Fred Khumalo’s A coat of many colours, an edgy, compelling short story collection, is led by a cast of truly memorable characters. The sense of time and place, our shared history, is notable as Khumalo references the government of the past but never shies away from the present – the South Africa we inhabit today, corrupt, flawed and vicious, with its own incompetent leaders. But what makes the collection a delight is that every story, without fail, features unforgettable protagonists dealing with betrayal, disappointment, greed, lust and more, as they play out their inevitable stories in our contemporary world.
The sense of time and place, our shared history, is notable as Khumalo references the government of the past but never shies away from the present – the South Africa we inhabit today, corrupt, flawed and vicious, with its own incompetent leaders.
In “Smooth operator”, a slick, seductive and violent tale of revenge, we cannot help but root for Cheryl as she lures her victim to a messy end.
Medicine man “Jamludi” becomes obsessed with eating meat slaughtered according to tradition. The epitome of greed and gluttony, he consumes the accumulated gifts of forelegs of cattle made to him, crunching and ripping flesh from the bones in a feast of self-destruction. One could read more into this – is it a reflection on tenderpreneurship? The story is both magnificent and horrifying.
“A farewell” brings to the page a failed mixed marriage, as a white German divorcee is overwhelmed by the futility of lost relationships – in spousal love, and indeed with the country itself. Khumalo juxtaposes powerful memories of apartheid with the intensity of “black pain”. In an indelible passage, after a traumatic ordeal, the Zulu ex-husband “attacks his punch bag, moaning and growling like a lion, tears of rage cascading down his cheeks”.
Violence begets violence is a recurring theme in Khumalo’s stories, as we face it, too, in “Black Betty” and “Weep for me Willow”.
Betty Ochukwu, the immigrant child of a Zimbabwean mother and a Nigerian father, is nearly raped, but is saved at the last minute by her brother. What follows is a story of post-traumatic stress, of how her experience of that early attack and further abuse results in unleashed rage. Betty’s persistent memory of savouring strawberry jam on bread and sipping tea sweetened with condensed milk, the symbol of an innocent childhood, is obliterated by all that happens to her. It’s no spoiler to quote the last line: “Get up Black Betty. Grab your freedom. You deserve every blood-spattered piece of it.”
“Weep for me Willow” shocks with the callous acts of young, black gangsters as they hijack and kill, all for money, living a nihilistic existence, till it all goes awry (but not in the way one imagines). The group of five, the “three mosquitoes”, likened to the Musketeers, are ruthless. At a braai, they open bottles with their teeth, smoke dagga and shoot a dog. Spikiri, the Nail, never misses with his gun.
Harry, the star of “Mr Big Stuff”, has erectile dysfunction, but after a chance encounter with an immigrant grandpa, he becomes a beast in bed, “his flaccid manhood more like a sjambok than a spear”.
Joanne Hichens asked:
Throughout, Khumalo is bold and intentional as he consummately brings his “people” to life. Wanting to delve into the writing process, I asked Khumalo how he prepares himself to write from the points of view of such a vast array of characters from different social strata, cultures and creeds, and of varying ages. Indeed, the youngest voice in this collection is ten-year-old suburban Vusi, who visits the township to witness the slaughter of a goat. Add coronavirus to the preparations for celebration, and the title story, “A coat of many colours”, becomes a paradoxical comedy of tradition and urban ways.
Writing from different perspectives and voices is a deliberate challenge I set myself. If I, as a black, Christian man, can get inside the head of a coloured, Muslim woman from the Cape and tell her story convincingly, I become ecstatic. It can be tricky and risky, of course.
Writing from different perspectives and voices is a deliberate challenge I set myself. If I, as a black, Christian man, can get inside the head of a coloured, Muslim woman from the Cape and tell her story convincingly, I become ecstatic. It can be tricky and risky, of course. You don’t want to be accused of appropriation, but the challenge that every artist faces is to show sincerity when telling stories about people who are not like him or her. I’ve tried to tell stories in different voices in my novels: Afrikaner men in Dancing the death drill, gay black men in Seven steps to heaven, white women in The longest march. I have found the experience rewarding. The riskier the choice I make, the more rewarding it is for me as a writer.
I mentioned, too, that the protagonists generally seem semi-tragic, in the sense that for most, life has dealt cruel blows. Khumalo agreed that he aimed to reflect the tragic times we live in.
It was a deliberate decision. There were other sweeter, more innocent stories that were almost included, but I found them out of kilter with the tone of the book, so I kept them for inclusion in a future collection.
Although a clear sense of underlying humanity connects the characters, Khumalo can be provocative when it comes to race, particularly with sometimes rough and ready language.
As a South African, of course, race consciousness is always there. Yes, there are concerns every now and then, as I write, that I might be misconstrued, or that I might inadvertently confirm or perpetuate racial stereotypes. But that consciousness serves as a stimulus for me to confront race if and when it suddenly shows up in a story I am trying to tell. Sometimes, I do deliberately go for a racial aspect in a story – in an attempt to challenge a stereotype, for example.
This is especially true for the story “Let the music play on”, in which schoolgirl gangs get mean-girl ugly about hair and identity.
Khumalo’s crisp style is also, at times, infused with elements of fantasy and magical realism in stories that transcend the ordinary. I devoured them all in one sitting as greedily as Jamludi ripped meat from the bones of slaughtered cattle.
The stories flow, one to the next, the content high in surprise. Khumalo’s crisp style is also, at times, infused with elements of fantasy and magical realism in stories that transcend the ordinary. I devoured them all in one sitting as greedily as Jamludi ripped meat from the bones of slaughtered cattle. Khumalo is, indeed, a “smooth operator” himself to have produced a collection of “many colours” so tantalising, teasing, yet deeply thoughtful.