Dancing the death drill with Fred Khumalo
Is it an artist’s duty to reflect the times? Or is there no excuse for the young people who do not know who the heroes and heroines are, or were, as put by the late Priestess of Soul, Nina Simone? Journalist and author, Fred Khumalo, shared his thoughts on this at the ‘Meet your Writers’ event on the University of Pretoria’s (UP’s) Hatfield Campus. ‘Meet your Writers’ is an initiative by the Department of English, in collaboration with the Department of Library Services.
In the author’s note to his novel, Dancing the death drill, Fred Khumalo describes Jabez Foley as one of the most illustrious black composers. It was through the music of this artist that reflected on the times, that he learned of the SS Mendi. The SS Mendi sunk in the English Channel a century ago, on its way to the Western Front in World War I. Over 600 black South African troops of the Native Labour Contingent lost their lives in this tragic maritime disaster. ‘Having internalised the song, I started hearing more stories about these soldiers. The story wouldn’t leave me alone. I realised that, in order to exorcise myself of the Mendi demons, I simply had to write the story once and for all,’ he writes.
At the ‘Meet your Writers’ event, Mr Khumalo described Dancing the death drill as a fusion of history and fiction. He added that ‘As a novelist, I went to the catacombs of history and fished out bones and tried to breathe life into them and put flesh into them through the art of the fiction writer.’ He believes that historical fiction fills a gap where written history has failed or where there is not enough empirical evidence to warrant a history book. ‘The relevance of historical fiction rekindles interest in these histories that have been told from generation to generation by word of mouth. When one generation passes on, a part of the story also dies,’ he added. Mr Khumalo however emphasised that we now have the ability to write – thereby keeping the memories and stories alive.
Dr Rebecca Fasselt, lecturer in the Department of English, reviewed the novel in her opening remarks at the event. ‘Dancing the death drill is a revisionist historical novel that in its rewriting of colonial and apartheid historiography and focus on the hidden histories of World War I, invites comparison to Southern African classics such as Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka and Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi. It is a tragic love story set during the Boer War, an appraisal of oral tradition, a narrative of passing that moves beyond the traditional focus on race, a black consciousness bildungsroman and a transnational, inverted detective story,’ she said.
Dr Fasselt further explained that the novel is fitting to read and hear about within the context of Human Rights Day, which was celebrated on 21 March. ‘For the novel reminds us of the oppression and dispossession experienced by the men on the Mendi that made them leave their home country to fight for their dignity and human rights.’ She concluded that the novel challenged narratives of mere victimhood and vulnerability. ‘They characterise more conventional human rights writing. It is in this sense that the novel carves out a space for hidden histories and disrupts the canon of World War I literature.’
From Jabez Foley’s Amagorha eMendi to Fred Khumalo’s timeless treasure, Dancing the death drill, the memories surrounding the sinking of the SS Mendi will live on.
– Author Mikateko Mbambo
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Elsabé Olivier, Nedine Moonsamy, Fred Khumalo, Rebecca Fasselt and Kulukazi Soldati-Kahimbaara