbol of these violent histories – have to come to relate to one another, to create their own relationship with that history and move towards a shared sense of belonging. While the story deals with some heavy themes, it is a meditation on love and loss that is ultimately hopeful, optimistic even, in its belief in the power of self-knowledge, self-determination, self-realisation, art and communion to soothe the effects of various histories of violence.
‘While the story deals with some heavy themes, it is a meditation on love and loss that is ultimately hopeful, optimistic even, in its belief in the power of self-knowledge, self-determination, self-realisation, art and communion to soothe the effects of various histories of violence.’
Southern Africa has had a challenging and often-times difficult post-colonial/post-Apartheid history that has been compounded by the ravages of HIV/AIDS. While it is important to acknowledge this, it is also important to celebrate the resilience and determination of those who find something beautiful to love in this context – this is what The Theory of Flight does. This is what the story is: a celebration.
EE: What advice would you offer students on how to engage best with the novel?
SGN: The best advice I can give to students engaging with The Theory of Flight is this – don’t think in terms of major and minor characters, think instead of how the characters connect. If you are a visual thinker, create a community tree or web and trace/delineate how the characters connect not only to each other but to the various moments of history portrayed in the novel – the civil war, the genocide and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. If you like thinking in terms of metaphors and similes, read the story as though it were a multi-coloured garment being knitted together. In the beginning, stiches of many different colours are being cast, and it can seem overwhelming, but remember that all those stitches play a very important role, and all come together to create a cohesive whole. There is no superfluous character. Finally, read not to ‘get’ the story from the very beginning but to allow the story to create its intricate and interwoven tapestry.
‘Don’t think in terms of major and minor characters, think instead of how the characters connect.’
EE: Do you think teenagers will be able to relate to Genie and her experiences?
SGN: Genie’s experiences may seem far-removed from those of a typical teenager living in the twenty-first century due to the fact that they happen within the context of civil war/genocide/HIV-AIDS – things that happened between the 1970s and 1990s – but Genie’s story is at heart about love, family, community – things we all have experience with, regardless of the era in which we live.
More importantly, as already mentioned, Genie’s story is an exploration of the self’s relation to itself, to others and to the state. Genie has to constantly negotiate her sense of self when she encounters others who have a different sense of who she should be, when she is written upon by violent histories, when the state wants to reduce her to a body or a statistic. She negotiates but never compromises her sense of self – she chooses to tenaciously hold on to her ‘self’. This is a lesson we all, teenagers particularly, can learn from. Psychologists call this need and search for a true, unique and known self ‘individuation’. Individuation is a lifelong process that is, perhaps, at its most fraught stage during our teen years when we begin to realise certain things about ourselves, our families, our communities, our countries, our world. So, yes, I think teenagers will be able to relate to Genie and her experiences on many levels.
EE: What advice would you offer students interpreting the symbolism of the silver wings?
SGN: In terms of the giant pair of silver wings, it is important to think of them in their context. Golide Gumede simply wants to get Elizabeth Nyoni to Nashville, Tennessee, as he promised. He knows something about aeroplanes and so he builds a giant pair of silver wings, but The Man Himself feels threatened by Golide’s ability to build the wings. Why? The answer is provided, in part, by Dingani Masuku when he tells his friends, Jameson and Xolani, ‘Now you see, a man like Golide Gumede is the kind of man that this country really needs. The man is building an aeroplane from scratch. Believes he can do it, too. He is innovative. Radical. Fearless. If this country had even just one hundred such men, then this thing we call independence would hold more promise.’ (p. 301) It is important then, in light of this, to think of what The Man Himself represents? What about Valentine Tanaka’s family that laughs at Golide Gumede’s belief in himself and his ability? What about Bhekithemba Nyathi’s refusal to believe that Golide is acting out of love? How can we connect all this to what we have learnt through our examination of the self’s relation to itself, others and the state? What do the giant pair of silver wings that both Genie and her parents fly away on symbolise in this larger context?
EE: What do you believe the novel suggests about family and belonging?
