Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane and Alma-Nalisha Cele speak about their Afrocentric podcast and the value of creative work in South Africa.
If a Black author has just released a new book, best believe the Cheeky Natives will be featuring them on their podcast. More than just your run-of-the-mill book review, what fans love about the podcast is how unapologetic and steadfast it is in terms of its personal politics and the canon of critical engagements it wants to create around Black literature. The duo is not afraid to vacillate between treading in the uncomfortable and sometimes painful spaces of the Black narrative and having sheer unadulterated fun. The engagement that is offered on the podcast is frankly not being offered elsewhere and this is precisely why it continues to grow with fans engaging meaningfully with the podcast on social media.
Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane and Alma-Nalisha Cele, legal scholar and medical doctor respectively, have featured authors including Nozizwe Jele, Panashe Chigumadzi, Mohale Mashigo, Siya Khumalo and Darnell Moore (among many others). What stands out about this podcast is how authors can speak about their recent works in a refreshing way that allows their readers to experience them in a way they never could have imagined.
Letlhogonolo and Alma are not interested in tired tropes of Black people not because according to them, and rightly so: “We read because we have always read. We read because some of our oldest universities are found on this continent. It’s not a new thing for Africans to read.”
We sat down to talk to the duo about why they do what they do and where they see their podcast going in the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the Cheeky Natives for those who perhaps may not know?
Alma: The Cheeky Natives is a literary platform. It started off as a literary podcast, but in many spaces, it’s become a literary platform for the critical appraisal of Black literature. It’s important that we emphasize Black literature because what we want to do is create a canon of critical engagements of Black worth that exist outside of the gaze that reduces Black people’s worth.
Many kids growing up know of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton, but not many Black authors. Was that something that also fed into establishing the podcast?
Letlhogonolo: I think Alma and I both have read throughout our lives. Because we’ve been such bibliophiles, we obviously read Black authors much earlier than when we started the podcast. But what essentially happened was that we used to go to book fairs or book launches and be the only two people effectively in conversation with the author. I think from there on, we realized that nobody was critically appraising or discussing literature like we were doing.
Letlhogonolo, what has been maybe your top two favorite podcasts so far?
One of my favorite podcasts was with Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw. Kimberlé Crenshaw is my intellectual hero and so getting to be in conversation with her was a pivotal moment in my own life as a legal scholar. It’s since been a podcast that’s been prescribed in universities, graduate studies and used in theses.
My other favorite podcast was a podcast with Darnell L. Moore who wrote No Ashes in the Fire. It’s one of my favorite podcasts because it was two Black queer men talking about queerness, one in America and one in South Africa. I enjoyed the intimacy with which we were able to converse across continents.
And your two favourite podcasts Alma?
I think one of my favorites has been Dudu Busani-Dube. I remember that podcast so clearly, because there was such a variety of women there and I’m like, “Here’s this Black woman telling a story that this variety of Black women can all relate to.”
My other favorite podcast was also one of our most fun podcasts to do was Pumza Shabangu. It was so fun! She wrote Unspoken Truths. It’s erotica about Black South African women and so it’s not unrealistic.
There’s a sentiment that Black people don’t read or they don’t support each other’s works, and yet, when there is a book launch or the Abantu Book Festival, there are so many Black people. Why do you think this sentiment is still prevalent?
Alma: Tony Morrison speaks about race as being so pervasive and a distraction. White people will say that you don’t have a language and so you spend 30 years archiving and dissecting it to prove that you do have a language. Black people have been writing our stories forever. We read because we have always read. We read because some of our oldest universities are found on this continent. It’s not a new thing for Africans to read.
There are people who share PDF versions of books and claim it’s okay so long as it’s not for ‘commercial purposes’. I believe that’s BS. What do you say to that?
Alma: It’s literal theft. I have such strong feelings about this. And we say this on every podcast, “Please buy the book. Don’t be asking the author for a PDF version.” You hear Black authors talk about the kind of budgets that they get for their marketing and how a large part of that is based on how many of their books sell. And so curiously, you could be widely read, but not widely bought because you’re being widely distributed. This obviously has an impact on your next book or your ability to negotiate your next book deal. It all speaks to this culture of not appreciating the arts as critical work and therefore one can just say, “But this is for home purposes.”
Letlhogonolo: Some of the people who use the poverty and inequality argument are the same people who are well able to go buy a bottle of Hennessy that costs R400 and they’re fine with that. Yet the same people are like, “Yeah, but books are expensive.” Okay, but alcohol is expensive yet you’re willing to share your hard-earned money on alcohol but you don’t want to support Black authors.
The state of public libraries in this country is honestly appalling. How do we go about changing that?
Alma: It’s very frustrating. Public libraries are very important because in many ways they can act as a bridge. Interacting with literature forces you to think in ways that are outside of your comfort zone and outside of the ways that you are used to thinking. We are depriving poor children of being able to do that.
Letlhogonolo: It feels like a grave injustice but it’s not, however, outside of this country’s attitudes towards books. It ends up feeling like reading and learning are luxuries. And because we are constantly in survival mode, you just need to get through. From that kind of space, it makes it very difficult to then have these kinds of conversations, because how do you make the argument of a book versus a working toilet? We can’t even appreciate art for what it is without wanting or having to reduce it to a question of survival.
There are people I’ve spoken to who don’t read books or even articles. They’ve said they get everything they need from Twitter. What do you say to that growing culture?
Alma: It’s a little bit disturbing. We live in an age wherein people are afraid to say, “I don’t know and therefore, I cannot comment on this.” We need to get to a point where we have a maturity, as a country that loves to debate, to say, “Look, I’m not well-informed. I’m not well-versed on the subject. Can I do some research and get back to you?” It’s really concerning to hear someone speak from the depths of ignorance and more so with so much confidence. And then you ask what critical work they’ve done before making certain comments and they say, “No, these are my feelings.”
At the same time, they’re not one to be called out on that same social media. Accountability is a massive thing for me because even some of our favorite theorists sometimes get it wrong.
Our faves can be very problematic. On that note, how did you feel when Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was invited to our beloved Abantu Book Festival?
Alma: I want to start by saying it’s challenging. I think that for a lot of people, she is very important because of what she’s done for African Literature in the West. For a lot of people, it was like meeting their idol. Honestly, if you were against her in that moment, it wasn’t safe for you. It was a gathering of people who were excited.
Letlhogonolo: Alma and I had very lengthy conversations about it because we were deciding whether we wanted to have her on our podcast or not, and I was talking to Alma about our brand as the Cheeky Natives, it’s great to have such a prolific writer come on, but for our personal politics, it’s not. So, we need to hold onto our personal politics and ensure that Cheeky Natives is also political in the work that it does.
What are some of the things you guys are really looking forward to doing on your podcast?
Alma: Leaving our jobs and earning money from the podcast! So if anyone is reading, listening, whatever to this, and wants to give us money, we are ready and waiting.
Letlhogonolo: Joking aside, I think it’s just becoming bigger and better. The books that are coming out. So, we’re also excited to speak to people that we haven’t spoken to before, speak to writers that we haven’t spoken to before. We’d love build a Cheeky Natives book store and soundproof booth so when we’re recording in the booth, the audience is over there, and have a live recording.
Alma: It’s all to create excitement about literature again. Books are fun things.