Ungovernable: Sisonke Msimang

Ms. Sisonke Msimang is a writer, activist, speaker and author. Begotten to South African parents and brought up by the world, she lived and was educated in multiple countries, bringing to her writing a wide, considered and evolving view of the world. The Ruth First, Yale and Aspen New Voices Fellow launched her memoirs “Always another country” this week. Although she is often in Johannesburg, she lives in Perth, Australia where she is the Programme Director at the Centre for Stories. She spoke to us in May, while her book was still in manuscript format about literature, changing one’s mind, how white people own time and #menaretrash. 

noted.man: So, as they would inevitably ask, ‘why a memoir, you are still so young?’
Sisonke Msimang: Lol!!!  It’s a memoir of exile rather than a memoir of everything I’ve done.  I’ve been increasingly drawn to the genre because so few Africans really think our lives are worthy of examination.  So it’s less about accomplishments — in fact there are very few of those – it’s about shining a spotlight on ways of seeing ourselves – as women, as black people, that are unusual.  Telling stories that are clearly out there but haven’t been explored publicly.  There is something important to me about the fact that this isn’t fiction.
NM: Which woman, who is not in any way family, is your intellectual rock and why?
SM: So many.  I love Alice Munro, the Canadian short story writer.  She’s badass in such a low key way.  She’s always known what she’s about.  I love Ursula Le Guin,  “The ones who walk away from Omelas” is an amazing story that has sort of changed the way I think about complicity and inequality and what societies allow.  I think Brittany Cooper is spectacular.  She is one of the most fierce and astute commentators working in America today.  She spoke at an event I attended last year – about time and how time is such a racialised marker of inequality – the whole idea of being time poor.  How busy white people are.  How on time they are.  And yet how loose and languid black people are with time and how much this costs us in the real world. Her thesis is powerful and important, as she says, “if time had a race, it would be white. White people own time.” 
NM: What has been the most significant shift – one way or the other – in your outlook about the intersection of race/culture/sex/gender?
SM: I’m constantly evolving when it comes to this theme.  In the last few years the effect of the student movement in South Africa has been to make all of us think about being more rigorous, tougher, less inclined to let injustice off the hook in the interests of respectability.  That moment during the Ruth First lecture when the infamous words “fuck white people” were uttered has sort of hung in the air for me. It has forced me to think about how I relate both to the sentiment and to its articulation. I think there has to be room for those words that anger, and those proclamations, even as I don’t articulate myself that way – its not part of my social DNA for lots of reasons having to do with age, upbringing, temperament, etc.  But I respect it deeply and I respect those who are pushing and working in that terrain – which although it is not entirely new, is new in contemporary terms. It counters the rainbow and that is important and wonderful.
NM: When is your mind at its most still and why?
 SM: I don’t remember my dreams.  So my mind seems most still when I am asleep.  Otherwise, I’m always thinking, always churning.  Often distracted sadly. I cheat on my family with my writing. It’s in my head, I’m writing in my head while making dinner, while doing homework sometimes.  I try not to but writing is a demanding lover.
NM: What is the one thing they never told you about motherhood?
SM: That it is so bloody tedious.  Mundane.  Boring.  Everyone talks about the love, no one talks about the chores.  The time it takes to tie someone’s shoe because they are physically incapable of doing it themselves.  The effort it takes to correct someone every. Single. Damn. Time. Because if you don’t they won’t get it and then they’ll be that grown up person that has no manners or is a sociopath or whatever.
NM: When overseas, what are the most surprising things people have asked you about yourself?
Hmmn… I don’t get surprised anymore.  I have had a woman in Australia walk up to me in silence (a complete stranger) and literally touch my hair.  And then walk away.  A normal looking, middle-aged well put together woman who would have been mortified if I had walked up and touched her. But yes, we are curiosities like that.

“That moment during the Ruth First lecture when the infamous words “fuck white people” were uttered has sort of hung in the air for me. It has forced me to think about how I relate both to the sentiment and to its articulation.”

NM: Is there an essential idea of what the ‘Ungovernable’ woman should be like?
 SM: I think the ungovernable woman defies expectations. That’s it. She comes from left field. She is thinking and doing and resisting in ways that you can’t always predict. The framework is refusal and resistance and in the process somehow she is also able to present a way. I’m always in favour of finding a way. Not always forward. Just finding a way. Out. In. Up. Down. Forward. Back. But I’m interested in those who make a way. Ungovernable women do that.
NM: What has the fallout (mainly from men) from #menaretrash taught you or confirmed about men and the fight against GBV? 
SM: #menaretrash is a great example of how the Fallist women have taught us the importance of burning all the symbols of respectability. For many years feminists avoided the fights that come when you say ‘men are a problem, they are trash.’ So the response is wholly unsurprising and has lead to important confrontations and conflicts. When you talk about and fight for justice you can’t only use sanitised language and tactics. I respect those who work with men as much as I respect those who refuse to work with men. There’s room for many strategies in all movements for justice.
NM: Back to the book, any chance we can get a scoop about something in there?
SM: Lol!  You’ll have to buy it.  Nah, its very personal.  I deliberately didn’t write a book about Jacob Zuma and contemporary SA politics.  I mean its me so my views are known, but really its a book about growing up, it’s a book about my parents and love and sisterhood and friendship and a young woman trying to find her voice.

“#menaretrash is a great example of how the Fallist women have taught us the importance of burning all the symbols of respectability.”

NM: What has writing this book taught you about the business side of publishing?
 SM: That’s a whole different article.  The take-home for me is that writers need to stay woke.  Given the talent this country has, we need literary agents who can rep upcoming authors. It’s absolutely vital.
NM: Lastly, a process question, are you diligent, with 12-hour stints at the keyboard or are you a ‘read everything in sight instead of writing’ kind of writer? 
SM: I’m very diligent when I’m writing. Writing is a job and I have been lucky to have the space to write not in the margins of my life, but as central component of my working life for the last few years. So of course writing and reading are connected, and so I read a lot. Offline. I also devour news on social media as a way to stay current and procrastinate. But more importantly I spend most of my hours on the keyboard just writing when it’s time to write. I have a clear sense of what I want to achieve in writing terms each week, and I aim for it. Not always successfully, but I try.

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