SGN: Throughout your life your family will grow and, if you let it, it will grow to include people not connected to you by the bonds of blood. These will be people who you either have an affinity with or, if you are lucky and brave enough, people who are vastly different from you and challenge you and your ways of being and seeing the world. Together you can come to create a shared sense of belonging and a community.
‘Throughout your life your family will grow and, if you let it, it will grow to include people not connected to you by the bonds of blood. These will be people who you either have an affinity with or, if you are lucky and brave enough, people who are vastly different from you and challenge you and your ways of being and seeing the world.’
Family is what and how you make it. The ability to choose who belongs to your family is important and potentially empowering because the ‘family’ is not an inherently unproblematic space – some families are toxic, some dysfunctional, some incomplete, some destroyed – choosing your own family can be a way of healing the hurt of the past.
EE: How would you recommend students assess what the novel suggests about community and the interconnectedness of our lives? Would you consider Ubuntu a useful concept in this context?
SGN: I have already discussed the first part of this question in my responses to some earlier questions so I will focus on how Ubuntu is a useful concept when thinking about community and interconnectedness in The Theory of Flight. Ubuntu is certainly a great way to begin excavating the interactions and connections that the various characters in the novel have. Their relation to Genie’s life and death can be seen as opening up the possibilities of a shared sense of belonging and an understanding of a shared humanity – in many ways this is what the novel is moving and working towards; however, it is also important to understand why this shared sense of belonging and this understanding of a shared humanity are not there from the very beginning – why they are things that need to be worked out. If umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu… If I am because we are… If I can only be because you also are… If this imbricated understanding of our humanity is our cornerstone philosophy here in southern Africa, then how do we explain histories of violence – civil war, genocide, displacement – what is it that has happened here to make us lose sight of our shared humanity? The answer seems ready enough: – colonisation and apartheid have happened. But is this too easy an answer? Is Ubuntu an ideal – something to be striven for but never obtained? Or it is something that has been taken away from us by a particularly violent modern history?
These are vital questions that we have to ask ourselves as citizens of postcolonial/post-apartheid countries because this is where we begin the work of starting to re-see and re-discover the humanity in each other.
EE: What would you suggest the novel implies about the relationship between the past and the present?
SGN: I have already discussed this in response to previous questions; however, I will add here that what the old adage says is very true – if we don’t learn from the past, we are apt to repeat it. The present is a product of the past and so it is important for us to understand the present through understanding the past. Most times we don’t want to do this because the past is often weighty and has unfinished business – this is particularly true when histories have been violent, and especially true when we think we have been complicit or have colluded in some way with these histories.
‘The present is a product of the past and so it is important for us to understand the present through understanding the past. Most times we don’t want to do this because the past is often weighty and has unfinished business – this is particularly true when histories have been violent, and especially true when we think we have been complicit or have colluded in some way with these histories.’
As William Wordsworth said, “Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future.” These sage words can be used to better understand the character arcs of most of the characters in The Theory of Flight. Let us take, for example, Krystle Masuku. She feels responsible for the accident that she believes led to Genie becoming HIV-positive and so she lets guilt become her constant companion. She feels complicit and is trapped by her complicity. Krystle learns of Genie’s diagnosis just as she enters adolescence and when we later meet her as an adult it is very clear that her feelings of guilt and complicity have arrested her development and stunted her growth in the present. But how can she move on and learn from the past when her family proudly does not ‘do politics’ in a place where politics has overdetermined the shape of history?
EE: What advice would you offer students pondering the symbolism of the swimming elephants?
SGN: It helps to think of the swimming elephants in much the same way you think about the silver wings and flight.
By swimming across the Zambezi River, the elephants are doing something seemingly impossible – but something that they know, in spite of appearances, that they can do. They illustrate what happens when you possess a true belief in yourself and what you are capable of.
Elephants also have incredible and long memories… How can we connect this to what Golide Gumede, Genie and the omniscient narrator, at various stages of the novel, say about watching swimming elephants, ‘You become aware of your place in the world… You understand that in the grander scheme of things you are but a speck… a tiny speck… and that that is enough… There is freedom… beauty even, in that kind of knowledge… It is the kind of knowledge that finally quiets you. It is the kind of knowledge that allows you to fly. You have to experience it for yourself’?
