Book Review: Intruders by Mohale Mashigo

Mamaputle Boikanyo

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Coloured and created in both fantastical and real ways, the characters that we come across in the book defy the idea that their stories are unimportant.

Reimagining Afrofuturism in South Africa

“It’s beautiful from up here, the cruel city and all the people walking its streets at night. Why did I never look up at these beautiful old rotting buildings? I was so busy counting my steps and craving invisibility. The wings are strong although I almost fell to my death a few times (who’s going to give me flying lessons?). I birthed myself; it was bloody and painful but now I’m standing on the roof of a city as something new.

Up here nobody can tell me what I deserve, who I should be or how to be. And I dare those down below to open their mouths and tell another underpaid woman that she deserves the cruelty of the city. I’m the enemy of cruelty and they’ll have to deal with me.”

In “The High Heel Killer”, we’re introduced to an unnamed character whose experiences many womxn might be familiar with. In a world where everyday, seemingly ‘small’ acts of assault are the bane of womxn’s existence, The High Heel Killer character is an expression of revolt from society’s tendency to undermine trauma and violence.

Until she kills the man who mocks her as she walks in high-heeled shoes that pain her feet, her life is nothing out of the ordinary. The character’s everyday life in the cruel city should be nothing remarkable, but, in her fictions, Mashigo digs deep to make characters like the one above our central focus.

Coloured and created in both fantastical and real ways, the characters that we come across in the book defy the idea that their stories are unimportant. ‘The High Heel Killer’ is more than just a female body that is subjected to everyday violence and constant silence. She is also the daring anti-(super)hero who, firstly, survives the cruelty of the city and then dares to grow wings in a world where fiction does not often see her story worthy enough to be told.

This is the energy with which many of the mesmerising characters appear in this anthology. They are placed in Mashigo’s redesigned ‘Afrofuturistic’ spaces to make meaning of a reimagined future within the local South African context. While popular fictions of Afrofuturism can sometimes be void of space, context and meaning, Mashigo plays with reality and fantasy in a way that makes her stories wildly familiar.

In “Ghost Strain N”, Mashigo plays with the idea of a South African apocalyptic future taken over by ghosts whose drug-abuse possess them to eat human body parts or organs, depending on the ghosts’ drug of choice. In a country where at least 15% of South Africa’s population suffers from drug abuse and where 60% of crimes are related to substance abuse, this is not wholly abstract. Ironically, the drug-abusive, flesh-eating ghosts are humanised through the story of a young man from the township who tries to save his childhood friend from the ghost ‘virus’. Drugs are also contextualized, redeeming these unfriendly ghosts from being completely criminalised:

“Nyaope was just another name for an opportunist. Where society left a gap, this opportunist took over. It was an opportunist that slipped into your hand, lied to your heart and ate your brain. Scientists were calling it a virus; Koketso didn’t believe that – he had seen with his own eyes it’s genesis. In just a few months, things had fallen apart all over the world.”

As a reader, you’re taken back to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and the story becomes a dynamic and complex telling of the intricate connections between substance abuse, race relations, and poverty. It takes black anger, female anger and white supremacy and prioritises it in a reimagined South African future. Her ‘Afrofuturism’ strays away from simplistic ways of narrating an ‘African’ future while our local present is complicated by a very intricate past that affects who we are as a society and as individuals. Her stories ask questions about “How […] who we are right now [can] affect an imagined future”, as she states in the Author’s Note section.

Issues about climate change are also adapted to the environment of the township while young, black and female figures play a central role in guiding us through these changes. Take, for example, “Untitled i” – the first part of a trilogy of stories in the book. The effects of climate change are seen through a young woman, Bonolo, raising her sister after the death of their parents. When Bonolo is busy taking the washing off the line while chatting to the tenant in her backyard, the sun suddenly disappears and the sky goes dark indefinitely.

“The sun was definitely still in the sky, but angry clouds that looked like a frustrated artist’s splashes of paint blocked it. People stood in the streets, looking at the sky with curiosity, which grew into panic when it became apparent that the experts didn’t have any answers. ‘What good are these bloody smart people if they can never give us any answers when we need them’”

In this section of the story, climate change is not some incredible phenomenon with no face to attach it to. The narrator questions the way those who try to maintain power and privilege in society are often unable to take responsibility for issues such as climate change. When the end of the world nears and Bonolo gets lucky enough to travel into space with a select group of people, themes about community, identity and power continue to be explored in the other sections of the trilogy.

In a time when Afrofuturism has become the mainstream, Mashigo’s Intruders is an important addition to South African literature. It calls for more nuanced conversations about projects to reimagine African futures, and instead of merging experiences across the globe, her reworking of Afrofuturism becomes something that is intrinsically South African.

Check out the video below to see what Mohale had to say about her Intruders: