PEN Dialogue: Lives of Writers with Mandla Langa and Andrey Kurkov

16 Sep 2015
PEN Dialogue: Lives of Writers with Mandla Langa and Andrey Kurkov

PEN South Africa held two PEN Dialogues at the 2015 Open Book Festival. Board member Adré Marshall attended the first event, Lives of Writers, on Friday 11 September and has written about it below. Read about the second Dialogue, Russia Under Putin, here

In this PEN Dialogue event, Lives of Writers: Andrey Kurkov and Mandla Langa talk to Karina Szczurek, interesting parallels emerged between the situation of these two writers. Both are Vice-Presidents of their respective PEN branches, and both started their writing careers in “hot spots”of the world – the then Soviet Union and apartheid South Africa. Both have criticized the abuses perpetrated under their respective regimes. And both wrote poetry at an early age, before turning to prose.

Mandla, who was born in Durban, recounted how in his youth he and his brother and friends resorted to “borrowing” books from the local bookstores, authors such as Marcuse, Baldwin and those in the African Writers Series being preferred. His brother was banned and his house always under scrutiny by the Security Police. Mandla’s poem on Steve Biko led to his being accused of fomenting hostility between the races and he left the country before he could be accused of incitement. He spent some time in exile in Russia.

Andrey, of Russian origin, moved to Kiev in 1962. According to one review, his novel Death and the Penguin “appears at first to be a bizarre comedy but it darkens, gripping the reader and drawing him into the grey world of post-Communist Russia, where serious crime flourishes, revenge and greed are paramount, violence gratuitous and terrifyingly sudden…” His “Ukraine Diaries” present a day to day account of his impressions of the troubled relations between the Ukraine and the Russian regime. Andrey pointed out that Ukraine tends be anarchic and individualistic in comparison with autocratic Russia with its collective mentality. Ukraine still has 200 political parties, and includes 79 nationalities and languages!

Both writers were exposed to, and greatly influenced by, their experience of a wider world. Both feel that fiction, even when based on true events, gives the writer more freedom and can lead to more in-depth understanding of complex realities.