EE: How would you recommend students explore the significance and meaning of the intriguing remark made by several characters that their ‘eyes are not for beauty to see’?
SGN: I am very curious to see what students and readers make of this phrase, which becomes a motif, so I will not make many recommendations. I will say this, however, I think the best place to start unpacking this remark is by asking what the ‘beauty’ is… I will leave it at that.
EE: What role would you suggest is played by art and artistry in the novel?
SGN: An idea that I love and one that is the cornerstone of my understanding of art and artistry is taken from the classic text On the Sublime by ‘Longinus’ in which he says of great writing, ‘For, as if instinctively, our soul is uplifted by the true sublime; it takes a proud flight, and is filled with joy and vaunting, as though it had itself produced what it has heard.’ Here we have flight again, this idea that a successful work of art is one that transports us, takes us to other worlds but also makes us feel as though we are collaborating with the artist – that we have co-produced something together – this is empathy at its most beautiful and profound level.
In The Theory of Flight this potential that art has to allow us to fly is examined through the lives and works of three characters: Golide Gumede, Elizabeth Nyoni and Vida de Villiers. Golide Gumede builds a giant pair of silver wings that inspires awe in the race of angels that watches him and envy/jealousy/fear in The Man Himself. Elizabeth Nyoni is a musician who believes her talents need to find their way to Nashville, Tennessee. Vida de Villiers is a sculptor who becomes world-famous. Through their work they are able to transport and inspire people.
So why does The Man Himself treat them all as dangerous threats? If The Man Himself is a stand-in for the state and power then what is it about art that threatens the state? As I mentioned earlier, the state wants to have a monopoly on narratives of the past, it also wants to have control over our understanding of the present; however, there is one thing that can never be controlled and that is the imagination. Art, therefore, creates a space that is difficult to regulate and manage. Art, therefore, becomes an alternative space where alternative stories and histories can be told. Art, therefore, is potentially the place for the non-believers – those who look to other narratives beyond those crafted by the state.
‘There is one thing that can never be controlled and that is the imagination. Art, therefore, creates a space that is difficult to regulate and manage. Art, therefore, becomes an alternative space where alternative stories and histories can be told. Art, therefore, is potentially the place for the non-believers – those who look to other narratives beyond those crafted by the state.’
EE: Vida is quite critical of his new status as a ‘postcolonial artist’. Do you think such labels risk imposing a meaning on the artwork the artist did not intend, or flatten any alternative interpretation?
SGN: As a consumer of art and as an academic, I understand the practical need for labels and categories. Manoeuvring through a library or a bookstore or an art gallery or deciding what film to watch would be an absolute nightmare without things being classified and ordered in certain ways. That said, categories can be limiting, especially when, as humans, we tend to add value judgements to certain categories. I think most artworks are doing more than one thing and so to only highlight one aspect of what they are doing is to not tell their full story. So, yes, labels can impose unintended meaning, flatten what the work of art is trying to achieve and disallow any alternative interpretations.
EE: What would you suggest the novel implies about land and nationhood? Would you recommend students use Esme’s summary of Krystle’s thesis as a starting point when considering these aspects? How important do you consider this theme to the novel?
SGN: Yes, students should use Esme’s summary of Krystle’s dissertation as a means of understanding what the novel is saying about land and nationhood. Krystle’s dissertation in the novel is actually the dissertation that I wrote as a PhD candidate, “A Country with Land but no Habitat”: Travel and Belonging in Colonial Southern Rhodesia and Post-Colonial Zimbabwe. The dissertation puts the ever-growing Zimbabwean diaspora of the twenty-first century within the larger context of precolonial, colonial and postcolonial movements, settlements and displacements in the region. Central to my thesis is the idea that the country is a well-travelled space and that those who inhabit it, in addition to being marked by race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, sexuality and class, are also marked indelibly by travel, which creates an unsettled sense of belonging.
