In 2023, award-winning Zimbabwean author Christopher Mlalazi published a new book, Langabi: Season of the Beast. He’s the author of novels like Running with Mother (2012), Dancing with Life: Tales from the Township (2012) and They are Coming (2014). His books grapple with diverse social and political issues in Zimbabwe. As a scholar of African literature, including speculative fiction, I have researched Mlalazi’s previous books, especially his depiction of the Gukurahundi Genocide in Zimbabwe. Langabi is a novel that draws on the storytelling of the Ndebele people to recount the tale of a young man who finds himself in a heated political battle playing out in a historical kingdom. I spoke to Mlalazi about it.
Gibson Ncube: My first question is about categories. Into which literary genre would you place Langabi? I’m asking because it’s the first novel to be published by Mother, a new imprint of Jacana Media that’s dedicated to fantasy, science-fiction, Afrofuturism and horror.
Christopher Mlalazi: Categorisation can be challenging for a writer. When I first started writing the story, I told myself I wanted to write something that sounded like folklore. I wanted to write the kinds of stories our grandparents used to tell us when we were children in the village, inganekwane as they are called in the Ndebele language. I could say it is inganekwane, it has all the elements of one – supernatural creatures, a young protagonist with a quest, magic, song… From a western perspective, the novel can be categorised as fantasy, or mythology. I would like to place the story at the intersection of folklore, fantasy and mythology.
Gibson Ncube: Langabi is a shift from the kinds of themes you’ve broached in the past. What inspired you to write it?
Christopher Mlalazi: When I began writing this story, I just wanted to experiment outside the contemporary political satire for which I am well known. I initially wished to write a story that would be light, adventurous, and also explore ancient southern African cultural and religious beliefs. But as the storyline progressed, I realised that as I was writing folklore, I was compelled to dig deep into the consciousness – as far as I knew it – of the characters that populate a story of that time. To not write far from the truth of their ways of life. I also had to write about it with pride, as it is part of the genetics of my people. And then somehow I found myself writing about the politics of that ancient time, about ruthless kings, the selfishness of the political elites, and I was back on home ground again.
I started writing the novel in 2012 and even then I wanted to write about a coup in that ancient time. At first, I wanted to keep that political drama on the sidelines, but eventually it engulfed the whole story. I followed the wind and the characters and let them lead me to the unfolding of this story.
Gibson Ncube: The descriptions of people and places are very detailed. What kind of research did you need to do?
Christopher Mlalazi: I did a lot of research on this story. The main character and his family are blacksmiths and iron workers, so I had to buy and read this big book about ancient African metallurgy, how iron was processed in ancient times, and the beliefs around being an iron worker. There were many superstitions around iron working, with some people believing that the iron workers practised witchcraft, or magic. At the same time, they were held in high respect for this magical skill. Some were the wealthiest in their societies through demand for iron tools.
I also had to research ancient southern African attire, animal skins for making what people wore at that time, hut building and types of soils used, especially colourful soils for decorating houses, or used as makeup. I researched names of flora and fauna, although I did invent a few of my own, especially trees. I also read a few fantasy books just to get a feeling of how other writers handle this kind of writing. I read books like (US author George R.R. Martin’s) A Song of Ice and Fire series, on which the TV show Game of Thrones is based, also Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Jamaican writer Marlon James, Nigerian writers Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard and a few others. I watched survival documentaries to get a visual of surviving under harsh conditions in the jungle.
Gibson Ncube: As in your other novels, humour underlines a serious story. What place does humour have in your writing and literary vision?
Christopher Mlalazi: Stories are supposed to be read for relaxation no matter how serious the matter that they are treating. I try to infuse humour into the stories, plays and poetry that I write. I love seeing people laughing, even at themselves. I know that if you write political satire people end up thinking you are a serious and angry person who does not see the funny side of life.
Gibson Ncube: Finally, the back cover suggests it’s part of a trilogy. When should readers expect the next instalment and what can they expect in it?
Christopher Mlalazi: Yes, I want to make the story into a trilogy, and I already have a few ideas about what the next instalment will be like. But I’ve started on another completely different fantasy story which is quite advanced as I write this, and I want to finish it first before I go back to the Langabi series. I might start working on the next book in the Langabi series at the end of this year; time will tell.