At the time I was trying to write both the dissertation and the novel, which ultimately proved very rewarding, but in the moment filled me with frustration and apprehension, and so I decided to satirise Krystle’s writing of the dissertation in the novel. While I make fun of the dissertation writing process, the content of the dissertation is one I take seriously. In Zimbabwe and South Africa, the idea of belonging is tied to the land. I do not agree with the idea of attaching belonging to the land because that way of thinking tends to exclude rather than include. If we want to achieve true nationhood for all citizens then we need to decouple belonging from the land.
‘In Zimbabwe and South Africa, the idea of belonging is tied to the land. I do not agree with the idea of attaching belonging to the land because that way of thinking tends to exclude rather than include. If we want to achieve true nationhood for all citizens then we need to decouple belonging from the land.’
As a Zimbabwean, I think the one thing that connects us and brings us all together is this idea of travel, that we all, for different reasons, are moving in and out or within the country and that we have done so throughout our postcolonial, colonial and precolonial histories. If we could actually build a sense of identity and belonging around a history of movement, then I think it is a more inclusive and sustainable way of thinking about the Zimbabwean… being Zimbabwean… belonging to Zimbabwe.
EE: The Theory of Flight is set in an unnamed Southern African country, but it is clear from much of the detail provided that this country is Zimbabwe. What was your reason for leaving the setting unnamed?
SGN: There are reasons – some practical, some political – for leaving the setting unnamed. Most importantly, not naming the country allows the story to travel and transport itself so that while it is very much a story about a particular place, it is also, at the same time, a story that can take place anywhere, which, I hope, helps us focus more on what the story is about and not so much on where it is set. The things that happen within the story – war, violence, pandemics, love, loss etc., – are things that are held in common by all nations of the world so, for me, the where is not as important as the how, when and why. In addition, the country in which my novels are set has had four name changes throughout its modern history. Due to its histories of violence and its current economic and political dysfunction, I think the colonial and postcolonial names of the country have a lot of weight and baggage attached to them that I don’t really want readers to bring to the text. I want us all to start thinking beyond our received perceptions when it comes to this southern African country. Moreover, since, in some sense, I write historical fiction, it could become rather messy to have to contend with these changes in the course of reading the story.
EE: What do you believe Genie and Vida’s relationship suggests about love?
SGN: Genie and Vida’s relationship unfolds in Part V of Book One, which is titled ‘Epidemiology: Love in the Time of HIV’. The context in which their love story takes shape is very important. They meet during a time of erosion and reduction where they are the unvalued or devalued members of society – an HIV-positive girl and a street dwelling man. Vida’s life has been reduced to the bare life of the streets and the quality of life on the streets is continually eroded as the postcolonial years go by. Genie is reduced to a statistic – the one in four adults who are HIV-positive. In addition, Vida, as an artist, presents a threat to the powers that be, which makes his position in society even more precarious. According to the state, these are the people that can be easily forgotten – people who end up like the bodies that the war veterans dig up on the Beauford Farm and Estate. But it is always important to remember, as Valentine says of Genie in his discussion with The Man Himself, that ‘she was someone who had lived a life that mattered. They all had… She was never just a statistic. She was always more than just a tragic life’ (p. 322). It is because Genie knows this, it is because she holds on to herself that she can find love in such a time and context. Dr Mambo puts it best when she says, ‘Love was such a rare commodity. It took real courage to seek it, to hold on to it and to treasure it… At a time when it would have been so much easier to allow one’s self to give in to the barrenness of existence, love was the truest defiance’ (p. 241).
In other words, what the relationship between Genie and Vida suggests about love is that it can be used as a weapon to fight against being reduced to just a body or bare life or a statistic. Love can also be a balm that heals old wounds… that begins to repair the damage done by violent histories. It is very telling that at the very beginning of their relationship, Genie and Vida share their histories in their entireties and hide nothing from each other. It is this honesty that frees them to love. ‘Laid bare and armed with the knowledge of each other’s truth, they had no choice but to accept each other as they were… It was a liberation’ (p. 165).
‘What the relationship between Genie and Vida suggests about love is that it can be used as a weapon to fight against being reduced to just a body or bare life or a statistic.’
EE: HIV/AIDS is an important focus in The Theory of Flight. Genie’s illness and death are described both gently and beautifully, incorporating elements of magical realism. What are your thoughts about the way in which illness is represented in the novel and was there anything in particular that you were trying to achieve in representing it the way you have?
SGN: For the early part of its history HIV/AIDS was a very devastating illness – often seen as a death sentence. Before antiretroviral medications became available or easily affordable, people had to suffer through its ravages without much amelioration. Compounding the situation was a lot of misinformation about how the illness was spread and so fear ruled how the illness was viewed and treated – stigma was common, as were abuse and neglect. But, again, these were lives that mattered and they deserved to be treated with respect and dignity, which is what I hope I have done in the novel.
EE: Do you believe it is useful to consider Marcus as a foil to Vida?
SGN: Yes, it is, especially when we compare their characters through the lenses of self, history, art and love.
EE: Would you argue that the witnesses are reconciled to Genie’s death by the end of the novel?
SGN: Some yes, some no. They are all on different journeys and cannot arrive at the same destination at the same time. As Vida says, ‘There is courage in letting Genie go. There is courage, too, in not letting Genie go entirely’ (p. 326).
EE: In your opinion, which character is transformed to the greatest extent by Genie’s extraordinary death?
SGN: Marcus. Genie’s death makes him finally wake up from the dream of a Beauford Farm and Estate that is still the idyll of his childhood. ‘It is in that moment that Marcus realises that he has been holding on to something that Genie let go of a long time ago’ (p. 316). Her death makes him finally confront the violent history that he has been denying for most of his life. He begins to allow the past to inform his present so that he can move on into the future.
EE: If you were asked to try and summarise the message of The Theory of Flight, how would you do so?
SGN: Circumstances, others, the state, certain histories will try to change you and so it is important in life to know yourself and to hold on to yourself – it is this knowledge and tenacity that will allow you to relate better to circumstances, others, the state, certain histories.
‘Circumstances, others, the state, certain histories will try to change you and so it is important in life to know yourself and to hold on to yourself – it is this knowledge and tenacity that will allow you to relate better to circumstances, others, the state, certain histories.’
EE: Did you have a particular audience in mind when you wrote The Theory of Flight?
SGN: The wonderful thing about art is that it finds its own audience. The other wonderful thing is that this is not something that you, as an artist, can control.
EE: What reactions to the novel from readers have surprised you the most?
SGN: I have been more than pleasantly surprised by the warm reception that the book has received. As a novelist you tend to spend a long time with your characters in their world – I know I have spent years with every character I have written. You get to know and love them, but you also get used to them being yours and while you want to share them with the world, you are also apprehensive – like a parent sending their child off to preschool for the first time. What if the world doesn’t like your creation? So, it is very nice, rewarding and surprising when people like and appreciate what you have done.
EE: If you were to rewrite the novel now, would you do anything differently?
SGN: I believe that a novel is both the product of the time and place in which it was created and the product of who the author was at the time that s/he wrote the novel. If I were to rewrite The Theory of Flight now it would not be The Theory of Flight.
EE: Apart from The History of Man, are there any particular works or authors you would recommend to students who are keen to explore the issues you raise in The Theory of Flight further?
SGN: I kept this list strictly southern African:
Gabeba Baderoon – The History of Intimacy
Ellen Banda-Aaku – Patchwork
Shimmer Chinodya – Harvest of Thorns
Imraan Coovadia – High Low In-Between
Tsitsi Dangarembga – Nervous Conditions
Nozizwe Cynthia Jele – The Ones with Purpose
Resoketswe Manenzhe – Scatterlings
Dambudzo Marechera – House of Hunger
Zakes Mda – Ways of Dying
Sue Nyathi – The Gold Diggers
Bryony Rheam – This September Sun
Yvonne Vera – Without a Name, Butterfly Burning, and The Stone Virgins
EE: Are there authors or books you would recommend South African teenagers read?
SGN: This ended up being the most difficult question for me to answer because I think teenagers should read as widely as possible, but I also know that we tend not to read ‘local’ when young, so I just chose a handful of South African authors.
John Hunt – The Boy Who Kept a Swan in His Head
Kopano Matlwa – Coconut
Sifiso Mzobe – Young Blood
Masande Ntshanga – The Reactive
Zoe Wicomb – Playing in the Light